The Magic Bookstore

by Harry on May 11, 2016

A lovely vignette at the Chronicle by Christopher Phelps about a late night encounter with a bookstore. Which reminded me that somewhere in my office I have a first edition of Spartacus, signed by the author, that I should give to Phelps next time I see him (don’t tell him).



pretendous 05.11.16 at 1:18 pm

Fast or Gibbon?


harry b 05.11.16 at 1:29 pm

Fast. No publisher!


Anarcissie 05.11.16 at 3:06 pm

So Left radicalism has become an antiquarian thing.


RNB 05.11.16 at 3:21 pm

That Boudin find is something. I spent much of life and almost all my savings in bookstores like this. Then most it got put on the internet, and it turns out that I did not have to pay for the extra square footage to put all these books in my home.

One of my favorite books that turns up in collections from old CP bookstores and collections is William J Blake’s Elements of Marxian Economic Theory and Its Criticism, also published as An American Looks at Karl Marx. Blake was quite a character, and eventually married Christina Stead who for some remains of the greatest though still unappreciated novelists of the 20th century.

At any rate, Boudin’s critique of Bohm-Bawerk has held up remarkably well. Plus there is this:

“It is the peculiar nature of such means of production that their usefulness or uselessness cannot be definitely ascertained until fully completed and operated for some time. The result is that immense masses of such ‘means of production’ are constantly produced without any actual necessity therefor, and often for purely speculative purposes. While these ‘means of production’ are being produced, and it takes years to complete them, the wheels of capitalistic production revolve merrily, without hitch or stop, notwithstanding the fact that the work may be absolutely useless in whole or part, and that the value supposed to be created in their production, or at least a large part thereof, will never be realized. The wiseacres of capitalism, like Tugan Baranowsky, listen to the siren song of these merrily revolving wheels, and draw in their imagination alluring pictures of the endlessness of capitalism wound around an endless chain of ‘means of production.’ Of course there is bound to come a rude awakening. The production of these particular ‘means of production’ turns out to be the merest waste.” (p.245)
And so Boudin argues:
“But the undertaking has to be finished some day, and the harvest must at last be gathered in. Then it is discovered that the undertaking was a failure. The railroads, it turns out, were not necessary where they were built, for they have nothing to carry when they are ready for business. The undertaking goes into liquidation. The vast amounts of capital, the glorious piles or stretches of means of production, now represent so much waste, for capital which does not pay dividends is not capital according to capitalistic laws. Then the crisis is on–things go to smash all around. The crisis is not limited ot those interested in the particular undertaking. First, because the ramifications of modern capitalistic undertakings are so extensive and complicated, particularly by reason of our credit system, that no serious break can occur anywhere but the whole system will crumble to its foundations.
“Secondly, because the large number of men employed in the producing of the now defunct ‘means of production’ are now thrown out of employment, thereby weighing heavily on the labor market and emanding charity from their masters. And thirdly, because the apparent prosperity incident to the continued production of the large ‘means of production’ has caused a general rush of production to an unwarranted extent, even in spheres which are not in any way directly connected with the particular undertaking which brought about the prosperity…………and the crisis.” (p.248)
Also: “…after a crisis there is a superabundance of capital which is seeking employment. As the ordinary fields of occupation, particularly at home, are well filled, the capitalists look for some new fields wherein their capital could be profitably employed. Knowing that it would be useless to manfacture some new consumption goods, or some machine for the purpose of manufacturing such goods, for the reason that the capacity of our society for consumption is limited, they start out to create new demands by creating new civilization. Civilization has proved a good customer, and capitalists turn to it instinctively whenever hard pressed. So the iron threads of civilization begin spinning at home and abroad, but mostly abroad, the missionary spirit of capitalism being well known. This creates a demand for vast amounts of capital and labor. Things begin to hum,–the prospects are bright. The markets are relieved of surplus product, and trade has revived. An era of prosperity has set in. The more crazy the ‘civilizing’ undertaking, particularly the longer it takes to finish it, and obtain results, the greater the prosperity and the longer it lasts.” (p.248)


RNB 05.11.16 at 3:29 pm

How joyous would have Phelps been had he found one of the early Sidney Hook books that Hook would not allow to be republished?


