Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 30, 2013

Post gets pasted

Filed under: slavery,transition debate — louisproyect @ 2:44 pm

Charles A. Post

Science and Society, April 2013
The American Path of Bourgeois Development Revisited
by Daniel Gaido

(From the Haymarket author’s page: “Gaido is a researcher at the National Research Council (Conicet) in Argentina. He is the author of The Formative Period of American Capitalism and is currently working on a book on the history of German social democracy.”)

Conclusion

“The American Road to Capitalism” is an attempt to apply to the United Sates Robert Brenner’s model of the transition from feudalism to capitalism in England. According to Brenner, English landlords gave birth to capitalism in the countryside by turning their peasants into tenants in the early 16th century. Since in the United States there was no class of feudal landlords to act as prime movers of an “agrarian” capitalist development, Post makes the merchant-turned-land speculator the demiurge of American capitalism, asserting, against all historical evidence, that this class was able to “impose a social monopoly on land” shortly after the American revolution. The rest of Post’s theses on the American revolution, Southern plantation slavery, the Civil War and reconstruction are just elaborations of this fundamentally mistaken interpretation.

What the historical record shows is that the two American bourgeois revolutions — a notion that Brenner, Post and their fellow “political Marxists” reject — actually facilitated access to the land at nominal prices for white settlers. This widespread landownership amounted to a form of land nationalization that created favorable conditions for capitalist development through the abolition of ground rent, which constitutes a precapitalist barrier to the development of the productive forces under capitalism. This, and the absence of an absolutist state bureaucracy, in turn fostered the generalization of commodity production in the countryside, creating a wide home market for the development of industry in the North, which eventually dominated the Union in the aftermath of the Civil War. That is what Lenin showed in his analysis of the American path of bourgeois development,” which remains the foundation of any materialist approach to American history. Due to the weakness of Marxism in the United States, progress in this field has consisted mostly in setting the “American path of bourgeois development” in its peculiar settler colonialist — i.e., white supremacist — context, but the peculiarities of American capitalist development, their impact on class struggles and, through them, the ways in which those peculiarities shaped American political history largely remain to be explored.

May 29, 2013

Some thoughts on Michael Heinrich versus “the classics”

Filed under: economics — louisproyect @ 6:45 pm

Michael Heinrich

For me, wading into the Michael Heinrich controversy is a little like eating my spinach—it is good for me in the sense that it forces me to engage with an important aspect of Marxology. Although I never would devote as much time to it as other matters of more immediate concern, it at least behooved me to read the long and fairly arcane article in Monthly Review by Heinrich (Crisis Theory, the Law of the Tendency of the Profit Rate to Fall, and Marx’s Studies in the 1870s), Michael Roberts’s reply to the article (Michael Heinrich, Marx’s law and crisis theory) and finally Marx himself.

For those who are first coming around these questions, I would not recommend Heinrich or Roberts. The best bet is Chris Harman’s The rate of profit and the world today, an article that appeared in the Summer 2006 International Socialism journal. While Roberts is more lucid than Heinrich, Harman—who shares Roberts’s adherence to the proposition that there is tendency for the rate of profit to fall–can’t be beat:

Marx’s basic line of argument was simple enough. Each individual capitalist can increase his (or occasionally her) own competitiveness through increasing the productivity of his workers. The way to do this is by using a greater quantity of the “means of production” – tools, machinery and so on – for each worker. There is a growth in the ratio of the physical extent of the means of production to the amount of labour power employed, a ratio that Marx called the “technical composition of capital”.

But a growth in the physical extent of the means of production will also be a growth in the investment needed to buy them. So this too will grow faster than the investment in the workforce. To use Marx’s terminology, “constant capital” grows faster than “variable capital”. The growth of this ratio, which he calls the “organic composition of capital”, [6] is a logical corollary of capital accumulation.

Yet the only source of value for the system as a whole is labour. If investment grows more rapidly than the labour force, it must also grow more rapidly than the value created by the workers, which is where profit comes from. In short, capital investment grows more rapidly than the source of profit. As a consequence, there will be a downward pressure on the ratio of profit to investment – the rate of profit.

Each capitalist has to push for greater productivity in order to stay ahead of competitors. But what seems beneficial to the individual capitalist is disastrous for the capitalist class as a whole. Each time productivity rises there is a fall in the average amount of labour in the economy as a whole needed to produce a commodity (what Marx called “socially necessary labour”), and it is this which determines what other people will eventually be prepared to pay for that commodity. So today we can see a continual fall in the price of goods such as computers or DVD players produced in industries where new technologies are causing productivity to rise fastest.

Heinrich’s main point in the article is to demonstrate that Marx began to doubt his own theory and that was moving toward a new approach:

Several times, Marx makes note of possibilities for the rate of profit to increase, although the value-composition of capital was increasing. In the case of a renewed composition of book III, all of these considerations would have had to find their way into a revision of the chapter on the “Law of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall.” A consistent regard for them should have led to the abandonment of the “law.” Marx also hints at this in a handwritten note he made in his copy of the second edition of volume I, which no longer fits the tendential fall and which Engels incorporated as a footnote in the third and fourth editions: “Note here for working out later: if the extension is only quantitative, then for a greater and a smaller capital in the same branch of business the profits are as the magnitudes of the capitals advanced. If the quantitative extension induces a qualitative change, then the rate of profit on the larger capital rises at the same time.”42

Heinrich also points to Marx’s growing interest in the role of the national banking systems like the Federal Reserve, which obviously can have a major impact on economic crises. Furthermore, if the banks can play such an important role, then any theory on crisis must take into account the role of the state as well. One thing, however, struck me as a bit of a puzzle. He states that Marx sought to develop a new approach on crisis that included the role of the world market but was still “of the opinion that he had to initially abstract from relations on the world market.”

Really?

Part three of Volume 3 of Capital, which is titled “The Law of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall”, includes chapter fourteen that has the intriguing title “Counteracting Influences”. That chapter mentions foreign trade as one of the “counteracting influences” that mitigates against the tendency of the rate of profit to fall is Foreign Trade. Marx writes:

Capitals invested in foreign trade can yield a higher rate of profit, because, in the first place, there is competition with commodities produced in other countries with inferior production facilities, so that the more advanced country sells its goods above their value even though cheaper than the competing countries. In so far as the labour of the more advanced country is here realised as labour of a higher specific weight, the rate of profit rises, because labour which has not been paid as being of a higher quality is sold as such.

Just as a manufacturer who employs a new invention before it becomes generally used, undersells his competitors and yet sells his commodity above its individual value, that is, realises the specifically higher productiveness of the labour he employs as surplus-labour. He thus secures a surplus-profit. As concerns capitals invested in colonies, etc., on the other hand, they may yield higher rates of profit for the simple reason that the rate of profit is higher there due to backward development, and likewise the exploitation of labour, because of the use of slaves, coolies, etc.

I don’t know about you but these two paragraphs are a revelation to me. I had always assumed that Marx had little interest in what would later be referred to as imperialism or what Arrighi called “unequal exchange” but this is a pretty clear statement that the mother country can avoid the consequences of the overproduction of capital through the superexploitation of colonies. He puts it quite succinctly: “As concerns capitals invested in colonies, etc., on the other hand, they may yield higher rates of profit for the simple reason that the rate of profit is higher there due to backward development, and likewise the exploitation of labour, because of the use of slaves, coolies, etc.”

Interestingly enough, this is pretty much the same tack taken by Henryk Grossman, who is generally regarded as the early 20th century’s key defender of classical Marxist economics, including the tendency of a falling rate of profit. In his case, the reference to the world market as a countervailing tendency was even more specific.

In Grossman’s “The Law of Accumulation and Collapse of the Capitalist System”, there’s a chapter titled “Restoring Profitability through World Market Domination” that pretty much jibes with Marx’s analysis.

He points a highly revealing passage in chapter 21 of Marx’s “Theories of Surplus Value” that establishes foreign trade as a sine qua non for capital accumulation:

But it is only foreign trade, the development of the market to a world market, which causes money to develop into world money and abstract labour into social labour. Abstract wealth, value, money, hence abstract labour, develop in the measure that concrete labour becomes a totality of different modes of labour embracing the world market.

“Thus”, according to Grossman, “the limits on the production of surplus value are extended; the breakdown of capitalism is postponed.”

In the subsection titled “Foreign trade and the sale of commodities at prices of production deviating from values”, Grossman makes a strong relationship between the ability of the capitalist system to extract super-profits from the colonial world where the organic composition of capital is lower. In other words, he is calling attention to the presence of the production of absolute surplus value (lengthened work-day, child labor, etc.) in countries such as India or the Congo. In industrialized countries, the production of relative surplus value is facilitated by the wide-scale use of advanced technologies which enables the imperialist countries to dominate the markets in Asia, Africa and Latin America even as they have a tendency to lead to a higher organic composition of capital and long-term profit decreases. He writes:

International trade is not based on an exchange of equivalents because, as on the national market, there is a tendency for rates of profit to be equalised. The commodities of the advanced capitalist country with the higher organic composition will therefore be sold at prices of production higher than value; those of the backward country at prices of production lower than value. This would mean the formation of an average rate of profit of 18.5 per cent so that European commodities will sell for a price of 118.5 instead of 116. In this way circulation on the world market involves transfers of surplus value from the less developed to the more developed capitalist countries because the distribution of surplus value is determined not by the number of workers employed in each country but by the size of the functioning capital.

Grossman continues:

In effect price formation on the world market is governed by the same principles that apply under a conceptually isolated capitalism. The latter anyway is merely a theoretical model; the world market, as a unity of specific national economies, is something real and concrete. Today the prices of the most important raw materials and final products are determined internationally, in the world market. We are no longer confronted by a national level of prices but a level determined on the world market [emphasis added.] In a conceptually isolated capitalism entrepreneurs with an above average technology make a surplus profit (a rate of profit above the average) when they sell their commodities at socially average prices. Likewise on the world market, the technologically advanced countries make a surplus profit at the cost of the technologically less developed ones.

