Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 7, 2011

Andrew Levine and the lesser evil

Filed under: parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 7:54 pm

Notwithstanding the title, Andrew Levine’s Counterpunch article “The Illogic of Lesser Evilism: the Obama Example”, opens the door a crack for getting behind Obama once again.

While saying all sorts of churlish things about Obama, Levine reveals his true orientation in the first and last paragraphs:

Barack Obama will likely be the lesser evil in the 2012 election.  That may be a reason to vote for him then; perhaps even a compelling reason in some circumstances.  But it is not a reason to support him now.

Of course, saying No is no substitute for building a real alternative; but at this point, with an election looming, it is a quick and dirty way to launch a credible threat that just might make the lesser evil less evil.  This is why now is emphatically not the time to come to the aid of the Democratic Party. Perhaps in a year and half, for the few minutes we spend in the voting booth, lesser evil logic will be less illogical than it now is. But that will be then; this is now.

This is exactly the kind of sophistry would expect from “a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies.” The IPS is a liberal think-tank that was launched in 1963 by Richard Barnet and Marcus Raskin, two disillusioned JFK appointees. Like the Nation Magazine that receives funding from the same wealthy liberals, the IPS tries to straddle the fence between challenging and reinforcing the system. Nothing captures this paradox better than the support that the IPS and the Nation Magazine gave to Barack Obama in 2008, a candidate they hoped would have the same kind of relationship to the liberal left that Bush had to the Christian fundamentalists and incipient tea party formations that helped get him elected.

Levine, who has a long career as an philosophy professor, was described by Richard Wolff in a Spring 2004 Science and Society review of Levine’s “The Future of Marxism” as a brief and early “enthusiast” for Althusser and then a “devotee of the Analytical Marxist school” (AM), a love affair that lasted for a much longer time. As Althusserianism and AM were two of the bigger trends on the academic left in the 1980s, it would be understandable why an ambitious young don like Andrew Levine would try out both pairs of shoes to see which fit better. As was the case with many chastened 60s radicals, Levine must have found the pseudo-scientific pretensions of the AM school much to his liking. As with many who joined up, this particularly Anglo-Saxon ideological trend was a welcome relief from the “third wordlist” enthusiasms of their headstrong youth. Che Guevara T-Shirts were traded in for tweed sports coats and panel discussions at academic conferences in pleasant hotels paid for by the university.

I have no trouble taking Wolff at his word when he says that Levine’s book “excoriates” the 1960s left. As for the future of Marxism, Levine says that it is problematic since—Wolff quoting Levine—“neither Marx nor any of his close followers ever imagined…the proletariat melted away.” Surely, Professor Levine must have missed the people at the University of Maryland who came into his office to empty his waste paper basket and change his light bulbs. They were the ones with the tag “Facilities Department” on their clothing and whom I can assure him belonged to the working class.

Eventually Levine fell out of love with AM as well. This should not come as a surprise since the trend simply lacked the vitality that could have led even half-serious thinkers to new insights. When you boil it down to its essentials, it is nothing less than an attempt to arrange a shotgun marriage between logical positivism and Marxism–something bound to produce mutant offspring.

You can read Levine’s Dear John letter to the AM school in a 2004 collection titled “Handbook of Political Theory”, edited by Gerald F. Gaus and Chandran Kukathas and that can be read in parts on Google/Books. His article, titled “A Future for Marxism”, states that analytical Marxism “collapsed Marxism into liberalism”, a charge that would make imminent good sense to anybody who has read Jon Elster for example.

Despite the fact that the article has the same title as the book that Wolff castigated, it marks a break with AM. In looking at Levine’s copious CV on the University of Maryland website, it appears that his last book came out in 2004, the same time as the article cited above. One does not know whether some new trend has filled the vacuum to replace AM but on the evidence it appears that the semiretired professor has now devoted himself to the role of “public intellectual”, using Counterpunch, The Huffington Post and other such venues to get his ideas out—such as they are.

From 2007 to 2010 Levine blogged as “Democrats Now”. In 2007, he was on board the John Edwards bandwagon, albeit with qualms:

Meanwhile, for the next few weeks, let the optimists among us think John Edwards thoughts – and, since money is to our “democracy” what location is to real estate, send money to his campaign as well, distasteful as that may be.

You’ll note the “distasteful” business. This sort of “holding your nose” posture is necessary when it comes to defending a vote for the Democrats. You really can’t get very far from it when you are in left-liberal territory. Even the women who sang/protested Obama at a West Coast meeting had to say:

We’ll vote for you in 2012, yes that’s true
Look at the Republicans — what else can we do?
Even though we don’t know if we’ll retain our liberties.

Perhaps out of nostalgia for his unwashed radical youth, Levine voted for Nader in 2008, even though he denigrated his campaign as a “Children’s Crusade”. As the Obama presidency unfolded, it was virtually impossible for the IPS or The Nation Magazine to maintain the illusion that a New New Deal was possible. Levine’s blog and countless articles in the Nation pointed out one misdeed or another in arguably the most rightward leaning Democratic administration since Grover Cleveland.

