Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 4, 2018

Left Forum 2018

Filed under: Left Forum — louisproyect @ 9:01 pm

Ever since 2005, I have kept a journal for the yearly Left Forum except for 2007 (can’t remember why it was skipped) and 2016 when I decided not to shell out good money for a conference that was riddled with workshops on 9/11 and why we have to support Assad. (You can read my complaints here: https://louisproyect.org/2016/05/06/left-forum-2016-the-truth-is-out-there/. As it happens, I returned to the Left Forum last year because they banned 911 workshops and because putting up with Assadist bullshit was worth it especially when there was still a lot of good stuff going on (https://louisproyect.org/2017/06/06/left-forum-2017/).

It is easy to bad-mouth the Left Forum because unless you are far less contentious than the average leftist, especially me, you will find much of it objectionable. That’s bound to happen because the Left Forum is really nothing more than a snapshot of the left, with warts and all. Maybe there will be 100 percent contentment about the program on the eve of the American revolution, notwithstanding the complaints from the Spartacist League who pass out strident calls for revolution on the doorsteps of Left Forum host John Jay College of Criminal Justice each year. Oh, did I mention that this school geared to training people to be detectives has the most radical economics department in the city, thanks to professor emeritus Michael Meeropol?

Saturday sessions:

As a rule of thumb, I try to attend workshops that promise to increase my knowledge. So that means staying away from anything titled “A Winning Strategy for the Left” or “Time to Shut Down the CIA”. With that in mind, I went to a 10am session on Saturday titled “The Far Right in Government: Hungary, Poland, and Turkey”, featuring leftist academics speaking very knowledgably about their countries. I came in midway during the Hungary talk but took in the other two in their entirety. (You can get a short version of the talk at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cNVc23sj5hA) Both speakers emphasized the near-hegemonic grip that the Law and Justice Party in Poland and the Justice and Development Party in Turkey (AKP) have on society. In Poland, the ruling party emerged out of Solidarity and thus has a program much more generous to the working class than previous neoliberal regimes, even as it ratchets up the hatred and bans on immigrants. (I referred to this tendency in my review of a new film on Katyn: https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/06/01/the-secrets-of-katyn/.) In Turkey, Erdogan has basically taken advantage of the exhaustion of the Kemalist project, drawing upon support from the country’s Islamist-minded majority. By using a combination of repression and social welfare similar to that being delivered in Poland, the AKP has few obstacles in his path, especially after the bloody purge of the Gulenists. Probably the only stumbling block will be the economic crisis that is taking shape with the Turkish lira in free fall. If Rosa Luxemburg Siftung, the organizer of the event, puts a link to the video recording of the event, I’ll post a notification.

Next on the agenda was “The Fight to Stay—Eviction Defense as a Right”, a 12pm workshop that featured lawyers and activists reporting on a victory for tenants—the right to a lawyer when you are served an eviction notice. This discussion was of great interest to me since I have been blogging about the Real Estate and Housing Crisis in New York. I recommend that you check the website of the people who organized the event: http://www.righttocounselnyc.org, especially a brief video providing background on their victory. I should add that our “progressive” mayor opposed the right to a lawyer at first but succumbed to pressure once he decided to run for a second term.

After lunch with my friend Tony DiMaggio, a regular contributor to CounterPunch, I joined him at a 4pm workshop on “First As Farce Then As Tragedy: It’s Time to Fire the Apprentice”, where he would be a discussant. I couldn’t tell from the title what the hell this was about but was anxious to hear what Tony had to say.

The panel was organized by Critical Sociology, a journal that was originally called The Insurgent Sociologist when it was founded in 1969 as a voice of the New Left on campus. Like me, the three speakers were all 60s radicals, including Lauren Langman who I remember from the days when he was the moderator of the now defunct Progressive Sociologists Network mailing list.

So, the goal of the three sociology professors was to try to explain why people voted for Trump. Langman, a professor emeritus, and Pace University professor Roger Salerno placed heavy emphasis on psychoanalytic theory with copious references to Freud. Ultimately, it boils down to understanding Trump as the projection of deep pathologies in white society that remind me of what Joel Kovel wrote in “White Racism: a psychohistory”. You can get an idea of Langman’s approach in his article “Psychoanalysis and American Sociology” (http://futureswewant.net/lauren-langman-psychoanalysis/). For both Langman and Salerno, explanations based on “economic” factors are of less interest than those based on psychic maladjustments. Naturally, I found all this unconvincing even though their presentations were lively.

David Smith, a U. of Kansas professor, made a useful point. If you look at extensive polling done with Trump and Clinton voters, you’ll discover that their views on economics, health care, etc. are almost identical. But when it comes to three issues: immigrants, minorities and feminism, the Trump voters depart from the consensus. You can read Smith’s explanation of this in a Critical Sociologist article that is fortunately not behind a paywall: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0896920517740615

During the Q&A, I cracked a joke about the Trotsky t-shirt that Langman was wearing and reminded the panelists that fascism was victorious because the social democracy tried to preserve capitalist property relations when they were driving the middle-class and much of the working-class nuts. I am no psychologist but that diagnosis seems sound especially when the DSA and much of the left hopes to recreate the governments that existed in the Weimar Republic and during Leon Blum’s troubled regime. I was pleasantly surprised that Smith was pretty familiar with Trotsky’s writings on fascism that I alluded to. Who knows? Maybe he was an ex-SWPer like me. There are thousands of us, the largest group on the left in fact.

While I am far apart from Langman on how to view Trump, he did seem to grasp the nature of the period we are in through his reference to a Gramsci quote that speaks very much to Roseanne Barr, Scott Pruitt and every other horror we are living through now: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” (Prison Notebooks)

Sunday sessions:

Getting to John Jay a bit too late to make the 10am session, I started off the day at a standing room only workshop organized by Paul Street. Along with Bruce Dixon and Glen Ford of Black Agenda Report, and Chris Hedges, they all spoke on “Imagining an Authentic 21st Century U.S. Left”. While this is generally the sort of topic I tend to avoid since it might lend itself to empty rhetoric, I decided to go since I was curious to hear what some well-known leftists have to say on our “interregnum”. I understand that the talks will be online soon so I will be brief.

Paul made the case for taking a hard line against all forms of capitalist oppression, whether it is the hard cop Trump or the soft cop Pelosi dishing it out. Glen Ford spoke about the need to nationalize the banks, something he describes as feasible since everybody, including lots of rich people, hate them. Hedges called attention to Google adjusting its algorithms since it has cost traffic for leftist websites, including Truthdig, where his articles appear on a regular basis. I can understand why he (and WSWS) are upset about this but in my view, the bigger threat is outright bans of the sort that take place in Russia or Egypt. In a period of deepening radicalization, people will tell other people about Truthdig even if Google adjusts its algorithms to exclude it from search results totally. I doubt that in a prerevolutionary situation that’s the kind of website that will be attracting much attention anyhow.

This brings me to Bruce Dixon’s talk that was about as perceptive as any I have heard in years. He laid down some principles that the left should unite around that make eminent good sense to me, starting with the need for independence from the two capitalist parties. He acknowledged that the Green Party keeps screwing up but when you are trying to build something new, it is not an easy task especially when there is no blueprint. He urged the need for teaching people how to organize in the same way that the CP taught people in the 1930s. Even if William Z. Foster had some messed up ideas about strategy, he knew how to organize people as should be clear from his handbook for CIO organizers. Compare that to the Green Party that allows any 6 or so people to form a state chapter even though they may have no idea how to build the party.

