Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 1, 2018

20 years of Marxmail

Filed under: Marxmail — louisproyect @ 4:32 pm

On May 1, 1998 I launched the Marxism list as an alternative to the Marxism-International mailing list that was hosted at the University of Virginia by the Spoons Collective, a group of academics and academic wannabes who had created mailing lists to serve a postmodernist milieu. Originally consisting of listservs for Baudrillard, Lyotard, Lacan, et al, they decided to create one for Marx since he was seen as someone who showed up in postmodernist literature. Except for Hans Ehrbar, a University of Utah economics professor who had experience as a Marxist-Leninist—even to the point of being involved in a industrial colonizing project—nobody in the Spoons Collective had ever been a party member or an activist.

In an interesting write-up on the Spoons Collective that I only ran into today writing this article, I discovered that they generally regarded the Marxism lists they supported as a nuisance. (The original Marxism list had subdivided in amoeba fashion because of ideological warfare.) Malgosia Askanas, a Unix support person at Panix, Spoons member and author of the article, probably spoke for all except Hans by envisioning the Marxism list as “the first Internet discussion forum dedicated to Marxist philosophy.” Philosophy? Isn’t the point to change it? Askanas obviously saw people like me as crashing her party:

The first two issues motivated the overwhelming – frequently excessive – reluctance to regulate the events on the lists, which became a hallmark of Spoon and led, for example, to the grotesque contortions to which Spoon later resorted in attempting to deal with the de-facto hijacking of its Marxism lists by various sects, dogma-spouters, provocateurs and self-styled “vanguards of the working class”.

To unpack this paragraph, it would be necessary to explain that the Spoons collective had a principle about free speech and refused to moderate the original Marxism list. This led to it being torn apart before very long by flame wars by the “provocateurs” she refers to. We had a self-styled Trotskyist named Bob Malecki, who used to have mind-numbing exchanges with Shining Path supporters numbering in the dozens each day. When I threatened to file a FOIA request to discover whether the FBI had infiltrated the list to destroy it through malicious trolling, Askanas told us that she was done with us and to find an alternative location.

Hans Ehrbar, who saw some value in the list, agreed to host it at the University of Utah and that is where it still operates as an official academic resource to this day. Needless to say, to avoid frictions with the university over the fall-out that might have occurred from out-of-control flame wars (including death threats by rival gangs of Shining Path supporters), I took on the responsibility of moderating the list and keeping subscribers on a short leash.

Archives for the Marxism list, from its inception at Spoons until today, can be read at http://lists.csbs.utah.edu/pipermail/marxism/. Speaking for the collective, U. of Virginia grad student Jon Beasley-Murray sent out an announcement on July 13, 1994:

I started reading Marx as an undergrad (for the “English moralists” paper!), and read more Althusser than anything else, mostly because he sounded fun, it meant I didn’t have to read Hegel, and everyone else thought it was a bad idea (such are the ways I tend to make choices).  At the time, I enjoyed Marxist rhetoric as much as anything else–for one thing, it ensured you were always “right” and (with Althusser) had Science and Truth on your side.  Of course, the proletariat was always a little more difficult to locate.

If I were a smart-ass (yes, I know—you are wondering why I use the conditional), I would have told Jon that the proletariat could be found down the hall from his classrooms cleaning out the bathrooms.

Today, the Marxism list has 1545 subscribers, which is about 1500 more than it had when it first started out in 1998. Looking at the early archives of the Marxism list, I see some of the comrades who have been with us through thick and thin: Gary McLennan, Patrick Bond, Phil Ferguson, Jim Farmelant, and Eric Toren.

Twenty years is a long time in Marxist politics. I only spent 11 years in the Trotskyist movement and consider most of them ill-spent. On the other hand, I feel proud of having kept this ship afloat for 20 years since it implicitly builds on the American Socialist legacy left by Bert Cochran and by Peter Camejo’s North Star. These attempts that took place in the 1950s and 1980s respectively were meant to create a pole of attraction for socialists that broke with sectarianism. Obviously, Marxmail does not make agreement with this approach a requirement but my gut feeling is that well over 80 percent of the subscribers are working in their own way to build a new international revolutionary movement that this working class holiday symbolizes.

From a communications perspective, it is surprising that Marxmail has not withered on the vine like other leftist mailing lists. LBO-Talk and PEN-L, which were along with Marxmail the two other high-profile listservs in 1998, have dried up for the most part. It is easy to understand why. Social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, have become the medium of choice for many on the left.

Furthermore, Marxmail no longer has the one or two thousand word posts in which a subscriber could put forward a substantive analysis of some burning issue. The arrival of blogs took the place of this form of communication, including for me.

At my advanced age, I doubt that I will be around 20 years from now but I surely hope that Marxmail will be. It has subscribers from every corner of the earth and allows Marxists to exchange ideas and information that can be found nowhere else. There will come a time when the list will no doubt consist of 15,000 subscribers as the class struggle deepens. Unlike Facebook and Twitter, there is no central hub for the exchange of Marxist ideas. Marxmail took over a decade to develop its particular ecology, one of mutual respect and camaraderie. For that alone, I feel like my 50 year involvement with Marxist politics has borne some fruit in a totally arid environment.

Go to http://lists.csbs.utah.edu/listinfo/marxism for subscription information.


  1. what I’m most disappointed about with marxmail topics is the virtual absence of any serious discussion of the american sports fetish, esp. on TV. It is surely one of the “invisible religions” of american culture, Holywood being its main competitor. I’m sure my interest in this is partly due to my lifelong enjoyment of sports as a “doer”, rather than merely “viewer”. I still play tennis and badminton and I’ll soon be 80 years old.

    Comment by uh...clem — May 1, 2018 @ 5:01 pm

  2. Marxmail is an indispensable resource–scholarly but unfailingly partisan and yet lacking the puerile spitting contests that occupy so much of what passes for discussion on the Web these days. I’m not a subscriber, mostly because, despite my advanced age, I didn’t get “into the Web”–apart from a brief and painful flirtation with IRC–until the modern era of blogs, etc., and hence have no experience of subscription mailing lists.

    I have the impression that one would receive a ton of email in addition to the already unbearable loads of spam that come in these days, which I find unmanageable, but I read the mail archive several times a day and never fail to learn something new. I couldn’t be without it. Long may Marxmail wave!!

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — May 1, 2018 @ 7:50 pm

  3. Thank you Louis for the hard work you put into keeping the Marxmail platform going. And on top of that, to also keep this blog going in a lively fashion and updated with punch-fuls of contributions to clarifying things and exposing falsehoods, is a true gift. Anyone who has done anything in this class of work knows what tremendous amount of labor it takes. Your work is a great contribution and will remain on this earth for long. Thank you and bless your efforts!

    Comment by Reza — May 2, 2018 @ 5:17 am

  4. How many workers are on that list of 15,000?

    Comment by Rebase — May 4, 2018 @ 9:01 am

  5. It is 1,500, not 15,000. Except for the college students, nearly everybody is a worker. We do have 1 lawyer, to my knowledge. He is 94, however, and his career was devoted to defending radicals. So we make an allowance for him.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 4, 2018 @ 11:40 am

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