Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 11, 2013

N+1, Bruce Robbins, and Vivek Chibber

Filed under: journalism,postcolonialism,subaltern studies — louisproyect @ 1:56 pm

I’ve lost track of how many articles pointing attention to the renewed interest in Marxism is out there, but I am sure that it is at least a half-dozen. I am also sure that Jacobin and its ambitious young editor figure Bhaskar Sunkara get prominent attention in all of them. I don’t think that the Jacobin needs any more publicity than it has already received, including from the newspaper of record. My interest here is to introduce you to a magazine that at least in one instance is coupled with Jacobin. I speak of N+1:

Some of the coverage of the Marxist resurgence has focused on the boomlet in Marxist-leaning journals, mostly based in New York, like n+1, The New Inquiry, and Jacobin (full disclosure: a number of my friends and I have written for those journals). But missing is how secondary those journals really are. Small in circulation, it is their social penumbra that earns them influence—particularly the interaction of their editors, contributors, and readers both online and in the flesh. It is as much the vigorous debates these journals inspire as their content that brings a vitality to Marxist discourse.

That’s from a Chronicle of Higher Education article titled “Marx for Millennials” by Andrew Seal, a Ph.D. student at Yale. I guess that’s the sort of person who would refer to a “penumbra”, a word that I have run into in the past but never bothered to look up. If you had given me a multiple-choice test that gave “female sexual organ” as a possible answer, there’s a good shot that I would chosen it. I should also mention that I have not been acquainted with The New Inquiry but that should not prejudice you one way or the other. It is N+1 that I am here to praise. (Coincidentally I have about as much of a clue about what “N+1” stands for as I do about “penumbra”.)

I am not sure when I took out a sub to N+1 but it has been at least a year ago. I made a personal connection with the magazine after one of its co-editors, a 43-year-old Russian-born novelist named Keith Gessen, invited me to a film showing about the Russian new left that included remarks by Kirill Medvedev, a Russian poet and political commentator who has translated Charles Bukowski. For me that combination puts Medvedev in a class by himself and Gessen right next to him for introducing him to American audiences.

But the item that finally motivated me to write this fan letter is from the most recent issue dated Winter 2014. (The magazine is a triannual—three times a year, not every three years!) Written by Columbia University professor Bruce Robbins, “On Subaltern Studies” is the definitive riposte to Vivek Chibber’s new book “Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital”. I wouldn’t read too much into this, but Jacobin gave a fawning interview to Chibber a while back.

Although I am by no means an expert on subaltern studies, I do know a thing or two about “Political Marxism”, an academic current inspired by Robert Brenner’s writings on the origins of capitalism. Chibber, a hard-core PM’er, wrote his book as an assault on thinkers associated with subaltern studies whose inability to apply PM to Indian history led them to abandon Marxism even though just about all of them consider themselves Marxists. I defer to Bruce Robbins in this instance since he knows both the subaltern studies terrain as well as the particular wing of academic Marxism that Chibbers adheres to.

Although I would never dream of violating N+1’s intellectual property rights, I doubt that the editors would mind me quoting this particularly juicy passage from Robbins’s article (the Guha referred to is a key subaltern studies scholar):

Trying to undermine Guha’s standard of comparison, Chibber disputes the sociology behind this account of both European revolutions. He argues (here I abbreviate radically) that the English Civil War was not antifeudal (because feudalism in England was already dead) but only a contest within the landed classes over absolute monarchy. And he argues that the French Revolution was not procapitalist (because no actual capitalists were present on the scene). He concedes that some seemingly progressive things happened, but they happened only thanks to uprisings from below. Chibber sees these political accomplishments as grudgingly supported by the supposed revolutionaries and in any case quickly and violently rolled back by the forces of counter-revolution. Coercion has always been a large part of the capitalist order. Consent has not been. Dominance without hegemony is the norm in both India and in Europe.

This sounds attractively universal, but it is also wrong, and what is wrong with it gets to the heart of what is wrong with Chibber’s book, and with the state of thinking about universal history. If feudalism in England had already been overthrown by 1640, when and how did that happen? Could something as large as feudalism simply disappear without causing any political commotion, without anyone noticing? Is that how the most momentous social changes tend to occur, without any revolutionary tumult, without any changes from deep within society? If so, then politics would seem to be trivial—and economics, now decoupled from it, would also find its duties as an explanatory agent much reduced. In sacrificing the causal connection between politics and economics, Chibber is selling off Marxism’s most valued asset: the power to make sense of what happens. If capitalism’s rise was not a significant cause of political events in the past, like the French Revolution, then so much the worse for Marxism as a guide to history, whether in the past or in the future.

Chibber’s understanding of European history seems to take place in a vacuum; his account of the contemporary world suffers from a similar blind spot. He does not even try to account for the Great Divergence between capitalism in the style of IKEA and capitalism in the style of Rana Plaza. The question of what is specific about capitalism in the East is not posed until page 290 of a 296-page book. As for the West, Chibber’s sole point (not an uninteresting one) is that it is less different from the East than it thinks. The West has its political liberties, he says, but even there “capitalists mobilize all available means to increase their power in the organization of work.” This is true, but those means are not universally available, and their local unavailability is a fact of some importance. The United Automobile Workers are no longer the force in society they once were, and yet they remain strong enough to ensure that flogging does not happen on the shop floor. If, like Chibber, you insinuate that flogging on the shop floor is the universal norm, readers will suspect that you are not inspecting the premises very seriously.

