Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 25, 2018

Robert Brenner, Vivek Chibber, and the “organization question”

Filed under: Academia,Political Marxism — louisproyect @ 6:19 pm

Robert Brenner

Vivek Chibber

On Saturday, I received a communication that threw me for a loop:

Dear Friends,

Catalyst has stood out as a bright spot in a dark time for radical politics. I have served from the outset as co-editor of the journal along with Vivek Chibber. Nevertheless, Chibber, backed by publisher Bhaskar Sunkara, has seen fit to remove me from my position — without any warning, pretense of consultation, or plausible justification. A number of contributors to Catalyst are now stepping in to try to limit the damage that this coup will inflict. Their statement below represents the first step in the campaign.

Robert Brenner


Catalyst Contributors’ Protest Robert Brenner’s Dismissal from the Catalyst Co-editorship and Demand for his Reinstatement

We, the undersigned, are contributors to Catalyst, who have published or have been commissioned to publish articles in the journal. We are writing to protest the removal of Robert Brenner from his position as co-editor of the journal and to demand his reinstatement.

Co-editor Vivek Chibber, backed by publisher Bhaskar Sunkara, who is also publisher of Jacobin, made this move unilaterally, without warning, and without any pretense of consultation. Chibber has refused to discuss it with Brenner or to consider Brenner’s proposals for re-configuring Catalyst’s editorial procedures to meet Chibber’s concerns. Nor has Chibber been willing to talk with several of the signers of this statement who contacted him to work out a resolution.

Catalyst is produced by Jacobin, which has provided indispensable support for the journal across the board in terms of finance, production, design, and circulation, while granting its editors total autonomy in terms of its content, especially politics. Jacobin has established itself as one as of the left’s more important institutions. We want to make it abundantly clear that that this letter is in no way an attack on Jacobin and that we have no desire to harm it in any manner. Just the opposite.

So far, Catalyst has been a striking success. It has defined itself as a radical political journal devoted to further developing Marxist theory as an essential guide for political intervention. It has insisted that this development requires dialogue with non-Marxist radical traditions, as well as dissident strains of Marxism typically excluded from major socialist journals, and it has placed a high priority on seeing to it that they are represented in its pages.

Catalyst’s point of departure is that the fundamental goal of working class emancipation has not changed. But it recognizes that continuing transformations in capitalism, the working class, and society/culture have raised different problems than those posed in the last great period of mass mobilization of the 1960s and 1970s.

The journal has thus tried to nurture and publish new theoretical and empirical work to address these changes. Especially due to the globalized nature of the economy and its crisis, which has fueled austerity, neoliberalism, and a growing rightwing populism virtually everywhere, the working class and the left across the world now confront the same challenges simultaneously. Catalyst therefore sees building a coordinated, international political response as an immediate priority.

Catalyst has clearly struck a chord on the left, attracting a remarkable level of interest and rapid growth of subscriptions in a relatively short period of time. Robert Brenner, who co-edited the journal along with Vivek Chibber, was the journal’s founder and has been its central motivating force. Taking take nothing away from Chibber, who has made indispensable contributions in every respect. Brenner was uniquely responsible for enabling the journal to establish itself and flourish, contributing more than his share in every aspect of Catalyst’s work. Given the journal’s success, his dismissal from the position of co-editor makes no sense and is self-destructive for the journal. He must be reinstated.

Chibber, backed by Sunkara, has justified the change in editorship by claiming serious shortcomings in Brenner’s performance as co-editor. According to them, he did not shoulder his proper share of the editing, tended to be late with the editing he did do, and failed to find replacements when he failed to complete jobs on time, compelling Chibber to swoop in to save the day. The burden of Chibber’s case is that he essentially functioned as editor-in-chief, taking the main responsibility for the journal, and that Brenner assumed a lesser and subordinate role but refused to acknowledge it.

This claim has no validity. Quite the contrary. Brenner did a disproportionate share of the editing, both quantitatively and qualitatively, and did most of the substantial editing jobs, as can easily be demonstrated and directly documented. Many of us can personally attest to the high quality of Brenner’s editing, which resulted in making our articles significantly better.

