Posts Tagged ‘Marxism’

Since reading David Graeber’s Debt last fall, I’ve become interested in the relationship between Marxist economic theory and the heterodox theory of money Graeber supports in his work.  Graeber holds to a chartalist position, which argues that money is not, as the classic account in Carl Menger goes, simply the most salable commodity, but rather a symbol that has value because the state requires us to pay taxes in it.  Though this theory of money dates back to Aristotle, today it has been developed into the body of theory known as ‘Modern Monetary Theory.’

MMT’s focus on the role of the state in making money gives it a very different emphasis from Marx’s analysis in the first three chapters ofCapital.  There, Marx argues for something quite similar to Menger, drawing an account of the way that a society based on commodity production has need for one commodity to serve as a universal equivalent.  In other words, monetary theory appears to make for strange bedfellows.  On one side, we have the neo-classicals, the Austrians, and Marx.  On the other, the left-leaning post-Keynesians.  What to make of all this?

Personally, I’m pulled by the arguments of MMT.  As  I began researching what Marxists had to say on the subject, I was relieved to find a number of them arguing that value theory does not require commodity money, and that Marx himself in the later volumes of Capital appears to recognize this.  Others, however, argue that capitalism does require a commodity basis for money.  David McNally’s recent work, probably the most sophisticated Marxist appraisal of the current crisis we have, lends support to both positions, in a way.  On the one hand, his argument for a neoliberal boom clearly implies that capitalism can go through substantial periods of accumulation without a commodity based currency.  On the other hand, he argues that the waves of financialization that accompanied this boom, and lit the fuse for the bust, were themselves a product off capital’s need for a different kind of universal equivalent, since money itself was no longer playing that role.

Really, I have no idea where I stand in all of this, having nowhere near the requisite knowledge to judge the debate.  But I thought while I’m reading up on the question, I may as well post a bibliography to make it easier for other folks interested in doing the same.  Here it is.

Foley, Duncan K. “On Marx’s Theory of Money: The Theory of Money and the Theory of Value” Social Concept 1.1 (1983).

Lapavitsas, Costas. “Money as ‘Universal Equivalent’ and its Origins in Commodity Exchange” (unpublished) (2003).

Lapavitsas, Costas.  “The Emergence of Money in Commodity Exchange, or Money as the Monopolist of the Ability to Buy” (unpublished) (2002).

Lavoie, Don. “Some Strengths in Marx’s Disequilibrium Theory of Money” Cambridge Journal of Economics 7.1 (1983).

Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Chs. 1-3.

Moseley, Fred. “The ‘Monetary Expression of Labor’ in the Case of Non-Commodity Money” (unpublished) (2004).

Moseley, Fred (ed). Marx’s Theory of Money: Modern Appraisals.  (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

Nelson, Anitra.  “Marx’s Theory of the Money Commodity”  History of Economics Review 40 (2004).

Weeks, John.  “The Theory and Empirical Credibility of Commodity Money”  Science & Society 76.1 (2012).

Read Full Post »

Trayvon Martin’s murder has provoked a response unlike anything I’ve seen in my decade or so of anti-racist activism.  Though cases like the Jena 6 drew a nationwide response, Trayvon’s case, undoubtedly aided by social media, has served as a galvanizing force that has not remained a lone instance of racism, but has worked to push the cases of the thousands of African Americans slain by cops, judges, and vigilantes into the foreground.  Because of Trayvon, we now know about Ramarley, Rekia, and Bo too.  This is an extremely exciting development, and while it is still too early to tell, I’m hopeful that this represents the beginning of a new movement against white supremacy in the US, dedicated to tearing down the new Jim Crow.

As always, the rise of a new movement has highlighted important theoretical differences among those fighting racism.  The disagreements and arguments that follow from these differences are an important aspect of a democratic movement culture, and are to be welcomed.  They give all of us a chance to learn from each other, to figure out what we really think, and to try and craft a strategic orientation for our movement.

