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Friday, April 19, 2019

Two Marxisms?

Google knows that I have an abiding interest in Marxism. Consequently, I receive frequent links to articles that Google’s algorithms select as popular or influential. Consistently, at the top of the list, are articles by or about the irrepressible Slavoj Žižek. Žižek has mastered the tricks of a public intellectual-- entertaining, pompous, outrageous, calculatedly obscure, and mannered. The disheveled pose and the beard add to a near caricature of the European professor gifting the world with big ideas embedded deeply in layers of obscurantism-- a sure-fire way to appear profound. And a sure-fire way to advance one’s commercial entertainment value.

Close followers of the “master” even post videos of Žižek devouring hot dogs-- one in each hand! He is currently cashing in on a public debate with a right-wing gas-bag counterpart which reportedly brings in obscene prices for tickets. Marxism as entrepreneurship.

Žižek is one of the latest iterations of a long line of largely European academics who build modest public celebrity from an identification with Marxism or the Marxist tradition. From Sartre and existentialism through structuralism, postmodernism, post-essentialism, post-Fordism, and identarian politics, academics have appropriated pieces of the Marxist tradition and claimed to rethink that tradition, while keeping a measured, safe distance from any Marxist movement. They are Marxists when it brings an audience, but seldom answer the call to action.

The curious thing about this intellectual Marxism, this parlor, dilettante Marxism is that it is never all in; it is Marxism with grave reservations. Marxism is fine if it’s the “early” Marx, the “humanist” Marx, the “Hegelian” Marx, the Marx of the Grundrisse, the Marx without Engels, the Marx without the working class, the Marx before Bolshevism, or before Communism. Understandably, if you want to be the next big Marx-whisperer, you must separate yourself from the pack, you must rethink Marxism, rediscover the “real” Marx, locate where Marx got it wrong.

Previous generations of well-meaning, but class-befuddled university students have been seduced by “radical” thinkers who offer a taste of rebellion in a sexy academic package. Student book packs carried unread, but fashionable books by authors like Marcuse, Althusser, Lacan, Deleuze, Laclau, Mouffe, Foucault, Derrida, Negri, and Hardt-- authors who shared common features of exotic, provocative book titles and impenetrable prose. Books that promised much, but delivered murk.

With a new generation of radically minded youth looking for alternatives to capitalism and curious about socialism, it is inevitable that many are looking toward Marx. And where do they turn?

A Yale professor unabashedly offers a handy primer, featured in the hip Jacobin Magazine, entitled How to be a Marxist. Professor Samuel Moyn is currently the Henry R. Luce Professor of Jurisprudence. Apparently, Moyn feels no unease with holding a chair endowed by one of the country’s most notorious anti-Communist, anti-Marxist publishers, while offering a guidebook to Marxism.

Moyn’s How to… presumption to guide the unknowing to Marxism is neither justified nor explained. Nonetheless, he feels confident to recommend two recently deceased academics, Moishe Postone and Erik Olin Wright (along with the still living Perry Anderson), as representing the last of “...the generation of great intellectuals whose 1960s experiences led them to adopt a lifework of recovering and reimagining Marxism.”

I confess that his choice of Moishe Postone had me baffled. Should I be embarrassed to say that I had never known Professor Postone’s work or known him to be a Marxist? When I found a YouTube interview with the esteemed Professor Postone, I quickly discovered that he emphatically and without reservation denies being a Marxist. Further, Postone contends that most of what we call Marxism was written by Frederick Engels. Postone concedes that Engels was “really a good guy,” but Engels never properly understood Marx. Postone, on the other hand, does. And his Marx does not “glorify” the industrial working class.

I am, however, familiar with the other alleged exemplar of a “great intellectual” devotion to Marxism, Erik Olin Wright. Wright was a long-standing, prominent member of the so-called “Analytic Marxism” school. Wright, like the other members of this intellectual movement, attempted to place Marxism on a “legitimate” foundation, where legitimacy was earned by subjecting Marxism to the rigors of conventional Anglo-American social science. The conceit that Anglo-American social science is without flaws or that it has nothing to learn from Marx’s method is never questioned with this clique. But to Wright’s credit, he struggled mightily to grasp the concept of social class.

