Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 20, 2011

Marxist contrarians on the British riots

Filed under: economics,philosophy,Zizek — louisproyect @ 5:59 pm

Joel Kotkin is a contributor to Forbes Magazine, the “capitalist tool” publication founded by the late Malcolm Forbes and now run by his glassy-eyed libertarian son Steve. On his blog there, Kotkin advises in an article titled The U.K. Riots And The Coming Global Class War that both right and left “ideologues” get the British riots wrong:

What’s the lesson to be drawn?  The ideologues don’t seem to have the answers. A crackdown on criminals — the favored response of the British right — is necessary but does not address the fundamental problems of joblessness and devalued work. Similarly the left’s favorite panacea, a revival of the welfare state, fails to address the central problem of shrinking opportunities for social advancement.

You could struggle in vain to find any ideas in Kotkin’s article about how to expand “opportunities for social advancement” even though it concludes with the warning that “If capitalism cannot do that [expand opportunities] expect more outbreaks of violence and greater levels of political alienation — not only in Britain but across most of the world’s leading countries, including the U.S.”

The article exudes a sense that a return to the “good old days” when the bourgeoisie was more ambitious and entrepreneurial could solve the problem. Back in the earlier decades of the 20th century, “working class youths could look forward to jobs in Britain’s vibrant industrial economy and, later, in the growing public sector largely financed by both the earnings of the City of London and credit.” Of course, Britain has about the same prospects in becoming a “vibrant industrial economy” as I do in getting into a pair of trousers with a 31-inch waistband. We have both seen our better days. (I am working on a 33-inch size.)

Kotkin cites an erstwhile Marxmail subscriber as a guide to what might be needed:

As British historian James Heartfield has suggested, the rioters reflected a broader breakdown in “the British social system,” particularly in “the system of work and reward.”

My guess is that this probably the first time this year and maybe the decade that a self-described Marxist has gotten a tip of the hat in Steve Forbes’s magazine. Given the placement of the ad for Wells Fargo (“Learn more about how The Private Bank can help you”) just to the right of the link to Heartfield’s article that appears on Kotkin’s New Geography website, you get a sense of the cognitive dissonance at work.

Well, maybe not so dissonant after all. To start with, Heartfield’s article is titled “Britain Needs a Better Way to Get Rich Than Looting”. Maybe I am old-fashioned or something but the notion that “Britain” needs to get rich seems awfully devoid of class distinctions.  It is no accident that Kotkin has an affinity with one of Spiked online’s few remaining Marxists since he shares Heartfield’s love affair with suburbia. The Wiki on Kotkin states that he “believes in a ‘back to basics’ approach which stresses nurturing the middle class and families with traditional suburban development. “ For his part, Heartfield is as enamored of suburbia as Robert Moses. Just look at what he says on the website for his book “Let’s Build!”:

This book explains why Britain stopped building homes for its citizens to live in. For too long government policy has been in the grip of officials who want to stop new building.

Let’s Build! explains why all the reasons for not building new homes – the scare stories about the environment, about suburbia, about social cohesion – are just excuses.

Turning to the article itself, Heartfield took good care not to say anything that might offend Joel Kotkin. Writing for an editor who works for Forbes is obviously a lot different than writing for Jacobin or Metamute. Of course, if it were up to me I’d never bother dealing with the Joel Kotkins of the world.

Turning to the question of police brutality, Heartfield has a rather unique perspective on the cops: “Nobody would want to see the return of the old authoritarian policing, but the cadre that replaced them have lacked a guiding esprit de corps.” I confess that words escape me on this one. One cannot imagine Lenin ever fretting over the Czarist constabulary’s loss of a “guiding esprit de corps” but then again Lenin is just so passé.

Heartfield also mourns the disappearance of a respect for authority:

Lower down the scale teachers, parents and youth leaders have seen their authority undermined by a culture that disparages discipline, and sees “abuse” everywhere. Teachers’ unions have pointed out that changes in the law mean that a substantial minority are being investigated for allegations of abuse made by students at any time, meaning that they are reluctant to uphold discipline in the classroom. At the same time, teachers and social workers challenge parental discipline at every opportunity.

One does have to wonder how Frank Furedi maintains discipline in his own Spiked online ranks. If a member ever decided to write an article about the dangers of DDT, would they get a caning? Now we do know how that practice did have a certain frisson among private school boys…

When it comes to returning to the good old days, when happy workers went off to the coal mines or steel mills each day with a lunch bucket filled with ham sandwiches and a thermos bottle of steaming hot tea, Heartfield feels that recent methods such as these of getting rich have to be abandoned.

