Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 6, 2021

Ernie Tate, ¡presente!

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 11:25 pm

Last night at around 10pm I got a phone call from Jess McKenzie informing me that her husband Ernie Tate had finally succumbed to cancer of the pancreas, something Ernie had revealed to me about six months earlier. I counted Ernie and Jess as two of my closest friends and political confidantes and his passing has affected me deeply.

My first encounter with Ernie was in the early 2000s, when he showed up as a Marxmail subscriber. His name was familiar to me because when I joined the SWP in 1967, a defense campaign in England had been organized after Gerry Healy’s goons had beaten him up as he was selling a pamphlet critical of Healy outside one of their meetings. For me, almost like a word association game, the name Ernie Tate always summoned up this incident—until he smiled and said that he had put it behind him. Unlike me, Ernie did not hold a grudge even, according to Ian Birchall, having “some positive things to say about Healy’s SLL.”

Oddly enough, it was his calm and sunny disposition that was matched to my own surly nature that have complemented us over the years. Early on, Ernie asked me if I could post a 14,000 word article he wrote about “Changes in Russia” on my website. This was long before people began blogging, something that didn’t seem to interest Ernie. All his energy went into a two-volume memoir “Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s & 60s.” on his lifetime in the trade union and revolutionary movement that is one of the best to come out of the Trotskyist movement. More about this book to follow.

Not long after Ernie subscribed to Marxmail, he invited me to meet with him at a Left Forum in New York to go over this and that. The Marxism list was well-known (and even notorious) as a forum for those trying to understand the wreckage of the SWP and its affiliated sects so I had a feeling that he wanted to compare his experience with my own. The conversation revealed that Ernie had left the Canadian section of the FI because of its “workerist” turn that was inspired by the American SWP. Keep in mind that Ernie had been a blue-collar worker since the early 50s so he was in a better position to evaluate the “colonization” project. He described a fumbling, amateurish operation that recruited not a single worker and led to an exodus from the party. It was our common understanding of this experience that led to our close political bonding, but there was much more to it than that.

In December 2011, my wife and I were walking out of the monthlong rental in Miami Beach, when I heard a woman’s voice in a distinctly Scottish burr about a dozen feet away: “Ernie, isn’t that Lou?” Just by coincidence, Ernie and Jess were staying for about the same length of time at a hotel close to where we were staying. We had dinner several times and really enjoyed the warmth and wisdom both radiated, especially my wife who does not share my surliness unless you get on her wrong side. I had ideas about doing a video when I was down there, mostly about the area’s history and to interview a former mayor who spent time in prison for taking bribes. But the only record I have of my trip was an interview I did with Ernie that was a very short version of his 2-volume memoir. It is shown above.

His story was spell-binding. Born in 1934, he was a working-class Irish Protestant kid from Belfast who took a vacation in Paris in 1954 just after the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu. The powerful demonstrations celebrating the victory organized by the CP were such an inspiration to him that he decided on the spot to become a communist.

Jess joined the movement in 1964 and before long found herself on a trip to Cuba that would put her in touch with Robert Williams, the NAACP leader who had organized a militia to defend African-Americans against Klan terror. She found herself functioning as a courier between Williams and his comrades in the U.S.

These were just two of the high points of this couple’s extraordinary voyage through the revolutionary left. Unlike the academic left, they lived the type of life that Max Horkheimer described “a revolutionary career does not lead to banquets and honorary titles, interesting research and professorial wages. It leads to misery, disgrace, ingratitude, prison and a voyage into the unknown, illuminated by only an almost superhuman belief.” Well, that does sound a bit too grim, doesn’t it? In fact, most of the time it was loads of fun. Whenever the topic of time travel comes up in idle chatter, I always say that if I could return to any year in the past, it would be 1968.

Much of Ernie’s memoir can be described as a joy ride through history. As I related to him midway through reading it, it reminded me—despite myself—of the good times I enjoyed when I was out on the streets selling socialist newspapers. There’s very few pleasures, including a room facing the ocean on South Beach, that can compete with the ones you experience as a committed revolutionary secure in the knowledge that you are part of a movement challenging a capitalist class that is a threat to the survival of humanity and all life on earth.

I loved Ernie as an older and wiser brother and will miss him dearly. My condolences to Jess, who is a formidable revolutionary in her own right. As our generation wends its way into the inevitable fate that awaits us, it is reassuring to know that there is a legacy that is being left behind in works like “Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s & 60s.” And, keep your eyes out for this, for comic relief I will soon be serializing the graphic novel I did with Harvey Pekar called “The Unrepentant Marxist”.

October 13, 2020

Michael Perelman, ¡Presente!

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 4:36 pm
Michael Perlman (1939-2020)

Yesterday, the New Castle News in Pennsylvania reported that Michael Perelman died on September 21 at the age of 80. I would assume that Michael grew up in New Castle, a small town just across the border from Youngstown, Ohio—a scene of major labor battles in the 1930s.

Michael was the author of 19 books on economics written for a general audience. Despite his decades-long career at California State University, Chico, he could hardly be described as a mandarin. Like many economists who were radicalized in the 1960s, he saw his profession as a way to change society, not angle for awards that most academics covet. Today, the Nobel Prize in economics awarded to Paul Milgrom and Robert Wilson for auction theory. When I saw the news, I asked myself what the hell was auction theory and why would experts in the subject merit a Nobel Prize? It turns out to be a way of “scientifically” calculating how bidding works, etc. When the world is poised on the edge of a 1930s type depression because of the pandemic, how did they win out? It turns out that both teach at Stanford, a symbol of the academy’s incestuous relationship to capitalism second to none. I only wish that Michael had lived long enough to comment on such a bizarre Nobel Prize.

After starting a new job at Columbia University in 1991, I was puzzled by nearly daily emails informing me about new mailing lists that I could subscribe to. Most were devoted to topics like Jane Austin studies or Nature Photography but when I spotted Progressive Economics Network, I was intrigued. If I could figure out what the hell a mailing list was, I might sign up. I strolled over to Terry, who maintained the email system, to ask what a mailing list was. He replied, “Ha!, I guess you don’t know what the Internet is yet.” It turned out that most colleges were on the Internet long before it became as universal as it is today. Thirty years ago, it was strictly about mailing lists since the Worldwide Web was still in its infancy, let alone social media. I sent a subscription request to the mail server at Chico and that began a friendship with Michael that lasted for the better part of thirty years. Despite the whirlwind experience of 11 years in the Trotskyist movement, the ties I have made through both PEN-L and Marxmail run deeper.

Not long after joining PEN-L, my correspondence with Michael began. As was the case with Michael Yates, I felt an affinity with economics professors who were both against the capitalist system and wrote books and articles directed to working people rather than fellow academics.

There two aspects of Michael’s scholarship that stood out for me. Back in the early 90s, I was becoming more and more committed to ecosocialism and saw Michael’s focus on agriculture as essential. It is worth noting that he earned a Ph.D. in agricultural economics from the University of California, Berkeley. I strongly suspect that his first book “Farming for Profit in a Hungry World” was based on his dissertation. With a forward by Barry Commoner, you can assume that it took up questions that are at the heart of our crisis today, with large-scale capitalist farming undermining our survival. Michael did not just theorize these questions. Long ago, when I learned that he owned a tractor and grew his own food, he struck me as a Marxist version of Wendell Berry. Nothing captures Michael’s humanity better than the farewell he wrote for Barry Commoner on his blog:

Goodby, Barry Commoner

Not long after I graduated and began teaching, Barry Commoner invited me to Washington University because of my work on energy use in Agriculture. He also published my article in his magazine, Ecology, and even wrote a forward to my first book, Farming for Profit in a Hungry World: Capital and the Crisis in Agriculture.

I only ran into him a few times after that.  We would only exchange a few words. He was always engaged with other people and I did not want to disturb him. I wish that I had been able to spend enough time with Barry Commoner to call him a friend. Nonetheless, I am grateful for our brief time together and even more grateful for the wonderful work he did.

His obituaries cover some of his most important work, but they neglected something that impressed me. Many of the people who worked for him were “unqualified,” in the sense that they lacked the credentials normally required for their jobs.  I believe that they did a better job appreciating that Barry Commoner gave them a chance that others would deny them.

We many more Barry Commoners.  Thank you Barry.

I invite you to check out Michael’s blog that should remain up for the foreseeable future given WordPress.com’s permanence, especially the intellectual biography in which Michael describes the road he took:

Although I earned a degree in agricultural economics from the University of California, Berkeley in 1971, I never could bring myself to accept the ideological framework of conventional economics. Early on I noticed that the agricultural system was consuming ten times more energy than it was producing in the form of edible food. I looked more deeply into the environmental, social, and economic costs of the current agricultural system. These investigations finally led to my first book, Farming for Profit in a Hungry World (1977). In this book, I showed how the profit-oriented agricultural system created hunger, pollution, serious public health consequences, and environmental disruption, while throwing millions of people off the land.

I also had a strong interest in the history of economic thought, which led me to look into the historical evolution of the agricultural system through the lens of the major representatives of classical political economy. These economists, who wrote during a period that ranged from the late 17th century through the middle of the 19th century, lavished praise on free and unfettered markets in their theoretical works. In their more policy-oriented writings — letters, diaries, and more policy-oriented works — they promoted the active use of the state to apply extra-market forces in the interest of capitalists to the detriment of others. In particular, I looked at the fairly universal call of these political economists to undermine relatively self-sufficient small farmers to transform them into wage workers. This study led me to write Classical Political Economy, Primitive Accumulation and the Social Division of Labor (1983).

A central theme of this book was the creation of a social division of labor — the partitioning of the economy into separate commodity producing units. I then began to look at what light Karl Marx could throw upon this subject. Reading Marx in this light made me realize that most of his readers missed what I considered to be very important to understanding his work. These researches led to my book, Karl Marx’s Crises Theories: Labor, Scarcity and Fictitious Capital (1987). I found that Marx sometimes wrote in order to influence contemporary political conditions. This aspect of his work led him write in such a way that seemed mislead later readers. Failing to see that element of Marx’s work, modern readers generally are inclined to read his writings as if they were timeless truths. For example, his famous articles on India argued that England was promoting progress in India, but Marx knew little about India at the time. Instead, he was trying to undercut the influence of Henry Carey at the New York Tribune, where Marx also wrote. I also found that scarcity was important to Marx, but he obscured this aspect of his work within the category of the organic composition of capital. Within this perspective, Marx’s crisis theory was far more sophisticated than many modern readers had realized. For Marx, subjective valuations caused market prices to violently oscillate. As investors became more optimistic, prices would rise in an irregular fashion, preventing prices from guiding the economy in an appropriate manner. Crises were required in order to set the economy right again, although the violence of the cure would eventually cause the system to collapse

Finally, on a personal note. I valued Michael’s friendship deeply. Over the better part of thirty years, we had many private email exchanges and numerous phone calls discussing issues that had come up over PEN-L as well as the general political situation. We also made time to chat at Left Forums, where he came to give talks, often on the same panel as Michael Hudson, another academic public intellectual. He did not have an arrogant bone in his body and was anxious to get my opinion on American and world events.

In addition to writing 19 books, Michael had a prolific presence online both through his blog and articles for various left publications. Six of them are on the Monthly Review website and well worth reading. Although Michael did not have any kind of special ties to MR, I always saw him in the same way I saw Harry Magdoff, Paul Sweezy and Leo Huberman. All such intellectuals understood exactly what Marx meant when he said, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”

September 20, 2020

Notes on the passing of Stephen F. Cohen

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 7:49 pm

This article will be a political assessment of Stephen F. Cohen, who died of lung cancer two days ago rather than an obit. I am including the NY Times obit at the end in order to put my remarks into context. My advice is to read the NYT obit first since it overlaps to some extent with my own attempt to assess his contribution to Marxist scholarship and the left.