This paragraph is about as succinct a definition of imperialism as you are going to find. And once again, Grossman finds support for his analysis in Marx’s writings—in this case the very chapter of Volume 3 of Capital that deals with foreign trade as a countervailing tendency. And finally, Grossman refers to “unequal exchange” specifically as defining the relationship between a dominant nation like Britain and one dominated, like India:

In the examples cited above the gain of the more advanced capitalist countries consists in a transfer of profit from the less developed countries. it is irrelevant whether the latter are capitalist or non-capitalist. It is not a question of the realisation of surplus value but of additional surplus value which is obtained through competition on the world market through unequal exchange, or exchange of non-equivalents [emphasis added].

I suppose my problem with the debate between Michael Heinrich and his detractors is that there is so little attention paid to this dimension. Andrew Kliman, Michael Roberts, and the other “classic” Marxists are totally absorbed in what happens in a country like the U.S. or Britain, as if the most recent crisis was a sign of a mounting inability of capitalism to continue—functioning in some way as a machine that has faulty parts at the core, like the Yugo or the Edsel.

Heinrich is correct, I suppose, to point to deficiencies in this approach but does not do enough to acknowledge that Marx understood how the system could continue going forward mercilessly and relentlessly to maintain profits. A look at the recent fires in Bangladesh should be sufficient to make that case.

May 28, 2013

David Bromwich’s miscues on Syria

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 10:38 pm

David Bromwich, a Yale literature professor, is one of my favorite political commentators, with an especially keen eye on Barack Obama’s cynically plutocratic policies.

That being said, I do have a bit of a bone to pick with him over an article of his on the New York Review website titled Stay out of Syria. Since the magazine has been a champion of “humanitarian interventions” in the past (Michael Ignatieff pushed for making war on Iraq early on there, and before that the magazine was Serbophobia, Inc.), it is of some note that they are publishing such an article. It goes hand in hand, I supposed, with Dissent Magazine’s laptop bombardier Michael Walzer urging the president to continue with a “dithering” approach.

Of course, if the intention is to avoid an Iraq-style invasion, nobody can question the wisdom of staying out—even though there are no signs that after two years American imperialism has any interest in supporting the “moderate” rebels whose leader has said: “Iran’s possession of nuclear capabilities poses no threat to any Sunni but it will be a formidable deterrent to the evil powers that are rushing madly upon the Muslim World.”

To some extent, the analytical errors in David’s article are probably a function of relying on the bourgeois press, which reflecting the “dithering” approach of the president is keen to find any excuse to allow the status quo to continue.

For example, David echoes the al-Nusra Front = al-Qaeda line that is dominant in the US press. I would recommend that he pay closer attention to alternative journalism that incorporates a far more sophisticated understanding of the “jihadist” problem, Scott Lucas’s Enduring America Worldview in particular.

Scott’s treatment of the al-Qaeda linkage is indispensable.

For weeks, we have noted how the media and “experts” have used one paragraph from the statement of a leader of the Islamist faction Jabhat al-Nusra — ripping it out of context of the rest of the statement, let alone developments on the ground or an understanding of the Syria conflict — reducing the group to the simplistic tags of “Al Qa’eda-linked” or “Al Qa’eda affiliate”.

For the full story, go here.

David’s warnings about the jihadist threat in Syria are based on a McClatchy’s article by Nancy Youssef titled “Middle East in turmoil 10 years after Iraq invasion that officials said would bring peace” that calls attention to a leaflet distributed by al-Nusra Front rebels that urged the residents of Raqqa, the first provincial capital to fall to anti-Baathist rebels, to “beware of democracy”, giving one the impression that the city had become some kind of menacing lair of bearded fanatic, Sharia-ruled dictatorship.

In fact the city belies this image, if you read a recent article in the New Yorker Magazine by Rania Abouzeid reporting from Raqqa. Despite Jon Lee Anderson, the magazine does let a useful item slip by from time to time. Despite the Islamist warnings about democracy, the city appeared to be far freer than those under Baathist rule, as this debate over the Islamist black flag would indicate:

“With this banner you have cleaved us from our country Syria,” Abu Moayad said. “Why is it here? We are not an Islamic emirate; we are part of Syria. This is a religious banner, not a country’s flag.”

The Jabhat member leaned forward and looked the older man in the eyes. “This is a lack of self-esteem, something we were conditioned to feel toward our religion by a regime that didn’t let us practice it,” he said. “Do you know how many people a day come to offer loyalty to us, to try and join us?”

At that, Abu Moayad lost his temper. He stood up, moved a few steps across the room toward the young masked man, and wagged a finger in his face: “The Syrian revolution rose up to step on Bashar’s neck, but I swear I am with Bashar against this flag!” he yelled. “That is how strongly I feel about it! You are causing fitna [internal divisions]!”

The young man remained seated. “What did you do for the revolution?” he asked.

“I used to transport ammunition smuggled from Iraq to towns in Raqqa province.”

“That’s great, thank you,” said the Jabhat member. He seemed slightly taken aback by an answer he didn’t appear to have expected. “But why do you say that this flag will cause fitna and all of the problems of the Free Army—the thieving and the looting—aren’t fitna?”

The comment only enraged Abu Moayad. “Whoever wrote this is a Zionist!” he said, grabbing the black-banner leaflet out of Abu Noor’s hands.

David also ensures us that the talk about Bashar al-Assad using chemical weapons amounts to Judith Miller type reporting in the build-up to the war in Iraq.

On April 26, for example, a story by Mark Landler and Eric Schmitt was entitled “White House Says Syria Has Used Chemical Arms.” The factual substance of the article was ambiguous, and its headline might more accurately have read: “Chemical Weapons Used in Syria. US Uncertain of Source.”

Well, in just over a month we are a lot more certain about the source. A long and very detailed article in Le Monde makes the case that al-Assad has been using chemical weapons even if earlier reports of Sarin gas were unfounded.

In the northern part of Jobar, which was struck by a similar attack, General Abu Mohammad Al-Kurdi, commander of the Free Syrian Army’s first division (which groups five brigades), said that his men saw government soldiers leave their positions just before other men ‘wearing chemical protection suits’ surged forward and set ‘little bombs, like mines’ on the ground that began giving off a chemical product.

The blogger Brown Moses, whose articles on weaponry in the Syrian civil war are highly regarded, provided even more confirmation.

Now of course the fact that the Baathist dictatorship is using illegal weapons is no excuse for an Iraq-style invasion of Syria but it behooves those writing about Syria to avoid making facile comparisons with Bush’s war. The simple fact is that the opposition to al-Assad is not the kind that American imperialism trusts, no matter if John McCain sits down with it. To get a real idea of what policy-makers have in mind, it’s worth taking a look at a recent article in the LA Times. This appears to be the form that “humanitarian intervention” will take, using the same kind of excuses about Sharia law, oppression of women, etc. that were made for going into Afghanistan. It is of some interest that the LA Times cites Amnesty International, an outfit that spread the Hill and Knowlton “throwing the babies out of the incubators” hoax that led to the first Gulf War. Amnesty, of course, is one of the NY Review’s favorite human rights authorities.

CIA begins sizing up Islamic extremists in Syria for drone strikes

The strategy is part of the agency’s secret contingency planning to protect the U.S. and its allies as the violence there grows. Some militants in Syria are seen as closely linked to Al Qaeda.

March 15, 2013|By Ken Dilanian and Brian Bennett, Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — The CIA has stepped up secret contingency planning to protect the United States and its allies as the turmoil expands in Syria, including collecting intelligence on Islamic extremists for the first time for possible lethal drone strikes, according to current and former U.S. officials.

The increased U.S. effort comes as radicalized Islamic fighters have won a growing share of rebel victories. The State Department says one of the strongest militias, Al Nusra Front, is a terrorist organization that is indistinguishable from the group Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Amnesty International reported Thursday that some Syrian opposition fighters routinely executed captives and suspected informants, although the group said Assad’s security forces were even more brutal.

May 23, 2013

Bhaskar Sunkara’s vain hopes

Filed under: liberalism,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 3:32 pm

Bhaskar Sunkara

In the latest Nation Magazine there’s a remarkable article by Jacobin publisher Bhaskar Sunkara that performs a tightrope act that bashes the hoary voice of American liberalism even as it provides it a safety net.

If nothing else, it is a relief to see the awful Melissa Harris-Perry reprimanded for trying to perform a tightrope act of her own as she staked out a position in between the Chicago teachers and Rahm Emanuel, writing at the time of the strike that children were victims of a struggle “between the leaders and teachers who are supposed to have their best interests at heart but who seem willing to allow this generation to be lost.”

I seldom watch MSNBC nowadays but was appalled to see Comrade Harris-Perry advise her viewers a few days ago that the scandals bubbling up around Obama were simply Republican plots to turn minor peccadilloes into Watergate type offenses. It was literally no different than hearing from the White House press secretary.

The main thrust of Sunkara’s article is to rebuild the kind of coalition that FDR’s New Deal symbolized as a partnership between liberals and radicals:

Which is to say that the left needs a plan—a plan that must incorporate more moderate allies. American radicalism has had a complex and at times contradictory association with liberalism. At the peak of the socialist movement, leftists fed off liberal victories. Radicals, in turn, have added coherence and punch to every key liberal struggle and advance of the past century. Such a mutually beneficial alliance could be in the works again. The first step is to smash the existing liberal coalition and rebuild it on a radically different basis.

What’s missing from this proposal is a sober assessment of the class forces that made New Deal partnerships between the Democrats and radicals possible. Just as the power of the industrial capitalists of the North made a coalition of Republican Party radicals and moderates possible when the Nation was launched as an abolitionist magazine, the New Deal rested on the basis that FDR’s economic program was good for the same bourgeoisie. Consider the make-up of the NRA (the national recovery administration, not the mouth-breathing gun fetishists) at its outset. Hugh Johnson, an adviser to Bernard Baruch who apparently admired Mussolini’s corporatist policies that made the trains run on time, was its first administrator. In 1932 it was in the class interests of the big bourgeoisie to have an “activist” President even if many of its most powerful players had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the fold.

