Socialism Without a Map

by Henry on March 28, 2013

There is much to admire in Erik Olin Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias. It’s an intelligent and thoughtful exploration of our current situation (capitalism, and the injustices thereof), the aporias of old-style radicalism (standard issue Marxism-Leninism – maybe not so useful in explaining the early 21st century), and various small-bore examples of what a better world might be that could perhaps be expanded into something bigger. The examples of little quasi-utopias that Wright discusses are familiar ones – but in the case of popular budgeting in Porto Allegre, Wright can hardly be blamed, since his work with Archon Fung did a lot to highlight this case for English-speakers such as myself. And, of course, I’m biased. I start from a position that is in strong sympathy with Wright – I’ve been influenced both by his work, and the work of people who he’s engaged with in both friendly and argumentative ways over the last couple of decades (the various tendencies within the Politics and Society crowd). If I aspire to a political tradition, it’s Wright’s tradition of an interest in radical change, combined with a strong respect for empirically guided analysis.

Of course, I have critical things to say, or it wouldn’t be worth my writing this or people reading it. The book’s explicit intention is to provide a kind of socialist compass. As Wright makes clear, we don’t have any grand master plans which would allow us to see the road ahead. We know that one such plan – the one of the people who built the USSR and its cognates and satellites – worked horribly badly. So Wright’s implicit recommendation is that we build a better society through careful exploration, guided by a general set of principles rather than a strong belief that we know the answers already. I think Diane Coyle is wrong when she sees this as an effective accommodationism – the injection of homeopathic doses of socialism into a fundamentally capitalist system. Instead, it’s a process of careful, iterated search. In Wright’s words (p.108)

Alas there is no map, and no existing social theory is sufficiently powerful to even begin to construct such a comprehensive representation of possible social destinations … Instead of the metaphor of a road map guiding us to a known destination, perhaps the best we can do is to think of the project of emancipatory social change as a voyage of exploration. We leave the well-known world with a compass that shows us the direction we want to go, and an odometer which tells us how far from the point of departure we have traveled, but without a map which lays out the entire route from the point of departure to the final destination.

This final destination will likely still involve some markets (Wright is politely skeptical about non-market utopias), but it will still, plausibly, be radically different from what we have at the moment. We don’t know what it will look like, so the best we can do at the moment is to look to what hopeful monsters there are, to broaden our sense of the possibility conditions, and to guide our search in useful directions. These examples may not scale in a capitalist environment (contrary to what Coyle says, Wright does discuss some reasons why this might be so), but they give us some intimations both that a better world is possible, and of where we might find it.

The problem, as I see it, is that these two desiderata are likely to cut against each other. If Wright wants to use Porto Allegre, Wikipedia, Mondragon (is he familiar with Kim Stanley Robinson’s recent novel 2312, with its solar-system spanning Mondragon Collective I wonder?) and the rest to draw us towards the utopian project, he is likely to present them in one light. Specifically, he is likely to stress how they can, in their small way, be inspirations, treating them as utopias-in-miniature, acknowledging that they are flawed, but arguing that despite their flaws, they approximate an ideal well enough that we ought take hope from them. If he wants to use them in order to orient our compass, he should treat them in a different and more social scientific way, looking at them less as inspirations than experiments, where we can learn both from their strengths and their weaknesses. It’s extremely hard to do both at once. Too much idealization and it’s hard to think clearly about their flaws. Too much stress on their problems and it’s hard to feel inspired.

The book leans more heavily towards the idealization, and is skimpier on the flaws than I would like. Take Wikipedia: the one micro-quasi-utopia that I know something about. Wright argues that Wikipedia is a lovely example of how collective goods can be produced on a massive scale in reality. He acknowledges that it has informational flaws and weak spots, but seems highly impressed with its governance system (although he mentions in a footnote that his co-author got some flak from people at a technology conference for being too idealistic about its election system). He finds that

Taken together these four characteristics of Wikipedia – non-market relations, egalitarian participation, deliberative interactions among contributors, democratic governance and adjudication – conform closely to the normative ideals of radical democratic egalitarianism. …. Whatever else may be the case, Wikipedia shows that productive non-market egalitarian collaboration on a very wide scale is possible.

Much of this rings true to me – Wikipedia, whatever else it is, is an example of non-market collaboration on an enormous scale. That it works as well as it does is extraordinary. The question that I have though is whether it is truly egalitarian.

One possible refutation of this argument comes from Wales himself, who has argued that Wikipedia is actually largely written by a much smaller cadre of true volunteers than the raw numbers would suggest. And indeed, quantitative analyses have suggested that the distribution of Wikipedia contributors is skewed, so that a relatively small number of people do most of the edits. This might feed into arguments like Matt Hindman’s suggestion that in many aspects of the WWW, skewed distributions prevail, in which those who have most influence tend to be those with the characteristics of traditional social elites. A refutation to that refutation however comes from our much-missed friend, Aaron Swartz who finds that while a tiny fraction of users are indeed responsible for the vast preponderance of edits, most of these edits are housekeeping tasks, aimed at ensuring standardization and the like. The bulk of the actual material is indeed provided (or was, when Aaron did his research) by a large number of people.

But there are other, more troubling points. First and most obviously, there is strong evidence of gender imbalance in Wikipedia editing. Lam et al. (PDF) note evidence from a Wikimedia Foundation study that just 13% of Wikipedia editors are women – the target is to raise female participation to 25% by 2015. They find that the average female editor is responsible for substantially fewer edits than the average male editor, and that women are less likely to be retained as editors than men. This may in part be because women editors are more likely to have their early edits reverted, prompting them to leave Wikipedia, than men. Coverage of topics of interest to women is worse than coverage of topics of interest to men. All this leads the authors to suggest that Wikipedia has “a culture that may be resistant to female participation.”

Second, the actual processes of Wikipedia editing are not always particularly egalitarian. There are aspects which are attractive, such as the use of ‘barnstars’ [PDF] to provide positive social feedback for particularly active volunteer editors. But there are less normatively soothing aspects too. Wikipedia `policies’ such as Neutral Point of View are more often used as bludgeons [PDF] in heated argument than as means to forge genuine consensus. Sometimes, consensus is never reached And what consensus there is very often reflects a battle between in groups and out groups in which the views of a dominant coalition batters others into submission. Articles on controversial topics hence become polarized between a group of “individuals who have, for the time being, claimed legitimate authority over the article and are able to enforce their own changes and those whose changes are likely to be rejected.” This is, bluntly, a new form of inegalitarianism, in which those who have more spare time and social cohesion are able to fend off changes proposed by those with less time and fewer allies.

This does not undermine Wright’s basic point – that utopians should learn from practical examples such as Wikipedia and use them to plot their course. However, it does perhaps suggest that a different kind of search is attractive. Rather than looking for cases such as Wikipedia as examples of what utopia might look like, one should treat them as cases from which we might learn both positive and negative lessons, about what works, and what does not.

One very interesting example of how this might be done can be found in the work of the late Lin and Vincent Ostrom. Indeed, I was a bit surprised not to see the Ostroms getting mentioned, as their ideas have some overlap with Wright’s, even if it is hard to situate them on the usual maps of left and right. As I understand their life project, it had two major components. One was a normative account of the benefits of ‘polycentric governance systems,’ a set of arguments which have much in common with Wright’s ‘recombinant decentralization.’ The second was a vast empirical project aimed at figuring out which local governance systems worked in managing resources and which did not, gathering data from thousands of cases. The two complemented each other directly, as Ostrom’s Nobel lecture suggests.

As Cosma Shalizi and I have argued, one might do something similar (for collective information processing of the kind that radical democrats are interested in rather than resource management) by taking advantage of the many, many cases provided by the Internet. The advantage of the Internet, here, is not that Internet based forms of collective cognition and decision making are inherently superior to more traditional forms (we have no necessary reason to think that they are). It’s that they can be studied in different ways – people’s conversations and arguments leave traces in the data that can then (with care) be used to understand what works and what does not. Here, Wikipedia and other such systems are less examples to be emulated, than cases to be carefully decomposed, so that one can figure out (some) of what makes them work, (some) of what makes them dysfunctional, and then use these positive and negative lessons to make a better and more grounded empirical case for specific radical democratic proposals. New forms of data analysis mean that one can do this, albeit quite imperfectly, at a very large scale.

This seems to me to offer a concrete way to begin to explore the possibility space for radical democracy. To be clear, it carries costs. It is a pragmatic program rather than an inspirational one. To quote from the concluding response of our last seminar:

It’s a lot easier to build a radical movement on a story of transformation, on the idea of the plan that makes another world possible, than it is on a story of finding out the partial good and building upon it. The legitimacy of the Soviet experiment, and of the ecosystem of less barbarous ideas that turned out to tacitly depend upon it, lay in the perception of a big, bright, adjacent, obtainable, obvious, morally-compelling other way of doing things. Will people march if society inscribes upon its banners, ‘Watch out for the convexity constraints’? Will we gather in crowds if a speaker offers us all the utopia that isn’t NP-complete?

Watching out for the convexity constraints isn’t the basis for a mass movement. But then, Wright isn’t providing the lessons for how to build such a movement. Instead, he’s interested in figuring out how to search an uncertain terrain for better solutions. This would at the least be one way to do this.

{ 359 comments }

1

nb 03.28.13 at 1:37 pm

Is it really so “troubling” that women on average are too sensible to indulge in all-too-common male ego-tripping on Wikipedia, a distinctly second-rate construction in any case?

2

Neville Morley 03.28.13 at 2:44 pm

@nb #1: well, yes, if Wikipedia is treated – as it increasingly is, by most people who aren’t congenitally sceptical academics – as a reliable source of encyclopedic information not only on particular topics but also on what topics are worthy of having encyclopedia entries.

3

Bill Barnes 03.28.13 at 2:47 pm

Transition town movement as Real Utopia? Paper by Stephen Quilley

http://www.ecocultures.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Quilley-2012-1.pdf

4

rootless (@root_e) 03.28.13 at 3:05 pm

The Mondragon model seemed fascinating and hopeful 20 years ago. However, there is obviously a problem with this model. The Gintis/Bowles critique is not compelling, but it has the virtue of matching the evidence.

Alperovitz’s effort to use non-profit quasi public institutions like hospitals to anchor co-ops is interesting

5

Philip 03.28.13 at 3:30 pm

“The advantage of the Internet, here, is not that Internet based forms of collective cognition and decision making are inherently superior to more traditional forms (we have no necessary reason to think that they are). It’s that they can be studied in different ways – people’s conversations and arguments leave traces in the data that can then (with care) be used to understand what works and what does not.”

This reminds me of an essay by Bruno Latour:
http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/P-129-THES-GB.pdf

His sociology is built around the notion of trace and traceability and he argues that digital media are perfect source material for sociology precisely because they provide an extraordinarily complete record of social interactions.

Other forms of social life are similarly meshed, networked and relational but digital social relations are (ironically) more materialised than those out there ‘in the real world’ — hence they are easier to study.

6

Chris 03.28.13 at 6:49 pm

Henry, please fix the Matt Hindman link.

7

Jed Harris 03.28.13 at 6:56 pm

The focus on “real world” examples like Mondragon and Porto Allegre, and the one online example of Wikipedia, leaves out most of the action.

Wikipedia is of course important, and studying as suggested is worthwhile. (Side question: Why hasn’t it been an intense focus of sociological research? Something odd there.)

But there are thousands of open peer projects beyond Wikipedia. Some of these, like the big open source projects (Linux, Mozilla, Python, the many Apache projects, etc.) and non-software projects like Open Streetmap and Project Gutenberg have big social consequences in their own right. More broadly, the immense ecology of interdependent open peer activities already constitutes a whole sector of social and political action in which “radical democracy” is taken for granted, and markets are only a secondary factor.

It is interesting and probably significant that the existence, organization and effects of this sector are nearly ignored in a conversation to which it is directly relevant. It seems as though it is somehow invisible to economists, political theorists, sociologists, etc.

I wish I had a tidy model that explains the workings and powers of the open peer ecology, but I’m not there yet. But we can easily observe that it is nowhere near the limits of its growth, it seems to be able to evade and defend itself against attempts by other institutions to keep it contained, and throughout its enormous there has been no serious diminution of its matter of fact commitment to radical democracy.

I think a discussion of possible real utopias could do worse than to start with this one growing and evolving right under our nose.

8

Jed Harris 03.28.13 at 7:03 pm

Meant to say “enormous *expansion*”.

Also I think Wikipedia is a bit of an odd example because it is effectively the only encyclopedia in town, and due to network effects, will probably stay that way unless things get really, really bad. Most open peer projects are at most “first among equals” and must operate with the constant awareness that they could be cloned, bypassed by competitors or simply become irrelevant.

9

Breviosity 03.28.13 at 8:04 pm

We can boil down lessons from Wikipedia about cooperation to four: 1) people do at times have non-monetary motives to cooperate; 2) there is usually a core of super-collaborators; 3) males are disproportionately involved in all non-kin forms of cooperation, usually in competition with other male coalitions, and have been the initiators of every extensive form of social cooperation for the last ten millennia; 4) there are almost always conflicts within any cooperating group.

10

lupita 03.29.13 at 1:21 am

If it is true that “just 13% of Wikipedia editors are women”, that “males are disproportionately involved in all non-kin forms of cooperation”, and that they have also “been the initiators of every extensive form of social cooperation for the last ten millennia”, then cooperation at enormous scales and in extensive forms is not where we should orient our compasses.

How about service? Surely men and women serve in the same measure.

11

Bill Barnes 03.29.13 at 2:04 am

#9: “males are disproportionately involved in all non-kin forms of cooperation, usually in competition with other male coalitions, and have been the initiators of every extensive form of social cooperation for the last ten millennia.”

How could there possibly be sufficient evidence to establish this? Has to be speculative extrapolation from very limited data.

12

Lawrence Stuart 03.29.13 at 2:10 am

“We know that one such plan – the one of the people who built the USSR and its cognates and satellites – worked horribly badly. So Wright’s implicit recommendation is that we build a better society through careful exploration, guided by a general set of principles rather than a strong belief that we know the answers already.”

The beauty of utopian thinking is precisely its paratactic structure. Between the present and the future lies the great (terrible?) caesura of attainment. It is not a propositional genre of discourse: it does not link past and future by prophecy or logic. It suggests, as does all metaphoric language, possibilities. Because of this suggestiveness it is an erotic form of speech, creating desire for things not possessed. And as in any love affair, there are dangers, among which is the tendency to assimilate the object of desire to one’s own subjectivity: to destructively collapse the distance between what is and what one would have, as though having intimations and being intimate were the same thing (which might suggest that the Soviet experience was a truly terrible pun).

Which is, I suppose, why I think Wright is pretty damn good. Utopias help orient us in the aporia — they can’t (except perhaps through terrible puns) ever get us out — because, of course, there is no there, there. I would, however, question an overemphasis on ‘new forms of data analysis.’ Eros is such a key aspect of utopian thinking, and I’m not sure that awareness of convexity constraints make for him an effective bow.

13

breviosity 03.29.13 at 4:47 am

#11 “How could there possibly be sufficient evidence to establish this? Has to be speculative extrapolation from very limited data.”
The evidence is extensive: it is called world history. Women specialized in small-scale and kin-based cooperation (until recently), while male coalitions (competing against other male coalitions) created over the past 5-10,000 years the public sphere of states, armies, churches, empires, corporations, universities, sports clubs, Mondragon coops, Wikipedia, group blogs like Crooked Timber, and every other extensive, non-kin, form of social cooperation.

14

Harold 03.29.13 at 5:54 am

How do we know the gender of wikipedia contributors? Don’t most editors use pseudonyms?

15

GiT 03.29.13 at 6:31 am

“We can boil down lessons from Wikipedia about cooperation “

“The evidence is extensive: it is called world history.”

Well, which is it we’re doing here? Generalizations from Wikipedia or statements about what all of “world history” tells us?

16

Henry 03.29.13 at 11:15 am

Harold – if you follow the link, you’ll see the data sources that they use.

17

Random Lurker 03.29.13 at 12:05 pm

@breviosity
for what I can understand early states evolved from clans.
Clans are institutions based on family roles, where usually patriarchy rules.
when ancient states where born, they were basically organisatons of clans (e.g. roman senators were the patriarchs of noble familiae).
thus states up to feudalism were basically an evolution of a patriarcal clan system.
however the fact that males had the dominant role doesn’t mean that they had the more important role, only the most visible one.
In other words I think that states etc. are organisations that are composed by both males and females, with males in the most visible (but not more important) roles.
for example if a boy joins the army while a girl at home is producing food for him the girl is part of the army like the boy (which is the reason in ww2 both armies killed a lot of civilians).

18

rootless (@root_e) 03.29.13 at 1:35 pm

Wow, I didn’t realize that 19th century ethnography was still so popular

19

breviosity 03.29.13 at 1:47 pm

#15 “Well, which is it we’re doing here? Generalizations from Wikipedia or statements about what all of “world history” tells us?”
We’re doing both. Where’s the problem?

20

breviosity 03.29.13 at 2:00 pm

#17 When you get the patriarchs of different clans cooperating together to form a Senate, then you have a male coalition of non-kin social cooperators.

21

Bill Barnes 03.29.13 at 2:40 pm

13: #11 “How could there possibly be sufficient evidence to establish this? Has to be speculative extrapolation from very limited data.”

“The evidence is extensive: it is called world history”

There is no evidentiary record of world history going back ten millennia of sufficient comprehensiveness and reliability as to support your gross generalization. No professional historian could get away with a claim such as yours without being laughed out of the room.

22

breviosity 03.29.13 at 4:00 pm

Bill Barnes, rather than huffing and puffing about gross generalization, please at least try to come up with some counter-examples. I have given many specific examples, but my critics have not seen fit to submit even one disconfirming case.

23

Random Lurker 03.29.13 at 4:37 pm

@Breviosity 20
“When you get the patriarchs of different clans cooperating together to form a Senate, then you have a male coalition of non-kin social cooperators”
As long as they play backgammon together, this is true.
But when they actually legiferate and govern, they act as the organ of a bigger community, that is, in this case, “people of Rome”. This community clearly includes females, but most notable roles are attributed to males, because, patriarchy.
Patriarchy, by definition, is not an all male form of cooperation (since it is family-based), and it isn’t even non-kin.

@rootless (@root_e) 18
“Wow, I didn’t realize that 19th century ethnography was still so popular”
19th century ethnography rocks, by Jove.

24

GiT 03.29.13 at 5:22 pm

The “problem” is that evidence from the entirety of “world history” isn’t evidence which sustains “generalizations from wikipedia.”

But then, there are larger problems than that here.

25

breviosity 03.29.13 at 5:30 pm

Random Lurker, I see your point but I don’t find “because, patriarchy” a good explanation for Rome, Wikipedia, the origins of Crooked Timber, or much else involving men cooperating. The public-spirited people who freely donate their time and energy to create Wikipedia happen to be 87% male (for the editors). Why are they so cooperative? Not, I submit, because patriarchy. The people who came together to form Crooked Timber were mostly male. Why? Not because patriarchy, but because that’s the kind of thing that men like doing: they like forming teams, often to compete against rival teams (such as right-wing blogs). Any realistic notion of utopia has to take heed of these sorts of realities.

26

LFC 03.29.13 at 5:50 pm

We need to get onto the primate evidence (or, if you prefer, ‘evidence’). Bonobos, chimps, gorillas, orangutans. Then this thread would *really* start to rock.

27

LFC 03.29.13 at 5:54 pm

I think my comment @26 may be a hangover from having had to watch (parts of) Rugrats recently w a young relative. The chimps in that movie have a good sense of rhythm. Appeared to be mostly male. Of course, it’s a cartoon, or should I say animated feature.

28

bianca steele 03.29.13 at 6:03 pm

This explains perfectly why all those mom-and-sis stores.

29

lupita 03.29.13 at 8:24 pm

states, armies, churches, empires, corporations, universities, sports clubs, Mondragon coops, Wikipedia, group blogs like Crooked Timber

These are all institutions and enterprises that are part of society and sustained by it, but are not society itself. They serve specific purposes within society, such as defense, the transmission of knowledge, and the promotion of spirituality, which are important aspects of life, but not life itself.

In cooperating groups, the agent is defined by the action and vice versa, that is, a teacher transmits knowledge and someone who transmits knowledge is a teacher, a soldier defends a community and someone defending a community is a soldier, etc. You are what you do. Society and utopia are states that are lived and that reproduce life, where roles are defined simply by being, such as being a parent, a daughter, or a member of a community.

Perhaps the idea of utopia as a blueprint that we may cooperate to create is a nail man has created to suit his hammer. Therefore, cooperating groups may not be the inspiration we need to guide us to utopia. I would turn to households, family, and community for inspiration.

30

Lawrence Stuart 03.29.13 at 11:35 pm

@29 Your post seems a useful corrective to the excessive attention often given to productive activities in the construction of utopian models, as well as drawing a useful distinction between reproduction and production.

Labour (reproduction, or ‘life itself’), work (production of the things of the world), and action (the politics of plurality): the three fundamental activities Arendt uses to designate the vita activa. And I think three points indispensable in triangulating the outlines of a utopian position.

So that in response to #25 (“Any realistic notion of utopia has to take heed of these sorts of realities”) I would say that the “realities” of which you speak are a function of the gender based division of activity into reproduction and production. Any utopia worth talking about ought to recognize that until this gender inequity is addressed, paradise will be a very slow train coming.

31

breviosity 03.30.13 at 12:41 am

Henry pointed out that women don’t contribute their share of unpaid work to Wikipedia. The conclusion reached here: “until this gender inequity is addressed, paradise will be a very slow train coming.” Very odd.

32

breviosity 03.30.13 at 12:47 am

If one class of people is doing 87% of the unpaid work, is that class exploited?

33

Consumatopia 03.30.13 at 2:17 am

In cooperating groups, the agent is defined by the action and vice versa, that is, a teacher transmits knowledge and someone who transmits knowledge is a teacher, a soldier defends a community and someone defending a community is a soldier, etc. You are what you do. Society and utopia are states that are lived and that reproduce life, where roles are defined simply by being, such as being a parent, a daughter, or a member of a community.

I can’t see how it could possibly be utopia for our lives to be determined by what community or family we are born into rather than by what we choose to do.

34

Lawrence Stuart 03.30.13 at 1:38 pm

@ 31 & 32
I would suggest that the under representation of women in the Wiki work is a symptom of women’s over representation in the activities associated with reproduction. Fellas are free to be jabbering away on the internets because the gals are cooking dinner and loading the dishwasher. And doing the main part of child rearing … you know, ‘women’s work.’

So the class of people (men) doing 87% of the unpaid work on Wiki are able to do that work because other class (women) are doing a disproportionate share of the reproductive labour.

Some utopia.

A nice chart on men/women and leisure:

http://www.economist.com/node/13717514

35

Tom Slee 03.30.13 at 4:25 pm

After an initial enthusiasm for the book, I found that after it sat for some time my views tended to Diane Coyle’s: particularly that the leading examples were underwhelming. So it is good to read Henry’s reminder that there is a lot in the book that is quite inspirational. And for all its quirks, Wikipedia is a remarkable construct.

One question that I don’t remember EOW addressing is the way that these commons productions get embedded into the broader system. David Harvey’s “Rebel Cities” has much on this: the tension between non-market commons production (especially in cities) and the extraction of monopoly rents by trading on the common (eg city culture and tourism). Harvey makes a strong point that the import of the commons depends a lot on how it relates to the profit-making activities that it generates and which surround it. This relationship seems (if I remember) to be a weak point of Envisioning Real Utopias.

36

Lawrence Stuart 03.30.13 at 6:29 pm

@35 re: embedding ‘real utopias’ in the broader system.

Because these coops & etc. are ‘interstitial,’ they must exist in the spaces between. That these spaces exist, and are available for colonization by alternative, non capitalist modalities is probably the most encouraging thing I took from Wright’s narrative.

As to the question of who is transforming whom, that is another story. To be blunt, I don’t buy the prognosis for large scale social transformation. But I’d argue that kind of grand scale upheaval matters less than the kind of localized transformations that the interstitial alterities can achieve within Leviathan itself. Not only improvements in conditions of labour and work, but by the very fact that interstitial agitation keeps these spaces open, and from this openness comes so much of the creative energy that, frankly, makes life worth living.

37

lupita 03.31.13 at 4:31 am

Consumatopia @ 33

I can’t see how it could possibly be utopia for our lives to be determined by what community or family we are born into rather than by what we choose to do.

The princes of the Church wanted an outsider who could relate to the curia so they chose a South American who speaks Italian. Maybe he was chosen because he gets along with all those liberation theologians, who knows? In any case, there seems to be the new trend in Latin America where candidates are winning and are legitimized by who they are: victims of torture, labor leaders from poor families, Indians… definitely outsiders. It may not be utopia for the individuals involved, but surely it is a step closer for those they lead or represent. This contrasts with traditional candidates who seek legitimacy by what they do: represent the nation as a unit, pay their debts, maintain an independent central bank, imbue investors with a sense of confidence, and pretty much go along with the neoliberal world order.

Something seems to be happening among Latin Americans and it has something to do with being. Maybe there is a lesson somewhere in there to be learned.

38

Martin Bento 03.31.13 at 5:13 am

It seems a common premise of this post, Holbo’s. I think Quiggan too, and Wright that Leninism and all its progeny constitute a failed utopianism, and that utopianism should be made circumspect by the fact of communism’s bloody trajectory. Meanwhile, Marx is virtually held harmless.

Marx and Engels made stridently, abundantly clear that they were not utopian thinkers and had little respect for such, save perhaps as well-intentioned primitives. Engels wrote an entire book to this effect. Lenin spits the word “utopian” with contempt all over his writing. Were they wrong about their own thought?

What some people here seem to think the communists did was design a utopian system and attempt to engineer society towards it. This is precisely what Marx, Lenin, and the rest condemned. Since we’re materialists, since we’re inverting Hegel, since it is the material relations of production and not ideas, such as visions of utopia, that drive history, attempts to realize idealized versions of society are self-deception at best. Here’s how Lenin defined utopia.

“In politics utopia is a wish that can never come true—neither now nor afterwards, a wish that is not based on social forces and is not supported by the growth and development of political, class forces. ” – Lenin, Two Utopias

And here he is on utopia in Marx:

“”There is no trace of an attempt on Marx’s part to make up a utopia, to indulge in idle guess-work about what cannot be known. Marx treated the question of communism in the same way as a naturalist would treat the question of the development of, say, a new biological variety” Lenin, The State and Revolution

This clearly is not how he saw his project. What was his project? Let me hand the mic to Mr. Lukacs:

“The admirable realism with which Lenin handled all problems of socialism during the dictatorship of the proletariat, which must win him the respect even of his bourgeois and petty-bourgeois opponents, is therefore only the consistent application of Marxism, of historical-dialectical thought, to problems of socialism which have henceforward become topical. In Lenin’s writings and speeches – as, incidentally, also in Marx – there is little about socialism as a completed condition. There is all the more, however, about the steps which can lead to its establishment. For it is impossible for us concretely to imagine the details of socialism as a completed condition.” – Georg Lukacs, Lenin: A Study of the Unity of His Thought

And what are these “steps”? Chiefly, the pursuit of class warfare, and the extinguishing of false consciousness.

Was all this wrong? Was Lenin a utopian who thought he was a Marxist? There have been generations of brilliant Marxists and are some still who did not think so. Is it really decisive, as Wright seems to think, that Lenin’s project had no electoral workers’ democracy? For Marx, democracy would be part of communism as finally achieved. But, of course, none of the existing communist societies claimed to be other than a work in progress. And, in any case, Marxism is not supposed to be dogma, it is supposed to be method, and the the Soviet, Maoist, and other communist were defended at vast length and detail with enormous rigor by brilliant Marxists not under the control of those governments as developments of Marxist dialectic. Was all this wrong because of the absence of elections? Why did no one tell Merleau-Ponty? Why did no one tell Hobspawn? Were these men idiots, who lived their lives by Marxism without grasping the most basic things about it?

How would communism have been different if it had been utopian instead of Marxist? Here we are under Stalin. We are supposed to be moving towards an image we have of the ideal society. Does this society look ideal? Everyone clearly living in fear? Vast numbers of people imprisoned and killed, theoretically for some kind of subversion. Why are so many attempting to subvert a society moving towards utopia? Utopia give you a way to measure yourself and see that something is wrong.

But a Marxist? We don’t know what socialism looks like. Marx thought it would involve elections, but Marx wasn’t living in the material conditions that gave rise to it, so how would he know? (In any case, we are still in the dictatorship of the proletariat phase. True, the proletariat aren’t really voting either, though the Party keeps a nominal proletariat majority. But the proletariat was a tiny portion of the population when the Bolsheviks took over. So how much difference would a voting proletariat have made?). The question before us is whether class warfare is being pursued with the maximal rigor compatible with further development of the productive forces. And it was! The society was certainly at war with itself in the name of economic classes, and it was developing industry very rapidly. From a Marxist perspective, what is really wrong here? That not all the victims of the Gulag were really class traitors? That’s a critique of implementation, not of the Gulag itself. One could say that Marxism does not necessarily imply the Gulag, but neither does it forbid it. Could one say this is too crude a rendition of Marxism? But isnt this effectively what many brilliant Marxists said? And I don’t think, after generations of brilliant Marxist the world over defended the USSR, or Mao, or other variations, that Marxists can pull an Emily Latilda and say “Never Mind” now.

The crimes and horrors of communism belong on the account of the philosophy that inspired them, and in whose name they were rigorously argued for. Utopianism owes no apologies here. Marx, Zizek, and Lenin are on the same side, and utopians are on the other.

As for the question of maps, an iterative approach is right, but let us not suppose the problem with communism was that it worked out too detailed a map of what it wanted to achieve and how. It deliberately avoided this. Rather, it insisted on socialism as a spontaneous result of class warfare. And this created, again and again, enormous tragedy: a society that refuses to have a vision of utopia, but insists on waging war with itself in service of a theory.

Let me close with Lenin again:

“(Revolutionary government) can be only a dictatorship, that is, not an organisation of “order”, but an organisation of war. If you are storming a fortress, you cannot discontinue the war even after you have taken the fortress. Either the one or the other: either we take the fortress to hold it, or we do not storm the fortress and explain that all we want is a little place next to it. ” Lenin, Lenin, Report on the Question of the Participation of the Social-Democrats in a Provisional Revolutionary Government

How could a government whose purpose is war against part of its own population, and modes of thorugh associated with them, not end where the USSR did? And in what sense is this not Marxist?

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Mao Cheng Ji 03.31.13 at 7:55 am

Martin, but isn’t any government – revolutionary or not, democratic or not – always at war with a part of its own population? An enemy of the People, driven by his contempt for public property, will throw a monkey wrench into the machinery. A chronically unemployed, driven by his contempt for private property, will throw a rock into the bank window. Or still a car. Own and distribute illegal substances, the category of property banned out of existence. Etc. This particular phenomenon, the GULag, isn’t it really all about the methods of conducting this war?

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Martin Bento 03.31.13 at 7:58 am

Hobspawn – Hobsbawm.

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Martin Bento 03.31.13 at 8:03 am

Mao, no other governments I know of than communist and, perhaps, fascist state war with part of the population as their very purpose. Also, criminals are picking a fight with the state; Lenin is picking the fight with class enemies. He does not need to wait for them to actually do anything wrong.Note that in the quote, he is explicitly saying revolutionary government is unusual in this: it is not a government of order – which is, of course, the justification all government use for attacking those who violate its laws or attack its institutions (and, in some cases, ideas) – the purpose of revolutionary government is *not* to maintain order, but to foment war. That is a real difference.

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Mao Cheng Ji 03.31.13 at 8:27 am

I don’t know, surely he is not insisting on creating enemies in order to fight them. It seems about the same as some writings of James Madison I read recently; goes something like this: ‘some will be rich, some poor. The poor will rebel. We would need to have an army to keep them in check. Would be smarter to give them some reasons to stay peaceful.’

See, the methods. Although, the difference between Madison and Lenin is that Madison does need the working class, and Lenin doesn’t need the upper class. So, this could explain the difference in methods. However: Madison&Co. didn’t need the Indians, so that part of the population had to go to some version of the gulags.

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Martin Bento 03.31.13 at 9:44 am

I’m having trouble picturing Madison saying that the purpose of the state is to wage war on the lower classes – or even on the Indians, especially not waging such war as opposed to maintaining order, i.e., what is normally considered the primary function of government.

