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On Slavery and Slave Formations (Patterson, 1979)

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by Orlando Patterson, New Left Review, 117, 31– 67.

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What is slavery? How do we identify a slave formation or society? What do we mean when we say that a given society was based on slavery? Is there such a thing as a Slave Mode of Production? It is remarkable that after nearly a century and a half of modern scholarship on the subject these are still unanswered questions. At no time, however, were answers more urgently needed than now. Slave studies has become something of an academic industry. The industry encompasses a vast and growing body of works from Marxist and bourgeois scholars alike, and on the ancient, medieval and modern periods of every continent. Yet, with a few notable exceptions, few scholars are concerned with both the theoretical and empirical aspects of the problem. An unhealthy specialization has therefore developed in current slave studies. On one side stands a legion of empiricists who pursue every conceivable detail of slave culture and economy, often in a theoretical wasteland; on the other side is a small but growing band of theorists who insist on defining the ‘crucial issues’ and weave theories which, by their own admission, bear no relation whatever to reality. READ PDF

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Critical theory and experience: Interview with Detlev Claussen (2019)

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Detlev Claussen and Jordi Maiso – RP 2.06 (Winter 2019)
Translated by Alex Alvarez Taylor

[See Claussen’s biography of Adorno: One Last Genius (2008)]

Detlev Claussen (b. 1948) is Professor Emeritus of Social Theory, Culture and Sociology at Leibniz Universität Hannover. In the mid-sixties he moved to Frankfurt to study with Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, where he was actively involved in the protest movements associated with the political upheavals of 1968. In the seventies, Claussen worked as Oskar Negt’s assistant, with whom he shared the common project of opening up new avenues for critical theory without renouncing the thought of their intellectual mentors. Since then, Claussen has argued that instead of offering an overarching theory that can be applied from ‘outside’ of existing social reality, critical theory offers a variety of strategies that allow us simultaneously to disentangle and invigorate present experience. Claussen has written on a wide range of themes, including social theory, psychoanalysis, the sociology of science and culture, as well as anti-Semitism, racism, nationalism and migration. His biography of the legendary Jewish coach and footballer Béla Guttmann, yet to be translated into English, offers a prime example of how his published work cannot be separated from the wider context of his intellectual biography. Both an essayist and Adorno’s biographer, Claussen is one of the leading lights of critical theory today.

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The shape of the world system in the thirteenth century (Abu-Lughod, 1987)

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by Janet Abu-Lughod (1987) PDF

BY the middle of the thirteenth century the Occident (Western Europe) and the Orient (as far as China) were linked together through a system of trade and, to a much lesser extent, production that had begun to form into what might be termed a “world system” rather than a set of imperial systems. Not unlike today, the nodes that were linked together were central places and port cities, rather than whole countries. The geographic nexus of this system was the Muslim heartland through which items of exchange had to move, either overland across the great so-called silk route or primarily via the sea, transiting the region from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean and then beyond, via either the Arab/Persian Gulf or the Red Sea.

By then, goods originating in the Middle and Far East were being sold in European fairs, and Europe was exporting in exchange raw materials, metals, and woolen textiles. Such trade was being conducted by merchants from highly diverse regions, speaking quite different languages and in touch with one another not only physically but by written instruments. “Capitalistic” institutions were well established in the sense that: (1) there existed conventional ways for credit to be extended and then paid off; (2) there were developed techniques for pooling capital and risks and for sharing profits and losses; and (3) production for export had begun to reorganize the way goods were produced and exchanged in the domestic economies of East and West. Significantly, this development was considerably more advanced in China and the Arab world than it was in Europe.

source: Studies in Comparative International Development volume 22, pages 3–25 (1987)

The Temporalities of Capitalism (Sewell, 2008)

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by William H. Sewell, Jr

Socio-Economic Review, Volume 6, Issue 3, July 2008, Pages 517- 537 (PDF)

See also: Logics of History: Social Theory and Social Transformation 2005

The temporalities of capitalism are in certain respects unique. The temporalities of social life in general are ‘eventful’, i.e. irreversible, contingent, uneven, discontinuous and transformational. Although capitalist social processes are in certain respects super-eventful, the extreme abstraction that is a signature of capitalist development enables core processes of capitalism to escape from the irreversibility of time and to sustain a recurrent logic at their core. This means that the temporality of capitalism is composite and contradictory, simultaneously still and hyper-eventful. Recognizing this contradiction at the core of capitalism poses important conceptual and methodological challenges for those who study it.