The disenchanted left-liberals, however, kept writing as if ignoring the “base” could have dire consequences for the White House. Written in the tone of a parent warning a child about smoking cigarettes, they assumed that Obama really cared about losing his base. After all, he was a nicotine addict as well. But Obama understood that the Republican nominee would provide all the impetus he needed in 2012 to get the veal pen to vote the right way. As Levine put, it “That may be a reason to vote for him then; perhaps even a compelling reason in some circumstances.” Well, of course. If a Republican wins in 2012, the country will go to hell in a hand basket-all the more reason to replace him or her with a Democrat in 2016, a cycle to be repeated until the Earth plunges into the Sun a million years or so from now.

Perhaps the most curious thing about Andrew Levine is how disjoined his Marxism was from the latter unpaid career he would pursue writing for Huffington Post. One can understand why. It was virtually impossible to get a handle on American politics after a lifetime of reading Jon Elster or G.A. Cohen, two dons who considered the realities of the class struggle beneath them.

In a November 30, 2010 article titled “A New Nader”, Levine considers the electoral choices facing liberals in 2012. He urges Nader not to run because liberals would get all “riled up”. Instead he holds out hope that someone like Russ Feingold would run as an independent, something that Alexander Cockburn urged in Counterpunch.

But one can well imagine that Levine would be persuaded to vote for a Democrat in the primary if he or she was on a par with John Edwards. Indeed, old-fashioned American pragmatism drives his calculations rather than the Marxism that he fashioned a career out of for the better part of four decades.

Until the left can formulate its electoral policies on a class basis, it will continue to vacillate between one “attractive” candidate and another. In class terms, the Democratic and Republican parties are bourgeois, to use old-fashioned language. As long as Goldman Sachs, Exxon, Walmart and all the rest fund both the Obamas and the McCains not to speak of the John Edwards, then the working class will continue to be screwed. You have draw clear class lines between our movement and theirs, something that the Nation Magazine and the IPS are loath to do.


  1. Hasn’t Dave Harvey said the global proletariat is larger than ever? I’d love to see some figures.

    Comment by Jon — May 7, 2011 @ 10:03 pm

  2. Actually, the people who were emptying his waste paper basket are not, according to Marx, members of the working class and I am assuming that was Levine’s point. They are non-productive wage earners. As a lover of AM, Levine’s empiricist problematic, to use an old Althusseran expression, does not grasp the current globalization of the production process and the means of production, and so does not notice that the working class still exists, it has just been moved around. He is still smarter than than the Unrependant Marxist though.

    Comment by Bill Riordan — May 7, 2011 @ 10:35 pm

  3. They are non-productive wage earners.

    I have no idea what class they are supposed to belong to, other than the working class. By this definition, teamsters are not members of the proletariat.

    “He is still smarter than than the Unrependant Marxist though.”

    That may be true but I am smarter than than than you.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 7, 2011 @ 10:40 pm

  4. I’m writing in Feingold/Charlie Brooker for 2012, personally.

    Comment by Jenny — May 8, 2011 @ 2:24 am

  5. I think Levine must’ve watched this video and been convinced:

    I’d personally like to see Michael Moore and Elizabeth Warren run on the Green Party ticket (ha ha), but I’d settle for the Rent Is Too Damn High Guy and Howie Hawkins. TRITDH is a Viet Nam vet who wrote a brilliant essay on the bailouts, I’ll have to go dig it up.

    Comment by Binh — May 8, 2011 @ 5:38 am

  6. Of course the global proletariat is larger than ever, with the expansion of capitalism into much of China and Asia as whole.

    It’s true Marx didn’t think the service industry that dominates US employment was central to an economy, but a flight circling Beijing (if one can see through the pollution) should suffice to show the proletariat has not vanished.

    Comment by purple — May 8, 2011 @ 5:44 am

  7. Trotsky once said that “In front of each centrist grouping it is necessary to place an arrow indicating the direction of its development: from right to left or from left to right.” The same is true of individuals. In my estimate, Levine is currently moving from right to left, abandoning illusions in the Democrats. I take the first and last paragraphs to be an indication that he hasn’t yet done so completely, not that he is trying to draw people back into the Democratic fold, since the whole logic of his argument pulls in the opposite direction. Whether he will fully embrace that logic remains to be seen. Perhaps he won’t, but I think his article reveals someone struggling with the issue, not someone engaging in sophistry.

    Comment by Phil Gasper — May 8, 2011 @ 9:20 pm

  8. You have to draw clear class lines between our movement and theirs, something that the Nation Magazine and the IPS are loath to do.

