Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 1, 2018

20 years of Marxmail

Filed under: Marxmail — louisproyect @ 4:32 pm

On May 1, 1998 I launched the Marxism list as an alternative to the Marxism-International mailing list that was hosted at the University of Virginia by the Spoons Collective, a group of academics and academic wannabes who had created mailing lists to serve a postmodernist milieu. Originally consisting of listservs for Baudrillard, Lyotard, Lacan, et al, they decided to create one for Marx since he was seen as someone who showed up in postmodernist literature. Except for Hans Ehrbar, a University of Utah economics professor who had experience as a Marxist-Leninist—even to the point of being involved in a industrial colonizing project—nobody in the Spoons Collective had ever been a party member or an activist.

In an interesting write-up on the Spoons Collective that I only ran into today writing this article, I discovered that they generally regarded the Marxism lists they supported as a nuisance. (The original Marxism list had subdivided in amoeba fashion because of ideological warfare.) Malgosia Askanas, a Unix support person at Panix, Spoons member and author of the article, probably spoke for all except Hans by envisioning the Marxism list as “the first Internet discussion forum dedicated to Marxist philosophy.” Philosophy? Isn’t the point to change it? Askanas obviously saw people like me as crashing her party:

The first two issues motivated the overwhelming – frequently excessive – reluctance to regulate the events on the lists, which became a hallmark of Spoon and led, for example, to the grotesque contortions to which Spoon later resorted in attempting to deal with the de-facto hijacking of its Marxism lists by various sects, dogma-spouters, provocateurs and self-styled “vanguards of the working class”.

To unpack this paragraph, it would be necessary to explain that the Spoons collective had a principle about free speech and refused to moderate the original Marxism list. This led to it being torn apart before very long by flame wars by the “provocateurs” she refers to. We had a self-styled Trotskyist named Bob Malecki, who used to have mind-numbing exchanges with Shining Path supporters numbering in the dozens each day. When I threatened to file a FOIA request to discover whether the FBI had infiltrated the list to destroy it through malicious trolling, Askanas told us that she was done with us and to find an alternative location.

Hans Ehrbar, who saw some value in the list, agreed to host it at the University of Utah and that is where it still operates as an official academic resource to this day. Needless to say, to avoid frictions with the university over the fall-out that might have occurred from out-of-control flame wars (including death threats by rival gangs of Shining Path supporters), I took on the responsibility of moderating the list and keeping subscribers on a short leash.

Archives for the Marxism list, from its inception at Spoons until today, can be read at http://lists.csbs.utah.edu/pipermail/marxism/. Speaking for the collective, U. of Virginia grad student Jon Beasley-Murray sent out an announcement on July 13, 1994:

I started reading Marx as an undergrad (for the “English moralists” paper!), and read more Althusser than anything else, mostly because he sounded fun, it meant I didn’t have to read Hegel, and everyone else thought it was a bad idea (such are the ways I tend to make choices).  At the time, I enjoyed Marxist rhetoric as much as anything else–for one thing, it ensured you were always “right” and (with Althusser) had Science and Truth on your side.  Of course, the proletariat was always a little more difficult to locate.

If I were a smart-ass (yes, I know—you are wondering why I use the conditional), I would have told Jon that the proletariat could be found down the hall from his classrooms cleaning out the bathrooms.

Today, the Marxism list has 1545 subscribers, which is about 1500 more than it had when it first started out in 1998. Looking at the early archives of the Marxism list, I see some of the comrades who have been with us through thick and thin: Gary McLennan, Patrick Bond, Phil Ferguson, Jim Farmelant, and Eric Toren.

Twenty years is a long time in Marxist politics. I only spent 11 years in the Trotskyist movement and consider most of them ill-spent. On the other hand, I feel proud of having kept this ship afloat for 20 years since it implicitly builds on the American Socialist legacy left by Bert Cochran and by Peter Camejo’s North Star. These attempts that took place in the 1950s and 1980s respectively were meant to create a pole of attraction for socialists that broke with sectarianism. Obviously, Marxmail does not make agreement with this approach a requirement but my gut feeling is that well over 80 percent of the subscribers are working in their own way to build a new international revolutionary movement that this working class holiday symbolizes.

From a communications perspective, it is surprising that Marxmail has not withered on the vine like other leftist mailing lists. LBO-Talk and PEN-L, which were along with Marxmail the two other high-profile listservs in 1998, have dried up for the most part. It is easy to understand why. Social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, have become the medium of choice for many on the left.