But the most powerful part of his talk had to do with his observations about divisions on the left, referring to the whole ritual of unfriending people on FB when you agree with 90 percent of what they believe. Unless we learn to unite people on the basis of that 90 percent of agreement, we can not build a strong movement. That’s what I tried to explain to my pro-Syrian revolution FB friends when I stated my intentions to vote for Jill Stein—with mixed results, I have to admit.

Finally, at 4pm there was a panel discussion with veterans of the Free Jazz movement of the 60s and 70s that included people like Archie Shepp, Pharaoh Sanders and Joe McPhee, one of the panelists. There was a slide show by Basir Mchawi about the East Cultural Center in Brooklyn from that time, which combined experimental jazz with poetry readings, dances and other cultural/political gatherings relevant to the black nationalist movement of the time. For me, this was the high point of the weekend since the “new thing” jazz of the 60s and 70s was close to my heart. As I told the speakers, when entered Bard as a 16-year old in 1961, I was disaffected from the materialism and conformity of American society but could not figure out how to challenge it. In my freshman year, I heard Pharaoh Sanders in performance with other members of the Paul Bley band that blew my mind as they put it. That same semester I heard LeRoi Jones (as he was known at the time) read from his “The System of Dante’s Hell” that was an angry attack on racism of the sort I had never heard before. The combination of Sanders’s saxophone and Jones’s reading persuaded me that black nationalism was a flame that could help illuminate the path leading away from what Allen Ginsberg called Moloch.


June 6, 2017

Left Forum 2017

Filed under: Left Forum — louisproyect @ 7:33 pm

Last year I boycotted the annual Left Forum conference in New York, an event I have been covering since 2005. As I put it in a blog post last year, “the same sort of idiocy that has taken over the left on Syria has become so pervasive this year that I cannot justify spending $70 to attend.” When I bad-mouthed the 2017 conference this year, someone tipped me off on FB that there were a number of good panels on Syria. Indeed, there were four of them featuring my favorite people to balance those sponsored by the usual gang of “false flag” idiots. Just as encouragingly, I got word that the event would be more tightly controlled this year with an outright ban on 9/11 Truther panels. This elicited a complaint from David Lindorff on Counterpunch that I will address at the end of this report but for now let me turn to the workshops I attended that were among the most productive in my entire experience going to Left Forums.

Saturday 10am-11:50am: The Long Depression – A critique of the book by Michael Roberts

Michael Roberts, blogged about the workshop here. He also advised that the event was recorded and will be available on the Left Forum Youtube channel in a couple of weeks. Roberts is a strong defender of the falling rate of profit thesis found in V. 3 of Capital that not every Marxist agrees with, especially Michael Heinrich.

After Roberts recapitulated the arguments in his new book, he was critiqued by Paul Mattick, the son of the famous Marxist economist, and Jose Tapia—both of whom agreed with the FROP theory but had problems with some of Roberts’s findings that can be recounted in his blog article and that can be heard in all their complexity on the Youtube video when it becomes available.

While I understand the need to examine Marx’s theory against the actual data, I am not sure what bearing it has on the challenges facing the left. While I have problems with the critique of “catastrophism” mounted by people like Sasha Lilley, I have to wonder why economic immiseration does not produce working class motion. Throughout the rust belt, there are millions of workers who have lost their jobs and are being forced to work for Walmarts and other low-wage companies but this has not produced the kind of openness to radical ideas that you saw in the 1930s. Roberts refers to a “long depression” but to some extent I have to wonder about the appropriateness of this term given what I know about the period from my mother’s account. This was a time of great hardship that left families on the edge of disaster.

Roberts tried to explain the difference between recession and depression by referring to two graphic symbols. In the first, you see a V that indicates a sharp drop followed by a recovery to the old economic indicators but with a depression, you see something that looks like this:

Chart can be found here

The problem is that if economic recovery only reaches 80 percent or so of the previous level, that might just be enough to placate a working class that has become accustomed to the idea of austerity. I keep thinking back to Michael Moore’s documentary “Roger and Me” where he interviews unemployed auto workers in Flint who are either raising rabbits for food or making plans to move to Texas where the jobs haven’t dried up. That’s the American working class of today, not “Grapes of Wrath”.

Saturday 12pm-1:50pm: Rural Proletarian Revolutions, Oklahoma and Mexico, 1917: Capitalism, Environmental Disaster, and Why the Land Question Remains Relevant

As a rule of thumb, I try to attend workshops that will add to my knowledge. The provision of economic, historical or social facts that I have been unaware of is a kind of litmus test. With that in mind, the relationship between rural proletarian revolutions and Oklahoma was something I found most intriguing. What was up with that?

It devolved upon long-time scholar and activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz to explain the connections in a talk on the Green Corn rebellion of 1917 that was about as promising a historical event upon which to make a film as “Free State of Jones”. As it happens, I have been apprised by Roxanne by her events in NY over the years but this was the first time I was able to attend one. I first became aware of her in 1971 when Trotskyist women working in Female Liberation were giving reports to the branch about the problems they were having with Abby Rockefeller and Roxanne Dunbar, who were in Cell 16. Looking back in retrospect, I should have gotten up and defended Abby and Roxanne. The SWP had a tendency to force its agenda on social movements and this was no exception, I’m sure.

Roxanne would seem to be well-equipped to speak about the Oklahoma left given her background (from Wikipedia):

Born in San Antonio, Texas, in 1939 to an Oklahoma family, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz grew up in Central Oklahoma, daughter of a sharecropper and a mother that Dunbar believes to have been Native American. Dunbar’s paternal grandfather, a settler of Scots-Irish ancestry, was a landed farmer, veterinarian, a labor activist and a Socialist Party member in Oklahoma and also a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, “Wobblies.” Her father was named after the leaders of the Industrial Workers of the World—Moyer Haywood Pettibone Scarberry Dunbar. Her father’s stories of her grandfather inspired her to lifelong social justice activism.

Since the panel was sponsored by Monthly Review, it would help to refer you to an article Roxanne wrote that covered the Green Corn rebellion.

In August 1917, tenant farmers and sharecroppers in several eastern and southern Oklahoma counties took up arms to overthrow the United States government, to stop military conscription and U.S. entry into the war in Europe. Renegade Socialists, organized in their own “Working Class Union” (WCU), white, black, and Indian, they believed that millions of armed working people across the country would march with them to take Washington.

In a time of leftist disparagement of rural farmers and workers, what better time than now to study this important part of working class history? My friend Yale Strom has made a documentary about Eugene V. Debs that covers the support he received in Oklahoma and other such “boondock” locations that the SP and the IWW oriented to. Maybe it’s time for a revival of Debs socialism that has little to do with what Bernie Sanders spoke about.

Saturday 3:30pm-5:15pm: Geopolitics, the International Left, and the Syrian Revolt

This was one of four panel discussions at the Left Forum that marked a departure from the majoritarian “anti-imperialist” camp. Although I am obviously familiar with the arguments that would have presented here, I made a point of attending since it helps my morale to see other people who continue to fight the good fight. The event was sponsored by The Global Campaign for Solidarity with the Syrian Revolution whose FB page is at https://www.facebook.com/Global-Campaign-of-Solidarity-with-the-Syrian-Revolution-147353662105485/.

