Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 3, 2020

Following the money is not a useful guide for understanding mass movements

Filed under: african-american,Black Lives Matter,class-reductionism,Counterpunch — louisproyect @ 2:09 pm


Over the past fifty-three years as a socialist, I have seen repeated calls for purifying the left of capitalist influences, both governmental and corporate. The latest flare-up was a Jacobin article titled “Don’t Let Blackwashing Save the Investor Class” by Cedric Johnson, a black African American studies professor. Just as Deep Throat advised Bob Woodward in “All the President’s Men,” Johnson followed the money:

While antiracist protesters were tough on long-dead oppressors, these same protests have delivered a public relations windfall for the living investor class. Within weeks, corporations pledged upward of $2 billion dollars to various antiracist initiatives and organizations. The leadership of Warner, Sony Music, and Walmart each committed $100 million. Google pledged $175 million, mainly to incubate black entrepreneurship. YouTube announced a $100 million initiative to amplify black media voices. Apple also pledged $100 million for the creation of its racial equity and justice initiative.

These payoffs were supposed to dull the edge of the protests and keep the capitalist system safe from pitchfork-wielding mobs. Oddly enough, they didn’t seem to be making much headway in light of the continuing worries about capitalist instability. Most of the young people organizing the protests hardly seemed to be cooptation-bait as indicated by a New York Magazine interview with the female, teenage organizers of a Louisville protest that drew 10,000:

New York Magazine: Have you faced any backlash since the protest? And what does it mean to you three to be doing this work in the South?

Kennedy: I was actually surprised that we had a lot of support, because we do live in the South, and I’ve encountered various types of racism from people in the South. We did get backlash from a lot of people saying we’re brainwashed or that we’re being paid to do this or that we’re secret people the Democrats are using to win.

Emma Rose: We’re not even Democrats.

Kennedy: I’m not even a Democrat. I’m a radical.

Continue reading


  1. Cedric Johnson’s comment on George Floyd is one of the most preposterous and pernicious remarks I have ever read. And if you are out there, Adolph Reed, your entire shtick now is tedious and useless. You both are out of touch and should retire from commentary altogether. The future, if we have one, lies not with you two and all those who worship your every word, but with the young protesters, the ecosocialist of both the global South and North, those who still see the necessity for worker-peasant alliances, and those, like Robin Kelly, Gerald Horne, and Nikole Hannah-Jones, who grasp that racial capitalism is bedrock reality in the US and in other nations as well.

    Comment by Michael D Yates — July 3, 2020 @ 9:48 pm

  2. Adolph Reed’s most incisive article critiquing “anti-racism” among many is in 2018 (Dialectical Anthropology): He writes:

    “Notwithstanding its performative evocations of the 1960s Black Power populist militancy, this antiracist politics is neither leftist in itself nor particularly compatible with a left politics as conventionally understood. At this political juncture, it is, like bourgeois feminism and other groupist tendencies, an oppositional epicycle within hegemonic neoliberalism, one might say a component of neoliberalism’s critical self-consciousness; it is thus in fact fundamentally anti-leftist. Black political elites’ attacks on the Bernie Sanders 2016 presidential nomination campaign’s call for decommodified public higher education as frivolous, irresponsible, or even un-American underscores how deeply embedded this politics is within neoliberalism.”

    Those who care to think these issues through need look know further than Rob Urie’s article, 2nd down from the top on the current Counterpunch. One of the articles he links to is also indispensable, really the best empirical historical study I’ve seen, namely John Clegg and Udamer Usmani’s article in Catalyst from 2019 “The Economic Origins of Mass Incarceration.” It’s not behind their paywall, and it’s an absolute master class. Beyond that, a good critique of the disparitarian argument can be found at Matt Bruenig’s People’s Policy Project.