  • Susan Boyle grabbed the public’s affection on a TV talent show and made £10 million.
  • Geordie singer turned X-factor judge Cheryl Cole became Britain’s highest paid TV star.
  • City chiefs like Barclays Bob Diamond and HSBC’s Bob Duggan were awarded bonuses of £6.5 and £9 million last year, from funds boosted by the government’s £200 billion quantitative easing policy.

Ah, we should have realized all along. The collapse of the British coal, auto, steel and shipbuilding industries had nothing to do with global competition but rather the waywardness of those who preferred to make their millions singing show tunes and the like. Time to sell your Marxist literature on amazon.com, I’d gather.

Turning from the ridiculous to the ridiculouser, there’s Slavoj Zizek’s (who were you expecting, Mike Davis?) latest think piece on the London Review titled “Shoplifters of the World Unite”.  It provides stiff competition with Heartfield’s “Britain Needs a Better Way to Get Rich Than Looting” as contrarian title of the year. When Marxists harp on rioters shoplifting or why Britain needs to work on “getting rich”, one wonders whether they are interested in changing peoples’ minds or rather getting them to say things like “Can you believe what Zizek just wrote in the London Review?” In the U.S. we call such people shock jocks. Whether Marxism has any need of their talents is an open question.

Zizek’s article is filled with philosophical babble like this:

This is why it is difficult to conceive of the UK rioters in Marxist terms, as an instance of the emergence of the revolutionary subject; they fit much better the Hegelian notion of the ‘rabble’, those outside organised social space, who can express their discontent only through ‘irrational’ outbursts of destructive violence – what Hegel called ‘abstract negativity’.

Is this the same Hegel who believed that the Prussian state was the culmination of the historical dialectic? No wonder.

When you read Zizek’s analysis, you have to wonder if he hasn’t been listening to Rush Limbaugh:

The protesters, though underprivileged and de facto socially excluded, weren’t living on the edge of starvation. People in much worse material straits, let alone conditions of physical and ideological oppression, have been able to organise themselves into political forces with clear agendas. The fact that the rioters have no programme is therefore itself a fact to be interpreted: it tells us a great deal about our ideological-political predicament and about the kind of society we inhabit, a society which celebrates choice but in which the only available alternative to enforced democratic consensus is a blind acting out.

Well, clearly these rioters have to stop stealing clothing or television sets and carve out the time to read Zizek’s latest article on communism. That will resolve their “ideological-political predicament” once they figure out what he is trying to say.

Like Kotkin and Heartfield, Zizek blames the welfare state on the erosion of the public morale that would lead to such wanton acts of destruction:

Meanwhile leftist liberals, no less predictably, stuck to their mantra about social programmes and integration initiatives, the neglect of which has deprived second and third-generation immigrants of their economic and social prospects: violent outbursts are the only means they have to articulate their dissatisfaction.

The rest of the article continues in this flatulent direction and is not worth commenting on, especially since I am anxious to take a run in Central Park and work on getting that 34 inch waist down to a 33.

Bye for now,

The Unrepentant Marxist

March 21, 2010

A reply to Avishai Margalit

Filed under: Academia,Fascism,philosophy,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 11:34 pm

Avishai Margalit

Princeton Professor Avishai Margalit’s new book was reviewed by John Gray in the latest NY Review under the title “Communists and Nazis: Just as Evil?” (Contact me for a copy since it is behind a subscriber’s wall.) When I read it, I dashed off a note to the professor calling him stupid and hypocritical. To my surprise, he wrote back saying that it was unfair to say such things without reading the book. Here was my follow-up:

Dr. Margalit, I want to take the trouble to explain why I found the ideas of your new book “On Compromise and Rotten Compromises” so objectionable even though I am relying solely on John Gray’s review in the NY Review. Ordinarily, I don’t pay much attention to books on moral philosophy but Gray’s title “Communists and Nazis: Just as Evil?” was enough to make me read the review and follow up with an angry note to you. Frankly, I was surprised that you took the trouble to reply to me since I was only blowing off steam. My cranky emails to authority figures like President Obama or to you, the George F. Kennan Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, are more in line with Saul Bellow’s Herzog who as you might know devoted much of his time writing to public figures not expecting a reply. I guess that in the age of email, it is easier to connect in a way that was once considered more of a form of poetic apostrophe—as in “Twinkle, twinkle, Princeton Professor, how I wonder what you are?”