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Mao Cheng Ji 03.31.13 at 10:57 am

I don’t know, the terminology too is not exactly marxism-specific: war on drugs, war on terror.

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Henry Farrell 03.31.13 at 11:31 am

Martin Bento – you are ignoring in all the above that classic mainland European social democracy was quite as much a descendant of Marx, via Bernstein, as Marxism-Leninism. But Hobspawn is a really great typo – sounds like a grim anti-hero from some minor DC comic of the 1980s.

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LFC 03.31.13 at 3:10 pm

Martin Bento:
Marx and Engels made stridently, abundantly clear that they were not utopian thinkers … Were they wrong about their own thought?

Arguably and to some extent, yes. A utopian or quasi-utopian vision does not become ‘scientific’ simply because the person advancing it asserts it is scientific or “empirically established.” Thus Marx and Engels in The German Ideology, as excerpted in D. McLellan, ed., Karl Marx: Selected Writings, p.171:

In history up to the present it is certainly an empirical fact that separate individuals have…become more and more enslaved under a power alien to them…, a power which…in the last instance, turns out to be the world market. But it is just as empirically established that, by the overthrow of the existing state of society by the communist revolution…and the abolition of private property which is identical with it, this power…will be dissolved; and that then the liberation of each single individual will be accomplished in the measure in which history becomes transformed into world history. (emphasis added)

M&E thought that the communist revolution wd occur when a variety of preconditions, eg the “universal development of productive forces” (whatever exactly that means) had occurred, but also thought its arrival cd be hastened by political activity (otherwise why did Marx engage in politics?). From the same p. quoted above: “Communism is for us not…an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.”

You can call something whatever you like, but that doesn’t mean it is that thing. From a vantage pt of over 150 yrs since that sentence was written, it may make (does make, I wd say) more sense to see communism (as they describe it) as an ideal than as an ‘empirically established’ eventual certainty. YMMV.

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Bill Barnes 03.31.13 at 3:20 pm

Martin Bento: Your Marx=Lenin, Lenin=Stalin, therefore Marx=Stalin, is the same crap as Rousseau = both Hitler and Stalin. You treat Marx (and everyone who ever became a Marxist) as if he were an idiot savant who once caught up in his developed ideology lost all touch with both reality and the ideals of the 1844 manuscripts, with no possibility of any further positive evolution. Of course you can cite many examples that look approximately like that. But to claim that as a defintive characterization of Marx’s essential legacy is nothing but ideology. The life and work of Antonio Gramsci, among many others, serve as definitive refutation of your ideology. On Leninism (and some forms of marxism) as a form of bad utopianism see James Scott, Seeing like a State: How certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed.

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William Timberman 03.31.13 at 3:55 pm

My take: Marx, in despair, discovered/invented a deus ex machina that could, he thought, rescue him from that despair. Did he really believe that a science of historical development — inevitable historical development — would make of him and his colleagues more than another sad iteration of utopian dreamers? Slogging my way through all 3 volumes of Capital, I wonder.

Marvelous stuff, to be sure, but for me it feels a lot like the record of a man burying himself in his work in order to avoid a grief that threatens to overwhelm him. What angers me most about those who dismiss him, especially the modern economists who poke fun at his labor-theory-of-value, or his falling-rate-of-profits, or accuse him of atrocities-before-the-fact, is that with all his agonies, and all his mistakes, he was so obviously a better human being than any of them.

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Harold 03.31.13 at 5:43 pm

He was a great writer and moralist, but he didn’t have much use for art and nature.

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geo 03.31.13 at 5:56 pm

Martin: Was Lenin a utopian who thought he was a Marxist?

No, he was a bloody-minded authoritarian modernizer who thought he was a Marxist.

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Lee A. Arnold 03.31.13 at 6:28 pm

Marx was one of the last people with a full view. He got a lot wrong, and he couldn’t see some of what was coming ahead, but neither of these things is always as important as many people make it out to be. My theory is that there was a type of polymath, alive from the mid-18th century to the very early 20th century — Vico, Smith, Mill, Marx, and a small host of others, and these people were able to get a better idea of what the modern change is, and where this whole thing is headed, headed even now, than we do today. I think this is due to two things, acquaintance with the old order, and polymathism: (1) They had some observation of the old way of things, and thus a much broader and deeper personal grasp of the totality of “human nature”, and so they had a better sense of how the new ways (industrial revolution etc.) were wrenching things. (2) They were alive before specialization drove the various subjects of knowledge beyond the purview of one mind, so they had a sense of the way in which the subjects were splitting apart, and a sense of how specialization itself affects human nature. I wouldn’t be an absolutist about my theory, though that will do little to temper the commentators in these threads who are absolutists about any sort of comment. But I do find it difficult to name any 20th (or 21st) century thinker who evinces the overall comprehensiveness of, say, Marx.

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Lawrence Stuart 03.31.13 at 7:00 pm

@46 “…then the liberation of each single individual will be accomplished in the measure in which history becomes transformed into world history.”

One of the most interesting paradoxes in Marx’s thought is the realization of individual human freedom through the subordination of political action to historical necessity. With knowledge of necessity come the temptations of power associated with all certainties: as it turned out in the USSR it meant subjecting the present to the power of a cadre of initiates who, because of their certain knowledge of the future, made (often violently coerced) the changes deemed necessary to realize the future condition.

I would argue that the diamat/histamat strain of Marxism underwriting the actually existing socialism of the USSR was a particular perversion of utopian thought, a kind of stalker syndrome where the erotic distance between real and ideal is collapsed, where the desire for the object is mistaken for possessing that object — with terrible consequences for both lover and beloved. But I would also argue that a broad swathe of Marxist thought as such spends considerable energy wrestling (often, dare I say it, in fertile ways) with the paradox that underlies this perversion. And I’d further argue the paradox itself stems from the attempt to distance a science of history from ‘mere’ utopian thought.

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Rich Puchalsky 03.31.13 at 7:36 pm

Oh, great, more about Marx. How much more energy are people going to spend on a 19th century person who thought that everything was historically determined? It would be as if contemporary evolutionary biologists were always obsessing over Darwin. (Though of course, Darwin was substantially a lot more right than Marx was.)

Marx is dead, but the unproductive nostalgia about him, pro or con, goes on. You can’t build anything living on nostalgia.

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David 03.31.13 at 7:50 pm

“You can’t build anything living on nostalgia.”

Outside of the radical left, dominated by Marxists, no one seems to want to BUILD anything, which is kind of the problem.

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roger nowosielski 03.31.13 at 8:15 pm

What troubles me most about Marxian account of “getting there” is taking the institution of the state (nation-states) for granted. It’s simply assumed that eventually, somewhere down the road, the state will wither away.

From the anarchist standpoint — and I cannot really imagine how the anarchist perspective can be left out from any serious discussion of utopian ideals and program — the State and the authority of the State represent the greatest impediment to realization of a better world; and, as “the state of exception” becomes more or less a regular feature of the modern condition, any lasting solution must in the final analysis, if not entirely then at least in great part, be a political solution. All efforts must be directed at delegitimizing and, to the extent possible, bypassing the authority of nation-states so as to eventually render them less and less relevant.

Any thoughts?

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Bruce Wilder 03.31.13 at 8:19 pm

That, which you would build, you first must destroy.

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David 03.31.13 at 8:19 pm

“What troubles me most about Marxian account of “getting there” is taking the institution of the state (nation-states) for granted.”

I do not think that anarchists have ever demonstrated in practice that their sort of society could defend itself in a world filled with hostile capitalist and/or Stalinist states.

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roger nowosielski 03.31.13 at 8:40 pm

A part of the anarchist program must include creating worldwide, global conditions in which aggression would become increasingly less and less acceptable way of resolving differences. The EU, for all its problems and, imo, too limited a basis for forming a coalition, is one example, a step in the right direction.

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Anarcissie 03.31.13 at 8:58 pm

Less acceptable and less usable, due to subversion and sabotage of hostile and authoritarian state institutions and practices.

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Bruce Wilder 03.31.13 at 9:03 pm

The ur-text is not Das Kapital, but the French Revolution. Hegel, Marx, Lenin — they are all reading the French Revolution.

I don’t know if Marx was a better human being, as Timberman says. Human beings, as far as I can see, are a pretty lousy excuse for a species, overall. My dogs are better spiritual beings. My cat, the ultimate apex predator, is a better spiritual being. We are a social animal — the only herd animal, which can talk, and which is also a predator — but our social ability is riven through with resentment and betrayal. Our will to power strips us of empathy and our will to submit makes a fetish of sacrifice and suffering. Our celebration of nature’s Spring, this day, is bunny rabbits and colored eggs and a god, who rises from the dead after sacrificing himself to bloody torture.

Society’s conflicts, material and spiritual, mirror the psychological ambivalence of humans, projected outward and writ large. We long to be released from the paralysis of those conflicts, feel the power in the dynamics of those conflicts and powerless as we are carried along without individual intention by those same dynamics, and devoutly wish for some magic resolution of those conflicts. Revolution and Utopia are poles of a single axis of hope and despair, deep hopeless despair.

Timberman, when he writes, ” it feels a lot like the record of a man burying himself in his work in order to avoid a grief that threatens to overwhelm him”, seems to me to be in possession of a critical insight about Marx, about the dark night of the soul, which is the underside of the political Modern, the Industrial Revolution, the democratic nation-state, and all the rest. It reminded me of what Nietzsche wrote about the creative power of Dionysian pessimism.

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Bruce Wilder 03.31.13 at 9:32 pm

roger nowosielski: All efforts must be directed at delegitimizing and, to the extent possible, bypassing the authority of nation-states so as to eventually render them less and less relevant.

You might find this piece interesting:
http://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/feminisms-tipping-point-who-wins-from-leaning-in

There are a lot of interesting insights on a lot more than feminism swimming around in that article. One, touched on lightly, is Facebook founder, Zuckerberg, reciting as a slogan, “Companies not countries”. Of course, the idea that global multinationals are overwhelming the democratic governance by nation-states, substituting technocratic, quasi-judicial, supranational institutions and processes has been around for a long time, but in context of the social media juggernaut and the creation of new ideologies discussed in the article, it seemed to extend itself in a way that I had not seen before into personal identity and loyalty.

Anyway, be careful what you wish for, might be the lesson.

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Bruce Wilder 03.31.13 at 9:53 pm

Lawrence Stuart @ 52

I thought your remarks interesting. “Historical necessity”, it seems to me, is an attempt to restore some sort of teleological narrative to the analysis of history, without doing violence to facts. The accelerating rush of developments defied the ability of even a supremely analytic and insightful observer, like Marx, to wrap a mind around the course the world was taking, let alone to invent a new narrative without heroic intention, to relate that understanding. God is dead, how are we to talk, let alone pray?

It must — does — feel a bit like being in a canoe in a fast-flowing river. Some limited measure of control is possible only by paddling harder in the direction of the current. Yet, logic dictates that, if the flow of the river is being pushed from its past upstream, it must also be pulled by an unseen falls ahead (is that the roar of the falls we hear?). Even if we do manage to stabilize our canoe by paddling hard enough, we only speed ourselves along the path we are on, due not to our intentions or efforts, but to the material conditions of the river’s course. How are we to understand that?

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geo 03.31.13 at 11:17 pm

Wilder @ 60: Human beings, as far as I can see, are a pretty lousy excuse for a species, overall.

Oh, come on, Bruce. It’s not as if the human race is the cancer of planetary history.

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William Timberman 03.31.13 at 11:28 pm

Marx understood more or less instinctively, I think, that the Enlightenment had to be rejiggered to accommodate the irrational. So did Nietzsche and Kierkegaard and Freud. Einstein, you might say, blundered into the understanding while still full of the optimism that his designs on a Unified Field Theory seemed to justify. (Yes, I know, apples and oranges. Maybe.)

Anyway, we now have neuroscience promising to square the circle for us. I remain skeptical. Things are a lot weirder now than than the system builders of the Eighteenth Century foresaw. There’ve always been the warnings of mystics, but they were never in the business of doing anything about it, at least not collectively. All I have to offer is that we can’t plump for a system which doesn’t take all of this into account, not at least with any hope of success.

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william u. 04.01.13 at 12:18 am

Leninism was an adaptation of Second International Marxism to the specific historical conditions of early twentieth century Russia. Adaptation is to be expected: any living tradition of thought will be developed and applied creatively by its practitioners. It was not the only possible adaptation, but it did meet with stunning initial success. That success was followed by a catastrophic failure that many in the West were willfully slow to recognize.

Both the success and failure matter today. Both, in part, were rooted in Lenin’s adoption of the classically Russian model of clandestine and elite revolutionary organization. Obsessive dedication to party questions served to maintain the will of the cadres: the dedication to making revolution which had decayed away in the West, the decay concealed by a veil of Kautskyite orthodoxy that was finally ripped away by the SPD’s acquiescence in the Kaiser’s war. The cadres of the party were willing to make great sacrifices, and mete out great cruelties, to make and defend the revolution. Today those cruelties seem meaningless, inhumane, and unjustifiable, but we have the benefit of hindsight. The men and women of the world’s second socialist revolution had only the bloody suppression of the first in rear view. In present view was the general slaughter of the War. Over the horizon was the prospect of something better, and History, it seemed, supplied some grim tasks. (Victor Serge gives a good sense of this.)

But the failure also owed to the Party model. What would a socialist state mean in a society dominated by the peasantry? In which the proletariat and the productive forces had been pulverized by civil war? It would mean not the rule of society by society, but rule of the Party over society, with all the authoritarian modernization that entails. And this easily becomes rule of the Party over the Party: the victory of the bureaucracy and liquidation of the Old Bolsheviks.

What lessons for the present day Left are to be drawn from this?

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Rich Puchalsky 04.01.13 at 12:33 am

“What lessons for the present day Left are to be drawn from this?”

How about this: don’t do things like writing “Today those cruelties seem meaningless, inhumane, and unjustifiable, but we have the benefit of hindsight”, as if only in hindsight did they appear so.

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william u. 04.01.13 at 12:40 am

Puchalsky: Point taken; I carelessly neglected to mention that farsighted individuals were critical of the Bolshevik Revolution even as it was happening (Bertrand Russell, Rosa Luxemburg.) No justification was intended — only an effort to better understand it from the vantage point of the participants.

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Bill Barnes 04.01.13 at 1:08 am

Lets bring this around to intersecting with Erik Wright’s argument. He adamantly identifies Left utopianism with genuine democracy, which is of course completely incompatible with Leninist vanguardism. But few on the Left would say that “moments” of vanguardism can simply be entirely and forever and everywhere eliminated from the struggle to open the way to the realization of “utopia”. And the meaning, shape, etc of “genuine democracy” remains problematic and essentially contested.

“What lessons for the present day Left are to be drawn from” past struggles and successes/failures? To my mind, Wright’s book, does not go into this sufficiently. Here’s one of his most relevant passages, at p. 318:

“Some revolutionary socialists have believed that a turn to authoritarian one-party rule during a transition from capitalism need not destroy the possibilityof the subsequent evolution of meaningful egalitarian democracy. Historical experience suggests that this is very unlikely: the concentration of power and unaccountability that accompanies the abrogation of multi-party representative democracy and the ‘rule of law’ generates new rules of the game and institutional forms in which ruthlessness is rewarded, democratic values are marginalized, dissent is dealt with repressively, and the kinds of autonomous capacities for collective in civil society needed for democracy are destroyed. The legacies of such practices during the difficult times of a transition make a democratic socialist destination implausible.”
(More Gramsci, please.)
And here’s something of mine on lessons from the Central American Left of the last 50 years or so:
“The history of the Nicaraguan and Salvadoran left … shows a particular version of an epistemological and political problem common to all leaders whose projects are utterly dependent on the enthusiasm, determination, and self-sacrifice of their movement’s human capital and rank and file. To wage a revolutionary struggle of substantial duration under difficult circumstances, based primarily on popular activism, requires extraordinary idealism, morale, fighting spirit, and determination among rank and file and cadre at all levels. It’s hard to square these imperatives with encouraging realism, sensitivity, and thoughtfulness regarding the complexity, ambiguity, and unpredictability of the wider world – particularly when that wider world keeps undergoing major changes out of synch with one’s ideology. Over and over again, the FMLN and FSLN leadership were impelled to downplay or hide or suppress their own emerging recognition that they had misread wider reality and unfolding history in important ways (and therefore their policies and strategies had been unrealistic) – because of their fear of the impact of such admissions on their troops’ morale and unity. Over and over again, the leaderships found themselves prisoner to the utopianism and sectarianism they had striven to inculcate in their key cadre and bases as a means of promoting and sustaining morale and solidarity (and because, to varying degrees, they shared more sophisticated versions of such utopianism and sectarianism). Some degree of this is of course a universal problem in long, arduous campaigns of all sorts, in politics and war. But revolutionary movements are trying to be, at the same time, disciplined, decentralized undergrounds and armies, on one hand, and agile, creative above-ground national political bodies on the other. Vanguardism often works in the first context, but is a disaster in the second. Most leaders come to recognize this tension to some degree, but differ greatly in how seriously they take it. In the first context, factions fight over who has the correct vanguard line. In the second context, some leaders come to see that vanguardism is highly dysfunctional and ought to be left behind as soon as conditions allow, and perhaps never should have been so thoroughly adopted in the first place. Those who remain vanguardist at heart and seek to finesse the problems it causes in above-ground politics, in the interests of their own power and sense of mission, use the narrowly-cognitively-mobilized key cadres and bases as resources for internal campaigns to marginalize or purge those leaders who advocate internal democratization as part of the transition out of revolutionary struggle into a new, wider democratic politics. That is exactly what happened in the FSLN in Nicaragua in the first half of the 1990s and in the FMLN in El Salvador from about 1995 to 2004.”

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do 04.01.13 at 4:46 am

Martin Bento @ 41,

The class war is being waged pretty severely in the US right now and the government is definitely on one side. Perhaps it’s just that the expropriation is happening in the usual direction, rather than the one characteristic of Communism. That does make it less striking, but the methods for transfer of wealth are not so dissimilar.

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Random Lurker 04.01.13 at 8:20 am

@Rich Puchalsky
Marx lived in a world were most democratic states had census based suffrage. Hence, the idea that the proletariat had to make a revolution wasn’t that much undemocratic in itself.
The USSR was formally a democratic country with the supreme soviet elected by universal suffrage (the antidemocratic aspects mostly depended on a lack of division of powers) so I don’t think that your description of Lenin’s ideas about democracy is fair.
http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet_(council)#section_3
http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet_of_the_Union

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Random Lurker 04.01.13 at 8:33 am

My previous comment was more a response to Martin Bento than to Rich Puchalsky.

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Mao Cheng Ji 04.01.13 at 12:06 pm

Bill Barnes, 68 “…meaningful egalitarian democracy… [] ….the concentration of power and unaccountability that accompanies the abrogation of multi-party representative democracy and the ‘rule of law’ generates new rules of the game…”

Whoa, I missed this bit. He sounds so positive about “multi-party representative democracy and the ‘rule of law’”, and the rules of the game it generates. Since the meaningful egalitarian democracy is already here, who needs utopias? Everything should work out fine, just by itself.

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Bill Barnes 04.01.13 at 2:06 pm

71: “Since the meaningful egalitarian democracy is already here, who needs utopias? Everything should work out fine, just by itself.”

No, “meaningful egalitarian democracy” is not here, or anywhere – fits “utopia” perfectly. That some elements of egalitarian democracy are partially developed and sometimes honored (but more often ignored, out-weighed, or corrupted), makes the full, effective development and empowerment of such democracy both an essential means and a central goal in Wright’s project.

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Mao Cheng Ji 04.01.13 at 3:38 pm

Well, I guess someone could argue that “multi-party representative democracy and the ‘rule of law’” are not necessarily “the game”, but only a game. Since we are talking about utopias, who knows what other models might emerge.

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Bill Barnes 04.01.13 at 4:26 pm

There is a huge literature challenging the authenticity and effectiveness of “multi-party representative democracy and the ‘rule of law’,” in the U.S. in particular. See pp. 81-85 and chapter 6 of Wright’s book for some discussion. Eli Zaretsky’s new book, Why America Needs a Left: A Historical Argument, is very good (if indirect) on this. For a more political sciencey approach, see Hacker & Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics; for such “democracy’s” dependence on cheap energy see Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy : Political Power in the Age of Oil.

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roger nowosielski 04.01.13 at 6:47 pm

@61, Bruce Wilder

Thanks for directing my attention to the linked article. Just like you, I find it very provocative for precisely the same reasons. If you were caught unawares by the extent to which the “new ideologies” appear to encroach upon and penetrate into the areas of “personal identity and loyalty,” I was even more so and for a far more fundamental reason: it’s precisely because global multinationals are already overwhelming the many functions you’re referring to and which are typically the province of nation-states that Zuckerberg’s slogan, “Companies, not countries,” wouldn’t even cross my mind as a possible solution to the political impasse I was alluding to (indeed, we don’t see what right under our noses); and so, the moral you’re citing is indeed well taken. And yet . . .

First, if we restructure the concept of “companies” so that it would correspond more closely to jointly-owned, co-operative ventures (along the Marxian model), more intent on creating real value rather than simply maximizing the bottom line; and second, if we abandon Sheryl Sandberg’s radical notion of standing Marx’s alienation problem on its head and yes, be mindful of maintaining a healthy balance between life and work, then who knows?

As regards loyalty and personal identity, I’d suggest a Kantian model as an effective antidote: a loyalty to and an affinity with all of humankind, with stress on moral equivalence of persons.

@ 59 (in response to #58), Anarcissie

“Less acceptable and less usable, due to subversion and sabotage of hostile and authoritarian state institutions and practices.”

What institutions and what practices ? Do you mean, for instance, the inordinate German influence in trying to impose austerity programs on the “lesser” members?
In any case, the EU may yet survive what appears to be at present an economic dictatorship to evolve, eventually, into an increasingly political type of organization.

Even so, we can already point to the Hague as an example of some of its successes. Didn’t the Hague stop George W as well as Dick Cheney from venturing abroad for fear of being summoned?

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Bruce Wilder 04.01.13 at 7:53 pm

BB: No, “meaningful egalitarian democracy” is not here, or anywhere . . .

And, we come round to the basic tension between utopianism and pragmatism. Are our ideals practical? And, is the problem with our practice better framed as falling short of an ideal, or as failing, practically, to deliver the goods?

At its core, the concept of utopia carries the connotation of impractical idealism, of denying inconvenient necessity, glossing inevitable conflict or a fussy disregard for the limitations of knowledge and the messiness of life lived.

One can take the position that the failures of American democracy constitute a pragmatic failure to govern: the Global Financial Crisis stands as a practical testament to the failure to manage capitalism adequately, by its own standards. Why should the remedy be the introduction of an “alternative” system, which can also be badly managed by its own standard? When do we simply confront the challenge of doing the job of governing ourselves, within the limits of knowledge, conflicts and all?

I remain unclear what concepts of utopia do for us, beyond distract.

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Bill Barnes 04.01.13 at 8:53 pm

Bruce,
Wright’s chapter 6, especially his discussion of combining elements of representative democracy, associational democracy, and participatory democracy in such way as to make an effective regime of egalitarian democracy, is worth reading. see pp. 160-167.

Here’s another bit from my paper with Nils Gilman, coming right after the bit I posted at 44 of the thread on my OP:
“The ray of hope that we hold out is that our imagined Green Social Democracy, underpinned and legitimized by producerist republicanism, will ground itself in an acceptance of the limits imposed by the fecundity of the local environment, rather than a Promethean ethos of constant overcoming of those limits. As such, it would encourage localized sourcing, localized production, and localized consumption. It would focus on the conversion of public infrastructure to low-carbon, clean energy as quickly as possible. It would provide universal access to such infrastructure, while making private use of centrally-generated power and water quite expensive above a very modest minimum allotment. Tax and regulatory policies would focus on environmental impact and resource management. Governments, educational systems, and civil society would prioritize training, equipping and enabling the population to be low-carbon “producers” of useful goods and services (especially the “human services”), and informed, environmentally-conscious, responsible citizens, within local communities, organizations, and enterprises. In other words, it would be something like the comprehensive elaboration of an intensely green version of the “social economy” model that has worked on the local level in Quebec and other places, and the “transition town” model that seems to be taking off in England.
There will be so much work to be done in conversion, reclamation, emergency response, human services, community development, and so on, that this will be a full-employment economy, for the most part very locally-focused. Moreover, such a political economy – emphasizing the development of high levels of environmentally conscious human and social capital, largely situated in small privately-or-coop-owned production units and community-based human services, supported and coordinated (but not centrally-planned or directed) by environmentally-informed larger public institutions – would enable cutting GHG emissions and render societies more resilient and adaptive in the face of climate change. It is plausible that people whose lives are rich in social capital, educational opportunity, interesting work, and citizenship rights and responsibilities are likely to be more amenable to being weaned-off materialistic addictions/enthusiasms, or not to develop strong versions in the first place.”

In such an ecology, a genuinely democratic politics would be possible and necessary, and have a fighting chance of prevailing.

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geo 04.01.13 at 8:59 pm

BW@76: At its core, the concept of utopia carries the connotation of impractical idealism, of denying inconvenient necessity, glossing inevitable conflict or a fussy disregard for the limitations of knowledge and the messiness of life lived.

A connotation is something on the fringes of a word’s meaning, not at its core. Yes, “utopia” does have that connotation, but I’d say what it denotes is simply a detailed description of an ideal society, for example, Looking Backward, News from Nowhere, Walden Two, Ecotopia.

Things can be impractical in different ways. They can be physically impossible, like a utopia based on ever-increasing use of fossil fuels, or of colonizing galaxies at the other end of the universe. None of the above-mentioned utopias are impractical in that way. Or they can be impractical in a looser, moral or psychological sense: given the current range of human genetic endowments, it looks like the degree of trust, cooperation, self-discipline, and moral imagination necessary to realize them won’t be attained on a sufficiently wide scale by our species for a century or more. Most or all of the above utopias are impractical in that sense. But still, I’d say it was tremendously useful to write them. By conceiving of the ideal, they make it less inconceivable.

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William Timberman 04.01.13 at 9:57 pm

I would say that the messiness of life lived and the utopian imagination are in creative tension with one another. I do believe that this is one of the those cases where we ought to be allowed to walk and chew gum at the same time without anyone stoning us. Not that they won’t do exactly that, mind you, but no one with a utopia or two up his sleeve and any sense of history at all expects to pull one out in the middle of the game and walk away scott free.

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engels 04.01.13 at 10:09 pm

I do believe that this is one of the those cases where we ought to be allowed to walk and chew gum at the same time without anyone stoning us. Not that they won’t do exactly that, mind you, but no one with a utopia or two up his sleeve and any sense of history at all expects to pull one out in the middle of the game and walk away scott free

Thomas… Friedman?

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William Timberman 04.01.13 at 11:07 pm

QED.

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Bill Barnes 04.02.13 at 12:51 am

On Theda Skocpol’s non-utopian approach — I’d thought I’d be unhappy with Skocpol’s recent “report” that’s getting a lot of attention (somebody mentioned it on one of the threads here), but reading the 1st & last 20 pp, it’s pretty good (as far as it goes). Here’s a bit:

Theda Skocpol, January 2013

Naming the Problem: What It Will Take to Counter Extremism and Engage Americans in the Fight against Global Warming

116:
Here, then, is the bottom line: The political tide can be turned over the next
decade only by the creation of a climate-change politics that includes broad popular
mobilization on the center left. That is what it will take to counter the recently jelled
combination of free-market elite opposition and right-wing popular mobilization against
global warming remedies. However, in stating this conclusion, I want to be clear about
what I am not arguing. Some of the environmental left seem to be calling for a politics
that gives up on legislative remedies – and avoids altogether the messy compromises that
fighting for carbon-capping legislation would require – in favor of a turn toward pure
“grass roots” organizing in local communities, states, and institutional settings such as
universities. Of course, environmental activists can encourage (and already have
achieved) very valuable steps in the states – such as California’s new effort to raise the
cost of greenhouse gas emissions. And both professional advocates and grassroots
activists can prod businesses and universities to “go green” in purchasing decisions and
investment choices. These kinds of efforts add up over time – and they may in due
course prompt corporate chieftains to support economy-wide regulations, if only to level
the playing field and create more predictability about business costs and profit
opportunities. Some day, the national Republican Party might again start listening to
such business leaders more closely than to right-wing ultra-ideologues. But rescuing the
GOP from its destructive radicals will take time – not to mention more courage from non-
Tea Party Republicans, who must rouse themselves to do that job. In the meantime,
liberals and friendly moderates need to build a populist anti-global warming movement
on their own side of the political spectrum. Reformers looking to fight global warming
cannot simply turn away from national politics.

128-130
But for strategists who suspect that more of the same kind of politics will not work, cap and dividend approaches hold the possibility of constructing a new political movement in the next few years. A carefully organized drive for cap and dividend might well bring together environmental advocates, green businesses, and many unions and citizen associations to support the enactment of carbon-emissions caps and the subsequent ratcheting-up of the tax levels to ensure that the United States completes a transition to a green economy, with ordinary citizens reaping economic benefits along the way. Values and moral vision would inspire action, of course, but so would pocketbook payoffs for most families and future-oriented businesses. Doing good and doing well would go hand in hand.
In addition to simplicity and widely distributed benefits, cap and dividend
strategies could link local activists and national environmental advocates. Everyone in the
129
movement, capaciously understood, could get involved in both the moral and the material
mobilizations that it will take to change U.S. energy use and promote a growing green
economy. Many groups not currently focused on environmental concerns would also be
happy to join the coalition. In the process of hammering out a cap and dividend
campaign, far-reaching networks reaching into each state and most Congressional
districts could be put in place, as they were in the Health Care for America Now effort,
laying in place the capacities that will be needed to push Congress from the states and
districts. Without sustained pressures and inspiration from outside the Beltway, Congress
will never do what is needed to enact new energy regulations and sustain them from
counter-pressures over the years it will take to transform the economy.

…. the cap and trade push, long in the making, suffered from a failure of democratic political imagination, and a misconception of how U.S. politics generates reform breakthroughs, on the rare occasions when it does. Big, society shifting reforms are not achieved in the United States principally through insider bargains. They depend on the inspiration and extra oomph that comes from widely ramified organization and broad democratic mobilization.
130
…. business leaders, … are not, right now, the prime arbiters in the Republican Party. Ideological advocates, carbon industry dead-enders, and populist anti-government forces are the ones who hold sway in the GOP right now, including billionaire elites and grassroots activists fiercely opposed to any and all government efforts to fight global warming.
The only way to counter such right-wing elite and popular forces is to build a
broad popular movement to tackle climate change. Ways must be found to use policy
ideas as tools to knit-together inside-outside links among many organizations, including
some that can draw masses of ordinary citizens into the transition to a green economy.
Carbon caps are still needed, but they should be formulated and fought for in new ways
that empower many kinds of reformers to work together – for transparent legislation that delivers concrete benefits to millions of regular American citizens. Most of us will need to engage in this battle if it is to have any chance of success. Americans who want a new, sustainable economy cannot leave any part of the effort, including the drive for new
emissions legislation, entirely in the hands of honchos striking bargains in back rooms.
Citizens must mobilize and many organizations must work together in a sustained
democratic movement to build a green economy.

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Lee A. Arnold 04.02.13 at 1:17 am

Henry: “As Wright makes clear, we don’t have any grand master plans which would allow us to see the road ahead.”

No master plans, but we can see the road ahead. At the risk of being accused an incrementalist or accommodationist (not that I really care), I think the main task is to change people’s expectations: Change the social preference! Only forty-four years after the Civil Rights Act, the U.S. elected a black President. Now seemingly in the wink of an eye, the tide has turned on gay marriage, though of course there was a long slow buildup. There is no reason to suppose that the shape of the economic system is any less amenable to change (I take this cue from the expectations of the 19th century thinkers).

But what has to change first? Answer: What has to change first is what people want and will accept, a.k.a. the social preference. How do you do that? Well for this moment in time, we should defend entitlements, environmental protection, climate action, healthcare reform etc. These are slowly inculcating the idea that the general society is responsible for some things. Then, it will develop a little further from there. And so on.

The fact that these policies are slowly inculcating that idea, is precisely why the Right is trying to squash them. As they will tell us. They often write it.

