Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 22, 2017

A follow-up on the Enlightenment

Filed under: philosophy — louisproyect @ 6:07 pm

Was Franz Boas an “early intellectual debunker” of pseudo-science? Not exactly

When I check the WordPress dashboard of my blog each day, I am always curious to see who has linked to the Unrepentant Marxist. A couple of days ago, I discovered that Ross Wolfe had linked to my blog as part of his response to the Jacobin article by Landon Frim and Harrison Fluss that made an amalgam between anti-Semitism and anti-Enlightenment philosophy, whose exponents ranged from William James to Martin Heidegger in scattergun fashion. For Frim and Fluss (what evocative Hobbit-like names), Marx was part of the “Enlightenment” tradition and once philosophers such as Nietzsche began to criticize that tradition, it opened a Pandora’s Box that led to fascism.

Much of Wolfe’s commentary is couched in the sort of language found in the grad school milieu of the Platypus club that expelled him for some reason a few years ago: “Even Ideologiekritik ought to be grounded in something more solid than Foucauldean discourse analysis or Derridean textual marginalia.” My mind tends to wander when I read this sort of thing.

I raced forward to see what Wolfe had to say about my article. Here it was:

Fluss and Frim are doubtless right that the Enlightenment is presently under attack by a host of both antimodernist and postmodernist ideologues, some even purporting to be from the Left (like the “unrepentant Marxist” Louis Proyect, who’s relinquished his previous support for Sokal in order to better crusade against the dastardly Vivek Chibber). A brilliant rebuttal to Proyect’s tendentious quotation of Kant’s anthropology, as well as the still more banal survey of Diderot, Voltaire, Holbach, Kant, and Hegel conducted over at Suburban Idiocies, is once again presented by Goldner: “Polling Enlightenment figures for their views on slavery and race is… is an extremely limited approach to the question, susceptible to the worst kind of anachronism. What was remarkable about the Enlightenment, in a world context, was not that some of its distinguished figures supported slavery and white supremacy but that significant numbers of them opposed both. Slavery as an institution flourished in the colorblind sixteenth-century Mediterranean slave pool. None of the participating societies, Christian or Muslim, European, Turkish, Arab or African, ever questioned it.”

I might try to defend myself against the charge of being an “antimodernist” if I knew what that meant. How does one take a position on “modernity”? Does that mean being a Luddite or wearing clothing made of hemp? Or using a typewriter instead of a Macbook? I really have no idea. In terms of me being a “postmodernist ideologue”, this makes about as much sense as describing someone like Jim Blaut a “postmodernist” because he would have polemicized against Chibber or anybody else espousing Political Marxism.

Goldner is never at a loss for words. The article cited by Wolfe contains 17,000 of them and there’s not much point in replying, even if I had the time. I am interested in the final paragraph, which is the real takeaway:

For many of these post-Enlightenment developments, the Enlightenment itself is of course not to be blamed. Many Social Darwinists, eugenicists, suffragettes, Progressives and socialists ca. 1900 undoubtedly identified with the Enlightenment and thought their ideas of “science”, including “scientific” demonstration of the innate inferiority of peoples of color, were an extension of the Enlightenment project, and the preceding discussion shows they in fact had their Enlightenment predecessors. Nevertheless, the early intellectual debunkers of this pseudo-science, such as Boas, were also heirs to the Enlightenment. When the Enlightenment is remembered today, it is not Bernier, Buffon and Blumenbach who first come to mind, but rather Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, Kant (as philosopher, not as anthropologist)  and Paine, and one could do worse than to summarize their legacy as the debunking of mystification. The Enlightenment contributed to the Western theory of race, and the real separation of culture from biology was the work of post-Enlightenment figures such as Marx, and above all the real historical movement of the past century. Nevertheless, when the Enlightenment is attacked today by Christian, Jewish, Moslem and Hindu fundamentalists for separating religion and state, or by the new biologism of the New Right or the Afrocentrists for its universalism, or by the post-modernists as an ideology of and for “white European males”, it is the best of the Enlightenment, the “Liberté- Egalité- Fraternité” of the Parisian and Haitian masses in 1794, and the best post-Enlightenment heirs such as Marx, which are the real targets.  Such attacks remind us that, once critique is separated from the limitations of the Enlightenment outlined here, there is plenty of mystification still to be debunked.

The problem with all this is that falls within the purview of the history of ideas, which is exactly what I thought was a mistake. If Heidegger was a symbol of the consequences of anti-Enlightenment thinking, how do you explain his influence on his two students Hannah Arendt and Hans Jonas who could never be confused with the alt-right that Landon Frim and Harrison Fluss were amalgamating with anti-Enlightenment thought?

Perhaps Goldner was not familiar enough with Franz Boas when he cited him as one of the “intellectual debunkers of this pseudo-science”. If you’ve spent any time studying the relationship between anthropologists and native peoples, you’d be hesitant to endorse him.

While at the Museum of Natural History, Boas decided that Eskimos were suitable objects for study, because they represented a kind of “living fossil” that demonstrated a connection to Ice Age hunters in Europe. So eager was he to have some useful specimens that he commissioned Robert Peary to bring back some back from an Arctic expedition on his ship “The Hope.” Some 30,000 New Yorkers paid 25 cents each in 1896 to view the six Eskimos that Peary retrieved from their home. Later on they were transported to the basement of the Museum in order to be studied. When a reporter asked Boas how they were kept busy, he replied:

Oh, we try to give them little things to keep them busy. Their work doesn’t amount to much, but they have made some carvings, and occupied themselves either indoors or around the place with any employment that suggested itself to them. They do not seem discontented.

Only 8 months after their arrival, four of the six Eskimos had died of tuberculosis. One returned to Greenland and the last, a young boy named Minik who was the son of Qisuk, one of the deceased, remained in the custody of William Wallace, the Superintendent of the Museum. When Minik learned that tribal customs required the bones of ancestors be interred in their homeland, he was convinced by Boas and Wallace that a burial of the bones in New York City would suffice. When he reached the age of 15, he learned that Boas and Wallace had lied to him. The skeleton was being warehoused in the Museum’s basement, alongside hundreds of other bones that belonged to indigenous peoples. In “Skull Wars,” a book focused on the Kennewick man controversy, David Hurst Thomas, a curator of anthropology at the Museum of Natural History, recounts Boas’s flippant attitude toward the entire affair:

Pressed as to why the museum could claim Qisuk’s body when relatives were still alive, Boas replied, “Oh, that was perfectly legitimate. There was no one to bury the body, and the museum had as good a right to it as any other institution authorized to claim bodies.” When an Evening Mail reporter wondered if the body didn’t actually “belong” to Minik, Boas bristled “Well, Minik was just a little boy, and he did not ask for the body. If he had, he might have got it.”

Minik’s lifelong struggle to retrieve his father’s skeleton and return them to his native soil has been documented in Ken Harper’s “Give Me My Father’s Body: The Story of Minik, the New York Eskimo.” A review of this book by Rhode Island College professor Russell A. Potter includes this observation on the cold-blooded “scientific” stance of Boas and Alfred Kroeber, a student of Boas’s who became famous for his writings on “Ishi”, the last hunter-gatherer in California.

They were brought to a damp basement room, and as might have been foreseen, most of them soon came down with tuberculosis, against which they had little resistance. Studied, even as they were dying, by some of the most prominent anthropologists of the day, including Franz Boas (also remembered as Zora Neale Hurston’s thesis advisor) and Alfred Kroeber (“discoverer” of Ishi and father of science-fiction novelist Ursula K. LeGuin), their last days were spent in agonizing pain without benefit of meaningful medical attention.

Considering that Franz Boas was one of the foremost critics of racial doctrines in the US, one must surely wonder about the nature of such a social science. I think the key to understanding this kind of tunnel vision is unequal power relationships. No matter how enlightened the scientist, there is a built-in imbalance in the way that one side is doing the studying and the other side is being studied. This imbalance rests on economic inequality. “Primitive” peoples simply lack the capital to fund scientific expeditions of the sort that Boas thought useful. Historical laws of capital accumulation made it impossible for Eskimos to send ships to countries like the United States to retrieve specimens to be studied in Greenland or Alaska. Fundamentally, anthropology rests on imperialist inequality no matter the good intentions of the scholars involved.


March 13, 2017

Enlightenment values? No thanks

Filed under: philosophy — louisproyect @ 6:04 pm

“The blacks are very vain but in the Negro’s way, and so talkative that they must be driven apart from each other with thrashings.”

An article on the Jacobin website titled “Aliens, Antisemitism, and Academia” by Landon Frim and Harrison Fluss tries to explain how Reza Jorjani, a fellow PhD graduate of the State University of Stony Brook philosophy department, turned into a leader of the alt-right. Jorjani sounds like a real piece of work:

Jorjani’s writings, political activities, speeches, and media appearances have drawn charges of antisemitism and Islamophobia. In one instance, he suggested that Yahweh and Allah were actually space aliens who enslaved their believers and tricked them into committing genocide. He has openly characterized certain high-ranking Nazi officials as akin to supermen with psychic powers. While Jorjani has vehemently denied the charges of bigotry leveled against him, his public statements do make you wonder.