Brenner forwarded to Sunkara and Chibber a systematic and comprehensive response, in which he refuted their arguments point by point, with accompanying evidence.(See Appendix on Distribution of Editing, with detailed documentation, in email accompanying this statement.) But they refused to reply, and, up to this point, have failed to counter any of his assertions. We can only conclude that their case against him was no more than window dressing to provide a cover for what they intended to do in any case.

Even if, for argument’s sake, Chibber had done much more work for the journal than Brenner, we would still have to condemn this takeover as unprincipled and unproductive. What the journal needs now to build most effectively on its success is to broaden its editorial capacity, not narrow it further. A larger editorial board reflecting a greater range of left political perspectives would surely enhance the journal.

It gives us no pleasure to write this letter, but we feel we have no choice. The left, yet again, is digging its own grave, undermining its own achievements. No sooner did Catalyst establish itself as a useful institution, than it was dismantled from within via a Chibber-initiated coup. Given that the expulsion is so plainly self-destructive, it is actually quite difficult to figure out what really motivated it. A single individual’s grab for power and recognition? An unstated political agenda?

Whatever was behind it, the move must be reversed. We therefore call on Sunkara, who as publisher has final authority, and Chibber to re-instate Brenner. We ourselves hereby announce that we will not contribute to Catalyst unless and until Brenner is brought back as co-editor. We call on all others to similarly refuse to cooperate with the journal, as authors or in other capacities, until Chibber and Sunkara make that happen. We encourage those who support this effort to let Chibber and Sunkara know your opinion by emailing them directly.


Mike Davis
Aijaz Ahmad
Sam Ashman
Sam Farber
Mike Goldfield
Costas Lapavitsas
CK Lee
Zach Levenson
Isidro Lopez
Kim Moody
Trevor Ngwane
Mike Parker
Charlie Post
Suzi Weissman
Pedro Paulo Zahluth Bastos

The link above directed one to Brenner’s page at Catalyst, where the above statement appeared. You can still get to the page but the statement is gone. All you get is a blank page. Nice.

Mike Davis minced no words:

The Millennial generation’s enthusiasm for ‘socialism,’ however vaguely defined, is truly the horizon of hope in this otherwise darkening age. But, frankly speaking, Marxists have done a poor job of arming radical passions with deep analyses of the world crisis, its class actors, and emergent social movements. Catalyst – published by Jacobin and co-edited by Bob Brenner and Vivek Chibber- was launched last year precisely to provide a quality forum for such debates and explorations. It has surpassed all expectations in attracting exciting articles from a rapidly-growing and diverse community of contributors.

So why kill this vital force in its crib? For reasons which he disdains to explain to contributors and readers, Chibber has ‘fired’ Brenner with the complicity of Jacobin’s Bhaskar Sunkara, who controls the means of production. Rumor from the New York side insinuates that Brenner failed to fulfill his share of editorial work, but as the erstwhile ‘associate editor’ I can assure you that this is completely untrue. If anything, Brenner assumed the lion’s share of responsibility for editing articles, commissioning pieces and giving direction to the journal. He also lent it an intellectual prestige and political seriousness which I very much doubt Chibber, even with Sunkara’s support, can sustain.

Brenner has made desperate and sincere efforts to save the collaboration but they have been dismissed with a wave of Sunkara’s hand. Should the rest of us, who so enthusiastically rallied to Catalyst, simply acquiesce and eat cake? Certainly not – the project – the collective property of the contributors, must go on. Please stay tuned.

Today, Sunkara defended himself and Chibber on FB, likely pissing off even more those who wrote the statement:

There has not been a “coup” of any kind at Catalyst. We did not kick Robert Brenner off the journal. Rather, we asked him to move to being “Founding and Associate Editor,” which would still give him substantial influence in the journal’s direction, but would enable us to overcome the problems we were facing owing to his difficulties in meeting deadlines and carrying through on his commitments.

From the very inception of the journal it had led to serious problems with production. We did, in fact, try different solutions to make it work and had extensive conversations with Bob and others about this. But by late 2017 it reached a breaking point, when the journal was delayed for two consecutive issues – the second one being two months. And at the end of it, the material he had committed to acquiring and editing was not delivered at all, or was of a quality unsuitable for publication. Problems like this were now not only paralyzing Catalyst but also started to bleed over into the production of other projects. No quarterly journal can survive delays of this length and this frequency.

