Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 31, 2015

Randy Martin 1957-2015: an appreciation

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 7:41 pm

I was sad to learn that Randy Martin succumbed to brain cancer. He was a 57-year-old NYU professor with a long-standing commitment to Marxist scholarship and activist causes. I kept looking in vain for some personal recollections of Randy on the net but have seen none so far. Mostly what you get is résumés of his accomplishments, which are considerable. Duke University Press, for example, issued this statement:

Screen shot 2015-01-31 at 12.44.07 PM

I didn’t know Randy well enough except to say hello to him as I passed him by at the Socialist Scholar Conference/Left Forum yearly events. But I know enough about him to acknowledge his contributions to the grass roots movement, which gets mentioned neither by Duke nor by NYU. I also want to say a word or two about what I learned from Randy on some important theoretical questions that have divided the left.

Like Frank Rosengarten, who also succumbed to cancer last year, Randy was an important figure in the Brecht Forum in New York. He gave classes there over the years and likely made substantial financial contributions as well. He was also on the advisory board of the Left Forum. Until its demise because of the hostile real estate market in NYC, the Brecht Forum was an important resource for the left where public intellectuals like Randy could speak on an informal but informed basis to a wide range of students. A search of “Randy Martin” and “Brecht Forum” yields over 3000 items, including this one that is fairly representative:

“All That Is Solid Melts Into Air – The Red Power Mixtape” – annual Intensive Introduction to Marxist Theory & Praxis. This year’s intensive features Matthew Birkhold, Jodi Dean, Harmony Goldberg, Richard Levins, Randy Martin, Liz Mestres, Donna Murch, Alondra Nelson, Eric Ribellarsi, Tim Schermerhorn, Shahid Stover, Astra Taylor, Ganesh Tricur, Rick Wolff et al.

“The Working Class has nothing to lose but their chains… They have a world to Win”

The call of Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto still echoes today in the streets of major cities around the world. While capital is on the offensive imposing austerity, the working class is coming into being with self activity in the streets.

The Brecht Forum’s annual Summer Intensive is designed as an introduction to the theoretical and practical traditions that trace their origins to the works of Karl Marx and Frederich Engels.

Unlike many professors on the left, Randy Martin always offered solidarity to Cuba and Nicaragua understanding that the revolutions that took place there faced insurmountable odds. In 1995 he and Michael Brown, a leftist professor who co-founded the journal Socialism and Democracy with Frank Rosengarten, co-authored an article for that magazine titled “Left Futures” that was a very astute commentary on how to relate to countries that were struggling to create a new society under the shadow of American imperialism. (Unfortunately it is behind a firewall but I would be happy to send you a copy.) It is pretty much the same thing I was trying to say in my post on “Against Manichaeism”:

One of the more dramatic casualties of seeing the history of the left undialectically, exclusively in terms of failures which reflect dispositions built into socialist and communist politics, was a weakening of support on the part of many democratic socialists for the Cuban and Nicaraguan Revolutions, on the grounds that neither government was “democratic.” The principle of this rejection was undefineable as typically stated, and in no case was it or could it have been generalized rationally to other more favored nations. The judgment was, in that form, anti-historical and inconsistent with any notion of politics as a self-reflective and complexly mediated development of organization, consciousness, direction, definition, and power.

When we refer to this as a casualty, then, we mean that it is a casualty for the North American left’s understanding of itself: In particular for attempts to reconcile prescriptions for reforming that left with descriptions and analyses of what is happening elsewhere in the world. We are not claiming that particular cases should never be evaluated and criticized, but only that being judgmental in so categorical a way is inconsistent with respecting the types of non-institutional political processes which are inevitable as such under conditions which generate a left (including the left attempting to reform itself). Such a categorical attitude assumes as well that referring to historical conditions of those instances of social/political action which make it necessary and possible to reflect on further prospects of action is merely incidental to such reflections and, indeed, can only be disruptive of them.