What caught my eye was how inconsistent at first blush his rightwing politics were with Stony Brook’s department:

Stony Brook’s philosophy department, famous for its pluralism and progressive politics, seems like an unlikely context for this scandal. Many of the department’s students and professors identify themselves as leftists and liberals. Their focus on Continental philosophy includes research on critical theory, feminism, post-colonialism, and queer and critical-race theories. It came as a great shock, then, that one of Stony Brook’s newest alums had become the self-appointed spokesperson for “Aryan Imperium.”

It seems that it was the department’s opposition to “Enlightenment values” that explains this one graduate’s cryptofascist beliefs. “While it seems surprising that someone like Jorjani would come out of a self-consciously progressive department, suspicion of Enlightenment rationalism has become endemic to liberal philosophy programs like the one at Stony Brook.” They argue:

By mid-century, an impatient and demoralized Left increasingly threw the Enlightenment baby out with the bourgeois bathwater.

Thinkers blamed universalism, determinism, and what appeared as a deadening mechanical worldview for the mass slaughter of two world wars, the atrocities of the Holocaust, the horror of the atomic bomb, and the misery of industrial capitalism.

Thus began what Georg Lukàcs called the marrying of “Left ethics with Right Epistemology,” a project that tried to derive progressive politics and notions like freedom, equality, and solidarity from a more traditional view of existence akin to the Counter-Enlightenment. Understanding trends in today’s academic Left requires recognizing this crucial shift.

Much of this contemporary thought reinstates an enchanted view of the world that is inherently pluralistic. Drawing on figures like Nietzsche and Heidegger, Left thinkers learned to be suspicious of the rationality that once belonged to them.

To cap it off, they credit Vivek Chibber for fighting a bloody but unbowed struggle against this viral anti-Enlightenment infection that has made it difficult for Marxists like him and presumably other professors writing for Jacobin like Landon Frim and Harrison Fluss to get a hearing. Yes, Lyotard and Baudrillard not only crowded them out but also paved the way for Reza Jorjani.

This does not exactly map to my own experience. Like Stony Brook, the New School graduate philosophy department was one of the few places in the USA where the Continental thinkers were dominant. I was there primarily to avoid the draft but did appreciate taking classes with men like Hans Jonas, who was very close to Hannah Arendt and was featured as a character in her biopic. I also studied with Aaron Gurwitsch, who was the world’s leading authority on Husserl.

Since Jorjani is described as a virtual disciple of Heidegger, it is worth considering some connections between my ostensibly anti-Enlightenment professors and the German author of the existentialist classic “Being and Time” as well as some openly Nazi tracts.

Heidegger dedicated “Being and Time” to Edmund Husserl, a Jew who he served as personal assistant from 1920 to 1923. While Husserl’s emphasis was on resolving the contradictions of Cartesian dualism within the framework of epistemology, he had an enormous influence on 20th century existentialism. Not only did his theory of intentionality reverberate in Heidegger’s writings; he was also a major influence on Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, two Communists.

Jonas’s relationship to Heidegger was even more complicated. In 1966 Jonas’s “Phenomenon of Life” was published, a work considered by many to be as important to the emergence of Green politics as anything written by Rudolf Bahro. It is widely recognized that Heidegger was a major influence on Jonas, who was his student alongside Hannah Arendt, also under his sway intellectually as well as his lover.

Heidegger supervised Jonas’s dissertation, while Husserl served as his adviser. For some, the Green values espoused in “Phenomenon of Life” were probably a worrisome sign that there has always been a dark undercurrent to ecological philosophy. Since much of Heidegger’s philosophy reflects a disenchantment with technology and industrial society, it is inevitable that some would make an amalgam between Heidegger, Nazism and the reactionary impulses that supposedly drive deep ecology.

Martin Durkin, called the Michael Moore of the right, connected the dots in a blog post titled “NAZI GREENS – An Inconvenient History”:

Heidegger argues against the ‘monstrous’ building of hydroelectric dams on the Rhine and sings the praises of wind power: ‘modern technology is a challenging, which puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy which can be extracted and stored as such.  But does not this hold true for the old windmill as well?  No. Its sails do indeed turn in the wind; they are left entirely to the wind’s blowing. But the windmill does not unlock the energy from the air currents in order to store it.’

Durkin even manages to concur with Landon Frim and Harrison Fluss that this toxic brew of nature worship and Hitlerism has everything to do with a rejection of Enlightenment values. He argues that the Nazis were forerunners of today’s Green movement and Heidegger was its prophet. A “rejection of the Judeo-Christian tradition and of the Enlightenment and its humanist values” was at the core of National Socialism that motivated men to “turn on the gas taps at Auschwitz”.

Although I never took the idea seriously that Heidegger’s philosophy led to Nazism, I had the same reaction to “anti-Enlightenment” intellectual trends twenty years ago when Alan Sokal’s hoax seemed tantamount to Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses on the church doors of Wittenberg. Fed up as I was at the time with Judith Butler’s unreadable prose and the notion that Marxism was guilty of imposing an oppressive “metanarrative” on social movements, I was ready to hoist Sokal on my shoulders. He was certainly skinny enough. In “Fashionable Nonsense”, a book co-authored with Jean Bricmont, Sokal sounds almost identical to Frim and Fluss:

Vast sectors of the humanities and the social sciences seem to have adopted a philosophy that we shall call, for want of a better term, “postmodernism”: an intellectual current characterized by the more-or-less explicit rejection of the rationalist tradition of the Enlightenment, by theoretical discourses disconnected from any empirical test, and by a cognitive and cultural relativism that regards science as nothing more than a “narration”, a “myth” or a social construction among many others.

While there is little doubt that the Enlightenment was an improvement over the stranglehold that the Church had over feudal society, I don’t find much basis for counting Marx as an enlightenment thinker. To start with, most scholars would regard him as a post-Hegelian alongside Feuerbach, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.

As I stated earlier, Aaron Gurwitsch considered Husserl to be the first philosopher to have transcended the dualism/monism dialectic that had begun with Descartes and reached a kind of climax with Immanuel Kant. Everything after Kant, including Hegel, reflected an impasse that could not resolve the mind-matter conundrum that was triggered by Descartes’s famous dictum, “I think, therefore I am” within conventional philosophical methodology. Kant’s categories supposedly created a synthesis of the ego and the surrounding, and for some unknowable, world.

If Kant is the pinnacle of Enlightenment thought, Marx somehow missed the point. In “German Ideology”, he was rudely dismissive of what he considered to be a bourgeois moralist:

The state of affairs in Germany at the end of the last century is fully reflected in Kant’s “Critique of Practical Reason”. While the French bourgeoisie, by means of the most colossal revolution that history has ever known, was achieving domination and conquering the Continent of Europe, while the already politically emancipated English bourgeoisie was revolutionising industry and subjugating India politically, and all the rest of the world commercially, the impotent German burghers did not get any further than “good will”. Kant was satisfied with “good will” alone, even if it remained entirely without result, and he transferred the realisation of this good will, the harmony between it and the needs and impulses of individuals, to the world beyond. Kant’s good will fully corresponds to the impotence, depression and wretchedness of the German burghers, whose petty interests were never capable of developing into the common, national interests of a class and who were, therefore, constantly exploited by the bourgeois of all other nations. These petty, local interests had as their counterpart, on the one hand, the truly local and provincial narrow-mindedness of the German burghers and, on the other hand, their cosmopolitan swollen-headedness.

In fact, the great Enlightenment that started with Descartes and came to a climax with Kant was pretty much a reflection of the state of bourgeois society at a given time. Probably the only good thing to come out of the Enlightenment was French materialism, a current that Marx paid tribute to in his early “The Holy Family”. For Marx, it “clearly expressed struggle against the metaphysics of the seventeenth century, and against all metaphysics, in particular that of Descartes, Malebranche, Spinoza and Leibniz.” So, unlike Frim and Fluss who eulogize Spinoza as the virtual anti-Trump whose “universalism entailed that governments exercise tolerance toward minority communities and grant them political emancipation as citizens without requiring them to shed their particular religious and cultural identities”, Marx would have certainly considered him a banal moralist like Kant.

Speaking of Kant, I am not sure that he holds up well as a member of our Enlightenment values club considering what he wrote in his 1764 “Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime”:

The Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling. Mr. [David] Hume challenges anyone to cite a single example in which a Negro has shown talents, and asserts that among the hundreds of thousands of blacks who are transported elsewhere from their countries, although many of them have even been set free, still not a single one was ever found who presented anything great in art or science or any other praiseworthy quality, even though among the whites some continually rise aloft from the lowest rabble, and through superior gifts earn respect in the world. So fundamental is the difference between these two races of man, and it appears to be as great in regard to mental capacities as in color. The religion of fetishes so wide-spread among them is perhaps a sort of idolatry that sinks as deeply into the trifling as appears to be possible to human nature. A bird feather, a cow’s horn, a conch shell, or any other common object, as soon as it becomes consecrated by a few words, is an object of veneration and of invocation in swearing oaths. The blacks are very vain but in the Negro’s way, and so talkative that they must be driven apart from each other with thrashings.