This is why we decided to suggest a change in responsibilities. It would be highly irrational for us to have taken this step if Brenner had indeed been shouldering most of the responsibility, as he claims. Why would I agree to “fire” him if this was the case? We have a long history with Brenner and respect him greatly. But not everyone can do everything, and shouldering the day-to-day responsibilities of a journal turned out not to be one of his strengths. We hoped that as Founding & Associate Editor he would still be able to lend his considerable talents to the project, without being a bottleneck in its production. We regret that we had to take this step, but there seemed little choice.

The campaign he is waging is self-indulgent and destructive. He cannot force himself onto a journal, if the people there feel that they can’t rely on him. Obviously, it’s unfortunate, but the old arrangement just wasn’t working.

On the bright side, we’ve managed to finalize three issues over the last six months that are of really great quality and Catalyst is still growing at the rate of around 75-100 subscribers a week.

This is the last thing we’ll have to say on this matter – though if you have any questions you can contact Vivek or myself personally.

The controversy has generated comments from NYU professors where Chibber is based. Nikil Singh, who is a critic of the Brenner thesis—at least as applied to American slavery after the fashion of Charles Post, tweeted this:

It’s Ironic that Jacobin, which prides itself on being an engaged alternative to insular campus left politics has chosen as its in-house intellectual someone whose politics is defined by seminar room victories and the worst kinds of petty, internecine intra-academic warfare.

Not long after the tweet appeared, he deleted it. I suppose he didn’t want to antagonize Chibber or fellow Political Marxist don in the sociology department Jeff Goodwin, who defended him and Sunkara on FB:

This statement rings true to me. Vivek Chibber has been a leading proponent of the work of Robert Brenner, who was central to his very formation as a Marxist. Chibber recently worked hard to secure a teaching position for Brenner at NYU, an effort scuttled by people hostile to Marxism. I know Chibber extremely well — we have been colleagues for many years — and I have never heard him express the slightest ill will toward Brenner. Quite the contrary. The idea that Chibber would try to drive Brenner off the journal Catalyst, which the two of them co-founded, for some unspecified but nefarious purpose doesn’t make sense to me.

Of course, it was true that Chibber was a leading proponent of Brenner’s work, a disciple actually. He was also very tight with Charles Post, another Brennerite, who got on his wrong side after criticizing an idiotic article that Chibber wrote for Jacobin ruling out socialist revolution for the foreseeable future. For Chibber, the “strategic perspective has to downplay the centrality of a revolutionary rupture and navigate a more gradualist approach.” His article is standard issue social democratic reformism, hardly distinct from what you might read in Dissent magazine as I pointed out here: https://louisproyect.org/2018/02/26/vivek-chibbers-apolitical-marxism/

Many years ago, when I was being trained in the Trotskyist movement, James P. Cannon’s “Struggle for a Proletarian Party” was required reading. This was his account of the fight with Max Shachtman and James Burnham in 1939 over the class character of the USSR. The term “organization question” is referenced heavily throughout. For Cannon, this was the Achilles Heel of the “petty-bourgeois” opposition that harped on things like his top-heavy leadership (true, I’m sure) rather than the underlying theoretical questions. Cannon wrote:

What is the significance of the organisation question as such in a political party? Does it have an independent significance of its own on the same plane with political differences, or even standing above them? Very rarely. And then only transiently, for the political line breaks through and dominates the organisation question every time. This is one of the first ABC lessons of party politics, confirmed by all experience.

In his notorious document entitled “Science and Style”, Burnham writes: “The second central issue is the question of the regime in the Socialist Workers Party.” In reality the opposition tried from the beginning of the dispute to make the question of the “regime” the first issue; the basic cadres of the opposition were recruited precisely on this issue before the fundamental theoretical and political differences were fully revealed and developed.

This method of struggle is not new. The history of the revolutionary labour movement since the days of the First International is an uninterrupted chronicle of the attempts of petty-bourgeois groupings and tendencies of all kinds to recompense themselves for their theoretical and political weakness by furious attacks against the “organisational methods” of the Marxists. And under the heading of organisational methods, they included everything from the concept of revolutionary centralism up to routine matters of administration; and beyond that to the personal manners and methods of their principled opponents, which they invariably describe as “bad”, “harsh”, “tyrannical”, and—of course, of course, of course—“bureaucratic”. To this day any little group of anarchists will explain to you how the “authoritarian” Marx mistreated Bakunin.