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Theological-Political Fragment (Walter Benjamin, 1921)

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Only the Messiah himself consummates all history, in the sense that he alone redeems, completes, creates its relation to the Messianic. For this reason nothing historical can relate itself on its own account to anything Messianic. Therefore the Kingdom of God is not the telos of the historical dynamic: it cannot be set as a goal. From the standpoint of history it is not the goal but the end. Therefore the order of the profane cannot be built up on the idea of the Divine Kingdom, and therefore theocracy has no political, but only a religious meaning. To have repudiated with utmost vehemence the political significance of theocracy is the cardinal merit of Blochs Spirit of Utopia.

The order of the profane should he erected on the idea of happiness. The relation of this order to the Messianic is one of the essential teachings of the philosophy of history. It is the precondition of a mystical conception of history, containing a problem that can be represented figuratively. If one arrow points to the goal toward which the profane dynamic acts, and another marks the direction of Messianic intensity, then certainly the quest to free humanity for happiness runs counter to the Messianic direction; but just as a force can, through acting, increase another that is acting in the opposite direction, so the order of the profane assists, through being profane, the coming of the Messianic Kingdom. The profane, therefore, although not itself a category of this Kingdom, is a decisive category of its quietest approach. For in happiness all that is earthly seeks its downfall, and only in good fortune is its downfall destined to find it. Whereas, admittedly, the immediate Messianic intensity of the heart, of the inner man in isolation, passes through misfortune, as suffering. To the spiritual restitutio in integrum, which introduces immortality, corresponds a worldly restitution that leads to the eternity of downfall, and the rhythm of this eternally transient worldly existence, transient in its totality. in its spatial but also in its temporal totality, the rhythm of Messianic nature, is happiness. For nature is Messianic by reason of its eternal and total passing away.

To strive after such passing, even for those stages of man that are nature, is the task of world politics, whose method must be called nihilism.


Walter Benjamin (1892-1940): Theological-Political Fragment, date uncertain (probably either 1920-1921 or 1937-1938), unpublished in Benjamin’s lifetime. Translated by Edmund Jephcott in Selected Writings, Volume 3: 1935-1938 (2006), pp. 305-306.

Understanding Walter Benjamin’s Theological-Political Fragment by Eric Jacobson  Jewish Studies Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 3 (2001), pp. 205-247


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How to change the course of human history (at least, the part that’s already happened)

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by David Graeber, David Wengrow

The story we have been telling ourselves about our origins is wrong, and perpetuates the idea of inevitable social inequality. David Graeber and David Wengrow ask why the myth of ‘agricultural revolution’ remains so persistent, and argue that there is a whole lot more we can learn from our ancestors.

1. In the beginning was the word

For centuries, we have been telling ourselves a simple story about the origins of social inequality. For most of their history, humans lived in tiny egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers. Then came farming, which brought with it private property, and then the rise of cities which meant the emergence of civilization properly speaking. Civilization meant many bad things (wars, taxes, bureaucracy, patriarchy, slavery…) but also made possible written literature, science, philosophy, and most other great human achievements.

Almost everyone knows this story in its broadest outlines. Since at least the days of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it has framed what we think the overall shape and direction of human history to be. This is important because the narrative also defines our sense of political possibility. Most see civilization, hence inequality, as a tragic necessity. Some dream of returning to a past utopia, of finding an industrial equivalent to ‘primitive communism’, or even, in extreme cases, of destroying everything, and going back to being foragers again. But no one challenges the basic structure of the story.

There is a fundamental problem with this narrative.

It isn’t true.
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The Rate of Return on Everything, 1870-2015

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This paper answers fundamental questions that have preoccupied modern economic thought since the 18th century. What is the aggregate real rate of return in the economy? Is it higher than the growth rate of the economy and, if so, by how much? Is there a tendency for returns to fall in the long-run? Which particular assets have the highest long-run returns? We answer these questions on the basis of a new and comprehensive dataset for all major asset classes, including—for the first time—total returns to the largest, but oft ignored, component of household wealth, housing. The annual data on total returns for equity, housing, bonds, and bills cover 16 advanced economies from 1870 to 2015, and our new evidence reveals many new insights and puzzles.