In order “to save the Left from going down various cul-de-sacs again,” Professor Moyn offers the latest book of his “brilliant colleague,” Martin Hägglund. Moyn assures us that “This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom is an excellent place to start for those who want to energize the theory of socialism, or even build their own theory of a Marxist variant of it.”

It takes only a brief moment to see that Martin Hägglund and his admiring colleague are taking us down other cul-de-sacs, ones trod by many earlier generations. Hägglund’s journey would revisit existentialism, Hegel, and Christian traditions in search of the elusive “meaning of life.” Though many of us thought that Marx offered a profoundly informed analysis of social change and social justice, Moyn/Hägglund, following Postone, bring forward “the ultimate questions anyone must ask: what work should I do? How should I spend my finite time?” Accumulating capital contrasts, they submit, with “maximizing... each individual’s free time to spend as she pleases…”

Thus, the struggle for emancipation, in this rethinking of Marxism, is not the emancipation of the working class, but the wresting of freely disposable time from the grip of work. The professors concede that this struggle is far easier for academics than for “the wretched of the earth.”

“And finally,” Moyn concludes, “there is Hägglund’s proposal that Marxists can ditch communism — which in any event Marx described vaguely — in favor of democracy. It is not totally clear what Hägglund means by democracy, something which neither Marx himself nor many Marxists have chosen to pursue theoretically.” So Hägglund distills “Marxism” into a rejection of Communism and an embrace of a vague “democracy.” I would have to agree with Moyn: “Indeed, it is remarkable how little of what most people have thought Marxist theory was about make it into Hägglund’s ...attempt to restart it for our time.” Apparently, the now revealed secret of becoming a Marxist is to discard Marx.

Like many self-proclaimed “Marxists” who came before Postone, Hägglund, and Moyn, their intent seems to be to defang Marxism more than it is promote it.

Dangerous Ideas

The naked truth is that Marxism-- from the time of Marx’s censorship and multiple expulsions from different countries-- is a dangerous idea. Marx’s inability to secure academic appointments and his constant surveillance and harassment by authorities proved to be a harbinger of the fate of nearly all authentic Marxist intellectuals. Capitalism does not endow those who advocate the undoing of capitalism with academic honor or celebrity. And those “Marxists” who do rise to academic acclaim, who get lucrative book deals, who enjoy media exposure, seldom present much of a threat to the system.

It is a telling fact that, though history has produced many “organic” Marxists, Marxists with roots in the working class and in movements challenging capitalism, their contributions seldom populate the bibliographies of university professors, unless to deride. University employment is rarely available to purveyors of dangerous ideas or the advocacy of a version of Marx that calls for revolutionary change.

A Marxist historian like the late Herbert Aptheker, who did more than any other intellectual to challenge the twisted Birth of a Nation/Gone With The Wind depiction of the benign South and its heroic defense of a noble way of life, could not find work in US universities. Indeed, it took a free speech movement to get him to be permitted to speak at all on US campuses. His books have disappeared from circulation and few students of African American history are exposed to his contributions.

No one has created a history of the US labor movement to rival the late Marxist Phillip Foner’s 10-volume History of the Labor Movement in the US. Foner’s 5-volume The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass reestablished Douglass as a preeminent figure in the abolition of slavery in the US. An historically Black university, Lincoln University, courageously hired Foner after years of blacklisting. Sadly, today, his works are largely ignored in fields where he pioneered.

The serious contributions of many other US Marxist intellectuals can be found in back issues of publications like Science and Society, Political Affairs, Masses, Masses and Mainstream, and Freedomways resting on out-of-the-way library shelves gathering dust, diminished by McCarthyism, blacklists, scholarly cowardice, and blatant anti-Communism.

The doors and public discourse of the academy and the mass media have equally been shut to working class Marxists (unless they renounce their views!). Despite his leading of working class movements and his writing prolifically, Marxist William Z. Foster’s works on organizing, labor strategy and tactics, and political economy are largely forgotten, unless they reappear as someone else’s thinking. Other key Marxist figures responsible for and interpreting some of labor’s finest moments such as Len De Caux and Wyndham Mortimer are denied membership in the club.

Similarly, Marxist pioneers in the Black and women’s equality movements like Benjamin Davis, William Patterson, and Claudia Jones are neither hailed as such nor offered as examples of “How to be a Marxist.” 