Now that I am 65 years old, you’d think that I would have gotten used to anti-Communist screeds, especially in a publication like the NY Review whose editors still appear to be making amends for publishing an article by Tom Hayden in the 1960s with a David Levine drawing of a Molotov cocktail on the cover. They cannot let a month go by without publishing one of these boilerplate articles explaining to the world how Evil Communism was. You’d think that the USA was the next Nepal from these frequent warnings.

Anyhow, turning to Gray’s review, he takes up your analysis of two treaties, one between Britain and Nazi Germany; the other between Britain and Stalin’s Russia after the Nazi invasion. According to Gray, you find the first agreement a “rotten compromise” because it was a pact with radical evil. But the one with Stalin was okay: “Churchill was right, not because Stalin’s worst was not up to Hitler’s worse-than-worst, but because Hitler’s evil was radical evil, undermining morality itself.”

Not that Stalin was any angel. Gray quotes a passage from your book that strikes me as being in sympathy with some of the recent “revisionist” historiography in Germany that finds Hitler to be a mere piker compared to the Soviet tyrant:

….The politically caused famine of 1932–1933 alone brought about the death of some six million people…. Even if we compare the “purges” that Stalin launched in the Communist party to Hitler’s in the National Socialist Party, Hitler by then [1939] had very little to show in comparison to Stalin’s liquidation of 700,000 people in the Great Purge of 1937–1938.

….the GPU, better known by its later acronym of NKVD, was an instrument of oppression far more ubiquitous than the Gestapo. Until the war, there were about 8,000 Gestapo torturers, as compared to 350,000 in the GPU.

Leaving aside such a-b comparisons, someone like myself—an unrepentant Marxist—has to wonder how Churchill comes off as a kind of vestal virgin  trying to decide which suitor would be less likely to rob him of his innocence. Gray writes: “These facts may not have been known to Churchill in detail; but he was fully aware of the nature of Stalin’s tyranny. ”

Well, I doubt that Churchill cared much about “tyranny” in any case since the deal he cut with Hitler was fully intended to unleash the Nazi dogs of war on a country that was hostile to foreign investment. This ultimately was how the British government approached all foreign policy questions—from the standpoint of the Sterling note, not Platonic ideals of Good and Evil. Chamberlain was not “appeasing” Hitler. He was giving him the green light to destroy Bolshevism in the same manner that 21 invading armies had in 1919—including the British Empire.

All this was documented in Clement Lebowitz’s book on the Chamberlain-Hitler deal, which had a preface by Tony Benn that described the policy of the western governments “not [as] appeasement but of active sympathy and support for Germany.” Additionally, “there was a great deal of sympathy among the British establishment for what Hitler and Mussolini were doing. Indeed the essence of the appeasement policy was to persuade Hitler to abandon any plans he might have for an attack on the Western Front and to give him a very broad hint–if not an outright assurance–that if he turned East he could have a free hand.”

The other thing that gets up my nose is this business about Stalin’s cruelty toward the Ukrainians. Those schooled in history rather than the ethereal sphere of moral philosophy would surely understand that Stalin’s privations were simply just another example of the “primitive accumulation” described by Karl Marx in volume one of Capital (I understand that your MA thesis was on Marx’s theory of value, an undertaking seemingly in vain.) Compared to the British Empire, the USSR in the 1930s was a tea party. Just ask the Irish. Or all the Africans lost in the slave trade. Or the Indian victims of the British penetration of the textile industry. Or the Chinese victims of the Opium trade. It is my knowledge of this history by the “civilized” British that makes me realize how shrewd Gandhi was when he was asked what he thought of Western Civilization. He replied it was a good idea.

Things go from bad to worse when you pontificate on the Yalta agreement, which “accepted the systematically cruel and humiliating rule of Stalin over Eastern Europe…. It thereby rendered the Yalta agreement rotten.” I first heard these kinds of yelps about Yalta and Potsdam when I was a mere stripling in the 1950s and am puzzled to hear them now in 2010 when most educated people, at least those with a smattering of Marxist erudition, know that the West got much more than it gave up in these deals. Just ask yourself if it was worth giving up poor, peripheral Eastern Europe for a Western Europe that had the French Communist partisans agreeing to respect private property when they were effectively in power after WWII. I must say that it does not surprise me that you miss this angle since clearly you have a Manichean tendency to see the West as pure as the driven snow, despite Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Despite the bombing of Dresden. Despite everything. I guess it is easy to adopt this sense of moral superiority when you work for a place at Princeton. After all, if you were capable of critical thought, you never would have been the recipient of a chair endowed in George Kennan’s name. The same George Kennan who once wrote:

Furthermore, we have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population. This disparity is particularly great as between ourselves and the peoples of Asia. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction.