In 1980 or thereabouts, when I had some time on my hands, I attended the deliberations of the SWP’s suit against the FBI. Because of Watergate and outrage over FBI harassment, the party filed suit against the FBI for $40 million in damages and an end to Cointelpro, which caught a small fish like me in its net. Cointelpro, which was short for Counterintelligence Program, was used to disrupt socialist and other radical organizing efforts. Supposedly, the government was trying to forestall the violent overthrow of the government but the real intention was to weaken civil rights, antiwar and other social struggles.

I can’t pin down the exact day but I happened to hear the SWP’s star witness that day, Stephen F. Cohen. I had no idea who he was other than that he was a Princeton University expert on Soviet Russia and apparently on the left. Our attorney was Leonard Boudin, the most respected constitutional lawyer on the left. He sought to make the case that the SWP was exercising its constitutional rights as a legitimate political party in the same way the party tried (and failed) in 1940 when the leaders were charged with violations of the Smith Act.

You can read a summary of the case here. We never got the $40 million, which Barnes might have stashed in a Swiss bank anyhow, but Griesa ordered the FBI to stop harassing us. Our victory was instrumental to putting an end to Cointelpro. If you want to find out more about this struggle, you can read Ward Churchill’s book about it here. Although it only has a single reference to Cohen, you can assume that his role was very important for the SWP victory.

Trotskyists argue that the undesirable features of Soviet government are largely the fault of Stalin, Trotsky’s rival. However, realizing that the establishment of the totalitarian state and the suppression of democracy occurred under Lenin, with the assistance of Trotsky, the Trotskyists contend that the anti-democratic developments were forced upon the regime by the civil war which broke out in 1918. Professor Stephen Cohen of Princeton testified at the trial and advanced this view.

Against the charges that the SWP was plotting a coup, Cohen testified for the plaintiffs that the Russian Revolution was a democratic movement against a minority that was determined to use violence against the soviets to preserve the status quo. He was so brilliant that Judge Griesa, a life-long Republican, kept overruling objections being made by the FBI attorneys.

Not long after listening to Cohen’s testimony, I grew disaffected from the SWP and hooked up with Peter Camejo whose opposition to sectarianism convinced me to catch up on readings that were outside those blessed by the SWP. I took out a subscription to The Nation, which proved to be a great asset when I got involved with Tecnica in 1986 during a visit to Nicaragua. We used to run ads in the back of the magazines that helped draw in many talented technicians anxious to support a revolutionary society. With my subscription, I used to look forward to Cohen’s articles since they made the case for Gorbachev who most people on the left supported, even if his goal was hardly consistent with Marxist ideology.

In 2002, I married a Turkish graduate student and went to meet her parents in Istanbul a year later. I brought some books along with me to read on the plane and in her home in-between socializing. One of the books was Cohen’s “Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution” that floored me in the way that Leon Trotsky’s “History of the Russian Revolution” did. It opened my eyes to Bukharin’s brilliance and allowed me to forgive his unfortunate alliance with Stalin. I recommend Tendance Coatsey’s blog on Cohen’s passing that is mainly about the book. He writes:

It is both a study of Bukharin the theorist of Imperialism and World Economy (1917) and political career from left-communism, alliance with Stalin against the left, champion of the New Economic Policy (NEP) that allowed some private business to continue, and then, the last independent figure to Stalin He emerges as a figure  both accommodated to the Egocrat and, finally, pushed to resisting, tried to mitigate the worst. Fully aware of the depths of mass killing and famine that went with forced collectivisation, Bukharin was, he argued, a far more formidable opponent to Stalin that Trotsky, who had been exiled without great difficulty from a party which did not hold him in high regard.  Out of power the one-time ‘darling of the party’, continued to offer an alternative to totalitarian rule by forced labour and mass murder, a (relatively) moderate ‘right’ Communism.

With the arrival of Perestroika, Cohen became an informal adviser to Gorbachev largely on the strength of his book. For Cohen, it must have seemed like a return to the NEP policies with Gorbachev keeping it together, a task that was beyond any Soviet leader’s capability in the 1920s.

Unfortunately, they were just as doomed as they were in the 1920s when a layer of the former bureaucracy conspired with Western imperialism to turn the USSR into a Wall Street banker’s wet dream. Using Jeffrey Sach’s shock therapy, Yeltsin made plutocrats wealthy and the rest of the country miserable.

The best thing would have been a worker’s revolution against Yeltsin but, as so often turns out, you only had a reversal of the worst aspects of the Yeltsin years but within the overall neoliberal framework. Tony Wood described this evolution in his “Russia Without Putin” that I reviewed in CounterPunch:

What about Sachs’s shock therapy? Would a nationalist like Putin make sure to secure a social base for his new administration by easing up on the working class? Wood debunks the idea that Putin was a left-populist back then or ever for that matter:

Putin’s first administration, from 2000 to 2004, was perhaps the most energetically neoliberal, introducing a series of measures designed to extend the reach of private capital: in 2001, a flat income tax set at 13 per cent; in 2002, a labour code scaling back workers’ rights; tax cuts for businesses in 2002 and 2003. These moves were widely applauded in the West at the time: the right-wing Heritage Foundation praised “Russia’s flat tax miracle”, while Thomas Friedman gushed about Russia’s embrace of “this capitalist thing”, urging readers of the New York Times to “keep rootin’ for Putin”. His second presidency, too, was marked by moves to increase the private sector’s role in education, health and housing, and by the conversion of several in-kind social benefits to cash payments — a ‘monetization’ that prompted popular protests in the winter of 2004-05, but which was carried through in modified form all the same.

While I am not privy to the particulars, it soon became obvious that Cohen began to support Putin as a lesser evil to Yeltsin and the West. Like liberals in the USA, this meant downplaying the evil, even if it was lesser. If Trump is evil incarnate, shouldn’t the left support Biden? If the CIA and the IMF were evil incarnate, shouldn’t internationalists rally behind Putin? It should be added that Cohen was not the only prominent and highly respected people in the West who followed this logic. The list is endless: Tariq Ali, Robert Fisk, David Bromwich, Seymour Hersh, Julian Assange, ad infinitum.

Once I figured out that Cohen was committed to this kind of bastardized anti-imperialism, I had no choice other than to call him out.

In 2014, I wrote an article titled “Stephen F. Cohen is not the man he used to be” that was focused on his support for Russian intervention in Ukraine. I wrote:

I was terribly disappointed to hear Cohen making the case for Putin the other night on George Noory’s “Coast to Coast” radio show on WOR, an AM talk radio station in NY that is now home to Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. There was a time when Cohen’s usual venue was someplace like the PBS News Hour or Charlie Rose. How the mighty have fallen.

Cohen told Noory that people had to understand that Russia was the only nation in the world that had suffered two collapses in the 20th century, one in 1917 and one in 1990. I could understand the reference to 1990 but 1917? I wonder if the SWP filed suit this year instead of in 1981 whether  Cohen would be such a reliable witness. The only thing that collapsed in 1917, after all, was Czarist oppression.

Noory’s show is just one small step above Alex Jones. I usually turn it on for a minute or two late at night to hear some guest talking about vapor trails, flying saucers or why global warming is a myth. I invite you to check out the website for Coast to Coast and see for yourself. There’s a story on “Polaroid Ghost Pictures” and one on Noory’s appearance at a UFO fest.

In his zeal to defend Putin of all charges, Cohen went on John Batchelor’s AM radio show on a regular basis. Batchelor is the author of “Ain’t You Glad You Joined the Republicans?: A Short History of the GOP” and a solid supporter of Donald Trump, even if his rhetoric is not as inflammatory as Tucker Carlson’s. During the years that Cohen was a weekly guest on Batchelor’s show, the only other men who made an equal number of appearances were Malcolm Hoenlein and Gordon Chang. Hoenlein is a member of the Israel lobby as hateful as Abraham Foxman, while Chang is an advocate of economic warfare against China and North Korea that makes Donald Trump pale in comparison. I should add that in all the years I’ve been monitoring the Batchelor show, I’ve never heard a single African-American guest, not even a righwing one.

One of Cohen’s appearances on the Batchelor show was so appalling that I was forced to correct the record in an article titled “Stephen F. Cohen on the 2001 Ukrainian shoot-down of a civilian airliner”:

If you don’t have the time (or the motivation) to listen to the podcast, let me summarize Cohen’s “high” points.

    1. “Some people” say that the men seen firing the missile were in Ukrainian uniforms. I wonder if these Ukrainian men were the same ones that Parry reported as being surrounded by empty beer bottles. Of course, the use of unnamed sources allows Cohen to play the same game as Robert Parry and Seymour Hersh—to raise suspicions without the need for evidence.
    2. He reminds listeners that in 2001 Ukraine accidentally shot down a Russian jet filled with Jews headed for Israel. So clearly the country has a record of incompetence when it comes to deadly firepower.
    3. He advises that when such incidents occur, the first thing to ask is cui bono; he uses the words “who had a motive?” but he means the same thing. If you Google “MH-17” and “cui bono”, you will get 59,500 results—the top of which is Michel Chossudovsky’s website. Now there’s a big surprise. Just as was the case with the sarin gas attack in Syria, the Putinite left takes the position that a “false flag” operation was required to deepen the war on Russia.
    4. The US has been in a new Cold War with Russia since the proxy war in Georgia of 2008, which the conflict in Ukraine continues.

You get the picture, right?

The 2001 shoot-down was news to me. This morning I did a little bit of checking. It turns out that it took weeks for Ukraine to fess up that it was at fault, even though it was obviously just an accident as is obviously the case with MH-17.

In 2001 the president of Ukraine was one Leonid Kuchma. Remember him? He was widely regarded for improving Russian-Ukrainian ties in the aftermath of Ukrainian independence. He won office in 1994, mostly on the basis of strong support from the Russian-speaking East of the country. His prime minister was Viktor Yanukovych. Like Yanukovych, Kuchma favored co-integration with the EU and the Russian trading bloc.

Kuchma, like Putin, was not the sort of ruler to put up with critical reporters, including Georgiy Gongadze who was kidnapped and then beheaded in 2000. Four cops were eventually arrested and found guilty.

It was this abuse of power and rampant corruption that led to the Orange Revolution of 2004. For Cohen the Orange Revolution had lots in common with Euromaidan, a movement that resulted in a “coup” that overturned the democratically elected Yanukovych government. In 2005 he referred to “very large and well-organized pro-Yushchenko crowds in the streets” who “intimidated the Supreme Court into ruling in his favor and the Parliament into changing the electoral laws while the electoral process was still under way.” I guess the CIA must have manipulated them into taking to the streets after an investigative reporter was kidnapped and beheaded, the filthy imperialist tools. Didn’t they understand that Kuchma was defending the nation against imperialist predators?

On October 13, 2001 the NY Times reported on how Kuchma had finally come around to admitting his military’s responsibility.

In strained language that acknowledged only a ”tragic coincidence,” Ukraine’s president, Leonid Kuchma, stated today that he accepted investigators’ preliminary finding that his military accidentally destroyed a Russian airliner over the Black Sea last week with an errant missile.

Kuchma’s written statement, released tonight, did not explicitly state that the military was at fault. ”Obviously, final results of the commission’s inquiry will be known after experts complete their in-depth investigation and make appropriate assessments public,” he said. ”But even today it can be said that a big tragedy took place.”

But of paramount interest is this:

Both Ukrainian and Russian officials insisted for days after the crash that a Ukrainian missile could not possibly have been involved. Ukrainian military experts said a re-examination of data from the launchings for that day showed that all missiles had been accounted for and that none had flown more than 25 miles off the Crimean coast before plummeting into the sea.

Kuchma called an accidental aircraft strike impossible. Mr. Tkachyov said all Ukrainian data showed that a missile could not have struck the plane. Relying on these assurances, Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Ivanov, dismissed speculation about a missile strike as a ”so-called” theory.

Cohen was right to bring up the 2001 incident but obviously not in the way he intended. I think the facts will bear out that not much has changed when it comes to the Kremlin and its stooges’ tendency to dig in their heels when involved with such gross displays of incompetence.