Example–But isn’t Obamacare a giveaway to health insurers? Yes for now, but finally, No. It is the “writing on the wall” for health insurers. The system is going to drive them all down to one price for basic coverage, while we all know that their insurance product is already completely useless anyway. (Detrimental, in fact; they were trying to limit your healthcare treatment.) The logical connection of “one price” + “useless function” will cause a new question around the dinner table: Why we suffer these schnooks at all? And that is exactly why the Right is right to disparage PrezBarryO as a “community organizer”, though they may not realize how good he can be at it. But again, it means more effort when the time is right, from we the pipples: The call for a public option or a single payer (or a two-tier system, so the rich can maintain their rhinestone-encrusted lifestyles) must be pushed back onto the political agenda at the right time. Because once again, why are we suffering an 80% “medical-loss-ratio” (i.e., giving 20 cents out of every healthcare dollar to private insurers) when their value-added is Zero? (Or negative.) This is not logical and not healthy.

That is how the world slowly is becoming more “socialist”: by making almost everyone find agreement upon the salutary and healthy nature of specific policies, first. Social Security (retirement security)? Check, done. Medicare? Done. Oh yes the plutocracy is going to bitch about it, but just try to take it away, try to harm to anyone in the here and now. And then tomorrow will be another here and now.

Next is coming a rather large and long social conversation about inequality. It isn’t quite here yet, but it is going to be a big deal. Inequality has been somewhat masked since the Reagan years by credit paper bubbles, but of course it isn’t going away. The bankers themselves blew the question open, for all to see.

Thus I think the future will change not by explications of grand plans, but in the way it is already happening: by issue-specific changes in individual preference, which counterpose the reigning ideology with a specific change in detail. Then these detail-changes, from house to house and neighborhood to neighborhood, finally amount to to a larger change in the social preference. In the wink of an eye, and this happens rather a lot.

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Anarcissie 04.02.13 at 2:01 am

roger nowosielski 03.31.13 at 8:40 pm @ 75:
‘@ 59 (in response to #58), Anarcissie
“Less acceptable and less usable, due to subversion and sabotage of hostile and authoritarian state institutions and practices.”

What institutions and what practices ? Do you mean, for instance, the inordinate German influence in trying to impose austerity programs on the “lesser” members? …’

I was commenting on the first sentence, not the second. The EU, however, is an example of the sort of supergovernment and superstate which will be required by capitalism in the near future (or rather, recently and right now). And so in a way I am responding to Bruce Wilder @ 61. For once, I have done the reading, but I did not see much new in it. Movements like feminism and Black liberation start with a category of discriminated people who develop community, value, and coherence, and begin to exert political and cultural pressure. At this point, ever flexible, ever polymorphous, capitalism begins to transform that part of itself which faces them into a kind of reflection or image of them and sucks its more energetic and talented members into its digestive apparatus. ‘The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.’ Zuckerberg and Sandberg are new players in a well-established game.

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Lawrence Stuart 04.02.13 at 3:06 am

@ 62 Bruce Wilder “It must — does — feel a bit like being in a canoe in a fast-flowing river.”

Oh, don’t get me started on rivers, necessity, and paradox! Suffice it to say, or rather for the poet to say:

Day begins in youth,
Where it commences growing,
Another is already there
To further enhance the beauty, and chafes
At the bit like foals. And if he is happy
Distant breezes hear the commotion;
But the rock needs engraving
And the earth needs its furrows;
If not, an endless desolation;
But what a river will do,
Nobody knows.

A nice translation in full of Der Ister here:

http://jacketmagazine.com/27/hold-trans-2.html

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Martin Bento 04.02.13 at 6:37 am

Lots of interesting replies, thanks. Just have time for brief responses to each.

Mao, “war on terror” and “war on drugs” are just stupid and dishonest metaphors because it is not possible to wage war on a substance or a tactic. It is possible to wage war on people, though, so class warfare is not necessarily a metaphor nor an incoherent idea.

Henry, the fact that there are other variants of Marxism than Leninism does not mean that Leninism was not such a variant. Unlike Lenin, Bernstein was also influenced by utopian thought, particularly Fourier, so calling his legacy utopian has some basis in his own account. And he was heavily influenced by Lasalle, whom Marx lambasted. I don’t know that Lenin had any major influences Marx would not have accepted. Marx defined his theory as dialectical materialism. Bernstein rejected both dialectic and materialism (in Marx’s sense). He did retain belief in the working class as the class that should dominate and most of Marx’s analysis of Capitalism, but so did Lenin. So I’m not sure that he was “quite as much” a Marxist as Lenin. But he was something of a Marxist.

LFC, yes, Marx claiming that something that has never happened is empirically established is a howler. But failing as a scientist does not make one a utopian. Marxism is a method, and that method is not the science that it claimed to be, but neither is it utopian. Specifically, it does not proceed by imagining a goal and trying to engineer a path to it – that would be utopianism and also Hegelian idealism. Rather, it engages in class struggle in the faith that what emerges from this struggle will be some condition called “socialism”, which we cannot imagine but which we believe to be enormously desirable, such as to justify all that is done to achieve it. It is just as much a leap of faith as utopianism, but the faith is in what we cannot imagine, not in what we can.

Bill, if Hitler and/or Stalin had cited Rousseau extensively, provided detailed arguments that everything they did was the logical consequence of Rousseau’s thought, and had an army of Rosseauists, including many of the world’s leading intellectuals, supporting them in their contention that they represented the true embodiment of Rousseau’s ideas, your analogy might work. But then, of course, we would be much more justified in looking askance at Rousseau on account of his relationship to Hitler and Stalin. In the world we actually live in, of course, none of this happened, so the analogy fails. As for Marxism being immune to development, I did not claim this. In fact, I cited Lukacs presenting Lenin as a further development of Marx. There were other developments as well, but you can’t cover everything in a blog comment.

William, your psychoanalysis of Marx is interesting and poignant, and may be spot on, but is not terribly germane to evaluating the theory itself, which ultimately stands on its own. Although I wonder – does Marx ever have a polite disagreement with anyone about anything? How often does he draw a contrast between his ideas and others without belittling, contempt, sarcasm, vitriol? It must’ve happened, I guess, but sure doesn’t seem to happen much. And it’s not just his “class enemies” – it’s people like Proudhon who are clearly on his general side, but have some differences. This does not strike me as the mark of strong character. Nor does it surprise me that many who have trained their minds by studying his work come to be known for intolerance of dissenting voices.

Lee, I do respect Marx’s attempt at comprehensiveness. I think one of the things that undermines that now is the nature of the modern academy, which rewards specialization not polymathery.

Lawrence, when I look at Soviet history, particularly the worst parts – the gulags, the terror, the Ukranian starvation, the culture of unpredictable and violent censorship, etc. these do not look to me like part of a strategy to achieve any sort of utopia. Given that these people did not even think they could imagine their utopia, how could they strategize towards it? How can you aim at what you cannot see? Nor do they strike me as attempts to pretend that utopia had arrived, although there were, at least, a lot of attempts to pretend that society was basically working to an extent it was not. They strike me as the desperate tactics people engage in warfare, where immediate problems are always desperate, where internal dissension can be fatal, where ruthlessness is no vice, where the primary objective is to identify and eliminate the enemy, here identified not just as a class, but as the ways of thinking associated with it, a very amorphous enemy for a war. It looks to me like the logical outcome of centering an entire society on the conscious waging of class warfare.

Random, the soviet electoral apparatus was a dog-and-pony show. The real seat of power was the Communist Party, not the formal government. The “leading role” of the party was already official in 1922, when the Civil War ended and the Bolsheviks consolidated power. The USSR was a constitutional democracy in the sense that Great Britain is a constitutional monarchy – where “constitutional” means “not really”.

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Random Lurker 04.02.13 at 11:29 am

@Martin Bento
I agree that the USSR was not a democracy, obviously, but I disagree about the way it was a non democracy, an this is imho relevant to the argument about utopia.
I’ll try to explain the problem with an example from fascist Italy: Fascists went in rural italy were many people were very ignorant and couldn’t read or write, and instructed them on how to vote, so that in the elections during fascism they had great results since those people didn’t vote before.
Was this democratic or antidemocratic ? It is ambiguous, I would call it a failure of democracy, because democracy presupposes a group of individual voters each one already with his opinion.
Another important part of fascism was that fascim almost created italian public school system. Obviously people who attended school during fascism learnt fascist geography, fascist history, fascist science (racism) etc. Was this propaganda ? Obviously yes, but most of those people wouldn’t have had any scholarisation before fascism,

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Random Lurker 04.02.13 at 11:33 am

the only source of knowledge of the world for them would have been the local priest (just a different ideology. Before fascism the church excommunicated everyone who voted for italian elections).
Then fascism also used violence against political enemies, in part against some part of the population but mostly against opinion leaders who could propose different worldviews (and also employed censorship).
In this sense, it is well possible that most italians were fascist , and still fascism antidemocratic, because the idea of democracy implies this group of voters who all are magically well informed and have completely personal opinions, which doesn’t exist really and wasn’t even approximated in italy and, I suppose, in czarist russia.
IMHO this is relevant because , when we speak of a non democracy, the really relevant points are those: the education system, the way opposite views can (not) become public, etc.
I think that the idea that russia had to reeducate russians to become “new” people

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Random Lurker 04.02.13 at 11:42 am

[Complete smartphone copy and paste failure, sorry]
is the most authoritarian part of marxism that was adopted by lenin and stalin, and that this explains most of the violence of the USSR. As I hinted, it was also enacted by fascist italy (a motto of mussolini was “fatta l’italia bisogna fare gli italiani” , we made italy now we have to make italians) and, I think, also japan was similar.
It is also I think the most utopian part of marxism, that of a new, freer man who arises from history.
So I don’t think that your idea that lenin and stalin only paid lip service to democracy is true, I think that they really believed in democracy, really believed that they were creating democracy (by creating the new man, thus creating “autentic ” democracy in the sense is sometimes used in these threads), and in the case of stalin, that he created a sort of echo chamber were he believed his own BS while murdering millions of people, and for what I can understand it is likely that most russians believed it too, making it in some very vague sense “democratic”.

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Mao Cheng Ji 04.02.13 at 1:34 pm

“when I look at Soviet history, particularly the worst parts – the gulags, the terror, the Ukranian starvation, the culture of unpredictable and violent censorship, etc. these do not look to me like part of a strategy to achieve any sort of utopia.”

Reading Darkness at Noon might help.

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William Timberman 04.02.13 at 2:35 pm

Martin Bento @ 87

William, your psychoanalysis of Marx is interesting and poignant, and may be spot on, but is not terribly germane to evaluating the theory itself, which ultimately stands on its own.

No, it isn’t, but that wasn’t my point. Marx was certainly allergic to the very idea that what he was doing was anything like a utopian exercise, and intolerant of those who favored what he thought actually were utopian exercises, and did indeed offer his economic and revolutionary theories as antidotes to idle utopianisms of all sorts. My take is that there were psychological reasons why he couldn’t afford to think of himself as a utopian, which he actually was, and that, by one of those perversities which always seem to attend intellectual striving under the duress of compassion, it was to his credit that he was so thoroughly wrong about so much.

Can we say the same about the free-market enthusiasms of neoliberalism? Certainly neoliberals now seem to be just as mistaken, and just as psychologically incapable of admitting it, but their reasons for being both wrong and stubborn about it aren’t anywhere near as admirable as Marx’s, at least as I see them, even though the only utopias one could accuse them of favoring are those of self-aggrandizement at someone else’s expense.

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William Timberman 04.02.13 at 3:14 pm

Mao Cheng Ji @ 91

Or Red Plenty, which is a fantasy about people who may not have existed by someone who wasn’t there, but does have the virtue of understanding that monstrosities aren’t always created by monsters. In fact, its plausibility in both the emotional and psychological sense may be exactly why it created such a stir. The example of the Soviet Union has taught even the most skeptical among us that any serious attempt to travel beyond good and evil will make monsters out of otherwise unremarkable people, but we’ve yet to understand, I think, why so many otherwise unremarkable people are willing to buy a ticket.

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Bill Barnes 04.02.13 at 3:22 pm

MB, 87:

Your entire original comment reduces to:

“The crimes and horrors of communism belong on the account of the philosophy that inspired them, and in whose name they were rigorously argued for.”

This is idealist nonsense, just as is the claim that all “totalitarianism” was essentially caused by Rousseau. Jacob Talmon, etc, not withstanding, no reasonable scholar can hold Rousseau responsible for the rise to power of either Hitler/Naziism or Stalin/Stalinism, or “Totalitarianism.” See Robert Workler, Rousseau, the Age of Enlightenment, and their Legacies. There is no reason to believe that Marx, had he been alive in the 1920s, would have approved of Lenin, much less sided with Stalin – — much more reasonable to envision Marx agreeing with Bukharin and NEP, and later respectfully engaging and perhaps agreeing with Gramsci, or even Hal Draper! Michael Harrington was more Marx’s true legacy than Stalin. Harrington’s version of realistic utopianism would be a good subject to pursue as part of this seminar on Erik’s book – as would the whole history of the relationship between Marxist social science and Social Democratic politics.

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Rich Puchalsky 04.02.13 at 3:43 pm

“The example of the Soviet Union has taught even the most skeptical among us that any serious attempt to travel beyond good and evil will make monsters out of otherwise unremarkable people”

Oh, come on. This thread is descending into pious Marx and Lenin apologetics, but this is too much. The example of the Soviet Union has certainly not taught even the most skeptical among us that the mass deaths and Gulag were all because some unremarkable people made a serious attempt to travel beyond good and evil. Instead it looks like some authoritarian people were unremarkably authoritarian. What was going on was apparent as far back as Marx, Bukunin, and the split of the First International.

Can’t we get a Zizekian to do these apologetics? They, at least, celebrate how Lenin had people shot, which at least has the advantage of directness.

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William Timberman 04.02.13 at 4:03 pm

Ah, Rich, I’m not apologizing for authoritarians, just noting that they seem to be a historical constant. And I’m certainly not a pietist of any kind, Marxist, Leninist or otherwise. What interests me about the Horrors of Godless, Totalitarian Communism, as the Birchers used to put it, is how normal human impulses, of which the authoritarian urge is certainly one, have been turned into grotesque sausage-grinders by the empowering technologies that arose with industrialization.

The temptations of the end-justifes-the-means are as old as human civilization, but building factories to reduce your enemies to component parts which can be repurposed to your greater glory, as at Buchenwald, or in Stalin’s Gulags is something new in the world, as are the psychologies which turn such monstrosities into problems of rational management. Peel back the rationalizations of signature strikes, to pick a more recent example, and you’ll find something very old, and very ugly, but it presents itself — credibly, if we’re to believe our mass media — as a novus ordo seclorum. What piety has that got to do with, I wonder, and frankly, it surprises me that you don’t seem to wonder either, or think it a worthy endeavor to connect the dots that are very clearly there.

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roger nowosielski 04.02.13 at 4:24 pm

@ 96

Can’t help but detect here traces of Jean-François Lyotard on the postmodern.

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Mao Cheng Ji 04.02.13 at 4:31 pm

“beyond good and evil”

Why, yes, and Darkness at Noon is full of that kind of stuff. But it doesn’t really seem all that puzzling that people, especially intellectuals, might buy into it. Maybe it’s connected somehow to the ‘traditions’ thread.
I found it online, so here goes:

““I don’t approve of mixing ideologies,” Ivanov continued. “’There are only two
conceptions of human ethics, and they are at opposite poles. One of them is Christian
and humane, declares the individual to be sacrosanct, and asserts that the rules of
arithmetic are not to be applied to human units. The other starts from the basic
principle that a collective aim justifies all means, and not only allows, but demands,
that the individual should in every way be subordinated and sacrificed to the
community—which may dispose of it as an experimentation rabbit or a sacrificial
lamb. The first conception could be called anti-vivisection morality, the second,
vivisection morality. Humbugs and dilettantes have always tried to mix the two
conceptions; in practice, it is impossible.”

“For a man with your past,” Ivanov went on, “this sudden revulsion against
experimenting is rather naive. Every year several million people are killed quite
pointlessly by epidemics and other natural catastrophes. And we should shrink from
sacrificing a few hundred thousand for the most promising experiment in history?
Not to mention the legions of those who die of under-nourishment and tuberculosis
in coal and quicksilver; mines, rice-fields and cotton plantations. No one takes any
notice of them; nobody asks why or what for; but if here we shoot a few thousand
objectively harmful people, the humanitarians all over the world foam at the mouth.
Yes, we liquidated the parasitic part of the peasantry and let it die of starvation. It
was a surgical operation which had to be done once and for all; but in the good old
days before the Revolution just as many died in any dry year—only senselessly and
pointlessly. The victims of the Yellow River floods in China amount sometimes to
hundreds of thousands. Nature is generous in her senseless experiments on mankind.
Why should mankind not have the right to experiment on itself?”

Truth is what is useful to humanity, falsehood what is harmful. In the
outline of history published by the Party for the evening classes for adults, it is
emphasized that during the first few centuries the Christian religion realized an
objective progress for mankind. Whether Jesus spoke the truth or not, when he
asserted he was the son of God and of a virgin, is of no interest to any sensible
person. It is said to be symbolical, but the peasants take it literally. We have the same
right to invent useful symbols which the peasants take literally.”

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William Timberman 04.02.13 at 4:40 pm

roger nowosielski @ 96

One of the disadvantages of the Internet is that it makes obvious epigones of us all. No, nothing I have to offer, here or elsewhere, is entirely original. The most I can claim for it is that it represents a good faith effort to engage with the original contributions of others. To swell a progress, start a scene or two, etc….if nothing else, it keeps me off the streets.

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roger nowosielski 04.02.13 at 5:12 pm

@ 99

There’s nothing to apologize here for, especially since there’s nothing new under the sun. The originality comes in connecting the dots. In any case. I meant it as a compliment.

101

geo 04.02.13 at 5:46 pm

Mao @98: The passage from Ivanov recapitulates, in essentials, Trotsky’s Their Morals and Ours. Very powerful stuff, in both cases. The only really effective answer to either that I’ve ever come across is John Dewey’s reply to Trotsky, which went (again, in essentials): “Yes, if you had good reason to think you would prevent all suffering forever by shooting a few hundred thousand people, then maybe you’d be justified. But you didn’t have good reason to think so; you couldn’t have, because it’s a stupid idea; and besides, you really did it just to save your necks.”

Pace Ivanov, Dewey was not a Christian.

102

roger nowosielski 04.02.13 at 6:07 pm

Anarcissie @85

The EU, however, is an example of the sort of supergovernment and superstate which will be required by capitalism in the near future (or rather, recently and right now).

Well, perhaps there’s no other way out of the dilemma, conceptually speaking. A “superstate” would, in effect, do away with forever warring and competing nation-states, and thus restore the institution of statehood to what it may have originally been intended (in the mind of political philosophers) as the ultimate authority, a court of the last resort, spanning the entire globe – not unlike Alexander’s dream come true.

As for capitalism, perhaps we’ll never be able to eradicate it completely, especially in its highly-morphed, “humane” form; I’m not even certain, if we be true to the anarchist motto of “live and let live,” that we should (which renders the concept of justice somewhat problematic on the anarchist scheme of things). So at least from one standpoint, of facilitating exchange of goods and services globally, a unified currency and financial system is not such a bad thing. not only in the interim but in the long run as well.

In any case, if we’re heading towards a kind of general leveling of income and living standards throughout the globe, a kind of undifferentiated mass of humanity in the strictly economic sense – a fifty years of so is my projection, a bit longer perhaps – capitalism, in its raw form, will run out of steam (for it is my understanding that the system feeds on exploitable differences and thrives under no other condition; take those away and you’ll have deprived it of its raison d’être). And then, when that time comes, alternative means of raising capital (i.e., the material and human resources) will come into being and will eventually supplant the old forms – new kind of “companies” spoken of earlier, jointly-owned, co-operative ventures, or something in that nature. And so it looks as though, and I’m thinking on my feet now, Marx had it all wrong and we can stand him on his head: communism will be the final result of the state withering away, as it were, rather than the primary cause.

103

Harold 04.02.13 at 6:12 pm

Dewey not a Christian, but he did believe in art and nature.

104

Mao Cheng Ji 04.02.13 at 6:53 pm

“…you really did it just to save your necks”

Well, I don’t know about that. However, the problem with intellectuals is that while they can embrace the vivisectionist idea, they (except for the proper psychos) cannot fully transfer themselves into vivisectionists, because of the baggage of their upbringing. A real (human) vivisectionist has to be made from a child. I’m guessing, this is something that Pol Pot understood. And some others, like LRA.

“Citizen Ivanov,” said Gletkin, “belonged, as you do, to the old intelligentsia; by
conversing with him, one could acquire some of that historical knowledge which one
had missed through insufficient schooling. The difference is that I try to use that
knowledge in the service of the Party; but Citizen Ivanov was a cynic.”
“Was … ?” asked Rubashov, taking off his pince-nez.
“Citizen Ivanov,” said Gletkin, looking at him with expressionless eyes, “was shot
last night, in execution of an administrative decision.”

105

bob mcmanus 04.02.13 at 6:58 pm

103: Dewey also supported the entry of the US into WWI, which did not exactly “prevent all suffering forever” although more than a few hundred thousand people were shot.

He became more uselessly pacifistic and opposed US entry into WW II (I assume until a few boats were sunk), as soon as he overcame the shock that WW I did not create his social democratic utopia. Bernays broke his heart.

I’ll take Trotsky’s morals over Dewey’s.

106

LFC 04.02.13 at 7:09 pm

B. Barnes @94
Harrington’s version of realistic utopianism would be a good subject to pursue as part of this seminar on Erik’s book
That had occurred to me also — not having read Wright’s book, just what’s been written about it here. My recollection is that Harrington’s last book Socialism Past and Future (which I no longer seem to have) was fairly short on details. (I also no longer have The Twilight of Capitalism; I do have his Socialism but it’s *many* years since I read it.) In any case one need not entirely accept Harrington’s reading of Marx (as various people did/do not) to find value in H’s work.

107

Harold 04.02.13 at 7:52 pm

Kropotkin and Kerensky also supported the Allies in WWI. Quite a few were killed as a result of the Russian rev.

108

Rich Puchalsky 04.02.13 at 8:04 pm

“The only really effective answer to either that I’ve ever come across is John Dewey’s reply to Trotsky”

This is why this part of the thread is so annoying (not geo’s answer specifically). What they did was stupid and wrong then, stupid and wrong now, stupid and wrong forever. It’s not rocket science or advanced morality to understand this. It’s like the people from the American South who say “Oh, we understand that slavery is wrong now, but you can see why good people supported it then — the South was a dream of civilization etc etc”. And, no. It was wrong then, and people knew it, and there is no advanced knowledge about truth or humanity or technology to be had by pretending to not understand this.

Marx empowered the authoritarian killers who used the justification that geo refers to by insisting that he really knew the course of historical development and that mass sacrifices could be made now so that they would never again happen. This is stupid, and wrong. The people who still defend Marx on it are being no better than people were then, and they should really just stop.

109

bob mcmanus 04.02.13 at 8:22 pm

[Marx] really knew the course of historical development and that mass sacrifices could be made now so that they would never again happen.

Marx was not the only 19th century optimist.

But Marx and the Marxists were perhaps optimistic about the goal, but never optimistic about the means, the path, the obstacles, the absolute and unending horrors of late capitalism and what it would take to end war and class conflict. They didn’t desire it, and it wasn’t utopia they considered inevitable. It was the likes of World Wars, depression, immiseration of the working class that they expected and wanted to prevent. Marxist are not optimists.

Bourne criticized Dewey for his optimism.

As far as I am concerned, it is the optimism of liberals, as to both means and ends, that has directly caused most of the horrors of the last three hundred years. Optimism about democracy, optimism about capitalism, optimism about colonialism, optimism about self-improvement and universal opportunity; all those liberal optimisms that have washed the world in tears and blood for centuries.

For example:And hoocoodenode the financial system would collapse and give us another Depression? Not the liberals of the 1990s. The system, the Great Moderation they created was working great.

They are always wrong, and always so terribly destructive in their optimism.

110

roger nowosielski 04.02.13 at 8:28 pm

@ 109

Which is also why liberals are the most reactionary (stubborn?) element of society, as per the postmodernist critique of Project Enlightenment.

111

bob mcmanus 04.02.13 at 8:43 pm

What, you think radicals like me are optimistic and utopian?

Jesus help me, I am looking at species extinction this century. Or it’s looking at me.

Radicals, almost by definition, are desperate, in despair, without hope. As was Marx after 1848, and all Marxists after him.

You want optimists and utopians? Try Louis Bonaparte or Hausmann or Teddy R or Bismarck. Or even Lincoln and Jane Addams and Emma Goldman.

Pessimism is where you start. And liberalism just dies without optimism and utopianism.

112

Bill Barnes 04.02.13 at 8:49 pm

“Marx empowered the authoritarian killers who used the justification that geo refers to by insisting that he really knew the course of historical development and that mass sacrifices could be made now so that they would never again happen. This is stupid, and wrong. The people who still defend Marx on it are being no better than people were then, and they should really just stop.”

Complete horseshit (and I’m not even a Marxist). Marx was an admirer of the Abraham Lincoln of 1863 and the Radical Republicans and said so in print. Marx never justified “mass sacrifices” period – except in the sense that he said that Capitalism, and its massive cruelty, was a necessary evil. Was Marx in every way the height of humanitarian sensitivity? Not at all. Neither was anyone else, then or now, and Marx was a hell of a lot better than most, then and now. Thomas Jefferson was highly ambivalent about slavery and quite willing to order the whipping of 12 year olds for not working hard enough. Lincoln was born and raised a white supremicist and only very gradually turned decisively against slavery and never fully transcended his racism. What was so great about Lincoln was his life-long capacity for learning and change. As Du Bois said, “Many men were born hating. I love to say to them: Look at this man. He was born one of you, and yet he became Abraham Lincoln.” Read Foner’s The Fiery Trial. And until very recently there were hardly any males who weren’t male supremicist to some degree, regardless of their position on the Left-Right continuum. Rich’s compulsion to brand everybody who has any respect for any part of the Marxist tradition as complicit in Stalinism is what you hear from the likes of David Horowitz.

113

roger nowosielski 04.02.13 at 8:56 pm

My view of liberalism (Anglo-Saxon edition) is that, as originally conceived (John Stuart Mill, e.g.), it is inseparable from a version of utilitarianism. If the former is the underlying moral system (a picture of the subject), the latter would be its expression in the political. But we’ve lost, of course, the philosophical bearings; consequently, the only thing that remains is optimism, unwarranted optimism, I hasten to add.

114

roger nowosielski 04.02.13 at 9:03 pm

@111

As an addendum, you don’t start either with optimism or pessimism, for to do either presupposes too much. Where one should start is with a comprehensive and realistic philosophy of the subject (along with that of “human nature”). Everything else follows from that.

115

Mao Cheng Ji 04.02.13 at 9:11 pm

Yeah, it does seem ridiculous to blame Marx/Engels for what happened there. Things happen for reasons, and it’s very hard to imagine that some books published long time ago would be among them. St. Paul does his thing, Torquemada his.

116

Random Lurker 04.02.13 at 10:45 pm

@Rich Puchalsky
Since I suppose I am one of those Marx apologists that annoy you, I’ll give you my answer:
If you criticise the USSR that was born from the russian revolution, I am with you: it caused millions of deaths.
But it seems to me that you are not criticising just this, but the whole idea of the revolution, that you seem to think was bound to cause those deaths in principle.
I think you are very wrong in this: Russia was a very poor and undeveloped country, with a very infertile soil, but still was a food exporter. Think of the political economy of this, it is very ugly. The revolution was caused by actual shortages of food during WW1, and also the famous mutiny of the Potemkin was caused by lack of food. All in all, I think that life for most russian peasants was not much better than life of slaves in the american south. And you think that they didn’t have to rebel?
On the other hand if you think they were right to stage a revolution you are accepting lot of Marx, and in facts even some Lenin.

117

David 04.02.13 at 10:55 pm

“On the other hand if you think they were right to stage a revolution you are accepting lot of Marx, and in facts even some Lenin.”

I don’t know. It strikes me as quite legitimately Marxist to argue that the Mensheviks were essentially correct and that at least part of the tragedy of the USSR and its Stalinist imitators is that they all lacked sufficiently advanced economic capabilities.

Seems to be a real contradiction though, in that the revolutions DID NOT happen exactly where Marx thought they would be most successful.

118

Rich Puchalsky 04.02.13 at 10:58 pm

“Marx was an admirer of the Abraham Lincoln of 1863 and the Radical Republicans and said so in print.”

I see that it was OK for Marx to be very confident about what needed to be done and very wrong, because he was really a pretty nice guy who you’d like to have a beer with.

And no, people who still follow some kind of Marxian tradition aren’t complicit in Stalinism. They’re just not very concerned with being wrong, evidently, like most followers of musty traditions. It’s when people start the “Did you think about how the world must have looked to Lenin and the revolutionaries? It’s too bad that they didn’t know what we know now, or they”d have known that mass murder is wrong” that they get more annoying.

119

David 04.02.13 at 11:07 pm

“It’s like the people from the American South who say “Oh, we understand that slavery is wrong now, but you can see why good people supported it then — the South was a dream of civilization etc etc”.”

Let’s throw nuance out the window for the sake of some moralistic posturing.

120

engels 04.03.13 at 12:08 am

Straw men of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but Rich Puchalsky’s withering contempt…

121

js. 04.03.13 at 2:05 am

Marx empowered the authoritarian killers…

Rich, want to explain “empowered”?

N.B. I’m not defending Marx or some such horror; I’m just curious how you understand the above-mentioned English word.

122

roger nowosielski 04.03.13 at 2:28 am

How about — providing them with a license, an excuse, a rationalization?

Take your pick.

123

Substance McGravitas 04.03.13 at 2:33 am

Yes, Russians were notorious for not having reasons to treat populations badly.

124

john c. halasz 04.03.13 at 2:50 am

Just some footnotes:

Martin Bento’s claims about “class warfare” have no Marxian source. The term was “Klassenkampf”. “Class warfare” was an American right-wing coinage to discredit Marx, (though supposedly, according the the American right wing, it doesn’t and can’t exist, except for anything opposed to their agenda).

Rich Pulchalsky’s take in blaming Marx for Stalin is on a par with blaming Nietsche for Hitler. Yes, ideas have implications and consequences, but not nearly to such an extent, nor in any such direct and linear fashion. They are just as much entangled in history and its material conflicts as anything else, and it doesn’t follow that complex thinkers are somehow responsible for gross simplifications and distortions.

Random Lurker: the Ukraine, together with the Mississippi valley and the Argentine pampas, is one of the most naturally fertile agricultural areas in the world. Their exploitation, rather than there lack of fertility, might have played a role in the backwardness of the Russian economy.

125

Harold 04.03.13 at 3:55 am

Some ideas are a slippery slope.

126

william u. 04.03.13 at 4:47 am

Yes, the record of the last century should establish a strong presumption in favor of social democracy. Market liberalism, classical and neo-, is socially destructive. The record of Leninism and its progeny, from Russia to Benin, is simply dire. But with the social democratic project in decades-long retreat, we ought to reconsider its conditions of possibility. If accommodation between capital and labor is no longer viable, we need to chart a path out of capitalism. Moralistic, anti-intellectual dismissal of the most powerful framework for this analysis — the Marxian tradition — is not helpful. We will need to re-examine past attempts to overcome capital to see what went wrong and how we can do better, not to platitudinize.

127

Bruce Wilder 04.03.13 at 5:02 am

Or, learn to lead and manage a political economy. Just a thought.

128

roger nowosielski 04.03.13 at 5:07 am

@ 126

“Capital,” in and of itself, understood to mean the pulling of resources both human and material, is not necessarily detrimental insofar as the human prospect is concerned. What matters is who controls it and to what uses/purposes it is being put.

And what exactly is the “social democracy” you speak of? How distinct is it from the kinds of things you’re contrasting it with? You fail to define it.

129

js. 04.03.13 at 5:25 am

How about — providing them with a license, an excuse, a rationalization?

rn @122: Is this in response to my question at 121? If so, I’d say that I prefer to be a wee bit more careful in my use of words. (Just for example, generally person A doesn’t provide person B with an excuse or a rationalization for some action of B’s. B might however provide an excuse or a rationalization for some action of theirs that (fairly or unfairly) implicates A. Licensing is a whole another matter. Moreover, all this has fuck-all to do A empowering B.)

130

Random Lurker 04.03.13 at 8:07 am

@john c. halasz
“the Ukraine, together with the Mississippi valley and the Argentine pampas, is one of the most naturally fertile agricultural areas in the world.”
I stand corrected. However I don’t think this changes substantially my point (food shortages were real).