After the recovery of Japan and Germany in the post-WWII period, the prospects for American industry became problematic. Some sectors remained vibrant (computers, farm equipment, finance) while others went down the tubes (auto, steel, textiles). While it is difficult to generalize about the future of American capitalism—a task that I will leave to contributors to Socialist Register—it does seem troubling that Obama counted Ronald Reagan as an inspirational figure. Considering his obvious bid to carve a big hole in two of the major gains of the New Deal and Great Society—Social Security and Medicare—one has to wonder what good is left in the Democratic Party. No matter how many complaints you hear from a John Conyers or a Nation Magazine editorial for that matter, it is doubtful that the liberal wing of the Democratic Party will serve as a speed bump in this mad race to return to the days of McKinley—not to speak of what is really necessary, a spike strip.

Bhaskar points to the gathering forces that might serve as foot soldiers in a campaign to return the Democratic Party to its truly liberal roots:

The present context on the socialist left is one of institutional disarray but critical vibrancy, not unlike the moment that fueled leftist milieus in the early 1960s, when journals like Studies on the Left anticipated the upsurges that were soon to come, but groups like the Socialist Party of America were in terminal decline. Current literary journals like n+1 have taken a turn toward the political through engagement with Occupy Wall Street, while radical thinkers like Vivek Chibber, Doug Henwood and Kathi Weeks are finding broad new audiences for their work. A younger cohort is emerging as well. This generation of Marxist intellectuals is resurrecting debates about the reduction of working time, exploring the significance of new forms of labor, and arguing about the ways a democratic society would harness technological advance to universal material benefit, while avoiding ecological ruin.

As I have the dubious distinction of being old enough to remember the period described above as an active participant, there are dimensions that are missing in Bhaskar’s bird’s eye view of history. To start with, the early 60s owed more to the civil rights movement than journals like Studies on the Left. I first became aware of the left through my girlfriend Elizabeth in 1965 who was the leader of CORE at Bard College. With thousands of young people going South to fight Jim Crow, it was possible for those not quite so committed to feel that history was moving in a progressive direction. Essentially the civil rights movement was a class movement. That being the case, what is the equivalent today? Al Sharpton, reputed to be an FBI snitch, defending Obama’s every reactionary initiative on MSNBC?

It is also important to keep in mind that SDS was a project that grew out of the League for Industrial Democracy, a group founded in 1905 by Upton Sinclair, Jack London and other Debs era figures. In the early 60s the AFL-CIO was solidly behind the Student League for Industrial Democracy, the forerunner of SDS. The labor movement of the early 60s also lent its institutional muscle to the civil rights movement.

Even if this AFL-CIO was capable of fostering the growth of movements that would constitute the shock troops of the 60s radicalization, it was creating the foundations of its own demise through its partnership with the big bourgeoisie. With George McGovern’s loss to Nixon in 1972, the party of the “left” would become transformed into what amounted to Republican Party lite. Every single Democratic candidate since McGovern has run on a program that either explicitly or implicitly targets the very foundations of the New Deal. In effect, the transformation of the Democratic Party mirrors that of the Republican Party in 1877 when it concluded a deal with the Democrats to dump Reconstruction.

If all this sounds bleak, I must apologize. But I believe that the left has to proceed on the basis of an honest assessment of the objective conditions not rosy-hued self-deception. The Occupy movement gave us a sense of new directions in American politics and more surprises might be in store down the road. Our biggest mistake at this point would be to attempt to breathe new life into the maggot-ridden remains of American liberalism as represented through the Democratic Party whose chief leader has shamelessly defended his right to murder American citizens without offering proof of their crimes and who assembles committees on “entitlements” that are run by Peter Peterson’s acolytes. Enough is enough.

May 21, 2013

Hannah Arendt

Filed under: bard college,Fascism,Film,philosophy — louisproyect @ 5:53 pm

Arguably Hannah Arendt was the first target of an organized campaign by the Israeli lobby. As was the case with the late Tony Judt, it did not matter that she was pro-Israel. By stepping outside the bounds of the ideological consensus, she became guilty of Orwellian thoughtcrimes. If for no other reason, this conflict is reason enough to see Margerethe von Trotta’s “Hannah Arendt” that opens on May 29th at the Film Forum in New York. As a film that takes politics and morality seriously, it is like nothing I have seen in a very long time and that makes Spielberg’s film on Lincoln look shallow by comparison. Essentially von Trotta’s film consists of people in their sixties and seventies arguing about Nazism and the right of the Jews to mount a show trial. But what people they were.

As Hannah Arendt, Barbara Sukowa is phenomenal. (It should be stated that her attempt to affect a Hollywood version of a German accent despite being German was a directorial miscue by von Trotta. It was a bit like Marlon Brando’s German accent in “The Young Lions”. Once you get used to it, however, it hardly matters.) This is the kind of role that Sukowa has long experience with. She played Rosa Luxemburg in another von Trotta biopic as well as Mieze in Fassbinder’s masterpiece “Berlin Alexanderplatz”, based on the novel by the leftist Alfred Döblin who also wrote “Karl and Rosa”, about Liebknecht and Luxemburg.

The film begins with Arendt finding out about the Eichmann trial from an article in the NY Times. She then approaches William Shawn, the editor of the New Yorker magazine, with a proposal. She would go to Jerusalem and cover the trial.

A salon at her Riverside Drive apartment just before her trip leads to a quarrel between her and her husband Heinrich Blücher on one side and New School philosophy professor Hans Jonas on the other. The Blüchers worry that the Israelis are using the trial for propaganda purposes while Jonas is loath to find fault with Israel on any score. Of course, his decades long Zionist past would explain this.

This salon would have taken place in 1961, at exactly the same time I was enrolled in Hans Blücher’s Common Course at Bard College. This was a required “great books” survey that allowed Blücher—a high school dropout and former member of the German Communist Party—to philosophize about politics and morality. His defense of Socrates galvanized me in a way as nothing had ever before. From the minute I heard his defense of the need to put truth above the exigencies of citizenship, it made it a lot easier for me to become a socialist six years later at the very moment I was a student of Hans Jonas at the New School. Oddly enough, despite Blücher’s anti-Communism, he paved the way for me to become a communist.

When taking a seminar on Kant with Jonas in 1967, I came up with the idea of writing a term paper on Kant’s categorical imperative as an extension of his subject driven epistemology. After getting an A in the course, I was approached by Jonas at a gathering at his home in New Rochelle on a Sunday afternoon and encouraged to continue with my PhD studies. But a few months later I would drop out of the New School in order to focus on my activism in the Trotskyist movement after the spirit of Blücher in the 1920s—an avid reader of Leon Trotsky. I saw my categorical imperative as one of making the socialist revolution. Anything else was an escape from duty.

The film takes up Arendt’s affair with Martin Heidegger who comes across more as an absent-minded professor than a mouth-breathing Nazi ideologue. In one of the film’s more dramatic moments, you see her and Heidegger strolling through a German forest after WWII where she urges him to beg forgiveness from the world for his evil past.

Although it would be impossible for the film to deal with all of the tangled philosophical connections between the principals, it should be mentioned that Hans Jonas was a student of Heidegger’s as well. Furthermore his critique of technology owes much to Heidegger. With respect to Heidegger’s reputation as an anti-Semite and avid National Socialist, Hans Jonas paints an entirely different picture in his memoir and one that is consistent with the somewhat bumbling and pathetic characterization in von Trotta’s film.

Still, I was the only Zionist among his students. At least to my knowledge no one else among the Jewish Heidegger disciples was a supporter of Zionism—on the contrary. I did run into some of them later in Palestine, but they didn’t choose to go at a time when you still had a choice. Probably Heidegger thought there just happened to be such dreamers among the Jews, and his student Hans, on whose dissertation he’d conferred the highest praise teacher could give a student, namely summa cum laude, was one of those dreamers and would eventually go off to Palestine. So a Heidegger student would establish himself in Palestine and perhaps spread his teachings there, The thought that his standing in Germany might suffer as a result of many Jews leaving or being forced to leave apparently didn’t occur to him, Heidegger was in no way prepared for such a thing. I should mention, too, that here and there he even helped Jewish students of his. For instance, Paul Oskar Kristellar later said in New York that he had nothing against Heidegger because when he emigrated to Italy, Heidegger sent letters of recommendation that helped him find a position there.’ No — Heidegger wasn’t personal antisemite. Presumably it felt a little uncanny to him that so many of his students were Jewish, but more in the sense that it was somewhat one sided, that there weren’t enough others who were more like him. The only discussion of antisemitism in his immediate surroundings came up when word got out that his wife had belonged to the nationalist youth movement. Perhaps she nagged him occasionally, saying, “Martin, why do you act deaf and dumb? Why are you constantly surrounded by young Jews?”

After her articles begin appearing in the New Yorker, Arendt becomes a lightning rod. A neighbor in her Riverside Drive high-rise sticks a letter under her door accusing her of being a Nazi. The administration at the New School demands that she stop giving her courses. In defiance she goes ahead with the class. She goes to a meeting about her book where a young Norman Podhoretz denounces her. Her best friend Mary McCarthy makes her entrance just as Podhoretz is at his most venomous and twists him into a knot. Although the characterization of McCarthy veers too far in the direction of comic relief and paints her too much as a gum-chewing, wisecracking Eve Arden type (my younger readers will have to google this for more information), her presence is essential since it is a reminder that there were some intellectuals who had the guts to stand up to the Israel lobby at the time.