The efforts to generate socialism within and against the global dominance of capital are recognizable along two dimensions. The first includes attempts, however fitful, deformed, or immature, to struggle for a social economy, for which the production of social life in general has priority over production for profit. The second includes all organizations in which the forms of participation–and their mediations–are conceivably consistent with the interdependence and forms of association which Marx referred to as the society of the producers beyond the producers of society. It follows that socialism and democracy are two aspects of the same politics as they are of the same theoretical problematic even when their expressions are historically compromised. It also follows that any process by which the left can be said to develop will be one which is as internally critical as it is externally articulate. From this point of view, the left’s future is, as always, now; and “now” is a distinctly historical present, both in its need to incorporate a past it nevertheless must transcend and in its need to recognize the activist, ideological, and theoretical elements which continue to constitute it despite the momentary desire of so many to redefine it beyond recognition and, apparently, beyond hope.

But this “now” is also a process of self-reflection and learning. For whether part of a distant and glorious past or an as yet unachieved future, an idealized conception of socialism–negative or positive–makes the future utterly obscure if only because practice, infinitely mediated as it can only be, is never perfectible. Therefore the idealist prospect of practical perfection can never be a basis from which to cross the utopian divide into a perfectly progressive state of being. Indeed, it can only render all present efforts as in perfect error. It is, as we hope we have shown, just such an implicitly negative utopian perspective which yields the current self-defeating desire for a yet newer, true left.

Finally, I have to say that Randy Martin opened my eyes to a way of looking at Marx that was distinct from both the postmodernist critique of him as a “master narrative” peddler and those defenders who ironically accepted the postmodernist critique after a fashion. If Marx is nothing but a variation on the Enlightenment tradition, as Vivek Chibber alleges, then this misses how Marx was really offering a critique of the Enlightenment.

Just about twenty years ago I took a class with Randy at the Brecht Forum that forced me to reevaluate my tendency to buy into the Marx as Enlightenment thinker analysis as I commented on Marxmail:

I’m taking a seminar with Randy Martin at the Marxist School in NYC. Randy teaches at Pratt and is the author of “Performance as Political Act” and “Socialist Ensembles: Theater and State in Nicaragua and Cuba”. The seminar involves a re-reading of some basic works of Marx in the context of contemporary critiques by postmodernists, feminists and postcolonialists.

I came to the seminar expecting to pick up some ammunition to use against all those trendy “post” thinkers, but have discovered, much to my initial dismay, that Randy Martin has a more nuanced view of things. Since I am a rather crude fellow, both personally and intellectually, this has required me to alter my habits of thought. But it may pay off in the long run–who knows. In any case, I would like to submit a statement by Randy on some of the basic issues being discussed in the seminar for your consideration. As you will see immediately, they are the same issues that were discussed recently in the postmodernism thread in this list.

Randy Martin: A certain amount of mischief has been done under the sign of the prefix “post.” It is often inserted in front of a noun not as a modifier, but as a total break with what it is manifestly attached to. It seems to me more useful to inquire into the nature of this attachment, and to repose the “post” as a complication within rather than complete rupture from the subject in question. It is within this in mind that I would like to examine the relation between marxism, postmodernism, feminism and postcolonialism.

My interest is not in subsuming the last three terms into the first, but in exploring their mutual articulation. It is not uncommon to construct a rather brittle and straw figure of marxism in order to constitute a critical project that can strengthen an understanding of politics that have typically been difficult to perceive from a marxist optic. One risk in this procedure, however, is to reproduce internally the very features one is attempting to correct through the critique of marxism. An example of this can be found in certain treatments of postmodern politics, exemplified in the radical democracy of Laclau and Mouffe.

Their declaration of the end of master narratives has all the ring of a universalizing proclamation, and their newly decentered subjects may not be able to recognize what they share with the old ones. More specifically, the claim that Marx is the source of a master narrative of history ending with the victory of communism and the industrial proletariat as universal subject, rests on a reading of Marx that would greatly simplify any text. As noted by Foucault, Marx shares with Nietzsche and Freud a view of history as internally discontinuous, and therefore contributes to the very theory of decentering that contemporary theorists depend upon.