131

Rich Puchalsky 04.03.13 at 11:34 am

“If accommodation between capital and labor is no longer viable, we need to chart a path out of capitalism. Moralistic, anti-intellectual dismissal of the most powerful framework for this analysis — the Marxian tradition — is not helpful.”

Is accommodation between capital and labor no longer viable? “No longer viable” implies that it was viable at some point in the past. One of the most important points of growing global failure of the current system is around environmental issues. Why should people turn to the Marxian tradition, which is powerfully wrong — even hostile — to these issues?

Or perhaps another way to look at it is that the global left devoted a whole century to Marx. During this time even those leftists who didn’t draw on Marx were routinely charged with being “anti-intellectual”, in your formulation above, because they didn’t follow the great Master. The Marxists and Marxians completely wasted this century and destroyed the strength of the left. Now the few remnants evidently want another century. Is this any different from the British politicians who say that because austerity has failed we need more austerity? Or the American ones who say that the failures of the free market indicate that we need an even freer market, that they have the intellectual understanding to say so as opposed to the people who see failure and the destruction of people’s lives and are therefore engaging in moralistic dismissal?

132

Bill Barnes 04.03.13 at 1:59 pm

(Rich, I apologize in advance for this, but you’ve brought it on yourself.)
A sudden insight into possible explanation for Rich’s obsessive ranting and raving blaming all the world’s ills on the lingering influence of Marx’s 19th century writings: When I compared Rich’s behavior to that of David Horowitz in an up-thread comment, I may have been onto something. Rich may be a former orthodox Marxist who was jilted by a comrade lover because of an dispute over the correct interpretation of some part of the Canon. Most of you have probably never heard of Robert Leiken. He was a leader in one of the sectarian Marxist organizations in 1970s Boston, who, by the late 1980s (after a brief period of relative sanity in the mid-1980s), had become the leading Neo-Con authority on Nicaragua and a little later one of the top people at something called (approximately) the Nixon Center (still there for all I know). In the mid-1980s, I met his ex-lover from his sectarian days, who told me that he had left her over her refusal to give up her disagreement with some aspect of his “line of struggle” of the time. Unlike Rich, this experience helped her get back to relative Lefty sanity (such as it is in any of our cases).

133

Rich Puchalsky 04.03.13 at 2:06 pm

Interesting dismissive fantasy, Bill, but no, I’ve never been a Marxist. And I don’t even bother to talk about Marxists except as in cases like the one here, when we’ve gone from “Socialism Without A Map”to people asserting that we really need socialism with a map, the same old map that they are comically holding on to despite their record of complete failure.

134

bob mcmanus 04.03.13 at 2:37 pm

132:Nah, Rich is an anarchist.

Marxists and anarchists have history that goes back a lot further than the 1970s.

Of course, the history of anarchism, both in practice and theory, has its share of violence, callousness, and utilitarianism. I simply don’t care enough to speculate on Puchalsky’s particular variety of anarchist rage against Marxism.

And this contemptuous dismissal is also part of the history, and a source of the rage.

135

bob mcmanus 04.03.13 at 2:45 pm

134 was partly a joke.

people asserting that we really need socialism with a map

I don’t have a map or a plan. Just a pitchfork and a torch.

Socialist? Whatever, my Marxism is an analysis, complex in detail but simple in the moment:

Capitalism will kill us all if we don’t kill it first. TINA.

136

rf 04.03.13 at 3:06 pm

The only problem I can see with that Bob is we live in a world where those you’re going up against are armed with top of the range automatic weapons, so how effective do you think your pitchfork and torch are going to be?

137

William Timberman 04.03.13 at 3:46 pm

The main difference between this thread and one which might have taken place twenty years ago is that the weakness — it’s probably too early yet to call it a total failure — of social democracy now looms over theoretical discussions everywhere of what must be done. From Brad DeLong’s snark to Zizek’s narcissistic fulminations to Bill McKibben’s and Bill Barnes climate jeremiads, evidence of the new queasiness is everywhere.

As BW says above, @ 127, it would help if we — some we or other — could admit the seriousness and difficulty of the social democratic enterprise and just learn to do it right. The problem with just getting it right, though, is that all the baggage and butchery of the last two hundred years is still haunting our efforts. We may hope for everyone to wake up one morning and see Gunnar Myrdal in the mirror, but we keep getting Wayne LaPierre or Newt Gingrich instead. Or worse yet, we get the smiling enigma of Barack Obama, who thinks he’s the Great God Janus, or Angela Merkel and David Cameron, who each in his/her own way tells us that we’d be all right if we just behaved ourselves.

Maybe bob mcmanus is right, but I doubt it, and I certainly hope he isn’t. No matter how eloquent we are, we have to realize that we, like everyone else, are history’s expendables. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to dream of shooting capitalists until we’ve tried taking a deep breath, pulling up our socks and admitting that we’ll be over before it is. (And we all know what this it is — the arc of the moral universe bent to its endpoint at last, securing the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, the withering away of the state. And so forth, and so on, etc., etc., for as far as any of us can see.

138

Anarcissie 04.03.13 at 4:05 pm

William Timberman 04.03.13 at 3:46 pm @ 137
… As BW says above, @ 127, it would help if we — some we or other — could admit the seriousness and difficulty of the social democratic enterprise and just learn to do it right. …

If it’s possible to do it right, which I doubt, since social democracy is a form of the capitalist state.

139

engels 04.03.13 at 4:52 pm

The Marxists and Marxians completely wasted this century and destroyed the strength of the left. Now the few remnants evidently want another century.

And we would have gotten away with it, too, if it wasn’t for you meddling kids!

140

David 04.03.13 at 4:58 pm

Social democracy has the same problem as anarchism – too difficult to defend over a long period of time. You would have to assume a permanent victory of left-wing politics, which…I dunno…seems unlikely.

141

roger nowosielski 04.03.13 at 5:04 pm

@ 140

From practical standpoint you may be right. But I don’t think you’re right insofar as theory goes.

142

Martin Bento 04.03.13 at 5:36 pm

William, good point. The utopia of the Chicago school types is Ayn Rand’s – a mighty vicious utopia, but I think that’s what it is. Since people differ in what they want, what constitutes “utopia” will always be subjective. But the psychological motivation for Randianism and Chicago school and ilk seems to be an apologia for extreme selfishness, which is hard to respect, and certainly Marx had better motives than that.

Nonetheless, in his effort to avoid being utopian, Marx did avoid thinking backwards from his objective, which, ironically, was a practical mistake. Utopian thinkers came up with the idea of the welfare state. Utopia never came about, but the welfare state did. And, unlike the various Marxist projects, it worked. The idea itself was never freighted with baggage about a general theory of history.

Random, Some of the countries of Eastern Europe had educational standards comparable to Western Europe before they went communist. But it was the same story. Havel writes about this; there was a formal government that was not on paper dictatorial, but was almost irrelevant because actual power rested in the party. That is why the leader of the Prague Spring was not Jiri Svoboda, the President of Czechoslovakia, but Alexander Dubcek, the head of the Communist Party (though they were allies anyway). Dubcek was really in charge.

John, so “Kampf” just means some sort of struggle, not anything one could call warfare in any sense? According to the language teaching site ego4u.com, “warfare” is translated as “Kampffuhrung”. Other sources, such as http://dict.tu-chemnitz.de, give that and “Kriegfuhrung” both. “Kampf” evidently covers all kinds of conflicts – it means fight, battle, or combat, as well as struggle, whereas “krieg” seems limited to war in a fairly narrow sense. Of course, “class warfare” in English does not refer to warfare in a narrow sense, but, even so, kampf seems often to cover war in a narrow sense too. http://dict.leo.org includes specific military terms, and krieg and kampf seem often interchangeable. “Biological warfare” can be either “biologischer Kampfstoff” or “biologische Kriegführung ”. “Electronic warfare” is “elektronische Kampfführung ”. Urban warfare is “der Häuserkampf ”. Some other terms have only krieg variants listed.

You’re trying to split hairs and failing.

143

geo 04.03.13 at 5:56 pm

Rich @131: The Marxists and Marxians completely wasted this century and destroyed the strength of the left

Substitute “Marxist-Leninists” for “Marxists and Marxians,” and you’re right. Don’t, and you’re just contributing to the general confusion.

144

geo 04.03.13 at 5:59 pm

WT @137: We shouldn’t allow ourselves to dream of shooting capitalists until we’ve tried taking a deep breath, pulling up our socks and admitting that we’ll be over before it is

Well, we can dream, can’t we … ?

145

Mao Cheng Ji 04.03.13 at 6:03 pm

“But I don’t think you’re right insofar as theory goes.”

But if the definition in 138 (“a form of the capitalist state”) is correct, then it actually fails theoretically. Either you do have antagonistic classes, or you don’t. Though in practice it could survive for a long time, as long as antagonisms are sufficiently obscured. They could be masked by various forms of tribalism, for a long time.

146

engels 04.03.13 at 6:20 pm

Rich @131: The Marxists and Marxians completely wasted this century and destroyed the strength of the left

Substitute “Marxist-Leninists” for “Marxists and Marxians,” and you’re right.

And thankfully following 1989, the collapse of Communism and declining influence of Marxism-Leninism, the Left has been undergoing a powerful resurgence. Oh wait…

147

William Timberman 04.03.13 at 6:28 pm

The arguments over jihad, and Kampf are strikingly similar, and just as pointless, it seems to me. Struggle isn’t just a polite way of getting around saying War, it’s a marker of the complexity involved in getting other people to do what you want them to when they’re disinclined to do anything of the sort. Von Clausewitz is as useful here as a dictionary, or a (true) recapitulation of the Left and the Right’s attempts to control each other’s thinking by controlling the language used to express that thinking.

148

Martin Bento 04.03.13 at 6:39 pm

I’ve got a response to some stuck in moderation, so let me respond to a few more.

Bill, so you’re going to have a seance and give us Marx’s opinions from the grave? The problem is that there have been many such seances. Whose do I attend? Satre’s? Angela Davis’? Zizek’s? Barnes’? Althusser’s (his channeling of Marx welcomes Lenin and Gramsci both)? I don’t believe, and please correct me if I’m wrong, that anyone ever said that Rousseau would actually get giddy over Jew-roasting. The connection some draw between his thought and 20th century totalitarianism is much more inferential, and must be more modest in its claims. But we have a huge literature by generations of prominent intellectuals deeply versed in Marx’s thought identifying Lenin as his intellectual heir. You can’t just say that is obviously wrong; if it were obvious, they would have seen it.

149

Martin Bento 04.03.13 at 6:58 pm

William, but you’re defending a translation arguing from the translation, not the word. Marx didn’t say “struggle”, he said “kampf”, a word whose implications are not necessarily subtle. What kind of kampf? I think the term was introduced in the Manifesto, which concludes that the “kampf” must conclude with the forcible reconstituion of all social relations (from memory. Don’t remember the exact phrasing). I don’t see how forcible could not imply violence, and such a thorough violent change would have some of the quality of warfare. It is not war in a narrow sense, but I don’t think anyone ever took the phrase that way. There is ambiguity here, as usual in translation, but I’m not the one splitting hairs. Class warfare, class struggle – I doubt either captures the meaning precisely. But asserting that class warfare is a concept with no Marxist basis because of the meaning of the word “kampf” is simply false.

150

roger nowosielski 04.03.13 at 7:03 pm

Mao Cheng Ji 04.03.13 at 6:03 pm @145

I think you misread what I meant to say, Mao. Of course Ana’s definition is spot-on; consequently, social democracy (as practiced today, in present contexts) fails on both practical and theoretical grounds.

On the other hand, if we do accept the proposition that “the state is the source of all evil” as a major part of the anarchistic thesis, that part is theoretically sound. The practical difficulty is getting there.

151

geo 04.03.13 at 7:07 pm

Engels @146: the Left has been undergoing a powerful resurgence

No, its strength was destroyed. That means it will probably take a long while to resurge powerfully.

Snark is annoying enough when it’s on target …

152

Martin Bento 04.03.13 at 7:10 pm

William, to clarify, I think it would be highly strange, in English, to call “biological warfare” “biological struggle”, but derivatives of the word “kampf” are so used in German military jargon.

153

Substance McGravitas 04.03.13 at 7:28 pm

154

engels 04.03.13 at 7:32 pm

Geo, so it will a while to resurge powerfully but nevertheless since 1989 and the loss of all that Marxist-Leninist dead weight, the Western Left has been gaining strength?

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geo 04.03.13 at 8:56 pm

Engels — seems to me it’s still on life support. That Marxism-Leninism was pretty bad stuff. What’s your view of the Western left’s condition and prospects?

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engels 04.03.13 at 9:07 pm

Geo, not great just at the moment and I don’t think the last couple of decades have really been a success story. I blame Cuba.

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Erik Olin Wright 04.03.13 at 9:14 pm

Bill Barnes asked (in his comment to my general reply on 4/3 to the seminar) that I “skim through the comments to Henry’s final post”. When I had last read that thread, there were only a dozen or so comments. I wasn’t aware that people would keep adding more. So, here are a few thoughts on some of the comments posted to Henry’s contribution, “Socialism without a Map”

1. A reaction to a number that discussed the issue of patriarchy within real utopian initiatives (like Wikipedia): Any actual effort at building new institutions embodying democratic-egalitarian values occurs within concrete social contexts, and therefore the practices within these new institutions will shaped in part by those contexts. This means that one cannot simply infer from the empirical fact that Wikipedia editors are predominantly male that this has anything to do with the specific structures, designs, rules-of-the-game internal to Wikipedia; this could simply reflect the proportions of males and females in the society at large that are socialized into computer-internet activities. Now, this does not mean that nothing can be done about this, and thus it is potentially an appropriate point of criticism of Wikipedia (or the Wikimedia Foundation in the background of Wikipedia). Part of the agenda of studying real utopias is precisely to make accurate diagnoses of the problems within real utopian institutions so that counter-strategies can be adopted.

2. @35 Tom Slee raises the issue of the extent to which the success of interstitial innovations and projects – or what he refers to as “commons productions” – depends on these initiatives also benefiting profit-making activities, monopoly rents, etc. This is one aspect of what I call “symbiotic strategies”: the ways various innovations that expand spaces for social power also solve problems for elites, capitalists, or other dominant social forces. In general, progressive change is more robust and stable when it is also functional for segments of the elite. How could it be otherwise so long as we continue to live in a capitalist world? Reforms or initiatives which simply harm dominant classes are continually vulnerable to counter-attack and reversal. In order to become firmly institutionalized they need to become part of a social equilibrium, and in general this is much easier when they provide benefits to at least some segments of the dominant class. But the implication of this is not that such changes don’t really matter or that they are illusions. The key idea to try to keep in mind and take seriously is that transformation in the direction of social justice, democracy and equality is inherently a deeply contradictory process. In particular, there are contradictions along different time horizons: things which help solve problems for capital accumulation in the short run may create long term shifts in balances of power.

3. @38 response to Martin Bento. Marx and Lenin were “utopian” in the following critical sense, in spite of their denunciation of the word: they believed that a radical, emancipatory alternative to existing structures of domination was possible, and that it was possible, by conscious action, to build the institutions in such society. They rejected the idea that the details of the institutional design of the alternative could be figured out in advance, so they rejected fantastical blueprints. And they also believed that it was only possible to build the alternative because of the objective “laws of motion” of history — history was on their side. But they had at least some idea of pivotal principles that would animate the project of institution-building through the experimentalism of an empowered proletariat. This is why Marx felt it was worth looking closely at the lessons from the Paris Commune – not just as an illustration of struggle against the old order, but because of the indications of elements of institutional design that it offered. Lenin celebrated the insights from that analysis in States and Revolutions.

My criticism of Marx, in these terms, is that he was insufficiently utopian, or more precisely, that he did not pursue the imperatives of being a real utopian. This requires taking very seriously the problem of perverse effects and unintended consequences, rather than taking a cavalier attitude to such things. This is one of the reasons why a democratic culture and practice is central to emancipatory transformation, for without democracy there is no effective way of consistently learning from mistakes. Experimental learning cannot take place on repressive conditions. This is not mainly a question of “elections” – although I wouldn’t downplay elections – but of empowered participation and open dialogue over problems and decisions without fear.

4. @69, Barnes comment: I completely agree with Bill’s insightful account about the dangers of charismatic vanguardism: “But revolutionary movements are trying to be, at the same time, disciplined, decentralized undergrounds and armies, on one hand, and agile, creative above-ground national political bodies on the other. Vanguardism often works in the first context, but is a disaster in the second.” I would add: there is always the danger of wishful thinking that the only really serious problem we face is defeating the enemy rather than building an alternative. This implies the vision of “smash first, build second” that is part of the rupturalist logic of transformation. The problem is that the social practices and ideologies/cognitive styles that get forged to do the smashing are unsuited to do the building. This is why — even apart from the implausibility of the smashing itself under conditions of contemporary developed capitalism – I think the only plausible way of transcending capitalism is grounded in the interplay of symbiotic and interstitial strategies.

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bob mcmanus 04.03.13 at 10:13 pm

154-156: Parts of the Left, and I by no means limit it to “the West”, I think have been doing very well indeed. The New Left, ascriptive, identity, post-modernist post-structuralist post-marxist…whatever you want to call it…the feminists, gender and LGBT theorists, environmentalists, anti-racists and anti-colonialists etc were in a sense liberated and energized by the collapse of the Communist alternative so that IMO the last twenty years have been as exciting for emancipatory theory and practice, including political movement, as 1875-1925 was. The giants of the stature of Weber and Freud may be harder to find, but that has as much to do with population increase and the diffusion of intellectual talent. We do live in an unparalleled age of intellectual brilliance and I am grateful for living to see it.

Unfortunately, its dialectical position means that it strengthens the reactionary forces and crises of capitalism, and we really don’t have the political scientists and economists to match the cultural and social, or empower or inspire the fights against neo-liberalism.

So, a green flash at sunset or those glorious 1920s (Taisho, Weimar) before the darkness. Most of us feel it coming. It’s going to be worse.

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bob mcmanus 04.03.13 at 10:44 pm

This implies the vision of “smash first, build second” that is part of the rupturalist logic of transformation. The problem is that the social practices and ideologies/cognitive styles that get forged to do the smashing are unsuited to do the building.

Fine with me. Smashers don’t get to be the builders. That is what I have been saying. Everybody wanting to be constructive is the problem. Do you want to design the Utopia? I don’t deserve that job. I screwed it all up.

I think the kids have better ideas I am incapable of even understanding, let alone implementing. I am looking at emergence, but emergence needs gradients.

Blanqui is underappreciated. I think his faith, his trust, is part of the reason France has nice things.

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roger nowosielski 04.04.13 at 12:50 am

I’m rather surprised, disappointed would be a better term, that this thread, thus far, has been practically bereft of any references to the French postmodernist movement — since we’re on topic, sort of, as per #159 — in particular, the writings of Jean-François Lyotard or Jean-Luc Nancy, but I would also include Foucault as the primary mover and shaker, Umberto Eco, Derrida and Giorgio Agamben for good measure. And what about our own Judith Butler? Are all these people insufficiently leftist or utopian in their thinking and writings to deserve no honorable mention, not even a beep, from the American-styled intellectual who, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, proclaims himself or herself to represent the vanguard, the ultimate standard bearer. Talking about American exceptionalism, and of all things and places, from the men and women of ideas!

Perhaps we should revisit the writing of Fredric Jameson who, for all his Marxist bent, is coming to terms with the postmodern thinking and critique in earnest, and to the extent possible, reconcile both. All of us would be richer for the fact.

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David 04.04.13 at 12:51 am

“Perhaps we should revisit the writing of Fredric Jameson who, for all his Marxist bent, is coming to terms with the postmodern thinking and critique in earnest, and to the extent possible, reconcile both. All of us would be richer for the fact.”

Yes, that is the future Left I want. Take Baudrillard, Nietzsche, Marx, Freud and spin them in a blender with a little bit of Oscar Wilde.

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roger nowosielski 04.04.13 at 1:03 am

Am surely glad, David, that I’m not the lone voice in the wilderness.

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bob mcmanus 04.04.13 at 1:59 am

160-162: I am a big fan of Tiqqun

Some Translations and a little searching can find others like “Young Girl” which changed my life.

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roger nowosielski 04.04.13 at 2:15 am

One reference.

Thanks for bringing it up.

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Random Lurker 04.04.13 at 8:05 am

Three unrelated notes:
1 – We are living a crisis of overproduction of epic proportions, that couldn’t be more obvious if it knocked at the door saying “hey, I’m a crisis of overproduction!”, however at a point were Marx ‘s ideas seem most explanatory most people on the left lament the fact that the left is still too marxist. I propose this interpretation of the world : Marx was right from the beginning he just didn’t expect keynesianism because he was a manichean, keynesianism in turn works only as long as it is redistributive.
2 – @Martin Bento: my point is that USSR was a totalitarian state, as many others at the time, which means that concepts like democracy were interpreted through an “utopian” theory of how the world works (in short if something doesn’t work it’s all the fault of capitalists or counterrevolutionarians). Thus the problem is not that Lenin was undemocratic, but that he was searching for “true” democracy in his mind, as part of this totalitarian state (or ethic state, I prefer this term) . Education was another part of the ethic state.
3 – we have currently in Italy a party, the m5s (or rather a movement ) that endorses many of these small utopias. For example they have the universal citizien income in their program, and they speak big of free software.
However their party is based on leninist democratic centralism (elected officials who disagree with party line are kicked out and tarred as “traitors”), ultra aggressive rethoric in the style of Marx and Lenin (they never speak the name of their opponents, always use offensive nicknames as a choice) and seem more interested in destruction (kick the bums out) than in construction, because they too have this romantic view that every evil of the world is caused by evil politicians.
I think most revolutions were made by guys like these, and were revolutions against rather than revolutions for.

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roger nowosielski 04.04.13 at 4:16 pm

@165 , Random Lurker

Can you expand a bit on the “overproduction crisis”? In particular, how does it relate to the notion that capitalism requires real or manufactured scarcity in order to thrive? Do you mean, therefore, that our movers and shakers blundered? Also, if we proceed on the assumption that we’re all heading towards equalization of incomes and lifestyles in the near future — an undifferentiated mass of humanity in the economic sense — how do you see capitalism performing under those conditions (if it’s also axiomatic that the system requires exploitable differences for its continuing success)?

As to your #2 remark, don’t you think the capitalist threat from the West was a real one, insofar as the Soviets were concerned? In any event, that seems to be R. D. Wolff’s view, as per some of his lectures.

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Random Lurker 04.04.13 at 5:25 pm

@roger nowosielski 166
(Disclosure – I’m not an economist so take my words cum grano salis)

In my understanding, a marxist crisis of overproduction works this way:

1) there are workers and capitalist. Workers work in order to consume their wages, while capitalists take their profits from invested capital, and tend (or are forced to by competition) reinvest most of their profits in the chase for more profits.
2) capitalists have more negotiating power so wages lag productivity, however the continuous investiment from capitalists keeps aggregate demand high.
3) increased productivity with fixed (or lagging) final demand leads to a fall of the profit rate and a crisis of overproduction (there are no buyers for everything that the economy can produce); eventually, this causes a crisis and a depression when capitalists stop to invest.

Not all marxists would agree to this definition of an overproduction crisis, however I believe this is more or less what Marx said.

It seems to me that this is what happened in the 30′s and what is happening now, and that the financial part of the crisis is a byproduct of the fact that world wages increasd less than world productivity (for examplewhile chinese wages increased a lot, chinese productivity increased more), so that a lot of the profits are recycled through the financial system and sustain(ed) demand.

It also seems to me that postwar keynesianism was successful in avoiding or reducing crises because it actually redistributed a lot of buying power to the working class, and that a lot of the refined keynesianism or monetarism of today miss the point (for example monetarists speak a lot of ZIRP and similar subjects while the whole point of monetarism is that when you reduce the interest rate, a lot of people will borrow more and this increase in borrowing sustains demand). This means that lot of people use keynesian arguments exactly in the wrong way (eg. increase deficit by lowering taxes on capital).

To your second point: maybe it was, but it seems to me that Stalin’s purges (for example) look more like a witch hunt than something rational (marxism or not). I associate this kind of behaviour with a particular situation of ideological extremism that comes with the “ethic state”, and I think that it is very similar to the nazi mindset against jews, or indeed to the mindset of many common people (not just the inquisitors) that partecipated in the witch hunts. In this mindset people just believe that there is some sort of “evil group” that is the source of all evils and that represents the negation of the ethic state (witch hunts happened mostly during the period of the religious wars), and because of the way the state is structured evidence of the contrary never surfaces.

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David 04.04.13 at 5:37 pm

@167

I don’t know that I see any reason to believe that Stalin’s various purges and atrocities were related to anything other than his own amoral powerlust and dead-set determination to liquidate any and all challenges to his own authority.

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Random Lurker 04.04.13 at 5:54 pm

@168
Do you really believe that Stalin had to kill some 20 million people to stay in power?
I think that if he was just amorally self-interested he could do away with much less much more easily.

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Substance McGravitas 04.04.13 at 6:06 pm

Nicholas II killed a lot of people, but obviously not enough.

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roger nowosielski 04.04.13 at 6:31 pm

@ Random Lurker 167

“. . .when you reduce the interest rate, a lot of people will borrow more and this increase in borrowing sustains demand . . .”

What needs be added, of course, is that the borrowing spree on the part of the middle- to lower class, starting at mid-seventies, let’s say, was the direct result of the stagnation of wages (again, because the US was now faced with stiffer and stiffer competition from the recovered post-war II economies. And since the stagnated wages could no longer support the lifestyles to which the American workingmen/women were accustomed, they had to rely more and more on borrowing. to the point that most of us by now are heavily indebted.

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rf 04.04.13 at 7:43 pm

Slightly off topic (I’ve only finished the posts now) but I haven’t seen any mention of immigration in all of this; either what affect it might have on trying to implement certain Utopian aspirations (such as the UBI) or as a ‘realistic Utopia’ in its own right. Out of all the aspirations listed here, a move towards genuine liberal immigration policies between the North and South is both attainable (I argue) and will have pretty concrete benefits in tacking global inequality, increasing social mobility (primarily for those coming), and for the long term economic health of the receiving country. (For which the evidence is strong enough, after taking into consideration specific exceptions when immigration may negatively affect wages etc)
So, assuming no one here actually wants to create a Utopia where the wealthiest portion of the world are subsidised to follow their dreams while everyone else is shut out, and rejecting the nonsense of the Noah Smith faction (who want to use Western immigration policy to headhunt for Silicon Valley) how do we create an open borders Utopia, without p**sing everyone of?

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Bill Barnes 04.04.13 at 8:18 pm

RF – First we have to stop the U.S. from descending into a social darwinist armed camp that preemtively seeks to eliminate the possibility that Global South refugees fleeing the effects of climate change might ever reach our borders.

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rf 04.04.13 at 8:27 pm

Jeez Bill, that’s not much of a campaign slogan!

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john c. halasz 04.04.13 at 8:53 pm

RL @167:

To be perfectly “orthodox”, it’s a matter of over-accumulation (of capital),- (in the “wrong” hands for the “wrong” ends),- rather than over-production: over-consumption for the sake of over-production are the symptoms, not the cause of the “disease”.

Now you may resume your regularly scheduled programming.

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roger nowosielski 04.04.13 at 10:30 pm

“In the wrong hands for the wrong ends . . .” I like that.

This has always been the cause.

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engels 04.05.13 at 3:47 pm

Marx and Lenin were “utopian” in the following critical sense, in spite of their denunciation of the word: they believed that a radical, emancipatory alternative to existing structures of domination was possible, and that it was possible, by conscious action, to build the institutions in such society. They rejected the idea that the details of the institutional design of the alternative could be figured out in advance, so they rejected fantastical blueprints.

Wouldn’t it be more natural to describe this position as ‘revolutionary’ and ‘anti-utopian’ (or perhaps ‘post-utopian’ at a push)? I’m sure there are perfectly good reasons for defining terms differently for a different project a century and a half later but in the context of Marx’s thought, given Marx’s own understandings and clear statements to the contrary, labelling him a ‘utopian’ seems to me to create an appearance of confusion that isn’t there.

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Anarcissie 04.05.13 at 6:27 pm

Maybe the word utopia and its derivatives should not be used at all (except, of course, for sloganeering) since it seems to be so negatively value-loaded. After all, it means ‘nowhere land’, and its sting depends on the idea that the realization of whatever is utopian is impossible.

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Rich Puchalsky 04.05.13 at 6:42 pm

“Wouldn’t it be more natural to describe this position as ‘revolutionary’ and ‘anti-utopian’”

This position is, I think, a bit more honest than the attempt to dress up Marx in nice contemporary language, safely separated from his actual inheritors. And considering that Marx was indeed firmly anti-utopian, I don’t see why engels (the one here, that is) is so opposed to any actual blame falling on him. If you’re going to be anti-utopian, then results are the final arbiter of success. The people who say that Marx inaugurated a great era of failure are only considering history rationally and unsentimentally. A revolution happened on Marxian principles, succeeded, took over half the world, failed miserably, vanished in such a way as to discredit the left for many decades, and now the remaining Marxians are reduced to various kinds of special pleading.

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Erik Olin Wright 04.05.13 at 6:44 pm

engels @177

I don’t want to get stuck on debates over how best to use specific words. Marx can certainly be properly described as a revolutionary. And in the historical moment at which he wrote, the term “utopian” was used in a very specific way to identify projects of social transformation that tried to build a perfect model of an alternative inside of the existing social world — intentional communities animated by moral convictions would be the quintessential form. Marx initially included worker cooperatives in his denunciation of little utopian experiments, but later came to see these as very useful ways of demonstrating that workers could run industry and thus worthy of support. He continued to argue that by themselves they would not be able to displace capitalism, but he did feel that they were potentially constitutive elements of an alternative.

In the context of current, 21st century discussions, the question is whether given the way the idea of utopia is used today one can reasonably talk about a utopian dimension to Marx’s revolutionary ambitions and his revolutionary theorizing (or anyone else’s ideas, of course). A completely non-utopian revolutionary would be a person who denounced the oppressions of the existing world, said that the institutions which embodied those oppressions had to be destroyed before anything could be done, but would not propose any features of the institutional design for an alternative. There would be no effort to even sketch the positive outlines of the alternative — the alternative would simply be the negation of the present: if private property is part of the problem, eliminate private property; if the market is part of the problem, get rid of the market. Marx often sounded like that, but sometimes he did provide important elements of a positive institutional design that would embody emancipatory principles, and when he did that he was expressing the utopian moment in his revolutionary perspective.

The reason why I use the expression “real utopia” rather than just “utopia” is to distinguish between the blueprint fantasy construction of an alternative and the task of systematically exploring the problem of viability of emancipatory alternatives. Marx certainly did not do that — he never systematically investigated the potential dilemmas and contradictions of human emancipation in the process of transcending capitalism. Probably it would have been impossible to do this in the mid-19th century, because good theorizing requires empirical observation of experiments and their failures and successes. He also, I think, because of the strength of the undercurrent of historical determinism in his theory of the demise of capitalism, probably didn’t feel that worrying about the institution-building problem in socialism was all that needed. After all, if the contradictions of capitalism and its immanent laws of motion meant that its destiny was its self-destruction (capitalism inevitably destroys its own conditions of existence), then perhaps it wasn’t such a problem to leave the theoretical elaboration of alternatives to the actual process of experimentation in institution-building that would come in the aftermath of capitalism.

So, for understandable historical reasons Marx never engaged in systematic real utopia analysis even if there was a utopian dimension to his revolutionary theory. But now, in the 21st century, we both have vastly more data than he did and we face a different social, economic and political environment for social transformation. I think now a real utopian analysis is indispensable. It is indispensable both because convincing people about the viability of alternatives is part of the process of mobilizing people to challenge the limits of possibility in the present, and second because we now know much more about the perils of efforts at massive social change that are inattentive to the problem of viability.

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David 04.05.13 at 6:45 pm

“A revolution happened on Marxian principles”

That is, I think, the point where most non-insane Marxists would disagree.

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geo 04.05.13 at 8:29 pm

“A revolution happened on Marxian principles.”

No, no. Marx worked all his life in mass-membership, democratically organized working-class organizations, which competed for power through elections, strikes, boycotts, and other nonviolent means. He never said anything about the seizure of state power by a self-appointed vanguard party.

But more fundamentally, Marx didn’t have any principles — or at least any very definite or original ones — about achieving political power. He was a theorist and historian of capitalism.