I was not the only person who found Cohen’s evolution inexplicable. In 2017, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article titled “Is This Professor ‘Putin’s American Apologist’?” that chronicled his descent. It was quite damning:

But even among fellow scholars, things have changed since Cohen emerged as the foremost public intellectual pushing back against accusations that Russia helped elect Trump. He has appeared on shows like Tucker Carlson’s on Fox News and called Trump “politically courageous” and “demonized” for trying to establish good relations with the Russians. “He’s gone from being a terrific Soviet historian to a commentator, to [talking] more about U.S. policy debates and what he sees as the corruption of those debates. But that isn’t his academic field; his contributions aren’t scholarly,” says Stephen Sestanovich, a Russia expert at Columbia.

Since the Chronicle article is behind a paywall, I include just below the NYT article.

Stephen F. Cohen, Influential Historian of Russia, Dies at 81

He chronicled Stalin’s tyrannies and the collapse of the Soviet Union, and he was an enthusiastic admirer of Mikhail Gorbachev.

Credit…Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times

Stephen F. Cohen, an eminent historian whose books and commentaries on Russia examined the rise and fall of Communism, Kremlin dictatorships and the emergence of a post-Soviet nation still struggling for identity in the 21st century, died on Friday at his home in Manhattan. He was 81.

His wife, Katrina vanden Heuvel, the publisher and part owner of The Nation, said the cause was lung cancer.

From the sprawling conflicts of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and the tyrannies of Stalin to the collapse of the Soviet Union and Vladimir V. Putin’s intrigues to retain power, Professor Cohen chronicled a Russia of sweeping social upheavals and the passions and poetry of peoples that endured a century of wars, political repression and economic hardships.

A professor emeritus of Russian studies at Princeton University and New York University, he was fluent in Russian, visited Russia frequently and developed contacts among intellectual dissidents and government and Communist Party officials. He wrote or edited 10 books and many articles for The Nation, The New York Times and other publications, was a CBS-TV commentator and counted President George Bush and many American and Soviet officials among his sources.


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In Moscow he was befriended by the last Soviet leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who invited him to the May Day celebration at Red Square in 1989. There, at the Lenin Mausoleum, Professor Cohen stood with his wife and son one tier below Mr. Gorbachev and the Soviet leadership to view a three-hour military parade. He later spoke briefly on Russian television to a vast audience about alternative paths that Russian history could have taken.

Loosely identified with a revisionist historical view of the Soviet Union, Professor Cohen held views that made him a controversial public intellectual. He believed that early Bolshevism had held great promise, that it had been democratic and genuinely socialist, and that it had been corrupted only later by civil war, foreign hostility, Stalin’s malignancy and a fatalism in Russian history.

A traditionalist school of thought, by contrast, held that the Soviet experiment had been flawed from the outset, that Lenin’s political vision was totalitarian, and that any attempt to create a society based on his coercive utopianism had always been likely to lead, logically, to Stalin’s state terrorism and to the Soviet Union’s eventual collapse.

Professor Cohen was an enthusiastic supporter of Mr. Gorbachev, who after coming to power in 1985 undertook ambitious changes to liberate the nation’s 15 republics from state controls that had originally been imposed by Stalin. Mr. Gorbachev gave up power as the Soviet state imploded at the end of 1991 and moved toward beliefs in democracy and a market economy.

Mr. Cohen first came to international attention in 1973 with his biography of Lenin’s protégé Nikolai Bukharin.

A prolific writer who mined Soviet archives, Professor Cohen first came to international attention in 1973 with “Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution,” a biography of Lenin’s protégé Nikolai Bukharin, who envisioned Communism as a blend of state-run industries and free-market agriculture. Critics generally applauded the work, which was a finalist for a National Book Award.

After Lenin’s death, Mr. Bukharin became a victim of Stalin’s Moscow show trials in 1938; he was accused of plotting against Stalin and executed. His widow, Anna Mikhailovna Larina, spent 20 years in exile and in prison camps and campaigned for Mr. Bukharin’s rehabilitation, which was endorsed by Mr. Gorbachev in 1988.

Ms. Larina and Professor Cohen became friends. Given access to Bukharin archives, he found and returned to her the last love letter that Mr. Bukharin wrote her from prison.

In “Rethinking the Soviet Experience” (1985), Professor Cohen offered a new interpretation of the nation’s traumatic history and modern political realities. In his view, Stalin’s despotism and Mr. Bukharin’s fate were not necessarily inevitable outgrowths of the party dictatorship founded by Lenin.

Richard Lowenthal, in a review for The Times, called Professor Cohen’s interpretation implausible. “While I do not believe that all the horrors of Stalinism were ‘logically inevitable’ consequences of the seizure of power by Lenin and his Bolshevik Party,” Mr. Lowenthal wrote, “I do believe that Stalin’s victory over Bukharin was inherent in the structure of the party’s system.”

As Professor Cohen and other scholars pondered Russia’s past, Mr. Gorbachev’s rise to power and his efforts toward glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) cast the future of the Soviet Union in a new light, potentially reversing 70 years of Cold War dogma.


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As Mr. Gorbachev arrived in Washington for his 1987 summit with President Ronald Reagan, The Times wrote, “With an irreverence for precedent and an agility uncommon in Soviet leaders, he has disrupted old assumptions about Soviet impulses, forced reappraisals of Soviet purposes and rendered less predictable the course of East-West competition.”

To widen the focus, Professor Cohen and Ms. vanden Heuvel published “Voices of Glasnost: Interviews With Gorbachev’s Reformers” (1989).

Professor Cohen affirmed his support for Mr. Gorbachev in a March 1991 Op-Ed article in The Times. “He has undertaken the most ambitious changes in modern history,” he wrote. “Their goal is to dismantle the state controls Stalin imposed and to achieve an emancipation of society through privatization, democratization and federalization of the 15 republics.”

As 1991 ended, the Soviet Union was dissolved and Mr. Gorbachev resigned, giving way to Boris N. Yeltsin’s tumultuous elected presidency. Mr. Yeltsin tried to transform the state economy into a capitalist market by imposing a “shock therapy” of nationwide privatization without price controls. Inflation and economic calamity ensued.

Credit…Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images

By 1997, as Professor Cohen saw it, the Russian economy had become “an endless collapse of everything essential for a decent existence.” He became a persistent critic of Mr. Yeltsin, who survived an attempted coup and tried to promote democracy but resigned in 1999 amid growing internal pressures. He was succeeded by his deputy, Mr. Putin.

In his book, “Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia” (2000), Professor Cohen laid the blame for Russia’s post-Communist economic and social collapse on the United States, for providing bad advice; on academic experts, for what he called “malpractice throughout the 1990s”; on Western journalists; and on Mr. Yeltsin, for a range of sins: abolishing the Soviet Union, creating a bureaucratic vacuum and generating hyperinflation with his economic shock therapy.


Continue reading the main story

“Cohen’s thesis is that Yeltsin, rather than Russia’s first democratic leader, was a neo-czarist bumbler who destroyed a democratization process that, in fact, should be credited to Mikhail Gorbachev,” Robert D. Kaplan wrote in a Times review. “Cohen is particularly scathing toward American journalists, whom he depicts as overly influenced by the prosperity of a small, rapacious upper class in the major Russian cities, and who seldom ventured out into the countryside to see the terrible price of the reformers’ handiwork.”

Stephen Frand Cohen was born in Indianapolis on Nov. 25, 1938, the older of two children of Marvin and Ruth (Frand) Cohen. His father owned a jewelry store and a golf course in Hollywood, Fla. Stephen and his sister, Judith, attended schools in Owensboro, Ky., but Stephen graduated in 1956 from the Pine Crest School, a private school in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

He loved the novels of Hemingway. As an undergraduate at Indiana University, he went to England on a study-abroad program. He had saved $300 for a side trip to Pamplona to run with the bulls. But an advertisement he saw for a 30-day, $300 trip to the U.S.S.R. changed his life.

Back at Indiana University, he gave up plans to be a golf pro and took up Russian studies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and public policy in 1960 and a master’s in Russian studies in 1962. In 1969, he received a doctorate in that subject from Columbia University.

Professor Cohen’s marriage in 1962 to the opera singer Lynn Blair ended in divorce. He married Ms. vanden Heuvel in 1988. In addition to her, he is survived by a son, Andrew, and a daughter, Alexandra Cohen, from his first marriage; another daughter, Nicola Cohen, from his second marriage; a sister, Judith Lefkowitz; and four grandchildren.

His Columbia dissertation on Mr. Bukharin’s economic ideas grew into his first book, copies of which reached Soviet dissidents, the K.G.B. in Moscow, and eventually Mr. Gorbachev, who put Professor Cohen on his guest list for the 1987 Gorbachev-Reagan summit in Washington.

Professor Cohen taught at Princeton from 1968 to 1998, rising to full professor of politics and Russian studies, and at New York University thereafter until his retirement in 2011. His last book, published in 2019, was “War With Russia? From Putin & Ukraine to Trump & Russiagate.”


Continue reading the main story

Many journalistic colleagues accused Professor Cohen of defending Mr. Putin, who curtailed democratic freedoms but boosted the economy, which grew for eight straight years. Wages for ordinary Russians tripled, poverty was reduced, and national growth jumped fivefold as rising prices of Russia’s plentiful oil and gas overcame a depression.

In a recent interview for this obituary, Professor Cohen denied that he had “defended” Mr. Putin.

“He holds views that I also hold,” Professor Cohen said. “It’s the views that I defend, not Putin.

“From the moment Yeltsin came on,” he continued, “Americans thought the Cold War was over. There was disappointment with Putin as a more rational leader. I see him in the Russian tradition of leadership, getting Russia back on its feet. He frightens some of our observers, but I didn’t see it that way.”

Julia Carmel contributed reporting.

Robert D. McFadden is a senior writer on the Obituaries desk and the winner of the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for spot news reporting. He joined The Times in May 1961 and is also the co-author of two books. 

Is This Professor ‘Putin’s American Apologist’?

How Stephen F. Cohen became the most controversial Russia expert in America

The Winter 1


Here is a picture of Gorbachev with Steve. Here is another picture of Gorbachev with Steve, this one with some Russian dissidents. And look, there is one of Gorbachev and Katrina, Steve’s wife, holding their infant daughter. There is even a Gorbachev magnet on the refrigerator.

Walking around this book-lined apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side on an August evening, it is almost as though the man with the world’s most famous birthmark is the third partner in the marriage of Stephen F. Cohen and The Nation editor-publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel.

For more than four decades, Cohen has been a leading voice on Russian affairs, pinballing between the academy, where he is now emeritus at Princeton University and NYU, and the media, influencing world events along the way. Few scholarly works can be said to have equaled the direct political impact of Cohen’s 1973 biography of the Soviet founding father Nikolai Bukharin. Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution (Alfred A. Knopf) didn’t just suggest a new understanding of the Russian Revolution when it was released in the middle of the Cold War — it profoundly affected the course of that war. Mikhail Gorbachev’s chief foreign-policy adviser, Anatoly Chernyaev wrote, “Some of us had already read the book, and we encouraged Gorbachev to do so. He took the book on vacation with him. He read it closely and kept quoting it to me. … The re-evaluation of Bukharin’s role and personality opened the sluice gates to reconsidering our whole ideology.”

Gorbachev’s affection for Cohen’s ideas — and for Cohen himself — turned a lowly scholar of the Russian Revolution into an intellectual VIP who sat in meetings with heads of state. Eric Alterman, a journalism professor at Brooklyn College and a Nation columnist who has known Cohen for decades, calls Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution “one of the most consequential books of the past century.” It realized “the dream of all writers to have an effect not only on world leaders but also on history itself.”

But these days, Cohen is better known for his views on a different Russian leader. In his columns and media appearances in recent years, he has become perhaps the most prominent defender of Vladimir Putin. “Putin is not a thug,” he declared on CNN. “He’s not a neo-Soviet imperialist who’s trying to recreate the Soviet Union. He’s not even anti-American.” The defense extends to the U.S. president, who has had some nice things to say about Putin. “The number-one threat to the United States today,” Cohen told Fox News, is the continuing investigation of Trump’s ties to Russia: “There is no evidence there was any wrongdoing.”