In the case of this movement, the debate that has surfaced most prominently concerns the question of white privilege.  It was raised primarily by a youtube video, in which a white activist chastised other white activists for wearing ‘I am Trayvon Martin’ shirts.  Doing so, she argued, obscures the white privilege of these activists, and makes it seem as if Trayvon’s murder were merely an arbitrary injustice, and not part of a system of white supremacy that relentless oppresses African Americans.  Generally, white activists need to recognize their privilege and the fact that they are closer to George Zimmerman than Trayvon.  Only by doing so will they be able to overcome the racism with which they’ve been socialized.

The video set off a debate.  Sherry Wolf responded with a piece criticizing the notion of white privilege, and arguing that white workers do not, in fact, benefit from racism.  Divided as a class by racism, they suffer the exploitation and oppression visited upon them by the capitalist class even more intensely, since they are unable to unite as a class to combat it.  Sherry’s post prompted a thoughtful rejoinder from Alex Fields, which has helped to clarify some of the main issues and stakes involved in the debate.  Alex and I had a short back and forth on facebook, which I’ve posted below, before agreeing to go public.  In what follows, I will respond to the points Alex raised in both his post and on facebook, and try to lay out what I think the most important critiques of white privilege theory are, and why I think the basic position Sherry defends is a robust prescription for anti-racist politics.

To begin with, I thought it might be helpful to lay out what I perceive as the points of agreement between myself and Alex.  If I am mistaken about any of these, please feel free to correct me.  Alex and I both have caveats or different emphases on these points, but I take this to be the general ground of agreement.

1.) White supremacy is central to contemporary American society.  African Americans and other people of color are oppressed in manifold ways, from mass incarceration to being treated as unreasonably angry when they try to bring up racist oppression.  This is a system that must be destroyed, and collective political action is necessary for this to be accomplished.

2.) The existence of white supremacy means that white Americans have untold advantages over African Americans in many aspects of life.  While the degree to which whites can take advantage of these varies tremendously with class, they nonetheless constitute the material basis of racism among white Americans.  If whites were not actually in better funded schools, able to escape the worst ravages of mass incarceration etc, racism would simply not be an effective ideology.  In a number of crucial ways, whites have it better.

3.) Part of building an effective movement against white supremacy involves white activists understanding their privilege, and taking it into account when building solidarity with people of color.

This is a substantial area of agreement on crucial political points, especially in the context of the ideology of post-racial America.  I was glad to see Alex’s reply to Sherry written in a comradely (though still appropriately polemical) tone, since the disagreements that exist between these positions should not prevent us from seeing each other as comrades in the struggle against white supremacy.  Nonetheless, there do exist disagreements between us on questions that are central to the movement.  These center around the relationship of racism to capitalism and working class interests, and the political tendencies of white privilege theory.  In a way, this is an awkward debate, since Alex’s critique of my position and my critique of his revolve around what we take to be implied by premises the other accepts, and not as much what the other is actually arguing.  In such a debate, there are going to be lots of accusations of burning straw men, which can be frustrating.  This is, I think, unfortunately unavoidable.  I am going to try and keep such accusations to a minimum, since their proliferation can obscure the real issues in the debate.  With that absurdly long exercise in throat clearing completed, it is time to get down to business.

In her essay, Sherry argues that racism serves to divide black and white workers, making both more vulnerable to capital.  Thus, accepting racist ideas is not in white workers’ interest (note: this is different from claiming there is no material basis for the racism of white workers.  Every ideology has material basis).  Though she does not explicitly state this, she assumes (correctly, I believe) that racism is itself a product of capitalism.  Alex argues that this perspective is mistaken, and leads to bad political conclusions.  He describes two:

If by overcoming capitalism we get rid of both capitalism and the core of racism, but by getting rid of racism we only do damage to the capitalist system without ending it, it seems clearly to follow that it’s more worthwhile to struggle directly against capitalism. Second, there’s a difference in HOW we ought to struggle against racism on these competing views. Sherry pretty explicitly says that racism is a tool used by the ruling class to oppress workers, and that white workers do not materially experience privilege. If she’s right, then it follows that anti-racist struggles are just a struggle against racism in the capitalist power structure, and not struggles against racism within working class institutions, for example. This is a huge difference, and I think the former position is only a little bit different from saying that we really ought to just be struggling against capitalism, and not against racism as independent from capitalism.