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by Òscar JordàKatharina KnollDmitry KuvshinovMoritz SchularickAlan M. Taylor

NBER Working Paper No. 24112 / Issued in December 2017

The Case Against Civilization

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Did our hunter-gatherer ancestors have it better?

Science and technology: we tend to think of them as siblings, perhaps even as twins, as parts of stem (for “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics”). When it comes to the shiniest wonders of the modern world—as the supercomputers in our pockets communicate with satellites—science and technology are indeed hand in glove. For much of human history, though, technology had nothing to do with science. Many of our most significant inventions are pure tools, with no scientific method behind them. Wheels and wells, cranks and mills and gears and ships’ masts, clocks and rudders and crop rotation: all have been crucial to human and economic development, and none historically had any connection with what we think of today as science. Some of the most important things we use every day were invented long before the adoption of the scientific method. I love my laptop and my iPhone and my Echo and my G.P.S., but the piece of technology I would be most reluctant to give up, the one that changed my life from the first day I used it, and that I’m still reliant on every waking hour—am reliant on right now, as I sit typing—dates from the thirteenth century: my glasses. Soap prevented more deaths than penicillin. That’s technology, not science.

In “Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States,” James C. Scott, a professor of political science at Yale, presents a plausible contender for the most important piece of technology in the history of man. It is a technology so old that it predates Homo sapiens and instead should be credited to our ancestor Homo erectus. That technology is fire. We have used it in two crucial, defining ways. The first and the most obvious of these is cooking. As Richard Wrangham has argued in his book “Catching Fire,” our ability to cook allows us to extract more energy from the food we eat, and also to eat a far wider range of foods. Our closest animal relative, the chimpanzee, has a colon three times as large as ours, because its diet of raw food is so much harder to digest. The extra caloric value we get from cooked food allowed us to develop our big brains, which absorb roughly a fifth of the energy we consume, as opposed to less than a tenth for most mammals’ brains. That difference is what has made us the dominant species on the planet.

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History, Civilization, and Progress (Bookchin, 1994)

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History, Civilization, and Progress: Outline for a Criticism of Modern Relativism

by Murray Bookchin

Rarely have the concepts that literally define the best of Western culture–its notions of a meaningful History, a universal Civilization, and the possibility of Progress–been called so radically into question as they are today. In recent decades, both in the United States and abroad, the academy and a subculture of self-styled postmodernist intellectuals have nourished an entirely new ensemble of cultural conventions that stem from a corrosive social, political, and moral relativism. This ensemble encompasses a crude nominalism, pluralism, and skepticism, an extreme subjectivism, and even outright nihilism and antihumanism in various combinations and permutations, sometimes of a thoroughly misanthropic nature. This relativistic ensemble is pitted against coherent thought as such and against the “principle of hope” (to use Ernst Bloch’s expression) that marked radical theory of the recent past. Such notions percolate from so-called radical academics into the general public, where they take the form of personalism, amoralism, and “neoprimitivism.”

Too often in this prevailing “paradigm,” as it is often called, eclecticism replaces the search for historical meaning; a self-indulgent despair replaces hope; dystopia replaces the promise of a rational society; and in the more sophisticated forms of this ensemble a vaguely defined “intersubjectivity”–or in its cruder forms, a primitivistic mythopoesis–replaces all forms of reason, particularly dialectical reason. In fact, the very concept of reason itself has been challenged by a willful antirationalism. By stripping the great traditions of Western thought of their contours, nuances, and gradations, these relativistic “post-historicists,” “postmodernists,” and (to coin a new word) “post-humanists” of our day are, at best, condemning contemporary thought to a dark pessimism or, at worst, subverting it of all its meaning.

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Communist Party Oral Histories

A collection of oral histories currently held at NYU’s Tamiment Library

hammer-and-hoeRobin Kelley Hammer and Hoe Oral History Collection (OH.040): The collection’s interviews were conducted by Robin Kelley as research for his book Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression. The book, which was published by the University of North Carolina Press in 1990, documents the activities of the Alabama Communist Party in the 1930s and the impact of race and other cultural identities on the movement.