Perspectives like that have attracted the ire of a wide array of critics. Writing in The New Republic, Isaac Chotiner called Cohen “Putin’s American apologist.” Jonathan Chait in New York magazine labeled him a “dupe” and “a septuagenarian, old-school leftist who has carried on the mental habits of decades of anti-anti-communism seamlessly into a new career of anti-anti-Putinism.” Cathy Young in Slate said Cohen was “repeating Russian misinformation” and “recycling this propaganda.” And there are many others who share those views, even at the magazine his wife runs.

Cohen’s ideas about Russia, which once got him invited to Camp David to advise a sitting president, now make him the most controversial expert in the field. His enemies and friends ask the same question: What happened to Stephen F. Cohen?

When Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution was published, détente between the United States and the Soviet Union was well underway. But Russian studies was still dominated by the view that the Soviet Union was a totalitarian state, immune to reform because the logic of total control was embedded in the Soviet DNA. “The Western view [is] of Stalinism as the only outcome of Bolshevism,” Cohen wrote.

His book exploded that notion. It showed that Bukharin, a Marxist theoretician and member of the Russian Communist Party, offered a programmatic Soviet alternative to the Stalinism that eventually triumphed. “It was a huge statement,” says Eugene Huskey, a political scientist at Stetson University. Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution did what scholarly history should do: Use primary source materials to revise the understanding of the past. But it had obvious implications for the present and future as well. If the Soviet Union had become a tyrannical regime as an accident of history rather than as the inevitable end of a deterministic ideology, then perhaps reform was possible.

The book might have remained merely well regarded if not for Gorbachev. For those Russians looking for an alternative between capitalism and Communist dictatorship — and members of Gorbachev’s cabinet were foremost among those who were — Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution suggested one. “During the years of perestroika, many of my acquaintances were literally engrossed in reading his book,” Gorbachev wrote in an essay that was included in an anthology featuring 35 prominent Russian political, cultural, and media figures marking Cohen’s 70th birthday. “I remember that this book, which in many respects resonated with the social changes of that time, became a best seller in the Soviet Union.”

There was a brief, glorious period in the late 1980s when humane reform of Russia seemed possible, and Cohen was a hero to Gorbachev and his fellow reformers. He was seen as a man who offered an intellectual blueprint for a democratic socialism that could save Russia. Cohen visited Camp David at the request of President George H.W. Bush, squaring off against Harvard’s Richard Pipes in a scholarly battle to influence U.S. foreign policy and determine the course of the Cold War. He wrote frequently for The New York Times, almost leaving Princeton to become the newspaper’s Moscow correspondent.

But that was decades ago. Gorbymania is passé. Now it’s Putin. Putin, Putin, Putin. And Cohen is not friends with Putin, though he downplays the Russian leader’s failings. Presidents are no longer interested in the opinions of Cohen. But at least he can do his best to ensure that what he has for years been calling a second Cold War does not become a hot war. Cohen thinks we are closer than we have ever been, closer than we were during even the Cuban missile crisis or Able Archer. And the idea that he is unable to stop the downward spiraling of U.S.-Russian relations is nothing short of agonizing. A nuclear war between Russia and the United States is his biggest fear. (Well, that and irrelevance, if you believe his critics.)

Not that any such anguish is immediately evident when we meet in his apartment. He’s from Kentucky, he says, and retains “a skepticism about everything except horses and bourbon.” Dressed in jeans and a black-and-gold shirt, he smokes Marlboros on his living-room couch. The view of Central Park from here is of green treetops at sundown. At 78, he is still handsome, with a full head of salt-and-pepper hair. Vanden Heuvel, who walks in and out of the room, is 20 years younger and looks like a dark-haired heroine out of Tolstoy.

Cohen spends much of his time writing for The Nation. Their daughter, Nicola, who is here for dinner tonight, attends Columbia Law School, going into criminal-justice reform. Which, if you had to guess what a child of Cohen and vanden Heuvel would be doing with her life, is pretty much what you would come up with. “I’m very proud talking about my daughter’s passion for justice,” he says, listing off her accomplishments. It’s not a bad life.

But the attacks in the media have stung. Vanden Heuvel can recite the worst of them. And they have also started to come from inside The Nation, where editors and reporters wonder if Cohen’s influence is responsible for the country’s leading left-wing magazine taking the side of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin on U.S.-Russia policy.

In academe, Cohen gets more regard. He has a chest of good will stored away, for his Bukharin biography primarily, but also for his essays on Russian history, collected in books like Rethinking the Soviet Experience (Oxford University Press, 1985) and Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives (Columbia University Press, 2009). “He’s well-respected as a sort of historical political scientist,” says Ronald Suny, a Russianist at the University of Michigan.

But even among fellow scholars, things have changed since Cohen emerged as the foremost public intellectual pushing back against accusations that Russia helped elect Trump. He has appeared on shows like Tucker Carlson’s on Fox News and called Trump “politically courageous” and “demonized” for trying to establish good relations with the Russians. “He’s gone from being a terrific Soviet historian to a commentator, to [talking] more about U.S. policy debates and what he sees as the corruption of those debates. But that isn’t his academic field; his contributions aren’t scholarly,” says Stephen Sestanovich, a Russia expert at Columbia.

“I would say he’s not in the mainstream,” says Huskey. “He’s clearly an outlier” in absolving Russia for its military excursions and electoral interference. “Many have the perception that his comments make him out to be an apologist for Russia.”

That perception has tarnished Cohen’s name. In 2014, vanden Heuvel initiated discussions with the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies on funding a dissertation fellowship named after Cohen and his mentor, Robert Tucker. But the association delayed approving the fellowship when some board members complained about establishing one with Cohen’s name. Stephen Hanson, the group’s president at the time, told The New York Times, “It’s no secret that there were swirling controversies around Professor Cohen. In that context, consulting with a wider community of scholars was the prudent thing to do.”

Cohen and vanden Heuvel withdrew the offer. The association later asked if the couple would take Cohen’s name off the fellowship but still provide funding, a request that further insulted them.

In January 2015, David Ransel, an Indiana University professor and former editor of the American Historical Review, wrote a letter to the association, saying that its handling of the matter “reeks of a censuring of public discourse and should be regarded by all decent people as a profound embarrassment to our association.” It was signed by more than 60 scholars. A few months later, the group finally approved the Cohen-Tucker Dissertation Research Fellowship Program, which is still in existence.

The affair left Cohen dismayed. “I went ballistic,” he says. Vanden Heuvel calls it “a poke in the eye.” Cohen thinks that young scholars are afraid to voice views similar to his. He says he gets email to that effect. “They’re going to be careful. And you can’t be a good scholar and be careful.”

On a Tuesday evening, Cohen arrives at the WABC studios in midtown. He appears weekly on The John Batchelor Show, a talk-radio program, for a 40-minute discussion, highlights of which are summarized on The Nation’s website. He sports a light beard (the legendary Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko once called Cohen’s facial hair a “rusty, biblical unshaveness”), and he smokes from a vaporizer on the elevator up to the studio.

Winding our way through the halls, he brings up several times appearing on the show with Oliver Stone to discuss Putin. “It was shown all over the world,” he says. For his segment, a giant image of Putin is displayed on the studio wall. Cohen, fluid and articulate, is comfortable here, cracking jokes with the host. He was a CBS commentator during the 1980s and appeared regularly on television. His smooth, deep voice, the product of decades of cigarettes, is made for broadcast. Vanden Heuvel shows up and lovingly takes a few photos of Cohen before scrolling through her emails.

On the show, Cohen unleashes the opinions that have turned him into one of the least popular Russia experts in America. Speaking about the 2014 Ukrainian revolution that led to Russia’s invasion, he asks: “If you’re sitting in the Kremlin, and you see this as surreptitious NATO expansion, and Ukraine, which is virtually a kinship of Russia, do you do nothing?” Putin “is reacting. … He had few alternatives.” He continues: “If we’re going to ask who undermined Ukrainian democracy, it wasn’t Putin.” It was Western leaders.

He similarly blames America for panicking about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. “Why did America embrace what is clearly, or seems to be, a fiction for which there is no evidence?” He speculates on the answers: Putin was an obstacle to global American hegemony. Another scenario: “Sinister forces, greedy forces, high in our political system and in our economy, need Russia as an enemy because it’s exceedingly profitable.” U.S.-Russian relations “didn’t go wrong in Moscow.” They “went wrong in Washington.”

Not many scholars concur with those views. But even those who think Cohen is wrong now have to acknowledge that he has been right about a lot in the past. In addition to his views in the 1970s on the possibilities of Soviet reforms, he was proved correct in his assessment in the late 1980s that Gorbachev was a genuine democrat, in contrast to those who, like Richard Pipes, believed he was merely a kinder, gentler Soviet apparatchik. In the 1990s, Cohen was among the first to identify Boris Yeltsin as someone doing deep damage to Russia through his corruption. “Much of the academy were pro-Yeltsin,” recalls Suny. And Cohen was prescient in observing that post-Cold War NATO expansion would revive Russian nationalism.

Suny says Cohen “tries to fight all windmills at once” but adds that he is “rather courageous” and “covers for more timid colleagues” in countering the standard U.S. narrative about Russia. Robert Legvold, a Columbia University political scientist, says serious Russian experts “see him as wrong, but not as a traitor.” He notes, “Anybody who thinks he’s a tool of the Soviets or Russia is a fool.”

Vanden Heuvel offers her own frame: “If you have to define Steve, he’s an alternativist. This idea of don’t accept — seek the alternative.” Cohen’s views have made life difficult not only for him but also for vanden Heuvel. With his support of Putin and Trump (at least on Russia) “now there’s double toxicity” regarding him, as he puts it.

Staffers at The Nation are openly revolting against the magazine’s pro-Russian tilt. “There is a widespread feeling that he has always been involved and had lots of influence on vanden Heuvel, but that it ratcheted up with [the Russian invasion of] Crimea,” says the longtime Nation columnist Katha Pollitt. “He has a view that we are on the edge of World War III, and it’s not a view that I or other people hold.”

Vanden Heuvel points out that Cohen’s tenure at The Nation preceded hers and finds claims of his control over her insulting. But it is undeniable that the flagship magazine of the American left supports the Russia policy of Donald Trump. In June, some Nation writers told vanden Heuvel in a letter that “the magazine is not only playing into the hands of the Trump administration, but doing a dishonor to its best traditions.”

Cohen is insouciant about the controversy, except insofar as it hurts vanden Heuvel. His time working with Russian dissidents in the 1970s and 1980s inspired his nonchalant attitude. “There’s no real price for dissent in America compared to what it was in the Soviet Union,” he says. “I’m emeritus at two universities. That means I’m old and I got a lot of health care. What are they going to do to me?”

But the flashes of defiance can’t obscure the heartbreak. The tragedy for Cohen is that Gorbachev’s democratic Soviet alternative never materialized. Instead he lost control of the Soviet empire, and Yeltsin came to power, dissolved the Soviet Union, and oversaw a transition to a country based on hyper-capitalism devoid of the rule of law. And then Yeltsin selected Putin as his successor. None of the rest is history.

As I left their apartment, Cohen gave me a copy of his book The Victims Return (PublishingWorks, 2010), about survivors of Stalin’s gulags. On the train ride home, I looked at the inscription he wrote inside:

For Jordan —

Wishing you a happier fate.


Jordan Michael Smith is the author of the Kindle Single Humanity: How Jimmy Carter Lost an Election and Transformed the Post-PresidencyHis writing has appeared in The New York Times MagazineThe Washington Post, and The Atlantic.

May 3, 2020

Neil Davidson (1957-2020): an appreciation

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 7:15 pm

Neil Davidson

I just learned that Neil Davidson has died after a year-long battle with brain cancer. At the bottom of this post, I am including the words of his wife Cathy that Sebastian Budgen forwarded to FB. Neil was a long-time member of the SWP in England who seems to have affiliated with a network of people who had left the party in the aftermath of the rape crisis. Known as RS21 (Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century), they have an announcement on his death and a pending obituary that I am sure will fill in the details on his life and political career.

