Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 5, 2018

Round two in the Robert Brenner-Vivek Chibber fight

Filed under: Academia,journalism — louisproyect @ 9:22 pm

A magazine with an editorial board made up of Vivek Chibber sycophants?

Last June I posted about the feud between Robert Brenner and his one-time disciple Vivek Chibber that had erupted over Brenner’s dismissal as co-editor of Catalyst Magazine. At the time, 15 well-known leftist academics protested Chibber’s power grab in an open letter. Soon afterward, Bhaskar Sunkara, the publisher of Jacobin and Catalyst, defended the move as necessary since it seemed that Robert Brenner not been keeping up with his editorial duties. Since Brenner is a professor emeritus, I wonder what he had been up to that interfered with his job with all that time on his hands. Going to the race track like Charles Bukowski, another elderly Angeleno?

In any case, Sunkara generously decided to keep him on as an associate editor, alongside fellow associate editor Mike Davis. Brenner said nothing doing and Davis quit the magazine as well. Sunkara was just as magnanimous in victory as he was with the ingrates from the Tribune magazine in England, the latest addition to the Jacobin publishing empire, who also felt like they had been cast aside like Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman”. When I was in a high school production of Miller’s classic, I played his boss Howard who gave him the bad news that he was no longer needed. Willy’s response: “You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away- a man is not a piece of fruit!”

A new statement decrying Catalyst has just appeared but taking a different tack. The first one simply called for Brenner to have his old post back but this time the call is for a new journal of the left that will fulfill the original mandate of Catalyst:

We had hoped Catalyst would offer an arena where the complex strategic and theoretical issues arising from the strange new world of 21st century capitalism could be debated at length. The journal took important steps in this direction, yet still needed to expand its circle of editors and writers in order to involve a wider variety of anti-capitalist theoretical and political currents, as a well as a more diverse array of voices. Instead, it moved in the opposite direction, making it necessary to envision an alternative project.

Chibber forced the issue by explicitly refusing to work with Brenner unless he was granted full editorial authority over Catalyst’s direction and content. He has now created an editorial board of five to give the appearance of dispersing authority. But in view of the fact that three of the new members are his former students and one a close friend, it is evident that his purpose was only to tighten his stranglehold. We have been left with no choice but to see to the creation of a new publication ourselves.

So Chibber has named three of his former students and a close friend to rubber-stamp his decisions at Catalyst. Why would anybody expect anything different? Chibber is a product of the kind of authoritarian culture that prevails in academia. To succeed in academia, it helps to be a sycophant. Chibber was once the sycophant to Brenner and has now assembled his own bunch of yes men. You’d expect someone teaching at NYU like Chibber to follow in the norms that prevail there. Just look at one former student of the disgraced NYU professor Avital Ronell reported:

Last year I worked as a teaching assistant for Avital Ronell. I hadn’t sought out the appointment; I am a doctoral student in comparative literature at NYU, and that semester I was, per the handbook, guaranteed a teaching job. A few months before the position began, I received an email from one of my professors informing me that Ronell’s other teaching assistants were “all taking her class and working hard to familiarize themselves with her particular methodologies, texts, style, and so on.” I was “encouraged” to do the same. I was told this was “an important part of the process with Prof. Ronell.” After all, there were other students eager to replace me.

You get more or less the same thing from Andrew Marzoni, who told Washington Post readers that “Academia is a cult”  a few days ago:

Academics may cast themselves as hardened opponents of dominant norms and constituted power, but their rituals of entitlement and fiendish loyalty to established networks of caste and privilege undermine that critical pose. No one says it aloud, but every graduate student knows: This is the price you pay for a chance to enter the sanctum of the tenure track. Follow the leader, or prepare to teach high school.

Can you imagine what would happen to one of Chibber’s dissertation students who had discovered in the course of his research that Political Marxism was a load of crap and had decided to write a thesis that said so? Fucking Chibber wouldn’t allow me to use the 3 minutes allotted to me at an HM conference at NYU a few years ago to make such criticisms so why would he put up with a dissertation student, who unlike a computer programmer like me, needed his support to move ahead professionally.

Most of the 180 people who signed the statement are academics like Chibber. Maybe Catalyst will surge ahead despite them but I wouldn’t count on that given the broad spectrum of opposition embodied in the statement that includes a number of Political Marxism devotees like George Comninel, David McNally, Charles Post, Benno Teschke, and Michael Andrew Žmolek.