    For those who listen to podcasts, an excellent, brilliant group of young people are holding forth on What’s Left and Blocked and Reported. They absolutely have the number of the Woke Left, and the current batch of race/whiteness hustlers: Robin DiAngelo, etc. Michael Tracey is our best young journalist, surveying the destruction subsequent to the recent riots across the country. His tweets and youtube videos are indispensable. He’s also explored the trans-sexual/gender issue quite well, along with Jesse Singal (Blocked and Reported), who wrote a seminal article for the Atlantic.

    There’s lots of money being made on ragingly idealist understandings of race, starting with Hannah-Jones, and including Ibram X. Kendi and Carol Anderson. These works are ahistorical, incoherent, and self-contradictory in terms of understanding race, class, capitalism, etc. But given the political moment, these individuals are having their moment. Moreover, there highly aestheticized performances play well on youtube, Amy Goodman, etc.

    Cedric Johnson’s critique of David Roediger on nonsite is also indispensable: “The historian Barbara Fields once remarked that “Whiteness is the shotgun marriage of two incoherent but well-loved concepts: identity and agency.” That said, this essay seeks to begin divorce proceedings because a keen sense of historical interests, the shifting, territorial demands and worlds people fight to realize in their times, is lost in the common inferences made through psychohistory and the false equation of identity and political interests, analytical moves which are central to whiteness studies, and for that matter, much contemporary thinking on blackness and race in the US. As Fields reminds us, whiteness acts as a thimblerig that “performs a series of deft displacements, first substituting race for racism, then postulating identity as the social substance of race, and finally attributing racial identity to persons of European descent.” And I would add, the same thimblerig enables attributing political interests to whites (and blacks) without the critical analysis and investigatory rigor that might sharpen our understanding of class and power in American history.”

    Johnson also refers to a 2001 issue of International Labor and Working Class History that was devoted to “whiteness studies,” with Eric Arnesen’s primary critique and various responses, including by Reed and Fields.

    In spite of the fervor and moral panic that we’re living through now, nothing will change until we being to understand how and why the Democratic Party has abandoned the working class. That is what several episodes of What’s Left (Aimee Terese, Oliver Bateman, Angela Nagle, Malcom Kyeyune) have done. There insights are critically important.

    Finally, the work that the World Socialist Website has done on the 1619 is foundational, especially their interview with James Oakes. Oakes also did a lengthy podcast with someone from Michigan State which is thorough and concise. Even more concise is Ziad Jilani’s takedown on Rising, only 12 minutes or so.

    I also recommend Oakes’ article on nonsite, “The New Cult of Consensus,” in memory historian Judith Stein, who was the object of a gratuitous attack by Louis Proyect several years ago.

    There’s no reason for leftists to stay silent in the face of this onslaught of PMC career-making that capitalizes on the desperation of the working class in general and blacks in particular in the face of brutal neoliberalism. All of the PMC narrators in our current moment, including BLM’s Tamika Mallory, are tools of the neoliberal Democratic Party, and are neoliberal market actors themselves. Mallory recently said to Amy Goodman: “And now November is coming, and I hope people are getting themselves prepared to do what’s necessary to take back our country.”

    “Take back our country.” What to do with a phrase like that, especially when the Democratic Party has abandoned the working class.

    For anyone who has not been intimidated by such rhetoric and these coercive proceedings, the outcome of this election, whoever wins, has been foretold. The remnants of this “movement” will be found in the bank accounts and stock portfolios of Hannah-Jones, DiAngelo, Kendi, and Anderson.

    What’s in it for Louis Proyect and Michael Yates, I have no idea.

    David Green

    Comment by David Green — July 4, 2020 @ 3:16 pm

  3. All of the PMC narrators in our current moment, including BLM’s Tamika Mallory, are tools of the neoliberal Democratic Party, and are neoliberal market actors themselves.

    What a fucking joke.

    For all of his bullshit rhetoric about working-class politics, Reed urged a vote for fucking Hillary Clinton in 2016.


    Comment by louisproyect — July 4, 2020 @ 3:35 pm

  4. It would appear we seem to be observing a different set of protests?

    “These payoffs were supposed to dull the edge of the protests and keep the capitalist system safe from pitchfork-wielding mobs. Oddly enough, they didn’t seem to be making much headway in light of the continuing worries about capitalist instability.”