RNB 05.11.16 at 3:43 pm

Also grab anything written by the British Marxist scientists–Haldane, Bernal, Levy, Hodgben (more a fellow traveler), Needham. Their work in the 30s and 40s was daring and interesting. Maurice Dobb’s work in the 30’s and 40s remains valuable. John Stratchey had some interesting formulations as did Louis Fraina/Corey in the US. Some of Emile Burns’ pamphlets are interesting as are some of Eaton’s ideas about Keynes. It’s great to see that Korsch will soon be republished. A strange, sprawling book is TA Jackson on dialectics. Politzer’s work is dogmatic but I loved the intro he wrote to a collection on the French Revolution; he was later killed by the Nazis. There is the International Council Correspondence that became Living Marxism, edited by Paul Mattick too.


Christopher Phelps 05.11.16 at 3:58 pm

Harry, thank you, an honor that you posted it.

Anarcissie, the politics are not antiquarian. The artefacts can be.

RNB, I found no original Hook there (I have it all anyway) but the store did have, weirdly, my Hook book, the edition of Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx that I wrote the introduction to, and even the new Radicals book I co-authored. In a fit of the spirit of the piece, I offered to sign them. “It wouldn’t add any value,” the clerk told me. “It might diminish the value,” I happily allowed. They went unsigned.


RNB 05.11.16 at 4:06 pm

Was sure that you had all the Hook. Just thought you would get a kick to find another first edition of Towards an Understanding. It’s been 30 years since I read that Hook book. I remember thinking that he made unnecessary concessions to marginal utility theory. Hook had studied with Korsch, right? And then also interpreted Marx in light of American pragmatism and this book has both influences. I know that I should reread it. I have the original, so I haven’t read your intro.


RNB 05.11.16 at 4:08 pm

Well maybe twenty years since I read the Hook. Funny self-deprecating comment you made, by the way.


Christopher Phelps 05.11.16 at 4:09 pm

I think everything I have to say about Hook has been said in all I’ve published on him and I eventually tired of hearing my own voice on the subject, so I’ll hold back from going on about him, but I’m glad you know the book. It definitely repays the reading. Somewhere in Historical Materialism a long while back I had an essay that fits with your comment entitled something like “Why Wouldn’t Sidney Hook Let His Best Book be Republished?”


RNB 05.11.16 at 4:12 pm

I am sure that I knew that he would not allow the book to be republished because of something you have written. But if you have any thoughts about Korsch, American pragmatism or Hook that you want to share, however reluctantly, I am all ears.


Christopher Phelps 05.11.16 at 4:17 pm

I am so deep in the history of sexuality nowadays that I’d get lost trying to do much with that, but the Michigan edition of Young Sidney Hook (which discusses Korsch and Hook a tiny bit) has an appendix on pragmatism that is probably my clearest statement on that subject. I’d just make a hash of it here.


LFC 05.11.16 at 5:03 pm

@Christopher Phelps

Enjoyed your Chronicle piece that the OP linked, but unless I missed it you don’t give the name of the bookstore, simply refer to it as being in a basement. I assume that was a deliberate omission, but it seems odd. Or maybe the store doesn’t have a name?


Christopher Phelps 05.11.16 at 5:11 pm

Yes, I was coy about that. But to readers of CT calibre it will not be that hard to infer, with Google and the neighborhood in mind.


Philippe 05.11.16 at 5:16 pm

Enjoyed your Chronicle piece that the OP linked, but unless I missed it you don’t give the name of the bookstore, simply refer to it as being in a basement. I assume that was a deliberate omission, but it seems odd. Or maybe the store doesn’t have a name?

My guess is E Village Books on St Marks Pl (at 1st Ave)
Its in a basement and has a bookshelf dedicated to radical politics.
I donated 50+ books to them last year. Mostly in French.
It also the last bookstore in the area now that St Marks Books has closed (taking with them to the nether regions the copies of the book I published that they held on consignment)


Christopher Phelps 05.11.16 at 5:22 pm

Trés bien, Phillipe.


Christopher Phelps 05.11.16 at 5:26 pm

Pardonez moi: Philippe.


RNB 05.11.16 at 6:03 pm

@12 on sexuality I remember knowing a splendid guy Peter Drucker many years ago and he wrote some very interesting and important pieces on the public health aspects of the AIDS crisis that I think appeared in a journal with which you have been associated Against the Current. I think Drucker has a new book out in Brill Historical Materialism thesis. Is your research related?