The statement outlines a number of pressing issues facing the left such as “How and whether movements can engage in electoral politics in ways that amplify (rather than weaken) working class power built in workplaces and the streets, and that avoid falling back into social democratic and other reformist frameworks, which have, under various guises, been complicit in administering austerity worldwide for decades.” As a new subscriber to Catalyst, I am wondering how long it will take for the magazine to defend the perspective Chibber put forward in Jacobin that called revolutionary struggles against capitalism as passé as a Nehru jacket. So far, there hasn’t been an indication of that.

What makes this ongoing drama so comical in my view is the utter refusal to understand that beneath all the leftist rhetoric, Sunkara is a businessman. He hires and fires at will just like any other businessman. Even Monthly Review, an institution that still breathes fire for all its faults, decided to can Ellen Meiksins Wood over some dispute that was never made public. All of these magazines, including New Left Review, Historical Materialism, Capitalism, Nature and Socialism, et al, are a curious hybrid of socialist politics and petty capitalist production.

Given the state of the left today, such journals fill a vacuum that was left by the demise of the “Leninist” parties of the 1960s. Except for the ISO in the USA, Solidarity, and the British SWP, I can’t think of a single magazine worth reading that has an editorial board responsible to the people who pay dues to a party organized along democratic centralist norms. Moreover, Against the Current, Solidarity’s magazine that includes Robert Brenner on its editorial board, can be read in full online, a feather in their cap. Frankly, this should be the standard for all magazines speaking in the name of socialism. Producing print publications necessitates chopping down trees, after all. And if you are going to sell print publications, at least make them affordable to the average worker.

The statement concludes with a preview of coming attractions:

The signers of this statement look forward to the launching of a new journal committed to openness, experimentation, and a spirit of wide-ranging debate that can seriously take up the questions of the transformed character of capitalism, as well as class power and strategy. It should go without saying that these must include vibrant debates about gender, race, and sexuality as distinctive features of capitalist class relations. Just such a project is currently in the works.

Well, good. I’ll take out a sub to that as well. I need something to fill up my days as a retiree. Between a run in Central Park in the afternoon and catching some movie sent to me by a publicist, there’s nothing that gets the digestive juices flowing more than some academic journal putting forward policy recommendations that reflect the vast distance between those who offer them and the actual lives of working people who will never pay attention to Jacobin or Catalyst even if it snuck up to them on the street and bit them on the ass.


  1. Off-topic comment: Mr. Proyect, you are not a Brit, so why do you always place your periods on the right side of the closing quotation mark?

    Comment by Irrelevant Question on My Part — November 5, 2018 @ 9:36 pm

  2. Mostly because I think the British approach makes more sense.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 5, 2018 @ 9:47 pm

  3. Who will educate the educators? This is an obvious question whenever opposition movements are conspicuously lacking.

    Comment by Stephen Zielinski — November 5, 2018 @ 10:09 pm

  4. […] Source: Round two in the Robert Brenner-Vivek Chibber fight | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist […]

    Pingback by time for R4G to take over from these bickering ‘left’ spastis…//Round two in the Robert Brenner-Vivek Chibber fight  – Last and First Men — November 5, 2018 @ 10:24 pm

  5. Jacobin itself seems to publish just enough interesting stuff to make it marginally more useful than that other cult publication, the World Socialist Web Site and its associated print ventures.. Catalyst strikes me as a at best a career booster for academic exponents of (Marx-colored) theory in the abstract. Maybe the new journal, if it gets off the ground, will be more rooted in political and social practice (aka reality).

    ON that note–I’m dismayed at the absence on the left of what you might call proto-parties–actual membership organizations that constitute a helpful and above all incorruptible presence in the lives of working people as opposed to the money-machine antiparties called Republican and Democrat. I’m for running candidates for office, but perhaps more is needed to get people believing that it isn’t all just another spectacle put on by the whimsical gods of the marketplace.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — November 6, 2018 @ 2:12 pm

  6. Money is the mother’s milk of politics, so said a politician here in California. Writing, copy-editing, lay-out and acquisition of copy-right, costs a lot of money. Printing tens of thousands of slick magazines every issue costs a lot of money. Distributing those magazines costs a lot a of money. In the case of the left parties, Leninist or otherwise, a lot of the costs are offset by volunteer labor, but in the case of Jacobin they are not. In other words, this enterprise has an annual budget of millions of dollars and an initial investment that must also be in the millions.