As it happens, both Brenner and Chibber are susceptible to prioritizing the “organization question”. I say this because someone privy to the feud informed me:

As I understand it, Brenner gave a ten or so page critique of an article Chibber had for the magazine (Catalyst) the long and short of which was that Chibber’s piece was fatally flawed. All said in the best academese of course.

So political differences will likely be papered over in order turn this into a Human Resources grievance. Who really believes that Brenner and one of his best known and most obsequious disciples were butting heads over whether he was keeping up with his editorial duties?

I don’t.

My advice is to look for the next issue of the Catalyst to read Chibber’s article. You can only guess what Brenner thought of it but are not likely to see any critique since he is not really in the habit of duking it out publicly with the exception of his NLR article about the 1997 financial crisis. Of course, that was easier to take part in since it involved rather cut-and-dry questions of how to understand the declining rate of profit and other key indicators. Having it out with one of his erstwhile devotees is probably not something Brenner has a stomach for although the sharp-elbowed Chibber would probably like to bring it on.

What lessons can we draw from all this? Brenner became the high priest of Political Marxism forty-one years ago after attacking Paul Sweezy in the NLR as a neo-Smithian Marxist. Hinging on your agreement that capitalism originated in the British countryside because of historical contingencies that gave birth to tenant farming, you were qualified to become a Marxist mandarin. He concluded his lengthy article with this:

The necessary interdependence between the revolutionary movements at the ‘weakest link’ and in the metropolitan heartlands of capitalism was a central postulate in the strategic thinking of Lenin, Trotsky and the other leading revolutionaries in the last great period of international socialist revolution. With regard to this basic proposition, nothing has changed to this day.

Well, yeah. Who wouldn’t want to be lined up with the “leading revolutionaries in the last great period of international socialist revolution.” 1977. Those were the days. Within a couple of years, Jack Barnes would be speaking in the same terms about developing a flawless revolutionary movement except in his case it was abandoning Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution rather than upholding arcane arguments about tenant farming.

Oddly enough as the left breaks with this kind of dogmatism that leads to needless splits, it is the cult of Political Marxism that is now embroiled in the same kind of feuds we used to see in the heyday of Trotskyism and Maoism. In our days, the prize was to become a Leninist vanguard. Today, it is being an editor of a quasi-academic journal like Catalyst.



Statement by David McNally on FB:

On the Uproar about Catalyst

These are trying times for the emerging New Left. While the old is dying, to paraphrase Gramsci, the new cannot yet be born. Thus, alongside, intimations of hope and new waves of resistance, we encounter a proliferation of “morbid symptoms.” It is difficult not to worry that the uproar at Catalyst, the journal associated with Jacobin magazine, is another case in point.

The uproar seems to originate in efforts to demote or fire Bob Brenner from his position as co-editor of Catalyst, in which role he served with Vivek Chibber. I am not privy to the internal machinations involved in Brenner’s removal/demotion, but when Mike Davis (the journal’s associate editor) says the rationale used is “completely untrue” I am inclined to pay close attention. Even more significant is what this direction would seem to signal for the project of building a new radical left.

From the start, many of us recognized the need for a serious U.S.-based journal of rigorously socialist analysis that could speak to a new generation of leftward-moving radicals. At the same time, many of us also felt that the Catalyst project would need to be expanded and opened up—to activists and theorists leading struggles against racism and police violence, organizing for migrant justice, fighting for gender and LGBTQ liberation, doing grassroots organizing in union, campus, and environmental justice campaigns, and so on. Ultimately, a journal of a real socialist movement has to be rooted in and accountable to a network of thousands of contributors, subscribers, readers, and activists who identify with and support its political project. And it can only achieve this by demonstrating that, notwithstanding who owns it, in practice it is a collective project “owned” by the movement that sustains it.

After Catalyst was launched, I had the opportunity to raise these points with Bob Brenner, and found him to be highly supportive of this perspective. Instead, however, Catalyst is shrinking its editors (to one)—and losing, it would seem, its associate editor, Mike Davis—at the very time it should be moving in the opposite direction.