Among the speakers were Ashley Smith, an ISO’er who has been writing terrific stuff on Syria, Loubna Mrie, who debated the wretched Max Blumenthal, Joseph Daher and Malak Chabkoun, who was described as an “independent researcher” and who I had not heard of before. Blumenthal, I should add, disparaged all of these anti-Assad panels and referred people on Twitter to the only pro-Assad panel that was the only one not to include a Syrian. Fancy that. My advice is to check Malak Chabkoun’s articles on al-Jazeera. She is really sharp.

Daher was as incisive as ever but I am not sure whether his call for ending the war in Syria will fall on deaf ears. It is true that peace will allow civil society to regather momentum but as long as the Assadists are in power, the same old restrictions will remain. The struggle against despotic regimes in the Middle East and North Africa will take decades to win and will likely gain the upper hand when the left is much more powerful globally. At least the “primitive accumulation” of a pro-revolution movement as represented by the speakers at this workshop gives hope that a better day lies ahead.

Saturday 5:20pm-7:10pm: Evaluation of Progressive Governments in Latin America in Recent Years

This was in sharp contrast to all the Chavista workshops at Left Forum over the years that featured people like Steve Ellner and Dario Azzellini over the years. Concurring with Jeffery Webber and people writing for the ISO press, the talks focused on the structural flaws of the Pink Tide that evolved from their dependence on commodity exports such as soybeans, oil, etc. that were gobbled up by an expanding Chinese economy.

For one of the speakers, an Argentine named Juan Kornblihtt, this was explained on the reliance on “ground rent”, a form of surplus value extraction analyzed by Karl Marx in V. 3 of Capital. I first ran across Juan Kornblihtt’s analysis while preparing an article for CounterPunch dealing with the point of view expressed by the speakers, which can be likened to a coroner’s report.

Essentially, Kornblihtt and others such as Daniel Ellinger who are committed to the ground rent analysis tie mining and agriculture (the “rent” is extracted from the soil or ground) to a decline in manufacturing, which is capable of providing more traditional forms of wage income. For Lula and Chavez, the “rent” could be used to provide subsidies to families and hence their support until prices began to drop.

I pointed out in the discussion period that investments in manufacturing might have dried up because capitalist investors saw much more profit in soybeans or oil than in starting up an auto sector—as if Brazil or Venezuela could ever compete with South Korea or Japan.

You can read Kornblihtt’s article here.

Much of it relies on the research of Juan Iñigo Carerra, a subscriber to the Marxism list that preceded Marxmail. Juan used to write in a style that sounded like a parody of Marx’s Grundrisse. He was quite the character.

Sunday 12pm-1:50pm India’s Contested Spaces: Labor, Land, and Environment

This was sponsored by India Civil Watch, a new group dedicated to opposing Modi that appears to involve some of the activist-scholars who used to sponsor workshops at Left Forum in the name of http://sanhati.com/.

Their analysis rests on the premise that Modi’s neoliberalism is simply an extension of Congress Party rule that will be distinguished by its attack on India’s marginalized population. Among the speakers was Biju Mathew, whose name was familiar to me as the founder of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, the only trade union that bears any resemblance to the labor movements of the past. He was also a member of the board of the now defunct Brecht Forum that these Left Forum events remind me of. No matter how valuable my exchanges with Marxists on the Internet, there is nothing about the face-to-face encounters in real space that stay with you.

In his talk, Mathew compared Modi to Trump, something that makes a lot more sense than Mussolini or Hitler for that matter. Matthew’s article on Modi’s election victory can be read on Sanhati (http://sanhati.com/excerpted/10478/) and is well worth it:

We are no longer fighting to defeat the BJP. Instead we are fighting for a new meaning and a more revolutionary democratic form that exceeds the bourgeois liberal framework we have been stuck within. It doesn’t matter that it may well take us a decade or more to win this battle. It’s the only kind of fight that can withstand the majoritarian logic especially now that the capitalist elite have signed on to it fully. This battle fortunately won’t be unique to India. All across the world liberal democracy under conditions of neoliberal dominance has begun to come apart on the question of minorities. In the US and the UK, for instance, Islamophobia and anti-third-world migrant sentiment has produced the sharpest divisions in civil society. In post-revolution Egypt, the struggle has also turned in significant part on the question of minority rights, though for now the army has fundamentally short circuited the debate. The significant showing of nine fascist parties in the EU elections is an indicator that in almost every part of Europe a majoritarian sentiment is on the rise. In Iran, the emergence of the Green movement over the last decade articulates aspects of a similar problematic. In Pakistan, the struggles around the status of Shias, Christians and the Baluch invoke the same limits. The solution in the end is to produce a global revolution in the democratic form that must arrest majoritarianism. Let’s work to put into place our part in this revolution.

Sunday 3:40pm-5:40pm Puerto Rico and the Junta: A tale of colonial and neocolonial dispossession

Three speakers, all Puerto Rican, spoke about how the island was being raped by hedge fund investors and a colonial government that bent over backwards to satisfy them. Ian Seda-Irizarry, who is in the economics department at John Jay—the host of the Left Forum, asked his fellow panelists who the most progressive governor of Puerto Rico was. They had no idea that he was speaking of Rex Tugwell, one of FDR’s top economics advisers who served as governor during WWII.

For the three speakers, the big job now is coming up with the data that can demonstrate how vulture funds are destroying the Puerto Rican economy. I recommend panelist Ed Morales’s article on the Puerto Rican crisis in The Nation and would urge you to pay close attention to the section that shows how the black bloc tactic was used to victimize 42 groups that are on the frontlines attacking austerity and colonialism. I also recommend Ed’s interview with Ian that includes a discussion of salsa music, something that he knows as well as his Marxist economics.

Afterword on Dave Lindorff’s article:

Titled “Left Forum Bans Four Panels Under Zionist Pressure”, the article takes up the case of Veterans Today editor Kevin Barrett and Anthony Hall, a tenured professor of the University of Lethbridge in Alberta.

Supposedly they were banned for anti-Semitism although I would have booted Barrett for his 9/11 crap that supposedly was being purged from this year’s Left Forum and all future events—thank god. They told him that they had no use for his workshops, a sign of growing maturity on the left. It seems that Lindorff was scheduled to appear alongside Barrett on the “false flag” panel discussion that included Barrett and someone named Ole Dammegard.

  • False Flags: Staged, Scripted, Mass Psy-Op Events 2-3:50pm Speakers: Dr. Kevin Barrett, Dave Lindorff, Ole Dammegard • Moderator: Dr. Lucy Morgan Edwards
  • 9/11 Truth: Ground Zero for a Resistance Movement 4-5:50pm Speakers: Dr. Kevin Barrett, Barbara Honegger, Richard Gage • Moderator: Dr. Lucy Morgan Edwards

You can get a feel for Dammegard’s provenance from this:

During the interview, Ole Dammegard also affirms the role of elites such as David Rockefeller and the Rockefeller group, and the Rothschild City of London banking families in originating the Kennedy assassination for a variety of motives, ranging from Kennedy’s breakaway from the Rothschild-controlled Federal Reserve Bank in printing U.S. Treasury silver-backed currency to Kennedy’s plan to end the Vietnam War.

This sort of person has no business at the Left Forum. If Dave Lindorff wants to start a conspiracist conference, let him get in touch with Michel Chossudovsky and Alex Jones.