RNB 05.11.16 at 6:11 pm

@3 I really don’t think it’s an antiquarian thing. On another thread I tried to show that Hilferding’s concept of promoters’ profit may be relevant today. Finance Capital is more than 100 years old. The long quotes I gave from Boudin indicate one way expectations about the future play a crucial role in the dynamics of accumulation. It seems that Jens Beckert has a new book out on this from Harvard University Press. It could be interesting to read this in light of Boudin’s ideas long ago. If you have a look at Heinz Kurz’s new history of economics, you will see a revival of some the critiques of methodological individualism that Boudin made. There is interesting stuff in those old books.


Christopher Phelps 05.11.16 at 6:30 pm

Drucker’s book is excellent. His is a synthesis of grand sweep and well worth people reading if they want a political economy of sexuality. My research is much more archival and typified by an article I published in 2013 in the journal Labor edited by Leon Fink. I should say I haven’t been with Against the Current in many years, but mad props for the obscure factoid.


RNB 05.11.16 at 8:13 pm

@20 Your piece is so interesting and raises questions for me at least whether socialist/Marxist thought has the resources for or even may intrinsically be an obstacle to understanding the nature of sexual oppression. How tolerant was even early libertine Soviet culture? I see that so much complicity in oppression was justified in terms of political expediency, but perhaps there are deeper problems here?

I saw that a manuscript on gender written by Marilyn Strathern in the early 70s has been found and published, with an afterword by Judith Butler. I have to guess that this text will give us great insight into the nature of thinking about gender and perhaps sexuality at the time.


Christopher Phelps 05.11.16 at 8:20 pm

This, RNB, is exactly what my book to come will try to address.

Good chatting. I’m now puttering off to bed to read, as per my normal routine, without which I’d get nothing done in the way of reading. Dubofsky and Tine’s biography of John L. Lewis for tonight. Oh, yeah. (Only a labor historian would find this the right thing to be doing in bed. And I say that as a historian of sexuality.)


Christopher Phelps 05.11.16 at 8:28 pm

Oh, and by the way, John L. Lewis is not who a department store was named after (for those in UK). Nor is he a great Congressmen and freedom movement veteran (for those in USA). He was a coal miner union leader who once sat astride the world and now is entirely forgotten. And he is as unlike Arthur Scargill as ever a union leader can be imagined. That’s all, adieu.

Harry, I’m plotting a ticket to grab Spartacus. Weird mention since I just had an “I am Spartacus” moment the other day. These seem to happen from time to time.


Lowhim 05.11.16 at 8:42 pm

Beautiful short piece. Love these kinds of bookstores (usually the 2nd hand ones tend to be better, why is that? No need for facades or any pretensions at finding the next new and hot book?) and the more labyrinthine the better.


Anarcissie 05.11.16 at 9:14 pm

Philippe 05.11.16 at 5:16 pm @ 15 —
I thought St Marx Books moved to East 3d Street. Sort of.


Val 05.11.16 at 9:21 pm

Wow what a wealth of knowledge on old labour history! I can’t contribute anything on that theme, but just wanted to comment – across the two latest threads so to speak – re RNB’s comment on Christina Stead @4.

Christina Stead was Australian, as you probably know, and ‘The Man who Loved Children’ was based on her Australian childhood, though ostensibly set in America. She was little recognised here (oz) for many years, and I’d never heard of her when I came across that book in my early twenties. It didn’t quite ‘take the top of my head off and rearrange my brain’ to paraphrase Jo Walton, but it made me see the world differently – or perhaps, realise that there were people who saw worlds that were like mine, yet somehow completely different – “all changed” to quote Ursula Le Guin (the one who did take the top off my head off etc).

Anyway this is getting a bit too OT here, but Stead is so interesting – I haven’t really wanted to read that book again – it has a slightly nightmarish quality, as it seems her life did according to the biography by Hazel Rowley – but fascinating.


bob mcmanus 05.11.16 at 9:25 pm

whether socialist/Marxist thought has the resources for or even may intrinsically be an obstacle to understanding the nature of sexual oppression.