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LFC 04.05.13 at 9:32 pm

I don’t have anything substantive to say at the moment but I’d like to thank Erik Wright for participating in a comment thread; not all authors of books on which CT has held a seminar have done that.

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LFC 04.05.13 at 9:45 pm

Actually, a small semi-substantive note: in admittedly a different context from the one being discussed here, quite a few 20th-c. (and earlier) writers on international politics had their own go-rounds with the term “utopianism” because it came to have v. negative connotations of naivete, etc. (cf. Anarcissie @178). But it never completely disappeared, e.g. John Herz in the ’50s spoke of ‘utopian realism’ or ‘realist utopianism’ (in his Political Realism and Political Idealism). I don’t think the word itself is a huge problem, esp. as it will usually be hitched to a mollifying adjective like “real,” “realistic,” “feasible,” etc.

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Rich Puchalsky 04.05.13 at 10:14 pm

Really, geo? It appears to me to be right there in the Communist Manifesto — jointly written with Engels, of course — Chapter II. “In what relation do Communists stand to the proletarians as a whole? The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.” (Quoting the marxists.org English version). That’s the central, empowering delusion of Leninism, right there. Going from confiscating the property of the rebels to shooting them is a minor step once you’ve accepted that your interests must be the proletariats’, and the proletariat must seize despotic power: after all, how else are you going to confiscate that property?

I also disagree with Eric Olin Wright’s characterization. He writes “Probably it would have been impossible to do this in the mid-19th century, because good theorizing requires empirical observation of experiments and their failures and successes.” I don’t think that anyone knows what “systematic” means in this context other than “not 21st century standards of rigor” perhaps. But Marx did write a good deal about the Paris Commune. And his conclusions matched Lenin’s: the Commune should have seized power more quickly and decisively and not wasted time with elections. I think that Marx did do some empirical observation of experiments and their failures: he drew reliably authoritarian conclusions from them.

This may be far too much on Marx considering the powerlessness of his adherents. But I really wonder how ready people are to consider reality-tested utopian plans if they aren’t willing to give this up.

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geo 04.05.13 at 10:40 pm

Yes, really, Rich, at least according to Richard Hunt’s The Political Ideas of Marx and Engels, on which I’m basing myself. Marx’s association with the Communist League was brief (the organization itself was pretty short-lived) and at least partly devoted to persuading it to be less conspiratorial and secretive. His other political affiliations were with mass working-class organizations. But really, he wasn’t a Leninist: when some Russian radicals wrote him late in life to ask if maybe he would make an exception to his insistence that only technologically advanced societies with a large and well-organized working class had the necessary conditions for a socialist revolution, he wrote back and said, “Well, maybe,” so as (I suspect) not to discourage them.

In any case, he spent most of his time in the British Museum, avoiding creditors, and scrounging money from Engels. He was a journalist at first, later a historian and (anti-)economic theorist. Political strategizing or theorizing were really not his brief. “Marxism” is primarily a critique of neoclassical economics, and secondarily a theory of history. Whether Marx was an authoritarian politically doesn’t matter much, if one can’t derive authoritarianism from those of his ideas that have some claim to originality and continuing relevance.

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bob mcmanus 04.05.13 at 10:44 pm

Going from confiscating the property of the rebels to shooting them is a minor step

Ahh, now I get it. Just another right wing propertarian/libertarian pretending to be an anarchist.

That’s right, Rich, the Gulags start with the graduated income tax.

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roger nowosielski 04.05.13 at 11:05 pm

“Whether Marx was an authoritarian politically doesn’t matter much, if one can’t derive authoritarianism from those of his ideas that have some claim to originality and continuing relevance.”

QFT

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Rich Puchalsky 04.06.13 at 12:14 am

Once again, I think that’s special pleading. Everything negative about Marx’s thought becomes, definitively, excluded from what makes a modern Marxian.

But all right, let’s look at what apparently has originality and lasting relevance. Here’s Random Lurker:

“We are living a crisis of overproduction of epic proportions, that couldn’t be more obvious if it knocked at the door saying “hey, I’m a crisis of overproduction!”, however at a point were Marx ‘s ideas seem most explanatory most people on the left lament the fact that the left is still too marxist.”

Missing from what Random Lurker writes is any sense that a “crisis of overproduction” has a non-Marxist meaning — a sense in which we are running up against sustainability limits of the planet. That’s entirely typical of Marxian thought, in which the labor theory of value functions to disentangle thinking from physical limits, for which there is a limited quantity of important forms of “value” set not by labor but by the sun and the ecosystems’ ability to use it. Instead, we get the usual theory in which Keynesianism was in some sense the latest trick of the middle class; the New Deal the witting or unwitting buy-off that forestalled the revolution. Needless to say, I don’t think that Marx understood the Great Depression and its causes better than Keynes, and I don’t see why if Keynesianism worked it couldn’t be made to work again. Marxist thought seems to add nothing and to actively suppress some of our more salient current categories of problems.

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David 04.06.13 at 1:20 am

If anything, if what we are saying is the decay of global resources and a long (possibly permanent) stasis where wealth production is dramatically curtailed, we should be MORE concerned about “class warfare” and an equitable distribution of wealth, not less. To not see that is just insane to me.

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Rich Puchalsky 04.06.13 at 2:30 am

“we should be MORE concerned about “class warfare” and an equitable distribution of wealth, not less.”

So in order to be more concerned about an equitable distribution of wealth, we need to return to ideas that have failed. Right?

It’s bog-standard blog argumentation. If you don’t agree about which ideas are valuable, you must be Michael Walsh. (#153) You must be a deranged, embittered ex-Marxist. (Bill Barnes at #132). Fellow troll bob mcmanus is the only one involved in this sub-argument who’s even recognized that there’s another long-standing left intellectual tradition that has no real use for Marxism. Which does not mean by any means that it should be respected in turn, but calling on concern about equitable distribution of resources as if only Marxists have it — that’s really not going to work.

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rf 04.06.13 at 2:36 am

So what do we do about immigration..we either go with it or we don’t. I understand there’s a train of thought on the left ( Sheri Berman being the most convincing, and subtle, example) where we say no..but the other “extreme” (my own view, where the borders open, and the ‘utopias’ envisioned here fall apart) is very difficult to argue against….. But this can’t exist (more than likely)with the utopias envisioned here. (In the short/medium term)

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rf 04.06.13 at 3:17 am

So mass immigration is a 4/6, ( a possible loss on the receiving end on specific sectors wages and cultural factors, and on the immigrating end on leaving your family and life behind)..but economically its win, win, win win..so Marxists are, in favour?..we’re all in favour, yeah?

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rf 04.06.13 at 12:51 pm

Actually, I apologise for the above, bursting in here and insisting people talk about a personal hobby horse. Awful behaviour on my part!

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LFC 04.06.13 at 4:26 pm

Re Marx and distribution: Just as an aside, there’s a fairly well-known passage in ‘Critique of the Gotha Program’ (which C. Bertram has quoted on CT in the past) in which Marx says, in essence, that no meaningful redistribution is possible without a change in the mode of production. Which, on my reading at any rate, turned out to be something Marx got wrong.

It is obv. possible and indeed logical to draw a connection btw “class struggle” and distributional questions, as David does @189. It’s just that for Marx, at least in his ‘Critique of the Gotha Program’ mode (which was a critique of Lassalle’s program for the German socialists), distributional questions were not where the emphasis shd be placed.

Btw this thread has reminded me, among other things, of how much Marx was involved in polemics against opponents and how many of his writings are basically polemics. Which is not nec. negative, just an observation.

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roger nowosielski 04.06.13 at 4:49 pm

@194

” It’s just that for Marx, at least in his ‘Critique of the Gotha Program’ mode (which was a critique of Lassalle’s program for the German socialists), distributional questions were not where the emphasis shd be placed.”

Isn’t it because, according to Marx, redistribution would take care of itself, as one of the byproducts of successful resolution of the class struggle? And so, to be concerned with redistribution would be like putting a cart before the horse, in addition to depriving the class struggle from its much needed impetus — surely a liberals’ concern rather than that of a true revolutionary.

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Mao Cheng Ji 04.06.13 at 4:56 pm

“Which, on my reading at any rate, turned out to be something Marx got wrong.”

How so?

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William Timberman 04.06.13 at 5:01 pm

Marx did indeed despise patchwork solutions, and was often over the top in his denunciations of them. When we see these days how easily social democratic income redistributions can be gutted, though, we might cut him some slack him on that score. Don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good makes at least some sense when argued sincerely, but these days — in the U.S., at least — bad faith expressions of it are the rule, and serve largely to allow the usual suspects to keep what they’ve already managed to steal.

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lupita 04.06.13 at 6:10 pm

The most recent part of this thread reminds me of a short story by Borges, “The Library of Babel”, in which humanity wanders about an infinite library that predates humanity. Its books include every possible combination of characters, from a single letter repeated throughout, to el Quijote with all its possible variations and typos. People would wander through the library looking for answers to life including, I suppose, utopia.

I think that trying to find the answer to our problems in Marx follows the tradition of seeking individual salvation through Protestant readings of the Bible and national greatness through strict adherence to the US constitution. Of course, one has to have faith in the existence, somewhere in the infinite library, of a text with all the answers.

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lupita 04.06.13 at 6:41 pm

rf@191

So what do we do about immigration..we either go with it or we don’t.

This presupposes that utopia will emerge in the West, that it will need extra labor to grow, grow, grow, and that poor communities elsewhere will continue to be devastated by free trade agreements, agricultural subsidies in rich countries, and Condor-like Plans. How then is utopia any different from neoliberalism? I really do not see why utopia has a better chance in LA than in Tegucigalpa.

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rf 04.06.13 at 6:55 pm

Sure, but I’m talking more in the short/medium term..and it’s difficult to deny that there’s a huge demand for access to *wealthier* (not western) countries at the moment, from poorer ones ..and then in the longer term when there’s greater global economic equality, creating looser migration norms will mean my hypothetical children will have greater opportunity to emigrate to China or Brazil or Lebanon or Ghana or wherever they like..as I said, win win

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rf 04.06.13 at 6:56 pm

“How then is utopia any different from neoliberalism? “

I guess it’s not

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moonraven 04.06.13 at 7:46 pm

Hmmmm.

I take offense at the obtusity of folks debating old hat white northern psuedosocialism, when the “socialism without a map” is called Twenty-first Century Socialism in South America, and its process is unfolding in several countries, including VENEZUELA!

Buy a plane ticket to Caracas. You need to get out more.

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lupita 04.06.13 at 7:57 pm

as I said, win win

Some people emigrate because they fall in love with a foreigner or specialize in an area that does not exist in their country, but these are few. I do not see why mass migration is a relevant feature in utopia. Mass migrations are the product of tragedy and a community that requires life to be hell in other parts of the world for it to grow and survive is on its way to becoming a parasite, not a utopia.

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LFC 04.06.13 at 10:41 pm

@196, 197, 198

Going to try to respond to all three of these comments at once. Sure, redistribution-without-revolution is a social democratic (or in some cases ‘liberal’ thing) and yes, Marx thought it was putting the cart before the horse. He also implied or suggested, however, that it was not possible at all, and he turned out to be wrong on that particular point: he didn’t foresee the 20th-c. welfare state, IOW. Wm. Timberman, though, is right to point to the reversibility of these things and the substantial, well-known increase in inequality (esp. though not only in U.S.) over last several decades, etc.

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rf 04.06.13 at 10:42 pm

I dont think emigration is a particularly positive reality, and in an ideal world it would be rare, to the point of non exsistent (and no one would be forced into it)..but any ‘realistic Utopia’ does have to deal with it

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rf 04.06.13 at 10:45 pm

Above was to lupita..
asan addendum
The alternative is, I think, and what seems to be going on here, a reversion to some mythical past, some well defined community in a cordoned off Utopia .. personally, it doesnt sound apealling

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LFC 04.06.13 at 10:56 pm

@199
I think that trying to find the answer to our problems in Marx follows the tradition of seeking individual salvation through Protestant readings of the Bible and national greatness through strict adherence to the US constitution.

Only two or three people — at most — on the latter part of this thread could be read as suggesting that “the answer to our problems” is in Marx. Most of the argument has been over a different question, namely whether there is anything worthwhile in Marx and, if so, what that is. Erik Olin Wright was clear about this a little bit upthread when he wrote of Marx:

… sometimes [i.e., occasionally, as I read it] he did provide important elements of a positive institutional design that would embody emancipatory principles, and when he did that he was expressing the utopian moment in his revolutionary perspective.

You can agree or disagree with that, but it’s not the same as saying “the answer to our problems” is in Marx.

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Mao Cheng Ji 04.06.13 at 11:13 pm

“he didn’t foresee the 20th-c. welfare state, IOW. “

I don’t think a welfare state is financed by redistribution from the rich to the poor. It’s financed by redistributing from the middle-class to the poor, while the rich keep getting richer.

I remember there was a story about J K Rowling’s decision to stay in the UK and pay taxes there, and that was presented as an amazing act of civic responsibility. Which makes it obvious that hardly any rich person does that. At some level of wealth you don’t need to pay taxes anymore.

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LFC 04.06.13 at 11:22 pm

I don’t think a welfare state is financed by redistribution from the rich to the poor. It’s financed by redistributing from the middle-class to the poor, while the rich keep getting richer.

There were different 20th-c welfare states w/ different arrangements — some, eg in Scandinavia, did do, I think, some rich-to-poor redist. Have the v. wealthy always tried to minimize their tax burden? Well, most have tried to do that most of the time I imagine, but there are exceptions.

I think I’m going to have to bug out of this thread, as (1) not a Marx scholar, (2) not a scholar of the welfare state, and (3) someone who, speaking of dist. and redist., has to do his taxes.

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Mao Cheng Ji 04.07.13 at 8:20 am

Well, Ingvar Kamprad (the Ikea founder) happens to live in Switzerland where rich foreigners are officially allowed to negotiate their individual tax rates, but, sure, possibly for unrelated reasons. Though I doubt.

Taking your quote from 195, again:
“…Marx says, in essence, that no meaningful redistribution is possible without a change in the mode of production. Which, on my reading at any rate, turned out to be something Marx got wrong”

One could argue that in some European countries the mode of production did change somewhat. I’m talking about “workers’ directors”.
http://www.eurofound.europa.eu/eiro/1998/09/study/tn9809201s.htm
Specifically, in Sweden: “Board-level representation is widespread in Sweden. In almost all companies with more than 25 employees, employees have the right to two board members. In companies with more than 1,000 employees engaged in at least two types of businesses, this rises to three board members.” It started in 1973, according to the above link.

I agree, not exactly a revolutionary change in the social relations of production, but certainly a bit of a change.

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Martin Bento 04.07.13 at 7:16 pm

Apologies for mostly not having time for the give and take of the thread. I’ll get to these as soon as I can. For now:

Geo,

To start with a minor point, this is from the preface to the Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto:

“The Communist Manifesto had, as its object, the proclamation of the inevitable impending dissolution of modern bourgeois property. But in Russia we find, face-to-face with the rapidly flowering capitalist swindle and bourgeois property, just beginning to develop, more than half the land owned in common by the peasants. Now the question is: can the Russian obshchina, though greatly undermined, yet a form of primeval common ownership of land, pass directly to the higher form of Communist common ownership? Or, on the contrary, must it first pass through the same process of dissolution such as constitutes the historical evolution of the West?
The only answer to that possible today is this: If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for a communist development. ”

This is not a private letter, this is something Marx and Engels published, near the end of Marx’s life. I don’t think we should have to save intellectuals from their own words by stipulating that they are insincere. They did not think Russia could maintain it on their own – so they did not endorse “socialism in one country” – but they did think Russia could lead.

At the end of his life, in 1895, Engels wrote a new introduction to Class Struggles in France, where he reflects on what he and Marx were saying in that period and later, and how it looks in light of the contemporary situation. Regarding their calls for rebellion, he writes:

“But history has shown us too to have been wrong, has revealed our point of view at that time as an illusion. It has done even more; it has not merely dispelled the erroneous notions we then held; it has also completely transformed the conditions under which the proletariat has to fight. The mode of struggle of 1848 is today obsolete in every respect, and this is a point which deserves closer examination on the present occasion. ”

In the course of that closer examination, he outlines that the violent rebellions of the 19th century were failures, but that social democracy in Germany was succeeding. This was, by his own admission, not what he expected. He and Marx did advocate suffrage as a tactic to advance working class interests, indeed a very important one in the context of the mid 19th century – suffrage represented progress over aristocratic rule and the other alternatives – but they did not expect much from it. He acknowledges, unlike some in this thread, that universal suffrage did exist in Europe when they were writing – at the least, in France, Spain, and Switzerland. But the results had not been encouraging for working-class interests. In Germany, by 1895, suffrage was creating gains for the working class that Engels regarded as real. This is not something that follows logically from Marxist theory, which is why it surprised them, but, to his credit, Engels was willing to see what was in front of his face.

Note this is not an endorsement of democracy as such – it is strictly provisional. Let circumstances change again, and Engels will oppose democracy. How could it be otherwise? To simply endorse democracy as “good” without reference to underlying conditions would be idealism. Democracy is an idea, and ideas have to be evaluated by how they function with regards to specific conditions, specifically class interests. And Engels acknowledges that democracy does not always serve the interest of the working class. Supporting democracy only when you like the results is not a commitment to democracy.

So when Lenin, Stalin, Mao, et al faced conditions much different than what Engels was talking about, was it necessary from a Marxist standpoint for them to embrace democracy? No, it wasn’t, which is why so many Marxist intellectuals were so untroubled by the fact they didn’t. And this applies as well to other ideas like human rights. Marx’s conception of materialism makes support of such ideals contingent on class interest. As I said, his writing does not imply the gulag, but neither does it prohibit it. He did advocate violence, after all, and in service of class interest, not necessarily individual guilt, and neither his writing nor the logic of his thought define some boundary beyond which violence may not pass. And the “revolution”, in the sense of the seizure of state power by the proletariat, doesn’t change this because it does not necessarily mean that classes are abolished and all social relations sufficiently transformed immediately; it is a stage.

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Martin Bento 04.07.13 at 9:19 pm

Erik,

To me being a utopian means that the objective you have defined is largely what animates your thought. This is seldom true of Marx, and is an approach he disparaged. After all, millenarian Christians believe a much better world is both possible and inevitable, and they work for it through prayer. I would not call them utopians. They do have a similarity to Marx in that they actively seek to bring about something they regard as inevitable. They want to hasten it and align themselves with it. I think the objective of Marxists is similar.

I agree with you that Marx did not take unintended consequences seriously enough,
and that democracy is necessary for any true learning from mistakes. But this is because Marx thought he had a science of history; he did not think of himself as a utopian, attempting to design a better world, which, even it is not attainable, can motivate change in a positive direction. He saw himself as understanding history in terms of underlying material laws that ultimately govern even thought, at least in its general outlines. Science has no use for democracy; the validity of Darwin does not hinge on how many believe it. So why should Marxists? If you understand the underlying forces driving history, why should your actions be dictated by a majority afflicted by false consciousness? The horrific failures of the USSR and the others are moral failures, and they stem from a philosophy that holds that ideas and values have to be evaluated in terms of the class interest they serve. Once that premise is in place, the only criticism of failure possible is in terms of class interest, narrowly conceived (narrowly in the sense that people still have false consciousness, or ideology, so their own accounts of their interests are unreliable, but an “objective” account of their interest is only possible if interest is conceived in narrow terms. This is further complicated by that fact that the interest of future as well as present generations is under consideration, and that is purely speculative, and therefore relies purely on theory). This is the problem I have with holding the moral failures of communism to the account of utopianism rather than Marxism; the moral thinking was not utopian, but Marxist.

Which brings us to Mao and the Koestler quotes.

The fact that the justification was in terms of aims is not unusual. All political movements justify their actions by their aims. What is unusual is the enormous certainty one must have to maintain nonchalance about such atrocities. The people liquidated were “objectively harmful”? How is this determined? One does not determine this by envisioning a utopia and attempting to enact it. One requires a theory. An all-compassing theory that enables one to make extremely broad judgments. It has to be a theory that is willing to issue judgments in terms of aggregate units, such as classes, rather than be burdened by evaluating individuals. It also has to accept the obvious contradiction between what it is doing and what it professes as its ultimate aims. A good solution to this is to have a theory that believes in progress through contradiction – dialectics. Finally, it has to offer great certainty in the model of the world it provides. Not in the results of its action – an “experiment” implies uncertainty about the outcome – but certainty about its view of the world, and therefore its moral judgments. There are two systems of thought that can provide such certainty: religion and science, and Marxism claimed, wrongly but importantly, to be science. Utopianism being based on avowed dreams has no basis to claim such a spurious certainty, and therefore has to be more honest in self-evaluation (unless, possibly, if it is mixed with religion or pseudoscience).

Also, our end justifies all means is a way of ruling out objections not rooted in your own system of thought, since any objections so rooted will be accounted for in your determination of your aim. This again amounts to an assertion of how comprehensive your system of thought is. In terms of moral judgments, if you have a materialist premise that disdains ideals and holds that moral judgments must be made in terms of the class interests served, moral claims like “thousands who have done nothing wrong should not be killed” have no force. Abstracted from a context of class “kampf”, they are mere ideology, and, within that context, it is indeed the collectivity, not the individual, that is the moral unit of significance.

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Martin Bento 04.07.13 at 9:52 pm

Finally, what good has Marxism done?

The Marxists of the West, who never faced the temptations of power and who have finally wearied of apologizing for nightmare, seek to rule the evils done in the name of Marx out of bounds. It’s no-true-Marxist time. I don’t buy it, but let’s grant it for the sake of argument.

What stands on the good side of Marx’s ledger?

European Social Democracy took on some of his class analysis, but was ultimately the kind of reformist project he dismissed. The New Deal even more so.

It has been more than a century and a half since the publication of the Manifesto, and more has been invested in Marxism than any other political philosophy – or philosphy of any kind – in the modern world. Think of all the university faculties, the parties and other organizations, all the intellectual and other resources that have been poured into this.

For what?

One branch of intellectual Marxism has gone into detailed critique of culture and discourse as modes of power. This is Gramsci, the Frankfurt School, postmodern theory (not all postmodern theorists call themselves Marxist, but Marxian thought suffuses the field. Post-Marxist may be correct; if not Marxist per se, the field would not be there without him). To all this, after all this time, let’s address Marx’s own question “What is to be done?” Develop a counter-hegemonic discourse? Seriously? The ocean is spilling into my living room, and I’m supposed to be concerned with counter-hegemonic discourse? This branch of Marxism has robbed it of what could have been one of its virtues: its emphasis on practical action and concrete change (Gramsci was heavily involved in practical politics, of course, but he does not represent the contemporary state of this tradition). Of course, the theorists are all in favor of that stuff. They just don’t believe it is possible, at least not unless a long list of unlikely prerequisites are met, and they still resist specifying it. Instead they provide endless reams of critique and theory.

The left does not need more theory, so much as it needs vision. It needs an idea of what it wants concrete enough to be imagined. Then this vision can act as a guide to action. You can tell whether you are approaching it, because you know what it looks like.

Look at the examples Wright cites: Wikipedia, a collaborative effort born of the free-wheeling culture of the internet; Participatory budgeting, simply taking direct democracy seriously and implementing it; Mondragon, a syndicalist outfit set up by a priest decades ago. The last has some connection to Marxist concerns, as it does change the relations of production of an industrial enterprise, but is the kind of solution he disdained, save, perhaps, as proof of concept for worker control. The other two do not require his theory at all. None of this requires comprehensive philosophies, or reams of analysis. None was so difficult as to require revolution. Once you abandon the Marxist prerequisites, positive change becomes much easier.

So here we are again, looking at imaginative solutions to particular social problems, and to design of ideal societies, to see what guidance they may offer us for improving our world. Isn’t this where we were before people started listening to Marx in the first place?

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geo 04.07.13 at 11:15 pm

Martin @212: Thanks for the correction. Actually, I did know that his reply to the Russians was published, but I still have the impression that he was stretching a point somewhat in order to boost their morale. It is, as you say, a minor point.

The major point, I’d say (again), is that no political strategy, either revolutionary or electoral, “logically follows from Marxist theory,” as you put it, because that theory is an analysis and critique of capitalism and the theory of political economy that rationalized and justified it at the time he was writing (and to some extent still does). If he was a proto-Leninist votary of the seizure of power by vanguard revolutionary parties, then damn him for that. But the only reason to read him now (apart from his magnificent prose style and the wealth of data and anecdote in those famous footnotes to Capital) is for that analysis and critique, which is the only thing worth calling “Marxist theory.” The rest is just remarks, and to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, remarks are not a theory.

For what it’s worth, I don’t myself fully understand Marxist theory, though I’ve tried hard. All those Germanic abstractions make my positivist Mediterranean head ache …

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Roger Nowosielski 04.08.13 at 12:00 am

@ 215

I had no idea that a Mediterranean mindset was, by definition, a positivist one.

217

David 04.08.13 at 1:16 am

Yeah, even the tax problem highlighted a few posts above show why any plan that involves non-public ownership of the means of production is vulnerable to (non-Marxist term) exploitation by the bourgeoisie.

Again, not liking Marxism-Leninism doesn’t mean much when the only alternative being pushed here is social democracy.

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Hector_St_Clare 04.08.13 at 2:52 am

Re: its process is unfolding in several countries, including VENEZUELA!

Yup.

Of course, twenty-first socialism doesn’t seem likely to appeal to wussified western liberals like Mr. Martin Bento. I don’t have time to scroll through his paragraphs and paragraphs of verbiage, but it’s fairly obvious he likes ‘liberal democracy’ more than he likes socialism. When capitalism eventually does collapse, I doubt people will have much time for his pious natterings: they’re going to want a government that can ration goods and plan how to get out of the peak-oil mess, and one that can meet any resistance (including by the aforesaid wussified liberals) with an iron fist.

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jb 04.08.13 at 3:29 am

“Yeah, even the tax problem highlighted a few posts above show why any plan that involves non-public ownership of the means of production is vulnerable to (non-Marxist term) exploitation by the bourgeoisie.

Again, not liking Marxism-Leninism doesn’t mean much when the only alternative being pushed here is social democracy.”

Yes, but the main issue with Marxism-Leninism is that it demonstrably failed in it’s own goals, and also perpetrated numerous human rights abuses.

Furthermore, while public ownership of the means of production might be the only way to break the stranglehold of the bourgeois, I see no evidence that an economy completely controlled by the state would actually function that well. Every planned economy I have ever heard of has been a failure. Furthermore, while it is theoretically possible to combine a planned economy with a democratic state, a planned economy would give the state so much power, that it is bound to be abused. This is not to say that any state intervention is the hallmark of tyranny, or anything ridiculous like that. I’m just saying that a completely state-owned economy would be full of opportunities for corruption and abuse of power, and some very strict procedures would have to be in place to prevent that.

On the other hand, a complete lassiez-faire capitalist system is clearly socially unjust, and leads to enormous inequities of wealth and power, as well as the abuse and degradation of the working class. It seems to me that social democracy is the only way we have found so far to maintain civil and democratic liberties while providing for at least some degree of social justice. The problem is that due to changes in the structure of the economy, as well as attacks from powerful, vested interests, social democracy has been in retreat for the last few decades. This retreat has gone on for so long, and has been so comprehensive, that a sense of confusion and despair has settled over much of the left. The prospect of social democracy regaining the strength it had, seems increasingly remote.

A more radical option might well be needed, but I have no idea what this would be, and neither, it seems, does anyone else.

God, I’m depressed right now.

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jb 04.08.13 at 4:09 am

Oh, and Hector, Venezuela is not a good alternative to the current situation. While Chavez has succeeded in improving the well-being of the poor to some degree, his government has become increasingly authoritarian. His government has harassed opposition politicians, closed down much of the opposition media, and jailed judges who issued rulings he didn’t like. In short, the Venezuelan government has acted in a very high-handed and power-hungry matter. This is not to say the opposition are spotless champions of democracy (they aren’t), or that they haven’t been guilty of similar anti-democratic behavior, (an attempted coup being the most dramatic example). But nonetheless, the civil rights of the opposition are being violated. You have expressed your disdain for democracy, and have openly said that the opposition shouldn’t have any rights, so naturally this doesn’t bother you. But I’m not willing to ignore this kind of thing just because it comes from a government that spouts leftist rhetoric. If you believe the government has the right to go after it’s political opponents, than nothing is stopping it from going after you if it decides you’re “counterrevolutionary”.

Furthermore, Chavez is not actually a good manager. Crime and inflation have both increased dramatically under his watch. Shortages of various goods and foodstuffs are chronic. Blackouts occur very frequently and the infrastructure of Venezuela is falling apart. There have been numerous examples of governmental incompetence and corruption. Again, this is not to say that the oppositon is much better, or that all problems in Venezuela are the fault of the government. But it does suggest that the Venezuelan model is not the best one to follow.

If Venezuela is the only alternative to the current neoliberal capitalist order, than we’re fucked.

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jb 04.08.13 at 4:11 am

“manner”

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Hector_St_Clare 04.08.13 at 5:05 am

JB,

Your ignorance about Venezuelan food production is pretty impressive. The shortages are because people are *consuming* substantially more, mostly because poor people had more access to jobs, cash transfers and subsidized food through government markets. Production of most staple foods increased or held steady under Chavez (and this is, mind you, simultaneous with large-scale land redistribution and reorganization of the agricultural sector, which might have been expected to depress production).

As for Chavez politicial opponents, no, you’re quite right, I don’t give a d*mn about them and their so-called ‘civil rights’. I want them to sit down, shut up, and do what they’re told, and if a bit of rough treatment/intimidation gets them to do that, then so much the better.

223

Bill Barnes 04.08.13 at 5:06 am

JB – apparently you haven’t noticed — Hugo Chavez is dead. Also, your comments (particularly 219) read as if you haven’t looked at those pieces of this thread, and pieces of the other threads in the symposium, that are actually about what Erik Wright has to say on the topics you raise. It would be good if people would do more of that (not that I’m entirely innocent).

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Rich Puchalsky 04.08.13 at 5:09 am

What goes along with the no true scotsman “anything bad is by definition not Marxian” bit? Defining everything else as a single alternative, the “neoliberal world order”. Not to particularly defend Venezuela, but the second of these things removes all variability of place, culture, and government. I remember asking people who liked this kind of thought whether China was part of the neoliberal wold order. Yes, I was told, because they were state capitalist, they functioned within the system, etc. If an officially Communist country, a major world power, can’t be anything but neoliberal, then maybe the problem is with the categorizers.

I won’t repeat Anarcissie’s comment that after all, to an anarchist a social democracy is another capitalist state, because she’s already written it and because in this context it only contributes to the false dichotomy being set up. But the rhetorical trope by which redistribution doesn’t matter because it can always be taken away deserves a closer look. If — as Marxians have said since the New Deal — redistribution is a trick intended to forestall a revolution, then you can’t simultaneously complain that it both is and isn’t effective. If it gets taken away, immiseration increases and the pressure for a revolution returns. But for this reason, a stable system never does take it away past a certain point. And that is the point well above the level at which a revolution — which after all are inescapably violent and kill people — would be better. It’s always possible that the right wing in some country will be particularly inept. But in general it looks like Marx was wrong about this too.

At this point I think the dichotomy reverses. The only alternative that Marxism offers is worse than the existing state of affairs — a “heighten the contradictions” hope that things will get worse and people will have to kill and be killed in large numbers, after which of course the practiced users of violence will control the aftermath. Neoliberalism is better than that. But it’s not actually the only alternative.

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Bill Barnes 04.08.13 at 5:29 am

MB @ 214 — “So here we are again, looking at imaginative solutions to particular social problems, and to design of ideal societies, to see what guidance they may offer us for improving our world. Isn’t this where we were before people started listening to Marx in the first place?”

No it’s not, as Erik Wright has been trying hard to explain, along with many other even greater scholars over the last 50 years – E.P. Thompson, Barrington Moore, Eric Wolf, Chuck Tilly, Immanual Wallerstein, etc, all of whom disagreed (or disagree in the case of those still living) with Marx in various greater and lesser ways, but all of whom counted him as an important influence and the greatest theorist of capitalism. And you grossly under-appreciate the enduring value of Gramsci’s theoretical work – as with all quality Marxist work, not so much to the understanding of revolution or socialism — but rather, as Geo suggests, to the understanding of the historical sociology of capitalism, and why Marx turned out to be wrong about the later stages thereof. Erik Wright actually makes and illustrates this point a number of times in his book. Too bad the discussion of the value – or not- of Marxism on this thread has simply ignored that.