Yeah, so beautiful and sublime. I doubt that any words that came out of Heidegger’s mouth in a university classroom were as racist as this. Furthermore, if Reza Jorjani had been properly educated in Enlightenment values rather than relying on its critics, I doubt that it would have made much difference. After all, every Christian soldier who went on colonizing missions to tame the savages of Africa probably read the Sermon on the Mount before boarding a British or French ship. A lot of good that did.

My point is this. The history of ideas is a poor guide to understanding how someone like Reza Jorjani crops up. Or Ricardo Duchesne, the former PEN-L subscriber and tenured sociologist who started off as a critic of Robert Brenner just like Vivek Chibber and now is a leader of the Canadian alt-right.

It is a waste of time to blame Nietzsche for Adolf Hitler or Karl Marx for Stalin. Ideologues are reacting to pressures generated by the two main classes in society. In a time of crisis, such as has existed since the early 1970s, they are like the leaves on a tree fluttering as the winds of an approaching major storm. Some are blown to the right, others to the left. Our worry should be less with the ideologues than how to make a connection with the social class that can finally put ethics on a material basis, namely an end to the class system that generates greed, racism, homophobia, nativism and other forms of barbaric behavior. But to put an end to barbarism, it is necessary to transform the social system that feeds it. That is the task facing humanity as it hurdles toward oblivion.

March 8, 2014


Filed under: Film,philosophy — louisproyect @ 6:12 pm

Although it should be obvious at this point that I am mainly interested in reviewing films that have a social and political agenda, every so often I run into something that harkens back to my preoccupations as a young existentialist. What is the meaning of life, and perhaps more importantly how do we come to terms with our inevitable mortality? But when we discover that the state has the right to interfere with our personal existential decisions about exiting life, then it does become political. When I was 21, these matters were more theoretical than they are today, now that I am 69 years old and can’t help but notice that’s the average of people written up in the N.Y. Times obituaries, including Harold Ramis, the groundbreaking comedian who died on February 24th.

“Honey” (Miele), an Italian film directed by Valeria Golino, opened yesterday at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center. Honey is the pseudonym used by a very young woman who has made a profession out of administering euthanasia. The first 15 minutes or so of the film show her going about on her rounds, instructing the terminally ill or those suffering chronic illnesses that have become unbearable on how to take the barbiturates she picks up on her frequent trips to Mexico City. In pharmacies that she never visits more than once, she asks for the brand of the drug requires no prescription since they are meant for sick animals, like your pet poodle. The bottle in fact carries a picture of a dog.

She likes to think of herself as an angel of mercy but one senses that she has some mercenary interests in the job since dropping out of college has left her few alternatives. She lines up assignments from a doctor who she is having an affair with behind his wife’s back. Since Honey spends much of her time in a hedonistic fashion–either swimming in the ocean behind her beachfront apartment or hanging out in bars picking up men behind her lover’s back—she is a symbol of the threat to traditional values of the sort upheld by the Vatican.

A trip to meet her latest client, a man named Carlo in his mid-70s, leads her to question everything about her role in society as well as right to make existential decisions of the most basic sort. After her first trip to his lavishly furnished apartment, she discovers that he is neither terminally ill nor clinically depressed (he might be the latter but the film leaves the question open so as to challenge your preconceptions.) As he explains to her, he has seen and done everything that he wanted to and has made up his mind to check out. Perhaps the best way to describe his state of mind is weltschmerz, or world-weariness—a term that is identified with Schopenhauer’s philosophy. When I read Herman Hesse’s “Steppenwolfe” at the tender age of 17 or so, I completely understood why the hero contemplated suicide when he had to put up with the pain of living:

He who has known the other days, the angry ones of gout attacks, or those with that wicked headache rooted behind the eyeballs that casts a spell on every nerve of eye with a fiendish delight in torture, or soul-destroying, evil days of inward vacancy and despair, when, on this distracted earth, sucked dry by the vampires of finance, the world of men and of so-called culture grins back at us with lying, vulgar, brazen glamour of a Fair and dogs us with the persistence of a emetic, and when all is concentrated and focused to the last pitch of the intolerable upon you own sick self.

I had never known a day of gout attacks but I certainly knew what it felt like to wake up in the morning and feel just as out of sorts as Hesse’s character. It was what they called adolescent turmoil and seemed that half the students at Bard College suffered from it.

Golino’s film is brilliantly done. The cinematography, the acting, and the casting put to shame all the crap from Hollywood I endured in November and December as the NYFCO awards drew near. The film is basically a two character philosophical dialog between two people who begin to find comfort in each other’s company even if it appears that Honey will not be able to convince Carlo that life is worth living.

In spirit, the film is related to Michael Haneke’s “Amour”, a 2012 film that dealt with an octogenarian couple’s ordeal when the wife is stricken by a nearly paralyzing stroke. Despite her weakness, she does everything she can to hasten death despite her husband’s attempt to keep her alive. Unlike Haneke, whose goal most often seems to be to make the audience uncomfortable in Steve McQueen fashion, Golino is more interested in showing the small pleasures afforded Carlo in his waning months as a beautiful and caring young woman tries to persuade him to choose life over death.

Of course, such decisions should be totally up to the person who is affected, not by the church or the state. If and when I face the inevitable knock on the door that we all have to face one day, I don’t want someone like President Obama or NY’s Archbishop Timothy Dolan sticking their nose into my business.

With respect to the big D itself, I hope to be able to see things as philosophically as Fred Feldman, a Bard College graduate three years ahead of me. Fred has sort of carved out a niche for himself professionally as the death expert. He wrote “Confrontations with the Reaper: A Philosophical Study of the Nature and Value of Death” in 1994 and articles for scholarly journals such as “Some Puzzles about the Evil of Death” that can be read online. Here’s an excerpt:

My answer is a version of the traditional view that death is bad (when it is bad) primarily because it deprives the deceased of goods-the       goods he would have enjoyed if he had lived. I have attempted to provide my answer within a predominantly Epicurean framework. I have assumed that hedonism is true, and I have assumed that when a person dies, he goes out of existence. I have attempted to show that even if we grant these assumptions, we can still maintain that death can be evil for the deceased. I have furthermore attempted to show that if we formulate our account properly, we can provide satisfactory answers to some puzzling questions: “How can death be bad for the deceased if he doesn’t exist when it occurs?” “When is death bad for the deceased?” “Is there an illegitimate comparison between the welfare of the non- existent and the welfare of the existent?” “Why is death worse than prenatal nonexistence?” Along the way, I have also discussed the merits of some other proposed solutions to the puzzles.

Well, with all due respect to Fred and Epicurus, I’ll stick with Sartre.

December 7, 2013

Thoughts triggered by the passing of Nelson Mandela

Filed under: Africa,philosophy — louisproyect @ 2:05 pm

In December of 1987 I traveled to southern Africa with a small Tecnica delegation to meet with the African National Congress then still in exile over the feasibility of extending our Nicaragua technical aid project to the ANC and the frontline states.

We were invited to Thabo Mbeki’s house in Lusaka, Zambia where his wife Zanele asked me to take a look at her laptop computer. She was having trouble saving the file she was working on, which was Oliver Tambo’s speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the ANC. It turns out that she needed to put a formatted floppy diskette into the B drive in order to save Tambo’s speech. Once she did that, the speech was saved for posterity’s sake. I just discovered that the speech, which was delivered on May 13, 1988, can now be read online.

Tambo expressed his solidarity with revolutionary Nicaragua in the speech:

We must also pay tribute to the people of Central America who are daily sacrificing their lives for justice and peace. In this connection we support the peace efforts undertaken by the Sandinista Government and would also like to associate ourselves with those Non-Aligned countries who have expressed their support for the Nicaraguan Government`s candidature to host the next Non-Aligned Summit Meeting in Managua.

He also paid tribute to Nelson Mandela who was still in prison:

In July of this year, our organisation, the masses of our people and the rest of the international community will observe the 70th birthday of that great African patriot and revolutionary, Comrade Nelson Mandela. This will be an occasion further to intensify the campaign for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, the release of all detainees and the granting of prisoner-of-war status to all captured freedom fighters.

Just two years after Tambo gave this speech, Daniel Ortega would lose the election to Violeta Chamorro, the American-backed politician who would be the culmination of Ronald Reagan’s campaign to make the Nicaraguans “cry uncle”. Ortega was only able to return to power by forsaking the historical Sandinista program for socialism.

On February 11th 1990 Nelson Mandela would walk out of a South African prison, and four years later he became president of South Africa, serving five years. Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, whose policies parallel that of the chastened FSLN in Nicaragua, succeeded him in office. In an article that appeared in the January 10, 2013 issue of Foreign Policy, there’s a frank description of “Orteganomics” that sounds a lot like what the ANC has been carrying out since taking office:

Although Ortega campaigned on the Christianity, socialism and solidarity platform of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s Alianza Bolivariana (ALBA), his regime has few of the trappings common to other ALBA countries such as Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and several Caribbean islands. His actions to date suggest he is politically authoritarian, economically pro-business, socially populist — and, above all else, pragmatic. This mix translates as an eclectic set of policies that can best be characterized as Orteganomics.