March 16, 2010

A visit with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir

Filed under: philosophy — louisproyect @ 3:30 pm

November 9, 2009

Deserving a place among philosophers?

Filed under: philosophy,racism — louisproyect @ 3:27 pm

Martin Heidegger

NY Times, November 9, 2009
An Ethical Question: Does a Nazi Deserve a Place Among Philosophers?
By Patricia Cohen

For decades the German philosopher Martin Heidegger has been the subject of passionate debate. His critique of Western thought and technology has penetrated deeply into architecture, psychology and literary theory and inspired some of the most influential intellectual movements of the 20th century. Yet he was also a fervent Nazi.

Now a soon-to-be published book in English has revived the long-running debate about whether the man can be separated from his philosophy. Drawing on new evidence, the author, Emmanuel Faye, argues fascist and racist ideas are so woven into the fabric of Heidegger’s theories that they no longer deserve to be called philosophy. As a result Mr. Faye declares, Heidegger’s works and the many fields built on them need to be re-examined lest they spread sinister ideas as dangerous to modern thought as “the Nazi movement was to the physical existence of the exterminated peoples.”

Full: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/09/books/09philosophy.htm


David Hume, “Of National Characters”:

I am apt to suspect the negroes and in general all the other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences. On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the whites, such as the ancient Germans, the present Tartars, have still something eminent about them, in their valour, form of government, or some other particular. Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction betwixt these breeds of men. Not to mention our colonies, there are Negroe slaves dispersed all over Europe, of which none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity; tho’ low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession. In Jamaica indeed they talk of one negroe as a man of parts and learning; but ‘tis likely he is admired for very slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.


John Locke, Constitution of Carolina:

“Every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute authority over his Negro slaves, of what opinion or Religion so ever.”


John Stuart Mill, “Considerations on Representative Government?”:

When proper allowance has been made for geographical exigencies, another more purely moral and social consideration offers itself. Experience proves that it is possible for one nationality to merge and be absorbed in another: and when it was originally an inferior and more backward portion of the human race the absorption is greatly to its advantage.


Immanuel Kant, “From Physical Geography; On Countries That Are Known and Unknown To Europeans; Africa”:

When an Indian sees a European going somewhere, he thinks that he has something to accomplish. When he comes back, he thinks that he has already taken care of his business, but if he sees him going out a third time he thinks that he has lost his mind, as the European is going for a walk for pleasure, which no Indian does; he is only capable of imagining it. Indians are also indecisive, and both traits belong to the nations that live very far north. The weakening of their limbs is supposedly caused by brandy, tobacco, opium and other strong things. From their timidity comes superstition, particularly in regard to magic, and the same with jealousy. Their timidity makes them into slavish underlings when they have kings and evokes an idolatrous reverence in them, just as their laziness moves them rather to run around in the forest and suffer need than to be held to their labors by the orders of their masters.

Montesquieu is correct in his judgment that the weakheartedness that makes death so terrifying to the Indian or the Negro also makes him fear many things other than death that the European can withstand. The Negro slave from Guinea drowns himself if he is to be forced into slavery. The Indian women burn themselves. The Carib commits suicide at the slightest provocation. The Peruvian trembles in the face of an enemy, and when he is led to death, he is ambivalent, as though it means nothing. His awakened imagination, however, also makes him dare to do something, but the heat of the moment is soon past and timidity resumes its old place again…


Thomas Jefferson, “Notes on the State of Virginia:

A black, after hard labour through the day, will be induced by the slightest amusements to sit up till midnight, or later, though knowing he must be out with the first dawn of the morning. They are at least as brave, and more adventuresome. But this may perhaps proceed from a want of forethought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present. When present, they do not go through it with more coolness or steadiness than the whites. They are more ardent after their female: but love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation. Their griefs are transient. Those numberless afflictions, which render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath, are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them. In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection. To this must be ascribed their disposition to sleep when abstracted from their diversions, and unemployed in labour. An animal whose body is at rest, and who does not reflect, must be disposed to sleep of course. Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous. It would be unfair to follow them to Africa for this investigation. We will consider them here, on the same stage with the whites, and where the facts are not apocryphal on which a judgment is to be formed.It will be right to make great allowances for the difference of condition, of education, of conversation, of the sphere in which they move. Many millions of them have been brought to, and born in America. Most of them indeed have been confined to tillage, to their own homes, and their own society: yet many have been so situated, that they might have availed themselves of the conversation of their masters; many have been brought up to the handicraft arts, and from that circumstance have always been associated with the whites. Some have been liberally educated, and all have lived in countries where the arts and sciences are cultivated to a considerable degree, and have had before their eyes samples of the best works from abroad. The Indians, with no advantages of this kind, will often carve figures on their pipes not destitute of design and merit. They will crayon out an animal, a plant, or a country, so as to prove the existence of a germ in their minds which only wants cultivation. They astonish you with strokes of the most sublime oratory; such as prove their reason and sentiment strong, their imagination glowing and elevated. But never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never see even an elementary trait, of painting or sculpture. In music they are more generally gifted than the whites with accurate ears for tune and time, and they have been found capable of imagining a small catch. Whether they will be equal to the composition of a more extensive run of melody, or of complicated harmony, is yet to be proved.

February 2, 2009

Examined Life

Filed under: Film,philosophy — louisproyect @ 9:19 pm

Examined Life: Philosophy is in the Streets” is very much a follow-up to Astra Taylor’s “Zizek!,” a 2005 documentary that allowed the Lacanian cultural theorist to hold forth on a variety of topics. Not being particularly enamored of Zizek’s thought, I passed on this movie. But I couldn’t resist the temptation to watch “Examined Life” since I heard good things about Taylor’s film-making skills even though I have to confess that I am no more eager to hear from the latest batch of subjects, which is heavily tilted in the postmodernist direction (Cornel West, Avital Ronell, Peter Singer, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Hardt, Slavoj Zizek, Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor) this go round. Zizek makes another appearance but mercifully for only 10 minutes as is the case with the rest of the cast.

In the press notes for “Examined Life”, Taylor explains her motivation in making such a film:

Many would agree that the world is facing a multitude of unprecedented problems, from global warming to growing economic inequality. In a way, this is part of why I wanted to make Examined Life right now — I feel that the myriad problems facing us demand more thinking than ever, not less. That said, most people wouldn’t assume philosophy would have anything useful to say on these issues. Often when you mention “philosophy” people’s eyes kind of glaze over. The word conjures images of stodgy old white men pontificating on abstract matters completely irrelevant to those of us who live in the “real world.” Or maybe folks assume that philosophy simply doesn’t relate to their lives, or that people who are interested in the subject are unforgivably ponderous or pretentious.

Taylor, who will be 30 this year, got an MA in Liberal Studies from the New School For Social Research, the same place I received a MA in philosophy back in 1967. I have to confess that I didn’t continue my studies because I was one of those folks who assumed “that philosophy simply doesn’t relate to their lives.” I joined the SWP in 1967 and spent 11 years trying to apply Marxism to American society, a task that defies any attempts from individual philosophers no matter how brilliant they are. And, just between you and me, the subjects of Taylor’s movie are not that brilliant. Despite the underwhelming character of their reflections, I have nothing but admiration for Taylor’s movie-making skills and urge others to see the movie, whatever their feelings about “theory” and its postmodernist abuses.

Before I present some highly critical rebuttals to Michael Hardt and Slavoj Zizek (who I found highly captivating as film characters no matter my aversion to their ideas), let me say something about two of the more attractive personalities: Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor. The two are shown navigating the streets of San Francisco’s Mission Hill district where Sunaura, a quadriplegic, chose to live on account of its enlightened policies on disabled people.

Their segment consists of the two having a conversation about disability rights and justice, which effectively ties together Butler’s philosophy and Taylor’s personal experience. Some of you might know of Judith Butler as the butt of Denis Dutton’s “Bad Writing Contest”, something I got a big laugh out of before I discovered what a wretch Dutton was. If anything, being condemned by Dutton should be seen as a badge of distinction. Unlike the other interviewees, Butler comes across as a plain-spoken and thoughtful person-as well as visually striking. With her gaunt frame and leather jacket, she looks more like a meth dealer than a cultural theorist-just the ticket for this visually striking documentary.