 

 

Communist Party of the United States of America Oral History Collection (OH.065): The collection contains interviews with 41 Communist Party leaders and activists, including several founding members. The bulk of the interviews were conducted during the 1980s by Mary Licht, then chair of the Party’s History Commission. Notable interviewees include: John Abt (an attorney who represented the Party), B.D. Amis, founder of the League of Struggle for Negro Rights, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, feminist and a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, Hungarian-American artist Hugo Gellert, Simon W. (Si) Gerson, long the Party’s leading political campaign manager, Gil Green, Party youth leader in the 1930s, one-time head of the New York State Party organization, and in the 1980s the unofficial leader of the Party’s reformist wing, Hosea Hudson, leading African American rank and file activist in the South, African American Communist Louise Thompson Patterson, a notable figure during the Harlem Renaissance, and friend of Langston Hughes, Party journalist and newspaper editor John Pittman, and African American Party National Chair Henry Winston.

Oral History of the American Left (OH.002): The Tamiment Library at New York University established the Oral History of the American Left in 1976 in order to collect and preserve the memories of veteran activists. These interviews describe seven decades of Left politics from the 1910s through the 1970s. They document the full spectrum of left politics in the twentieth century, including socialism, Communism, anarchism, Trotskyism, and the New Left. There are interviews with both leaders and rank-and-file activists.

Tamiment Library Oral Histories: These are interviews that were performed at the Tamiment Library.

American Reds: Full-length video interviews from the film “American Reds,” which chronicled the emergence of American Communism.

 

 

 

 

 

Jane Hood Video Oral Histories of New England Area Leaders of the Communist Party of the United States (TAM.655): The Jane Hood Collection of Video Oral Histories of New England Area Leaders of the Communist Party of the United States (dates 1980s) is composed of interviews with members of the New England Communist Party and children of New England Communists. Oral history interviews in this collection were created in the 1980s by Eric Stange and Paul Buhle for various oral history projects. They were later used by Jane Hood in preparation for a book about her own experience as the daughter of an American Communist.

The Dualisms of Capitalist Modernity Reflections on History, the Holocaust, and Antisemitism (Moishe Postone)

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The Dualisms of Capitalist Modernity – Postone

This chapter seeks to relate historical changes in public responses to the Holocaust and understandings of antisemitism, especially on the left, to the historically changing configurations of capitalist modernity since 1945. 1 Thinking about the two together can be clarifying: public responses to the Holocaust have tended to be structured by an opposition between abstract modes of universalism and concrete particularism – an opposition that also is constitutive of modern antisemitism. These responses have shifted with and are related to the changing configurations of capitalist modernity from the statist Fordist–Keynesian configuration of the 1950s and 1960s to a subsequent neoliberal one. Consideration of these large-scale configurations can illuminate the historical character of those responses; at the same time examination of those responses can shed light on these larger historical configurations. This problem complex can be fruitfully approached on the basis of a critical theory of capital, on the one hand, and one of antisemitism, on the other. Within the framework of a critical theory of capital the opposition between abstract modes of universalism and concrete particularism is neither ontologically given nor historically contingent but is intrinsic to the fundamental forms that structure capitalism, namely, the commodity and capital.2 Such an analysis grasps both terms of the opposition – abstract universality and concrete particularity – as remaining bound within the framework of capitalist modernity, however much positions based on each of them have understood themselves to be fundamentally “critical” or “radical,” pointing beyond the existing order. This essay seeks to problematize such “critical” positions by highlighting the one-sided character of each and by drawing attention to a historical shift from the predominance of critiques based on abstract universalism, characteristic of classical liberal thought and, with important differences, working-class movements, to the ascendancy of positions focused on concrete particularity, such as those expressed by liberation struggles that can be deemed anticolonial in the broadest sense. By suggesting that both sorts of responses remain immanent to capitalism, to its double character, the approach presented here problematizes the relation of each to the Holocaust and to antisemitism while contributing to a reflexive critique of emancipatory theory. Far from delineating issues of peripheral importance for critical theories of capitalism then, the problem complex of responses to the Holocaust and the changing configurations of capitalist modernity touches upon issues of fundamental importance for such theories. Within the framework outlined in this chapter consideration of those changing responses not only reveals their generally problematic character, but also illuminates the limits of the left in terms of its most fundamental self-understanding as a practical and theoretical critique of the capitalist order. What mediates these various moments, as I shall elaborate, is the issue of antisemitism. I shall only be able to present a preliminary sketch of this argument here. To do so I shall briefly describe the main features of the two general historical configurations of postwar capitalist modernity and also outline an analysis of antisemitism that distinguishes it from racism in general while showing it to be deeply intertwined with history as constituted by capital. Such an analysis could help conceptually distinguish political terror and mass murder (as expressed metaphorically by Buchenwald and Hiroshima) from extermination (as represented by Auschwitz). These distinctions are important not because the one crime is “worse” than the other but because the left, which has had few problems dealing conceptually with political terror and mass murder, has had difficulty grasping extermination. This difficulty reveals an inadequate understanding of antisemitism and relatedly an underlying weakness in apprehending the fundamental object of the left’s critique: capitalism.