Davidson was a FB friend. I knew him hardly at all except for a couple of email exchanges in the past 15 years or so related to his scholarly expertise in matters that were of great interest to me. Davidson is the author of the 840-page “How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions?”, a book that I have never read from cover to cover but have consulted dozens of times over the years. I am not familiar with all his work but I would describe this as a magnum opus that goes to the heart of major debates within Marxism since the 1970s.

The book is an attempt to refute the arguments of a group of people around Robert Brenner, who became known as “political Marxists”. Their core belief rests on two premises. First, that capitalism originated in the British countryside in the mid-1400s and as a contingent outcome of a class struggle that put lease farming in control of the countryside. They reject out of hand that slavery and colonialism were key to the origins of capitalism.

Additionally, they argued that there is no such thing as a “bourgeois revolution”. Much of this rests on the scholarship of French revisionist historians such as François Furet, who was a member of the Communist Party when young. He came to the conclusion in the 1970s that the French bourgeoisie was not a revolutionary class in 1789 and that the assault on the monarchy was led by disaffected aristocrats.

I first came across Davidson’s ideas on the bourgeois revolution in an HM article written in 2005 with the same title as the book he was working on. While he would become much sharper in his debates with Brenner and his acolytes over the years, the article was an opening salvo. He wrote:

In effect, members of the Brenner school do not seem to recognise that there is an abstract model in Capital. Brenner himself apart, they think that England was the only site of endogenous capitalist development and therefore assume that Marx takes English development as a model for the origin of capitalism because, in effect, it was the only example he had. Now, I do not dispute that England was the country where capitalism developed to the greatest extent. It was for this reason that Marx made it the basis of his analysis, in the same way that he always took the most developed form of any phenomena as the basis of his analysis. But, in his mature work, Marx repeatedly states that capitalist development took place beyond England in space and before England in time.

When Davidson presented sections in the Grundrisse to members of the Brenner school, including Wood, that stated that “capitalist development took place beyond England in space and before England in time,” they would “pretend that they mean something else.” For his part, PMer George Comninel issued “disapprovingly admonitions about Marx’s failure to understand his own theory.” Davidson expresses some bemusement over the gaps in the Brenner thesis:

I understand how the Brenner school accounts for the establishment of capitalism in the English countryside. I also understand how the Brenner school accounts for the spread of capitalism beyond Britain. I do not understand how capitalist social-property relations spread from the English countryside to the rest of England. Nor, for that matter, how the same process took place in Holland or Catalonia, the other areas where Brenner himself thinks that capitalism existed.

For Davidson, the answer is recognizing that for Marx, the transition to capitalism was as much an urban phenomenon as it was agrarian: “Urban labour itself had created means of production for which the guilds became just as confining as were the old relations of landownership to an improved agriculture, which was in part itself a consequence of the larger market for agricultural products in the cities etc.” (Grundrisse, p. 508)

Another interesting insight from Davidson is that Brenner’s conception of capitalism is shared by an odd bedfellow:

For the members of the Brenner school, capitalism is defined by the existence of what they call market compulsion ­ the removal of the means of production and subsistence from the direct producers, so that they are forced to rely on the market to survive. There is, of course, a venerable tradition of thought which defines capitalism solely in market terms, but it is not Marxism, it is the Austrian economic school whose leading representatives were Ludwig von Mises and Frederick von Hayek.

That was something I had noticed myself, but not exactly on this basis. If capitalism is defined as resting on market compulsion, then vast areas of obvious capitalist exploitation are invalidated according to this narrow approach. For example, apartheid South Africa would be ruled out with its pass system, etc. So would Nazi Germany which involved slave labor on a grand scale. Of course, the libertarian would agree that such societies are not capitalist. Von Mises and von Hayek both regarded Nazi Germany and Communist Russia as noncapitalist since both societies involved statist control of the economy, etc. Needless to say, this is a superficial analysis but one that was pervasive in the academy.

Davidson also has some pointed observations on Wood’s explicit statement of a theme that is implicit throughout Brenner’s writings, namely that capitalism in England emerged in the countryside prior to the historical formation of capital-wage labor social relations. If a system of tenant farming could in and of itself be the key launching pad for capitalist property relations, how then was surplus value produced? He wrote:

If capitalism is based on a particular form of exploitation, on the extraction of surplus-value from the direct producers through wage-labour, then I fail to see how capitalism can exist in the absence of wage-labourers. Where does surplus-value come from in a model which contains only capitalist landlords and capitalist farmers? Surplus-value may be realised through market transactions, but it can scarcely be produced by them.

Once one establishes that the transition to capitalism in England was a function of inexorable economic processes in the countryside quite early on (the 1400s at least), then the bourgeois revolution becomes trivial, if not irrelevant. Brenner wrote:

First, there really is no transition to accomplish: since the model starts with bourgeois society in the towns, foresees its evolution as taking place via bourgeois mechanisms, and has feudalism transform itself in consequence of its exposure to trade, the problem of how one type of society is transformed into another is simply assumed away and never posed. Second, since bourgeois society self-develops and dissolves feudalism, the bourgeois revolution can hardly play a necessary role.

According to Davidson, Brenner’s magnum opus “Merchants and Revolution” is basically an attempt to demonstrate that feudal relations had been wiped out by 1640 so the notion of a Great Revolution is besides the point. Davidson’s article concludes with a discussion of English history in the 17th century intended to show that Brenner’s dismissal of the need to effect a social revolution is based on minimizing class conflict between the forces led by Cromwell and the gentry.

Davidson wasn’t finished with the PMers. He wrote a second part for HM that year, which really captured my political imagination. Like Jim Blaut, Davidson became a crucial resource in trying to understand and refute Robert Brenner and his followers. In the first article Davidson focused on the peculiar analysis of capitalism originating from tenant farming. In his follow-up, he honed in on the question of whether there was such a thing as a bourgeois revolution.

Davidson starts off by trying to establish Marx and Engels’s attitude toward the notion of a revolutionary bourgeoisie. He makes the essential point that the Communist Manifesto, despite its rather rapturous description of the modernizing capabilities of the capitalist class, says very little about its political role in leading revolutions against feudalism.

When Marx described the role of the bourgeoisie in the German revolution of 1848 –as opposed to the French revolution of 60 years earlier– he was unimpressed. He took note of a vacillating bourgeoisie more willing to confront the aroused working class than its ostensible feudal enemies. If and when revolutions took place, they tended to be “from above” and bypassed the masses that were at center stage in 1789.

These distinctions were not lost on Lenin who saw Russia at a crossroads around the turn of the century. The revolution might unfold like France’s in 1789 and like the American civil war–a result of a thoroughgoing and plebian assault on the old order–or it would look more like the Junkers “revolution from above” that consolidated the rule of the bourgeoisie while retaining many aspects of the feudal era. The abolition of serfdom in Russia was an example of how the exploiting classes in Russia would connive to maintain the status quo while giving the appearance of attacking it. In the 1907 article “The Agrarian Question and the Forces of the Revolution,” Lenin wrote:

All Social-Democrats are convinced that, in its social and economic content, the present revolution is a bourgeois revolution. This means that it is proceeding on the basis of capitalist production relations, and will inevitably result in a further development of those same production relations. To put it more simply, the entire economy of society will still remain under the domination of the market, of money, even when there is the broadest freedom and the peasants have won a. complete victory in their struggle for the land. The struggle for land and freedom is a struggle for the conditions of existence of bourgeois society, for the rule of capital will remain in the most democratic republic, irrespective of how the transfer of ‘all the land to the people’ is effected.

Such a view may seem strange to anyone unfamiliar with Marx’s theory. Yet it is not hard to see that it is the correct view—one need but recall the great French Revolution and its outcome, the history of the ‘free lands’ in America, and so on.

You’ll note, by the way, that Lenin refers to a “bourgeois revolution” above, and not to a “bourgeois-democratic revolution.” This is a key point for Davidson. Since the conflation of bourgeois and democratic is so widespread in Marxist discourse, it is necessary to explain how it came into existence, especially given its absence in the writings of both Lenin and Trotsky.

In a survey of theories of bourgeois revolution, Davidson identifies a tendency in the late 19th century to search for historical antecedents in the struggle against capitalism–a native radical tradition so to speak. This led to a search for a unifying theme in which “the people” were eternal actors against entrenched interests. That theme became democracy. As Davidson puts it:

It became important to identify struggles that could be retrospectively endorsed and assimilated into a narrative of democratic advance, the closing episode of which had opened with the formation of the labour movement. In most cases, the radical traditions were directly inherited from left liberalism, particularly in those countries – above all Britain, but also France – where Marxism was initially weakest and where liberal connections with labour were political and organisational as well as ideological. In effect, these traditions tended to become a populist alternative narrative to what one early radical liberal historian, John Richard Green, called ‘drum and trumpet’ histories.

While this sort of thing was innocent enough in the late 1800s, it took a more destructive character during the rise of Stalinism which required the concept of a “bourgeois-democratic” revolution to buttress its class-collaborationist approach to politics, especially in the 3rd world where feudalism supposedly still prevailed.

It should be obvious from what I have written that my affinity for Neil Davidson was heavily focused on questions that first came to mind after coming into contact with Jim Blaut, who shared Davidson’s disdain for Political Marxism.

I hope that you will consult the RS21 article linked above that has a list of his most important works that can be read online. Davidson was a major voice in Marxism who tried to keep up with political developments even when cancer had slowed him down.

Like Erik Olin Wright, Davidson shared his clinical experiences dealing with cancer with his readers, trying to stay on an even keel. Like Wright, he was upbeat and politically engaged until the very end. Also, like Wright, he was an academic who never threw his credentials around. As an SWP member, he was committed to the socialist revolution—a stance that will become more and more popular as capitalism enters its own death throes.

(Posted on FB by Sebastian Budgen)

Neil Davidson – one of the kindest, most thoughtful, least pompous and one of the most brilliant comrades we will ever know – has left us, far, far two early. HM Books will, in due course, be publishing two of his new books and the journal will be making available his articles. A really terrible loss for us all.

From his partner Cathy:

Dear All – as you can see, this is to convey the sad news that Neil died this morning, peacefully here at home with me, eight months after his diagnosis with brain cancer.

We have been wonderfully supported during this last phase of his illness by our local District Nurses and West Lothian care teams, backed up by our GP practice, Marie Curie palliative care experts and others, all selflessly working on despite the pandemic.

Neil’s funeral will be in Aberdeen so that his family can attend and of course, current restrictions mean this can only be a small private event. I know that many of you will want, as will I, to have a much fuller commemoration and celebration of Neil’s life and exceptional achievements at a later date, and if possible when we can get together in person – I’ll be happy to hear any ideas for that in due course. I do find myself in possession of a library still overflowing with books – and also red wine… So perhaps some redistribution of all that might feature in forthcoming plans!

My sister Helen came down from her home in Shetland just before the lockdown and remains an invaluable support and comfort – she will be staying here for the duration of the restrictions in any case, so I am not alone. Springtime in the garden is a great solace too.

The many expressions of kindness, concern, support and appreciation for Neil that have come in over recent months were very gratefully received and I managed to convey most of your messages to Neil, which meant a lot to both of us. We may borrow some of the fine words used by some of you in what we put together to be said at his funeral and I know that will be very helpful to his family too.

There is no need at all to reply to this e-mail. I have tried to send it to as many of Neil’s (and my) friends and contacts as I have addresses for, but you may wish to pass it on to others I haven’t reached. If you do wish to be in touch with me, e-mail or post is fine – but I’m sure you will understand if I am not responding to much correspondence meantime. Also, I would appreciate no phone calls/texts and no flowers etc. sent here at the moment. Thanks.

Let’s remember the good times and keep working for better yet to come, as Neil would have wanted and did so much to inspire.

With best wishes to you all and hope you are keeping safe.