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Mao Cheng Ji 04.08.13 at 7:45 am

RP 224. “Neoliberalism is better than that.”

Neoliberalism practices plenty of violence, just not against you.

Anyhow, it just doesn’t mean anything, this whole thing about what’s ‘better’ and what’s ‘worse’, in this context. I usually prefer sun to rain, but it rains. Winter comes. Life goes on, evolution does not stop. Appeasement schemes (the “redistribution”, Marie Antoinette’s charities) work, till they don’t.

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Random Lurker 04.08.13 at 10:48 am

[with apologies for the big contribution to the marxjacking of this thread]
@Martin Bento 212
“He acknowledges, unlike some in this thread, that universal suffrage did exist in Europe when they were writing – at the least, in France, Spain, and Switzerland. “
me at 70: “Marx lived in a world were most democratic states had census based suffrage”
It seems to me that both those sentences can be contemporaneously true.
But I think we have different ideas on the level of political violence that was present in 19 century europe.
Since I’m italian, I know italian 19th century history better than I know the history of other european nations (I know even less of non-european nations, italian history education is very self centered).
The political history of the 19th century in Italy is quite bloody: many italian patriots of the time (like the carbonari and Mazzini) were what we now would call terrorists, plus there was a lot of state violence during and after the unification, etc. An example:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bava-Beccaris_massacre
Thre are other examples: today in Italy we have two parallel police forces, the “polizia” (actual police) and the “carabinieri”, with entirely overlapping roles. The carabinieri were a corp of the army that also acted as military police, but after the unification the king of Italy had to send the army to tame the “banditismo” in southern Italy, and they were never recalled, so that now we have two police forces.
So on this background, I would still say that “the idea that the proletariat had to make a revolution wasn’t that much undemocratic in itself”.
This wouldn’t be true today, obviously.

@Rich Puchalsky
@189 “Missing from what Random Lurker writes is any sense that a “crisis of overproduction” has a non-Marxist meaning — a sense in which we are running up against sustainability limits of the planet. “
Yes in fact I think that while there is an horrible ecological crisis in front of us, this has few to do with capitalism per se (it has a lot to do with industrialisation, but also socialist regimes polluted a lot).
If you mean something like “the present economic crisis is caused by peak oil”, I think that this would be simply wrong.

@224 “What goes along with the no true scotsman “anything bad is by definition not Marxian” bit?”
I personally never said that Lenin or Stalin were not marxists, I’m just saying that Marx was not a stalinist, and possibly he was neither a leninist. I would say that leninism is a subset of marxism. I disagree with you and Martin Bento because, as far as I can understand, you both say that everithing Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot etc. (but not other strands of marxism) did was already baked in the cake of “Das Capital”.

still @224 “If — as Marxians have said since the New Deal — redistribution is a trick intended to forestall a revolution, then you can’t simultaneously complain that it both is and isn’t effective”

me at 165: “I propose this interpretation of the world : Marx was right from the beginning he just didn’t expect keynesianism because he was a manichean, keynesianism in turn works only as long as it is redistributive.”

I’m not complaining that redistribution is not effective, on the opposite I said that keynesianism works as long as it is redistributive. In fact I think that if you strip the “Marx was right from the beginning” bit, you would agree with the sentence. Would you? (real non rethorical question).

In general on the question “What did marxism ever do for us”, I tought of a list of 3 bullet points that are marxist and that are (or at least should be in my opinion) at the root of “leftism”. Those points are:

1 – There is a conflict of interest [struggle] between classes: owner and workers. The job of the left is to work on the side of the workers, the job of the intellectual left is to provide arguments and/or solutions on the side of the workers.
(as opposed to the idea that there is no fundamental conflict of interest between the two classes, as in De Long’s “we are the 100%” post http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2013/03/highlighted-on-brad-delongs-weblog.html that incidentially uses a painting that depicts a strike and that painted shortly after the “Bava-Beccaris massacre” that I linked above, so it has IMHO clear class-conflict connotations).

2 – In a capitalist economy, capitalists are forced/inclined to accumulation of wealth (and not consumption of the same), and this causes economic crises (call them of overproduction, overaccumulation or underconsumption as you please).

3 – As opposed to the usual right wing argument that high wages cause unemployment, the idea that unemployment is a way to push down wages (the “army of the unemployed” idea) and rise the share of income that goes into profits.

Those three points do not imply the necessity of complete state ownership of capital goods, much less violent revolution. However since the fall of the USSR, all those point have been more or less rejected by a big part of the left (because associated with marxism and thus discredited by the fall of the USSR), and this, I think, is a big problem because the left isn’t much without those 3 points.
In this sense, I believe that the left of today should be more marxist, and not less.

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Rich Puchalsky 04.08.13 at 1:48 pm

Briefly, I think that your points 2) and 3) are not specifically Marxist any more, and no longer best addressed by Marxism if they ever were. Your point 1)

“1 – There is a conflict of interest [struggle] between classes: owner and workers.”

Is, I think, the central current delusion of the left. You see it as far back as Gramsci, say — since Bill Barnes thinks not enough attention has been paid to him — when he was wondering why so many of the workers of Turin were on the right. Gramsci decided that there must be a huge voting bloc of shopkeepers and foremen and clerks. That excuse-making has been a feature of the left ever since, from “false consciousness” on the Marxian side to “what’s the matter with Kansas” tropes for the left-liberals, anything to not admit that some workers are not merely fooled by right-wing propaganda and superstructure but often have their core interests — such as W.E.B. DuBois’ “psychic wages of racism” — better served by the right. No contemporary right wing party could survive without a majority of its committed members being workers, whether you use “worker” in its cultural sense or in its Marxian “wage laborers” sense. But the left has to deny these people any sense of agency or self-commitment to the wrong cause.

How many people here are workers? Yes, we’re “left intellectuals”, and have to condescendingly speak for them instead of for ourselves. How many left-right divisions in contemporary politics really line up along an owner/worker clash? There was one recent attempt to align against the plutocrats, the Occupy movement, and in my experience of Occupy the people who I saw were no more “workers” than the people at any left demonstration in the U.S.

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Random Lurker 04.08.13 at 2:34 pm

@Rich Puchalsky 228

I don’t think that my points 2 and 3 are now widely acknowledged outside marxist inspired people (although I would be happy to learn that I’m wrong).

About the “illusion of the left”, this would be true for any movement: for example feminists have to think that they work for the interest of women even if not all women are feminist, or an italian nationalist has to think that he is working in the interest of italians even if/when most italians are not nationalists. If they stopped to believe this, they would no more be a feminist or an italian nationalist.
In the same way, if/when the left stops to think in term of conflict of interest between the owning class and the working class, it simply ceases to exist as a left.
Also, how can one believe points 2 and 3, but not believe that there is a clash of interest between owners and workers?

Minor point: I work in a library, with a wage that is a bit lower than the italian average (certainly lower than that of many blue collar friends, though I’m speaking of specialized workers with shifts etc.).
So I would say that I’m working class “in its Marxian “wage laborers” sense”. The only sense in wich I’m a leftish intellectual is that I have a degree (in media studies) and I’m leftish, but I don’t think this is the usual sense of the term.
[the last time I said this some people tought that I was in some sense boasting about my "proletarianness". I'm not, and I don't think that my job is a reason to take me more or less seriously. I just don't understand why people take for granted that, since I'm not a reactionary macho, then I can't be working class.]

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Hector_St_Clare 04.08.13 at 2:54 pm

Re: That excuse-making has been a feature of the left ever since, from “false consciousness” on the Marxian side to “what’s the matter with Kansas” tropes for the left-liberals, anything to not admit that some workers are not merely fooled by right-wing propaganda and superstructure but often have their core interests — such as W.E.B. DuBois’ “psychic wages of racism” — better served by the right.

Uh, yes, people are often deluded about what’s really good for them, and need other people to make better decisions for them. I don’t see this as particularly controversial. False consciousness is a real thing.

Maybe a working-class voter thinks the right wing party serves their interests, by, for example, keeping abortion illegal, and maybe in some places and times they’re right. They’d be even better served, however, by a party that combined protection of the unborn with left-wing economics.

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Rich Puchalsky 04.08.13 at 3:22 pm

“Uh, yes, people are often deluded about what’s really good for them, and need other people to make better decisions for them. I don’t see this as particularly controversial. “

You don’t see it as controversial because you’re an authoritarian, Hector. But yeah, because you’re authoritarian in a “left wing” fashion in the one area of economics, people supposedly have to consider you to be on the left, because economics is what supposedly defines people.

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Rich Puchalsky 04.08.13 at 3:39 pm

“About the “illusion of the left”, this would be true for any movement: for example feminists have to think that they work for the interest of women even if not all women are feminist”

No, they actually don’t. Feminists, for example, can work in the interest of all people, because that’s the kind of society that they want to live in and they think that everyone would be better off in a feminist society. “Feminists work for the interest of women” is a kind of essentialism that sees a female interest and a male interest and a necessary conflict between them.

Similarly, it’s possible to observe that there’s a clash between the plutocrats and everyone else — in fact, between two visions of society — without defining some essential quality that the people who aren’t plutocrats must have. All those contortions to turn a librarian with a media studies degree into a worker, so that he can properly be on the left.

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roger nowosielski 04.08.13 at 3:51 pm

@228

Would it not be the height of false consciousness, Rich, for a worker to think he’s not a worker but a little capitalist?

You do make some valid points about “left-wing intellectuals,” though (is there any other kind?) — they’ve never been workers, always “scribes.” Also, there’s a strong family resemblance between the counter-culture movement of the sixties and the recent OWS: both were primarily student-based movement, neither failed to mobilize, or be identified as representing the interests of, the workers, not to mention the minorities.

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Rich Puchalsky 04.08.13 at 4:01 pm

“Would it not be the height of false consciousness, Rich, for a worker to think he’s not a worker but a little capitalist?”

I don’t think that many right-wing workers do. I think that they see themselves as participants in a hierarchical order that puts them comfortably above the bottom, in which the bottom is defined as another race, or as women, or gays, or foreigners, or just nonworking people. And I don’t think that consciousness is very false at all. If they can create that society, does that realistically give them better benefits than whatever economic support the left can scrape up? It’s an evil choice for them to choose that, but many do.

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roger nowosielski 04.08.13 at 4:09 pm

Here’s one take on class and class consciousness: “The 1 Percent, Revealed,” by Barbara and John Ehrenreich; and my take on their take.

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engels 04.08.13 at 4:11 pm

And I don’t think that consciousness is very false at all. If they can create that society, does that realistically give them better benefits

No, it doesn’t. On this, see Erik Olin Wright:

http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/~wright/ContemporaryAmericanSociety/Chapter%2014%20–%20Racial%20inequality–Norton%20August.pdf

‘Racism harms disadvantaged groups within the white population in two principle ways. First, racism has repeatedly divided popular social and political movements, undermining their capacity to challenge prevailing forms of power and inequality. … The second way that racism has negatively affected the interests of less advantaged segments of the white population is through the ways it has undermined universalistic aspects of the welfare state.’

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roger nowosielski 04.08.13 at 4:15 pm

@ 234

I think you’re right there. On the other hand, I do find it troublesome that the kind of hierarchical ordering you’re talking about is plays an important part in the popular mindset — i.e., that as long as I’m doing better than such and such, everything’s honky dory.

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Bill Barnes 04.08.13 at 4:17 pm

Rich @ 228

You and I actually are close to agreement on some of what you say here. But many of the Left, at various times and places, have been workers, in a variety of senses — peasants, skilled and semi-skilled and unskilled factory workers, petty bourgeois who worked with their hands as much as their brains — take a look at Eric Wolf’s Peasant Wars of the 20th Century or lots of other stuff — the Black folks I worked with in Alabama in 1965 were mostly workers in some such sense, as were many of the revolutionaries I met during my 20 years of work in Nicaragua and El salvador – but of course, so were many of the non and counter-revolutionaries, and as you say, Left theorists have not done a good job of explaining that. But Gramsci actually provides some of the best raw materials for approaching this subject. Gramsci’s theory is NOT A THEORY OF FALSE CONSCIOUSNESS. That’s not the meaning of hegemony, except in the minds of vulgar Marxists. Jim Scott’s critique of the idea of false consciousness in his great book Weapons of the Weak is actually truer to the real/best Gramsci than are the vulgar Marxist interpretations.

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Rich Puchalsky 04.08.13 at 4:25 pm

“On the other hand, I do find it troublesome that the kind of hierarchical ordering you’re talking about is plays an important part in the popular mindset “

Yes, it’s troubling, because I think that’s the real antithesis of what the left is. Even in the Marxian formulation, the clash of classes was supposed to be only temporary. The real goal at the end was supposed to be the classless society.

And to address engels, of course racism hurts disadvantaged white people economically. No question about that. But it also gives them the feeling that no matter how poor they are, they are still superior to a group of people. How do you value that benefit? You can call it false and preemptively define it as nonexistent, but all that is is your definition of terms. Of course racism undermines the capacity to challenge prevailing forms of power and inequality … which, to the people attracted to it, is a positive good, because they want a society based on inequality.

As positional goods become more and more important, how are you going to convince people that a guaranteed spot a few steps up the ladder is better than trying to take the ladder down? Not by telling them that the whole question is false and that they’ve been fooled.

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Rich Puchalsky 04.08.13 at 4:30 pm

“how are you going to convince people that a guaranteed spot a few steps up the ladder is better than trying to take the ladder down?”

Should be “*isn’t* better” in that sentence above. Wrote too quickly.

I agree that I should probably read more Gramsci.

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bianca steele 04.08.13 at 4:49 pm

If anyone is still reading this, I’d also appreciate a good reference to Gramsci, I read an excerpt in a 20-year-old anthology (Seidman and somebody) and found the selection from Gramsci they included not all that helpful. I know he’s well-liked by rather right-leaning academics, so I assumed it was him, not me.

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Martin Bento 04.08.13 at 5:00 pm

geo,

Can you wall off Marx’s theory of capitalism from his theory of history? Or his dialectical materialist premises? I think he is too systematic for that. And a theory of capitalism can, and Marx’s does, suggest what is and is not possible with regard to it. This may not cause a particular strategy to logically follow, but it is likely to rule some out – to cause them to not logically follow.

Bill, I stated pretty clearly the yardstick by which I was measuring Western Intellectual Marxism, and it was Marx’s own question: what is to be done? If the point is not to interpret the world, but to change it, as Marx said, and the ultimate fruit of Marxism is just interpretations of Capitalism, then Marxism is pointless by Marx’s own criterion.

And what is Wright looking at? Mondragon is more or less syndicalism, an idea that was in the air in the 19th century, but has not been much developed: compared to Marxism, both the theoretical literature and the practical experiments have been miniscule. Marxism sucked all the air out of the left’s room. Where would such projects be if one tenth of the intellectual and tangible resources that have gone into Marxism went into them? Likewise, localized direct democracy, which is what participatory budgeting is. Wikipedia is something new, as it relies on new technology. But what has Marxism to say about it (obviously not Marx himself, but anyone drawing on his ideas now)? What does Marxism tell us is to be done regarding it? Yes, there is a huge body of Marxist analysis, but the hopeful signs Wright points to do not rely on it. If one leaves aside the regimes that no one now wants to defend, it doesn’t seem like anything has some of it at all but interpretations, which Marx said were not the point. Yet the responses to what I said have defended Marxism on the strength of its interpretations.

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Bill Barnes 04.08.13 at 5:01 pm

Gramsci – There’s no substitute for reading the Selections from the Prison Notebooks. I’ll come up with some other suggestions later today.

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Random Lurker 04.08.13 at 5:09 pm

Sorry Rich but , personal attack aside (by the way I don’t think that only workers can be on the left), how is this that librarians are not workers?
In a service economy, most workers work in services, included libraries.
If you think that only blue collars are workers, I think your definition is a bit nonsensical.

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engels 04.08.13 at 5:10 pm

how are you going to convince people that a guaranteed spot a few steps up the ladder is better than trying to take the ladder down? Not by telling them that the whole question is false and that they’ve been fooled

A crucial point in the theory of ideology, which Marx and his descendants have always failed to grasp

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roger nowosielski 04.08.13 at 5:15 pm

@238, Bill Barnes

Thanks for making a reference to Jim Scott. He’s on my reading list as of now.

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geo 04.08.13 at 5:24 pm

Martin @242: Since we’re now in bibliographical mode, and since I’m somewhat exhausted, I’ll just mention three of the most useful books I can think of on this score: Robert Heilbroner, Marxism For and Against, Paul Mattick, Anti-Bolshevik Communism, and Robert Paul Wolff, Moneybags Must Be So Lucky.

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roger nowosielski 04.08.13 at 5:28 pm

Heilbroner is all too predictable, don’t you think? How different is the book you mention from the Inquiry?

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Rich Puchalsky 04.08.13 at 6:17 pm

“how is this that librarians are not workers?”

Yes, librarians are workers in the sense of being wage laborers, as are the majority of people in both left and right wing parties in the industrialized countries. So what’s the point of defining yourself as one? Of course, in another sense, you’re taking up a position in a system in which you have a positional good — your education and occupation and the fact that you can comment here in this way make you an organic intellectual, one of those who by your description gets ” the job of the left is to work on the side of the workers, the job of the intellectual left is to provide arguments and/or solutions on the side of the workers.”

If someone was forever unemployed, a peasant, an entrepreneur, or what have you, they could still be on the left, and they are not less a driver of the left because of their mode of production. There’s nothing necessary about it — proletarians aren’t the core of the left, and the left doesn’t speak for proletarians as a class.

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geo 04.08.13 at 6:19 pm

You may be right, Roger. But I like predictable.

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roger nowosielski 04.08.13 at 6:35 pm

Grant him one point, geo. From his standpoint, capitalism and socialism are indistinguishable in that, quite correctly, he traces the ethos of our times to a “civilizational malaise.” You might be interested in the following critique of the Inquiry, especially when compared to, say, Macpherson’s work (The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke) as regards two kinds of solutions, a political one vs. the socioeconomic:
“On Federalism, Nation-States, and Other Matters.”

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roger nowosielski 04.08.13 at 6:59 pm

@238

The following is an insightful reference to Jim Scott’s thought and works:

“James Scott on Agriculture as Politics, the Dangers of Standardization and Not Being Governed,” an interview on Theory Talks.

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Hector_St_Clare 04.08.13 at 7:01 pm

Re: Feminists, for example, can work in the interest of all people, because that’s the kind of society that they want to live in and they think that everyone would be better off in a feminist society

Hahahahaha. If you actually think ‘everyone’ is better off because of feminism (as it’s understood by the Smith College, English-major crowd, i.e. abortion rights, gender-is-a-social-construct silliness, etc.), then I have a bridge to sell you.

Re: But yeah, because you’re authoritarian in a “left wing” fashion in the one area of economics, people supposedly have to consider you to be on the left, because economics is what supposedly defines people.

I’m not sure exactly what you’re implying, but yes, I’m on the left. The left is defined primarily by one’s view on economics, not by intellectual fashions like third-wave-feminism, multiculturalism, or whatever else.

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Mao Cheng Ji 04.08.13 at 7:08 pm

I dunno. All this talk about librarians and factory workers, and whether they are left or right or racist; I don’t think it has much to do with abstract concepts of ‘classes’ and ‘class struggle’. These are tools for analyzing socioeconomic systems, not individuals. Polar bears might have been eating, in the last 20 years, mostly garbage produced by humans, but that doesn’t invalidate the idea of natural selection. For individuals, what they feel and why, their ego, super-ego, and the third thing, read Zizek.

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Random Lurker 04.08.13 at 9:53 pm

@Rich
I actually defined myself as “working class” in response to the fact that you implied that nobody here was a worker.
As I said my wage is lower than the italian average, hence my positional good isn’t working that much. Here in Italy public education is mostly paid by the state, so I don’t think this works as a class marker as you say.
In general the idea that someone with a degree is an “intellectual” was possibly true in the times of Gramsci, when most people didn’t have more than basic education , but not today, when most people, including those who have purely manual jobs, have high school education.
I think that this idea that the “working class ” is only composed by people of low education is something that was basically generated in the right because the idea of the ignorant macho fits some traditionalist cliche, but today, while there are certainly still a lot of these people, there are also a lot of people in the working class who do not comply with the cliche.

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Substance McGravitas 04.08.13 at 10:10 pm

I actually defined myself as “working class” in response to the fact that you implied that nobody here was a worker.

My seniority accrued from forklift-driving means I get more vacation as an office-dweller. In crossing that divide I remained a shop steward. Baffling.

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Bill Barnes 04.08.13 at 11:10 pm

Martin B @ 242
“Bill, I stated pretty clearly the yardstick by which I was measuring Western Intellectual Marxism, and it was Marx’s own question: what is to be done? If the point is not to interpret the world, but to change it, as Marx said, and the ultimate fruit of Marxism is just interpretations of Capitalism, then Marxism is pointless by Marx’s own criterion.
……… Yes, there is a huge body of Marxist analysis, but the hopeful signs Wright points to do not rely on it. If one leaves aside the regimes that no one now wants to defend, it doesn’t seem like anything has some of it at all but interpretations, which Marx said were not the point. Yet the responses to what I said have defended Marxism on the strength of its interpretations.”

This is just nonsense. There are very large numbers of very great scholars and thinkers whose thoughts and actions over more than 100 years have been influenced by aspects of Marx’s theorizing, though most have not become Marxists, who have contributed positively both to the culture and politics of their own times and places and to the field of historical sociology at large and to the shaping of the thoughts and actions of subsequent generations of students and scholars in that and related fields, and everone who reads their work with any seriousness — all of this of course includes lots of mistakes. But to write it all off as meaningless, a total waste of time, or to say that its only possible meaning is as a contribution to Stalinism and relateds crimes — man, that is one weird hobbyhorse. Obviously the point is to both understand/interpret the world and to change it, not one or the other. And obviously that is the belief that Marx lived by – otherwise his entire life is profoundly incoherent. How would you like it if you were given a look into the future and you found that your Wikipedia page quoted one sentence that you had uttered at midlife, and concluded “this is the sum total of Martin Bento’s life and it is wrong. Therefore Martin Bento’s entire life was worthless” ?

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engels 04.08.13 at 11:26 pm

1. The point of [cancer research] is to [cure cancer].
2. Cancer has not been cured.
THEREFORE
3. Cancer research is / has been a waste of time.

Hmmm

Marx’s own question: what is to be done?

Oh dear.

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between4walls 04.09.13 at 12:06 am

Martin Bento-
To elaborate on engels’s point slightly “What is to be done?” (more literally translated, “What to do?”) was most certainly not “Marx’s own question.” It’s the title of a political novel that was a cult hit amongst Russian radicals in the 1860′s (Chernyshevsky was actually in jail when he wrote it, and the ever-incompetent censorship somehow let it be published regardless). Lenin later borrowed the title for one of his pamphlets. Marx has nothing to do with it.

Another great instance of incompetent censorship in that era was the reason Das Kapital was allowed to be published in Russia in the first place- the censor wrote, “This is a very long book. Few will read it and even fewer will understand it.”

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Bill Barnes 04.09.13 at 1:07 am

Suggested reading on Gramsci, beyond his Prison Notebooks (see Hoare & Smith, eds, Selections from the Prison Notebooks) —

Back when I was keeping up with the secondary literature, circa early 1980s, the most stimulating single piece was Perry Anderson’s “The Antimonies of Antonio Gransci,” New Left Review, #100, 1976-77. Erik Wright recommends pp 142-59 in Cohen & Arato’s Civil Society and Political Theory (a book so huge that its always intimidated me, so I haven’t read it – but will read those pages now). Here’s the only writing of my own on Gramsci that I can find an electronic copy of:

Bill Barnes on GRAMSCI — Draft based on lecture notes of 1979-1984.
Left theorists have used Gramsci to explain the integration and acquiescence of “lower classes” generally and in the abstract. This misses the most interesting elements of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, which are more historically specific.
Gramsci is trying to explain the success of bourgeois liberalism (as a national political movement or regime) in industrializing Europe, how that success is based on including various middle sectors in a hegemonic alliance built up through ideological and political leadership within civil society. Eventually there must be a historical struggle between the bourgeoisie and the workers’ movement to determine the evolution of the views of traditional and modern middle strata (including skilled workers) as to how the bourgeois order/liberalism can be and should be reformulated so as to produce realization of its higher ideals.
In many of his most important texts, Gramsci is not talking about the hegemony or reproduction of capitalism in the abstract, but rather comparing more successful and less successful nationalist and reformist elaborations and maturations of capitalism in different regions of Europe (and also comparing the “Jacobin” phase of more successful cases with a later phase of “passive revolution”). Discussions of Gramsci often ignore his emphasis on different cases/stages in the development of capitalism in the West, and on corresponding differences/changes in the character of bourgeois hegemony and the character of popular “consent.” For Gramsci, hegemony is never perfect, never static, never achieved once and for all; it is a historical phenomenon, always being reproduced and reformulated through political struggle.
It is necessary to avoid conflating the rise of capitalism and its national elaboration (its initial establishment of some hegemony), with the later reproduction (and ensuing decline) of an established capitalist order. It is also necessary to avoid conflating relatively underdeveloped capitalism (Italy) with Russia (the extreme case of stunted bourgeoisie and stunted civil society). Gramsci is most stimulating not in contrasting Russia and the West, but in contrasting France and Italy — contrasting the French Jacobin experience followed by passive revolution with the Italian absence of a Jacobin phase, the failure of the Action party, the attempt at elaboration of capitalism through passive revolution without benefit of a preceding Jacobin phase on which to build. Gramsci is also suggestive on the subject of what changes as the Jacobin heritage and passive revolution are played out — what it means for bourgeois hegemony to be past its peak and in decline, the kind of terrain that that constitutes for the proletariat’s war of position, the similarities and differences between this and a case where the bourgeoisie (while more developed than in Russia) did not have an early Jacobin peak and is very late in trying to rise above (or fully realize) passive revolution and mount a full-scale war of position of its own (Croce’s project).
Bearing in mind that Gramsci’s own interests were really more historically specific, and that he was substantially (but ambivalently) Leninist, we can derive a non-Leninist reading of Gramsci’s political theory along the following schematic lines:
If a bourgeoisie is to mature as a class and rise to national power (rather than remaining fragmented among short-sighted factions or regional groupings, or remaining timid, subordinated, hamstrung within an absolutist regime), it must develop the ideological and political ability, will, and organization to mount a revolutionary war of position — a war for more extensive beachheads within civil society from which troops (intellectuals) can be enlisted, educated, organized, and deployed. A bourgeoisie must come under the leadership of factions (and organic intellectuals) ready, willing, and able to invest their economic resources in such an effort, ready to sacrifice short-term economistic interests for the sake of building the civil and political infrastructure of a bourgeois national society — an infrastructure that seeks to appeal to and incorporate the middle and petty bourgeois classes (old and new) generally.

It is developing the political ability and will to bring old middle class factions, petty bourgeois factions, aristocratic factions to enlist under your leadership that is key; learning how to broaden your cultural and political program so as to divide and out-flank opponents and build/maintain leadership over increasing numbers of “traditional intellectuals” attached to other groups. This means bringing those intellectuals to buy into your interpretation of what kind of reformulation of the existing order constitutes progress, bringing them to forego developing ideas of their own in this regard, bringing them to settle automatically for plugging narrow, economistic conceptions of their group interest into your overall framework, bringing them to settle for the opportunity to advocate such interests within your program.
Gramsci’s greatest contribution is his analysis of what makes for the successful elaboration and hegemony of capitalism — the way such achievement is dependent on the mobilization, national integration, and modernizing education of petty bourgeois ambition and idealism — the consolidation of bourgeois revolution as a two-way education through which localistic petty bourgeoisie (very broadly defined) steeped in folklore become a somewhat rationalistic national citizenry (and recruiting ground for staff for civil society and the state), and the bourgeoisie learns to be a national leadership class and to focus its political efforts on cementing and sustaining hegemony over such petty bourgeoisie. Gramsci presents France’s Jacobin experience as genuine bourgeois state-building, the achievement of great mobilization and incorporation of popular energies in the bourgeois revolution, and the creation of authentic national leadership within the bourgeois revolution.
Gramsci’s theory is not really a theory of either false consciousness or consensus. It is rather a theory of cooptation and manipulation through constant political and ideological activity within civil society. The greater and more sustained a dominant group’s success in this political and ideological struggle, the more that group’s political culture/ideology penetrates, pervades, remakes the wider political culture and “common sense” (sense of what is possible and realistic). But this is never an absolute or static accomplishment. Many people have misunderstood hegemony to indicate an achieved, stable determination of wider political culture and popular mentality. This is never the case for Gramsci (at least prior to the full maturation of socialism). There is no full normative integration, no homeostatic equilibrium, and this sets Gramsci off decisively from Parsons and liberal functionalism.
In fact, Gramsci believes that it is highly unusual for a bourgeoisie to be fully successful in penetrating, remaking, and elaborating civil society to the point of reaching the stage of generating the “state in the larger sense,” and full hegemony, even temporarily. This can happen only where the bourgeoisie enjoys a period of leading a genuine national, popular democratic revolution — an experience that forcefully teaches a bourgeoisie the importance of positive forms of popular mobilization and cooptation, and which leaves a lasting legacy of support for that bourgeoisie within popular culture. A key question for Gramsci is, has the bourgeoisie had this kind of experience and made successful use of it — really internalized its lessons, captured the traditional intellectuals of the petty bourgeoisie and old middle classes and set them to work elaborating bourgeois civil institutions and culture — before it faces the self-organization of the proletariat? If so, then the working class movement has a long, hard war of position ahead of it (even if classic economic crises continue). But even here (and more so where the bourgeoisie is less successful), civil society retains a certain autonomy and complexity, remains full of less than fully coopted traditional intellectuals and emerging socialist intellectuals, and becomes a terrain on which the bourgeoisie and the rising socialist movement compete for influence over the conceptualization of justice and progress — over the conceptualization of how the liberal capitalist order should be reformulated in order to realize its higher ideals and potentialities. No bourgeoisie can fully control/shape the cultural sphere — particularly given the uneven development of the world and the consequent intrusion of cultural, ideological, political influences from other societies.
Hegemony does not entail the complete subordination of all non-ruling groups. “Consent” does not mean acceptance of abject powerlessness or servile loyalty to the dominant order. In fact heterodox initiatives “from below,” inspired by petty bourgeois radical ambitions and ideals, are constantly reemerging within liberal capitalism. It is precisely the continuing effective cooptation, incorporation, and containment of these that provides advanced capitalism’s creative energy and defines hegemony — it is precisely the capacity for such “positive cooptation” that separates the more fully realized (more positive, less repressive) liberal hegemony from the less fully realized (more negative, repressive). And, for Gramsci, it is precisely (what he takes to be) the inevitable shift of the bourgeoisie toward increasingly negative and repressive approaches to maintaining its hold over popular petty bourgeois ambition and idealism, and the inevitable rise of the workers movement’s capacity to attract, coopt, incorporate petty bourgeois radicalism that dooms capitalism. The proletariat grows into a class on its way to hegemony not only through its struggle with the bourgeoisie, but also, like the bourgeoisie, through its struggle to mobilize, coopt, and incorporate petty bourgeois ambition and idealism through a two-way political education.
Gramscian hegemony involves not just one coherent and homogeneous ideology, but a complex full of contradiction and ambiguity in which the views of dominant groups decisively limit and organize other views and their mutual articulation. The struggle to sustain/reformulate the existing hegemonic constellation takes the form of struggle to reopen these limits and ways of articulating and combining, to reopen the “educational experience” of the past, to allow the subordinated elements of the hegemonic complex to understand their own potentials to develop differently and combine differently, against and beyond the dominant themes — to transcend the versions of themselves that are possible within the existing hegemony.
Gramsci is unacceptably teleological and goes much too far in presenting classes as historical and political subjects, but he provides the best available approach to transcending the choice between seeing liberalism as progress and rationality incarnate, and seeing liberalism as nothing but domination. He provides the beginnings of a theory of the development and importance of ideals within liberalism — emphasizing that the capacity to generate galvanizing ideals, to inspire “troops” with ideals, is essential to the struggle for hegemony, and automatically raises the problem of subsequent disappointment in the face of sustained failure to realize those ideals. He focuses our attention on the tremendous elaboration of civil society, the state, “intellectuals” and mental labor as a fundamental aspect of modern capitalism — to some degree willy nilly, autonomous to varying degrees in different times and places, rendering intellectuals and professionals and their political culture and practice of central importance.