From the book: Jews and Leftist Politics. Judaism, Israel, Antisemitism, and Gender ed. Jack Jacobs (2017)

Arbeit

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Work: A Global History by Andrea Komlosy, discussed with Timothy Nunan

Work remains ever-present with us, yet somehow elusive. We spend more time doing it than anything else, other than sleeping, and yet defining what, exactly, the term means can be a challenge. Part of the reason may be the decline of solid salaried work, where one punched in and out of the factory, and knew that hours logged meant hours logged. For a time, even white-collar workers had the certainty of knowing that the weekend was just that – physical and infrastructural distance from fax machines, cell phones, and the papers, mountains of paper at the office. Today, however, many people not only allow office e-mail to intrude into the weekend; more than that, they embrace working from home.

Others are less lucky. Among historians, those who wash out in the brutal competition for the promise of tenured lifetime employment sometimes submit to the even crueler reality of the adjunct route. The root of the term itself demonstrates their precariousness: in linguistics, an adjunct is an optional, a “structurally dispensable” part of an utterance. All the same, as more and more work seems to become “casualized” (another telling term), organizers demand rights and privileges that were traditionally bundled with “full-time” or “traditional” employment. All the while, back at home, partners may grumble that there is precious little talk of unionizing or granting medical insurance to those of us stuck doing dishes, vacuuming, or putting a hot meal on the table.

The vocabulary that we use to talk about work remains, in short, of massive political importance, but all too often, we don’t scrutinize it very closely. Not, at least until Andrea Komlosy‘s 2014 book Arbeit: Eine globalhistorische Perspektive, published by Promedia Verlag  We recently had the chance to speak with Komlosy about her road to writing about social history and the history of work, as well as what it means to apply a global history perspective to a theme that necessarily stretches across hundreds of years. Let’s get to work, then, and dive into a discussion about Work.

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For a Left with No Future (T.J. Clark, 2012)

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T.J. Clark / pdf

How deceiving are the contradictions of language! In this land without time the dialect was richer in words with which to measure time than any other language; beyond the motionless and everlasting crai[meaning ‘tomorrow’ but also ‘never’] every day in the future had a name of its own . . . The day after tomorrow was prescrai and the day after that pescrille; then came pescruflo, maruflo, maruflone; the seventh day was maruflicchio. But these precise terms had an undertone of irony. They were used less often to indicate this or that day than they were said all together in a string, one after another; their very sound was grotesque and they were like a reflection of the futility of trying to make anything clear out of the cloudiness of crai.

Carlo Levi, Christ Stopped at Eboli [1]

I hope sincerely it will be all the age does not want . . . I have omitted nothing I could think of to obstruct the onward march of the world . . . I have done all I can to impede progress . . . having put my hand to the plough I invariably look back.

Edward Burne-Jones on the Kelmscott Chaucer [2]

Left intellectuals, like most intellectuals, are not good at politics; especially if we mean by the latter, as I shall be arguing we should, the everyday detail, drudgery and charm of performance. Intellectuals get the fingering wrong. Up on stage they play too many wrong notes. But one thing they may be good for: sticking to the concert-hall analogy, they are sometimes the bassists in the back row whose groaning establishes the key of politics for a moment, and even points to a possible new one. And it can happen, though occasionally, that the survival of a tradition of thought and action depends on this—on politics being transposed to a new key. This seems to me true of the left in our time.

These notes are addressed essentially (regrettably) to the left in the old capitalist heartland—the left in Europe. [3] Perhaps they will resonate elsewhere. They have nothing to say about capitalism’s long-term invulnerability, and pass no judgement—what fool would try to in present circumstances?—on the sureness of its management of its global dependencies, or the effectiveness of its military humanism. The only verdict presupposed in what follows is a negative one on the capacity of the left—the actually existing left, as we used to say—to offer a perspective in which capitalism’s failures, and its own, might make sense. By ‘perspective’ I mean a rhetoric, a tonality, an imagery, an argument, and a temporality.