As far as Anthony Hall is concerned, his panels were also shit-canned:

  • Political Correctness: The Dangers of Thought Crime Police 10:00-11:50am Speakers: Dr. Anthony Hall, Jeremy Rothe-Kushel • Moderator: Cheryl Curtiss
  • Terrorism”: Fake Enemies, Fraudulent Wars Noon-1:50pm Speakers: Michael Springmann, Dr. Anthony Hall, Dr. Kevin Barrett • Moderator: Tom Kiely

Trying to prove that Hall is anti-Semitic is not that easy. He was punished by his university for tolerating an anti-Semitic comment on his FB page. He has also made a Youtube video urging “open debate” on the Holocaust, a rather fishy call if you ask me.

For my money, his worst offense and grounds from dismissal from Left Forum events is the imbecilic conspiracism that he and Veterans Today publisher Kevin Barrett traffic in. Like Barrett, Hall is a big-time 9/11 Truther. He runs two websites that offer the same crap as Global Research, Infowars, Off-Guardian, Moon of Alabama, Information Clearing House, et al.

One of them, No Lies Radio, will allow you to listen to the banned panels for only $15. If you want to waste your money on that rather than a nice bottle of Pinot Noir, be my guest.

Hall also runs American Herald Tribune that has about as much to do with the original newspaper that Donald Trump has to do with Abraham Lincoln. This website is virtually indistinguishable from a thousand others that traffic in 9/11, False Flag, pro-Assad talking points that more and more can be seen as shared by people like Richard Spencer, David Duke and Alex Jones. For me, the disappearance of Assadist and 9/11 panel discussions at the Left Forum is a welcome sign that the left is finally waking up from a deep slumber.

May 6, 2016

Left Forum 2016: The Truth is Out There

Filed under: conspiracism,Left Forum — louisproyect @ 5:02 pm

Ever since I left the SWP in late 1978, I have been attending the yearly Left Forums in NY that were known as the Socialist Scholars Conference prior to a split in the leading bodies in 2004 over Yugoslavia. Veteran social democrat Bogdan Denitch, who died a few months ago, was viewed as a Serbophobe by the faction that would go on to form the Left Forum in 2005. That year there were two conferences, one in the name of the Socialist Scholars Conference and the other as the Left Forum. Next year there was only the Left Forum as many of the figures aligned with Denitch reconciled with their erstwhile ideological opponents.

From 2005 until 2015 (excluding 2007 for some reason I can’t recall), I have written reports on the Left Forum and more recently produced videos of the sessions I attended. This year I have decided not to attend since it has reached the point where quantity has turned into quality as Plekhanov might have put it. Or more accurately, it has reached the point where quantity has turned into excrement. In a nutshell, the same sort of idiocy that has taken over the left on Syria has become so pervasive this year that I cannot justify spending $70 to attend. Are there panel discussions that would be worth my while? I suppose so but that is almost like someone trying to convince me to tune into WBAI. The station exudes such a stench that my hand refuses to obey my brain’s order to dial up 99.5FM.

In a very real sense, the Left Forum has been transformed into something resembling WBAI—leading to the pun that it has been subject to Pacification. The other night the hand got the upper hand over the brain and I listened to WBAI for a couple of minutes. I was not surprised to see that they were in the midst of one of their biweekly fund-drives. Nor was I surprised to see that they were offering premiums for a 5 DVD documentary titled “The Great Lies of History”. One, of course, is about 9/11. Another is: “Cancer: The Forbidden Cures”. It claims that the “drug-dominated medical profession” has suppressed cures including Mistletoe and Bicarbonate of Soda. I suppose they are geared to oral and stomach cancer respectively. I don’t think that Lew Hill had this in mind when he launched Pacifica in 1946.

While WBAI is much more fixated on such quackery from the likes of Gary Null, it too traffics in the sort of “anti-imperialism” that has swamped the Left Forum. Amy Goodman, the station’s star for what that’s worth, has allowed Seymour Hersh to babble on about Syria in the very week that Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami were in NY on a book tour for “Burning Country”. When Goodman was approached about doing an interview with them, she said no.

Meanwhile, Goodman and Slavoj Zizek are doing the closing plenary on Sunday night. At this stage of the game, inviting Zizek to speak to a left audience is almost as much of an insult as inviting Donald Trump. I have heard through the grapevine that Verso Press has cut its ties to the Elvis Superstar of Marxism over his filthy insistence that Syrian refugees adapt to Western norms but he is good enough for the Left Forum apparently.

I have to give credit to Amber A’lee Frost who sized up the 2015 Left Forum conference accurately in The Baffler.

That’s right: If you pay your registration fee and fill out the proper forms, you get a room and a table and a spot on the schedule. So in addition to all those experienced and intelligent rabble-rousers, Left Forum is a home for 9/11 Truthers, those who would save us from the terrors of “mandatory fluoridation,” and the generally batshit and/or pathologically anti-social. No one is required to observe their lectures, but they wander into other people’s and there is something truly dispiriting about not being able to distinguish self-identified radicals from the parodies of us imagined by the right wing.

Frost singled out a panel from 2014 as a “wackjob nadir”, the infamous “Žižek Delenda Est” (“Žižek Must be Destroyed.”).

The thesis of the panel—which featured at least one “tankie,” slang for Soviet apologist, or actual Stalinist—was that Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek is some kind of COINTELPRO crypto-Nazi.

What’s odd about their obsession with Zizek is a failure to see how close he is to them ideologically. With his disparagement of the Syrian rebels as “a mess of fundamentalist Islamist groups”, you’d think he’d be hoisted on their shoulders. Of course, on the far left some of the bitterest quarrels take place among sects that were born from the same womb. Just look at the Trotskyists.

It must be said at the outset that the people who run the Left Forum are not identified with this kind of conspiracism. It just so happens that it is a Big Tent that allows virtually anybody to schedule a panel discussion. The fact that this year’s conference is flooded with “Žižek Delenda Est” type barking dogs only reflects the siren’s call of conspiracism on the left, one in which a Marxist class analysis is so sorely lacking.

Let me walk you through a few of the panels to give you an idea of what you can get for your $70, starting with Deep State: The Fabricated Global War on Terrorism — Why the Left Should Unite to Expose and Rebel Against It that pretty much epitomized the malaise that afflicts the Left Forum. The organizers breathlessly announce:

The yellow-journalism press rarely reports that ISIS was 100% planned, created and controlled by US/NATO/Israel/Turkey/Saudi forces. Publicly this newest bogeyman is reviled and used to whip up fear and bellicosity. Behind the scenes, ISIS is our shock troops, the go-to mercenaries to effect regime change in places like Libya and Syria, and ensure wavering countries like France tow the line.

One of the speakers is Wayne Madsen, an “investigative reporter” and author of “Unmasking ISIS”. He is a 9/11 Truther, as are many in this neck of the woods. As part of his investigative reporting, he came up with the startling revelation that Barack Obama is a homosexual who belonged to the same Chicago gay bath house as Rahm Emmanuel. Madsen was able to provide about the same amount of proof as those who allege that Obama was born in Kenya. Madsen’s articles have appeared in  CounterPunch, In These Times, The Progressive and The Village Voice. Don’t ask me why.

For more of the same, you can attend How Universal U.S. Sovereignty Threatens World Peace. It features Sarah Flounders of the Workers World Party and Michael Perino, who once told CounterPunch readers that about 50,000 Blacks were “massacred” in Libya. Since the highest estimate for all casualties in the Libyan civil war was half of that, who knows where Perino got his number.