The Marxist slogans of the revolutionary period are gone, as is direct government involvement in production. In fact, Ortega’s economic model retains many of the legal and regulatory underpinnings of his predecessors’ policies. In its October 2007 reconciliation with the IMF, the Sandinista government pledged to implement policies linked to targets on fiscal discipline, along with spending on poverty and energy regulation.

Sometimes I wonder how I keep at it. As I approach my 69th birthday in January, every single mass revolutionary movement I have organized to defend has turned out this way once taking power. If you had told me in 1967, when I joined the Trotskyist movement, that a victorious NLF would join the Communists in the north in transforming Vietnam into a nation in which there are billionaires, I would have laughed in your face. But here it is from the March 25, 2013 issue of Forbes, the magazine that proudly describes itself as a “capitalist tool”:

On a brilliant morning last October Dong Khoi Street, the premier commercial thoroughfare in Saigon, was closed for nearly two hours to celebrate the opening of Vincom Center A, a precisely, if infelicitously, named shopping center. The development was remarkable, not just for its scale (410,000 square feet of commercial space; three floors of underground parking; a 300-room, five-star hotel) or for its high-end tenants (Versace, Hermès, Dior) but simply because it was opening at all. Vietnam’s real estate market had been frozen hard since crashing in 2011, with at least 13.5% of the country’s $10 billion in real estate loans having gone bad.

But Pham Nhat Vuong, the man most responsible for this $500 million commercial triumph in the heart of what is still officially called Ho Chi Minh City, wasn’t drinking any champagne, cutting any ribbons or giving any speeches. Rather, the 44-year-old quietly watched the ceremony from a front-row seat. “I prefer sipping happiness by myself,” Pham explains later, in a rare interview from his elegant new offices in Hanoi’s Vincom Village, another of his projects.

After returning from Zambia in early 1988, Michael Urmann, the founder and executive director of Tecnica, hired his old friend and comrade Hari Dillon to supervise the expansion of our organization into Africa. By 1990, when the ANC was legalized, we had dozens of volunteers working in the offices of the ANC and COSATU training people in the use of databases and spreadsheets just as we had done in Nicaragua. Michael and Hari had been in the Maoist Progressive Labor Party in the late 60s and had kept in touch. After leaving the party, Hari had become a key anti-apartheid activist in the Bay Area and his connections helped us raise funds for our work in Africa. Unfortunately, the ouster of Daniel Ortega dried up funds for Tecnica and eventually we folded—when I am not exactly sure.

Not long afterwards Hari took a job with the Vanguard Foundation, a Bay Area philanthropic group that funded leftist causes. I had lost touch with Hari for over 20 years but was shocked to discover about a year ago that he had been arrested for misuse of Vanguard funds. I kept in touch with him throughout the trial until his sentencing in January of 2013. He is going to serve three years and four months as the San Francisco Gate reported that month:

An East Bay man who stole $2.5 million from investors in the San Francisco nonprofit he headed while it was being driven into bankruptcy by con man Samuel “Mouli” Cohen was sentenced to three years and four months in federal prison Tuesday.

U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer sentenced Hari Dillon to a prison term 10 months longer than federal prosecutors had recommended after a hearing that included testimony from some of Dillon’s victims, investors in the now-defunct Vanguard Public Foundation.

“He decimated the lives of those he called friends,” said Cindy Woods, who described herself as a former friend of Dillon’s and a swindled investor, along with her family. “He’s simply a sociopath, not a victim.”

The FBI issued a press release that described what Hari did with the money contributors trusted him with:

Dillon admitted that while soliciting and collecting these fees, he defrauded various victims by intentionally failing to tell them that he intended to and did use some of their contributions for his own personal expenses. For example, according to his plea agreement, Dillon used approximately $60,000 to pay his American Express bills. In addition, the government noted in connection with sentencing that Dillon used victim money toward luxury hotel expenses, fine dining, limousine travel, and other personal expenses. In all, Dillon admitted that of the tens of millions he solicited and collected for this investment, most of which he passed on to Cohen, Dillon skimmed not less than $2.5 million, defrauding his victims out of that amount.

I knew Hari when he lived modestly in a San Francisco apartment on a Tecnica salary. I am tempted to say that his evolution into someone staying at luxury hotels parallels the evolution of the FSLN in Nicaragua and the ANC in South Africa.

When I visited Thabo Mbeki back in 1987-88, I had suspicions that he was someone used to the good life. He lived in a two-story house in Lusaka and drove a Mercedes-Benz that was parked in the driveway. His father Govan was known as a member of the South African Communist Party and was arrested along with Nelson Mandela. As it turns out, Thabo Mbeki was also a CP’er, Mercedes-Benz and all.

And, surprise of surprises, so was Nelson Mandela. I refer you to the South African Communist Party’s website:

At his arrest in August 1962, Nelson Mandela was not only a member of the then underground South African Communist Party, but was also a member of our Party’s Central Committee. To us as South African communists, Cde Mandela shall forever symbolise the monumental contribution of the SACP in our liberation struggle. The contribution of communists in the struggle to achieve the South African freedom has very few parallels in the history of our country. After his release from prison in 1990, Cde Madiba became a great and close friend of the communists till his last days.

There was a time, when I was much younger, when I would have made some “smug” remark about Stalinism but after seeing that Trotskyism was no prophylactic against corruption, I will avoid that temptation. In fact I had high hopes that the South African Communist Party would turn out different. At least I can take solace that one of the party’s top leaders has never lost faith. Here’s Ronnie Kasrils from the June 23, 2013 Guardian:

What I call our Faustian moment came when we took an IMF loan on the eve of our first democratic election. That loan, with strings attached that precluded a radical economic agenda, was considered a necessary evil, as were concessions to keep negotiations on track and take delivery of the promised land for our people. Doubt had come to reign supreme: we believed, wrongly, there was no other option; that we had to be cautious, since by 1991 our once powerful ally, the Soviet union, bankrupted by the arms race, had collapsed. Inexcusably, we had lost faith in the ability of our own revolutionary masses to overcome all obstacles. Whatever the threats to isolate a radicalising South Africa, the world could not have done without our vast reserves of minerals. To lose our nerve was not necessary or inevitable. The ANC leadership needed to remain determined, united and free of corruption – and, above all, to hold on to its revolutionary will. Instead, we chickened out.

So what keeps me going? In a way I feel like Sisyphus, the King of Corinth in Greek mythology who the gods force to eternally roll a huge boulder up a hill that rolls back on him just as he reaches the top. I first learned of the myth of Sisyphus back in 1961 when I was a freshman at Bard College. Back then existentialism was all the rage. The acrid smell of Gauloise cigarettes hung heavy in the campus coffee shop as 18 year olds discussed the meaninglessness of life. You can read Camus’s book online. I haven’t looked at it since 1961 and tend to look askance at Camus nowadays, especially for his waffling on the war of independence in Algeria. I have to admit, however, that a favorable review of his correspondence from that period by George Scialabba, a writer I admire very much, might force me to take a second look.

Most of Camus’s book is an examination of existential beliefs focused on the question of whether suicide is justifiable in the face of an absurd world. Since I tend to shy away from such discussions, I went directly to the pages that deal with the Greek myth itself. Camus writes:

His rock is his thing. Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols. In the universe suddenly restored to its silence, the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up. Unconscious, secret calls, invitations from all the faces, they are the necessary reverse and price of victory. There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes and his effort will henceforth be unceasing. If there is a personal fate, there is no higher destiny, or at least there is but one which he concludes is inevitable and despicable. For the rest, he knows himself to be the master of his days. At that subtle moment when man glances backward over his life, Sisyphus returning toward his rock, in that slight pivoting he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which becomes his fate, created by him, combined under his memory’s eye and soon sealed by his death. Thus, convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human, a blind man eager to see who knows that the night has no end, he is still on the go. The rock is still rolling.

“There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night”. I guess those words describe my absurd commitment to Marxism. Like the Greek gods who condemned Sisyphus to repeat a futile act throughout eternity, I will continue to push that rock up the hill for the rest of my life. I don’t know if I will ever see the sun but it is the shadows of a savage system that keeps me going.

October 18, 2013

A pervert’s guide to Zizek

Filed under: philosophy,popular culture,postmodernism — louisproyect @ 3:12 pm

Counterpunch Weekend Edition October 18-20, 2013
Elvis is on the Screen!
A Pervert’s Guide to Zizek

Full disclosure: I have written at least ten critiques of Slavoj Zizek over the years so I approached the new documentary “A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology” with some skepticism. Despite this, I found much of it entertaining and even a little enlightening. At two hours and thirty minutes, however, it begins to lose its charm especially since the film is essentially one long lecture by the man called the Elvis of cultural theory. As is the case with all super-stars, critical self-reflection goes by the wayside when adoring fans surround you all the time telling you how great you are. It probably never entered the mind of director Sophie Fiennes (sister to actor Ralph) that the film was a half-hour too long and least of all that of the Slovenian Elvis himself.