Going from the sublime to the ridiculous, we spend what seems like an eternity with Michael Hardt rowing a boat in a Central Park lake as he pontificates on Revolution. He begins by saying that the FMLN told him when he was in El Salvador in the 1980s that the best assistance he could give the revolution was to make one in the U.S. They suggested that he find a nearby mountain and get some guns. That’s all that’s needed. Having spent 5 years in New York City as a member of Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, a group that was in constant contact with the FDR, the political wing of the FMLN, I can assure you that no combatant would have given such advice. They were looking primarily for people to put pressure on the U.S. government to cut funding to the Salvadoran government. They also took a great deal of interest in Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Campaign in 1984. But the idea that the FMLN would tell a bookish gringo to start guerrilla warfare is complete bullshit and simply makes Michael Hardt look like a fool.

Going from the ridiculous to the ridiculousest, we meet Slavoj Zizek in a garbage dump where he spends his 10 minutes blasting what he calls “ecology”, which is nothing but a straw man that he defines as an idea that Nature is Pure and that Man violates Nature through Hubris. For Zizek, nature is anything but pure. It is filled with catastrophes that happen without human involvement such as the ice age that led to mass extinctions. He advises that in the face of nature’s imperfections that we learn-using his words-to see “perfection in imperfection”. This kind of relationship between man and nature will be a kind of “love”, as our Lacanian puts it.

Listening to him reminded me of my freshman year at Bard College in 1961 when a group of us formed something called the Welcome the Bomb Committee in response to Nelson Rockefeller’s stepped up civil defense proposals. We sent out press releases stating that a welcomed bomb would be less likely to hurt us than a spurned bomb. Unlike Zizek, we were just kidding around.

“Examined Life” opens at the IFC Film theater in NYC on February 25th.

August 1, 2008

Studying philosophy at the New School

Filed under: Academia,philosophy — louisproyect @ 8:12 pm

Hans Jonas

Aron Gurwitsch

A couple of items that I stumbled across on the net lately have gotten me thinking about time spent as a graduate student in the philosophy department of the New School back in 1965 to 1967.

The first was an article titled “Why are some of the greatest thinkers being expelled from their disciplines?” that appeared in the July 25th Chronicle of Higher Education. Written by UCLA professor and long-time semi-Marxist social commentator Russell Jacoby, it called attention to the disappearance of Freud, Marx and Hegel from academia:

How is it that Freud is not taught in psychology departments, Marx is not taught in economics, and Hegel is hardly taught in philosophy? Instead these masters of Western thought are taught in fields far from their own. Nowadays Freud is found in literature departments, Marx in film studies, and Hegel in German. But have they migrated, or have they been expelled? Perhaps the home fields of Freud, Marx, and Hegel have turned arid. Perhaps those disciplines have come to prize a scientistic ethos that drives away unruly thinkers. Or maybe they simply progress by sloughing off the past.

I was fortunate to study at the New School long before this trend set in. But I am afraid that Jacoby is not that attuned to the philosophy scene on campus if he thought that Hegel was ever some hot commodity for the sad fact is that academia has been Hegel-free (and Descarte-free, etc.) for an entire generation except as examples of how not to “do” philosophy. The so-called Continental philosophy that traces its lineage back to Descartes is for the most part not practiced nowadays. And if it is taught, it is taught as a part of true philosophy’s prehistory. This school, descended from Logical Positivism, has also been described as linguistic analysis. Much of its effort was directed at debunking the classic “problems” of Continental philosophy in the style of A.J. Ayer, one of the leading figures who focused on the “verification principle”, which means that a proposition can only be true if it can stand up to empirical testing. As such, all philosophy that derives from Descartes cannot be “verified”.

Parenthetically, I must admit a certain admiration for Ayer based on a wiki article that reveals among other things that he put in a stint at Bard College in 1987, my alma mater. That year, he had a run-in with boxer Mike Tyson that ended well apparently:

At a party that same year held by fashion designer Fernando Sanchez, Ayer, then 77, confronted Mike Tyson harassing the (then little-known) model Naomi Campbell. When Ayer demanded that Tyson stop, the boxer said: “Do you know who the fuck I am? I’m the heavyweight champion of the world,” to which Ayer replied: “And I am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic. We are both pre-eminent in our field. I suggest that we talk about this like rational men.” Ayer and Tyson then began to talk, while Naomi Campbell slipped out.

Now in my 63rd year, I am old enough to have been educated by a couple of philosophers whose propositions might not have stood up to the “verification principle”. Even though I came to reject the kind of philosophical idealism whose traditions they identified with (although from the standpoint of historical materialism rather than logical positivism), I remain grateful for the opportunity to have studied with them. As prototypical German-Jewish intellectuals of the type that found refuge at the New School (at one time called the University in Exile), they were a cut above the kind of sterile linguistic “debunking” that succeeded them in philosophy departments around the U.S.