    The livestreaming of protestors burning down the Minneapolis Police building, the nightly street battles against police, have turned into a what Ajamu Baraka has described as a BLM “we are the world” moment. Do you think these are anti-capitalist protests? What do you think the ‘growth’ of the protests has even done to the primary Defund/Abolish the police demand?

    On the topic of BLM, it is helpful to differentiate on whether you’re talking about the NGO or the existing movement that the name was invented for and attached to.

    Comment by a-n-o-n-o-m-y — July 4, 2020 @ 5:46 pm

  5. Thank you for taking the time to line out your take on something that has been disturbing many of us. The surface view of reactions to BLM and the “Environmental Movement” from aging voices near the left end of the bell curve sets up a dissonance in the Liberal Community. The bourgeoisie is doing its best to leverage this dissonance. Michael D. Yates is partially correct. “The future lies…with these young protesters.” However, as they re-invent the wheel, the lessons learned by us septuagenarians can help the generation coming of age avoid the pitfalls that sabotaged our social movement in the ’70s. The effort to save the planet and bring peace to its inhabitants is first and foremost a class struggle.Disarming capitalist subterfuge is vital.

    Comment by Damun Gracenin — July 4, 2020 @ 9:56 pm

  6. “At the moment, while the democratic petty bourgeois are everywhere oppressed, they preach to the proletariat general unity and reconciliation; they extend the hand of friendship, and seek to found a great opposition party which will embrace all shades of democratic opinion; that is, they seek to ensnare the workers in a party organization in which general social-democratic phrases prevail while their particular interests are kept hidden behind, and in which, for the sake of preserving the peace, the specific demands of the proletariat may not be presented. Such a unity would be to their advantage alone and to the complete disadvantage of the proletariat. The proletariat would lose all its hard-won independent position and be reduced once more to a mere appendage of official bourgeois democracy. This unity must therefore be resisted in the most decisive manner. Instead of lowering themselves to the level of an applauding chorus, the workers, and above all the League, must work for the creation of an independent organization of the workers’ party, both secret and open, and alongside the official democrats, and the League must aim to make every one of its communes a center and nucleus of workers’ associations in which the position and interests of the proletariat can be discussed free from bourgeois influence.”

    Karl Marx, 1850

    Comment by Tanaka Ueno — July 5, 2020 @ 4:06 am

  7. … wealthy people in coastal cities have every reason to promote anti-racism as a discourse that in effect is very useful in marginalizing and demonizing the interior of the country. There are very real parallels. You can be very well-meaning in your anti-racist aspirations, but if ultimately what you’re doing is demonizing or marginalizing the entire Midwest or the entire Rustbelt, actively making monsters out of the people you believe to have those bad views, that’s also economically beneficial; that ideology helps legitimate the economic drivers of what’s actually going on.

    It’s more effective when it’s well-meaning. When people genuinely believe these moral notions righteously, and have them entirely separated from political economy in their own minds, it’s more effective, particularly in a liberal context. If you then try to bring political economy into it, it very quickly seems like you’re doing something illegitimate discursively. You’re sullying what is ostensibly this pure and righteous notion.

    … they have an interest in mining it to achieve a particular political outcome in the present. All history is narrative, but to the extent that Marxist and materialist history tries to do something different, it is to the best of our ability to wrench it from the idealism of just (only) narrative, and attempt to historicize and root it economically in the material relations of the time. (The 1619 Project) is a purely political project. It promotes shibboleths like “racial capitalism,” “the afterlife of slavery,” “institutional racism,” etc. The unfortunate thing is that when you ask people to articulate what they mean by this, I’ve never once heard a structural explanation. It therefore makes race trans-historic. It purports to historicize race and racism, but instead of being primordial it situates it in the institution of slavery, at least as an origin story, but it’s from then on that it becomes primordial and mystical, within the ideological superstructure of America, which is inseparable and intangible, that has basically tainted it from the start.