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/10/18/a-perverts-guide-to-zizek/

May 21, 2013

Hannah Arendt

Filed under: bard college,Fascism,Film,philosophy — louisproyect @ 5:53 pm

Arguably Hannah Arendt was the first target of an organized campaign by the Israeli lobby. As was the case with the late Tony Judt, it did not matter that she was pro-Israel. By stepping outside the bounds of the ideological consensus, she became guilty of Orwellian thoughtcrimes. If for no other reason, this conflict is reason enough to see Margerethe von Trotta’s “Hannah Arendt” that opens on May 29th at the Film Forum in New York. As a film that takes politics and morality seriously, it is like nothing I have seen in a very long time and that makes Spielberg’s film on Lincoln look shallow by comparison. Essentially von Trotta’s film consists of people in their sixties and seventies arguing about Nazism and the right of the Jews to mount a show trial. But what people they were.

As Hannah Arendt, Barbara Sukowa is phenomenal. (It should be stated that her attempt to affect a Hollywood version of a German accent despite being German was a directorial miscue by von Trotta. It was a bit like Marlon Brando’s German accent in “The Young Lions”. Once you get used to it, however, it hardly matters.) This is the kind of role that Sukowa has long experience with. She played Rosa Luxemburg in another von Trotta biopic as well as Mieze in Fassbinder’s masterpiece “Berlin Alexanderplatz”, based on the novel by the leftist Alfred Döblin who also wrote “Karl and Rosa”, about Liebknecht and Luxemburg.

The film begins with Arendt finding out about the Eichmann trial from an article in the NY Times. She then approaches William Shawn, the editor of the New Yorker magazine, with a proposal. She would go to Jerusalem and cover the trial.

A salon at her Riverside Drive apartment just before her trip leads to a quarrel between her and her husband Heinrich Blücher on one side and New School philosophy professor Hans Jonas on the other. The Blüchers worry that the Israelis are using the trial for propaganda purposes while Jonas is loath to find fault with Israel on any score. Of course, his decades long Zionist past would explain this.

This salon would have taken place in 1961, at exactly the same time I was enrolled in Hans Blücher’s Common Course at Bard College. This was a required “great books” survey that allowed Blücher—a high school dropout and former member of the German Communist Party—to philosophize about politics and morality. His defense of Socrates galvanized me in a way as nothing had ever before. From the minute I heard his defense of the need to put truth above the exigencies of citizenship, it made it a lot easier for me to become a socialist six years later at the very moment I was a student of Hans Jonas at the New School. Oddly enough, despite Blücher’s anti-Communism, he paved the way for me to become a communist.

When taking a seminar on Kant with Jonas in 1967, I came up with the idea of writing a term paper on Kant’s categorical imperative as an extension of his subject driven epistemology. After getting an A in the course, I was approached by Jonas at a gathering at his home in New Rochelle on a Sunday afternoon and encouraged to continue with my PhD studies. But a few months later I would drop out of the New School in order to focus on my activism in the Trotskyist movement after the spirit of Blücher in the 1920s—an avid reader of Leon Trotsky. I saw my categorical imperative as one of making the socialist revolution. Anything else was an escape from duty.

The film takes up Arendt’s affair with Martin Heidegger who comes across more as an absent-minded professor than a mouth-breathing Nazi ideologue. In one of the film’s more dramatic moments, you see her and Heidegger strolling through a German forest after WWII where she urges him to beg forgiveness from the world for his evil past.

Although it would be impossible for the film to deal with all of the tangled philosophical connections between the principals, it should be mentioned that Hans Jonas was a student of Heidegger’s as well. Furthermore his critique of technology owes much to Heidegger. With respect to Heidegger’s reputation as an anti-Semite and avid National Socialist, Hans Jonas paints an entirely different picture in his memoir and one that is consistent with the somewhat bumbling and pathetic characterization in von Trotta’s film.

Still, I was the only Zionist among his students. At least to my knowledge no one else among the Jewish Heidegger disciples was a supporter of Zionism—on the contrary. I did run into some of them later in Palestine, but they didn’t choose to go at a time when you still had a choice. Probably Heidegger thought there just happened to be such dreamers among the Jews, and his student Hans, on whose dissertation he’d conferred the highest praise teacher could give a student, namely summa cum laude, was one of those dreamers and would eventually go off to Palestine. So a Heidegger student would establish himself in Palestine and perhaps spread his teachings there, The thought that his standing in Germany might suffer as a result of many Jews leaving or being forced to leave apparently didn’t occur to him, Heidegger was in no way prepared for such a thing. I should mention, too, that here and there he even helped Jewish students of his. For instance, Paul Oskar Kristellar later said in New York that he had nothing against Heidegger because when he emigrated to Italy, Heidegger sent letters of recommendation that helped him find a position there.’ No — Heidegger wasn’t personal antisemite. Presumably it felt a little uncanny to him that so many of his students were Jewish, but more in the sense that it was somewhat one sided, that there weren’t enough others who were more like him. The only discussion of antisemitism in his immediate surroundings came up when word got out that his wife had belonged to the nationalist youth movement. Perhaps she nagged him occasionally, saying, “Martin, why do you act deaf and dumb? Why are you constantly surrounded by young Jews?”

After her articles begin appearing in the New Yorker, Arendt becomes a lightning rod. A neighbor in her Riverside Drive high-rise sticks a letter under her door accusing her of being a Nazi. The administration at the New School demands that she stop giving her courses. In defiance she goes ahead with the class. She goes to a meeting about her book where a young Norman Podhoretz denounces her. Her best friend Mary McCarthy makes her entrance just as Podhoretz is at his most venomous and twists him into a knot. Although the characterization of McCarthy veers too far in the direction of comic relief and paints her too much as a gum-chewing, wisecracking Eve Arden type (my younger readers will have to google this for more information), her presence is essential since it is a reminder that there were some intellectuals who had the guts to stand up to the Israel lobby at the time.

Back in 1961 I had no idea that Hans Blücher was married to Hannah Arendt and even less of an idea that she was covering the Eichmann trial. I can’t remember if I was reading the N.Y. Times back then but even if I had I would be far more interested in reviews of jazz musicians or movies than current events.

A few years later as the “sixties” began to erupt, young radicals embraced Arendt’s theory of the “banality of evil” even if they may have not been fully engaged with her wariness over the project of revolution. This excerpt from Elizabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography gives you a flavor for the mood at the time.

The young Jew who sent Arendt a report on this meeting [about her book] commented that Eichmann in Jerusalem seemed to have stirred up a generational conflict within the Jewish community. This conflict was made public when Norman Fruchter published a piece called “Arendt’s Eichmann and Jewish Identity” in Studies on the Left. Fruchter’s was the voice of the young Jewish radicals who found in Arendt’s work both a rebellion against “the myth of the victim which Jews tend to substitute for their history” and an analysis of what “citizen responsibility [is] necessary in every modern state to prevent the reemergence of the totalitarian movement which ravaged Germany.” He wrote at the moment when comparisons between Germany of the 1930s and America of the 1960s were becoming common among the New Left—to the consternation of the Old Left. A year earlier, James Weinstein had published a piece called “Nach Goldwasser Uns?” [After Goldwaer, us?] in which the comparison was made explicit: “There are, indeed, many similarities between American society today and that of Germany in the years before and during Nazi rule.” Eichmann became a symbol: “Like so many American bureaucrats and military men, Eichmann emerges from Miss Arendt’s account as a man of very limited ideological commitment.” Over such speeches as the one Carl Oglesby delivered at the 1965 SANE march on Washington, the New and the Old Left parted company: “Think of all the men who now engineer that war [in Vietnam],” said Oglesby, “those who study the maps, give the commands, push the buttons, and tally the dead: Bundy, McNamara, Rusk, Lodge, Goldberg, the President [Johnson] himself. They are not moral monsters. They are all honorable men. They are all liberals. “

Finally, the film should encourage those with a critical bent to look deeper into the arrest of Eichmann itself, something that would be beyond the scope of von Trotta’s film. The Mossad’s abrogation of international law through its kidnapping of Eichmann is certainly a precedent for actions that have become synonymous with the “war on terror”, including Obama’s kill-list.

What is of particular interest was the behind-the-scenes arrangement between Israel and West Germany that made David Ben-Gurion’s moral posturing look as hypocritical as any of the words coming out of LBJ’s mouth.

In 2011 secret documents revealed that the German government and the CIA knew the whereabouts of many former Nazis including Hans Globke, who was the Chancellery Chief of Staff and a close advisor to Chancellor Adenauer at the time of the trial. In a quid pro quo deal, the West Germans promised weapons if Globke’s name was not brought up in the Eichmann trial.

Der Spiegel reported:

But Israel needed the financial aid, the submarines and the tanks, and German Defense Minister Franz Josef Strauss, who had also negotiated the arms shipments directly with Ben-Gurion, left no doubt that the Israelis were to protect Bonn’s reputation if they wanted weapons: “I have told my contacts that it is a matter of course that if the Federal Republic supports the security of Israel, it will not be held collectively liable, morally, politically or journalistically, for the crimes of a past generation in connection with the Eichmann trial.”