March 17, 2020

Homage to Kevin Coogan

Filed under: Kevin Coogan,obituary — louisproyect @ 7:58 pm

I couldn’t locate a photo of Kevin but since he posted on my blog as Hylozoic Hedgehog, this might suffice

Within the past five months, I have lost two of my closest political co-thinkers. On November 9, 2019 Noel Ignatiev died somewhat unexpectedly even though he had been dealing with serious illnesses for a number of years. On March 6th, I learned that Kevin Coogan had died. By a strange coincidence, I only met Noel and Kevin just once in person and each time at lunch, over hamburgers. We spent hours in conversation. With Noel, it was about the 1960s and being Jewish. With Kevin, it was mostly about Lyndon LaRouche. Notwithstanding the brief time I spent with the two, there were long-standing email and FB exchanges that made me feel as close to them as people I knew in the Trotskyist movement. What we three had in common was old soldiers tales about life in the “vanguard”. We traded stories about battles we fought and laughed at ourselves for having participated in them.

Before speaking about my experiences online with Kevin, I should share a couple of important posts that help put him into context.

The first was a series of Tweets about Kevin from Craig Fowlie, who is the Editorial Director for Routledge’s social sciences division. He leads an editorial team of 120 that included Kevin, a free-lancer. If you have a Twitter account, you can read them here. It begins: “Kevin was a brilliant & extremely knowledgeable researcher whose 1999 book Dreamer of the Day  is one of most important works on post-war fascism.”

In addition, there’s a bibliography of his writings, both in print and online, at Beyond the Fringe Politics, a blog that “features contributions from several researchers, academics and activists who investigate the far right.”

Most importantly, an obituary that appeared as an announcement in the NY Times has appeared at Legacy.com. I urge you to read the whole obit that starts:

Kevin J. Coogan of Queens, New York died unexpectedly on February 27, 2020 at the age of 67. Kevin was an investigative journalist and author. His 1998 book, Dreamer of the Day: Francis Parker Yockey & The Postwar Fascist International, remains one of the most important works on post-war fascism.

Kevin grew up in a loving family in Philadelphia. His parents were both writers. Kevin easily gravitated to books and to writing.

As a high school student, Kevin joined an American New Left faction, Students for a Democratic Society. After matriculating at Sarah Lawrence College, Kevin joined the National Caucus of Labor Committees (NCLC). He left school and drove a cab three nights a week to keep financially afloat. As he put it, after a while, “driving a cab in the middle of the night in 1970s New York was in a way a paid vacation” from what he came to view as a “pretty nasty cult.” In 1979 Kevin quit the NCLC. He wrote critical essays and published several books online about the NCLC’s leader, Lyndon LaRouche.

My first encounter with Kevin took place on August 1, 2017 when he posted the first of 118 comments on my blog. It was in response to the first of a series of articles on Lyndon LaRouche under the title “This is what American fascism looks like: the Lyndon LaRouche story”. Since my intention was to establish LaRouche’s status as a Marxist theoretician and how his current-day movement made points that overlapped leftist websites like Consortium News, Kevin was clearly honing in on the same phenomenon:

I’m writing to call attention to my two studies on LaRouche and the early Labor Committee: Smiling Man from a Dead Planet: The Mystery of Lyndon LaRouche (available at http://laroucheplanet.info/pmwiki/pmwiki.php?n=Library.UnityNow) and How It All Began: The Origins and History of the National Caucus of Labor Committees in New York and Philadelphia (available at http://laroucheplanet.info/pmwiki/pmwiki.php?n=Library.HIAB).

These studies appear on a website entitled LaRouche Planet and run by ex-members and aimed at debunking the cult. You can access the home page at http://laroucheplanet.info/pmwiki/pmwiki.php?n=Main.HomePage. LaRouche Planet has just published extremely rare photos of “L. Marcus” on the Columbia campus in 1968 if that interests anyone.

At the time, I had no idea who Kevin was. He posted as Hylozoic Hedgehog, a nom de guerre intended to protect him from LaRouche’s cult. I never asked him what Hylozoic Hedgehog meant but feel confident that it incorporated his worldview. Wikipedia states that “Hylozoism is the philosophical point of view that matter is in some sense alive.” I suppose that Kevin found hylozoism relevant to his own experience since it has an affinity with the ancient Greek philosophers like Democritus whose materialism was analyzed in Marx’s Ph.D. As for the hedgehog, I suppose that is a reference to Isaiah Berlin’s essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox”. Berlin tried to draw a distinction between hedgehogs, who view the world through a single defining idea and foxes, who draw upon multiple experiences irreducible to a single idea. Berlin did not mention Marx, but clearly he was much more of a hedgehog than a fox. Who knows? Maybe Kevin had an entirely different idea. I only wish he had lived long enough to discuss it with him.

Kevin stuck around after my LaRouche series was finished. He was as knowledgeable about culture as he was about politics. His take on a documentary about the underground filmmaker Barbara Rubin demonstrated his erudition:

It’s really a tremendous film with an amazing sound track among other things. Fans of the Velvet Underground owe it to see the film as do fans of Dylan. But mostly it’s so well edited and the narrative flows beautifully. Because Jonas Mekas was a pack rat, their letters are great, and his reading of his memorial obit for her is particularly touching. It’s a minor masterpiece in its way and it does capture quite well the sense of burn out (a lot of it self-inflicted through drugs — speed in particular) that took over large sections of the counter-culture movement. The scenes at the farm, which was supposed to be the great escape, are especially telling.

Same thing with music. He shared my enthusiasm for the Ken Burns Country Music series on PBS:

I watched almost the whole series on PBS and it’s all great IMO. I can’t say I’ve become a fan of country music in general just as I’m not going to become a fan of rap or heavy metal, but within all these genres there are brilliant songs and artists. I don’t like “rap” but Nas’s Illmatic is one of the greatest albums ever made. I don’t like heavy metal but AC/DC can do no wrong.

I now feel the same way about Hank Williams after watching the series. (I always like Johnny Cash, who really centers the entire Burns’ film.) I got to understand why Kris Kristofferson is the Bob Dylan of country music and why Willie Nelson is such an interesting artist. I still don’t quite get George Jones but it’s my fault, not his.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Burns series is the bond between Bob Dylan and the “folk scene” revival and its overlap into country music. Burns shows this through Dylan and Cash’s friendship. He also shows that bluegrass was dying before it got revived again on college campuses, in part based on “Dueling Banjos.”

I was so excited that I listened again to “Nashville Highway,” which I remember really hating when it first came out.

Listened again and it still sucked.

As for Haggard, there is a great scene in the series where someone says about the line about “we don’t smoke dope in Muskogee” that Haggard when he wrote that line was a huge pot smoker.

The Burns series is really great and minus the sappiness that can weigh him down. The line writing is phenomenal and Coyote’s narration is perfect as always. For me, it’s the best thing he has ever done by far. I learned so much from it.

Like me, Kevin went through a traumatic experience as a LaRouche cult member, just as I was left with practically a case of PTSD after 11 years in the SWP. He was a highly adroit analyst of the “Leninist” illness as this comment on the dissolution of the ISO bears out:

It strikes me that a lot of these sects, like the Labor Committee, were held together by the delusional belief that the members were some morally superior vanguard out to save the world and enlighten the masses with their profound wisdom. In that sense, I don’t see much of a difference sociologically between these vanguard sects and messianic church fundamentalists who created their own little churches with their own “correct” interpretation of sacred texts, by they from Marx or the Book of Mormon.

I can’t help but think that Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity view of religion was reborn in a secular form in the countless cult/sects. The difference in them is that some of them are very nasty (LaRouche/Healy), some of them are bureaucrat nasty (Barnes), some of them are boringly benign and then turn nasty (ISO), and some of them are really off the wall (LaRouche taking first prize honors on that one at least among the Trotsky line).

Decades ago Janja Lalich wrote a very interesting study of the cult/sect she was trapped in for years called the Democratic Workers Party led by Marlene Dixon that is well worth reading in this context. Also Alexandria Stein’s book Inside Out on her really unreal life in a Maoist sect in Minnesota. Her book is truly astonishing in its mix of Kafka and Orwell and Mao.

In my view what makes all these sect/cults chug along is the narcissism of the members who elect to stay year after dreadful year and who believe that by being in the sect/cult (the boundaries are fuzzy and one can bleed into the other) they are members of the “elect” and that ego puff makes them stay when it is clear that they are just treading water at best. At worst, they contribute decades of unpaid “surplus labor” to the group to keep “leadership” in top rate booze as with Dixon or they serve as a vanity press for the likes of a LaRouche or a Healy. They do so because somehow they believe their very “sacrifice” for “the struggle” makes them better than everyone else. There is definitely a symbiotic relationship. Again, I am sure you could find parallels in different Christian sects. Both derive psychological benefits even if it it all emotional junk food.

In a relatively benign sect, who cares? I am guessing that News and Letters will go on forever and a day rather like the last followers of Daniel De Leon whom I met in NYC in the 1980s. But when they turn nasty, they can become a real problem. However in 99.99% of the time they turn nasty towards their own followers and none of this has any impact in the world outside the cult. So no one notices. Of course, as the sects/cults with a “Leninist” frame have a far easier time suppressing dissent. I would say the key difference between a sect and a cult is the degree of internal democracy and transparency (including financial transparency). Sects are transparent and operate more democratically; cults do not. Hence you can start out a sect and morph into a cult but it is almost never the case that it works the other way round.

In any case, there is an obvious sociology/psychology of all these groups that has nothing to do with “correct” or “incorrect” interpretations of Marxist or Christian scripture and a lot to do with issues of personal identity. Over time, most people in these sects wise up and get out but some of them simply transfer their loyalty to a different sect to find the same mental reward. Or they go from serf in one sect to boss in another.

The last comment posted by Kevin appeared on February 22nd, just 12 days before he died.

However, I did hear from him through email on February 14th since he wanted to share some chapters for a book he had worked on years ago about Karl Marx and racism but abandoned. He had the same take as me on Friedrich Sorge’s racism that I analyzed in a CounterPunch article:

Hi Louis,

Some years ago, I began a huge project on Marx and the 19th century. Although my main interest was in the “Great Game” involving England, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire (Marx was a Turkophile), I did get diverted into the Marx/race issue. One reason is that one centerpiece of my study was Marx’s totally obscure book Herr Vogt. Karl Vogt was a leading scientific racist as well as an 1848 revolutionary.

In a way, this project ironically mimicked Capital, which Marx basically gave up after Volume One. I gave up for a lot of reasons, including my belief that I was writing for a Left that no longer existed. The deeper I got, the more I felt this stuff was simply too esoteric for a movement whose intellectual depth was like an inch deep. It just became too big and too depressing.

In any case, here are three draft sections from the book. The first is on Marx and the South and the debates over slavery. I think Marx is awful, but he does evolve a bit from the nadir which is in the 1840s-1850s. But he is terrible.

I also began research into Engels and I spent a bit of time in Manchester. I was trying to find out more about his firm Ermen and Engels. They were a cotton textile firm and Engels was supported in a way by black slave labor as the firm got its cotton from the South. At one point, Engels was even supposed to visit New Orleans.

The second section is on the 1848 radicals and how some of them backed the South. It goes to my investigation of Karl Vogt, a key ideologue of scientific racism and a mentor of Agassiz if I can even remember what I wrote. IN my book, I write as a historian and not a cheerleader. Nor did I find much to cheer about. I entered the project inspired by Hal Draper. At the end, I was amazed at how Draper could write five books and Marx comes out as the hero every time. It felt preposterous.

Section three is on a weird French racial writer who believed geography is destiny that Marx liked and Engels rightly thought was crazy.

Anyway, it’s been over a decade since I abandoned the project as it had grown so massive that it was crushing me for no real purpose that I could see except bringing me down while further isolating me. But I’m sending you these excerpts. If nothing else, I have a lot of great sources in the footnotes.

Again, I have not looked at all this for over a decade. I have no idea if I can defend everything I wrote and I’m also sending you first drafts. Don’t read it as an argument; just read it for background. Frankly, when I was copying sections of it, I could not even remember writing some of them. But I can see from your interest in this topic that there may be leads or suggestions that you might find worthwhile.



I am sure that you will find these three chapters as interesting as everything else Kevin ever wrote.