Back in 1961 I had no idea that Hans Blücher was married to Hannah Arendt and even less of an idea that she was covering the Eichmann trial. I can’t remember if I was reading the N.Y. Times back then but even if I had I would be far more interested in reviews of jazz musicians or movies than current events.

A few years later as the “sixties” began to erupt, young radicals embraced Arendt’s theory of the “banality of evil” even if they may have not been fully engaged with her wariness over the project of revolution. This excerpt from Elizabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography gives you a flavor for the mood at the time.

The young Jew who sent Arendt a report on this meeting [about her book] commented that Eichmann in Jerusalem seemed to have stirred up a generational conflict within the Jewish community. This conflict was made public when Norman Fruchter published a piece called “Arendt’s Eichmann and Jewish Identity” in Studies on the Left. Fruchter’s was the voice of the young Jewish radicals who found in Arendt’s work both a rebellion against “the myth of the victim which Jews tend to substitute for their history” and an analysis of what “citizen responsibility [is] necessary in every modern state to prevent the reemergence of the totalitarian movement which ravaged Germany.” He wrote at the moment when comparisons between Germany of the 1930s and America of the 1960s were becoming common among the New Left—to the consternation of the Old Left. A year earlier, James Weinstein had published a piece called “Nach Goldwasser Uns?” [After Goldwaer, us?] in which the comparison was made explicit: “There are, indeed, many similarities between American society today and that of Germany in the years before and during Nazi rule.” Eichmann became a symbol: “Like so many American bureaucrats and military men, Eichmann emerges from Miss Arendt’s account as a man of very limited ideological commitment.” Over such speeches as the one Carl Oglesby delivered at the 1965 SANE march on Washington, the New and the Old Left parted company: “Think of all the men who now engineer that war [in Vietnam],” said Oglesby, “those who study the maps, give the commands, push the buttons, and tally the dead: Bundy, McNamara, Rusk, Lodge, Goldberg, the President [Johnson] himself. They are not moral monsters. They are all honorable men. They are all liberals. “

Finally, the film should encourage those with a critical bent to look deeper into the arrest of Eichmann itself, something that would be beyond the scope of von Trotta’s film. The Mossad’s abrogation of international law through its kidnapping of Eichmann is certainly a precedent for actions that have become synonymous with the “war on terror”, including Obama’s kill-list.

What is of particular interest was the behind-the-scenes arrangement between Israel and West Germany that made David Ben-Gurion’s moral posturing look as hypocritical as any of the words coming out of LBJ’s mouth.

In 2011 secret documents revealed that the German government and the CIA knew the whereabouts of many former Nazis including Hans Globke, who was the Chancellery Chief of Staff and a close advisor to Chancellor Adenauer at the time of the trial. In a quid pro quo deal, the West Germans promised weapons if Globke’s name was not brought up in the Eichmann trial.

Der Spiegel reported:

But Israel needed the financial aid, the submarines and the tanks, and German Defense Minister Franz Josef Strauss, who had also negotiated the arms shipments directly with Ben-Gurion, left no doubt that the Israelis were to protect Bonn’s reputation if they wanted weapons: “I have told my contacts that it is a matter of course that if the Federal Republic supports the security of Israel, it will not be held collectively liable, morally, politically or journalistically, for the crimes of a past generation in connection with the Eichmann trial.”

The Israelis had shown “understanding and responsiveness” for this position, Strauss reported. And so it happened that the question of how the Nazis had managed to involve significant portions of German society in the Holocaust was largely ignored.

“We only introduced information into the trial that was relevant for Eichmann,” says Gabriel Bach, the last remaining member of prosecution team still alive today. The Globke issue, he adds, simply wasn’t relevant.

May 18, 2013

Bidder 70

Filed under: Ecology,energy — louisproyect @ 5:12 pm

As one of the more counter-intuitive economics departments in the United States, the University of Utah has not only been the long-time host of the Marxmail server but also where Tim DeChristopher was a graduate student. When you first take a look at Tim’s face in the documentary “Bidder 70” that opened yesterday at the Quad in New York without knowing anything about him in advance, you might assume that he was just another conservative Mormon student especially with his military-style haircut.

It turns out that he was one of the most courageous and principled civil disobedience activists in recent American history, standing in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King Jr. The title of the film refers to Tim’s taking part in an oil and gas lease auction on December 19, 2008 in which he bid $1.8 million for 14 parcels of land without any intention of paying for them. Although there was a well-organized environmental movement in Utah to protect the pristine land that was at stake, he decided to put his body on the line and face the consequences. And some consequences they were. He faced up to 10 years in prison and $750,000 in fines.

Since Tim was from West Virginia, he knew first-hand what energy corporation despoliation of the wilderness amounted to. Mountaintop removal in that state has generated enormous profits for the coal companies while leaving the water and forest ruined forever. Not only is there an injury to the natural world, there are few benefits economically to the working class. In one scene, where Tim returns to survey the latest damage, a long-time environmentalist tells him that in the richest parts of the state from a corporate standpoint, the local businesses remain hanging on a thread. And once the coal is gone, the small businesses and population become totally superfluous.

While I paid close attention to the incident that led to Tim’s arrest, I realized that I had heard little about the case in the intervening months. This led me to sit at the edge of my seat in suspense wondering whether he would have to spend a decade in prison. Usually I don’t mind including a “spoiler” in my film reviews, but in this case will not include one since it would rob the documentary of its powerful dramatic tension.

The film is not only valuable for telling Tim’s story but that of the movement in Utah as well. You hear from dedicated activists and see how they organize their creative and compelling protests. While Utah might seem like the sleepy boondocks to people living in blue state America, the truth is that it is in the vanguard. This might be expected since the stakes are so high. As one of the most beautiful and environmentally endowed states in the country, its citizens would have to be sick with shortsighted greed not to take a stand against energy company rape.

Of course, there are those who don’t mind seeing Utah suffer the same fate as West Virginia, starting with a Democratic Party Congressman who is in the back pocket of the energy companies. Tim and his comrades support a more progressive candidate against him in the primaries but the immense wealth of the corporate polluters make electoral bids almost futile.

“Bidder 70” is a character-driven documentary that is a success on its own terms but one might have hoped for more expert testimony on the environmental issues that provide the backdrop for Tim’s heroic intervention. It probably would have to be the subject of another film unless a decision had been made to double the length of the film.

There is little doubt that if the public was aware of the disaster that it awaits it because of global warming, it would be driven to offer vocal support for Tim DeChristopher as well as other leading figures such as Bill McKibben and James Hansen who are seen in the film.

At one point Tim expresses his worries over the mounting presence of greenhouse gases. At the time of the filming, he said that we were rapidly approaching the tipping point of 380 parts per million of carbon dioxide. Just a week or so before the film opened at the Quad in New York, the news came out that we were now at 400 ppm.

On Democracy Now, climate change expert Michael Mann spoke about what this meant:

So, this number, 400 parts per million, what does it mean? It’s the number of molecules of CO2 for every million molecules of air; 400 of them are now CO2. Just two centuries ago, that number was only 280 parts per million. So if we continue to add carbon to the atmosphere at current rates, we’ll reach a doubling of the pre-industrial levels of CO2 within the next few decades.

Now, 400, what does that round number, 400, mean? Well, what it means is that, as you alluded to, we have to go several million years back in time to find a point in earth’s history where CO2 was as high as it is now. And, of course, we’re just blowing through this 400 ppm limit. If we continue to burn fossil fuels at accelerating rates, if we continue with business as usual, we will cross the 450 parts per million limit in a matter of maybe a couple decades. We believe that with that amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, we commit to what can truly be described as dangerous and irreversible changes in our climate.

So, what we are already witnessing, in fact, the effects of climate change. If we look at the past year here in the U.S., last summer, the record heat, the record drought, the record wildfire that destroyed large forest areas in Colorado, New Mexico. We saw, you know, tremendous damage to our crops in the breadbasket of the country. We saw Arctic sea ice diminish to the lowest level we’ve ever seen, and it’s on a trajectory where there will be no ice in the Arctic at the end of the summer in perhaps a matter of 10 years or so. We also saw the devastation of Superstorm Sandy. Now, we can’t say that Hurricane Sandy was caused by climate change, but many of its characteristics are precisely the kinds of characteristics that we predict tropical storms and hurricanes will have if we continue to warm the planet. We will see more destructive tropical storms. We’ll see more flooding. We’ll see more drought. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, because, remember, we’ve only just crossed 400 now. We will reach 450 ppm in a matter of a couple decades if we continue with business as usual.

Who knows how many will die because of the consequences of global warming? One expert predicts as many as 100 million. Ironically, “Bidder 70” connected to “Hannah Arendt”, the film I saw the day before. Based on actual footage of the Eichmann trial, it takes up the question of the “banality of evil”. If six million Jews died because of a combination of anti-Semitism and bureaucratic indifference, who could deny that the ethical path practically forced on Germans in the 1930s was resistance to Hitler, including the young people who posted anti-Nazi posters in the name of the White Rose. While we by no means face the same kind of killing machine as the Nazi state, there are huge risks involved in standing up to the bureaucratic petro-military machine. Tim DeChristopher is the living embodiment of White Rose values.

May 17, 2013

Heinrich Blücher: street-fighting man

Filed under: Germany,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 9:07 pm

Heinrich Blücher

It was an eerie experience sitting through the press screening for Margarethe von Trotta’s “Hannah Arendt” at the Film Forum yesterday, a biopic that focuses on her reporting from the Eichmann trial with some flashbacks to her early affair with Heidegger.

Two of the major characters in the film were Heinrich Blücher and Hans Jonas, two professors I knew from Bard College and the New School Graduate Philosophy department respectively. I can’t say that I knew them all that well on a personal level but their teaching had a profound effect on my thinking.

This was especially true of Blücher whose insistence that principle and truth always trumped patriotism and the state, frequently citing the trial of Socrates in his Common Course, a humanities type required class. After discovering from von Trotta’s film notes that Blücher had been in the German CP in the 20s, I decided to stop by the Columbia University library and take out a few books that will help me prepare an in-depth article on the film. As is always the case with me, ideas take priority over tracking shots.

