Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 5, 2013

Letter to a Harvard professor on Karl Marx

Filed under: india,Russia — louisproyect @ 2:55 pm

Dear Professor Peter E. Gordon,

In your New Republic review of Sperber’s new bio of Marx, you write:

“The outbreak of Bolshevik revolution a little more than three decades after his death would have struck him as a startling violation of his own historical principle that bourgeois society and industrialization must reach their fullest expression before the proletariat gains the class-consciousness that it requires to seize political control.”

Despite your Harvard credentials (or perhaps in light of them, given Niall Ferguson’s foot-in-mouth disease), you show a shocking unawareness of Marx’s late writings on Russia. In letters to Danielson and Zasulich, he warned exactly against the interpretation you proffer to New Republic’s readers.

In an 1881 letter to Zasulich, he stated:

“Theoretically speaking, then, the Russian ‘rural commune’ can preserve itself by developing its basis, the common ownership of land, and by eliminating the principle of private property which it also implies; it can become a direct point of departure for the economic system towards which modern society tends; it can turn over a new leaf without beginning by committing suicide; it can gain possession of the fruits with which capitalist production has enriched mankind, WITHOUT PASSING THROUGH THE CAPITALIST REGIME, a regime which, considered solely from the point of view of its possible duration hardly counts in the life of society. But we must descend from pure theory to the Russian reality.”

You can find out more about this in Teodor Shanin’s “Late Marxism”, a book you would find most edifying, I’m sure.

You also state: “In one of his many columns for  The New York Tribune, he reasoned that British imperialism, however regrettable, was a historical necessity: only via modernization could India overcome its heritage of ‘Oriental despotism’.”

Once again you demonstrate a shocking unfamiliarity with Marx’s later thinking. I would refer you to the chapter in Aijaz Ahmad’s “In Theory: Classes, Nations and Literatures” titled “Marx on India: a Clarification.”

Even in Marx’s earlier writings, he qualified the benefits of capitalist modernization by saying in 1853: “The Indian will not reap the fruits of the new elements of society scattered among them by the British bourgeoisie, till in Great Britain itself the new ruling classes shall have been supplanted by the industrial proletariat, or till the Hindus themselves shall have grown strong enough to throw off the English yoke altogether.”

And, more to the point, in an 1881 letter to Danielson that reflects his total break with the “stagism” you attribute to him, he noted:

“In India serious complications, if not a general outbreak, are in store for the British government. What the British take from them annually in the form of rent, dividends for railways useless for the Hindoos, pensions for the military and civil servicemen, for Afghanistan and other wars, etc. etc., — what they take from them without any equivalent and quite apart from what they appropriate to themselves annually within India, — speaking only of the commodities that Indians have to gratuitously and annually send over to England — it amounts to more than the total sum of the income of the 60 million of agricultural and industrial laborers of India. This is a bleeding process with a vengeance.”

A bleeding process with a vengeance.

This, Professor Gordon, notwithstanding your and Sperber’s insistence that Marx belongs to the 19th century, is what makes him very much a 21st century figure since “A bleeding process with a vengeance” is a perfect description of the garment factory disaster in Bangladesh and the suicide epidemic in India of small farmers who have no future. I understand, of course, that a magazine owned by a Facebook billionaire rests on the assumption that there is no alternative to capitalism, but in the interests of serious Marx scholarship I would urge you to do your homework.

Yours truly,

Louis Proyect, moderator of the Marxism mailing list


  1. Bravo. Next up, John Gray’s review in the 5/9/13 NY Review of Books.

    Comment by Fred Murphy — May 5, 2013 @ 3:33 pm

  2. The guy is paid to promote bourgeois ideology. That’s his role in society. Not sure what else you expect or what the intended efforts of this letter are. Good on you for penning it though.

    One thing: There was never a “break” with stagism, since Marx was NEVER a stagist with mechanical thinking. That’s repeated and clarified by Marx and Engels in their works and correspondence (long ago made public). Stagism became prominent in the Second International (the formation of which Marx opposed) and carried from there into the hearts and minds of Stalin, Trotsky and countless others.

    Comment by A Book by Dostoyevsky — May 5, 2013 @ 4:01 pm

  3. There was never a “break” with stagism, since Marx was NEVER a stagist with mechanical thinking.

    This is mostly true but the early writings on India were a concession to the stagism that is more clearly at work in Engels’s writings.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 5, 2013 @ 4:27 pm

  4. You’re a patient man, friend Louis. I don’t think I’ve even glanced at a copy of the New Republic in twenty years, so fed up am i with liberal “analysis” of events and people that are beyond their ability to reason around. But good on ya.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux Perez — May 5, 2013 @ 4:44 pm

  5. I generally ignore it but I noticed a link to it on the Yahoo Democratic Left mailing list, something I check in on each day to get a handle on what the rightwing of the DSA is up to.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 5, 2013 @ 4:53 pm

  6. Peter E. Gordon specializes in modern European Intellectual History from the late eighteenth to the late twentieth century. He works chiefly on themes in Continental philosophy and social thought in Germany and France in the modern period. He has written extensively about the philosopher Martin Heidegger and varioius strains of phenomenology in modern German and French thought. He regularly teaches a survey of modern European intellectual history since Nietzsche. He has also written and taught courses on Martin Heidegger, the Frankfurt School, Theodor Adorno and music criticism, Weimar Intellectuals, Hannah Arendt and political theology, theories of secularization, theories of historical ontology and historical epistemology, social theory after the Holocaust, and modern Jewish thought.

    Oh well…

    Comment by Dafydd Roberts — May 5, 2013 @ 8:06 pm

  7. the stagism that is more clearly at work in Engels’s writings.

    I think this oft-repeated sentiment is demonstrable incorrect.

    “The materialist conception of history has a lot of them nowadays, to whom it serves as an excuse for not studying history… In general, the word ‘materialist’ serves many of the younger writers in Germany as a mere phrase with which anything and everything is labeled without further study, that is, they stick on this label and then consider the question disposed of. But our conception of history is above all a guide to study, not a lever for construction after the manner of the Hegelian. All history must be studied afresh, the conditions of existence of the different formations of society must be examined individually before the attempt is made to deduce them from the political, civil law, aesthetic, philosophic, religious, etc., views corresponding to them. Up to now but little has been done here because only a few people have got down to it seriously. In this field we can utilize heaps of help, it is immensely big, anyone who will work seriously can achieve much and distinguish himself. But instead of this too many of the younger Germans simply make use of the phrase historical materialism (and everything can be turned into a phrase) only in order to get their own relatively scanty historical knowledge.” – Engels to C. SchmidtIn Berlin, August 5, 1890.

    Comment by A Book by Dostoyevsky — May 6, 2013 @ 7:24 am

  8. Thank you,

    Comment by William Crain — May 7, 2013 @ 5:45 am

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