I do not believe either of these actually follow from Sherry’s argument.  In fact, her argument explicitly contradicts both of these claims.  Sherry argues that white workers cannot pursue their class interests successfully (at least not very far) so long as they are divided (or divide themselves) from black workers by their racism.  It follows ineluctably from this assertion that the only way white workers can pursue their class interests successfully is if racism is destroyed or significantly weakened.  In other words, there is no struggle directly against capitalism.  It is impossible to successfully confront capitalist class power without smashing the barriers to working class unity.  If this is not done, we can forget about getting very far in expropriating the expropriators.

The second conclusion attributed to Sherry’s argument does not follow for much the same reason.  Racism in working class institutions prevents those institutions from effectively damaging capitalist class power.  Therefore, if we want those institutions to do their job and play a role in helping us stick it to the bosses, we need to purge them of racism.  Only by doing so can we forge the institutions we need to both defend our basic class interests and, hopefully, go on the offensive.

Simply put, neither of the baleful political conclusions Alex argues are entailed by Sherry’s argument actually follow.  If white workers’ class interests are damaged by racism, only by attacking it viciously wherever it reveals its head can those interests be pursued.  In Alex’s original reply, he argued that this line of argument makes little headway against privilege theory, as “White privilege analysis does not say that working class white people are better off under racist capitalist heteronormative patriarchy than they would be under an alternative system like socialism; it says rather that within our current system of racism, white people in all classes are given real privileges that people of color are not.”  But as my explanation of these points implies, this is misleading, since the comparison is not only between a socialist society and our current one.  Even reforms which would leave white supremacy and capitalism in place, such as ending the drug war and mass incarceration, would be of benefit to white workers.  They would weaken the role of war on crime rhetoric in binding white workers to the state, and free up money to be spent on redistributive programs that would weaken market dependency and thus strengthen labor’s hand.  In other words, even within our current system of racism, white workers would benefit not from racism being strengthened, but from it being damaged.

As a final point on this side of the debate, it is curious that Alex asserts these conclusions follow from Sherry’s basic argument, given the political practice of the organization she is a part of.  A quick glance at socialistworker.org reveals that the ISO devotes easily as much time to issues of racial oppression as it does to ‘direct’ struggles against capital.  If it is a logical conclusion of the theory that the ISO holds that struggles against racism are less important than struggles against capital, what are we to conclude from the fact that their political practice seems to include no recognition of this?  I have no doubt the sectarian trolls of the left have all kinds of speculations on this point, but if you accept, as I think Alex does, that comrades in the ISO are committed Marxists and sincerely dedicated to overthrowing white supremacy, this is a real question.

On the white privilege side of things, the debate centers around the political tendencies operative in privilege theory.  I argued that there is a tendency to focus on changing white behavior, and that collective political action fades to the background.  Since such action is the only way the institutions of white supremacy in the US are going to sustain much damage, this emphasis on changing behavior inhibits the struggle against racism.  Alex replied, quite correctly, that while such an emphasis may predominate in some white privilege theory, that doesn’t invalidate the theory any more than the sometimes stiff structural focus of Marxists invalidates it.  I want to argue, however, that this focus is actually dominant in white privilege theory.  To understand why, I think it is worth stepping back for a moment and contextualizing the theory.

Critics of white privilege theory often argue that it is a result of diminished expectations.  They often do so, as Sherry does, by asserting that things like the right not to be shot down while walking in a neighborhood are rights, not privileges, and it constricts our horizons to categorize them as such.  I think it’s right to categorize privilege theory as the product of diminished expectations, but that this is a fairly weak example.  Rather, I would argue that white privilege theory is a product of the defeat of the movements of the sixties and seventies, and that the emphasis on individual behavior we find there arose as an alternative to collective political action.  In the wake of those defeats, it became far easier to imagine changing the behavior of individuals than organizing a collective movement around systemic change.  Political pessimism wrote itself into political theory through a variety of ways – Roediger’s adaptation of social history to argue that racism came from below, for example, dovetailed politically with the theoretically very different arguments for a Foucauldian emphasis on the micro-politics of power.  Not all of this, of course, was detrimental.  Some of it filled in gaps left by more systemically-focused theories of racism.  But what became hegemonic was an anti-politics – a turn away from collective action towards individual rehabilitation.  Again, I’m not arguing that some of this wasn’t necessary and important.  What is problematic is the way this focus excludes political action.  It’s legible in the video Sherry is responding to.  There, whites are encouraged to ‘critique norms,’ ‘give access to discourse,’ ‘raise children without indoctrination’ – important tasks both, but there is no mention of the need for collective political action.  Some might say. as Alex has, that this is not in contradiction with such action, which is true.  But, like white privilege theorists themselves often assert, silence is itself symptomatic.