One of the books was Elizabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography of Hannah Arendt that was written in 1982. I had mixed feelings about her value since I knew her only from her hatchet job on Hugo Chavez.

To my utter amazement, I discovered that Blücher was a major player in the revolutionary struggles that were hobbled by Comintern “advice”. I only wish that I could get my hands on a time machine and travel back to 1963 and talk to him about what he saw and did. Back then I was too apolitical to know where to begin but now understand a lot better why he was so insistent on my writing an analysis of the Communist Manifesto. Fifty years ago my heart was in Camus and cannabis. It took an imperialist war to put me on the same path that Blücher had followed when he was my age.

From Elizabeth Young-Bruehl’s “Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World”:

Hannah Arendt had been eleven years old when her mother took her to the Konigsberg demonstrations in support of the Spartacists. She was thirty years old when she walked through the streets of Paris to watch the 1936 demonstrations in support of the Front Populaire government under the leadership of the Jewish Socialist, Leon Blum. Most of the political awareness she had developed in the intervening years had come in the context of her relationship with Kurt Blumenfeld and his concern with the Jewish Question. With Heinrich Blücher as her teacher, she added to her preliminary reading of Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky a feeling for “revolutionary praxis.” Blücher—not a university man but a proletarian, not a theorist but a man of action, not a Jew but a man for whom thinking was a kind of religion—was Hannah Arendt’s New World. Ten years after they met, she summarized what Blücher had meant to her intellectually, in response to words of praise Jaspers had bestowed on her own cosmopolitan and impartial political vision: “That I learned from my husband’s political thinking and historical observation, and I would not have come to it otherwise, for I was historically and politically oriented toward the Jewish Question.”

During those ten years, from 1936 to 1946, Hannah Arendt continued to concern herself with the Jewish Question, but what she learned from Blücher became, after the Second World War, central to the political philosophizing that animated The Origins of Totalitarianism, The Human Condition, Between Past and Future, On Revolution, On Violence, and Crises of the Republic. The learning relationship was not, however, completely one-way. Blücher, an avid reader of Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky, and Bukharin, and a convinced Communist, slowly gave up his Communism and became an incisive critic of doctrinaire Marxism. While Hannah Arendt was being introduced to revolutionary politics in Konigsberg, Heinrich Blücher was twenty years old and fighting as a Spartacist in the streets of Berlin. The stories he told her of his political past shaped her vision, both critical and constructive, her understanding of resistance and revolution, and her theory of republicanism. Blücher’s stories are not easy to reconstruct: he was hesitant to tell them, particularly after he had entered America without admitting on his immigration documents that he had been a Communist, and he was given to exaggerating and embroidering what he did tell. In Heinrich Blücher, the combination of cautiousness and hyperbole was always an astonishment. Those members of the Arendt-Blücher tribe who had known him since his youth understood his storytelling for what it was—a way of finding meaning in a chaotic world. His devotees were unskeptical, and his detractors charged him with mythomania. In truth, had he had a gift for writing equal to his gift for talking, he would have made a fine novelist.

Heinrich Friedrich Ernest Blücher was born on 29 January 1899 in southwest Berlin. His father, who had an equally long and historically weighty name, August Charles Heinrich Blücher, died in a factory accident several months before his only child’s birth. Klara Emilie Wilke Blücher raised her son alone. He attended a Volkeschule and helped his mother, who made her living as a laundress, by acting as delivery boy until he was able to continue his study at a preparatory school for teachers. In 1917, the First World War interrupted his studies, and a period in an army hospital with gas poisoning interrupted his scheduled sojourn in an officer’s training program.

When the October 1918 armistice was signed, Blücher, who was nineteen, returned to Berlin and joined one of the Soldatenräte, the Soldiers’ Councils, which, with the Workers’ Councils, participated in the day of rioting on 9 November 1918 that ended with the proclamation of the German Republic. The German army had surrendered in the Forest of Compiegne and the troops returned to Germany at the beginning of December. Shortly afterward, on December 16, a National Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils met in Berlin and passed a number of startling resolutions designed to create a People’s army from the defeated German troops. In the hectic days that followed, these demands were largely ignored. On Christmas Eve, a battle between the Imperial army and a rebellious naval unit, helped by several thousand Berliners brought to the scene by the Spartacists, ended with the Imperial army in retreat. On Christmas Day, the Spartacists and another huge crowd took over the offices of the Socialists’ paper Vorwarts and used its presses to issue the call “All power to the workers and soldiers!” The Spartacist leaders, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, agreed to a merger of their group with various small groups who had repudiated the new Socialist government, and a labor unit called the Revolutionary Shop Stewards. The merger gave birth to a new party in the last week of 1918: the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). Blücher, who had joined the Spartacists, joined the party.

The Communist party came into existence in the middle of a bitterly cold winter.  The Allies continued to blockade German ports, and food became scarcer and scarcer. Nonetheless the Communists called daily demonstrations in Berlin and tried to create the unity on the Left that Rosa Luxemburg thought should precede any mass action. Despite her strategy, on 5 January the situation took a new turn: a group of leftist leaders, calling themselves the Revolutionary Committee, proclaimed a general strike. Most of Berlin’s factories and facilities were closed; some 200,000 demonstrators filled the streets and seized the railroad stations and newspapers. Red flags flew, and the rifles the Spartacists had been collecting since November appeared. “Spartacus Week” had begun. But by its end the government’s miscellany of troops and volunteer units, the Freikorps, under the direction of the Socialist government’s minister of war, had gained the upper hand in Berlin, after brutally blasting the Spartacists out of their various strongholds with heavy artillery. Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were captured on 15 January and murdered. As Hannah Arendt noted in an essay on Rosa Luxemburg, her death “became the watershed between two eras in Germany; and it became the point of no return for the German Left.” When the election called for 19 January was over, the Social Democrats held a majority of the Reichstag seats, and the revolutionaries were forced to retreat and regroup; but they were unable, without their brilliant leaders, to prevent what Arendt called “the swift moral decline and political disintegration” of the party.

Heinrich Blücher participated, with the Spartacists and then the Communist party, in the unsuccessful battles and strikes of the spring of 1919. He briefly returned to his teacher’s training at a Lehrerseminar during the lull in the party’s activities in the summer of 1919, though he never finished the program. From 1918 through the worst inflation years, 1922 and 1923, he worked occasionally as a reporter for non-Communist and Communist papers, spending what time he could on his own education.

As an adolescent, Blücher had developed a hunger for learning—not for schooling, but for learning. Whenever he had money, he bought books; whenever he could avoid work, he did—and read. His political activity had begun when he was still an adolescent, and it took a very unusual form: he, a Gentile, joined a Zionist youth group, a section of the Blau Weiss. At fifteen, he began to discover German poetry and read Shakespeare’s plays in German translation. During the war he took up what Brecht referred to as the “Classics,” Marx and Engels, and then found in the work of Trotsky the ideas which were later at the center of his own political theories. When the turbulence of the brief revolution had passed, he sporadically attended lectures at various Berlin institutions in an enormous range of subjects. At the University of Berlin he heard the lectures on military history given by Hans Delbrfick, editor of the famous Preussische Jahrbücher and one of the Weimar Republic’s most outspokenly critical supporters. This experience he shared with Kurt Blumenfeld; when they met in 1941 in New York, they both waited impatiently for Delbruck’s famous axiom, “Germany cannot win a war on two fronts,” to be proven a second time.

When the Hochschule fur Politik was founded in 1920, Blücher attended lectures on political theory at that remarkable institution, which was alone among Germany’s institutions of higher learning in accepting students without Gymnasium degrees. At the Berlin Academy of Fine Arts, he occasionally heard lectures on art history, one of the great passions of his later, calmer life. Blücher’s haphazard, piecemeal formal education, complemented by extensive reading, was of no help to him in the Communist party. He had remarkable skill as an orator but he was not trusted by the leadership that eventually emerged after the deaths of Liebknecht and Luxemburg. Rosa Luxemburg’s consort, Leo Jogiches, became the party chairman, but was killed in the spring of 1919. Paul Levi, a lawyer and also a disciple of Luxemburg’s, assumed the KPD leadership, but was forced out early in 1921. Levi’s successors, Heinrich Brandler and Walter Stocker, were also committed to Rosa Luxemburg’s strategies, but they were even less able than Levi to control the increasingly powerful and militant Moscow-backed Left Opposition within the party or to halt the domination of the KPD by the Russians. The party suffered a crucial defeat during the “March Action” of 1921 and then another, while Brandler was at the head of the party, in the “German October” of 1923.

Heinrich Brandler, who was Blücher’s closest friend, had spent some months in prison after the March Action, and then spent a year in Moscow. After he returned to Germany and assumed the party leadership in 1923, Brandler was reluctantly prepared for what his Russian backers hoped would be a “second October” in the fall of 1923. Germany was tom by mounting inflation, by the French occupation of the Ruhr, by increasing hostility between industry and labor, by a series of strikes, and by the resignation of one government, under Cuno, and the accession of another, under Stresemann; it was hoped in Moscow and among the Berlin-based German Left Opposition members that a revolutionary situation could be made out of this chaos. Russian organizers and advisors came to Germany early in the fall of 1923, and some German party members went to Russia for military training. Some of Blücher’s friends, who did not meet him until after this period, were under the impression that he had been sent to Moscow for training; others thought not. But all agreed that his role in the KPD in 1923 was to write and distribute in Germany a series of small pamphlets on armaments and guerrilla-warfare tactics.

The “German October” failed to become a “second October.” A violent uprising in Hamburg was crushed, and the KPD was banned—along with a group called the National Socialists, or Nazis, which had tried to stage an opposition Aktion in Munich. Brandler was severely criticized in Moscow (his star set along with Trotsky’s) and he and his followers were eventually excluded from KPD leadership positions as the Left Opposition, headed by Ruth Fischer, took over; the KPD was bolshevized. It was during this shift that, as Hannah Arendt noted in one of marks, “the gutter opened, and out of it emerged what would have called ‘another zoological species.’”