The Israelis had shown “understanding and responsiveness” for this position, Strauss reported. And so it happened that the question of how the Nazis had managed to involve significant portions of German society in the Holocaust was largely ignored.

“We only introduced information into the trial that was relevant for Eichmann,” says Gabriel Bach, the last remaining member of prosecution team still alive today. The Globke issue, he adds, simply wasn’t relevant.

March 21, 2013

A.J. Ayer confronts Mike Tyson

Filed under: philosophy,sports — louisproyect @ 9:17 pm

From Ben Roger’s biography of the analytical philosopher:

It was at another party, given a little later in the year by the highly fashionable clothes designer, Fernando Sanchez, that he had a widely reported encounter. Ayer had always had an ability to pick up unlikely people and at yet another party had befriended Sanchez. Ayer was now standing near the entrance to the great white living-room of Sanchez’s West 57th Street apartment, chatting to a group of young models and designers, when a woman rushed in saying that a friend was being assaulted in a bedroom. Ayer went to investigate and found Mike Tyson forcing himself on a young south London model called Naomi Campbell, then just beginning her career. Ayer warned Tyson to desist. Tyson: ‘Do you know who the fuck I am? I’m the heavyweight champion of the world.’ Ayer stood his ground: ‘And I am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic. We are both preeminent in our field; I suggest that we talk about this like rational men.’ Ayer and Tyson began to talk. Naomi Campbell slipped out.

January 27, 2013

Does anyone ever get the revolution they asked for?

Filed under: philosophy,socialism — louisproyect @ 7:42 pm

For as long as I have been reading Crooked Timber, a group blog hosted by liberal and social democratic academics, I don’t think a year has gone by without it being devoted to the proposition that Marxism is dead—something that has been heard from such circles going back to the days of Eugen Böhm-Bawerk. In an odd way, all this does is pay tribute to Marx’s relevance. You don’t, for example, find The Economist, The New York Review of Books, or the Financial Times publishing articles on “Henry George RIP”.

In 2012 the big “Marx is Dead” celebration there was held under the auspices of a seminar on “Red Plenty”, a novel by Francis Spufford that depicted the rather vainglorious notions of Soviet citizens in the 1950s—starting with Nikita Khrushchev—that soon the USSR economy would pump out more air conditioners and V-8 gas guzzlers than the US. It was Spufford’s intention to bring a knowing smile to the people who read it, just is the case with the audience for the cable TV hit show “Mad Men”. What this has to do with what Michael Lebowitz called “the full development of human potential” is anybody’s guess.

Since I am banned from commenting (depending on the mood of the moderation board on a given day), I refrained from the proceedings at Crooked Timber but offered my own commentary at the Unrepentant Marxist.

This year the first outbreak of “Marx is Dead” appeared on January 25th under an announcement by philosophy professor John Holbo that a cyberseminar on Erik Olin Wright’s “Envisioning Real Utopias” was kicking off soon.

Although I have major differences with Wright, I give him credit for engaging with me over his book. You can follow the debate over the book here:




I also put my two cents in on Russell Jacoby’s attack on Wright. (Jacoby is not one of my favorite people.)


I do, however, want to spend some time dissecting Holbo’s article that is titled “Does anyone ever get the revolution they asked for?” since it reflects the methodological disability shared by the Crooked Timber crowd.

Holbo poses a binary opposition:


1) You get what you ask for, and it’s good.

2) You get something you didn’t ask for, but it’s good.


3) You get what you ask for, and it’s terrible.

4) You don’t get what you ask for. You get something else, and it’s terrible.

This pretty much epitomizes the formal logic that has dominated bourgeois thought since the very beginning. It simply can’t handle contradiction, a key element of Hegel’s dialectical approach that Marx appropriated and transformed in one fell swoop.

The problem is that formal logic is ill-equipped to handle motion, change, dynamic states, etc. Hence, it is nearly impossible to understand a revolution if you cannot accept that it can be a success and a failure at the same time.

I doubt that anybody on the Crooked Timber central committee has read Leon Trotsky–or having read him, understood what they were reading. I exclude Scott McLemee, who belonged to a Trotskyist sect long ago and most likely hooked up with the Timberites after becoming disillusioned with Marxism in the 1990s. From what I can gather, he has recovered nicely but remains on board with them although mostly on a formal basis.

When asked to describe the character of the USSR during its darkest days—the late 1930s—Trotsky refrained from putting a label on the state or facile categories such as “success” or “failure”. He wrote in “The Revolution Betrayed”:

The Soviet Union is a contradictory society halfway between capitalism and socialism, in which: (a) the productive forces are still far from adequate to give the state property a socialist character; (b) the tendency toward primitive accumulation created by want breaks out through innumerable pores of the planned economy; (c) norms of distribution preserving a bourgeois character lie at the basis of a new differentiation of society; (d) the economic growth, while slowly bettering the situation of the toilers, promotes a swift formation of privileged strata; (e) exploiting the social antagonisms, a bureaucracy has converted itself into an uncontrolled caste alien to socialism; (f) the social revolution, betrayed by the ruling party, still exists in property relations and in the consciousness of the toiling masses; (g) a further development of the accumulating contradictions can as well lead to socialism as back to capitalism; (h) on the road to capitalism the counterrevolution would have to break the resistance of the workers; (i) on the road to socialism the workers would have to overthrow the bureaucracy. In the last analysis, the question will be decided by a struggle of living social forces, both on the national and the world arena.

Doctrinaires will doubtless not be satisfied with this hypothetical definition. They would like categorical formulae: yes – yes, and no – no. Sociological problems would certainly be simpler, if social phenomena had always a finished character. There is nothing more dangerous, however, than to throw out of reality, for the sake of logical completeness, elements which today violate your scheme and tomorrow may wholly overturn it. In our analysis, we have above all avoided doing violence to dynamic social formations which have had no precedent and have no analogies. The scientific task, as well as the political, is not to give a finished definition to an unfinished process, but to follow all its stages, separate its progressive from its reactionary tendencies, expose their mutual relations, foresee possible variants of development, and find in this foresight a basis for action.

I guess the Timberites won’t be satisfied until they get “logical completeness” but history will continue to disappoint them.

But the most telling statement from Holbo is this: “A successful revolution that came off exactly as it was blueprinted would be a 10”. This betrays an utter inability to understand what Marx stood for, even though his article is meant to discredit Marxist thinking.

In the afterword to the second edition of Capital, volume one, Marx wrote:

That the method employed in “Das Kapital” has been little understood, is shown by the various conceptions, contradictory one to another, that have been formed of it.

Thus the Paris Revue Positiviste reproaches me in that, on the one hand, I treat economics metaphysically, and on the other hand — imagine! — confine myself to the mere critical analysis of actual facts, instead of writing recipes (Comtist ones?) for the cook-shops of the future.

Recipes for the cook-shops of the future…

No wonder Crooked Timber gives Erik Olin Wright the benefit of the doubt despite his life-long self-description as a Marxist. (Admittedly this is Analytical Marxism, something that may have about as much relationship to Marx as Eduard Bernstein—another self-described Marxist—had.)

By writing a book about the need for a return to Utopian thinking, Wright in essence was formulating recipes for the cook-shops of the future. Let me conclude with an excerpt from one of my articles linked to above:

Once he has dispensed with classical Marxist theory, Wright puts forward his new (“Wrightist”?) theory in chapter 4, titled “The Socialist Compass”. He starts off with the notion of a road map, but realizes that a compass is less rigid:

Instead of the metaphor of a road map guiding us to a known destination, the best we can probably do is to think of the project of emancipatory social change more like a voyage of exploration. We leave the well-known world with a compass that tells us the direction we are moving and an odometer which tells us how far from our point of departure we have traveled, but without a road map which lays out the entire route from the point of departure to the final destination. This has perils, of course: we may encounter chasms which we cannot cross, unforeseen obstacles which force us to move in a direction we had not planned. We may have to backtrack and try a new route.

Unfortunately, neither a road map nor a compass is the sort of metaphor that will be of much use to a socialist movement. Road maps and compasses are only useful when it comes to static realities, like a street, a lake, a rest stop, an ocean or a continent. Revolutionary politics defy any attempts to apply fixed categories since the ground is always shifting beneath your feet. Yesterday’s South might be tomorrow’s North. Indeed, there is absolutely no engagement in Wright with the social realities of present-day America, from the problems of immigrant labor to the decline of the trade union movement. It makes no sense of speaking about compasses to lead you in the direction of socialism while ignoring the pitfalls in your immediate path.