Want to know about The Situation in Ukraine? Then haul your ass over to a panel organized by UNAC, the “coalition” made up of Socialist Action members and other like-minded leftists who have succumbed totally to the “axis of resistance” disease now an epidemic on the left. The SA members were educated in the Socialist Workers Party, a group that was distinguished by its embrace of Ukrainian opponents of Soviet domination in the 1960s. One of the speakers is Bruce Gagnon, who like many in this milieu blames Kiev for starting the civil war in Ukraine when it threatened to remove Russian as one of the official languages as if the people in Donetsk and Luhansk would suffer the same kind of fate as Kurds in Turkey. This was essentially a Goebbels type of big lie. The truth is that Russian would continue as a regional language along with 17 other languages including Yiddish but Ukrainian would be the sole official language, which only meant that it would be used in driver license applications, etc. Was that a reason for Putin to dispatch thousands of special forces into Eastern Ukraine? Obviously not. His real intention was the same as Catherine the Great’s—to keep Ukraine under Russia’s thumb.

You can guess from the title The US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and War in the “Middle East” (I have no idea what the scare quotes in the title indicate) what this one is about. Organized by the pro-Assad International Action Center, it includes Kazem Azin as one of the speakers, a contributor to Workers World newspaper and an ardent supporter of the Islamic Republic who once claimed that “Imam Khomeini was able for the first time to unite all religious groups and the majority of the people under the banner of Islam.” Of course, if you were stiff-necked enough to refuse being so united, you might end up being tortured in Evin prison.

If you miss the X-Files, as I certainly do, you might want to check in on Deep State: False Flags — How a United Left Could Defeat a “Global Gladio” Agenda since it features Richard Dolan as a panelist. Dolan is the author of “A History of False Flag Operations” but he is probably best known for his books on UFO’s and the National Security State. This leftist version of Fox Mulder once met with a CIA agent referred to as “Anonymous” who on his death bed revealed that The Truth Is Out There:

Facing impending kidney failure, this individual felt compelled to disclose secret information he feels is too important to keep secret. In the video, he claims to have served in the U.S. Army, worked for the CIA, and worked on the U.S. Air Force’s Project Blue Book–one of the USAF’s official studies of UFOs. And he refers to the project as “partially a fraud.” Asking for clarification, Dolan states, “You’re saying some of the Blue Book cases were completely fictitious?” The anonymous man responds, “Yes.”

“Anonymous” alleges that, after an invasion threat from President Dwight Eisenhower, he and his superior at the CIA were allowed inside the secretive Area 51 in Nevada to gather intel and report back to the president. There, “Anonymous” describes seeing several alien spacecraft, including the craft that crashed in Roswell, New Mexico. Then, he and his superior were taken to the S-4 facility southwest of Area 51 where they observed live extraterrestrials.

On Sunday there’s more from UNAC at The Fight to End US Wars as well as two 9/11 Truther panels, one titled Time to Take Down the Wall Between the Left and the Truth Movement and the other Exposing 28 Pages of 9/11 Evidence, Legislating Transparency. Don’t forget to bring the Sunday NY Times crossword puzzle in case your mind begins to wander. Also, for vintage conspiracy theory navel-gazing, you can’t top The JFK Murder Cover-up: Your Rosetta Stone to Today’s News, Elections, Policy. I suppose that one of the speakers will argue that Al Qaeda was on the grassy knoll at the rate things are going.

Just to be clear, 90 percent of the workshops are more conventional in nature. I wish I could say that this would be sufficient for me to shell out $70 but I am afraid that far too many are empty theorizing that I have little use for. For example, something titled Marx, Hegel, and the Current Situation  is a non-starter. Apparently the participants have been studying Hegel for years at the Brecht Forum and at the Marxist Education Project at the Brooklyn Commons. With all due respect to the speakers, I studied Hegel fifty years ago at the New School mostly to maintain a student deferment and don’t want to go back there now. But if Hegel works for you, don’t let me get in the way. That’s a helluva lot better than nattering about Area 51 but then again just about anything else is–especially for $70 that can be better spent on dinner for two at a Thai restaurant.


June 14, 2015

Syria panels at the Left Forum 2015

Filed under: Left Forum,Syria — louisproyect @ 7:16 pm

Below are videos recorded by me and by The Struggle Video News (TSVN) of two closely linked panels at the Left Forum that should be of keen interest to anybody who has been following events in Rojova, Yarmouk, and Syria as a whole. In addition, they amount to a challenge to the pro-Assad left over how to understand the struggle against Baathist tyranny that is now in its fifth year.

The panel I covered was titled “The Syrian Tragedy: Failure of the Left and the Need for a Movement of Solidarity” that featured Yusef Khalil, an ISO member, chaired and spoke the role of counter-revolution in the region both at the hands of the West and local elites. Yasser Munif, an Emerson College professor and co-founder of the Global Campaign of Solidarity with the Syrian Revolution. Joseph Daher, who is a member of the Syrian Revolutionary Left Current living in exile, spoke about the persistence of the grass roots movement in Syria despite all efforts of the Baathist dictatorship and jihadist gangs to wipe it out. Although my video failed to credit her in the introduction, the final speaker was Elisa Marvena, a member in Spain of Solidaridad Global con La Revolution en Syria.

The other panel was titled “The Syrian Revolution, Yarmouk, Rojava: Politics of Solidarity” Yusef Khalil, chaired the meeting and spoke about the rise of ISIS. Emrah Yildiz, a Turkish graduate student at Harvard, gave a wide-ranging talk about the Kurdish struggle in Syria that actually faced the same sort of obstacles that if faced in Turkey. He referred to repression that took place in Syria against the Kurds in the early years of the Erdogan regime that was saluted by Assad as a welcome blow against terrorism. Finally, there were powerful presentations by Talal Alyan Mariam Barghouti, two Palestinian activists, who called out those in the Palestinian solidarity movement who have failed to take a clear stand against the Baathist siege of Yarmouk that has cost the lives of nearly 3000 Palestinians, including 400 who were tortured to death in Assad’s dungeons.

June 11, 2015

South Africa panel at Left Forum 2015

Filed under: Left Forum,South Africa — louisproyect @ 4:04 pm

This is the video for a Left Forum panel discussion on South Africa organized by Socialist Action. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, a contributor to Black Agenda Report, chronicled the EPA’s role in covering for an American corporation’s failure to protect South African miners from vanadium poisoning. Patrick Bond’s presentation focused on the growing class inequality in South Africa, with some eye-opening revelations about how the new housing provided by the ANC leaves something to be desired. Marty Goodman, a Socialist Action member, spoke about the failure of Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders to live up to expectations.

June 6, 2015

For an independent left party: videos from Left Forum 2015

Filed under: Left Forum,third parties — louisproyect @ 6:00 pm

The two videos below were made at last weekend’s Left Forum in New York and both reflect the mission of the North Star website, namely to help create a radical party in the United States along the lines of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, among others.

The first that was held on Saturday was organized by the Green Party and chaired by Howie Hawkins. It was very much in the spirit of the Chicago Left Elect conference held early in May since it featured speakers from the ISO, Socialist Alternative and the Greens. The Socialist Alternative speaker was notable by drawing a sharp distinction with Bernie Sanders even as the group is exploring ways to exploit the eventual disappointment that his leftist supporters will experience when he is defeated in the primary.