The notion that, for Marx, history can be apprehended as a narrative, has been greatly problematized by Althusser and others. Careful attention to the opening pages of the Manifesto bear out these assertions. There, as in the 18th Brumaire, as in Capital, Marx is vigilant in presenting the ambivalent and divided movement of history, not as an inexorable synthesis that is the same everywhere it appears, but as a contradictory process that destroys boundaries only to reconstitute new societal divisions, that depends upon a socialization of labor that it subsequently flees, that levels distinctions only to reinscribe them more extensively. This account of creative destruction is helpful in grasping the dynamics of the postcolonial condition.

But doing so assumes that is possible to extract what is analytic in Marx, rather than reading him descriptively and generalizing form a specific situation. To do so can only produce a eurocentric account of marxism. This is not to say that Marx’s (or anyone else’s work) could be transcribed in toto to account for contemporary situations of postcoloniality or other phenomena. The same would have to be said regarding the relation of marxism to feminism. Yet feminism’s success in showing that the separation between public and private is itself a political construct, is not at all inconsistent with Marx’s efforts to analyze how the disarticulation of production and reproduction (and of circulation) is generative of politics. Clearly this does not exhaust feminist analysis but makes a case for a certain supplementarity among critical endeavors that share a given epistemic context.

In doing some research to prepare this post, I discovered that Randy’s class was most likely based on the analysis he developed in “On Your Marx: Relinking Socialism and the Left” that can be read on Google books. It looks like chapter two titled “Fragmentation and Fetishism: The Postmodern in Marx” can be read in its entirety. It is very closely related to the discussion he led in his class at the Brecht Forum. This is an excerpt that I find particularly insightful:

Impatience reigns when the terms postmodernism and Marxism appear side by side in discussion. A justifiable part of the unease stems from the sense that, while arguing over words, a clarity of political focus has slipped from the Left’s grasp. With the destructive effects of corporate capital’s grip on the direction and details of society’s development receiving increasing attention in the conventional press and from quarters of the right, it would seem less controversial than it has in a long while that some version of a critique of the profit-driven market would have purchase on the public imagination. In this context, dwelling on the nuances of theoretical dispute might appear to be a deferral of politics altogether.

Like any disagreement, this one presents prospects and problems. Criticisms of Marx’s work have too often suffered from illiteracy, decontextualization, aphoristic reduction, or personal attack. Marxists are left in the uncomfortable position of having to redefine the alien ground to which they have been relegated. Ironically, the attacks on postmodernism have often suffered the same fate, in which the connections to and dependencies on Marx have been read out of postmodernist writings by Marxists themselves, at the expense of their own influence on current theoretical discussions. It should be acknowledged that clarity of thought can be a casualty in these interludes. There is an understandable resistance to specialized vocabulary and complex sentence structure that can seem unnecessarily obscure or elitist. But also, the term postmodern, as it is used polemically, overconsolidates a range of intellectual tendencies, political impulses, and social phenomena. Calling someone a postmodernist, if they accept particular features of contemporary culture, is a bit like calling Marx a capitalist because he begins his analysis by accepting the prevalence of the commodity. As Fredric Jameson (1996) has noted, Marxism has suffered the conflation between its identification as a philosophy, a social movement, and an historical project. Yet, so too have the distinctions between postmodernist (an advocate of certain critical principles), postmodernism (a cultural logic) and postmodernity (a formation of societal development), been lost or misplaced in the rough and tumble moniker, ‘‘pomo’’.

All of this has added poignancy in light of Randy Martin’s role in approving Alan Sokal’s spoof for Social Text in 1996, just around the time I was taking his class at the Brecht Forum. My initial tendency was to sell him short because I was still committed to the Marx as Enlightenment thinker analysis that was widespread on the left.