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Rich Puchalsky 04.09.13 at 2:21 am

If the cancer researchers are still following theories from the 19th century… then yes, oh dear. Feel free to say that Marx was a genius who did great work for his time if you want, and I agree that eventual failure or supercession does not equate to worthlessness. But contemporary disease researchers are not still poring over Pasteur’s notes and calling themselves Pasteurians.

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Hector_St_Clare 04.09.13 at 2:39 am

Re: 1. The point of [cancer research] is to [cure cancer]. 2. Cancer has not been cured.

Uhhh….what?

The point of cancer research isn’t necessarily to ‘cure’ cancer, whatever that means, it could just be to buy extra time. Plenty of people are successfully cured of cancer, actually, and plenty of others are able to delay the progress of the cancer enough to enjoy more months or years of life.

We aren’t able to treat cancer as effectively as we treat, say, malaria. But that’s hardly the same thing as saying we haven’t made substantial progress, or that cancer therapies don’t work.

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engels 04.09.13 at 2:51 am

‘Oh dear’ = arguing about historical appraisal of the Marxist tradition with someone who thinks Karl Marx wrote ‘What Is to be Done’ a bit like having an argument about jazz with someone who thinks Louis Armstrong recorded A Kind of Blue. I’m done with you guys.

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Martin Bento 04.09.13 at 3:47 am

It’s a lot like arguing with people who think the Miles Davis album is called “A Kind of Blue”

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john c. halasz 04.09.13 at 4:49 am

Yes, that’s the problem with people who mis-translate from the Russian by adding on all those extra particles:

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Martin Bento 04.09.13 at 3:24 pm

I had thought Lenin’s title was taken from a Marx quote, but evidently not. However, the point is that Marx valued concrete results and did not think of himself solely as a theorist of capitalism, but as a revolutionary – one who would create change. Does anyone dispute this?

When he said the point is not to interpret the world, but to change it, he was being exaggeratedly categorical for rhetorical effect, as I was in quoting him. I had asked about concrete change in the world, and was told about theories concerning the historical sociology of Capitalism.

As I said, a tremendous amount has been invested in Marxism. This investment could have gone to leftism of different sorts, some of which we are now turning to after long neglect.

The second time, Bill answered me thus:

“There are very large numbers of very great scholars and thinkers whose thoughts and actions over more than 100 years have been influenced by aspects of Marx’s theorizing, though most have not become Marxists, who have contributed positively both to the culture and politics of their own times and places and to the field of historical sociology at large and to the shaping of the thoughts and actions of subsequent generations of students and scholars in that and related fields, and everone who reads their work with any seriousness ”

All of this is intellectual save the assertions that some of these scholars and thinkers had a Marxist influence in their contribution to politics. Assuming this means practical politics, and not just theory, what was this contribution? What is different in world politics that we can attribute to Marxism? What has Marxism contributed to the material life of the common man? Or to the proletariat, if you like? Marxists have been very involved in unions, but unions are not a specifically Marxist concept; they are reformist, not revolutionary.

So, in concrete terms, what has Marxism given us? To specify it further, what has Marxism produced that is:

1) Specifically Marxist, not some sort of reformist project that some Marxists happened to support, or that might have mixed Marxist influences with influences Marx disdained, like Social Democracy.
2) Not the product or result of a regime you would not consider part of Marx’s legitimate legacy. No cherry picking. If Marx doesn’t have to answer for the USSR, he doesn’t get credit for whatever redeeming features it might have had.

What is there? What are the top five things? I’m sincerely asking, if Marx’s legacy is not Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, what, other than theory, is it?

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Mao Cheng Ji 04.09.13 at 4:02 pm

“So, in concrete terms, what has Marxism given us?”

A way to analyze socioeconomic systems. A way to define them, based on the mode of production. Explanation of the process of socioeconomic change.

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Martin Bento 04.09.13 at 4:09 pm

Mao, I mean concrete as opposed to abstract. What material change has it made in people’s lives?

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David 04.09.13 at 4:13 pm

“This investment could have gone to leftism of different sorts”

What other sorts?

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Bill Barnes 04.09.13 at 4:29 pm

Martin, The way you pose the question and cherry pick from people’s answers, obstinantly refusing to recognize the points they are trying to make, instead insisting that the only thing that matters is your polemical definition of the conversation, makes the conversation of little value, probably not worth pursuing. So after this I’ll stop. You insist on a strict separation between theorizing/scholarship and political practice, and you insist on an all or nothing conception of value. That framing leads to a dead end. Marx’s writings and the example of his life, in both cases a mix of positive and negative lessons, have had some major influence on many people who have made major contributions to theory and practice, whose lives, theory, and practice would have beeen quite different, less productive and advanced in significant ways, absent their encounter with those lessons. Examples: the entire adult lives of E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, Michael Harrington, on and on. And I would include my own adult life, though I have never been more than half-a-Marxist.

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Mao Cheng Ji 04.09.13 at 4:38 pm

Martin, it’s hard to tell. Just think of all these concepts that we now operate with so casually: capitalism, socialism. If you ask me, the connection you make, it’s like, I dunno, Marie Curie and Hiroshima.

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Martin Bento 04.09.13 at 4:52 pm

Bill, it seemed to me the fairly long quote I gave from your answer got at the essence, but if you think I was cherry-picking, please point out what I left out that changes the meaning. I’m not insisting on a strict division between theory and practice, but there is a realm of practical politics where we can say things are different in people’s lives because of a political movement. For example, the lives of women and men have been changed in concrete ways by feminism – yes, there is a body of theory, and it has informed the political movement, but the legacy of feminism is not just a set of books, nor the personal and public lives of prominent feminists. There have been many changes to the legal system. There have been changes in socially-acceptable modes of behavior, and therefore changes in behavior. And this not just for scholars and theorists, nor even just for self-proclaimed feminists, but for everyone in Western countries, pretty much, and many outside them.

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Rich Puchalsky 04.09.13 at 5:18 pm

I think that this thread has been useful for me (not that there is any reason why anyone else should particularly care). Mostly because it clarified the degree to which I don’t believe that the conflict between left and right is about class conflict, and the degree to which many people still seem to hold class identification as a defining element of the left.

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Martin Bento 04.09.13 at 5:33 pm

Rich, I think class conflict is very real and important. I don’t think it is the prime mover of all of history – it is one factor among many.

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Bill Barnes 04.09.13 at 5:57 pm

Martin, the statement you have just made is reasonable except in the sense of your attempt to use it to support the position you insist upon. The young Betty Friedan was influenced by Marxism, as many other feminists have been, particularly in the late 1960s through the 1970s. The very term “male chauvinist” was coined within the CPUSA in the 1930s. The marxian radicals of the IWW were instrumental in making free speech a reality rather than a myth in the US – changing U.S. constitutional law. The Marxists in the National Lawyers Guild and the CPUSA played major roles in the defense of African-Americans and the civil rights movement in the 1920s and 1930s. The life work of Marxist and Communist Herbert Aptheker, including his long relationship with W.E.B. Dubois, made a major contribution to the survival of the awareness of the truth of Reconstruction and presence of Black radicalism in American history – both among Black leftists and among Academic historians. The myth of Reconstruction that you see in DW Griffith’s film Birth of a Nation (which Woodrow Wilson showed in the White House) dominated American school text books at all levels until the late 1950s, and Marxists and communists led the way in challenging that both inside and outside the Black community. The greatest of contemporary American historians, Eric Foner, was raised in a Marxist family and has always acknowledged his debt to Aptheker. The whole 20th century history of the Black freedom struggle in the U.S. is full of major contributions by people significantly influenced by Marx’s work. Many of the people around Martin King (and to a lesser degree King himself) were at least somewhat influenced by elements of the Marxist tradition, as were many other leaders and cadre of the civil rights movement, which of course changed the legal system and actual institutional practice in the U.S. in the same ways as the feminist movement has. Michael Harrington was a major figure, at various points in his career, on the left of the democratic party, the labor movement, the Catholic left, and eventually the anti-Vietnam war and New Left movements. His respect for and debt to Marx, in the shaping of his own theory and practice, are clear in his books. See especially Socialism. His book The Other America had a very substantial influence on the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. E.P. Thompson and many others influenced by Marx played major roles in the anti-nuke and peace movements in Europe and the U.S.

I’m sure that none of this is going to have any impact on you — you will continue to insist that Marx and Marxism have no significant positive legacy no matter how many examples I or anyone else come up with.

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john c. halasz 04.09.13 at 7:06 pm

Martin Bento:

No one here AFAICT has been championing orthodoxy. Rather just arguing that Marx’ work and the several strands of traditions that descend from it retaining considerable heuristic significance that can inform our thinking and practice today, (with renewed relevance amidst the global crisis in neo-liberalism). But there’s no use denying that the Archimedean lever that Marx sought to devise failed about 100 years ago, partly due to defects in his own conception and partly due developments unforeseen by his conceptions, (such as, er, world wars).

But the trouble with your and Rich’s cavils is that neither of you evince much understanding of the conceptual structure of his thought, so your criticisms seem adventitious and off-the-mark, rather than seriously engaging.

The 11th thesis is a succinct expression of one of Marx’ genuine philosophical innovations, in which he advanced beyond Hegel, the notion of a philosophy of praxis, (whereby as well, the educator must be educated). It, though in a somewhat buried way, is a key feature of the architectonic of his work, (which Gramsci made central to his interpretation), There are two counters to the 11th thesis,- (such is the nature of “dialectics”),-: 1) but any project of changing the world must depend on some specific interpretation of the world and 2) but changing the interpretation of the world is already changing the world. But neither objection necessarily invalidates Marx’ own elaborated interpretation of the reciprocal relation between theory and praxis, let alone his insistence on the radically historical basis of any such relation. At any rate, it remains a problem that we still must grapple with and puzzle out.

Marx is a classic and belongs up on the book shelf with the other classics of Western philosophical tradition, Aristotle, Vico, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, etc. (or, o.k., make your own damn list). Under the aphorism of Nietzsche that one can learn infinitely more from the errors of great minds than the truths of small minds. It’s the effort to suppress and dismiss his work under some benighted notion of “progress” and by means of hindsight, a kind of historical version of post hoc, propter hoc, that arouses justified suspicion of your intellectual bona fides here.

If you want an example of an attempt to implement “really existing socialism” in a Marxian vein, other than the inauthentic and grotesque travesty presided over by that Georgian gangster Djugashvili, then I would offer Tito’s Yugoslavia, which arose under difficult circumstances to form a semi-successful development state. Until it was destroyed by IMF-imposed “shock therapy”. (So maybe it is a bit premature to dismiss the class basis of history, if only working in the opposite direction).

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Rich Puchalsky 04.09.13 at 7:49 pm

“But the trouble with your and Rich’s cavils is that neither of you evince much understanding of the conceptual structure of his thought, so your criticisms seem adventitious and off-the-mark, rather than seriously engaging.”

Well, it is a system that is economically wrong after all, that’s had none of its predictions come true, and can’t be convincingly separated from Leninism. One of the classic answers of any system of thought based on holy writ is that you can’t criticize until you’ve dug deep enough through a multitude of texts to really understand. Thankfully that’s not a privilege that people on the left are willing to give Marxism any more.

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Mao Cheng Ji 04.09.13 at 9:04 pm

I’m not sure that a lot of what you guys perceive as the True Left, should be called that. The burning concern that too few CEOs are women, the same sex marriage, the environmentalism. And the welfare state, as well. The liberal agenda. It doesn’t really seem all that egalitarian, in the sense that it’s indifferent to hierarchical structures, their existence and preservation. So, perhaps the disagreement here is not marxism or not, but left or liberal. Not that anything is wrong with that; just to avoid the unnecessary confusion.

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john c. halasz 04.09.13 at 10:08 pm

“Well, it is a system that is economically wrong after all, that’s had none of its predictions come true, and can’t be convincingly separated from Leninism.”

None of its predictions? Aside from crude falsificationism and instrumentalism on your part, the “long depression” from 1873-1896 looks an awful lot like Marx’ account of crisis tendencies, which is the relevant time frame, eh?

Can’t be separated from Leninism? A sheer assertion, based primarily on your tepid anarchism, rather than on any philological evidence. (In my view, Marx’ conception of revolutionary praxis involved an across-the-board organization the the working class, in response to recurrent crisis tendencies, resembling much more Red Rosa’s “mass spontaneism” than any Leninist theory of a vanguard party, though the lacunae and inadequacies of Marx’ thought might have left open such a possibility).

But, at any rate, Marx’ writings are anything but “holy writ”. Rather an entirely secular effort at de-mystifying critique.

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Martin Bento 04.10.13 at 3:16 am

Bill, not at all, that is a response to the question. But these are the first examples you gave that went beyond influence on intellectuals. OK, so Marxists or people intellectually influenced by Marx in some way played a significant role in various 20th century movements of the left, and these movements do have concrete accomplishments to their credit. I would add the anti-colonialist movement in the 3rd world, actually, including things like anti-apartheid. Fair summary?

But are these accomplishments specifically Marxist? One need not be a Marxist to believe that blacks should have equal rights as whites or women as men. Some of those who believed this were influenced by Marx and some were not; Marxism is not essential to, say, feminism generally, though it is very important to the specific rendition of, say, Shulamith Firestone (since she came up). If Marx had never lived, would blacks’ or women’s situation be any different today? It is not clear that they would. But would the USSR ever have existed? Probably the Czar would have been replaced by something else by now, but communism as we have known it would have been literally unthinkable. And you can’t just say subtract all the Marxists from the civil rights movement and see how it becomes weaker, unless you think the only reason those people supported civil rights is because they were under Marx’s influence; this strikes me as unlikely.

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Substance McGravitas 04.10.13 at 3:52 am

Neither is it a specifically Christian project to give food to people…so what is it that Christianity has brought to the world?

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Martin Bento 04.10.13 at 4:49 am

A diverse mix of things, actually.

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Hector_St_Clare 04.10.13 at 4:49 am

Re: so what is it that Christianity has brought to the world?

If you ask a lot of the Georgetown cultural liberals, nothing.

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john c. halasz 04.10.13 at 4:52 am

Harry Bridges.

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John Quiggin 04.10.13 at 4:57 am

@jch Is this the answer to the question “What have the Australians ever given us”, which I hypothesize was asked upthread somewhere.

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john c. halasz 04.10.13 at 8:50 am

Yes. That is the correct “Double Jeopardy” response. Your prize is a ticket to Maggie’s farm. (Or are those references only valid in the U.S.?)

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Martin Bento 04.10.13 at 9:17 am

John H.,

OK, let’s look at Tito. How was Tito’s Yugoslavia different from the Soviet block countries? Well, it included a significant market economy beside the state-owned one. It converted a lot of state-owned enterprises to worker cooperative management, while retaining formal state ownership, so it incorporated some of syndicalism. This would seem to suggest that it was less purely Marxist, though, not more. Marx was skeptical of syndicalism, and it is one of the “roads not taken” by the Left that I have mentioned. It was much more liberal with entry and exit and also allowed more open dissent. This is not structural, though. What else? Mostly, it seemed that Tito was a relatively benign and wise ruler, who choose to leaven Marxism with syndicalism, which doesn’t redeem the system; most dictatorships can do well with benevolent dictators.

Which brings me to Stalin. Marxists have to have a better account of the Soviet Union than “Joe Stalin was a really bad guy”. That’s the Great Man of History played backwards. Structurally, what caused the USSR to take the turn it did? That it was state capitalism? Conventionally capitalist countries do not kill millions of their own citizens for arbitrary reasons. And it’s not just Stalin: Mao, Pol Pot, Hoxha, Ceaușescu, the Korean Kims, there have been a whole string of these guys, not all as bad as Stalin, but it is debatable whether he was the worst, in large countries and small, European and Asian, previously-industrialized and previously-feudal, ethnically homogenous and ethnically diverse, what do they have in common but political philosophies derived from Marx? Tito is an outlier.

Suppose Stalin is about to send a thousand to be worked to death in the gulag because they are objectively class enemies of the proletariat. The ghost of Marx stands at the gate. What can Marx say to stop him?

1. I never said to do that. Marxism is a living tradition, so it obviously is not limited to what its founder said, but must adapt to new conditions.
2. These people are not actually enemies of the proletariat. This is a critique of implementation, not of the gulag itself. It just says Stalin is not doing it right; it should be a different thousand people.
3. This carnage will ultimately discredit the movement and is therefore counter-productive. This too is ultimately a practical, not a moral, objection. It would not apply if the atrocity could be kept secret.
4. It is morally wrong to kill a thousand people who have done nothing wrong. On what basis could Marx make this claim? Morals are superstructural, are they not? How can one critique a changing of the base – a remaking of the relations of production in society – on the basis of superstructural ideas one has that are rooted in the previous base? To change the base relations of society – to enact revolution – is to render the previous superstructure, including moral commitments, obsolete. Can Marx, rooted in the previous set of relations, peer over the shoulder of the revolution, and understand what the new morality should be? Can we? On what basis? What “meta” moral ground, transcending various bases, is available to stand on and make such judgments? Marx himself did not think he could see past the revolution. That’s why he’s not a utopian, telling us what socialism will be like.
Now is all this mistaken? Does Marx actually have a clear answer for Stalin that I’m not seeing​?

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Random Lurker 04.10.13 at 11:20 am

@Martin Bento
“2. These people are not actually enemies of the proletariat. This is a critique of implementation, not of the gulag itself.”

I think that 2 is the correct answer, but you are wrong when you say that this is a critic of implementation and not of the gulag itself, because the concept of “enemies of the proletariat” imply people who are actually using vioplence on the proletariat, something that obviously people sent to the gulag couldnt do.

I believe that, when Marx speaks of “capitalism”, he speaks of capitalism of his times, that was much more similar to what we now speak of as “fascism” than to the social democratic capitalism we live in. Thus when Marx speaks of violent revolution, he has IMHO this idea of proletarian doing something progressive, evil capitalists using violence on them, proletarian being forced to make a revolution to defend themselves from the evil capitalists.
Arguably Stalin said that he was “defending the revolution”, but this rests on the question on whether the persons he sent to the gulag were actually using violence against the proletarians. This is not just a problem of sending to death the wrong persons, because the concept of “enemies of the proletariat” implies the fact that they are aggressors.

I think that a clear explanation of what is “just mass violence” for Marx is his writings about the secession war in the USA.
http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1861/10/25.htm

In those writings he makes clear that the violence of the war is just, but that the war was ultimately caused by the south, because of a sort of “crisis of overproduction” of slaves.
I think most people would agree today that the mass violence of the secession war was justified.

I think that the parallelism between Marx’s explanation of the secession war and his opinions about crises of capitalism are clear enough to show what was “just violence” for Marx, and Stalin doesn’t qualify.

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Martin Bento 04.10.13 at 7:12 pm

random, but when your philosophy says that morality itself is contingent upon economic relations, how can you have moral standards that transcend economic conditions, such that moral standards that Marx had in the 19th century, whatever they may be, are binding on the activities of a revolutionary government in the 20th?

The other problem – the reason this is not an essential objection to the gulag – is that the proletariat did of course have real enemies. I’m sure some of the people in the gulag were genuine subversives – I would like to think I would have been such a subversive myself. And one can argue that the regime was serving the interests of the fairly small portion of the population that was proletarian in the classic sense – it certainly raised their material living standards.

Which brings up another point. If class is defined by relation to the forces of production, then the Soviet Union did pretty much eliminate class. The state owned the means of production and all were employees of the state. It may have been “state capitalism” in the sense that there was still capital accumulation going on, as needed for development, but the system was not class-based under the classic Marxist definition of class. Yes, there was still inequality – though not like in the West, the nomenklatura were not rich like Hearst or Gates. Why was the elimination of class structure not more effective at ending the sort of ills that Marx attributes to class conflict?

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David 04.10.13 at 7:21 pm

“Why was the elimination of class structure not more effective at ending the sort of ills that Marx attributes to class conflict?”

I would say because the USSR was still an underdeveloped country hemmed in by a hostile capitalist alliance, which had an authoritarian political structure, and eschewed the actually liberating elements of what socialism was supposed to be.

Remember that in Hungary and the Prague Spring, workers tried to take over the factories in order to resist state power. They were trying to create something more akin to libertarian syndicalist socialism in opposition to the authoritarian-bureaucratic behemoth that Stalinist economic organization had become, and yet most of the people supporting this were also Marxists. The very fact that it was possible to have two forms of soi dissant socialism locked in mortal combat suggests that the picture is more complicated than you wish to allow.

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engels 04.10.13 at 7:48 pm

random, but when your philosophy says that morality itself is contingent upon economic relations, how can you have moral standards that transcend economic conditions, such that moral standards that Marx had in the 19th century, whatever they may be, are binding on the activities of a revolutionary government in the 20th?

Martin Bento meet… Martin Bento

We are, both of us, raised in this society in this time and inculcated with its values. Would I prefer to live in the classical age, or in ancient China, or in the Amazon prior to colonization? It is easy to give a glib answer, but impossible to know, as I would be a different person if I came from such an environment with different values and preferences. The Middle Ages thought they were quite an improvement over decadent pagan Rome, and by their standards they were.

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Mao Cheng Ji 04.10.13 at 8:00 pm

“the reason this is not an essential objection to the gulag”

But who did have essential objection to the gulag those days? Nobody. Have you ever watched Cool Hand Luke?

“If class is defined by relation to the forces of production, then the Soviet Union did pretty much eliminate class.”

Here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bureaucratic_collectivism

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john c. halasz 04.10.13 at 8:01 pm

Martin Bento:

A system of workers’ self-management is not Marxist but syndicalist? Really? That would surprise an awful lot of self-declared Marxists, who’ve been elaborating such schemes in their spare time, ever since… (And there are “markets” in any such socialist system, because there must be inter-sectoral differentiation of production, but Mr. Market is not the sole regulatory principle).

But, aside from the expiration date on this thread coming due, I see little point in responding to your self-insistent and self-righteous crudities. You’re just stuck regressively in an American Cold War liberal mindset, and show little grasp of the issues you’re palavering about. (You seem to think that “materialism” means that ideas don’t count, are mere social epiphenomena, when in fact Marx elaborated a complex account of ideology precisely because the interaction of ideas in people’s brains and material and socio-structural conditions was of “essence”. But trying to explain that to a functional vulgar Marxist such as yourself is bootless).

As I said way above, Marx = Stalin is just as plausible as Nietzsche = Hitler. The most you could reasonably claim is that their thinking was not sufficiently immunized against such possibilities or eventualities. But then no one possesses such immunity.

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Jerry Vinokurov 04.10.13 at 8:05 pm

And it’s not just Stalin: Mao, Pol Pot, Hoxha, Ceaușescu, the Korean Kims, there have been a whole string of these guys, not all as bad as Stalin, but it is debatable whether he was the worst, in large countries and small, European and Asian, previously-industrialized and previously-feudal, ethnically homogenous and ethnically diverse, what do they have in common but political philosophies derived from Marx? Tito is an outlier.

This is no less lazy than modern-day neocons who lump 1.5 billion people together under the category “Muslim” and then insist that all their problems stem from Islam.

History doesn’t work that way; you can’t just run some kind of regression model of ideas, get a large coefficient for “allegedly Marxist” and then declare that to be the common cause of their ills. There are no controlled experiments here and there’s no necessity that commonality of philosophical antecedents somehow necessitates or explains the actions of these different leaders in different nations in different times. Hoxha is not Stalin is not Kim il-Sung is not Ceaucescu, and the circumstances under which each of those leaders operated are not the same either.

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john c. halasz 04.10.13 at 8:17 pm

Oh, and: “Conventionally capitalist countries do not kill millions of their own citizens for arbitrary reasons.”

So much for convention, I guess.

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Hector_St_Clare 04.10.13 at 8:19 pm

Martin Bento,

1) The state intellectuals in Tito’s Yugoslavia devoted a lot of time to defending the claim that workers’ self management was fully consistent with Marx and Engels’ writing, more so than command and control socialism, and they did so quite well. They would dispute that they were ‘less purely Marxist than the Russians.’

2) I can’t believe I have to make this point, but you do realize that the Eastern Bloc states weren’t all independent replicates and independent tests of the ‘Socialism is bad’ hypothesis? most communist states were under heavy Soviet control, enforced with invasion if necessary (see 1956) and developed the way the Soviets wanted them to develop. the lack of independence makes your claim scietifically invalid. Maybe the only thing wrong with vanguardist Marxist communism was the way the Soviets did it and forced other countries to do it.

3) you’re at least somewhat overstating the failure of command economies. the Soviet Union was about as wealthy , per capita, as Spain by the time it collapsed. And it then entered an economic death spiral that I’m not sure if it has yet escaped from.

4) actually, I would place a big amount of blame on Stalin personally, yes. call that the great man theory if you want , but I’m not particularly impressed by name calling. central planning also has some basic problems of its own , which may or may not be surmountable, but as Tito showed, communism doesn’t require central planning.

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Jerry Vinokurov 04.10.13 at 8:21 pm

Oh, and: “Conventionally capitalist countries do not kill millions of their own citizens for arbitrary reasons.”

Even if it were true, which it isn’t, it doesn’t help when the millions killed for arbitrary reasons are citizens of other countries. But hey, we had to bomb that village to save it from a hundred-years-dead philosopher, or something.

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engels 04.10.13 at 8:22 pm

Or to clarify:

Shorter Martin Bento (2013 edition): Marx was to blame for the Gulag because he believed that moral standards do not transcend historical epochs.

Shorter Martin Bento (2007 edition): Moral standards do not transcend historical epochs.

While these two propositions are not inconsistent, I am not sure they add up to a philosophical position that many people would wish to defend…

But like I said: I’m done.

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marthe raymond 04.10.13 at 8:59 pm

I was thinking of posting a few more comments on this site, but I see that Fox News has someone posting here under the handle of jb, and I really don’t care to exchange comments on a site infiltrated by Fox News.

As I am someone who has spent a lot of time in Venezuela, and who is based in Mexico, I find the deliberate disinformation that is spouted in the US in regard to the part of the world in which I live to be simply pernicious.

Well on the order of a social disease, in fact–which one doesn’t catch from toilet seats but from toilet mouths in the mainstream media.

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Martin Bento 04.10.13 at 10:50 pm

Quickly, because I, too, do not know when the thread will close (I wish this were more predictable).

David,

Posing questions is not disallowing complexity. Although the Prague Spring was initiated by dissident forces within the Communist Party, not a spontaneous worker uprising. Rather like Gorbachev, just not in the country that ultimately called the shots. And you see where Gorbachev led. But sure, there are various interpretations of Marxism, and there were such within the communist world., The Stalinist interpretation generally dominated, but others got a word in edgewise or tried to.

As for lack of development being decisive, well, we can’t run the counterfactual to see. But after Stalin, the USSR was development, and, while it stopped with the mass murders, it was still an oppressive tyranny.

Mao,

OK, but your own namesake incorporated elements of this critique. He tried a de-centralized industrial revolution (The Great Leap Forward), endorsed, like Trotsky, permanent revolution, and inspired the masses, especially the youth to rise up against the bureaucracy (The Cultural Revolution). None of this is defensible either, I think.

And no one objected to gulags? Cmon. Stalin killed millions. He wasn’t the only kid on the block who did, but it’s not like everyone thought this was fine.

engels,

First of all, the quote you gave says I cannot recover the subjective experience of other eras. That is an epistemological, not a moral, claim. So it cannot fairly be summarized the way you have. The entirety of that baroque old thread, of course, is more complicated, but I believe carrying over old arguments from other threads is frowned upon here. I imagine this particularly applies to threads 6 years old. Finally, my own moral philosophy is not relevant anyway, as whatever Stalinism is, it is not an implementation of Martin Bentoism. Stalin can be consistent with Marx or not; I don’t come into that equation.

Yes, you said you were done before. But you were not. Pretending to be leaving a thread when you are not is an old commenting trick to try to get people not to respond to you, so you can have the last word.

Jerry,

Of course, comparing the various communist societies is not scientific, among other reasons because the variables cannot be isolated. But in history the variables never can be isolated. That is one reason it is absurd to propose a science of history. Though not all were Soviet dominated. Mao broke away, and his communism differed in substantial ways. The Khmers opposed the Soviet-aligned communists in their country, and I don’t think China had much control over them either; it was consumed with internal problems. But one could also say that all modern capitalist countries were deeply influenced by the Britain and the United States, that these countries created the modern financial system, and that these countries had a lot to do with creating world capitalism. It’s true. It complicates analysis. It shouldn’t stop comparisons dead in the water.

John,

Sure, Marxism has gone in a lot of directions, but Marx himself was skeptical of syndicalism, save, perhaps as proof of concept. If anything advocated by later Marxists is as purely Marxist as anything else so advocated – well, hello, big Joe. And if Marxist apologies for Stalin reflect a vulgar understanding of Marxism, why did people like Merleau-Ponty make them?

Hector,

Do you blame Stalin for the Khmers? If the productive forces of society are the driving force of history, why did the character of one man make such a difference, anyway? It’s not just that it’s Great Man Theorizing, it’s unMarxist.

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john c. halasz 04.10.13 at 11:18 pm

1) “Syndicalism” at the time meant Proudhon.

2) Merleau-Ponty explicitly repudiated any affiliation with Soviet Communism around 1950, for all the obvious reasons. He’s probably the last person you should be picking on. Have you ever actually read him?

Jeez…

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between4walls 04.10.13 at 11:40 pm

Sorry to be pedantic, but “the Khmers” are the ethnic group that makes up ~86% of Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge is the infamous Cambodia communist group. You don’t really want to conflate the two.

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Jerry Vinokurov 04.10.13 at 11:47 pm

But one could also say that all modern capitalist countries were deeply influenced by the Britain and the United States, that these countries created the modern financial system, and that these countries had a lot to do with creating world capitalism. It’s true.

It sure is. But that doesn’t mean you can then go back and pin the crimes of capitalism on Adam Smith. Or if you prefer, attribute the rivers of blood spilled in the wars of religion to the preachings of a Jewish sectarian.

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Random Lurker 04.10.13 at 11:51 pm

@Martin Bento
I think you exaggerate the extent to which Marx was a moral relativist:
It is true that he believed that moral systems depend on material culture, but he was also an hegelian, he believed in historic progress.
This implies that while moral systems are relative, there is in some weird hegelian sense a moral absolute to which we can compare each moral system, otherwise we could only speak of change not of progress.
I believe that this abstract moral absolute can be easyly described as “a world where everyone is happy” (because it is a materialist absolute) .
On the question whether USSR was a classless society or not, I believe that Marx’s idea that a socialist society would be classless was stupid to begin with (how is this that every social revolution produces opposite classes, but not his favourite revolution ?).
Still it can be a change to the better , in the (rather marxist ) sense that capitalism is not perfect but is still better than feudalism.
I think that we are going to a world were the main opposition will be between a “managerial class” and the rest, and that part of right wing populism is already based on resentiment vs this class, but we are not yet there and, since this resentiment gives us to the owning class (which is worse ) is still reactionary.

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Rich Puchalsky 04.11.13 at 12:15 am

“I think that we are going to a world were the main opposition will be between a “managerial class” and the rest”

Bakunin wrote about the new class of socialist managers long before Lenin. From _Statism and Anarchy_:

“Ultimately, from whatever point of view we look at this question, we come always to the same sad conclusion, the rule of the great masses of the people by a privileged minority. The Marxists say that this minority will consist of workers. Yes, possibly of former workers, who, as soon as they become the rulers of the representatives of the people, will cease to be workers and will look down at the plain working masses from the governing heights of the State; they will no longer represent the people, but only themselves and their claims to rulership over the people. Those who doubt this know very little about human nature.

These elected representatives, say the Marxists, will be dedicated and learned socialists. The expressions “learned socialist,” “scientific socialism,” etc., which continuously appear in the speeches and writings of the followers of Lassalle and Marx, prove that the pseudo-People’s State will be nothing but a despotic control of the populace by a new and not at all numerous aristocracy of real and pseudo-scientists. The “uneducated” people will be totally relieved of the cares of administration, and will be treated as a regimented herd. A beautiful liberation, indeed!”

The few remaining Marxists like to sneer at criticism as coming from liberals, neoliberals or what have you who must be parroting late-20th-century propaganda. But Marx had contemporaries who recognized very well what his ideas would lead to.

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Hector_St_Clare 04.11.13 at 1:50 am

Re: The few remaining Marxists like to sneer at criticism as coming from liberals

It’s interesting how a lot of American liberals like to talk as though Marxism is a dead letter. (Again, to clarify, I’m not a Marxist, I like to say I’m ‘influenced by Marxism’.)