1) Marx Racism 2) Marx Racism 3) Marx Racism

Finally, I have gone through all of the posts that Kevin commented on and categorized them as Kevin Coogan. They all make for great reading, Kevin’s comments and not necessarily my posts!

He will sorely be missed.

December 30, 2019

Richard Greener (1941-2019): a good friend passes on

Filed under: bard college,obituary — louisproyect @ 6:40 pm

For regular readers of this blog, you might recall references to Richard Greener over the years. I’ve reviewed his first novel in the Locator series titled “The Knowland Intervention” and conducted three interviews with him, one of which had him sharing thoughts with Jeffrey Marlin, who has also made several appearances here.

A week ago I learned that Richard had died. He was 78 and living on borrowed time for many years as a heart transplant recipient. An entry for Richard in Encyclopedia.com explains how he became a novelist late in life:

A series of heart attacks in the 1980s sidelined former broadcast industry executive Richard Greener, and over the next decade his health deteriorated to the point that he was confined to bed and named to a heart transplant list. The desire to write fiction came out of a need to alleviate the boredom of bed rest and the pain associated with his heart condition. “I was able to sit at my computer, particularly at night, and avoid chest pains by sitting up straight and writing, it was a great help,” Greener told ForeWord Magazine editor Cymbre Foster. In 2006, his brother-in-law sent Greener’s manuscripts to some agents, and within nine months a publisher agreed to print two completed novels. It was around this time that Greener’s transplant came through, and he was able to celebrate his books’ publication with a new heart.

As for the “broadcast industry” reference, Richard was the president of WAOK in Atlanta, Georgia for decades—a radio station serving the needs of the city’s Black community, whose success was helped by the skills of a white Jew. When Richard used to show up at Black radio conferences, the audience was always surprised to see that its legendary president was not Black. If you want to hear Richard expound on the vicissitudes of radio, the interview below is very much worth listening to. As someone who grew up loving radio, his words as an insider meant a lot to me. Immediately beneath it is an interview I conducted with Richard about James Brown, a business associate of his for many years.

And just beneath that is an interview with Richard and Jeffrey Marlin, who has been a friend for 58 years after I began following him around like a puppy dog at Bard College as a freshman in 1961. Jeffrey and Richard started Bard four years earlier as freshman, so their friendship went back 62 years.

Jeffrey and Richard were two of the leading lights of what we used to call “old Bardians”. This meant representatives of the culture at the college Walter Winchell called “the little red whorehouse on the Hudson”. I can say it was little but not much of a whorehouse or red. The student body was just over 400 and most students were apolitical. What politics there were depended a lot on the initiatives taken by Richard, Jeffrey and the iconoclasts around them. In 1961, they came up with the brilliant idea of forming the Welcome the Bomb Committee that was a reaction to Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s mandatory fallout shelter proposals. They told Bard students that if we welcomed the bomb, it would be less hostile. A ceremony was held on the quad that was culminated by Peter Barney firing off a miniature cannon that he brought back from a sailboat trip around the world. You could hear the thing going off across the Hudson river. The student newspaper reported on the rally:

Welcome Bomb Rally Held Here

The Welcome the Bomb Committee held its first community assembly on the lawn in front of the gym on Sunday, October 1. Grand Imperial Wizard Jeff Marlin presided over the ceremonies, which opened with a cannonade supplied by the deft broomstick of Peter Barney. Chaplain Aaron Goldstein intoned the invocation. He invoked the blessings of the Great Bomb, Lord of Hosts, calling for it to descend to earth quickly so that it might receive a suitably ecstatic reception. Wizard Marlin then made a brief speech outlining the Committee’s policies. He said that if a man arrived at a party in his best attire and found the guests diving under sofas and into closets upon his appearance, he would certainly feel hurt and angry. Similarly, Marlin said, the Bomb is deeply saddened at our frantic preparations for shelters and alarm systems. Unless we make haste to welcome it joyfully, it will come to us in anger. “If we welcome the Bomb,” said Wizard Marlin, “the Bomb will welcome us. If we are hostile to the Bomb, the Bomb will be hostile to us. A hurt Bomb is a hostile Bomb.” Marlin also stated that the Committee was against fresh-man regulations. He refused to clarify this statement. Choral Director Richard Greener next led the audience in a rendition of the Committee’s anthem, “Welcome the Bomb.” Orchestral Director Bob Marrow accompanied on the recorder. Grand Fusilier Barney then set off another symbolic holocaust, and Chaplain Goldstein concluded the ceremonies with the Benediction.

I barely knew Richard at Bard. He lived in Albee dorm with Jeffrey and me but on an upper floor. In my mind’s eye, I can see him walking down the steps wearing blue jeans, a blue denim work-shirt and a green corduroy jacket, usually on his way to the pool hall on campus with a scowl on his face. He was an ace pool player—that’s my strongest memory of him at the time.

It was only after I graduated and moved to New York that I got to know him a bit better. By 1967, I had become a fire-breathing Trotskyist and anxious to convert others to my beliefs. One afternoon I agreed to help Richard move to a new apartment and accompanied him and Jeffrey in a U-Haul van they had rented. For the entire day, I proceeded to give my proletarian revolution spiel to Richard. Jeffrey had heard this numerous times and was smart enough to tune me out. After I was finished, Richard confessed that he found it convincing and worrisome even if he had no intention of going within six feet of the SWP. I only wish that I could turn the clock back and been as skeptical as them.

Both of them came from socialist households, to one extent or another. Richard’s dad was in the CP and Jeffrey’s was a labor lawyer for the SP-dominated garment workers union. Like many Bard students, rebellion was expressed much more in terms of culture than class struggle. Since I was so much in awe of upperclassmen like them, I was willing to forsake my conservative politics just to be socially accepted.

Both Jeffrey and Richard made a trip to Nicaragua in the late 80s as part of a Tecnica delegation. Although I did not join them, I was happy to hear that they made contacts with Sandinista radio management even though a project never materialized.

This was around the time that Richard’s health began to decline and his trips to New York dwindled. Each time he came up, I was always happy to talk to him. As you can tell from the interview I did with the both of them, they remained larger than life well into their seventies.

Over the past ten years or so, I shared two or three phone calls a year or so with Richard—partly to offer some companionship during the shut-in required by his heart transplant and partly to listen to a unique and charismatic personality. Since he took medication to desensitize his immune system from rejecting a foreign organ, it came at a cost. Every time he went out to a concert or any other event with lots of people close by, he always ran the risk of suffering some communicable disease. Despite the drawbacks, including a horrific recovery period after the transplant that he documented here, it was a vast improvement over dying from heart disease 30 or 40 years ago.

For all of the well-deserved contempt that Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg deserve, it does provide a social foundation that allows people like Richard to stay in touch with friends. Of all the people who I knew from Facebook, Richard’s comments always were always most welcome even when we disagreed.

This was his last post on FB and well worth including as a measure of his intelligence and humanity:

Common to all human thought, I think, two areas stand alone obliterating truth and fact and instead overwhelmed by lies and invention. They are, of course, Love and History. Love I leave to the memoirists, who truth be told, are little more than novelists writing about themselves. But, History provides the core of most human belief, and here with apologies to my Native American friends (if I had any) is the real story of Thanksgiving, first published about 10 years ago but still worth reading every year and especially to be remembered as the NFL shamelessly thanks the American military for the freedom to play football.

The True Story Of Thanksgiving
By Richard Greener
Novelist, writer, author of The Locator novels, basis of the FOX TV series “The Finder”.
11/25/2010 10:04am EST | Updated November 22, 2016

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

The idea of the American Thanksgiving feast is a fairly recent fiction. The idyllic partnership of 17th Century European Pilgrims and New England Indians sharing a celebratory meal appears to be less than 120 years-old. And it was only after the First World War that a version of such a Puritan-Indian partnership took hold in elementary schools across the American landscape. We can thank the invention of textbooks and their mass purchase by public schools for embedding this “Thanksgiving” image in our modern minds. It was, of course, a complete invention, a cleverly created slice of cultural propaganda, just another in a long line of inspired nationalistic myths.

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November 15, 2019

Noel Ignatiev: Remembering a Comrade and a Friend

Filed under: Counterpunch,obituary — louisproyect @ 1:29 pm


For all of the opprobrium Facebook deserves, it is still essential for building ties on the left when there are so few opportunities for networking in real space as opposed to cyberspace. Just checking now, it seems that I became a FB friend with Noel Ignatiev sometime in 2015. It was worth it to me to make such a connection, even if it meant putting up with all the ads and heavy-handed automated interference into saying what was on my mind. (I lost FB posting privileges twice for no good reason.)

Back in the mid-nineties, when I was working at Columbia University, I used to make frequent stops during lunchtime at Bookforum, an excellent source of scholarly literature, including that written by Marxists. One day I spotted a new book by Noel Ignatiev titled “How the Irish Became White” that stopped me in my tracks. I had dispensed with the notion long ago that white workers would join a Marxist group just by selling them copies of the Militant newspaper. Even if the book focused on the Irish, it might offer insights into the question of American political backwardness.

Despite being based on Ignatiev’s Ph.D., it read nothing like a dissertation. It was a politically engaged attack on white privilege supported by in-depth research. It also demonstrated a grasp of the broad contours of American culture that suggested the author’s ability to think outside the box. For example, Ignatiev made the case that Huckleberry Finn was Irish based not only on his last name but what Mark Twain wrote in a May 7, 1884 letter: “I returned the book-back [book cover for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn]. All right and good, and will answer, although the boy’s mouth is a trifle more Irishy than necessary.”

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September 2, 2019

Immanuel Wallerstein (1930-2019): an appreciation

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 9:00 pm

Twenty-five years ago, the Marxist left discussed and debated their ideas on an antiquated Internet medium called listserv’s, which are automated mailing lists. About 10 years later the same people began to defend their ideas on blogs, a new technology, with the drawback that they tended to be unidirectional. Those making comments were subordinate to the blogger who had the right to block someone or even block comments altogether. The pendulum swung the other direction when social media kicked in. First there was Facebook that began in 2004 and then Twitter which began two years later. I generally try to avoid debates on social media since it lacks the elementary tool that listservs or blogs provide, namely a search mechanism. Trying to find someone’s comments in a thread from a month or two ago is an exercise in futility.

One of the listserv’s I subscribed to in the mid-90s was called the World Systems Network (WSN). Like PEN-L, another listserv I joined even earlier and that is now pretty much moribund, it was based at the University of Colorado. WSN lasted from 1995 to 2004, the year that Facebook was born. A coincidence? You can read the archives here.

I subscribed to WSN because it was a place for discussion of the origins of capitalism, a topic I had become deeply interested in after getting to know Jim Blaut who had shown up on the Marxism listserv that preceded Marxmail. Jim was on WSN as was Andre Gunder Frank. Neither was shy about making their views known. Neither was I, even though I wasn’t in their league.

Among the top-flight Marxist academics subbed to WSN was Immanuel Wallerstein who had the distinction of founding the World Systems methodology that the list was named after. Within a few months, Wallerstein sent me a note complimenting me for my posts there, which were part of an ongoing polemic against Robert Brenner who had wrote an attack on Paul Sweezy, Andre Gunder Frank and Wallerstein as “neo-Smithians” (that’s Adam, of course) in the 1977 New Left Review.

For Brenner, Wallerstein fails to make the Marxist grade because he has no way of explaining the emergence of “relative surplus value”, the term that Marx used to describe the replacement of human labor by machinery like in the industrial revolution. For Brenner and his acolytes, “absolute surplus value” does not constitute genuine capitalism because it relies on the extension of the work-day and political repression to produce surplus value.

In other words, it is the kind of class relation that existed in most of Latin American and Africa until the 20th century where plantations and mines owned by colonial powers relied on slavery, peonage and other “pre-capitalist” forms of exploitation. So, when, for example, King Leopold’s henchmen cut off the hands of men and women in the Belgian Congo who refused to tap rubber used to make automobile tires in Belgium, they were not really involved with capitalist production because they used a machete instead of a drill press. For me, all of this is capitalism. It is a world system, as Wallerstein maintained.

