Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 15, 2019

HM/Jacobin Conference 2019: Socialism in our Time

Filed under: Historical Materialism,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 5:46 pm

The Socialism in Our Time conference that met this weekend was co-sponsored by Jacobin and Historical Materialism. This is a not an attempt at presenting an impartial report but simply my own reaction to the presentations.

  1. What Happened to the Pink Tide (Saturday 10:30am-12pm)

The speakers were Rene Rojas and Kenneth Roberts, with Roberts serving as a “discussant” (an academic conference convention) on Rojas’s article that appeared in the Summer 2018 Catalyst titled “The Latin American Left’s Shifting Tides”, which is not behind a paywall. It is a very long and very good article that I recommend thoroughly. Rojas’s analysis was not surprising:

When world commodity prices plummeted, the result was an unavoidable tightening of services and goods for their urban poor backers. Leftists in power could only think of tapping and squeezing as much as possible from their countries’ existing production and commercial circuits rather than developing new, alternative, and more reliable means to provide for their constituents. A recent Chavista voter could not have put it better, declaring that the government “just needs to find a way to make an economic revolution, so we can eat once again!” In short, poor urban voters abandoned the Pink Tide for its inability to break through the limits set by the neoliberal economy. Whereas elites beat back the classical left for going too far, the Pink Tide governments are falling to the very sectors that voted them into office, who are punishing left regimes for not going far enough.

He draws a contrast between the Pink Tide and what he calls the “classical left”, which meant, for example, the trade union movements in Brazil and Argentina of the 40s and 50s that exploited their social weight to gain concessions from a modernizing bourgeoisie:

Ironically, the rise of Latin America’s classical left was fueled by elite modernization projects. For the first time since the Mexican Revolution, the region’s popular sectors effectively threatened ruling-class power. Its foundation was the organized industrial working classes that emerged with the post-Depression industrial development in the region’s most economically advanced countries, along with the rebellious “peasantry” that was thrust into militancy with capitalist transformation of agriculture. Aided and often coordinated by an ancillary layer of students and low-level professional revolutionists, these effective left movements were built on radicalizing segments in unions and insurgent proletarianized rural communities and associations.

By contrast, the Central American revolutions of the 1970s and 80s relied on peasant movements and the informal sector:

The main impact of these rural-based insurgencies was to deliver real democratic reform and permanently dismantle the repressive labor system on which their agrarian oligarchies relied. The Sandinistas led a generalized insurrection that toppled the Somozas in 1979. In neighboring El Salvador, the FMLN twice attempted to replicate the former’s strategy. They came close, first in 1981, then again with the final 1989 offensive, occupying vast sections of the capital, each time fighting the oligarchic military regime to a standstill. The Guatemalan guerrillas built a less potent military apparatus that was essentially contained by the early 1980s, yet, punching above their weight and withstanding the regime’s genocidal response, they also forced a stalemate. The Salvadoran insurgency best illustrates the Left’s achievements: the mass armed insurgency of proletarianized rural communities was so costly to the traditional agrarian oligarchy that it reshaped their fundamental interests. By making the extra-economic forms of labor exploitation unviable, it forced ruling classes to shift to other commercial and manufacturing sectors.

Jeffrey Webber wrote a critique of Rojas in NACLA that is worth reading.

During the discussion, I pointed out that Rojas’s article failed to mention the constraints on Central and Latin American leftist governments, either of the “classical left” or Pink Tide varieties. In my experience carrying out solidarity work for the FSLN, it became obvious that the relationship of forces were making it impossible to move forward. Once the USSR went capitalist, the ability of anti-capitalist states to survive was severely limited. I didn’t have time to make an additional point that has some bearing on this but will mention it now. It was impossible, even under the best of circumstances, for Nicaragua or Venezuela to build socialism for the same reason it was impossible in the USSR. Socialism is a world system, just like capitalism. If there was to be a movement toward socialism in Latin and Central America, it would have to be continent-wide, just as it was in the 19th century against Spanish colonialism. Unfortunately, despite the lip-service given to Simon Bolivar by Hugo Chavez, there was never much attempt to apply the lessons of his struggle. In the 1960s, the Cubans formed OLAS as a way to unite revolutionary forces in Latin America but on a mistaken guerrilla warfare basis. When that failed, Cuba more or less gave up on such projects. With the exhaustion of the Pink Tide, it will be up to Marxist currents to carry the struggle forward. One hopes that they can abandon sectarianism and achieve the kind of mass support that Hugo Chavez or other Pink Tide leaders enjoyed.