Furthermore, Marxmail no longer has the one or two thousand word posts in which a subscriber could put forward a substantive analysis of some burning issue. The arrival of blogs took the place of this form of communication, including for me.

At my advanced age, I doubt that I will be around 20 years from now but I surely hope that Marxmail will be. It has subscribers from every corner of the earth and allows Marxists to exchange ideas and information that can be found nowhere else. There will come a time when the list will no doubt consist of 15,000 subscribers as the class struggle deepens. Unlike Facebook and Twitter, there is no central hub for the exchange of Marxist ideas. Marxmail took over a decade to develop its particular ecology, one of mutual respect and camaraderie. For that alone, I feel like my 50 year involvement with Marxist politics has borne some fruit in a totally arid environment.

Go to http://lists.csbs.utah.edu/listinfo/marxism for subscription information.

May 1, 2013

Marxmail’s Fifteenth Anniversary

Filed under: Marxmail — louisproyect @ 6:41 pm

When I started working at Columbia University in 1991, the school was still mainframe-oriented just like the firms I used to work at on Wall Street. They had an email system called PROFS that ran under IBM’s VM operating system. That name might ring a bell with you since it was the same email system that Oliver North used.

About once a week I got an email with listserv in the subject heading that announced new listservs, usually something like “Raising Angora rabbits” or “The Bahai guide to a successful marriage”. About six months into getting such announcements, I strolled into the cubicle of the programmer who administered VM email and asked him what the hell a listserv was. He smiled and said, “So you haven’t heard about the Internet”.

After he explained what a listserv was (the term originally applied to IBM’s proprietary list handling software), I realized that there might be a listserv out there that would be useful to me. So I sent off a command to “list all” and got back something like 1500 listservs, one of which was PEN-L, the Progressive Economists List moderated by Michael Perelman, the prolific and inscrutable Marxist economist. I have been subbed to PEN-L for the better part of 22 years except for brief periods when Michael disciplined me for flaming people over something like the Brenner thesis or threatening to punch somebody in the nose (Doug Henwood on one occasion.)

In 1994 I got an announcement for a new mailing list called Marxism that was a project of the Spoons Collective. Jonathan Beasley-Murray, a grad student under Michael Hardt at Duke and a Spoons Collective member, kicked things off:

So essentially (and following Negri etc.) I am interested in an analysis of the State, and also in looking at economics or the “base”: hence, for me, the project to read _Capital_.  Also, I hope, this entails a “return” to Althusser (who, in my opinion, was never so interested in culture and ideology as he was in the State and economics, and who was the last thing around before everyone, by which I mean the Birmingham school, jumped on the Gramscian bandwagon).

And I throw Bourdieu into the mix for good luck too.  I find his analysis of culture extremely useful, and a useful “antidote” to the celebratory nature of much of what passes for cultural studies nowadays.  However, I am interested in supplementing Bourdieu’s social analysis, in part through a fuller investigation of the nature and sources of power (which is a given in his framework, it seems) and partly through re-interrogating both his notions of class and the moments at which he suggests the system may break down (which I compare to a DeleuzoGuattarian deterritorialization).  These moments, however, are few and far between.

(This is from the archived pre-Marxmail Marxism lists at http://www.driftline.org/.)

You can imagine my consternation when I saw something like DeleuzoGuattarian deterritorialization. What kind of jive was that? After spending 11 years in the Trotskyist movement, I had no inkling that Marxism had become so fashionable in the academy—or at least a peculiar subgenre of it.

Within a year or so, the center of gravity in the Marxism list had shifted away from cultural studies and toward “Marxism-Leninism”. It was what Lenin might have called “One Step Forward and Twelve Steps Backward” since the left was still in the midst of sectarian vanguardist illusions that it is only first beginning to address and overcome.

By 1996 the Marxism list had degenerated into perpetual trench warfare between ortho-Trotskyists like Hugh Rodwell and Bob Malecki on one side (a Morenoite and Spartacist League fellow-traveler respectively) and supporters of The Shining Path in Peru on the other. If this was not bad enough, the Maoists were at each others’ throats over who was the legitimate representative—one Adolfo Olaechea in London or Luis Quispe in New Jersey. They spent an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to expose each other as police spies or issuing death threats. Adolfo was quite a master of invective, making me look like St. Francis of Assissi by comparison. Here he is lacing into Bob Malecki:

Malecki – you are so stupid and lazy.  Always trying to mix-up different kettles of fish.  In Peru it is not the GPU who is saying that the best strategy for the DEFENCE OF THE RULING CLASS STATE is to use “leftists” infiltrated in the social fabric, unions, “popular organisations”, etc. IT IS THE MILITARY HIGH COMMAND behind the walls of their FORTIFIED VILLAS. It is the bloody rich speaking in the “tongues of the bogus leftists and windbags like you” who CONFESS that these organisms, whatever flag of convenience they may fly, are THEIR BEST BET in their ANTI-PEOPLES WAR.  Thankfully we NEVER ACCEPTED you into ANY United Front FOR THE REVOLUTION, you silly reactionary twit!  Malecki and the Peruvian Military High Command have the very same bloody counter-revolutionary STRATEGY against the LIVING REVOLUTION.

All this went on for the longest time mostly because the Spoons Collective had a principle about “free speech”. After hearing one too many protests from people like me who were tired of the flame wars, they set up a moderated list called Marxism-International that had a moderation board consisting of Jon Flanders, Zeynep Tufekci (who has gone on to a career as a technology and society guru), Louis Godena—a guy thrown out of the CP for Maoist deviations, and Adolfo Olaechea. Jon and Zeynep eventually stepped down because the job of moderating such a zoo became too much of a hassle. Once Godena and Olaechea took charge, they began unsubbing people left and right, with me the first to go.

After seeing where things were going, I took the initiative of launching Marxmail on May 1 1998, the same day that Doug Henwood launched LBO-Talk. About 100 people left Marxism-International in short order and joined Marxmail. It has attracted about 100 new subscribers per year and the current count is 1479—so we are 21 short of a minyan.

Before a year was up, Marxism-International went kaput. Adolfo continued to speak out for the Shining Path until facts on the ground (being crushed by the cops and the army) forced him to switch gears. In 2003 Adolfo was arrested by the Spanish cops and deported to Peru where he faced charges that could have led to a lengthy prison term or worse. I tried to raise awareness of his case on Marxmail and have stayed in touch with a mellower Adolfo over the years, most recently on Facebook. You can see that he can still rise to the occasion:


There are a number of people on Marxmail now who were veterans of those battles. My apologies if I leave anybody out but these names come to mind: Jon Flanders, Gary McLennan, Jim Farmelant, David Walters, Juan Fajardo, and—most importantly—Hans Ehrbar, an original member of the Spoons Collective.

When the Marxism lists were about to get booted from a commercial server, Hans stepped into the breach and transferred them to his computer on the U. of Utah network, where he has been teaching economics forever. Unlike his fellow Spoonsperson Jon Beasley-Murray, Hans is the last person out of whose mouth you are likely to hear DeleuzoGuattarian deterritorialization. Despite being a tenured academic, Hans—like many of us—took part in a grueling “colonization” effort that led him to the point of production in some factory or another as part of a Maoist party’s master plan. He, like Moby Dick’s Ishmael, lived to tell about it. Nowadays Hans is very involved in teaching young people both in the U. of Utah and elsewhere how to understand Marx’s Capital. His highly acclaimed annotations to Capital are here: http://content.csbs.utah.edu/~ehrbar/akmc.htm

Within a year after the launching of Marxmail, Les Schaffer stepped forward to take charge of technical coordination. With a PhD from Cornell in astrophysics, he certainly is equal to any task even though the integration of the Marxism list into the machine room at U. of Utah has lightened his workload. That being said, Les is trying to figure out a way to conduct a survey of what countries Marxmail subscribers come from and will be getting back to us once he has decided what is the best approach. Leaving aside technical chores, Les’s main contribution to the list is keeping me moored to the planet Earth, a job that sometimes is tantamount to controlling the toad in “Wind in the Willow”.

Finally, I want to say something about where Marxmail is today in terms of the overall political climate on the left. When I launched it in 1998, it was advertised thusly:

The Marxism list is a worldwide moderated forum for activists and scholars in the Marxist tradition who favor a non-sectarian and non-dogmatic approach. It puts a premium on independent thought and rigorous but civil debate.

In 1998 it was swimming against the stream to call for a “a non-sectarian and non-dogmatic approach.” Thanks to the inexorable tide turning against the “vanguardist” model, the list has become a lot more civil and a lot less like a parliament of fools. I hope that the list will continue to be an important asset for those trying to construct a genuine revolutionary movement. Insofar as it serves that need, to even the slightest degree, it will have vindicated itself.

Subscription information for Marxmail is here


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