It’s a dead letter *in America* and in the rich countries of the West, true. Por ahora. Even though there are a certain fraction of intellectuals who still consider themselves Marxists, and even though I think a good number of apolitical people in this country would probably sympathize with a lot of Marxist thought if they understood what it meant.

It’s still a major political force in plenty of other countries, though. In Venezuela, in the Andean countries of South America, in Cuba, in India, in Russia and its satellites. It’s not inconceivable that sometime in the near to medium term even some of the poorer European countries like Greece might see a mass swing to the far left, and any swing to the far left is at least going to be heavily influenced by Marxist ideas.

And, really, Bakunin?

In the last analysis, there is no such thing as political rule by the majority. People can run their own affairs in their personal lives and maybe even in the economic sphere, but in the political sphere, the majority of people do not and never will have the skills, the interest, the knowledge, or the cultural capital to take a significant role in politics and run their own affairs, and they need to have their affairs run for them. Every modern political order is oligarchic and vanguardist in some sense, whether that vanguard is revolutionary, liberal, or reactionary. Except for Anarchist Spain, and we saw what happened to them. The vanguardists of the far right and far left at least have the honesty to be up front about what their doing. Liberal democrats like to conceal oligarchic rule under various fig leaves.

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Hector_St_Clare 04.11.13 at 2:06 am

Martin Bento,

Re: Do you blame Stalin for the Khmers

No. Except in so far as he (and more so Mao) served as a bad example for Pol Pot’s worst fantasies, which is a non-trivial form of blame. But you’re correct in that there probably wasn’t much direct, material influence of China (and even less of Russia) on the Khmer Rouge. For what it’s worth, Vietnamese defenders of Ho Chi Minh have argued that human rights abuses during his land-reform campaign were due directly to the malign influence of Chinese advisers, and that they happened against the wishes of Ho Chi Minh himself. But let’s stipulate that Cambodia was its own little dystopia that didn’t really answer to anyone. I’ll give you Romania, too, since Ceaucescu was pretty independent. I think Albania counts as part of the Chinese-Maoist sphere of influence. On the flip side, I’d say that Cuba and Nicaragua, none of which turned dystopian, were pretty independent experiments in Marxism too (the revolutions in both countries happened without much or any Soviet aid, pursued very different paths, and at least in Cuba, in spite of heavy Soviet sponsorship, the regime outlasted the fall of its sponsor).

So you have China, the Soviet Union, Cambodia and Romania as independent Marxist powers that ended up with mass murder (maybe also Ethiopia, depending on how much you consider it a Soviet satellite). On the flip side, you have Cuba, Nicaragua, and Yugoslavia that didn’t. Maybe Chile too, though they only lasted three years so you may not want to count them.

That doesn’t seem like a strong defence to the claim that Marxism *inevitably* or even *generally* leads to mass murder. For what it’s worth, Russia and China both had a history of exceptionally bloody rulers. Chiang Kai-Shek was a notably bloodthirsty tyrant of his own, even if he looks comparatively benign compared to Mao, and if the Russian Whites had won the war, who knows what they would have done to their perceived enemies. One of the top state intellectuals of 19th century Russia had more or less explicitly called for Russia to do to the Jews what Stalin later did to the kulaks, and if they’d had the modern infrastructure and organization to do so, they probably would have.

Yes, I think there were very serious problems with the Bolsheviks *as a whole*, and that the evils of the Soviet Union started with Lenin, not with Stalin. Lenin did more or less introduce a casual approach towards the murder of political enemies into Russia, and Stalin merely amped up the volume. I don’t see any good reason to blame any of that *on Marx*, though.

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Hector_St_Clare 04.11.13 at 2:09 am

Re: I believe that this abstract moral absolute can be easyly described as “a world where everyone is happy” (because it is a materialist absolute) .

Partly, but also “a world where everyone’s deepest nature is fulfilled” (i.e. a world where we can express ourselves through our labour, retaining control over our labour power and genuinely enjoying/taking pride in our work). I think the line in the ‘Gotha Program Critique’ about being a worker/fisherman/poet is probably closest to it. But in general you’re right, of course.

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john c. halasz 04.11.13 at 2:17 am

The comedy continues: that line is from “The German Ideology” and already was meant half in jest.

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Hector_St_Clare 04.11.13 at 2:30 am

Um. Sorry, I was misremembering: it is from “The German Ideology”, not from the “Critique of the Gotha Program”. Thanks.

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engels 04.11.13 at 2:42 pm

Yes, you said you were done before. But you were not. Pretending to be leaving a thread when you are not is an old commenting trick to try to get people not to respond to you, so you can have the last word.

Sorry, but I disagree.

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Mao Cheng Ji 04.11.13 at 3:09 pm

“And no one objected to gulags? Cmon. Stalin killed millions. He wasn’t the only kid on the block who did, but it’s not like everyone thought this was fine.”

What I meant to say is that ‘gulag’ is just a system of labor camps; penal labor. That is not unique to stalinism, and was practiced by all kinds of regimes, authoritarian and not.

Besides, stalinism only existed for about 20 years, and the gulag was dismantled, I believe, by 1956, or around that time. You feel it was an essential, defining feature, but on the historical scale of things it could just as well be an aberration…

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Rich Puchalsky 04.11.13 at 3:19 pm

Sorry, but I disagree.

Ha, you can’t get the last word with that trick.

I actually prefer to argue about whether Marxism leads to Leninism, rather than whether it’s supposed to lead to Stalinism. First of all, it separates out the people who think that Leninism was fine and who cares what the Cheka did. Second, Lenin was a thinker and writer who was well within the mainstream of Marxist thought. People can say that Marx unfortunately didn’t specify what he thought should happen well enough to forbid Leninism, but that’s an admission in itself. The point of quoting Bakunin is not to set up one hero-figure against another, it’s to show that people who Marx actually argued against predicted these problems, and Marx dismissed them without ever bringing himself to write a straightforward dismissal of what would become Lenin’s doctrine.

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Hector_St_Clare 04.11.13 at 3:26 pm

Re: First of all, it separates out the people who think that Leninism was fine and who cares what the Cheka did.

It sort of depends on what you mean by “Leninism was fine”.

I don’t think that Lenin and the sBolsheviks were fine, at all. I think that, at the level of abstractions, left-wing vanguardism can be fine. It all depends on who you have running things.

Re: Marx dismissed them without ever bringing himself to write a straightforward dismissal of what would become Lenin’s doctrine.

It seems clear from his writings that Marx wasn’t in favour of the death penalty (his writings as a journalist show that), that he wasn’t in favour of starving people into submission (his writings on British rule in India suggest that), and that he wasn’t in favour of massive persecution of political opponents (the bit where he says ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat looks like the Paris Commune’ shows that). So I think the dismissal of what would become the Bolshevik doctrine is sort of implicit.

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Mao Cheng Ji 04.11.13 at 3:56 pm

I think Bakunin got a point, actually. A very good one. But I also think that for the purpose of this discussion about ‘marxist schools of thought’, Bakunin is just as much a marxist as Marx himself.

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Anarcissie 04.11.13 at 6:02 pm

Hector_St_Clare 04.11.13 at 1:50 am @ 306:
‘… In the last analysis, there is no such thing as political rule by the majority. People can run their own affairs in their personal lives and maybe even in the economic sphere, but in the political sphere, the majority of people do not and never will have the skills, the interest, the knowledge, or the cultural capital to take a significant role in politics and run their own affairs, and they need to have their affairs run for them. …’

And since the most psychopathic or sociopathic members of the community will be those who are most interested in inserting themselves into positions where they have power over others, this seems like a really strong argument for anarchism or libertarianism — reducing or eliminating the state and government in favor of voluntary association. Since we can’t do it right, better to do it as little as possible or not at all.

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william u. 04.11.13 at 6:19 pm

“Second, Lenin was a thinker and writer who was well within the mainstream of Marxist thought.”

That is so, because Lenin represented one response to the crisis of Marxism that was developing even before World War I (e.g. with the revisionist controversy.) The seeds of his theoretical and practical innovations may be in Marx, but they are not logically necessary developments of Marxism. Puchalsky has little sense of history’s contingency or path dependence. Stalinism blighted the twentieth century, but it could have been otherwise. The point is not to recover an “authentic” Marxism, but a better Marxism, because there is no alternative for comprehensively understanding capitalism as a historical world-system, and organizing and acting on the basis of such an understanding. (I even agree with Puchalsky that we cannot blithely dismiss, say, the Stalinism of the later Lukács as false or inauthentic, especially if we want to read the young Lukács.)

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Jerry Vinokurov 04.11.13 at 6:21 pm

I suggest we take this to the next logical step and place the blame where it really belongs: with Plato.

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js. 04.11.13 at 7:56 pm

I suggest we take this to the next logical step and place the blame where it really belongs: with Plato.

Nope. Parmenides. It’s all Parmenides’ fault!

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engels 04.12.13 at 12:29 am

Thales.

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Rich Puchalsky 04.12.13 at 12:52 am

“The point is not to recover an “authentic” Marxism, but a better Marxism, because there is no alternative for comprehensively understanding capitalism as a historical world-system”

But I thought that we might as well blame Plato, which must mean that there are still some people who think there is no alternative to better epicycles.

I never understood this part of Marxian-ism, by the way. Why do people think that there is no alternative to a 19th century theory? What part of Marx-for-understanding do they think survives the labor theory of value and the falling rate of profit that can’t be duplicated within standard economics?

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william u. 04.12.13 at 1:28 am

As Sartre put it: “Far from being exhausted Marxism is still very young, almost in its infancy; it has scarcely begun to develop. It remains, therefore, the philosophy of our time. We cannot go beyond it because we have not gone beyond the circumstances which engendered it. “

Take, for instance, your “labor theory of value.” As a cornerstone of a theory of general equilibrium, I suppose it’s mildly interesting. I’m agnostic between neoclassical and classical economic theories, because neither has a particularly impressive record of prediction. Now, “value,” as a category of modernity — that’s interesting. What Marx grasped is that, part of what capitalism makes modernity historically distinctive is that all of the qualitatively particular sorts of labor are rendered quantitatively commensurable by reduction to a common measure — time — and thereby integrated into a total world-system. However, this reduction is also the source of dynamical instability and secular trends (e.g. what Moishe Postone calls the “treadmill dynamic” whereby technological innovations shore up individual profits, until they diffuse across a whole sector — bringing profitability back to baseline.) Marx anticipates and embeds Weber on modern rationality.

I heartily recommend Moishe Postone, who develops a reading rooted in I. I. Rubin and, later, the German Wertkritik school:
http://rosswolfe.wordpress.com/2011/05/12/the-works-of-the-historian-and-marxist-theorist-moishe-postone/

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william u. 04.12.13 at 1:41 am

Sorry, I mean “Neue Marx-Lektüre,” not Wertkritik, which is more apparently more specific.

Anyway, I suppose you might say: But those sound the same! In the first case, there is an attempt to erect a quantitative theory on the basis of the LTV (not generally successful); in the second, a “deep” category of modernity is taken as a starting point to develop a critical theory.

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john c. halasz 04.12.13 at 4:00 am

“It is needful to say thought and being as the same”

That’s the assumption that was broken by mid-20th century philosophy, which Marx only half-anticipated, but half-way all the same.

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Martin Bento 04.12.13 at 4:59 am

Between4walls,

Absolutely right. I was hurrying, but should not have abbreviated that way.

Hector,

Considering that you earlier were cheering on those who would line me up against the wall, I’m not sure which side of the mass murder divide you fall on ; ). I would dispute Albania as a satellite of China; China gave them aid and had ideological influence, but China could not possibly project power that far. Other than that, a decent list. Other than the Kims, the mass murderer side is pretty much my original list; I didn’t include clear Soviet satellites, though I was attacked for that. I didn’t say that Marxism inevitably leads to mass murder. But it has happened multiple times; it’s not just Stalin. In fact, by your own account here, a majority are “mass murder” states. 3 exceptions. How good a track record is that?

Mao, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t say avowed Marxists do not count as Marxists if you can find things in Marx that seem to contradict them (although even then, keep mind that Marx’s ethics are at a minimum highly situational, and you are drawing broad conclusions from single examples), and then say people he attacked and had fundamental differences with are still more or less Marxist. Either Marxism is sharply limited by what Marx actually said and thought or it is not.

As for the gulags, yes, I think “gulags” has become shorthand for all Stalin’s atrocities; the structure itself was not unusual. But we can’t limit “Stalinism” to Stalin’s actual reign and at the same time lay all the later problems and problems in other countries at Stalin’s feet.

Rich wrote:

“People can say that Marx unfortunately didn’t specify what he thought should happen well enough to forbid Leninism, but that’s an admission in itself. ”

Yes, and to get back to the original topic, that is one of the problems with Marx’s rejection of utopianism. He deliberately did not think it through, because he did not think it was possible to do so. He did not think it was possible to do so because he thought material conditions determine thought to such a degree that socialism, where material relations would be fundamentally different, was only imaginable in very vague and unreliable ways to those in existing conditions. So sure, William, Leninism is not a logically-necessary consequence, but nor would any other implementation of Marx’s ideas in the real world be logically necessary. Since Marx did intend that his ideas influence the world, Marxism as a guide to action will have to be judged by consequences that are not logically necessary. The ones that have actually occurred would seem to be the place to start. The anti-utopianism leaves a gap into which a great many creatures can crawl and have. And since that gap was a choice basic to Marx’s methodology, it seems fair to evaluate him in part on the consequences of leaving such a gap.

And if Marxists are really going to insist that the Moustache of Georgia is what really went wrong, or the chief thing that went wrong, then the relations of productive forces are not driving history. A good portion of the world spent some part of the 20th century under communism. If the historical tendencies that the relations of production of all those societies over all that time generate can be overridden by the personal character of one person, even decades after his death, even in countries where he never held any power, then forget it. Marx’s fundamental premise is falsified. If relationships of productive forces ever did drive history, they don’t now. The badness of Joe Stalin is more important.

Which is also a practical problem, since, if Marxist systems require benevolent rulers, there is not much to say for them. Most rulers are not benevolent, and most systems are pretty decent when one arises. The US just endured 8 years of Dick Cheney, a man who I think would fit in quite well in a politburo. It was bad, but the system limited the damage he could do.

That’s all I have time for now.

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john c. halasz 04.12.13 at 5:21 am

OMG! It goes on forever. As if a parody of “eternal being”. Martin, don’t you realize that it comes down to historical contingency, a revolution occurring in backward and immense Russia and not, (as Lenin hopefully anticipated amidst world war), successfully anywhere else. And just why do you feel entitled to parrot Stalinist orthodoxy, in which the “forces of production” drive history, which is a travesty of Marxian concepts. Is it because you secretly believe in technological voluntarism combined with material determinism?

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John Quiggin 04.12.13 at 5:30 am

@JCH #286 Under the AUSFTA treaty, all US cultural references are automatically valid in Australia, and supersede any pre-existing local reference to the same trope.

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godoggo 04.12.13 at 5:38 am

Hector, on Chinese influence on Pol Pot, what I understood was, he visited China, was impressed by the Cultural Revolution, and came up with the idea of a more extreme version of the same. Maybe you had a different definition of “influence?”

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godoggo 04.12.13 at 5:41 am

btw, if you respond, remember, “I think names are key to personal identity.”

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engels 04.12.13 at 6:09 am

And if Marxists are really going to insist that the Moustache of Georgia is what really went wrong, or the chief thing that went wrong, then the relations of productive forces are not driving history.

IF ludicrous ‘one bad apple’ explanation of Soviet history is true THEN orthodox Stalinism must be false.

Alright, we’ll call it a draw.

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Martin Bento 04.12.13 at 6:59 am

” In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.

The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.

At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or — what is but a legal expression for the same thing — with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters.

Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic — in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself, so can we not judge of such a period of transformation by its own consciousness; on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained rather from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social productive forces and the relations of production.

No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself. Therefore mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely, it will always be found that the tasks itself arises only when the material conditions of its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation.

In broad outlines Asiatic[A], ancient, feudal, and modern bourgeois modes of production can be designated as progressive epochs in the economic formation of society. The bourgeois relations of production are the last antagonistic form of the social process of production — antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonisms, but of one arising from the social conditions of life of the individuals; at the same time the productive forces developing in the womb of bourgeois society create the material conditions for the solution of that antagonism. This social formation brings, therefore, the prehistory of society to a close. “

It wasn’t Stalin wrote all that. With this as a model for how history works, the role for contingency must be limited. If Stalin is the problem, then social conditions were not driving the revolutionary changes – and there certainly were revolutionary changes. Single individuals effective at this scale are a problem for such a theory of the
“broad outlines” of history, as Stalin, if the failure of communism is attributed largely to him, majorly affected the broad outlines of the 20th century. And people in this thread have endorsed the notion that Stalin was a significant part of the problem.

As for the revolution happening in a backward country, well, Marx said if it could staret in Russia, but it would have to spread elsewhere, and it didn’t. If this was such a fundamental failing, why did the world Marxist community not clearly see it by about 1922, when it was clear the rest of the world was not going along anytime soon?

We cannot judge the Marxist revolutions that didn’t happen, only the ones that did. Those were not in industrialized countries, save with Soviet encouragement. If Soviet involvement alone was fatal, given that the SU was itself industrialized by that time, there would seem to be something afoot besides lack of industrialization. But it will always be impossible to disprove that things would have been different in France or the USA, just as with many other counter-factuals. History’s data is always imperfect, but it is what we have.

For some reason, they seem to have let this thread go on longer than usual. I don’t think I have time for it anymore, but I’m not going to say I’m leaving because…. who knows. But I’m going to try to leave it alone.

/

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Mao Cheng Ji 04.12.13 at 7:01 am

“You can’t say avowed Marxists do not count as Marxists if you can find things in Marx that seem to contradict them”

I didn’t, actually. Bolsheviks definitely count as marxists, but so do (at that time/place) mensheviks, esers, anarchists, and several other factions.

“Either Marxism is sharply limited by what Marx actually said and thought or it is not.”

It doesn’t work like that; or only in a religious sect. Everybody is a human being, and everything is a work in progress. We don’t concern ourselves with Isaac Newton religious writings, we just take the mechanics.

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john c. halasz 04.12.13 at 7:35 am

O.K. That’s a fine chunk of text. Now, let’s see your explication de texte.

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between4walls 04.12.13 at 3:36 pm

Mao Cheng Ji-
How do you figure SR’s being Marxists? Socialists, yes, but afaik they came out of the narodnik tradition that Russian Marxists, Mensheviks and Bolsheviks both, were in part reacting against.
But I don’t know a whole lot about the SR’s, so I’m happy to be corrected if wrong.

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engels 04.12.13 at 8:36 pm

For some reason, they seem to have let this thread go on longer than usual.

The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices

Make instruments to plague us

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Mao Cheng Ji 04.12.13 at 9:00 pm

I don’t know the details, but I’m pretty sure they were all marxists, to one degree or another. Even, surprisingly, nationalists, like the Bund. Except, of course, for those who explicitly rejected marxism: the royalists and the liberals.

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Rich Puchalsky 04.12.13 at 9:27 pm

I didn’t really care enough to argue, but if this is coming up again then: “Bakunin is just as much a marxist as Marx himself” — no. Not unless you think that small-m marxist just defines what the left is. But it’s rather like imagining the person in the equivalent of a comment thread a century from now writing about how Noam Chomsky always used to argue with the other neoconservatives.

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between4walls 04.12.13 at 9:35 pm

Looking it up a bit they do seem to have been influenced by Marxism and have included some Marxists, but as a party I wouldn’t count them as Marxists, what with their emphasis on the peasantry rather than the industrial working class. I really do wonder what kind of constitution the Constituent Assembly would have produced if it had had the chance.

The Bund is actually the reason the terms Bolshevik and Menshevik fell out the way they did- the vote that gave the Bolsheviks their dubious majority was held right after the Bundists walked out.

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Mao Cheng Ji 04.12.13 at 10:17 pm

This is not about the person and his politics, but about the school of thought, methodology. Why is this controversial? Just read the first sentence in wikipedia:
“Marxism is an economic and sociopolitical worldview and method of socioeconomic inquiry based upon a materialist interpretation of historical development, a dialectical view of social change, and an analysis of class-relations within society and their application in the analysis and critique of the development of capitalism.”
How is Bakunin (or Chomsky, for that matter) not a part of this? Thir branch is called ‘libertarian Marxism’.

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Hector_St_Clare 04.13.13 at 2:55 pm

Martin Bento,

Re: I didn’t say that Marxism inevitably leads to mass murder. But it has happened multiple times; it’s not just Stalin. In fact, by your own account here, a majority are “mass murder” states. 3 exceptions. How good a track record is that?

I’d say it’s too *small* a track record to make many useful conclusions. It’s clear that *some* Marxist states indulged in mass murder, but I don’t think there’s anything inevitable about it. We should try to figure out what Yugoslavia, etc. did *right*, and what the Soviets did wrong. Which you sort of did, except then you suggested Tito was less Marxist than Stalin (I think) because they did market socialism. I don’t think that’s accurate. Tito’s state ideologists argued eloquently that direct workers’ control was *more* faithful to Marx than command-and-control Russian-style socialism. And I don’t think the line between syndicalism and socialism is as clear as you’re implying.

Re: And if Marxists are really going to insist that the Moustache of Georgia is what really went wrong, or the chief thing that went wrong, then the relations of productive forces are not driving history. A good portion of the world spent some part of the 20th century under communism. If the historical tendencies that the relations of production of all those societies over all that time generate can be overridden by the personal character of one person, even decades after his death, even in countries where he never held any power, then forget it. Marx’s fundamental premise is falsified. If relationships of productive forces ever did drive history, they don’t now. The badness of Joe Stalin is more important.

If you’re saying that Marxism can’t account and doesn’t know what to make of Joe Stalin and his gulags, you’re absolutely correct. The experience of the twentieth century does falsify the statement ‘just get the means of production owned by the state, and everything else falls into place.’ Which means Marxism is incomplete and defective, not that it’s evil or fundamentally wrong. What theory of history and society *isn’t* incomplete and defective, to some degree?

I don’t claim to be a Marxist, partly precisely for the reason you state, that the experience of the Soviet Union falsifies the idea of economic determinism (and its corollary, the idea that the nature of the people in charge doesn’t matter). I disagree with you however, that Marxism needs to therefore be jettisoned. We didn’t jettison Linnaean taxonomy when we learned about evolution (even though Linnaeus was starting from a fundamentally wrong, creationist premise).

And yes, I’m going to side with the left-wing critique that ‘Joe Stalin corrupted communism’ rather than the National Review line that says ‘Communism corrupted Joe Stalin’. That seems just common sense to me. You’re right that it disproves one of the premises of Marxism, but you’re wrong that it means the whole Marxist edifice is useless.

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Hector_St_Clare 04.13.13 at 3:02 pm

Re: as a party I wouldn’t count them as Marxists, what with their emphasis on the peasantry rather than the industrial working class.

You can have a Marxism that emphasizes the peasantry. Unless you don’t think the Sandinistas or Ho-Chi-Minh were Marxists. Marx himself didn’t believe the peasantry was much of a revolutionary force, but 1) he started questioning that assumption later in life when he th0ught about Russia, and 2) Marxism is bigger than what Marx himself though. In a society where a major means of production is land, and in which a major segment of working people are landless or semi-landless peasants, any movement that focuses on ‘turning the means of production over to the people who work with them’ is necessarily going to have a large peasant component.

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js. 04.13.13 at 5:58 pm

Rich,

So you want to jettison Marx to the dustbin of history, right? Ok, fine, let’s say we do that. Now: is there some other theoretical framework you think is better, that can better help us understand the workings of capitalism in the 21st century? Or are you thinking we should jettison the very idea that we need a general theoretical framework in order to help us better understand, respond to, etc., capitalism as it currently exists? (And if you don’t like “capitalism” there, substitute whatever else.) I’m not by any means saying that the latter sort of idea is indefensible. Just curious what you think happens after we’ve jettisoned Marx.

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marthe raymond 04.13.13 at 6:31 pm

The problem with Marxism is that it’s way too white, and whites are not the majority on this planet.

Whites always strive to be among the middle and upper classes. Kinda leaves workers out in the woodshed, doesn’t it. And it meant that until this century, revolutions were made by the bourgoisie. With the revolutions now taking place in dominantly non-white countries by folks who have been traditionally disenfranchised, the bourgoisie is on the run and dangerous in those countries, as they want to hang onto their white–or even their mestizo privileges by any means necessary–even if it means handing over their countries’ resources to the white imperialists (and don’t let Obama’s brown mask fool you; he’s as culturally white as they come).

Marx doesn’t work very well for indigenous folks, as we don’t value what whites value. We feel most comfortable being part of the big picture of the natural world, not supplanting it.

It’s not even that Marx’s analysis of historical process is not useful, it’s just that we were not part of that process and do not aspire to be part of it. Killing other people so that you can live better just doesn’t appeal to us as a historical model to follow. That’s all about death. And we value life.

Well, that’s my take anyway. Ward Churchill has written several essays on why marxism and indigenous folks don’t mix well. And they are worth reading for a different perspective.

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Rich Puchalsky 04.13.13 at 6:40 pm

“Just curious what you think happens after we’ve jettisoned Marx.”

Now we go on to something new. I wouldn’t try to stop those who want a theoretical framework (or those who don’t want a theoretical framework), but if we have one, it should take current knowledge into account, and not be held down by the perceived need to correspond to ancient ideology. In particular, and in my opinion:

1. The left has to take environmental limits and an environmental economy seriously. Some of the major problems of capitalism are defined out of the whole Marxian system. It’s impossible to even explain many of the most important current problems in political economy within a Marxist framework.

2. The left has to take anti-authoritarianism seriously. It’s easy for contemporary leftists to denounce the idea of vanguard parties, but there’s nothing in most non-anarchist frameworks to forbid them from reappearing in a new form. I’m not saying that everyone has to be an anarchist, but those who aren’t should think about e.g. feminism, gay rights, racism, and all of the other things that class-based leftists are fond of denouncing as distractions and treat them seriously as part of an anti-authoritarian approach.

3. Give up on class conflict and the whole worship of workers. Increasing production is going to mean that more and more people are unemployed, and should be unemployed. The left has to come up with a good society in which the unemployed can live well, not treat workers / proles as the important class antagonists of the oligarchs. The workers are often more invested in being one step up the hierarchy than the oligarchs are in keeping everyone immiserated.

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Harold 04.13.13 at 6:58 pm

Obama is 50 % African. Churchill is 18.75 % (3/16ths) Cherokee. Or 1/8th (12 percent) depending on how he is feeling. Marx was 100 percent Jewish (not considered white at the time), though he had a classical, humanistic education. The “whitest” of them, therefore, is Churchill.

On the other hand, it is true that Marx and Marxists tended to consider agriculturalists and hunter gatherers “backward”, while privileging industry as the wave of the future.

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Mao Cheng Ji 04.13.13 at 7:11 pm

“Marx doesn’t work very well for indigenous folks, as we don’t value what whites value.”

Is this a parody?

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marthe raymond 04.13.13 at 8:11 pm

Well, you white guys bit the bait again.

Blood quantum is a WHITE concept, which is why you jumped right up with it as a cultural reflex, made racist slurs right on cue, and of course did not have either the courtesy or the intellectual discipline to respond to my arguments. Looked like a four-bagger, right–but I just tagged you out at the plate, friend-o. Obama is culturally white, any zionist worth his Uzi would call
you something nasty in Hebrew, and you, friend-o, are just another white expert on what makes a person culturally indigenous.

Parody is, and it makes me sad to have to say it, this thread nattering on as if it had some relation to geopolitical reality.

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Hector_St_Clare 04.13.13 at 8:27 pm

I don’t really agree with Marthe about white and indigenous people, but I’m going to refrain from arguing here, because whatever our disagreements, we are both fundamentally on the same side, whereas people like Rich Puchalsky, Martin Bento and Matthew Yglesias aren’t.

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between4walls 04.13.13 at 8:42 pm

Hector- Yeah, but the group I was talking about didn’t afaik consider themselves Marxists.

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rf 04.13.13 at 8:51 pm

“The problem with Marxism is that it’s way too white, and whites are not the majority on this planet.“

How does this argument hold in regards to someone like Chavez, who was (afaik) partly inspired by two ‘white’ concepts (Christianity and Marxism)? Or is that the wrong way of looking at it? (I’m using that argument on your terms, not neccessarily supporting it)

“With the revolutions now taking place in dominantly non-white countries by folks who have been traditionally disenfranchised, the bourgoisie is on the run and dangerous in those countries, as they want to hang onto their white–or even their mestizo privileges by any means necessary”

Does it make sense to frame, for example, the Arab uprisings in this way, to remove them from the very specific context they developed in, and then set them in the context of Latin American politics? Is treating all these diverse and complex cultures, societies and politics as one homogenous bloc not itself racist?
Also, just to note, I’m not sure how much solidarity some groups in the Middle East might feel with the Venezuelan people at the moment considering Chavez’s sycophantic grovelling towards some of the regions tyrants. (Allowing his anti Americanism override his support for people living under authoritarian regimes)

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rf 04.13.13 at 8:53 pm

“the bourgoisie is on the run and dangerous in those countries”

This is also explicitly a Marxist way of framing it though, isnt it?

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js. 04.13.13 at 9:02 pm

Rich @344:

I don’t know what to do with “give up on class conflict” (like, I don’t think I actually understand what that means*), but I agree quite entirely with everything else you say. And, umm, I still find Marx extremely useful in thinking through these things—e.g. how different types of oppression (of women, of race-identified groups, etc.) can coexist in a given society and reinforce each other or come into conflict with each other, etc. I’d say I find Marx more helpful than anyone else I know or can think of. (On the other hand, internet arguments about true/orthodox/better Marxism are pretty much the Platonic ideal of negative utility—so with you there.)

*If “class-conflict” implies the dumb-ass conception of class whereby people say things like, “It’s not about race, it’s really all about class!”, then ok, yes please chuck that post-haste.

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Mao Cheng Ji 04.13.13 at 9:05 pm

Whatever this is about, it sure needs better terminology. Preferably without racism, and with some explanation of who exactly these “indigenous folks” are; what makes them “indigenous”.

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Mao Cheng Ji 04.13.13 at 10:56 pm

“because whatever our disagreements, we are both fundamentally on the same side”

Actually, this “white vs. indigenous” worldview sounds a lot like the sort of thing known as “socialism of fools”.

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marthe raymond 04.13.13 at 11:08 pm

You guys are hilariously silly, friend-s.

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Jerry Vinokurov 04.13.13 at 11:36 pm

I’m not a Marxist, but the idea that Marx’s theory of history leaves no room for contingency is as laughable as the idea that because you can’t precisely predict the weather, you can’t say anything meaningful about global climate.

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marthe raymond 04.14.13 at 12:19 am

This entire thread is really laughable.

You don’t seem to realize that neoliberalism is imploding from its own vices. First it damaged the countries of the developing world, and now has nothing left but to consume the flesh of its promoters.

Instead of fighting over how to functionally define marxism why not do something visionary and take the aspects that might apply–and apply them?

That’s what is happening in South America.

What are you DOING?

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Hector_St_Clare 04.14.13 at 1:46 am

Mao Cheng Ji,

Possibly, but I don’t really care. indigenous ethnonationalists are at least doing *something* and giving voice to people’s anger at liberal capitalism. That’s a lot more than the liberals are doing.

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marthe raymond 04.14.13 at 2:28 am

Not to mention that what we are doing is more honorable than picking our navels–of which this thread is a particularly depressing example–or maintaining the flag of fools for capitalism, especially since the only folks benefiting from said capitalism are multi-billionaires such as the world’s richest person here in Mexico who provides me with piss-poor internet service for this phone from which I am posting, or El Chapo Guzmán who will make sure you receive your order of illegal substances to convince you that the US is the center of the universe, or the arms cartels, familiarly known as Big Guns, or the Big Oil folks ordering their peons to frack and lay pipelines in the sacred places on indigenous lands–after all the sacred place of those gringos who wouldn’t give you folks the time of day, much less 5 bucks for a coffee at StarBUCKS, is Wall Street, which despite the example of the indigenous folks of the EZLN in Chiapas, upon whom OWS supposedly modeled itself, continues to be occupied by the high priests of the Big Bucks cartel.

My recommendation is that you come down off your white horses and if you cannot accept the full reality of this planet, at least learn a few languages, spend some time in uncomfortable places of ferment and make some steps toward joining the human race.

As Chief Seattle said, maybe we will turn out to be brothers after all–we shall see.

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