    Comment by Anthony Boynton — November 6, 2018 @ 4:28 pm

  7. Anthony–you seem to like the word “enterprise.” Is everything then legitimately the province of the “entrepreneur”? That’s a strange position to take in a Marxist forum. Anyway, most of the writers published in Jacobin–and given its academic nature, in Catalyst even more so–are doubtless desperate to publish and are not going to hold Chibber and Sunkhara hostage over copyright. Exactly which multi-million-dollar copyrights does e.g. Catalyst have to pay vast royalties for anyway?

    The WSWS appears to be financed off “David North’s” printing business, which one gathers he expropriated when he took over the SEP after the Healy crisis–no idea how it got started.

    IN any case, my main point–about U.S. political parties–appears to have escaped you. At best, you seem to be offering reasons why all politics, left or not, including publication activities, must necessarily be corrupt and removed by the vast sums of money required from the world of everyday struggling people. The fate of Brazil recently–and of Syriza and the European socialist parties in general also–perhaps demonstrates what that leads to.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — November 6, 2018 @ 5:09 pm

  8. Hi Farans: I was not responding to your note, in fact I had not even bothered to read it until now. I detest the word “enterprise” and was speaking from my involvement in publishing Opposition, El Bolchevique and Iskra when I was in the now defunct IWP(FI) and later in publishing a magazine called Culture Concrete, all in San Francisco. Political parties and sects milk their membership for dues and donations, money which can then be used to subsidize their publications. In the case of David North, he and his clique then stole the whole printing factory paid for by the dues of the members of the Workers League, and moved it lock stock and barrel to Detroit to set up a commercial printing business. The Workers League had previously used their printing press for commercial work in NYC, so North did not have to be very creative – just a thief. In the case of Bhaskar Sunkara, maybe he inherited family money or has a financial angel, but it is very unlikely that any of his publications make a profit.

    Comment by Anthony Boynton — November 6, 2018 @ 6:05 pm

  9. Anthony: your stupidity is exposed but your arrogance is undiminished. If you detest the word “enterprise, ” why are you using it the way you do? You certainly left yourself open to misinterpretation if that is what it was.

    Thank you for confirming my view of “David North.” The detail is unnecessary.

    You still haven’t stated a clear view of the Left entrepreneur Sunkhara. Do you think he should be making a profit or not? If not, what is your view of Jacobin Your smug assertion that money is the mother’s milk of politics is entirely pointless.

    I strongly suspect that nothing you say is to be believed in any case. Go to hell.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — November 6, 2018 @ 6:32 pm

  10. Lou, you seemed to have picked up a real piece of work here.

    Comment by Anthony Boynton — November 6, 2018 @ 9:14 pm

  11. Shove it up your goddamned ass you imbecile.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — November 6, 2018 @ 9:42 pm

  12. All right, let’s let it drop.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 6, 2018 @ 9:43 pm

  13. Your accounts of the vulnerability of graduate students are chilling to me because I decided to go to law school instead of graduate school because of my fears that I wouldn’t fit in very well there. At least, in law school, you could go your own way, which I did. I shudder to think what would have happened if I had decidedly differently.

    By the way, I heard of a recently started left publication called “Commune”. Do you know anything about it, and if so, what is your opinion?


    I know nothing about it. Joshua Clover, the reviews editor, is a bit of anarchist, I think.

    Comment by Richard Estes — November 6, 2018 @ 10:32 pm

  14. I’ve seen some of their articles and they don’t display any obvious ideological markers. On the whole, it seems far to the left of Jacobin but probably doesn’t have the same kind of growth potential because of that. I am afraid that reformism is pretty powerful right now.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 6, 2018 @ 10:38 pm

  15. Where Jacobin is concerned, IMHO, the medium is the message in the sense that its ritualized slickness, its obvious expensiveness, the yuppie coollth of the great enterpriser Sunkara, speak of the Free Market as the ultimate horizon no matter what individual contributors might say or how well they might say it. The real subject of Jacobin is always Sunkara.

    Glancing through the first issue of Commune, I get the impression that Clover and crew, whether Marxist or not, are truly anticapitalist–and to the extent that the sometimes opaque fine writing makes any sense–they seem to get it about Jacobin.

    Proyect is probably right about the growth potential, but it would be nice to see a few more of these efforts–maybe one or two would get it right.

    I wonder what it costs to put Commune on and whether any of their people get paid.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — November 7, 2018 @ 4:35 am

  16. Charles Bukowski died in 1994. Shesh!

    Comment by Max Power — November 10, 2018 @ 1:27 pm

  17. Teaching high school is better anyway. It’s free for the students, more job stability and a stronger union.

    Comment by Bill — November 15, 2018 @ 9:29 am

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