Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

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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