I am not exactly sure when the correspondence began but for about a year I exchanged emails with Immanuel Wallerstein who struck me as one the most generous, knowledgeable and down-to-earth people I had ever run into on the net with his kind of qualifications. Mostly, we discussed the Brenner thesis and why it irked the both of us, and Jim Blaut.

At one point, he invited me to write an analysis of the Brenner thesis for the journal he edited out of the U. of Binghamton. After turning it in, his assistant suggested some changes—something I decided was not worth my time and energy. It was only after my wife became a tenure-track professor and had to deal with multiple and exhausting changes to her articles that I understood how correct my decision was, especially with my hair-trigger temper.

For what it’s worth, here’s the article: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/origins/testing_the_brenner_thesis.htm

Unfortunately, my refusal to work on the article undermined the friendship with Wallerstein and we stopped communicating. Years later, I did drop him a line about something he had written from time to time but nothing that suggested that we reconnect.

With his passing, I decided to have a look at the Wikipedia entry for him to help me write this post. I now understand why he made such an impact on me. He was not the typical academic. He had much more in common with the rough-and-tumble Jim Blaut than I realized at the time

On his website, Wallerstein wrote about his role in the SDS-led strike of 1968, when he was a sociology professor there.

After seven days or so, the Columbia administration decided to call the police. [Dean] David Truman came to the meeting of the AHFG [Ad Hoc Faculty Group] to tell us that they were going to do that. He simply reported this; he didn’t discuss it. Various professors made different personal decisions. There were many who decided to surround the entrance to the occupied buildings. Most of them surrounded Fayerweather, the building occupied by the graduate students. A smaller group, of which I was one, decided to surround Hamilton Hall.

As for 1968 as a whole, I have written on this many times and have no space here to repeat the argument. In one sentence, what happened was the ending of the geocultural dominance of centrist liberalism and the reopening of a three-way ideological struggle between the Global Left and the Global Right with centrist liberalism struggling to maintain some support as a real alternative.

Does that term centrist liberalism ring a bell? It should given Joe Biden’s pathetic candidacy.

In the Wiki, we learn about Wallerstein’s political influences that, of course, starts with Karl Marx. I was struck by his inclusion of Frantz Fanon who he described as “the expression of the insistence by those disenfranchised by the modern world‑system that they have a voice, a vision, and a claim not merely to justice but to intellectual valuation.” Like fellow Columbia professor Edward Said, Wallerstein identified strongly with the people of the global South who hardly figure in Political Marxism’s ambit.

Let me conclude with a recommendation to visit Wallerstein’s website (https://www.iwallerstein.com/) that includes free access to a number of his scholarly articles. You will find a page titled “Intellectual Itinerary” that concludes with this statement, not that different from what Jim Blaut believed in himself.

I have argued that world‑systems analysis is not a theory but a protest against neglected issues and deceptive epistemologies. It is a call for intellectual change, indeed for “unthinking” the premises of nineteenth‑century social science, as I say in the title of one of my books. It is an intellectual task that is and has to be a political task as well, because – I insist – the search for the true and the search for the good is but a single quest. If we are to move forward to a world that is substantively rational, in Max Weber’s usage of this term, we cannot neglect either the intellectual or the political challenge. And we cannot segment them into two hermetically‑sealed containers. We can only struggle uneasily with pushing forward simultaneously to coming closer to each of them.


August 25, 2019

Sidney Rittenberg (1921-2019): a long-time and remarkable member of the CP in China

Filed under: China,Maoism,obituary — louisproyect @ 6:56 pm

Today, the NY Times has an obituary for Rittenberg that is included below so that you won’t have any problems getting past the paper’s paywall. I first became aware of him in 2013 when I reviewed a documentary about him titled “The Revolutionary”. Since the review covered another film as well, I am only reprinting the section that dealt with him. Fortunately, the film can be seen on both Amazon Prime for free if you are a member or on YouTube for only $2.99. The link is above.

From my review:

Sidney Rittenberg is the quintessential anti-Zelig. Like Woody Allen’s character, he shows up in key moments of Chinese history next to all the big-time players but unlike Zelig is in a commanding position, most of all in the Cultural Revolution.

He was born to a wealthy Jewish family in Charleston, South Carolina in 1921 and became involved with the labor movement while at the University of North Carolina, a long-time hotbed of the radical movement not unlike CCNY. Another famous red alumnus was the late Junius Scales, another scion of an upper-class family.

When he was in the army, he got sent to language school to learn Chinese. Afterwards he was sent to China just as the war was ending. With his radical sympathies, he was inspired to seek out Mao Zedong who was organizing his Red Army in Yan’an province for an all-out assault on the KMT army.

Upon meeting the 24-year-old Rittenberg, Mao invited him to take a senior position at Radio Peking, making sure that the CP’s communications with the West were conveyed properly in English. Rittenberg agreed to stay on but only on one condition—that he be accepted as a member of the Communist Party. That turned out to be a double-edged sword since this experience brought him terrible misery even as it offered him the most fulfilling moments of his life. Even though I and most of my veteran radical readers never reached such a lofty status, we surely can identify with him as he relates his being ground down as a member of what amounted to the largest socialist cult in history—Mao’s Communist Party.

Just four years after going to work at Radio Peking at a salary larger than Mao’s, Stalin sent Mao a letter accusing Rittenberg of being a spy. Rittenberg was offered the choice of being sent back to the U.S. immediately or going to prison in China. He chose China and then spent 6 years in solitary confinement until the Chinese brass decided he wasn’t a spy after all.

Oddly enough, the only other people besides Stalin who raise the possibility that Rittenberg was a spook was the Financial Times:

A feeling that Rittenberg must, surely, have been a deep-cover CIA agent still surfaces occasionally in the US. “There were actually no western agents in China in my time,” he says. “But former intelligence people are convinced to this day that I was an agent under deep cover. I get asked quite probing questions even today by retired CIA people. When I deny it, they say, ‘Wow, you’re good.’ I always considered myself a representative of the genuine American people, in the tradition of revolutionaries like Tom Paine. That’s why I always dressed as an American. I wanted to be an American friend of China, not Chinese.”

I find the CIA accusation hard to believe. Why would an asset such as Rittenberg be ordered to spend 6 years in a Chinese prison when his talents could have been deployed elsewhere? I think it is much more plausible that he did everything he did out of a conviction that he was a participant in the 20th century’s greatest anti-imperialist revolution. I did many stupid and self-destructive things for a much more marginal movement.

Rittenberg is still alive, having moved to the U.S. after his second imprisonment, this time during the Cultural Revolution and once again for being a foreign spy. Now in his 90s, he is an amazingly articulate man capable of deep insights about the Chinese revolution and the personal disasters stemming from both his idealism and the ambitions many of China’s top politicos harbored and still do.

June 28, 2019

Bruce Dixon ¡presente!

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 7:52 pm

We lost a giant today. Bruce A. Dixon died at 2:32 pm with his family in Georgia. I miss his political clarity, his guidance, his candor, his warmth and his humor. Bruce was a legendary organizer. He was old school – organizing person-to-person and always willing to provide assistance. It’s hard to believe you are gone, Bruce. The world is a better place for you having been in it. Rest in Power.

Margaret Flowers on Facebook

From the Green Party page on Bruce

I was born to working class parents, and raised on the south side of Chicago. By 1967 I was involved in the citywide organizing effort among black high school students demanding the first black history courses and opposing the war in Vietnam. In the fall and winter of 1967 we hooked up with young Marine and Army veterans just back from the war. We took them to nine or ten black high schools on the west and south sides of Chicago where we conducted teach-ins at which they recounted stories of rapes, murders and war crimes they either took part in or witnessed but were powerless to stop. They told us we had a political and moral obligation to resist the war and the draft and not allow us to be used in the shameful way they had been used.

In January 1969 I joined the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party, in which I served as part of the education cadre, responsible for conducting the party’s political education classes. I also served as a patient advocate in the party’s free medical center. I left the BPP about August of 1970.

In 1974-75 Bobby Rush, former Illinois Black Panther Party’s Deputy Minister of Defense ran for Democratic ward committeeman in Chicago’s 2nd ward. I took part in the campaign, running 5 precincts, canvassing and training others to canvass for about 60 days prior to the election. This was my first brush with electoral work. Bobby is now of course congressman from the first congressional district of Illinois.

During the mid and late 1970s I took part in a series of ephemeral community organizing efforts in the Cabrini-Green public housing project on Chicago’s near north side around issues affecting public housing residents including public education, police practices, jobs the corrupt practices of the Chicago Housing Authority and more. In 1979-80 I was part of a group that planned and executed a series of highly visible protests over the fact that Chicago residents could not register to vote except weekday business hours downtown in non-presidential election years. I was arrested a few times, but we embarrassed the city into allowing Chicago’s first off-site voter registration drives, and signing up about 60,000 new voters in time for the 1980 Illinois gubernatorial election. From this time until the end of the century I was involved in contesting primary elections every cycle as a volunteer or consultant or staffer or precinct captain or one of the folks who trained precinct captains, always against the Daley Machine.

I was caught in a couple of plant shutdowns in 1978 and 1981, and the second time worked with other rank and file steelworkers to gain control of our union at Chicago’s old Pullman passenger rail car plant and mobilize to prevent the shutdown. We seized the local union but were betrayed by our international, and 3,000 of us were put on the street that year. All through the 1980s I worked on campaigns against the Daley Machine in Chicago, including the 1983 and 87 mayoral campaigns of Harold Washington. In 1984 I worked in the congressional campaign of Danny Davis, who now represents the 7th district of Illinois, and the Jesse Jackson presidential campaign that season, and the 1987 Chicago mayoral campaign. I ran field operations for primary election campaigns in 1988 and 1990 in which we decisively beat the Daley Machine. I also recruited and trained the first Local School Improvement Councils for five Chicago Public Schools in the Cabrini Green neighborhood in the 1988-1991 period. I gained a reputation for running successful voter registration drives and field operations against the Daley Machine.

In 1992 I was tapped to be one of three field organizers responsible for the summer and fall voter registration drive leading up to the general election that year. Our director that year whose chief responsibility was fundraising was a guy fresh out of Harvard law with no political experience, but a quick study and a great fundraiser. We took him around to the people we’d organized in our previous 15 years, our union folks, our people in public public housing, in neighborhood organizations and the like. His name was Barack Obama. We signed up 133,000 new voters in four months and chased them out to the polls. Afterward I took a job in the Elections Department of the Cook County Clerk’s office responsible for registrations and elections in the suburban half of Cook County, where my responsibilities included training deputy registrars and prospective candidates for local office, writing manuals and some other stuff.

I left Chicago at the end of 2000, and moved to Georgia. In 2002 I took a week off to work in the congressional campaign of Rep. Cynthia McKinney, and afterward published a critical assessment of the effort online. The article attracted the attention of Glen Ford and we began collaborating with Margaret Kimberley to produce an online journal called the Black Commentator, and in 2006 we founded Black Agenda Report, a weekly journal of news, commentary and analysis from the black left published each and every week.

In 2009 I joined the Georgia Green Party. To tell the truth the GA Green Party, like the national party had a lot of problems when I joined it, most of which I have learned are reflected in the experience of Greens in other states as well. Assessing, addressing and overcoming them is more than just a notion, it’s been a journey of several years here in GA, but I believe we are in sight of being able to build a party with a mass base here, capable of putting a couple hundred people in a room in Atlanta, and a hundred or more in Macon, Savannah and Augusta within a year, leasing a permanent meeting place in Atlanta and one other location, and launching a successful drive for ballot access in Georgia, with or without aid from the national party or its presidential campaign.

I was also a staff person in the 2016 campaign of Jill Stein, until I had to leave because of illness. I contributed to the ballot access and campaign plans, to Jill’s tour of NC and GA, composed a number of mailings, operated parts of the web site, and more.

At the GP’s 2016 Annual National Meeting, I worked with Howie Hawkins of the NY Green Party to prepare and present what was undoubtedly the best attended workshop of that year’s offerings, on the subject of transforming our party into a dues paying membership organization, the model followed by successful opposition parties almost everywhere in the world except the US.

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