The decline and fall of the German Communist party, as Blücher recounted it, provided Hannah Arendt with a clear image—one she never failed to refer to—of what any revolution cannot be without: spontaneously organized, locally based councils, or Räte, which are controlled neither by existing party councils—in this case, those of the Social Democratic party—nor by external, foreign organizations, in this case, the Moscow party. The Räte which had been crucial to the early stages of the German revolution were, as the revolution developed, left behind. By the fall of 1923, the central tenet of Rosa Luxemburg’s theory of revolutionary change that “the organization of revolutionary action can and must be learnt in revolution itself, as one can only learn swimming in the water” had been completely forgotten. In 1923 the German and Russian leaders of the Communist party tried to “make” a revolution. And, as they did so, they grew more and more removed from their followers. Their power was not rooted, it did not come from below. Throughout her life as a political theorist, Hannah Arendt was harshly critical of any leadership that abandoned its local base, the true source of its power. In Parii afidaUring her early years in America, she focused her criticism of leadership on the Jewish leadership, which she thought lacked awareness of the need for Jewish solidarity; later, she extended her criticism to the leaders of postwar Europe, of Israel, and finally of her adopted country, America.

Heinrich Brandler provided Blücher and Arendt with a paradigmatic case of a revolutionary leader gone astray. A proletarian, born in Austria-Hungary in 1881, the son of a bricklayer, Brandler was an honest, simple man, an experienced local labor-union organizer, but quite unprepared for the national leadership role into which he was thrust after Jogiches’s death and Levi’s expulsion. He lost his connections with his people, the workers, and became a puppet of the Comintern. Returning to Germany after nearly four years of exile in Moscow, he tried to reverse the bolshevizing trend in which he had been caught; but his Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands-(Opposition), founded in 1928, had no influence.

Heinrich Blücher joined Brandler’s opposition group, the KPO, in Germany and then in Paris, where many of “the Brandler Group” went after 1933, but his friendship with Brandler deteriorated. Brandler was surprised, when he returned from Moscow in 1928, to find that his old friend was no longer the same. Blücher tried to tell Brandler about his educational pursuits and the friends he had made during the five intervening years and was greeted with an incredulous “Du spinnst! [You’re crazy!].”

May 15, 2013

The worst atrocity of the war in Syria?

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 2:00 pm

A Youtube video has gone viral. You can find 754,000 references to it on Google and it is displayed prominently on MRZine (where else?) It shows a commander of the Farouq Brigades cutting out the heart of a dead Syrian soldier and taking a bite out of it. While such depravity is not to be condoned, how does it compare to these reports in today’s NY Times that mentions this incident but has much more to say about the real atrocities:

The recent executions, reconstructed by speaking with residents and human rights monitors, unfolded over three days in two Sunni enclaves in the largely Alawite and Christian province, first in the village of Bayda and then in the Ras al-Nabeh district of the nearby city of Baniyas.

Government troops and supporting militias went house to house, killing entire families and smashing men’s heads with concrete blocks.

Antigovernment activists provided lists of 322 victims they said had been identified. Videos showed at least a dozen dead children. Hundreds more people are reported missing.

“How can we reach a point of national forgiveness?” said Ahmad Abu al-Khair, a well-known blogger from Bayda. He said that the attacks had begun there, and that 800 of about 6,000 residents were missing.

Multiple video images that residents said they had recorded in Bayda and Ras al-Nabeh — of small children lying where they died, some embracing one another or their parents — were so searing that even some government supporters rejected Syrian television’s official version of events, that the army had “crushed a number of terrorists.”

One prominent pro-government writer, Bassam al-Qadi, took the unusual, risky step of publicly blaming loyalist gunmen for the killings and accusing the government of “turning a blind eye to criminals and murderers in the name of ‘defending the homeland.’ “

Images of the killings in and around Baniyas have transfixed Syrians. In one video that residents say shows victims in Ras al-Nabeh, the bodies of at least seven children and several adults lie tangled and bloody on a rain-soaked street. A baby girl, naked from the waist down, stares skyward, tiny hands balled into fists. Her round face is unblemished, but her belly is darkened and her legs and feet are charred into black cinders.

Opposition leaders called the Baniyas killings sectarian “cleansing” aimed at pushing Sunnis out of territory that may form part of an Alawite rump state if Syria ultimately fractures. Mr. Houry said the killings inevitably raised such fears, though there was no evidence of such a broad policy. Tens of thousands of displaced Sunnis are staying in the province, largely safe.

Not all reactions followed sectarian lines. Survivors said Christian neighbors had helped survivors escape, and on Tuesday, Alawite and Christian residents of the province said they were starting an aid campaign for victims to “defy the sectarian wind.”

Mr. Qadi, the pro-government writer, labeled the killers “criminals who do not represent the Alawites” and called on the government to immediately “acknowledge what happened” and arrest “those hyenas.”

He added: “This has happened in a lot of places. Baniyas is only the most recent one.”

When the uprising began in March 2011 as a peaceful movement, Sunnis in Bayda raised banners denouncing Sunni extremists, seeking to reassure Alawites that they opposed Mr. Assad, not his sect, said Mr. Abu al-Khair, the blogger.

In May 2011, security forces stormed the village, killing demonstrators, including women.

After that, Bayda remained largely quiet. Most activists and would-be fighters left. But residents said they often helped defecting soldiers escape, a pattern they believe set off the violence.

Activists said that on May 2, around 4 a.m., security forces came to detain defectors, and were ambushed in a fight that killed several government fighters — the first known armed clash in Baniyas. The government called in reinforcements and, by 7 a.m., began shelling the village.

A pro-government television channel showed a reporter on a hill above Bayda. Smoke rose from green slopes and houses below, where, the reporter said, “terrorists” were hiding. A group of men the reporter described as government fighters walked unhurriedly through a square.

“God willing, Bayda will be finished today,” a uniformed man said on camera.

What happened next was described in Skype interviews with four survivors who for their safety gave only nicknames, an activist in Baniyas, and Mr. Abu al-Khair, who said he had spoken from Damascus with more than 30 witnesses.

Men in partial or full military dress went door to door, separating men — and boys 10 and older — from women and younger children.

Residents said some gunmen were from the National Defense Forces, the new framework for pro-government militias, mainly Alawites in the Baniyas area. They bludgeoned and shot men, shot or stabbed families to death and burned houses and bodies.

The activist in Baniyas, Abu Obada, said security forces had told people to gather in the square, and some Bayda villagers, fearing a massacre, attacked them with weapons abandoned by defectors. Other residents disputed that or were unsure because they had been hiding.

A cousin of Mr. Abu al-Khair’s, who gave her name as Warda al-Hurra, or the Free Rose, said her female relatives had described being herded to a bedroom with children, and heard male relatives crying out in pain nearby. At one point, her cousin Ahmed, 10, and brother Othman, 16, were brought in, injured and “limp as a towel,” she said.

Her aunt begged a guard to let them stay, but he said, “They’ll kill me if I make one single mistake.”

Soon another gunman shouted at him and took the boys away. They are still missing.

The gunmen brought more women, until there were 100 in the room. He ordered the guard to kill them. The guard said: “Don’t be rash! Take a breath.”

The man relented. The women heard gunmen celebrating in the square; later they were released. When they ventured out, there were “bodies on every corner,” Ms. Hurra said.

Another resident, Abu Abdullah, said he had fled his house and returned after dark to find stabbed, charred bodies of women and children dumped in the square, and 30 of his relatives dead.

Omar, of nearby Ras al-Nabeh, the man who had dragged dozens of bodies from the streets, said he had helped Bayda residents pick up bodies, placing 46 in two houses and the rest in a mosque, then had run away, fearing the return of the killers. He said he had recognized some bodies, including the village sheik, Omar al-Bayassi, whom some considered pro-government.

One video said to be from Bayda showed eight dead children on a bed. Two toddlers cuddled face to face; a baby rested on a dead woman’s shoulder.

On May 4, shelling and gunfire began to hit Ras al-Nabeh. Abu Yehya, a resident, hid in his house with his wife and two children, who stayed quiet: “Their instincts took over.” Two days later, he said, he emerged to find his neighbors, a family of 13, shot dead against a wall.

On May 6, security forces allowed in Red Crescent workers. Bodies were tossed and bulldozed into trucks and dumped in a mass grave, Mr. Abu al-Khair said.

Residents posted smiling pictures of children they said had been killed: Moaz al-Biassi, 1 year old, and his sister Afnan, 3. Three sisters, Halima, Sara, and Aisha. Curly-haired Noor, and Fatima, too little to have much hair but already sporting earrings.

Mr. Obada said residents on Tuesday were indignant when a government delegation offered compensation for damaged houses, saying, “What do you get if you rebuild the house and the whole family is dead?”

Displaced Sunnis who had sheltered there are fleeing, and some say Alawites are no longer welcome.

“It’s now impossible for them to stay in Syria,” Omar said.

May 14, 2013

Reflections on Chechnya

Filed under: Chechnya — louisproyect @ 6:57 pm

Grozny

Aleppo

You say that there are some who say we should have been more openly critical. I think it depends upon your first premise; do you believe that Chechnya is a part of Russia or not? I would remind you that we once had a Civil War in our country in which we lost on a per capita basis far more people than we lost in any of the wars of the 20th century over the proposition that Abraham Lincoln gave his life for, that no State had a right to withdraw from our Union.

President Clinton news conference, April 21, 1996

* * * *

Washington and other western powers are playing an active part in supporting the Chechen separatists. The imperialists have stepped in to grant asylum to many of the leaders in the separatist and exile government, which has declared Chechnya, “The Republic of Ichkeria.” It is headed by Aslan Maskhadov, the provisional president. The U.S. gave asylum to Ilyas Akhmadov, the foreign minister of Maskhadov’s opposition grouping.