By ‘left’ I mean a root-and-branch opposition to capitalism. But such an opposition has nothing to gain, I shall argue, from a series of overweening and fantastical predictions about capitalism’s coming to an end. Roots and branches are things in the present. The deeper a political movement’s spadework, the more complete its focus on the here and now. No doubt there is an alternative to the present order of things. Yet nothing follows from this—nothing deserving the name political. Left politics is immobilized, it seems to me, at the level of theory and therefore of practice, by the idea that it should spend its time turning over the entrails of the present for signs of catastrophe and salvation. Better an infinite irony at prescrai and maruflicchio—a peasant irony, with an earned contempt for futurity—than a politics premised, yet again, on some terracotta multitude waiting to march out of the emperor’s tomb.

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Telling the Truth about Class (Tamás, 2006)

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by G.M. Tamas (Socialist Register 42) 2006

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One of the central questions of social theory has been the relationship between class and knowledge, and this has also been a crucial question in the history of socialism. Differences between people – acting and knowing subjects – may inuence our view of the possibility of valid cognition. If there are irreconcilable discrepancies between people’s positions, going perhaps as far as incommensurability, then unied and rational knowledge resulting from a reasoned dialogue among persons is patently impossible. The Humean notion of ‘passions’, the Nietzschean notions of ‘resentment’ and ‘genealogy’, allude to the possible inuence of such an incommensurability upon our ability to discover truth.

Class may be regarded as a problem either in epistemology or in the philosophy of history, but I think that this separation is unwarranted, since if we separate epistemology and philosophy of history (which is parallel to other such separations characteristic of bourgeois society itself) we cannot possibly avoid the rigidly-posed conundrum known as relativism. In speak­ing about class (and truth, and class and truth) we are the heirs of two socialist intellectual traditions, profoundly at variance with one another, although often intertwined politically and emotionally. I hope to show that, up to a point, such fusion and confusion is inevitable.

All versions of socialist endeavour can and should be classied into two principal kinds, one inaugurated by Rousseau, the other by Marx. The two have opposite visions of the social subject in need of liberation, and these visions have determined everything from rareed epistemological posi­tions concerning language and consciousness to social and political attitudes concerning wealth, culture, equality, sexuality and much else. It must be said at the outset that many, perhaps most socialists who have sincerely believed they were Marxists, have in fact been Rousseauists. Freud has eloquently described resistances to psychoanalysis; intuitive resistance to Marxism is no less widespread, even among socialists. It is emotionally and intellectually difcult to be a Marxist since it goes against the grain of moral indignation which is, of course, the main reason people become socialists.

One of the greatest historians of the Left, E.P. Thompson, has synthe­sized what can be best said of class in the tradition of Rousseauian socialism which believes itself to be Marxian.1 The Making of the English Working Class is universally – and rightly – recognized to be a masterpiece. Its beauty, moral force and conceptual elegance originate in a few strikingly unusual articles of faith: (1) that the working class is a worthy cultural competitor of the ruling class; (2) that the Lebenswelt of the working class is socially and morally superior to that of its exploiters; (3) that regardless of the outcome of the class struggle, the autonomy and separateness of the working class is an intrinsic social value; (4) that the class itself is constituted by the autopoiesis of its rebellious political culture, including its re-interpretation of various tradi­tions, as well as by technology, wage labour, commodity production and the rest. Whereas Karl Marx and Marxism aim at the abolition of the proletariat, Thompson aims at the apotheosis and triumphant survival of the proletariat.

Thompson’s Rousseauian brand of Marxism triggered a sustained critique by Perry Anderson, one that is now half-forgotten but still extremely impor­tant. Although his terms are quite different from mine, Anderson sought to show that Thompson’s conviction that he was a Marxist was erroneous.2Thompson had participated in a number of movements and intellectual adventures inspired by Marxism, and his delity to radical socialism – under twentieth-century circumstances – meant loyalty to Marxism’s revolution­ary legacy. But Thompson had to ignore the Faustian-demonic encomium of capitalism inherent in Marx, and so he had to oppose ‘critical theory’, and then theory tout court.3 Anderson later described this decomposition of ‘Western Marxism’ – away from class to ‘the people’ – in conceptual terms,4 a diagnosis that has been proved right by events since.