In his replies, Alex offers a more nuanced theory of changing white behavior, arguing that it is necessary for white activists to realize their privilege and work to undo it in their organizing work.  As he says “collective action and attempts at solidarity will usually fail if the white folks involved are unable to challenge the racist patterns in their own thought and behavior.”  Here, changing white behavior is not a replacement for political action, as it so often is elsewhere, but rather its precondition.  This is a much stronger argument, and I agree with much of it.  Nonetheless, I think it is overextended, and that this overextension is politically harmful.  While it is vitally important to create antiracist spaces in our movements, I don’t think it’s true that movements will usually fail if white privilege is not systematically confronted and resolved within movements.  There’s a test case here in the Freedom Summer campaign of 1964.  There, thousands of mostly white college students from across the country descended on Mississippi for a voter registration drive.  As white privilege theorists would predict, they caused a lot of trouble.  Coming from white backgrounds, they didn’t realize the danger that they were asking black folks to put themselves in just by voting.  Their privilege blinded them to the fact that they could be putting someone in danger simply by knocking on their door.  Many of them had far less developed racial awareness than the majority of white activists today, coming from liberal backgrounds in which the south was conceived as a totalitarian society in contrast to the liberal north.  Racism was seen as a regional aberration, not a systemic feature of American society.  Yet and still, Freedom Summer was a success.  It undoubtedly would have been more effective if the privilege of these students had been confronted and worked through.  But their failure to do so did not sabotage the movement.

Now, I am unequivocally not arguing that white privilege in movements is not a problem, or that it does not hamper movements, or anything like that.  Whenever it surfaces, it needs to be confronted.  But identifying white privilege as one of the most important factors in the failure of collective political action leads to a mistaken political perspective that cannot be a solid foundation on which to build a movement.  Rather than white privilege, I would argue that what explains the failure of significant movements to develop is the same thing that explains the general weakness of the left – the defeats of the last wave, the hegemony of liberal pro-democratic party politics, the legacy of Stalinism, the implosion of significant far left groups, etc.  If we think that white privilege is the most important thing holding our movements for racial justice back, we’re likely to miss a good deal of this, which makes it very difficult to address successfully.  Again, this isn’t to suggest that addressing white privilege in movements isn’t important – it’s crucial.  Assigning an improper explanatory role to it (or anything else, for that matter), however, does nothing to strengthen our movements.

I hope this does as well clarifying my position as Alex’s piece did his.  These issues are absolutely central to anyone concerned with rejuvenating Left politics in the US, and I am very heartened to see them being discussed and debated among comrades.


Read Full Post »

I’ve always liked the way the hard left has described ideological differences as ‘deviations.’  There’s something almost sexy about it, either from the near-homonymy with ‘deviant’ or the way the language seems to slide easily into a Freudian diagnosis.  Alas, as a Marxist of at least what I like to imagine as near-Jesuitical orthodoxy, I have been something of a late bloomer in developing my deviations.  Recently, however, I’ve been doing some experimenting, and I think I’ve found one at last, in an intellectual infatuation with the anarchist anthropologist David Graeber.  What follows may simply be the result of over-excitement, but I wanted to get some initial thoughts down before diving into his big new book.

I’ve known about Graeber for some time, first encountering him in this piece at Lenin’s Tomb.  Recently, his book on debt has been getting a lot of press, and I noticed his spat with (really, thorough demolition of) Austrian economists posted at Naked Capitalism.  From there, I’ve been watching a number of pieces of his on youtube, and just yesterday I went to his event at the Brooklyn Book Festival, where the impeccably yuppy crowd tittered predictably upon his introduction as ‘an anarchist.’