Party of Socialism and Liberation, December 1, 2004

They say that Saddam Hussein had an entire library devoted to Stalin. Perhaps if Vladimir Putin was as much of a scribbler as Stalin, we might expect fellow Baathist Bashar al-Assad to do him the same kind of honor since the war in Syria seems to be lifted out of the Chechnya playbook. You unleash a scorched earth policy against a civilian population and then justify it as a defensive measure against Jihadist terror.

If the left had little reason to align itself with the first Chechen war that was prosecuted by neoliberalizing bogeyman Boris Yeltsin, there was clear evidence that Putin’s war that began in 1999 would be given the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps the cue they needed could be found Anatol Lieven’s journalism. No matter that Lieven had written powerfully against Yeltsin’s intervention. By 1999 Putin had become a lesser evil in his eyes, just as al-Assad appears to a broad swath of the “anti-imperialist” left. In testimony before the Helsinki Security Commission on the question of Chechnya after 9/11, Lieven sounded like Christopher Hitchens or Paul Berman:

This must also involve a recognition that it is emphatically not in the interests of the USA, the West, or the Caucasus that the Russians should simply withdraw and Chechnya return to its condition of 1996-99. The banditry which flourished in those years was a threat to the region and to western visitors to it. The establishment of a new base for international Muslim radicalism (and perhaps terrorism) posed a threat not just to the region, but to Western interests across the world, and to US allies in the Middle East. This is a point which was fully recognized by the Israeli government long before September 11th, but which for a long time was not fully understood by the US foreign policy elite – to the genuine bewilderment and frustration of Russian officials. Before September 11th at least, few in the USA stopped to think what the US reaction would be to the establishment of a powerful group of heavily armed international Muslim radicals on America’s borders – and yet the answer is not difficult to find.

If you are looking for left scholarship that took a different tack on Chechnya, there was little to go on other than articles that appeared occasionally in New Left Review by Georgi M. Derlugian and Tony Wood. Except for these two, the general consensus on the left is that although Putin was wrong to invade Chechnya, those who fought against him were Jihadists inimical to secular and progressive values—in other words, the same tropes applied to Syria today.

In the provocatively titled “Che Guevaras in Turbans” (New Left Review I/237, September-October 1999), Derlugian made the case for the Islamist guerrillas and Shamil Basayev in particular. Basayev, who was killed by a Russian car bomb in 2006, was responsible for some of the most sensational terrorist attacks that persuaded many liberals and radicals to adopt a plague on both your houses position with respect to the Second Chechen War. While Derlugian was no apologist for terror, he provided some background on Basayev that never found their way into the customary reportage in the left press:

During his brief period as a student in Moscow, aside from the fateful Professor Borovoy, Basayev met Cubans and learned from them about Ernesto Che Guevara. The young Chechen commander carried a picture of Che in his breast pocket through the Abkhazia war of 1992–93, where he was rescuing the fellow Abkhazian mountaineers from the marauding Georgian warlords—and where he was apparently trained, supplied, and supported by the Russian military who saw their interests as lying in the subversion of Georgia’s independence.

In 1999 Basayev led an incursion to Daghestan with the intention of creating a new Islamic state that would in turn form the basis for a broader union of the North Caucasus Muslim polities. At the time his bid was seen as driven by nothing except a typically Jihadist agenda based on religious fanaticism. In his 2007 book “Chechnya: the case for Independence”, Tony Wood hones in on the socio-economic realities that made Daghestan open to Islamist intervention:

The republic is so riddled with corruption that in 2005, Mukhu Alley, then chairman of the People’s Assembly of Dagestan, but appointed its president in February 2006, admitted that ‘there is not a single post to which one could be appointed without a bribe’; a low-level police position reportedly cost $3,000 to $5,000, that of a district administration chief $150,000, while one could become a minister in the republic’s government for $450,000 — $500,000. In post-Soviet conditions of economic collapse and de-industrialization, unemployment skyrocketed, reaching 30 per cent in 1999, though the true figure is undoubtedly higher. Poverty levels were astronomical: in 1995, 71 per cent of Dagestan’s population had an income below the official subsistence level, compared to 25 per cent across the Russian Federation; by 1998, it remained at 58 per cent, compared to 21 per cent nationwide. Those on the inside of Dagestan’s neo-patrimonial order strove to reinforce it; the tens of thousands on the outside grew increasingly dissatisfied with their lot. Islamist groups were an outlet for criticism of official corruption and misrule, as well as of the complicity of the official clergy. The Islamists’ calls for equality and social justice, gesturing beyond ethnic particularities to a shared Muslim identity, inevitably acquired greater and greater resonance. Moreover, as discussed with regard to Chechnya, Salafism joined the flow of deeper social dynamics, being described by one expert as a ‘mechanism for the democratization of Dagestani society through cleansing its Islamic life of mysticism, superstition and patriarchal elements’. In sum, the roots of Dagestani Salafism are to be found in ‘the socio-economic realities of the republic, in the unbearably onerous burden of pseudo-traditional customs, and in disillusionment with the spiritual authorities’.

While Russia was primed for the reconquest of Chechnya and the eviction of Chechen rebels from neighboring Daghestan, there was some evidence that military action was made more palatable by an awful series of terrorist bombings in Russian apartment buildings in September 1999. Eventually a commission of inquiry under the direction of attorney Mikhail Trepashkin was established to identify the perpetrators. The investigation revealed that Russian secret police officer Vladimir Romanovich, who was identified by eyewitnesses, had rented an apartment in a basement of one of the buildings prior to the bombings. But Trepashkin was unable to present this evidence because the Russian secret police arrested him in October 2003 for “disclosing state secrets”. A closed court sentenced him to four years, while Romanovich was killed in a hit-and-run incident on Cyprus.

This is typical police business under Putin and the sort of thing that makes him a perfect partner for the Obama administration that is using the Bill of Rights as toilet paper to wipe its collective ass.

Putin made sure not to go easy on the Chechens, as Yeltsin had. He assembled a massive expeditionary force that was the perfect analog to Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. As soul mates in the great Muslim-bashing game, they were made for each other as Bush once observed: “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straight forward and trustworthy and we had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul. He’s a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country and I appreciate very much the frank dialogue and that’s the beginning of a very constructive relationship.” Besides looking into Putin’s eyes, it helped Bush’s successor in the White House maintain this bromance on a more practical basis. In 2011 Putin signed a $367.5-million deal with the Pentagon to supply 21 Mi-17V5 transport/attack helicopters for the Afghan military. After all, what are friends for?

Once the war began, Putin demonstrated the kind of brazen disregard for human life and world opinion that is currently on display in Syria. On October 22nd 1999, Russian Scud missile attacks on Grozny’s open-air market resulted in massive casualties. At first the Russians denied any responsibility but Putin eventually was forced to admit in the face of overwhelming evidence that his forces were responsible. But he had an excuse.  “I can confirm that actually some explosion has taken place in Grozny’s market. But I want to draw attention of the press to, that we mean not just a market in the conventional sense, rather it refers to the arms market – that is how this place is called in Grozny. This is the base of weapons, an armory. And this place is one of the headquarters of the gangs. We do not exclude that the explosion that occurred there, is the result of clashes between warring factions”.

So you can see where Bashar al-Assad developed his PR techniques, from a past master of homicide and the unabashed big lie.

May 12, 2013

Final thoughts on Vivek Chibber

Filed under: Academia,india — louisproyect @ 5:40 pm

In the film Avengers there is a scene where the villan [sic], Loki, faces the Hulk and does not come out well in the encounter. In irritation he puffs up his chest and shouts, “Enough! I am a God!” Hulk picks up Loki by his feet and smashes him all over the place like a rag doll and leaves him lying helpless in a pile of rubble and sniffs, “Puny God!” Vivek Chibber does a Hulk on the Subaltern School (SS).

From Joseph’s review of “Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital” on amazon.com

* * * *

Plus, postcolonial theory now has at least two generations of academics who have staked their entire careers on it; they have half a dozen journals dedicated to it; there’s an army of graduate students pursuing research agendas that come out of it. Their material interests are tied up directly with the theory’s success.

You can criticize it all you want, but until we get the kind of movements that buoyed Marxism in the early years after World War I, or in the late 1960s and early 1970s, you won’t see a change.

From Vivek Chibber interview in Jacobin magazine

* * * *

Adolfo Gilly is the author of the most famous book on the Mexican revolution from a Marxist perspective. Formerly a member of the Trotskyist PRT, he is now a well-known member of the PRD.

From the author’s page of International Viewpoint, a semiofficial journal of the Fourth International.

* * * *

I became familiar with Subaltern Studies and the work of Ranajit Guha and Partha Chatterjee in the late 1980s. I only really read Edward Thompson in the 1990s. His Making of the English Working Class and Customs in Common lay a lot of emphasis on the category of experience, which in my view is extremely important to Marxist thought.

Adolfo Gilly in the New Left Review, July-August 2010

When it was Partha Chatterjee’s turn to speak in the debate with Vivek Chibber, I fully expected him to start off with something like “Where Marx went wrong…” After all, if you had read Chibber’s interview in Jacobin, you would have been led to believe that you were dealing with an organized intellectual tendency as hostile to Marxism as Lyotard, Foucault, or Baudrillard. This is not to speak of Edward Said, one of the founding fathers of postcolonialism whose attack on Marx’s India articles must have rankled Marxist purists like Chibber even as they might have paid grudging respect to his literary scholarship as well as the stones hurled at Israeli border guards.

Instead Chatterjee outdid Chibber with a Marxist purism calculated to make Chibber look like an utter piker by comparison, including a jibe that his critic appeared committed to Rawlsian contract theory, a charge to which Chibber plead guilty.