On Sunday the North Star had a workshop that was chaired by a member of the Philly Socialists and that featured a talk by another member. This group is among those that are playing an important role in the class struggle using strategy and tactics flowing from local conditions rather than ideologically superimposed according to some antiquated schema. Jim Brash and Louis Proyect of the North Star editorial team also spoke.

Notable for this workshop was the extremely thoughtful contributions during the Q&A, including from audience members who departed from the usual sectarian recipes and tried earnestly to engage with the topic. The consensus was that this was a very productive experience for all involved.

May 23, 2015

North Star workshop at Left Forum

Filed under: Left Forum,North Star — louisproyect @ 3:08 pm

Screen shot 2015-05-23 at 11.06.52 AM

Those of you attending the Left Forum at John Jay College next weekend might want to check out a workshop titled “Toward a Mass Left Party” that was organized by Matt Hoke, a member of the North Star editorial board. It meets at 12pm on Sunday in room 1.124

The abstract for the workshop is as follows:

Since the economic crisis of 2008, nor since the contraction of Occupy Wall Street in 2011, no mass pole of attraction has arisen to address the suffering of working people in the USA. Meanwhile, new mass parties have spawned in Europe in quick and stormy expansions, while also facing contradictions and difficulties. In the US, a new attraction towards intertendency politics and electoral action has emerged as expressed by the Electoral Action Conference in Chicago, and certain groups are experimenting new tactics to directly engage people’s needs, whether the $15 movement, serve the people projects, or solidarity networks.

The chairperson for the session is Loren Anderson of the Philly Socialists who has provided technical support for North Star and other related projects

Participants include:

Louis Proyect

Affiliation: North Star founder & editor

Bio: Louis Proyect was a member of the North Star Network launched by Peter Camejo in the early 1980s, an experiment in regroupment around a nonsectarian outlook that inspired the current website. Louis also identifies with efforts by the Socialist Union of the 1950s that was led by Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman.

Abstract: Louis will be focusing on international developments in Syriza and Podemos.


Jim Brash

Affiliation: North Star & Green Party

Bio: Jim Brash has been a member of UFCW Local 1262 for 15 years, and is a green council member of the Green Party of New Jersey. He is also the green party candidate for New Jersey’s 26th Legislative District. Interests include studying American history, political theory, economics, religious philosphy, & miltary strategy.

Abstract: Jim will be mainly be talking about the nuts and bolts of his own electoral efforts.


Stephanie Altimari

Affiliation: Philly Socialists

Bio: Stephanie was an early member of Philly Socialists who has coordinated a wing of its serve the people project based around tutoring for English as a Second Language.

Abstract: Stephanie will be talking about the service model, solidarity networks, and the social network theory of building an organization.


July 14, 2014

Left Forum 2014 — Syriza panel

Filed under: Greece,Left Forum — louisproyect @ 4:15 pm

This is the sixth and final in a series of videos I made at the recently concluded Left Forum.

The question of Syriza is very fresh in my mind after seeing Alex Callinicos attack it in his prolix article “Thunder on the Left”.

More generally, evidence of a new form of left politics emerging has proved more apparent than real. The profound economic and social crisis in Greece and intense working class resistance to the austerity policies imposed by the troika of the European Commission, ECB, and International Monetary Fund allowed Syriza to skyrocket into the dominant position to the left of centre in Greek politics. After Syriza’s spectacular advances in the parliamentary elections of May and June 2012, there was much tut-tutting about my description of its politics as left reformist which, or so it was claimed, failed to acknowledge the extent to which Syriza represented a break with the old polarities of reform and revolution. In the subsequent two years, under Alexis Tsipras, Syriza has marched firmly onto the centre ground in order to project itself as a responsible party of government, in the process marginalising its left opposition. This shift is epitomised by Tsipras’s coming out after the European elections in favour of the shopworn centre-right architect of austerity Jean-Claude Juncker for president of the European commission: left reformism would look good by comparison.

Callinicos’s distinction between reform and revolution is based on an idealist conception of politics. By idealist, I don’t mean like the Boy Scout pledge of honor but in Plato’s Republic where people living in a cave only have an impression of reality rather than reality itself. As Socrates puts it:

And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: –Behold! human beings living in a underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.

The role of a philosopher-king in Plato’s Republic is to educate the unenlightened cave dweller about the realities beyond the cave. Thus, the role of Marxists is to educate the mass movement about the need for revolution. Callinicos (and his fellow Leninists) are a kind of priesthood that has achieved enlightenment. They go out among the cave dwellers to explain why a revolution is necessary. This involves pointing out the “historical lessons” of the 20th century in such a manner that the recitation on the Russian Revolution will cause the scales to fall from the listener’s eyes. In some ways, this is the same approach as the Jehovah’s Witnesses who have literature tables at major subway stations throughout New York.

I have an entirely different take on Syriza, similar to that of Peter Bratsis—the panelist who begins just after 33 minutes into the video. Like Bratsis, I view Syriza as a reformist party that will never be able to lead a revolution but there is no use in lecturing the masses about that. They don’t see the problem in terms of capitalism but in terms of austerity. They vote for Syriza because the party is opposed to austerity. If Syriza is elected and continues to support austerity, that will raise the question of the need to transform the economic system that imposes austerity no matter the party that is in power.

In “Left-Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder”, Lenin proposed that the Communists form an electoral bloc with the Labour Party led by Philip Snowden and Arthur Henderson. After WWI broke out, Ramsey MacDonald resigned in protest for its support for the war. Arthur Henderson, who joined Lloyd George’s War Cabinet, was his replacement. Has Alexis Tsipras been guilty of any crime more serious than this? People like Callinicos make a big deal out of Syriza sticking with the Euro as if the currency a nation is based on makes a real difference when it is dominated by imperialism. Greece’s problems do not revolve around the currency it uses but rather in its relationship to the rest of the world capitalist system.

Finally, the real issue facing the Greek left is how to unite people on a class basis against a ruling class that is tightly coupled to the German bourgeoisie. Syriza offers a framework for revolutionaries that will enable them to connect with millions of Greeks who have not yet achieved a revolutionary consciousness. Unlike the Greek Communist Party, Syriza is relatively open and transparent—a function of the “reformism” that Callinicos disdains. The alternative to the CP and Syriza is the tiny and inconsequential Antarsya that is united around the need for revolution but a “reformist” party that can begin to serve as a pole of attraction for revolutionaries. In the event that Syriza is elected and fails to carry out its mandate, it will be up to its left wing to push the agenda for overcoming austerity in the only way possible: overthrowing Greek capitalism.


July 3, 2014

Left Forum 2014 — panel on Registering Class in 21st Century Socialist Strategy

Filed under: Left Forum — louisproyect @ 9:17 pm

This is the fifth in a series of videos I made at the recently concluded Left Forum.

Bryan Palmer, a Canadian historian and James P. Cannon biographer, gave a presentation that was designed to refute the “precariat” theory of Guy Standing. This term combines precarious and proletariat as a way of accounting for the growing percentage of temporary workers such as adjunct professors, blue-collar part-timers, etc. I am not sure how much traction the theory has on the left but Socialist Register, the organizer of the panel, thought it sufficiently anti-Marxist, to recruit Palmer to refute it. Basically he argues that for most of its history, capitalism has created a working-class that is “precarious”. You can listen to his presentation or read a version of it that appears with the two other panelists here: http://www.leftforum.org/content/registering-class-21st-century-socialist-strategy.