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Ellen Meiksins Wood, Theorist of Capitalism and Class Struggle, R.I.P. 2016

“Class struggle is the nucleus of Marxism. This is so in two inseparable senses: it is class struggle that for Marxism explains the dynamic of history, and it is the abolition of classes, the obverse or end-product of class struggle, that is the ultimate objective of the revolutionary process. The particular importance for Marxism of the working class in capitalist society is that this is the only class whose own class interests require, and whose own conditions make possible, the abolition of class itself. The inseparable unity of this view of history and this revolutionary objective is what above all distinguishes Marxism from other conceptions of social transformation, and without it there is no Marxism. These propositions may seem so obvious as to be trivial; yet it can be argued that the history of Marxism in the twentieth century has been marked by a gradual shift away from these principles. The perspectives of Marxism have increasingly come to be dominated by the struggle for power. Where the achievement of political power was originally conceived by Marxism as an aspect or instrument of class struggle, whose object is its own abolition, class struggle has increasingly tended to appear as a means toward the achievement of political power-and sometimes not even as a primary or essential means.  – Marxism without Class Struggle, EMW

For millennia, human beings have provided for their material needs by working the land. And probably for nearly as long as they have engaged in agriculture they have been divided into classes, between those who worked the land and those who appropriated the labor of others. That division between appropriators and producers has taken many forms in different times and places, but one general characteristic they have had in common is that the direct producers have typically been peasants. These peasant producers have remained in possession of the means of production, specifically land. As in all pre-capitalist societies, these producers have had direct access to the means of their own reproduction. This has meant that when their surplus labor has been appropriated by exploiters, it has been done by what Marx called “extra-economic” means—that is, by means of direct coercion, exercised by landlords and/or states employing superior force, privileged access to military, judicial, and political power.

Here, then, is the most basic difference between all pre-capitalist societies and capitalism. It has nothing to do with whether production is urban or rural and everything to do with the particular property relations between producers and appropriators, whether in industry or agriculture. Only in capitalism is the dominant mode of surplus appropriation based on the dispossession of the direct producers whose surplus labor is appropriated by purely “economic” means. Because direct producers in a fully developed capitalism are propertyless, and because their only access to the means of production, to the requirements of their own reproduction, even to the means of their own labor, is the sale of their labor-power in exchange for a wage, capitalists can appropriate the workers’ surplus labor without direct coercion.

This unique relation between producers and appropriators is, of course, mediated by the “market.” Markets of various kinds have existed throughout recorded history and no doubt before, as people have exchanged and sold their surpluses in many different ways and for many different purposes. But the market in capitalism has a distinctive and unprecedented function. Virtually everything in capitalist society is a commodity produced for the market. And even more fundamentally, both capital and labor are utterly dependent on the market for the most basic conditions of their own reproduction. Just as workers depend on the market to sell their labor-power as a commodity, capitalists depend on it to buy labor-power, as well as the means of production, and to realize their profits by selling the goods or services produced by the workers. This market-dependence gives the market an unprecedented role in capitalist societies, as not only a simple mechanism of exchange or distribution but as the principal determinant and regulator of social reproduction. The emergence of the market as a determinant of social reproduction presupposed its penetration into the production of life’s most basic necessity, food.

This unique system of market-dependence entails some very distinctive “laws of motion,” specific systemic requirements and compulsions shared by no other mode of production: the imperatives of competition, accumulation, and profit-maximization. And these imperatives, in turn, mean that capitalism can, and must, constantly expand in ways and degrees unlike any other social form—constantly accumulating, constantly searching out new markets, constantly imposing its imperatives on new territories and new spheres of life, on human beings and the natural environment.

Once we recognize just how distinctive these social relations and processes are, how different they are from other social forms which have dominated most of human history, it becomes clear that more is required to explain the emergence of this distinctive social form than the question-begging assumption that it has always existed in embryo, just needing to be liberated from unnatural constraints. The question of its origins, then, can be formulated this way: given that producers were exploited by appropriators in noncapitalist ways for millennia before the advent of capitalism, and given that markets have also existed “time out of mind” and almost everywhere, how did it happen that producers and appropriators, and the relations between them, came to be so market dependent?  – The Agrarian Origins of Capitalism, EMW

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