April 26, 2012

Guy Robinson Jan. 1928-Oct. 2011

Filed under: philosophy,science — louisproyect @ 5:23 pm

I just learned from Les Schaffer, the technical coordinator of Marxmail, that Guy Robinson died a few months ago. He learned this from Rosa Lichtenstein who received word in turn from Guy Robinson Jr. Rosa has made a number of Guy’s articles available on her website.  Rosa is a well-known and stubborn critic of dialectics as should be obvious from the name of her website and obviously found an affinity with Guy’s mixture of Marx and Wittgenstein:

In my opinion, Guy is one of the few Marxist Philosophers whose work is genuinely worth reading. Indeed, I’d go much further: I cannot praise his book, Philosophy and Mystification (Fordham University Press, 2003), too highly; it seems to me that this is how Marxist Philosophy should be done.

I only encountered Guy’s work in 2005, but I soon saw that he had anticipated several of my own ideas — except he manages to express in two paragraphs what it takes me several pages to say! Unlike the vast majority of work that claims to be Marxist, Guy’s work is a model of clarity. It is no accident, therefore, to see Guy writing in the Wittgensteinian tradition.

I had my own affinities with Guy. Like him, I was a graduate of Bard College. I was also a philosophy major, with 57 credits toward a PhD. Unlike Rosa, I never quite got Guy’s enthusiasm for Wittgenstein. When I was at the New School from 1965 to 1967, mostly trying to avoid being drafted, I got much more out of my seminar on Hegel’s “Phenomenology of Mind” than the one on Wittgenstein’s various writings. The dialectic in Hegel’s philosophy never sounded “unscientific” to me and only prepared me in my postgraduate studies of Marxism in the SWP’s school of hard knocks.

Guy was one of the most genial people I ever got to meet in person as a result of my Internet scribblings. Back in 1998 I attended a talk by Guy at the Brecht Forum in NYC and spoke to him and his son afterwards. Both had been to Nicaragua and worked on a construction brigade. Since my natural inclination is to bond with anybody who was involved with the Sandinista revolution, I made a point of writing up Guy’s talk for Marxmail and PEN-L (this was before the days of blogging). I wrote in part:

Marxism and the Enlightenment

A couple of months ago I attended a talk at NYC’s Brecht Forum on “Philosophy and Marxism” which is relevant to this discussion. The speaker was Guy Robinson, who taught philosophy in British universities for 25 years. He retired in 1982 and moved to Nicaragua where he worked with construction brigades. He now lived in Dublin and his new book “Philosophy and Mystification” had just been published by Routledge.

Robinson’s main point was that modern philosophy evolved in order to meet the needs of the rising bourgeoisie. It aspires to be universal but conceals the very particular and historical needs of the class which was coming to power in the age of Descartes. One of the purposes of Marxism is to make this connection and expose the class bias of bourgeois philosophy.

One of the schools of thought that Marxism vies with in this project is post-structuralism or postmodernism. The pomos are also interested in showing that the claims of universality are specious. Robinson described the pomos in pithy terms, as “hunters of zeitgeists,” who try to capture historical trends as if they were animal specimens to pin on the wall like trophies. In the process of debunking “universality,” the pomos also trash history. This is where Marxists and pomos part company, as well as on the issue of class.

Apparently Guy really liked what I wrote since he not only made a point of looking me up on his occasional visits to New York but also called me out of the blue from Ireland every couple of months.

Guy was always very modest about his writings and even more so about whether he was a Marxist or not. All I can say is that he was a stimulating writer even if I had become skeptical over philosophy as a discipline. When I was first coming around the Trotskyist movement and heard Marx’s observation about “the point is to change it”, I resolved not only to drop out of graduate school but put all the philosophy stuff behind me. That being said, I always had time for Guy Robinson.

In addition to the articles on Rosa’s website, I recommend a visit to Guy’s Philosophical Nuggets, a blog he launched in 2007. You’ll get both aspects of his thought, the one shaped by Marx and the other by Wittgenstein. You’ll also find a fascinating log of his correspondence with Thomas Kuhn that is interesting both for its reflections on science as well as Guy’s considerable charm:

Dear Tom

How could I not respond immediately to such a gracious and enthusiastic reaction to my letter and paper!

Sorry you have had such a tough medical time and hope that’s pretty well behind you.

I’m not surprised that you don’t remember that lunch you gave me in Princeton, (graciously, again as we had only brushed glancingly by one another at that famous Bedford conference in 1960-whatever.) But I have it in my mind that at that lunch you told me that you had been to the same tiny school I went to, Solebury, but only for a year before transferring to Germantown Friends. (We used to play Germantown in Football and always got slaughtered – Well, we only had fifty boys in the whole school.) Am I dreaming all that?

Still keeping to the personal: Who am I? Not sure how to answer. Brief CV: after Solebury, I went to Bard at the time of Mary McCarthy (The Groves of Academe gives a distorted account of those times and my teacher.) It was a pretty interesting place, though. My introduction to philosophy was via Aristotle, and his conception of philosophy’s business, I am coming to see has kept me away from the disastrous ‘theorizing’ conception of philosophy that has held pretty much sway since Descartes. (I’m working on getting clear about that question of philosophy’s business in the process of trying to bring out in an introduction to what has always been there implicit in the scanty few pieces I have published and now want to collect. I certainly don’t think that my second paragraph gives a knock-down argument against Realism. -As you can imagine, I don’t believe in those – But it’s something to think about.

Guy’s articles on Rosa Lichstenstein’s website:




They are all collected here (foot of the page):


Rosa adds that she will be posting his unpublished book Philosophy and Demystification over the next few months.

October 25, 2011

Another Bard professor proffers bad advice to OWS

Filed under: bard college,Occupy Wall Street,philosophy — louisproyect @ 6:57 pm

Steven Mazie

Another Bard professor has chimed in with the “damning with faint praise” stance of Roger Berkowitz that I dealt with in a post titled “Bard Professors attack Occupy Wall Street“. This time it is Steven Mazie, a political science professor, who has a web-only NY Times op-ed titled “Rawls on Wall Street“.

Like Berkowitz, Mazie frets over the hatred that the protesters have toward the rich:

Despite providing a remarkable venue for what Al Gore called a “primal scream of democracy,” Occupy Wall Street is leveraged too heavily on the rhetoric of rage rather than reciprocity. Rawls would argue that Occupy is fully justified in its criticism of the political and economic structures that propagate massive concentrations of wealth; he saw the “basic structure” of society as the “primary subject of justice.” But Rawls would lament the tendency of the “99 percent” to misdirect their energies into hatred of individuals in the 1 percent. He would have them save their hostility for the policies and institutions that have permitted only the wealthiest to enjoy significant gains from the past two decades of economic growth.

Whenever I read this kind of sanctimonious nonsense, I feel like I have wandered into Charles Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities” by mistake, with its images of Madame LaFarge knitting away furiously. Of course, when you stop and think about it, there’s not much difference between John Rawls and Charles Dickens. This kind of 19th century moralism is a lot easier to take when you are reading a good story like “A Christmas Carol” but when served up by a political science professor as advice to people who haven’t worked in five years or so and who have lost their homes, it is pretty objectionable.

John Rawls was a perfectly decent man, who despite his British-style Victorian-era pieties was actually an American born in Baltimore in 1921. In 1971 he came out with “A Theory of Justice” that made the case for liberalism at the very moment its reputation was in tatters after six years of imperialist slaughter in Vietnam. The book was typically “philosophical” in its abstraction-sodden prose. Four years earlier I decided to drop out of the graduate philosophy program at the New School and join the Trotskyist movement because philosophy in general—and ethics in particular—was so out of touch with what was going in the world. I had no idea who John Rawls was at the time but had heard more or less the same song and dance from Immanuel Kant’s “Critique of Practical Reason”.

For that matter, I had read “Sermon on the Mount” when I was a religion major at Bard College. From the very day homo sapiens began to organize itself into tribes, wise elders understood the need for ethical behavior. You did not need to read John Rawls to understand that we should strive for social justice. The problem was that so many Princeton graduates who had probably studied with Rawls there had gone on to work on Wall Street or with the CIA, where the do-good philosophy they learned from him was conveniently ignored.

As a Rawls disciple, Mazie has applied a tepid meliorism to Israel-Palestinian relations, arguing that Israeli Palestinians deserve better civil rights type treatment without once considering the possibility that a state based on ethnic cleansing can never truly be just. One supposes that this is the kind of advocacy for Palestinian rights that won’t lead to a Joel Kovel type termination.

Mazie’s op-ed piece makes sure that its readers understand that Rawls is a horse of a different color than Karl Marx:

Rawls’s boldest claim — that inequality in society is only justified if its least well-off members fare better than they would under any other scheme — could provide a lodestar for the protests. Rawls was no Marxist: this “difference principle” acknowledges that a productive, free society will be home to at least some degree of inequality. But the principle insists that if the rich get richer while wages and social capital of the poor and middle class are stagnant or falling, there is something seriously wrong.

This idea is built on the premise that in a just society, citizens should be understood as free and equal participants in a system of social cooperation. Some individuals may be more motivated and harder working, and thus can legitimately expect greater rewards for their efforts. But everyone deserves the same bundle of individual rights and liberties, and everyone is entitled to “fair equality of opportunity,” including access to a decent education and a genuine chance of success in pursuing one’s life plans.