Nearly twenty years ago, Ellen Meiksins Wood was purged from her editorship at Monthly Review. Hundreds of us wrote to MR, imploring it to reverse this disastrous decision. We had been thrilled by the new voices and perspectives Ellen had brought to MR, and we asked the Board that owned the review to reinstate her as an editor. They refused. MR severely damaged its standing on the wider left, and has never again played the role that it did in the mid- to late-1990s when Ellen was on board. The decision to turn their backs on hundreds of us who contributed to and subscribed to its journal, and who were spokespersons for it within a broad left, irreparably damaged MR’s political project, while also associating it with purges and bureaucratic edicts.

One would like to think that those who own and control Catalyst have the capacity to step back, regroup, and rethink. When a large layer of a journal’s contributors denounces an organizational maneuver (as they have in the case of Brenner’s removal/demotion), the warning signs are blinking brightly. Catalyst may well continue in spite of such maneuvers, but it will be very difficult for it to fulfill its initial promise. One can only hope that morbid symptoms will not prevail. We have been down that road before, and it is not a good one.

February 26, 2018

Vivek Chibber’s Apolitical Marxism

Filed under: Jacobin,Political Marxism — louisproyect @ 11:39 pm

As part of Jacobin’s regrettable last issue on the Russian Revolution, there was an article by Vivek Chibber that I took a detour around for the simple reason that the edgy graphics would have been too much of a burden on my cataract-ravaged eyes.

Eventually, a typographically correct version of the article appeared that I was in no rush to read but decided to give it a gander since it was critiqued on Jacobin by Charlie Post, who up till now would have been regarded as indistinguishable politically from Chibber. Both men are disciples of Robert Brenner, the UCLA historian who alongside the late Ellen Meiksins Wood was the founder of an academic sect called Political Marxism. The term was coined by Guy Bois, a critic of the Brenner thesis who wrote in the May 1978 issue of Past and Present: “Professor Brenner’s Marxism is ‘political Marxism’ in reaction to the wave of economist tendencies in contemporary historiography. As the role of the class struggle is widely underestimated, so he injects strong doses of it into historical explanation”. Early on, the Brennerites resented the term but nowadays have no problem using it to describe themselves.

Chibber’s article is titled “Our Road to Power” and can best be described as reformist pablum. It starts off with the customary equation of Lenin and Stalin:

The defenders of the Leninist party are right that in its early history it was remarkably open and dynamic. But at the same time, the fact is that its global experience since the 1930s veers much closer to its later, undemocratic form. So while Lenin’s party was very democratic, the Leninist party has not been. And we can’t lay the blame solely on Stalin, Zinoviev, or whoever your favorite villain is. A party model with strong and resilient democratic structures should have generated a more diverse set of experiences, not a uniform history of ossification.

You’ll notice that there is no attempt to provide a historical materialist analysis of how the Soviet Communist Party became undemocratic. That would entail a close examination of the economic disasters of the civil war that opened the door to the bureaucratization of the government and the CP. But if Bois is right in faulting the Political Marxists for ignoring “economist tendencies” in historiography, then it is perfectly logical that Chibber would ignore the objective causes of Stalinism.

Chibber seems ready to accept the Bolshevik model—warts and all—since it worked in Russia. For him, the lesson to be drawn from Lenin’s party is that it “fought alongside the base every day, in the workplace and in the neighborhood.” Oddly enough, the link contained in the sentence above does not take you to an article about Bolshevik practice but to a Jacobin article that offers critical support to the Italian Communist Party under Togliatti. It is hard to get into the head of a hustler like Bhaskar Sunkara or other members of his editorial board but for some reason their magazine has a soft spot for Togliatti, including two other articles that flatter the CP leader–one by Stathis Kouvelakis and the other by Peter D. Thomas who wrote that “The theoretical and political culture that Togliatti helped to shape in the Italian Communist Party, and in Italy more generally as this massive party’s sphere of influence radiated across the entire spectrum of the Left, was the example to which other leftists in Europe and around the world looked for inspiration.”

You don’t have to read the Trotskyist press to understand what a bunch of crap this is. Paul Ginsborg’s “A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics 1943-1988” will serve as a powerful antidote to such feverish thought. It not only details the class collaborationist policies that were largely indistinguishable from that of the Italian social democracy but also shows how devoted the party was to the Soviet dictator who they described as “a scholar of genius who analyses political and historical problems in the light of Marxist principles”.