Marxist political economist Victor Perlo's work in identifying the highest reaches of finance capital and the economics of racism are curiously missing from any relevant academic conversation.

What these Marxists all share is an activist political life in the US Communist Party, a proud badge, but one denigrated by most US intellectuals.

The best writing of the venerable Monthly Review magazine suffers the same marginalization. Its founders were threatening enough to be victimized by the Red scare. And co-founder Paul Sweezy, a serious Marxist political economist, never was enthusiastically welcomed into academic circles.

Today, Michael Parenti is the most dangerous Marxist intellectual in the US. I know this because despite countless books, videos, and speaking engagements, despite an uncompromising commitment to a Marxist interpretation of history and current events, despite a profound, but reasoned hatred of capitalism, and despite an admirably approachable style and manner with big ideas, he is otherwise unemployed by universities and denied access to all but the most left or marginal media.

Another impressive US Marxist scholar, Gerald Horne, though enjoying academic tenure, deserves to be studied by every “leftist” in the US for the integrity, accessibility, and quality of his work.

Authentic Marxism, as opposed to fashionable, trendy, or faddish Marxism, is relentless, aggressive, and inspiring of action. It diligently dissects the inner workings of the capitalist system. It is ruthless and unsparing in its rejection of capitalism. It challenges conventional thinking, making few friends in the capitalist press and rocking the gentility and collegiality of the staid liberalism of the academy. Marxism is not a career move, but a thankless commitment.

Real Marxists are necessarily outliers. Until the conditions for revolutionary changes ripen, they are often subjected to skepticism, disinterest, even derision and hostility. Marxist poseurs are allergic to political organizations, activism, and intellectual risk, while committed Marxists are compelled to seek and join movements for change; they are driven to serve Marx’s oft-quoted, seldom heeded eleventh thesis on Feurbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it."

Greg Godels

Monday, April 1, 2019

We Knew Mueller’s Basket was Empty

The RussiaGate conspiracy theory, which came unwound over a past weekend, underscores the truth that the rot in the US political system includes the security services and the monopoly media, as well as the Democratic and the Republican Parties. Of course that comes as no surprise to the too few of us on the left who loudly cried foul when the anti-Russia hysteria reached painful levels.

Matt Taibbi and Glenn Greenwald, two who earned the right to gloat over Mueller’s conclusion of no Russian collusion with Trump, promptly exercised that right. Taibbi recounts many of the more ridiculous claims assembled to form the fictitious mountain of evidence for the Trump/Russia connection. Greenwald has mounted a media blitz (e.g., here and here), rubbing the nose of the establishment media in the RussiaGate excrement.

In response, Joshua Frank, managing editor of CounterPunch, engages in a nitpick with Taibbi and Greenwald and their choice of comparisons and superlatives. Frank crows that the RussiaGate debacle can’t hold a candle to the Weapons-of-Mass-Destruction deception preluding the Iraqi invasion of 2003, as though pointing that out is of itself of any great significance. It must be remembered that CounterPunch went into a public meltdown in 2017-18 when they were allegedly victimized by an internet poseur. The late Alexander Cockburn-- a founder of CounterPunch--  would have simply moved on, but the RussiaGate hysteria drove CounterPunch into a paranoid frenzy over the “Alice Donovan” affair. Consequently, CP tread very carefully around the RussiaGate question.

In an ironic twist, Frank’s snarky response counts as a further example of how damaging the RussiaGate fiasco was to media independence, objectivity, and integrity.

Obviously little was learned from the Judith Miller/WMD episode that brought shame on a lap dog media in the run-up to the Iraqi Invasion of 2003. Today, as then, there is little contrition shown in the backwash of a near-total media debacle. Today’s generation of budding media stars-- elite educated and fast-tracked into media prominence-- seems to have the same deference to the rich and powerful, the same servility to conformity as its forbearers.

So it’s not surprising that many caught on the wrong side of the Mueller report are redesigning the rules of the game, rather than accepting defeat.

One writer for a major RussiaGate-promoting magazine decided that the evidentiary bar was set entirely too high for Mueller to draw proper conclusions from the data collected by his large team of lawyers and FBI agents.