If Chibber had been writing these things back in 1996, I would have certainly backed him against Robbins. That was when I was first getting up to speed on academic Marxism and developing a big grudge against anything “postal”, from postmodernism to postcolonialism (Robbins points out correctly that Chibber’s book is mistitled since his real target is subaltern studies rather than postcolonial studies, a field that Edward Said virtually invented.) That was the year of Alan Sokal’s hoax in Social Text, a journal that included articles filled with words like penumbra and that was co-edited by Bruce Robbins and Andrew Ross.

People sounding very much like Chibber were declaring war on those trendy academics on the left who rejected “Enlightenment values”, including the universalist view of history that Marxism supposedly embraces. Alan Sokal, who teaches at NYU with Chibber, was supposedly a knight on shining armor who would rescue Marxism from those who were subverting the youth with their mealy-mouthed cultural studies. It was only after having breakfast with Sokal a year or so after his hoax that I discovered that he had never read Gramsci, the main influence on subaltern studies not to speak of having never read Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin, the two most important figures on the left defending the importance of dialectics in science. Their work was featured in the same issue of Social Text that included Sokal’s hoax.

I am not exactly sure of the date but a year or so after Sokal’s hoax, Bruce Robbins debated him at NYU. This was around the time that my interest in and commitment to indigenous causes was deepening. I was still suspicious of anything remotely “postal” but felt troubled by Sokal’s dismissal of the rights of native peoples to block scientists from studying the skeletal remains of Kennewick man in the debate. He insisted that this was just another example of “local knowledge” that was an impediment to necessary scientific research. Absent from his considerations was the rights of a native people to resist encroachment on sacred ground.

In many ways, the attempt to amalgamate Marxism with the Enlightenment can only be done by selling Marx short. Marx was not really an enlightenment thinker. He borrowed from the French materialists but with the goal of defining a totally new approach to economics, politics, and society. Finally, it is important to recognize that there is nothing in Marx or Engels’s publications (as opposed to their private letters) that comes close to the ugliness of key Enlightenment thinkers:

Montesquieu is correct in his judgment that the weakheartedness that makes death so terrifying to the Indian or the Negro also makes him fear many things other than death that the European can withstand. The Negro slave from Guinea drowns himself if he is to be forced into slavery. The Indian women burn themselves. The Carib commits suicide at the slightest provocation. The Peruvian trembles in the face of an enemy, and when he is led to death, he is ambivalent, as though it means nothing. His awakened imagination, however, also makes him dare to do something, but the heat of the moment is soon past and timidity resumes its old place again…

The inhabitant of the temperate parts of the world, above all the central part, has a more beautiful body, works harder, is more jocular, more controlled in his passions, more intelligent than any other race of people in the world. That is why at all points in time these peoples have educated the others and controlled them with weapons. The Romans, Greeks, the ancient Nordic peoples, Genghis Khan, the Turks, Tamurlaine, the Europeans after Columbus’s discoveries, they have all amazed the southern lands with their arts and weapons.

–Immanuel Kant, Political Geography


  1. […] unrepentant Marxist becomes an unexpected ally, reopening the Sokal hoax in consideration of Bruce Robbin’s […]

    Pingback by Louis Proyect on Bruce Robbins, Social Text, and Vivek ChibberSocial Text — December 11, 2013 @ 9:27 pm

  2. What’s strange is that Guha’s book and his articles were written as though the criticisms of this approach were never made. And what’s even stranger is that the historical profession — within which subaltern studies has been so influential — has never questioned this foundation of the subaltern studies project, even though they all announce that it’s the foundation. The bourgeoisie in the West never strove for the goals that Guha ascribes to it: it never tried to bring about a consensual political culture or represent working-class interests. In fact, it fought tooth and nail against them for centuries after the so-called bourgeois revolutions. When those freedoms were finally achieved, it was through very intense struggle by the dispossessed, waged against the heroes of Guha’s narrative, the bourgeoisie. So the irony is that Guha really works with an incredibly naïve, even ideological notion of the Western experience. He doesn’t see that capitalists have everywhere and always been hostile to the extension of political rights to working people.

    Comment by Lessie Byers — December 12, 2013 @ 6:39 am

  3. As someone who has been directly involved in several of the issues mentioned (dialectical biology, postmodern critques of science, Kennewick Man), I found this one of the most thoughtful and self-reflective posts I have ever seen on this site.

    Comment by Stuart Newman — December 13, 2013 @ 6:56 pm

  4. Why, thank you, Stuart. Now I can go to my grave a happy man.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 13, 2013 @ 7:27 pm

  5. Marx is surely the culmination of the radical Enlightenment (of Spinoza, Diderot, Paine, et al) as opposed to the moderate Enlightenment. Jonathan Israel’s published extensively on this. Kenan Malik does a good overview of this distinction and of Israel’s work in this short piece: http://rationalist.org.uk/articles/4194

    Comment by Leigh Phillips — December 15, 2013 @ 2:57 am

  6. Speaking of “postality”, Marx is clearly post-Enlightenment. For that matter, so is Hegel, simply for lifting dialectical reason out of and beyond its ancient Socratic slumber.

    Comment by matthewrusso9 — December 19, 2013 @ 8:21 pm

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