In August 1945, the CP held a conference on post-war economic problems. Ginsborg indicates that Togliatti spoke against nationalizations while stressing the primary role of private industry. He deemed a national economic plan as “Utopian” and put forward a plan as bland as Obama’s—the rich had to pay their fair share of taxes. Togliatti said that the CP’s struggle was “not against capitalism in general but against particular forms of theft, of speculation, and of corruption.” Silvio Daneo, an Italian diplomat and by no means (obviously) a radical, criticized Togliatti’s speech to the conference as “a call for a daily Realpolitik in which reconstruction was reduced to the prudent democratic administration of the economy on nineteenth-century liberal lines.”

Unlike the Italian Communist Party that was immersed in the working class (even as it was selling it out), Chibber finds today’s left nothing but “a haven for a kind of lifestyle politics for morally committed students and professionals.” Now I am not privy to the kind of activism a sociology professor like Chibber is involved with but a search on his name and “Abu Dhabi”, where workers from East Asia virtually slave away building NYU’s satellite campus, turns up nothing. You’d think that someone complaining about middle-class politics would set an example but Chibber’s main activity seems to be speaking at HM conferences or writing for its journal.

Chibber has little use for the Russian Revolution as a model, a conclusion shared by Jacobin’s editorial board that put together a special issue that reads like it was written by YPDML. (Young Peoples Dissent Magazine League). For him, the “strategic perspective has to downplay the centrality of a revolutionary rupture and navigate a more gradualist approach.”

The word “gradualist” links to an article endorsing the Meidner Plan in Sweden (one in which the trade unions owned shares of Saab, et al) as one that can be adapted to the USA as if something that failed in a country ruled by social democrats could ever work in the USA, where the Democratic Party is to the right of Sweden’s party of big business. And the word “approach” links to an article by Eric Olin Wright that proposes “Real Utopias”, which boils down to worker-owned firms like Mondragon or free labor projects like Wikipedia that “destroyed a three-hundred-year-old market in encyclopedias.” I guess this is Utopia but whether it is Real is another question.

Moving right along, we discover that Political Marxist extraordinaire Vivek Chibber is a market socialist after the fashion of Alec Nove. He writes that “we have to seriously consider the possibility that planning as envisioned by Marx might not be a real option.” One really has to wonder how much of Marx Chibber has read. A search on the Marxism Internet Archives reveals not a single article by Marx on how to build socialism, either through markets or through planning. In the afterword to the 1873 edition of Capital, Marx wrote: “Thus the Paris Revue Positiviste reproaches me in that, on the one hand, I treat economics metaphysically, and on the other hand — imagine! — confine myself to the mere critical analysis of actual facts, instead of writing receipts (Comtist ones?) for the cook-shops of the future.” The word receipt was used in the 19th century interchangeably with recipe so you understand what Marx was driving at. You also have to engage with Marx’s writings that unlike Eric Olin Wright’s were focused more on revolution than what to do after it occurs. His study of the Paris Commune had little do with whether planning or markets were needed but on what a free society looked like:

The working class did not expect miracles from the Commune. They have no ready-made utopias to introduce par decret du peuple. They know that in order to work out their own emancipation, and along with it that higher form to which present society is irresistibly tending by its own economical agencies, they will have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historic processes, transforming circumstances and men. They have no ideals to realize, but to set free the elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant. In the full consciousness of their historic mission, and with the heroic resolve to act up to it, the working class can afford to smile at the coarse invective of the gentlemen’s gentlemen with pen and inkhorn, and at the didactic patronage of well-wishing bourgeois-doctrinaires, pouring forth their ignorant platitudes and sectarian crotchets in the oracular tone of scientific infallibility.

Neither ready-made utopias nor Eric Olin Wright’s Real Utopias can be extrapolated from anything that Marx ever wrote.