But that is absurd. The Justice Department charge to the Special Council (Order 3915-2017) was shockingly broad: “ conduct an investigation...including:  
(i) any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump; and (ii) any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation; and (iii) any other matters within the scope of 28 C.F.R. § 600.4(a).

Rather than too high, the evidentiary bar was virtually non-existent. Mueller could report whatever he wanted on whatever he wanted.

Apparently lacking any sense of whimsy, a Bloomberg writer begged social media not to punish the RussiaGate conspirators by banning them for their transgressions. He noted a Republican commentator calling for the ban and pleaded mercy for his irresponsible colleagues.

Another reporter stung by the RussiaGate outcome argued that the sainted Robert Mueller was too good, too principled, too objective to operate in this corrupted world. The former FBI director was a man of nuance and fair play, and his report’s conclusions should not overshadow the “knowable facts” embedded in his report.

Of course this is nonsense: a bizarre brew of metaphysical “facts” revealed mysteriously to the author and a cloyingly fawning portrait of a player previously compromised by the weapons-of-mass-destruction lie.

Sainthood ill-fits Robert Mueller. He knew last summer that he had no evidence for collusion, but strung the investigation on to benefit the Democrats in the interim elections. As I noted last June:

That certainly captures the allure of the Mueller investigation to the big corporate media-- it is the gift that keeps on giving, until it doesn’t. And it seems, more and more, that it has stopped giving. That would likely be the meaning of Senator Mark Warner’s comments last week at a retreat with important fellow Democrats: “If you get me one more glass of wine, I’ll tell you stuff only Bob Mueller and I know,” Warner reportedly told the 100 or so guests, according to the Boston Globe (6-25-18). “If you think you’ve seen wild stuff so far, buckle up. It’s going to be a wild couple of months.”
Warner knows better than most that Mueller and Russiagate are the only meatless bones that the Democrats have tossed to the ravenous corporate media. Also, he knows that the Democrats need the issue to stay alive for the next “couple of months” to help the Democrats in the interim elections.
But most significantly, he knew when he spoke that confidence in the Mueller investigation had waned and was in need of some juice. As The Hill reported on June 13: Mueller’s public image sinks to all-time low in new poll. “The Politico–Morning Consult poll found that 40 percent of voters believe that Mueller's probe has been handled unfairly — a 6-point increase from February…”, and a greater number than those who thought the investigation to be fair...
...And in an opinion piece in The Hill, former National Security Prosecutor, Joseph Moreno, hopes to let the faithful down gently with Prepare to be disappointed with Russia investigation conclusion (6-26-18).

Clearly, this mini-series is losing the public, a development that backs the Democratic Party into an awkward corner. The Democrats needed wildly sensational stories to court the sensationalist monopoly media and to cover the embarrassing loss to a vulgar entertainer who makes Ronald Reagan look like a seasoned, measured diplomat.

The final act in the Mueller play was to place the private parts of three despicable Trump associates-- Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort, and Roger Stone-- in the judicial vise. As a modern-day torture, nothing secures cooperation more effectively than tightening the vise with the threat of more and more legal indictments, regardless of their merit. Yet despite the Inquisition-like pressures, the Mueller team was unable to generate Russian collusion.

Mueller closed the shop. Like former FBI head, James Comey, Mueller doesn’t like his reputation to be sullied. Therefore, $20-40 million later, no evidence of Trump/Russia collusion, no conclusion on obstruction, and case closed.

The “journalists” who have been hustling the RussiaGate conspiracy have taken a big hit in popularity. Ratings for MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow-- the Queen of RussiaGate-- are down over 20% in the wake of the Mueller Report. Her network and CNN are being appropriately punished for their role in fueling a wildly unhinged smear of Russia and Putin.

The beneficiary of the collapse of RussiaGate, of course, is Donald Trump. While the media and the Democrats spun their fairy tales, Trump pressed on with his sordid agenda. Instead of battling military spending, wars, bitter sanctions, tax increases, destruction of social programs, immigration, etc., the Democrats offered two years of fear-driven distraction. Instead of constructing a program around Medicare-for-all, taxing the rich, relief of the cost of education, minimum-wage reform, etc., the Democrats and the sensation-hungry media indulged in two years of gossip, innuendo, and lies.

Trump couldn’t dream of a greater gift.

Greg Godels