Palmer makes the argument in his paper (and very possibly in his talk) that the lumpenproletariat should not be viewed as distinct from the proletariat:

For all that Marx and Engels could write in the pejorative language of their times about what would later be called ‘the underclass’,44 they were also not unaware of how the ‘residuum’ was reciprocally related to the stalwart proletarians on whom they based their hope for socialism. Engels’ The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844 had much of moralistic condemnation in it, especially with respect to immigrant Irish labour, but this did not mean that he saw the most downtrodden sectors of the proletariat as irredeemably separated out from the working class. Indeed, in an 1892 preface to his Manchester study, Engels recorded with considerable optimism the extent to which socialism’s advance in England had registered even in a former bastion of lumpenproletarianization, London’s East End. ‘That immense haunt of misery is no longer the stagnant pool that it was six years ago’, Engels wrote. ‘It has shaken off its torpid despair, has returned to life, and has become the home of what is called the “New Unionism”’, he continued, adding, ‘that is to say the organisation of the great mass of “unskilled” workers’.45

I think that Palmer makes some very interesting points but I would disagree with the notion that the Irish or the denizens of the East End were “lumpen”. Instead they were unskilled workers who were burdened with alcoholism, petty crime, and other “anti-social” behavior. Indeed, this is exactly the same profile of the earliest autoworkers that Henry Ford sought to “uplift”:

Wall Street Journal, May 9 2013
Henry Ford’s Experiment to Build a Better Worker

A review of “I Invented the Modern Age: The Rise of Henry Ford” by Richard Snow.

Early in 1914 Henry Ford, spurred by a combination of wanting to cut down the high turnover in his workforce and what seems to have been genuine altruism, announced that henceforth the base wage in his factory would be five dollars a day. This at a stroke doubled the prevailing salary for industrial work, and it caused a sensation.

But Ford company workers discovered that achieving their five-dollar day came with some rigid stipulations. To qualify for his doubled salary, the worker had to be thrifty and continent. He had to keep his home neat and his children healthy, and, if he were below the age of twenty-two, to be married.

Joe landed a job at Ford, and that is when Mr. Andrews entered his life, to find him living in “an old, tumbled down, one and a half story frame house.” Joe and his family were in “one half of the attic consisting of three rooms, which were so low that a person of medium height could not stand erect—a filthy, foul-smelling home.” It contained “two dirty beds…a ragged filthy rug, a rickety table, and two bottomless chairs (the children standing up at the table to eat).” The family owed money to their landlord, to the butcher, to the grocer. The eldest daughter had gone to a charity hospital the week before. Mr. Andrews said the remainder of the family “were half clad, pale, and hungry looking.”

Mr. Andrews at once got the pay office to issue Joe’s wages daily instead of every two weeks. He secured a $50 loan, and such was the Sociological Department’s seriousness of purpose then that Mr. Andrews, not Joe, borrowed the money. Mr. Andrews paid the butcher and the landlord, rented a cottage, and filled it with cheap but sound new furniture, new clothes, and, he said, “a liberal supply of soap.”

Chibber’s talk was a variation on the one he has been giving at conferences ever since the publication of his book attacking subaltern studies (it is mistitled as a critique of postcolonialism, a field that includes subaltern studies.)

His emphasis is on the need for “universalism”, a principle or whatever you want to call it that it is under attack from postmodernists in the academy, including subaltern studies specialists.

At some point I am going to give all this the attention it deserves but do want to make a couple of points now. Chibber has a curious argument (I am drawing from his article rather than the talk) that capitalism does not necessarily destroy all precapitalist cultural institutions even as it becomes the “universal” economic system. This would seem to contradict what Marx wrote in “The Communist Manifesto”:

The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part.

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.

Since one of subaltern studies’ main complaints is that a mechanical Marxism failed to account for the persistence of “religious fervor” in societies like India’s, Chibber is quick to assure his readers that capitalism can easily put up with “precapitalist” customs, culture, superstitions, etc. as long as they don’t get in the way of profit-making:

This whole argument rests on the assumption that if a practice does not directly advance capitalism’s reproduction, by being part of what Chakrabarty calls its ‘life-process’, it must elicit a hostile response from capital. But we might ask, why on earth would this be so? Returning to the question I posed in the preceding paragraph, if a practice is simply neutral with respect to accumulation, wouldn’t the natural response from capital be one of indifference? Chakrabarty makes it seem as though capitalist managers walk around with their own political Geiger counters, measuring the compatibility of every social practice with their own priorities. But surely the more reasonable picture is this: capitalists seek to expand their operations, make the best possible returns on their investments, and as long as their operations are running smoothly, they simply do not care about the conventions and mores of the surrounding environment.

I am not exactly sure what Chibber is driving at here. If all that subaltern studies was about was nagging Western Marxists for their underestimation of “the conventions and mores of the surrounding environment”, I doubt that such a tsunami of books and articles would have been produced over the past several decades in the name of subaltern studies. For example, it would seem fairly obvious that despite what Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto, “backward” institutions have never seriously threatened capitalism. Just look at Saudi Arabia.

I have not read Chakabarty so I cannot comment much more on this but I did have a look at an article cited by Chibber that supposedly makes the same sorts of mistakes, namely Gyan Prakash’s “Postcolonialism and Indian Historiography” that appeared in the dreaded Social Text in 1992, the same journal that was hoodwinked by Alan Sokal. Although Prakash’s article is burdened with the usual jargon (inscribed, palimpsest, catachrestic, etc.), he makes some essential points about the problem of Indian historiography that supersede narrower questions of cultural exceptions to a universalizing capitalism:

In fact, like many other nineteenth-century European ideas, the staging of the Eurocentric mode-of-production narrative as History should be seen as an analogue of nineteenth-century territorial imperialism. From this point of view, Marx’s ideas on changeless India – theorized, for example, in his concept of the “Asiatic mode of production” – appear not so much mistaken as the discursive form produced by the universalization of Europe, by its appropriation of the absolute other into a domesticated other. Such a historicization of the Eurocentrism in nineteenth-century marxism enables us to understand the collusion of capitalism and colonialism, and to undo the effect of that collusion’s imperative to interpret third-world histories in terms of capital’s logic.

Thanks to recent Marxist scholarship, Wittfogel’s work on the Asiatic Mode of Production has been pretty much debunked but when subaltern studies was taking off, it was still taken seriously—including on the Marxism list. You might even say that when Marxism discarded this theory it was possible to arrive at a more “universalist” understanding of Indian history, one that would make it more amenable to Chibber’s vision of things.

However, that’s not exactly the way that Irfan Habib sees it. Habib is the dean of Marxist history in India and, for that matter, a sharp critic of postcolonialism and Edward Said’s notion of “orientalism” in particular. But that does not prevent him from implicitly dissenting from Chibber as he writes in “Problems of Marxist Historiography” (Social Scientist, Dec. 1988):

Social formations constitute successive organisations of society, so that the classic order of succession has been primitive communism-slavery-feudalism- capitalism. Whether the classic order is also universal is a question on which there has been much controversy. Marx did not think that pre-colonial India was ‘feudal’: it lacked serfdom, and there was identity between tax and rent. The ‘Asiatic Mode’, which Marx speculated on in the 1850s, has been resurrected as the Tributary Mode by Samir Amin; and sub-classified into ‘feudal’ (based on rent) and ‘despotic’ (based on tax) by Chris Wickham; Kosambi and R.S. Sharma have argued that India did not see the stage of slavery, but had forms of feudalism from the middle of the first millennium or thereabouts to the colonial conquest.