Now, turning to the problems of socialist construction in the 20th century, there is ample evidence that it was tried in every single post-capitalist society from the NEP in the USSR to Cuba’s small, privately owned businesses today. The key challenge, however, is resolving the problem market socialism has with a key commodity–namely labor power. It is one thing to have a market in consumer goods, where citizens have the choice between shoes made in one firm or another but what if the market preference for firm A is so much greater than firm B that its workers have to accept lower wages or else lose their jobs? In September, 1986 Ernest Mandel wrote a critique of Alec Nove for the NLR titled “In Defence of Socialist Planning” that can be read at the MIA. Mandel points out that Nove overemphasizes consumption, which was certainly what you’d expect during the period of a crisis in the USSR when the masses felt resentment over poor consumer goods and a lack of choice. Mandel writes:

So far we have followed Alec Nove – and other critics of Marxian socialism – in focusing on problems of consumption. But this concern is, of course, in itself a one-sided one. For the average citizens of an advanced industrial country are not only and not even mainly – that is, for the greater part of their adult lives – consumers. They are still first of all producers. They still spend an average of at least nine to ten hours a day, five days a week, working or travelling to and from work. If most people sleep eight hours a night, that leaves six hours for consumption, recreation, repose, sexual relations, social intercourse, all taken together.

Here a double constraint arises, with which the champions of ‘consumer freedom’ hardly deal. For the more you multiply the number of needs to be satisfied within a given population, the greater the work-load you demand from the producers at a given level of technology and organization of the labour process. If decisions about this work-load are not taken consciously and democratically by the producers themselves, they are dictatorially imposed on them – whether by Stalin’s inhuman labour legislation or by the ruthless laws of the labour market, with its millions of unemployed today. Surely any advocate of a juster and more humane society should feel as deeply repelled by this tyranny as by that over consumer needs? For the system of ‘rewards and punishments’ through the market, ingenuously extolled by so many on the Left nowadays, is nothing but a thinly disguised despotism over the producers’ time and efforts, and therewith their lives as a whole.

Such rewards and punishments imply not only higher and lower incomes, ‘better’ and ‘worse’ jobs. They also imply periodic lay-offs, the misery of unemployment (including the moral misery of feeling useless as a social being), speed-up, subjection to the stop-watch and the assembly-line, the authoritarian discipline of production squads, nervous and physical health hazards, noise bombardment, alienation from any knowledge of the production process as a whole, the transformation of human beings into mere appendices of machines or computers.

The conclusion to Chibber’s article has a distinctly social democratic ring and even more specifically that of the DSA’s old guard. He advocates: “Any viable left has to also embrace electoral politics as the other node of a two-pronged strategy, in which power at the base is combined with a parliamentary wing, each feeding the other.”

So you have to wonder what that parliamentary wing entails. In the USA, it can only mean one thing—backing the Sanderista movement. In October 21, 2015, Verso published a statement by leading academics calling for support for the Bernie Sanders campaign, which in their words was “committed to a clear and emphatic reassertion of the importance of public goods and the public sector that provides them, including public higher education in particular.”

The signatories constitute a kind of who’s who of the academic left including Vivek Chibber and Walter Benn Michaels, another high priest of Marxist orthodoxy who like Chibber can’t stand the middle-class left with its obsessions over (quoting Chibber) “language, individual identity, body language, consumption habits, and the like.” Back in the 60s and 70s, there were professors who went into industry if they were serious about connecting with the working class, including Hans Ehrbar, the retired U. of Utah economist who makes Marxmail possible. Do you think that people like Chibber would ever take a factory job like Ehrbar did? Nah, the guy is all talk.

Now, this is some bundle of middle-class politics–like a full diaper. For all of Chibber’s Marxist bluster, this guy is an echo chamber for the kind of politics you can find in the rightwing of the DSA, Dissent Magazine, In These Times, et al. I can’t say that I am totally surprised but it must have been a real surprise to Charlie Post who has maintained an ideological bromance with Chibber for over a decade at least.

In Post’s critique of Chibber’s article, he makes sure to lavish praise on this steaming pile of horse manure even if he makes some useful points. But you can see how lame the critique is with the opening words: “Chibber’s call for a ‘cadre party’ rooted in the working class is most welcome.” I suppose so, but when Chibber links to a puff piece on Togliatti in support of such a call, you have to wonder whether Post bothered to check the links. Very poor scholarship, indeed. But when you are in the business of having to offer a serious critique of some really crappy politics but only with kid gloves, you are left with an unenviable task.

Chibber defended himself as only an arrogant don would: “Much of Post’s essay agrees with and repeats what was in mine. But some of it is tendentious, representing claims that aren’t implied in ‘Our Road to Power,’ much less advocated.”

I’ll leave these two to their own devices. These dueling, huffing and puffing, preening male academic peacocks deserve each other.

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