  1. Brexit: WTF? (Saturday, 1pm-2:30pm)

This was a talk by Richard Seymour that was up to his usual high standards. Fortunately, he posted it to his Patreon account that I urge you to look at, as well as signing up for a monthly donation to his work.


  1. Revolution and Counter-Revolution in the Middle East (Saturday 3pm-4:30pm)

Yasser Munif spoke about the regime’s success in overtaking Aleppo that relied on a combination of aerial bombardment and being able to exploit ethnic and religious divisions.

After Munif, Anand Gopal spoke about class divisions that have largely gone unreported, even by people who are considered experts on Syria. Ultimately, it was class divisions rather than ethnic or religious divisions that undermined the possibility of a democratic revolution. He recounted his experiences in Manjib, a city of about 100,000 that was one of the first to expel the Assadist government officials early and to come under the control of a Revolutionary Council that encouraged the full flowering of democratic rights. However, the Council was dominated by the local bourgeoisie that despite suffering under Assad was determined to maintain private property rights at all costs. This meant that when local working-class residents demanded price controls on bread and their supply being maintained collectively rather than privately, the Council resisted. This led to young activists based in the local college organizing protests against the Council that had no effect until Islamists moved into Manjib and used force against it in the name of serving the people according to Islamic principles. Once the Islamists gained control of the city, they absorbed it into ISIS’s bogus caliphate and operated as a dictatorship, with no regard for the hunger that persisted under their rule. In his last visit to Manjib, Gopal learned that young activists, including some who joined ISIS, are thinking through the lessons of what happened and are now opened to socialist politics.

The final speaker was Frieda Afary, an Iranian-American member of the Alliance of Middle Eastern Socialists, who spoke about the emerging grass-roots resistance of trade unionists and women to the Islamic Republic. Her articles can be found on their website.

  1. Is there a Democratic Road to Socialism? A Debate. (Sunday 10:30am-12pm)

This was between Eric Blanc and Charles Post and largely forgettable. Blanc defended his neo-Kautskyite perspective, with several references to the importance of the “electoral arena”. If this was only about backing candidates as well as mass action, there wouldn’t have been much need for a debate. Perhaps sensing the leftist sensibility of the audience, Blanc did not mentioned the Democratic Party once but did, of course, talk about the need to back Sanders. Post, who is a congenital windbag, spent his time talking about working class power, the inevitably of a revolutionary struggle for power and other abstractions. If you were expecting the kind of debate that Peter Camejo had with Michael Harrington, you would have been disappointed. Since Charles Post is a humorless pedant, the debate was pretty much of a dud. It would have been far more interesting if Tim Horras had debated Blanc but he is not part of the charmed HM/Jacobin circle. However, I do urge you to read his article taking up all these questions here.

  1. How America Became Capitalist: Imperial Expansion and the Conquest of the West (Sunday, 1:00pm-2:30pm)

This was a presentation by James Parisot on his new book as titled above. I picked the book up on Saturday during lunch and can’t recommend it highly enough. Based on his PhD, it argues that slavery, capitalism and imperialism were intertwined. Rather than recapitulate his presentation, it would be best if I provided a brief excerpt from this intelligent and well-written Pluto book:

When Thomas R. Gray wrote Nat Turner’s “confessions” after interviewing him, he included in the introduction of his book, “Nat Turner, the leader of this ferocious band, whose name has resounded throughout Our widely extended empire, was captured.” For Gray, Turner’s rebellion was a challenge to empire. And in the south, empire could be seen as stretching from the household to the polity. As the Marquis de Chastellux put it, more critically, “I mean to speak of slavery; not that it is any mark of distinction, or peculiar privilege to possess negroes, but because the Empire men exercise over them cherishes vanity and sloth.” Thus, for some, the “empire” of slavery was not something to celebrate, but to criticize. Compared to the more prosperous and economical north, southern slavery tarnished human potential, encouraging arrogant behavior and idleness through the exercise of personal slave empires.

Slavery was, of course, not only racialized, but gendered. American slavery was unique in that it developed into a self-reproducing system, so that, even with the formal abolition of the slave trade, slavery could continue to expand south and west. Often slave women worked in the fields, the same as men, although in some cases their gender was preferred for household tasks. And, as recorded in the story of Harriet Jacobs, female slaves were also regularly raped. The result of this, along with the fact that free blacks and whites did occasionally copulate on consensual terms, led to years of debate over who, exactly, was “black.” Milton Clarke’s narrative, for example, reveals he was called a “white nigger.” And one record of racial categories in New Orleans shows a complexity of racial categories:

Sacatra: griffe and negress.
Griffe: negro and mulatto.
Marabon: mulatto and griffe.
Mulatto: white and negro.
Quarteron: white and mulatto.
Metif: white and quarteron.
Meamelouc: white and motif.
Quarteron: white and meamelouc.
Sang-mele: white and quarteron.