The first of these was Aron Gurwitsch (1901-1973), who has been honored in a website that I happened upon the other week. http://www.gurwitsch.net/. When I was at the New School, Gurwitsch was one of the two most important figures (Hans Jonas was the other, who I will speak about momentarily.) His claim to fame was being one of the leading exponents of Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology in the U.S. Husserl was a major influence on German and French existentialism, although Gurwitsch seemed to have no connection or interest in what people like Heidegger, Merlau-Ponty and Sartre were up to. Mainly, Gurwitsch saw the “theory of intentionality” as a kind of silver bullet that could resolve some of the outstanding problems of Continental philosophy going back to Descartes. These problems fundamentally revolved around the dualism incorporated in Descartes famous dictum: “I think, therefore I am.”

In a survey of European philosophy that had well over 100 registered students in attendance and which consisted solely of a 90 minute lecture by Gurwitsch given entirely without notes and that only permitted questions from students after he was finished, he demonstrated how the mind-body contradiction implicit in Descartes dictum invited responses that were never satisfactory, often veering off in the kind of solipsism found in George Berkeley who taking Descartes’s ideas to their logical conclusion questioned whether we could ever perceive reality directly since the mind (cogito) always a mediator that both acted on our behalf and got in the way. In reference to Berkeley’s philosophy, Dr. Samuel Johnson once kicked a heavy stone and exclaimed, “I refute it thus!”

Although Husserl’s writings are terribly complex, Gurwitsch had the knack of making them quite understandable. Basically, phenomenology sidesteps the whole Cartesian conundrum and treats consciousness as a first-person singular act worthy of study but not really applicable to the kinds of epistemological exercises found in Berkeley, Spinoza, Hume et al. Basically, the focus is shifted toward experience in the world rather than beyond it. As such, it is obvious why it would have an influence on existentialism. For Gurwitsch, however, the real affinity was with Gestalt psychology. Having already mastered physics, math and philosophy, he began a study of Piaget’s writings in order to build a bridge between Husserl’s theories and the new field in psychology that approached consciousness “holistically”.

Although I never really kept up with my philosophy studies after receiving a MA in 1967 and embarking on an unpaid career in Marxist politics, I was reminded of how powerful a tool phenomenology can be in the right hands after reviewing Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Coming of Age” for Swans earlier this year. I marveled at her ability to weave together so many disparate strands in trying to explain the problems of aging in the ancient and modern worlds, especially in her treatment of some notable figures such as Leon Trotsky:

Even if the body does send us signals, they are ambiguous. There is a temptation to confuse some curable disease with irreversible old age. Trotsky lived only for working and fighting, and he dreaded growing old: he was filled with anxiety when he remembered Turgenev’s remark, one that Lenin often quoted – “Do you know the worst of all vices? It is being over fifty-five.” And in 1933, when he was exactly fifty-five himself, he wrote a letter to his wife, complaining of tiredness, lack of sleep, a failing memory; it seemed to him that his strength was going, and it worried him. “Can this be age that has come for good, or is it no more than a temporary, though sudden, decline that I shall recover from? We shall see.” Sadly he called the past to mind: “I have a painful longing for your old photograph, the picture that shows us both when we were so young.” He did get better and he took up all his activities again.

The biographical sketch at http://www.gurwitsch.net/ was a real eye-opener. I knew practically nothing about my professor except that he was an expert on Husserl. It turns out that his original training was as a mathematician and physicist, studying under Max Planck in the University of Berlin. Long after he had made his mark in philosophy, Gurwitsch remained fluent in the sciences so much so that he was able to teach Physics at Harvard University during WWII and Mathematics at Brandeis University afterwards.

I also found out about how Gurwitsch ended up at the New School:

The last dozen years of teaching at the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research in New York City have been the happiest. Originally the University in Exile and a haven for emigré scholars, some of whom remained while; others went on to other schools, this institution has been unique. Its original faculty and orientation stemmed from pre-Nazi Europe. Alfred Schutz joined the Graduate Faculty in 1943 and became professor of philosophy and sociology .He had the idea of making the philosophy department a center for phenomenology . Dorion Cairns had been added to the department by 1956, and plans were well advanced to add a chair in 1960 for Gurwitsch. Then Schutz died suddenly, and Gurwitsch was called to replace him as professor of philosophy.