While the controversy is not likely to cease, I do not wish to discuss it here at length. My own views are against a universalization of ‘feudalism’ as an umbrella to cover all pre-capitalist systems whatever their actual modes of surplus-extraction (class-exploitation). I agree that failure to universalize feudalism would lead us to accept a multiplicity of social formations over different territories; but I see no scandal in this. I would reassert that this is also implicit in the Communist Manifesto, when it treats capitalism as the first universal mode of production, and speaks of complex class structures preceding it.

Suffice it to say that the ideological foundations of Chibber’s attack on subaltern studies rest on exactly the kind of “universalization” that troubles Habib. Despite their jargon and despite their fixation on the “superstructure”, the subaltern studies people were grappling with a real problem and that was seeing India through the prism of European history and British history more particularly. The underlying assumption of political Marxism is that capitalism originated in the British countryside as a result of the introduction of lease farming mostly as a contingent event and then diffused to the rest of the world. This is a topic of great interest to me and that will provide the primary entry point when I get around to reading both Ranajit Guha and Vivek Chibber.

I won’t say anything more about Arun Gupta’s talk except that it dealt with Walmart workers and was extremely powerful.

June 26, 2014

Left Forum 2014: panel on post-Chavez Venezuela

Filed under: Left Forum,ultraleftism,Venezuela — louisproyect @ 2:14 pm

This is the fourth in a series of videos I made at the recently concluded Left Forum. I apologize in advance for a brief presence of my bald pate toward the middle of the event for about 10 minutes, which thankfully did not interfere with the audio. A fellow videographer tipped me off about this intrusion and I promise it won’t happen again.

Since the panel included Steve Ellner, I was especially motivated to cover this event. For my money, Steve is the sharpest analyst of Venezuela politics. Period. During the Q&A I commented that despite the fact that I fully supported the process in Venezuela, it seemed appropriate at this point to stop referring to it as “21st century socialism” since there is little likelihood that it will ever lead to the abolition of capitalism. It amounts to a Keynesian type economic program that is committed to the welfare of the masses, something that is inspiring in its own right. Unfortunately, Steve’s reply was not recorded but he made the point that nobody in Venezuela, either on the right or the left, feels that Venezuela is socialist. But what is equally important is the growth of working class institutions of economic and political power that will ultimately clash with capitalist power. This is what explains the sharp clashes in Venezuela now, a focus of the panel presentations that were on a uniformly high level.

This prompts me to say a few words about an article by Chris Gilbert, an American now teaching at a Venezuelan university, that appeared on Counterpunch yesterday. Like many others, particularly among the “Leninists” in the ISO, Gilbert expresses impatience with the Bolivarian process so much so that he invokes the Russian Narodniks as an example of the sort of thing that is necessary in Latin America, including Venezuela.

I am sure that Chris means well but he is a bit confused about the history of our movement, especially when he writes about Marx’s disgust with those who promoted reformism in his name:

Marx himself thought differently. While growing increasingly exasperated by the German Social Democratic party and its ambition to plod (and pact) itself toward a peaceful victory through the tireless accumulation of forces, he found a breath of fresh air in the character of Russian pistol-bearing narodniks whom he called “terrorists.” These folks knew how to live with brio and die with dignity. They had a revolutionary ethic and thought creatively. They read and studied Marx but did not take him to be the last word. Perhaps the twentieth-century figure most like them is the young Fidel Castro.

To start with, Marx was not unhappy with the German party contesting in elections and in other open and legal arenas but with the influence of LaSalle’s ideology on a wing of the party that reflected an opportunist tendency to adapt to the Junkers welfare state taking shape under Bismarck. There is not the slightest hint that Marx proposed “the propaganda of the deed” in Germany. His main goal was to reorient the German party for the need to struggle uncompromisingly against the bourgeois parties until the conquest of power was posed.

Gilbert links to Teodor Shanin’s “Late Marx and the Russian Road” but Shanin’s book based on an analysis of Marx’s letters to the Russian populists has zero to do with shooting Czarist officials. Instead it is an embrace of the idea that the precapitalist peasant communes could form the basis of a revolutionary government that could be the first step in a European-wide proletarian revolution. Marx explained that his focus on Britain’s economic history that proceeded from feudalism to capitalism as a basis for the socialist stage was not a universal template. He thought that the capitalist stage could be skipped entirely.

Chris seems to grasp this to a certain degree when he wrote:

 The narodniks of the People’s Will Party used violence because they did not see history as a linear universal progression in which all must follow the same route. They felt that the Russian people were sitting on potential socialism and socialist potentialities. The violence was the means to release these potentialities.

However, the Narodniks did not use violence in order to skip the capitalist stage. Instead, they did so as a way of inspiring the masses to take revolutionary action. Marx’s thinking was entirely different. He believed that socialists should be part of the mass movement, pushing it to revolutionary conclusions. In contrast, the Narodniks operated in small conspiratorial circles and had little interest in organizing strikes or running for the Duma. In fact it was their very elitist method that led to their legal party becoming a reformist obstacle to socialism—the Social Revolutionary Party of Alexander Kerensky. Terrorism and electoral opportunism went hand in hand.

Chris is fed up with the Latin American left that bases itself on Lenin’s critique of ultraleftism, directed against the immature Communist Parties that were trying to emulate the Bolsheviks. While I have no use for those who cite Lenin’s pamphlet to justify support for bourgeois candidates, it remains a good corrective to boneheaded tactics that isolate the left.

But it would be useful to remind ourselves of what Lenin had to say about the Narodniks, who had little to do with Fidel Castro who ran as an Ortodoxo candidate and who was active in the student movement. Even after he took up arms, the July 26th Movement used every opening afforded it under the Batista dictatorship to mobilize the masses, including repeated attempts to build general strikes through the trade union movement that required reaching out to the CP that had supported Batista in the 1930s and 40s.

For Lenin’s views on the Narodniks, I recommend a look at the 1902 article, aptly titled “Revolutionary Adventurism”:

The Social-Democrats will always warn against adventurism and ruthlessly expose illusions which inevitably end in complete disappointment. We must bear in mind that a revolutionary party is worthy of its name only when it guides in deed the movement of a revolutionary class. We must bear in mind that any popular movement assumes an infinite variety of forms, is constantly developing new forms and discarding the old, and effecting modifications or new   combinations of old and new forms. It is our duty to participate actively in this process of working out means and methods of struggle. When the students’ movement became sharper, we began to call on the workers to come to the aid of the students without taking it upon our selves to forecast the forms of the demonstrations, without promising that they would result in an immediate transference of strength, in lighting up the mind, or a special elusiveness. When the demonstrations became consolidated, we began to call for their organisation and for the arming of the masses, and put forward the task of preparing a popular uprising. Without in the least denying violence and terrorism in principle, we demanded work for the preparation of such forms of violence as were calculated to bring about the direct participation of the masses and which guaranteed that participation. We do not close our eyes to the difficulties of this task, but will work at it steadfastly and persistently, undeterred by the objections that this is a matter of the “vague and distant future.”

That has far more in common with Fidel Castro’s July 26th Movement than the Narodniks of Lenin’s day or sad attempts to emulate them now.


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