Maybe so, but there really isn’t a shortage of Marxian feminists for you to argue with about it. Zillah Eisenstein, Silvia Federici, Lidia Cirillo, Kathi Weeks, Nancy Fraser, Melissa Wright, Vivian Sobchak, Spivak…whether or not they accept such designations, or call themselves anti-capitalist or post-anarchism there is enough intersectionality going on round here I am fairly comfortable taking a stricter Marxian position as part of a dialogue with feminism. They are taking care of themselves, and each other.

And thanks to Phelps and this thread for expanding my reading list. I think.


Philippe 05.11.16 at 10:10 pm

Philippe 05.11.16 at 5:16 pm @ 15 —
I thought St Marx Books moved to East 3d Street. Sort of.

Yes, it did move to E 3rd where it held out for a while but now its permanently closed. It happened quickly. I received an email in March informing me of the closing and instructing me to pick up my books within 3 days.


LFC 05.12.16 at 1:19 am

C. Phelps @23
by the way, John L. Lewis is not who a department store was named after (for those in UK). Nor is he a great Congressmen and freedom movement veteran (for those in USA). He was a coal miner union leader who once sat astride the world and now is entirely forgotten.

Bit of an overstatement, for effect presumably. If someone said “John L. Lewis (not the Congressman)” I think a fair # of people wd be able to respond, albeit not nec. w details, along the lines of “union leader, founder [?] of CIO.” (Well, I know he had something to do w CIO.) In short, not really that obscure a name, imo. Maybe have to be born before the ’70s or have taken a decent US history course in h.s. or something — whatever.


harry b 05.12.16 at 3:03 am

Of the two 19 year olds in my living room, one immediately said “Miners union and CIO leader”. The other didn’t know. Regrettably, the one who didn’t know is the one who is related to me. Phelps — I’ve failed as a parent!


RNB 05.12.16 at 3:15 am

Then ask your 19-year-old about the John Lewis who was the British CP philosopher that attempted a Marx-Christianity synthesis and wrote a critique of Althusser. Just joking. But it’s a book by that John Lewis that is likely to show up in the bookstore Phelps found.


Anarcissie 05.12.16 at 3:53 am

Philippe 05.11.16 at 10:10 pm @ 28 — That’s very sad. There seems to be nothing to which the gentrification blitzkrieg is not laying waste. It will leave a desert when it finally collapses.


Christopher Phelps 05.12.16 at 7:35 am

LFC, fair enough, I’ll amend to almost completely forgotten, then, though I’m less optimistic than you that anyone who took a good h.s. History class would know the name, having marked more than my share of History exams.

Harry, that your daughter knows someone well enough to have them over to the house who in turn knows what the CIO was is an immense testimony to your success as a parent.


harry b 05.12.16 at 3:38 pm

Well, they’re friends through me. Still, she could rattle off the names of numerous Marxist theorists, and knows more than any 19 year old should about Edwin Witte and the origins of social security. And they’ve both read your latest book.


Christopher Phelps 05.12.16 at 6:03 pm

Since I kept thinking “let’s make this book intelligible to someone who is 20 without insulting their intelligence” this means I overshot the mark. Fantastic.


RNB 05.12.16 at 8:11 pm

And so I take it, harry b, that it does not follow from your philosophy of parenting that you should have protected your children from such dangerous books.


RNB 05.12.16 at 8:17 pm

I showed by eleven-year-old a splendid children’s book De Calan’s The Ghost of Karl Marx. She quickly grew bored but in the last few months she has gobbled up the graphic novel version of Swann’s Way (as well as Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories and Amish Tripathi’s Shiva trilogy). I am a lecturer. My wife is an actual Professor of Literature. She’s probably figured out how things work out.


harry b 05.13.16 at 1:41 am

No — my and Swift’s theory is surprisingly forgiving about shaping children’s values (surprising to us, that is). My own kid read Cohen’s book on Marx’s theory of history when she was 16. But not under my influence!


Henry (not the famous one) 05.16.16 at 10:56 pm

Okay the embers here are nearly extinct, but let me throw another log on the fire anyway. Fast fell out of favor with the Party when he broke with it over Hungary and destalinization. Any number of his former colleagues who had rhapsodized about his work before he left now condemned him as a hack. Jessica Mitford, on the other hand, insisted that she had never liked his writing, which made her, in her words, “a premature anti-Fastist.”

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