I was not that surprised to discover that according Gurwitsch once expressed “concern to a colleague that politicized students might destroy the university.” If somebody like Theodor Adorno would express similar worries, we could hardly expect Gurwitsch to be more understanding.

Although I admired Gurwitsch, I found him a remote and intimidating figure. He could always be found in the New School cafeteria before class surrounded by sycophantic graduate students in tweed jackets. These were the same students who often put tape recorders in front of his lectern. With the bank of microphones and his German accent, he came across like Henry Kissinger at a press conference.

Hans Jonas (1903-1993) was a horse of another color. Also a student of Husserl, as well as part of a circle that included Paul Tillich, Hannah Arendt and her husband Heinrich Blucher with whom I studied at Bard College, Jonas tried to apply phenomenology to the problems of life and ethics.

Although I had no particular interest in studying philosophy except as a way to maintain a student deferment during the Vietnam War. The closest I came to feeling the kind of passion that I felt studying literature or Greek fertility cults at Bard College or Marxism later on with veterans of the 1930s labor movement came with a seminar on Kant with Jonas. I wrote a paper on Kant’s ethics that tried to integrate it with his epistemology-all operating on the basis of subjectivity-that received an A. Grades never meant very much to me but I felt very flattered to get that kind of recognition. Jonas invited all his students up to a Sunday afternoon tea at his house in New Rochelle one Sunday. He took me aside that afternoon and strongly encouraged me to continue with my studies.

Six months later I was in the SWP and ready to put philosophy behind me. At the time, I tried to explain my intellectual evolution as consistent with the upward march of homo sapiens. I began as a religion major at Bard, in keeping with mankind’s superstitious origins. Then I progressed to philosophy at the New School, operating on the basis of Pure Reason. And finally I became a Trotskyist, fully cognizant that it was only by abolishing class society that human freedom-including my own-could be realized.

Years later, I discovered that our paths had crossed once again. After leaving the Trotskyist movement and seeking to re-invent myself as a non-dogmatic Marxist, I found myself strongly attracted to the burgeoning environmental movement. So had Hans Jonas, on his own phenomenological basis.

He had written a book titled “The Imperative of Responsibility” in 1979 (the year after I had dropped out of the SWP) that made a deep impact on the Green movement in Germany. He wrote in the preface to the English edition:

Modern technology, informed by an ever deeper penetration of nature and propelled by the forces of market and politics, has enhanced human power beyond anything known or even dreamt of before. It is a power over matter, over life on earth, and over man himself; and it keeps growing at an accelerated pace.

Care for the future of mankind is the overruling duty of collective human action in the age of a technical civilization that has become ‘almighty’, if not in its productive then at least in its destructive potential. This care must obviously include care for the future of all nature on this planet as a necessary condition of man’s own. … We live in an apocalyptic situation, that is, under the threat of a universal catastrophe if we let things take their present course. … The danger derives from the excessive dimensions of the scientific-technological-industrial civilization. … The danger of disaster through scientific technology arises not so much from any shortcomings of its performance as from the magnitude of its success. This success is in the main of two kinds: economic and biological.

Jonas’s deep ecology came as a complete surprise to me. Although I rejected the semi-Heideggerian philosophical basis for both his book and much of the movement, I respect any initiative taken to defend flora and fauna.

Both Gurwitsch and Jonas remain important influences on my intellectual make-up even though it is obvious that we were worlds apart philosophically. Returning to the issue raised by Russell Jacoby, I find myself agreeing with him completely even though I am not on record as being a devotee of Sigmund Freud to put it mildly:

Culture is not like an automobile that should be junked when old and decrepit. I don’t see how we can be educated – or consider ourselves educators – if we consign to the dustbin, say, Freud’s exchange with Einstein on war, Marx’s description of “the cheap price of commodities” that batters down national boundaries, or Hegel’s notion of the master/slave relationship. Those ideas should be addressed, not parried; taught, not dismissed.

With the steady erosion of culture in the U.S., as the university system suffers from ever-increasing corporatization, the rigor and intellectual passion of a Gurwitsch or a Jonas is surely missed. If the long, great crisis of the period starting with WWI and lasting through the end of WWII could produce such great thinkers, perhaps the one thing that we can look forward to during the great and perhaps terminal crisis of bourgeois society is the reemergence of a new generation of thinkers inspired to penetrate to the root causes of the impending disaster.

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