It was only after thinking more deeply about these questions that I began to see the wisdom of the Social Text editorial board in pulling together an extremely important issue even if Alan had conned one of its editors (I have over the years grown more tolerant of such indiscretions in light of understanding better through my submissions to Swans and CounterPunch what a job it is to publish a journal.)

That issue of Social Text was an enormous contribution to the debate about Marxism, science, postmodernism and “enlightenment values” that Randy could have been proud of despite the scandal. It was prompted in large part by a “Science Wars” conference in 1995 that Andrew Ross described as follows in the introduction to the issue:

The shrill tone of this backlash was set by Paul Gross and Norman Levitt’s book Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994). In spite of the authors’ claim that they are not “stalking horses for social conservatism,” Higher Superstition belongs fair and square to the tradition of Alan Bloom, William Bennett, Roger Kimball, Hilton Kramer, and Dinesh D’Souza. Presented as a wake-up call to unsuspecting scientists, it identifies and caricatures “science-bashers” in the same systematic fashion as those before had fingered the defilers of their Great Books tradition: “The relativism of the social constructionists, the sophomoric scepticism of the postmodernists, the incipient Lysenkoism of the feminist critics, the millenialism of the radical environmentalists, the racial chauvinism of the Afrocentrics” (252). Gross and Levitt’s effort generated its share of coverage in the scholarly media and began to draw cutting responses from the ranks of those who demolished The Bell Curve; this early attention was fol- lowed by a series of lavishly funded, high-publicity conferences intended to mobilize a broad coalition from the natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities. The most well-publicized conference, “The Flight from Science and Reason,” hosted in June 1995 by the New York Academy of Sciences, clearly laid out the agenda of linking together a host of dangerous threats: scientific creationism, New Age alternatives and cults, astrology, UFO-ism, the radical science movement, postmodernism, and critical science studies, alongside the ready-made historical specters of Aryan-Nazi science and the Soviet error of Lysenkoism.

Although Andrew Ross does not mention it, the Olin Foundation and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation funded the conference alluded to above. You probably already know that the Olin Foundation was to the 1990s what the Koch brothers are to rightwing causes today, a bottomless piggy bank. Then there is the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation that is less known but deserving closer scrutiny. Sourcewatch.org advises:

Harry Bradley was one of the original charter members of the far right-wing John Birch Society, along with another Birch Society board member, Fred Koch, the father of Koch Industries’ billionaire brothers and owners, Charles and David Koch.[5]

According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “from 2001 to 2009, it [Bradley] doled out nearly as much money as the seven Koch and Scaife foundations combined.”[6]

So was Norman Levitt, who by Alan Sokal’s admission gave him the idea to con Social Text, standing up for Enlightenment values when he went knocking at the door of the Olin and Bradley foundations? If so, then call me an enemy of the Enlightenment.


  1. “Criticisms of Marx’s work have too often suffered from illiteracy, decontextualization, aphoristic reduction, or personal attack. Marxists are left in the uncomfortable position of having to redefine the alien ground to which they have been relegated. Ironically, the attacks on postmodernism have often suffered the same fate, in which the connections to and dependencies on Marx have been read out of postmodernist writings by Marxists themselves, at the expense of their own influence on current theoretical discussions.”

    Hugely insightful. And more globally insightful in terms of wasteful polemic about post-colonial theory. Very grateful to have been directed to this guy. Thanks Louis.

    Comment by John Gamey — February 1, 2015 @ 10:07 am

  2. Another great post Louis. Thanks. Reminds me, again, of how much I miss the Brecht Forum. I haven’t read much of Matin’s work – now I will, though – but I can’t say how important I think it is to emphasize Marx’s critique of the Enlightenment project instead of thinking of his ideas as an extension of that project, which you mention here as well as in your Chibbers/Spivak post last year. (BTW, could you please send me the original Spivak article as well as Left Futures?) Thanks. eric dot feinblatt at gmail dot com. 13 ways of looking at a Blackbird is a killer….thanks for that too.

    Comment by efeinblatt — February 2, 2015 @ 5:39 am

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