This gets to the heart of the problem with the debate. It was conducted on such an abstract level that it was almost like listening to two men arguing about ethics. If it had instead take up one of the Chatterjee articles grounded in Indian history that Chibber took exception to, it would have been more concrete. I suppose that I could read the 35 page “The Colonial State and Peasant Resistance in Bengal 1920-1947” and Chibber’s critique of the article to make sense of their differences, but life is too short and other projects more compelling.

Even more contrary to expectations is Subaltern Studies founder Ranajit Guha’s statement as to his major influences. Given the supposedly postmodernist drift of this intellectual current, it might come as a surprise to discover that he was “inspired by Charu Mazumdar”, the foremost intellectual and political leader of the Naxalite movement.

In order to get a fix on the combatants in this monumental Loki versus Hulk type struggle, I decided to look into the question of the “subaltern”. My only exposure to the term was Gayatri Spivak’s headache-inducing essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, a title appropriated ironically in the Jacobin interview with Chibber: “How does the Subaltern Speak?”. I had never given it much thought but I always assumed that Spivak coined the term subaltern.

As it turns out, we can blame Gramsci, who used it as a kind of synonym for working class in the Prison Notebooks in order to trick the guards who might have been primed to beat him up if he used a forbidden word. Subaltern, it should be pointed out, simply meant a junior officer in the military. Gramsci wrote: “The subaltern classes by definition, are not unified and cannot unite until they are able to become a ‘State’: their history, therefore, is intertwined with that of civil society, and thereby with the history of States and groups of States.”

Ranajit Guha adopted the term subaltern to apply to his version of “history from below”, an attempt to do for India what E.P. Thompson did for Britain—a connection made by Adolfo Gilly above. Now I can’t deny that Gayatri Spivak’s work is suffused with Derrida’s poststructuralism but until persuaded otherwise it would appear to me that the original impetus for Subaltern Studies was to tell the story of India’s 99 percent.

Whether or not the theoretical baggage that went along with Subaltern Studies passed Chibber’s smell test is another story altogether. Guha insists that the Indian subaltern classes were never part of the cross-class coalition that typified European bourgeois revolutions and as such the rulers never enjoyed the same kind of hegemony that made a nation like Britain or France relatively stable. If, of course, you make Chibber’s “political Marxism” some kind of litmus test based on the bourgeois revolution never having taken place, many others with orthodox Marxist pedigrees—like Neil Davidson—might not pass the smell test either. Will the Hulk feel the need to pick Davidson up and smash him all over the place like a rag doll as well?

Speaking of smashing people, I want to take this opportunity to apologize to Dr. Chibber for stating that he would regret it if he ever spoke over me at another conference. I was in a blind rage when I wrote those words, but never intended to use violence against him or any other person for that matter who I have a run-in with. There was no excuse for me to use those words and am deeply sorry for any anxiety it might have provoked in him, not that he had any worries about a 68-year-old man with failing eyesight posing any danger to begin with.

Getting back to Gramsci, it might of course prompt some readers who have read their Perry Anderson to say “Aha, there’s proof of your breach with Marxism” since the academic left’s turn to Gramsci was proof that you had broken with ortho-Marxism and strayed into the netherworld of cultural studies.

Speaking of which, I got a chuckle out of Uday Chandra’s observation on Facebook that “Chibber has, unfortunately, been projected by Brenner, Anderson, etc, as the Chosen One to slay the dragon of postcolonial studies.” Does anybody in their right mind think that Perry Anderson is in any position nowadays to define who is qualified to assume the mantle that he and Brenner have worn? In 2000 Perry Anderson signaled the new direction New Left Review would take under his stewardship in an infamous article that told his readers where the real action was taking place:

By contrast, commanding the field of direct political constructions of the time, the right has provided one fluent vision of where the world is going, or has stopped, after another–Fukuyama, Brzezinski, Huntington, Yergin, Luttwak, Friedman. These are writers that unite a single powerful thesis with a fluent popular style, designed not for an academic readership but a broad international public. This confident genre, of which America has so far a virtual monopoly, finds no equivalent on the left.

This prompted Boris Kagarlitsky to write an article in the British SWP’s International Socialism journal titled “The Suicide of New Left Review” that stated:

Perry Anderson, a sophisticated British gentleman, sits in his cosy office at 6 Meard Street and limply discusses the collapse of the left project. He has enough intellectual honesty not to repudiate his radical past or the ideals of his youth, but he is impassive enough not to lament their collapse. Despite Anderson’s readiness to bury the left project of the 1960s, and along with it the first series NLR, his foreword contains not a paragraph or even a sentence devoted to political self criticism. Everything was fine–both when Perry, together with other young radicals, tried to revolutionise social thinking and political life in Britain, and now, when he no longer proposes to overturn anything whatever. And what, in reality, has happened? What particular suffering has beset these people? Have Western intellectuals really lost anything, apart from their principles? No one has been thrown in prison or put in front of a firing squad. Their homes have not been blown up, nor their cities bombed.

Furthermore, as long as Vivek Chibber is determined to identify scratches that might lead to gangrene in the academic left, he might also consider what Robert Brenner had to say about the John Kerry candidacy in 2004:

Our call for a vote for the Democratic Party — while continuing to put the main political emphasis on building the social movements and simultaneously exposing the Democrats as politically reactionary and anathema to the social movements — is an application of an aspect of the united front method, sometimes called “critical support.”

If “political Marxism” is supposed to be some kind of condom to protect you against all sorts of germs—from Subaltern Studies to Paul Sweezy type analysis of the origins of capitalism—we can only conclude that Robert Brenner sprung a leak.

Finally, I have a few words to say about Marxism and academia. While I am not a professor, even though I get to act like one on the Internet after the fashion of Irwin Corey, I have a pretty good handle on what goes on there after having been a Columbia University employee for 21 years. During that time, I was privy to the goings on in both the sociology and Mideast Studies departments from friends who taught there. Additionally, my wife is a tenure-track professor at a N.Y. four-year college and I get a pretty good idea of what is going on her department in much the same way she used to get an earful each night about what I used to see in Columbia University’s IT department.

Seven years ago Chibber was obviously getting ready to start writing or had already begun work on his book, based on the article “On The Decline Of Class Analysis In South Asian Studies” that appeared in Critical Asian Studies. It is mostly an attack on what he refers to as PSPC, shorthand for Poststructuralism/Postcolonialism, and more specifically the dreaded Subaltern Studies.

His analysis is reminiscent of what Perry Anderson wrote in “Considerations on Western Marxism” and “In The Tracks of Historical Materialism”. If Anderson was keen on demonstrating that cultural studies, vaporous philosophizing, and postmodernist cant were tied to the decline of the organized left, Chibber reminds us that the problem still exists:

By the end of the decade [of the seventies], however, while the movements around nonclass identities had scored impressive gains, there was no comparable advance for the working class. Indeed, the balance of class power shifted powerfully to the right, and by the onset of the Reagan era, a full-scale assault on labor and the Left was underway. As a class movement, the New Left had met with a crushing defeat.

In some respects, this mirrored the defeats of the working class movement worldwide in the 1930s, which was followed by rightward shift in political culture. But the setbacks of the New Left during the 1970s were in many respects deeper. For the upsurges of the first quarter of the twentieth century had left in their wake a panoply of socialist parties and class organizations, which provided the milieu in which radical intellectuals survived for much of the century.

What’s more, the students entering the university system following the great retreat were not made of the right stuff, as Chibber complains:

By the middle of the 1980s, the New Left had mostly been domesticated into academic culture. Class analysis was practiced only within a small slice of it, and this was an increasingly marginal component of the academic mainstream. If a pressure for the deepening of class analysis was to come, it would have had to be from below — the students. But here too, there was no reason to expect any such development. For students, a college education is a means of social mobility. Even though their origin may be in the working class, their aspirations are of a more elite nature. For those students who make it into college, the mere fact of social advancement serves to confirm central elements of the dominant ideology, which insists on the fluidity of social hierarchies, and the absence of structural constraints. The mere fact of more working class students entering higher education — as they did after the 1950s — would not generate a mass base for socialist ideas.

I get a chuckle out of this: “Even though their origin may be in the working class, their aspirations are of a more elite nature.” Doesn’t Chibber have a clue that students, both working class and middle class as the case with his NYU students, are not aspiring to become elites but rather to merely get a decent paying job? From the 1980s onward, the job prospects for liberal arts graduates have been dismal. That is why so many smart young people are opting for an MBA, a law, or a computer science degree. Without them, you might as well go live with mom and dad and apply for a job at Starbucks. And even now they are no guarantee. For someone so committed to a class analysis, he seems woefully unaware of the Victorian-era realities of the job market.

I understand that many young people in graduate school today with left politics have—as Chibber put it—elite aspirations. Imagine becoming the next Robert Brenner making $220,000 per year and speaking before adoring audiences at some academic conference in London or Paris. Having your Marxist cake and eating it too.

But getting there is a brutal competitive process that is not for the fainthearted. You have to have the killer instinct that ensures that you will get tenure and not some other schmuck. All in all, academia—particularly at elite schools like Columbia University and NYU—replicates the class hierarchies of 19th century Germany where many of the structures such as the oral examination were introduced (I am not talking about gum disease.) It is calculated to turn you into an asshole unless you were one to begin with.

Try to find a decent paying job that leaves you with lots of spare time and energy, an admittedly daunting task today and then blog your heart out, the contemporary equivalent of Tom Paine’s “Common Sense”. You will reach far more people than you ever will through a JSTOR type journal that is locked up behind a paywall and generally read only by other professors and graduate students, if they bother at all.

Finally, a reminder of what Max Horkheimer said about being a revolutionary:

A revolutionary career does not lead to banquets and honorary titles, interesting research and professorial wages. It leads to misery, disgrace, ingratitude, prison and a voyage into the unknown, illuminated by only an almost superhuman belief.

Who would have it any other way?

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