I am not sure how some pundits came to the conclusion that John Rawls was one of the greatest philosophers in the 20th century based on such banalities. At any rate, that there is “something seriously wrong” can hardly be redressed by moral appeals. It will take force, something that is out of the range of possibilities for liberalism unless of course it is deployed against those impudent Third World countries that believe that “a genuine chance of success” is only possible by seizing the means of production and instituting an economy based on human need rather than private profit—heaven forefend.

I have only dealt with Rawls in the past indirectly through a commentary on analytical Marxists who felt compelled for some ungodly reason to engage with him on his own turf.

G.A. Cohen was one of them:

Cohen … feels the need to defend the socialist project from the challenge presented by bourgeois political and ethical philosophy. Liberals like John Rawls and conservatives like Robert Nozick have written a number of books that attempt to defend just societies and the forms of political action necessary to achieve them. They also have a great deal of credence in the academic circles Cohen travels in.

Cohen wants to make socialism appear as a rational choice in the face of their challenges but he ends up conceding much too much to them. The worst concession is that he conceives of political action as the role of the individual rather than classes. While he does not share Elster’s outright hostility to the notion of classes, the overall tendency in Cohen’s work is to wrestle with issues of the class struggle as they appear in the guise of moral dilemmas to individuals.

For example, in chapter 12 of “History, Labor and Freedom” he takes up the question, “Are Disadvantaged Workers who Take Hazardous Jobs Forced to Take Hazardous Jobs.” What a peculiar subject for an “orthodox” Marxist to be tackling. One would think that Cohen would have had much more interest in class struggle type issues in 1988 when the book was written. Issues such as the approaching civil war in Yugoslavia do not seem to engage his interest.

Most of the chapter is an involved with consideration of the choices before an “imaginary worker in an imaginary situation.” He is one of the 7,000 unemployed people in the town of Hazelton, Pennsylvania (population 33,000), to which the Beryllium Corporation came in 1956, offering hazardous jobs.” “Our worker, whom I shall call John, took one. He was confronted with a choice between employment and health, and he chose the former. Was he forced to take the health-endangering job? did he, in taking it, contract freely?”

Of course the question of the “contractual” basis of justice lies at the heart of John Rawls’ liberalism and one could write at length about how preposterous this notion is and how pointless it is to engage Rawls’ thinking on his own terms.

I will rather conclude with several obvious conclusions. To begin with, the study of individuals and their moral problems is not the subject-matter of Marxism. Marxism studies classes. A proper use of a Marxist’s time would be to study actual rather than imaginary workers in identical situations. It would be useful to explore how capitalism tends to threaten the job safety of the working-class even in the expansionary period of 1956 or 1997 for that matter. It would then consider how the ruling-class parties share in the creation of a legal fabric that allows such plants to be kept going. It would conclude with recommendations about how to abolish such oppressive conditions. This is not to be found in Cohen’s work.

John Roemer was another:

“Egalitarian Perspectives” is a collection of John Roemer’s articles from the years 1981 and 1992. We learn in the introduction that Roemer made a pilgrimage to G.A. Cohen in 1981, like Luke Skywalker to the Jeddi Master, where he learned “the range of questions addressed by modern political philosophy.” The visit emboldened the young acolyte to launch an assault against classical Marxism’s “wrong-headed” surplus value approach to exploitation. Roemer knew what Marx “really meant,” and this was captured by his own property-relations theory.

Roemer states that the purpose of the book is to answer the question of “what egalitarians seek to equalize.” Those who are trailblazers on this question are Richard Arneson, G.A. Cohen, Ronald Dworkin, Amartya Sen and John Rawls. If some of you are scratching your heads trying to recall where you last heard these names, trust me that it was not at a trade union conference or a rally for political prisoners. The topic of “egalitarianism” within this circle of professional philosophers is an entirely abstract matter. They chat about it in the same dry and intellectual way that aesthetic philosophers discuss “beauty”.

This collection of thinkers treat question of “egalitarianism” as a subject within the rarefied world of Anglophone political philosophy. It arises out of a debate between disciples of the utilitarian John Stuart Mill on one side and John Rawls on the other, who proposes a “primary goods” theory of justice. A just society according to Rawls is one in which society maximizes the “primary goods” of the worst off members. Roemer enters the fray by trying to adapt Marxist solutions to the problem of “distributive justice.” In essence he is trying to blend liberal and socialist themes. From liberalism he appropriates the concern with welfare, from Marxism he hopes to find a theory that will reveal the underlying economic forces that explain inequality. Somewhere along the line Roemer drops the connection with Marxism, as tenuous as it is.

There is precious little in Roemer’s book that has any relation to the sorts of topics that preoccupy Marxists. Mostly it can be found in the section “Socially necessary exploitation and historical materialism.” Roemer’s definition of exploitation in this section is as follows: “were a coalition able to preserve the same incentive structure, and, by withdrawing with its per capita share of produced assets thereby improve the lot of its members, then it is capitalistically exploited in the current allocation.”

Yeah, I know. This is virtually impossible to understand at first glance. I have been knocking my head against Roemer’s shitty prose for a couple of weeks now, so I think I can provide a translation. He is saying that if a group of workers dropped out of capitalist society and improved their situation, then the situation they dropped out of was exploitative. Now you may ask yourself why I chose the words “dropped out.” Does this mean the same as Timothy Leary’s “Turn on, tune in and drop out”?

Yes, it does and this is exactly what Roemer is talking about in so many words:

Assuming capitalist property relations were necessary to bring about accumulation and technical innovation in the early period of capitalism, then the coalition which has withdrawn will soon fall behind the capitalist society because of the incentives to innovate. Even the proletarians under capitalism will eventually enjoy an income-leisure bundle superior to the bundle of independent utopian socialists who have retired into the hills with their share of the capital, assuming enough of the benefits of increased productivity pass down to the proletarians, as has historically been the case.

Translation from the Roemer-ese: When some workers “drop out” of bourgeois society and go to Vermont with their tools and set up a commune like a bunch of lazy grasshoppers, they will eventually fall behind the industrious ant workers who remain in bourgeois society, and who keep their hair short and drive their cars to their factory job each day where foremen yell in their face and where assembly lines keep speeding up and where they keep losing fingers… The criteria for Roemer is not lost fingers or alienation, it is the bundle of goods you can take home. (What was John Roemer doing in 1967 anyhow? Somebody should have slipped him some acid.)

In terms of Marxism and morality, I can still remember how bowled over I was back in 1967 or so after reading “Their Morals and Ours” by Leon Trotsky. Compared to John Rawls’s weak tea, these are the words to live and die by:

Whoever does not care to return to Moses, Christ or Mohammed; whoever is not satisfied with eclectic hodge-podges must acknowledge that morality is a product of social development; that there is nothing invariable about it; that it serves social interests; that these interests are contradictory; that morality more than any other form of ideology has a class character.

But do not elementary moral precepts exist, worked out in the development of mankind as an integral element necessary for the life of every collective body? Undoubtedly such precepts exist but the extent of their action is extremely limited and unstable. Norms “obligatory upon all” become the less forceful the sharper the character assumed by the class struggle. The highest pitch of the class struggle is civil war which explodes into mid-air all moral ties between the hostile classes.

Under “normal” conditions a normal” man observes the commandment: “Thou shalt not kill!” But if he murders under exceptional conditions for self-defense, the judge condones his action. If he falls victim to a murderer, the court will kill the murderer. The necessity of the court’s action, as that of the self-defense, flows from antagonistic interests. In so far as the state is concerned, in peaceful times it limits itself to individual cases of legalized murder so that in time of war it may transform the “obligatory’ commandment, “Thou shalt not kill! into its opposite. The most “humane” governments, which in peaceful times “detest” war, proclaim during war that the highest duty of their armies is the extermination of the greatest possible number of people.

The so-called “generally recognized” moral precepts in essence preserve an algebraic, that is, an indeterminate character. They merely express the fact that man, in his individual conduct, is bound by certain common norms that flow from his being a member of society. The highest generalization of these norms is the “categorical imperative” of Kant. But in spite of the fact that it occupies a high position upon the philosophic Olympus this imperative does not embody anything categoric because it embodies nothing concrete. It is a shell without content.

This vacuity in the norms obligatory upon all arises from the fact that in all decisive questions people feel their class membership considerably more profoundly and more directly than their membership in “society”. The norms of “obligatory” morality are in reality charged with class, that is, antagonistic content. The moral norm becomes the more categoric the less it is “obligatory” upon all. The solidarity of workers, especially of strikers or barricade fighters, is incomparably more “categoric” than human solidarity in general.

The bourgeoisie, which far surpasses the proletariat in the completeness and irreconcilability of its class consciousness, is vitally interested in imposing its moral philosophy upon the exploited masses. It is exactly for this purpose that the concrete norms of the bourgeois catechism are concealed under moral abstractions patronized by religion, philosophy, or that hybrid which is called “common sense”. The appeal to abstract norms is not a disinterested philosophic mistake but a necessary element in the mechanics of class deception. The exposure of this deceit which retains the tradition of thousands of years is the first duty of a proletarian revolutionist.

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