Charles Post and John Clegg were discussants in this panel discussion. Clegg, who agrees with Parisot that slave plantations were capitalist, offered useful points of agreements as well as criticisms, especially on what he thought were imprecise formulations on empire. Parisot, who has a refreshingly modest manner for an academic, thought that Clegg had a point.

As for Post, who was invited to be a discussant by Parisot, repeated his well-trodden arguments about why you can’t have capitalism without wage labor. Yawn.

  1. Leninism, Social Democracy, and the State (Sunday, 3:00pm-4:30pm)

This was an odd panel discussion with two of the speakers from the Socialist Project in Canada who declared Leninism extinct. In doing so, they were not repeating the arguments I have made but much more in line with Eric Blanc’s neo-Kautskyism. The other speaker was Nathaniel Flakin, an editorial board member of Left Voice who took up the cudgels against Kautskyism. If you go to the Left Voice website and do a search on Kautsky, you’ll find a number of interesting articles by Flakin as well as Doug Greene, who has begun to write for it as a guest columnist. Doug Greene, of course, is always worth reading.


  1. https://redfortyeight.com/2019/04/15/goodbye-first-to-bolshevism-and-marxs-flawed-theories-the-left-is-its-own-worst-enemy-goodbye-revolution/

    Is the left ready for anything real? The 1848 blog has a lot of material on a neo-marxist upgrade and a new approach to the issues of postcapitalism
    e.g. ecological democratic market neo-communism…
    Isn’t historical materialism a dead subject?

    Comment by nemonemini — April 15, 2019 @ 6:37 pm

  2. Overall, I think the Conference was quite interesting…Refreshing even…There appears to be a heightened situation of convergence by several Marxist tendencies usually at each other’s throats…This new rapprochement was typified by the debate between Eric Blanc and Charles Post that Louis disparages—unjustly, I think. Anyway, maybe there are green shoots of a beginning radicalization…Easter is always a sign of revived nature and revived hopes…

    Kurt Hill
    Brooklyn, NY

    Comment by Kurt Hill — April 16, 2019 @ 1:57 pm

  3. “e.g. ecological democratic market neo-communism … .”

    Just for example (e.g.)–but of course!!! Why didn’t anyone THINK of that … ?

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — April 16, 2019 @ 4:57 pm

  4. Apologies for hitting an off-key note, but …

    Can anybody explain the meaning of the graphics (the ‘crisis’, ‘resistance’, ‘our future’ thing) at the top?

    Political graphics used to connect immediately, without the need for a degree in semiotics. (Nothing wrong with a degree in semiotics, btw.) Just trying to understand the sign system used here.

    Comment by Reza — April 17, 2019 @ 1:47 am

  5. Reza: Meaning? You ask about meaning and dare to mention semiotics? Blasphemer … .

    IMO, la semiotique French style at best is a climate of opinion in literary history. Strictly wine, cheese, nookie, and bullshit. This line of crap has a venerable and highly significant intellectual tradition in logic and linguistics in the first half of the last century–including the work of Charles Sanders Peirce, founder of pragmaticism as he called it–but by the time you reach Umberto Eco and Roland Barthes it ceases to have any real authority. There’s a good bit of it about in anthropology as well, need I say more … .

    This stuff and its sloppier proponents in American universities was the very legitimate burr under the saddle of the much-derided Alan Sokal, prompting the infamous hoax. That has been done to death by assholes, but I think nailed a good many of the bastards cold as far as it went, which they certainly deserved, especially regarding their clumsy and delusional if not outright paranoid excursions into the higher mathematics and physics. A whole generation of academic social parasites got fat on this garbage and are now happily retired and enjoying their golden years in ironclad security while the rest of us spend our free time staring down the barrels of shotguns … .

    There are Ph.D programs in semiotics but as far as I can tell, they tend to be a branch of communications theory, which is ideologically suspect in the extreme, like most of what passes for research in psychology and the other so-called human sciences. Cf. the late, unlamented S.I. Hayakawa who, as I understand it, is neither taken seriously nor much cited by the literary crowd although as far as I know he used the word “semiotics” before it became a fad in English departments in the United States.

    If anyone has a solid socialist view against what I’ve said I freely confess that I have spent very little time on Barthes and the rest of those people.

    I don’t understand the diagrams either.