    It is nothing but a liberal project designed to re-legitimate future capitalism and tell you that we (should) stamp out the racism either in the system or in our hearts. It lapses into the groupist notion of liberal categories, as opposed to a materialist/structuralist analysis. …. It’s funny how these notions are just so useful for people with power in the present. I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.

    Aimee Terese

    Comment by David Green — July 5, 2020 @ 6:08 pm

  8. … So it beggars belief that the New York Times would now lazily ask us to believe there was some kind of harmony of interests between Northern industrialists and Southern planters. Why do they imagine the North endeavored to end slavery? It was not simply a moral crusade–it was also about breaking the power of the planters so the industrialists could impose the powerful tariffs they long coveted. Immediately following the Confederate insurrection, gargantuan tariffs were imposed:

    … The narrative that capitalism and chattel slavery go hand in hand is attractive at a time when many are trying to fight the twin evils of economic exploitation and institutional racism together. But it’s a narrative which neither reflects economic reality nor the common opinion of writers and commentators in the 19th century. The Northern and Southern elites had deeply conflicting economic interests, and this is a big part of why the Northerners and the Southerners killed each other.

    The production of raw cotton got in the way of American economic development, just as the production wine got in the way of the development of France and Portugal. The only way to overcome the political obstacles presented by the cotton industry was to destroy it, and the best way to destroy the cotton industry was to emancipate the slaves that were necessary to operate it. The moral argument against slavery and the economic argument against cotton went hand in hand.

    All of this can be acknowledged without in any way diminishing the repulsiveness of slavery and racism. The southern model was morally disgusting and economically inhibiting.

    Benjamin Studebaker

    Comment by David Green — July 5, 2020 @ 6:12 pm

  9. The unfortunate thing is that when you ask people to articulate what they mean by this, I’ve never once heard a structural explanation.

    This imbecile has evidently never read WEB Dubois, Cedric Robinson or Manning Marable.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 5, 2020 @ 6:14 pm

  10. The production of raw cotton got in the way of American economic development, just as the production wine got in the way of the development of France and Portugal.

    This moron evidently never read Karl Marx.

    “Direct slavery is as much the pivot upon which our present-day industrialism turns, as are machinery, credit, etc. Without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry. It is slavery that has given value to the colonies, it is the colonies that have created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry. Slavery is therefore an economic category of paramount importance.”

    –The Poverty of Philosophy

    Comment by louisproyect — July 5, 2020 @ 6:18 pm

  11. David Green, there is nothing “in it” for me or for Louis. We’re interested in bringing capitalism to an end. This means to us a frontal assault on racism and the attendant police brutality. Same for patriarchy. You quote a fool like Therese! Good luck with that!!

    Damun Gracenin, I should have said that older radicals should ally with the young protesters, helping however we can.

    Comment by Michael D Yates — July 5, 2020 @ 7:16 pm

  12. Green, stop posting all this stuff here. If you want to make your own points, go ahead and cite from whoever you want. I have my own criticisms of Clegg that have appeared here. Your problem is that we are not in a conversation. I can’t spend time refuting Clegg or anybody else you copy and paste but I would be happy to answer you. Just don’t keep copy and pasting stuff.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 5, 2020 @ 7:17 pm

  13. Your obsession with Johnson and Reed is unhealthy and bizarre, as is your apparent belief that all African-Americans, leftist or otherwise, have to think exactly alike on complicated political matters. Flip back to any major black political organ (The Crisis, the Messenger, etc.), and you’ll see a lot of debate, sometimes polemical. Your whole approach here is to take what Johnson says, compare it to some catechistic formulation on these questions, then declare it falls short, and you’ve done it every time you’ve written about him.

    Comment by Harris — July 5, 2020 @ 8:56 pm

  14. Your obsession with Johnson and Reed is unhealthy and bizarre,


    What do you recommend? Psychotherapy? Ginseng tea? Ringing doorbells for Biden?

    Comment by louisproyect — July 5, 2020 @ 10:03 pm

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