    Many claim that they do draw the line. My own list includes, besides Louis Proyect himself (who seems to constitute a vanguard party of one), the ISO (in their own estimation), the SEP, the Communist Party, the Militant Trotskyite faction, and various “Maoist” groupings, each with its tin-pot Chairman Mao (e.g., Bob Avakian).

    Besides purporting to draw the correct class line (which is vigorously denied in the case of any given tendency by all the others), all of these organizations and individuals have in common a degree of mutual contempt that has to be seen and heard to be believed.

    So, two questions: what’s a concerned citizen to do; and second, how can one avoid mealy-mouthed meliorism, rapprochement with existing trades-union leaders, and the logic of the lesser evil given the apparent impossibiity of forming a powerful united workers’ organization behind any of the contending candidates for revolutionary vanguard party? The one approach that most Americans will think of–one of “wise eclecticism” and a United Front–is ruled out a priori.

    This gets to be a very pressing concern now that Obama has actually put into action his program of ex cathedra extra-judicial assassination, which may soon be pointed at the Left–indeed, will certainly be pointed at the Left by a Republican successor to Obama, even if he himself refrains from going that far.

    There seems to be little time for reflection before some sort of action becomes necessary. And yet–growing world proletariat or no–a revolutionary response to this seems more impossible than ever in the United States.

    Comment by Rod random — May 8, 2011 @ 11:00 pm

  9. Obama has actually put into action his program of ex cathedra extra-judicial assassination, which may soon be pointed at the Left…

    As long as he puts Chris Matthews first on his list, I would have no problem with that.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 8, 2011 @ 11:06 pm

  10. I’m not gonna vote; that’d just be silly. But I’m seriously considering telling my Dem friends that I’m gonna vote Republican.

    Comment by davidly — May 9, 2011 @ 4:00 pm

  11. In countries such as Iran and Republic of Azerbaijan, large segments of the population have always boycotted the elections, at least at the presidency level based on the argument that these elections only reinforce the legitimacy of the system. I think the presidential election in the US has definitely reached this state. Shouldn’t the best policy be a vocal boycott of these elections, considering their more or less pointless effect on both domestic and foreign policy?? The system, in words of Richard Nixon, definitely seems to function regardless of what performing monkey is at the helm

    Comment by Mazdak — May 9, 2011 @ 4:15 pm

  12. I interviewed Phyllis Bennis of IPS just after Obama’s Cairo speech, back in 2009. It was the sort of experience that is consistent with what you talk about here, a two faced effort to look radical while supporting the Democratic Party agenda. She began by saying that the speech was groundbreaking partially because of the equivalence that Obama displayed towards Israel and the Palestinians. I confronted her on it, because I had actually read the text of the speech and he had, of course, done no such thing. It was typical crap about how the Palestinians needed to embrace non-violence, yada yada yada. Anyway, Bennis, not realizing that I had actually read it, adopted a superior, academic critical tone, first trying to argue with me over it, and then, when I told her that I had read it, she angrily went off into “if you want to focus on that sort thing instead of the speech’s historic importance . . ” [which is, as subsequent events in North Africa and the Middle East have shown, zero] to which I replied, I’m just explaining why I don’t agree with what YOU said. It was obvious that she would have misrepresented the speech if she could have gotten away with it. If IPS disappeared tomorrow, I wouldn’t miss it.

    Comment by Richard Estes — May 9, 2011 @ 6:54 pm

  13. > In my estimate, Levine is currently moving from right to left, abandoning illusions in the Democrats.

    If Levine were a young Boy Scout earning his first Merit Badge then that would make sense. Since Levine has been around the block already claiming to have been a Marxist of some type or other, this really does not apply. One could just as easily look up statements when Gus Hall appeared to be moving to the Left. But he remained a front-man for the Democrats to the end.

    Comment by PatrickSMcNally — May 9, 2011 @ 8:04 pm

  14. Dude,
    Seriously, you need therapy. While you are at it, you might want to actually read a little Marx.

    Comment by Bill Riordan — May 10, 2011 @ 3:43 am

  15. I’m amazed at the ability of U.S. leftists, Marxists or not, to discuss the basic issues of U.S. left politics without mentioning the fact that the United States is an imperialist country. The settler-colonial history of the U.S. white population does make the U.S. working class less class-conscious and probably more nationalistic than, say, the British or French working class. Nevertheless, the working-class-based parties in those other imperialist countries, while they have in certain periods been able to get better social benefits for their own working classes, have never been obstacles to, or even serious critics of, the imperialism of their own ruling classes. This is not surprising, since that imperialism is the basis of the wealth that is available for workers and others in those countries to fight over.

    If total opposition to U.S. imperialism is part of a genuine left politics, then taking a class-based approach is not enough. In fact, approaching elections, especially national ones (local ones may be different), with the goal of winning rather than making propaganda is a sure-fire recipe for opportunist betrayal of the masses of the world who are the victims of imperialism and not its beneficiaries.

    Comment by Aaron Aarons — May 15, 2011 @ 6:48 am

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