    Footnote: I believe there are absolutely brilliant Left Ph.D. candidates in philosophy who think you can grasp physics by farting up an armchair and communing with the dialectic. A different kettle of fish altogether, but fuck them too. This sort of thing crosses ideological lines–witness the much-trumpeted alleged proof by von Mises that you can deduce the whole of Austrian economics from a single synthetic a priori proposition–“man belches” or something. I’m sure there are universities granting advanced degrees in “praxeology.” You can probably get a Ph.D. in string-ball building if you look hard enough. IQ isn’t all that rare and it certainly isn’t enough to guarantee intellectual authority. I’m sure there are doctorates in Ayn Randism.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — April 17, 2019 @ 1:57 pm

  6. Farans, Thanks for that!

    Ferdinand de Saussure (1857 – 1913), I believe, was an earlier contributor to semiology (as well as to structural linguistics; Chomsky got his notion of ‘competence v. performance’ from Saussure’s ‘parole v. langue’). I’ve never read Barthes, who was born two years after Saussure had died, and whose ‘The Rustle of Language’ sits among the books I may get around to reading one day, when I have absolutely nothing to do. Then again, maybe Saussure is all you need.

    I see I’m not the only one not getting the diagrams at the top. I don’t feel like such a dumb-dumb now.

    Comment by Reza — April 17, 2019 @ 5:54 pm

  7. You’re right about Saussure; however as he was an honest-to-god linguist tel quel–that is, for all his philosophical agenda, a legitimate scientific student of language, I left him out–semiotique as practiced by humbugs in English departments is IMO something completely different.

    As you point out, at all events, Saussure died well over a century ago, in 1913, long before the likes of Derrida, Foucault, Barthes, etc. etc. came on the scene, and is used by “semioticians” primarily as a source of touchstone concepts that trigger the pretentious flights of polymathic, fanciful, pedantic improvisation that so bemused Sokal.

    Saussure’s theory of the nature of the sign and a few other basic aspects of his thought have philosophical ramifications that have been elaborated in the past fifty or sixty years far beyond anything he–or even such a modest successor as the now-forgotten Claude Levi-Strauss–would recognize.

    The question is whether “semiology” as a legitimate and unified field of study in some grandiose postmodern Social Text sense actually exists. I doubt that it does.

    I think there is no field of cultural or literary-historical or historical study as such that legitimately can be called “semiology”–just schools of literary and cultural criticism with allusions to everyone from Saussure to Nietzsche etc.–pretentions to universal relevance and dialectical superiority and insane polymathic delusions.

    For all his faults, Sokal IMO was very good on the insane p. d.

    There’s something to it no doubt–especially if you want to dig through the tedium and mountain-laboring, mouse-producing prose of Foucault, who almost makes sense sometimes–but so is there to Austrian economics and stodge-eramics or whatever Mises called his–doubtless terribly intellectually rigorous–Kantian method. The question is whether and to what extent it’s worth engaging just because it’s difficult–especially in view of the fact that despite the difficulty and the allusions–the “of courses” and “as everyone knowses”–there does not appear to be an actual system behind most of it.

    In graduate school, the late Ralph Cohen made us read a horrid long book called The Literary Work of Art by the Polish phenomenologist Roman Ingarden–translated from the German of course; none of us could have managed the original. It’s hundreds of pages of impenetrable phenomenological prose that ON PURPOSE never mentions a single actual literary work of art. Of course, there’s a great deal “to it”–it’s absolutely brilliant if you can stay awake. But of what value is that in the long run to people trying to engage with the political struggles of our time? And how much less relevant the fashionable post-modernism that tries to turn its lack of an actual system (which Ingarden does not share) into some kind of ineffable, wizardly epistemological virtue?

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — April 17, 2019 @ 8:43 pm

  8. The only country capable of going socialist outside of a worldwide revolution is the United States. That’s why the fight must be centered here.

    Comment by Bill — April 18, 2019 @ 2:52 am

  9. Bill, why do you say that? Russia is a huge country with lots of natural resources. It also has a reasonably large population with a reasonable scientific background. It also has the weapons to prevent it from being occupied. It also has a position between Europe and China that it could use to its advantage. It seems to me that Russia is capable of doing it.
    Will they (collectively speaking) ever want to try again is another matter.

    Comment by Curt Kastens — April 18, 2019 @ 4:21 pm

  10. Bill, on top of that what about China or India? The ratio of natural resources to people might not be as favorable as that in Russia but if these countries had effective socialsit industries they should be able to import raw materials with the same ease (or lack of ease) that they do now. The only thing that should change would be the ratio of wealth inequality.

    Comment by Curt Kastens — April 18, 2019 @ 4:26 pm

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