Graeber’s presentation there was something of a precis of his new book Debt: The First Five Thousand Years.  Graeber argues that debt has played a whole variety of complex roles in human societies, and that our current understanding of debt as an inviolable, calculable obligation, while not exactly new, is at least somewhat peculiar.  In fact, debt structured human sociality in a multitude of ways long before the rise of money, and thus before the rule of any sort of quantifiable principle.

You can get a sense of the antiquity of debt, and its importance, in its presence in early religious discourse.  Graeber notes that in many ancient religions, the word for sin or guilt was the same as that for debt.  The Lord’s Prayer originally went ‘forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.’  This is because debt played a crucial role in structuring human relations, which in many pre-capitalist societies formed a complex and subtle web of mutual obligations.  Indeed, in some societies, one habitually paid either slightly less or slightly more than own owed – to pay your debt exactly was to signal to your creditor that  you desired no further relationship with her.

This structure of debt changed with the rise of money, which is at the center of the debate at Naked Capitalism.  Graeber argues that, contra Adam Smith and basically every other economist, money did not arise out of a previously existing barter economy.  Such a thing never existed.  Instead, money first arose as a means of exchange between people coming into contact at the edges of societies, such as long distance traders who only came into contact intermittently.  As Graeber argues, such socially incidental practices could hardly serve as the basis for the emergence of a full-blown money economy.  Instead, precise quantifiability seems linked up with the threat of violence.  If someone commits violence against someone else, the penalties tend to be enumerated precisely, introducing practices of quantification previously absent.  Additionally, money seems to come from the practices off non-state bureaucracies, such as temples, in accounting for the needs of their workers – in other words, it comes from practices that are the opposite of the kind of barter system predicted by economists of various stripes.  For Graeber, these two institutions – the law regulating violence, and non-state bureaucracies, are the key to understanding the emergence of money.

However, money economies were not a done deal once they emerged.  Graeber argues that history has seen an oscillation between what he calls a ‘virtual credit economy’ of the type described earlier and a money economy.  Most recently, the key turn came in the early modern era.  At this time, non-monetized credit was the animating force behind about 95% of all transactions.  As a new round of imperial wars got under way, however, the state turned to money to pay its soldiers, and money became a more important feature of social relations.  Correspondingly, the law concerning debts became more precise and punitive, and suddenly debt became a weapon everyone could use against everyone else.  Graeber calls this ‘the Hobbesian moment,’ and argues that the resulting chaos helps explain the ambivalence early political economists felt towards debt.

Moving forward a bit, Graeber argues that neoliberalism represents in some ways a new social role for debt.  While the Keynesian social contract of the postwar years had tied rising productivity to rising wages, and the social struggles of  that era largely concerned the extension of this contract to excluded groups, under neoliberalism workers were promised not raises but credit.  Debt thus replaced the social wage as a force for social pacification.  Of course, as the last few years have amply illustrated, this arrangement contained within it the seeds for even greater social chaos than that of the postwar years.

Though Graeber is deliberately non-prescriptive in much of his argument, he does argue for a certain broad political orientation towards debt.  All debt is, he says, are promises we make each other, and if democracy means anything at all, it surely means the ability to continually renegotiate those promises.  After all, we’ve seen that certain people and institutions are quite easily able to renegotiate their debts if they suddenly find them onerous.  If AIG can write off its loans, why can’t I?

As a point of critique, this seems to me unassailable.  But I think it falls somewhat short of being able to provide a strategic orientation.  For while Graeber emphasizes that most of us live our daily lives in ways that are closer to the virtual credit economy than to neoliberal man (he likes to joke that if you took Milton Friedman out to a nice dinner, he’d probably feel obliged to do something nice for you, even though his economic theory says he should just take the lobster and run), it remains true nonetheless that there are powerful social groups in our society who will do everything in their power to stop us from achieving our Jubilee.  If we are to have any hope of actually clearing our books, we have to have a serious accounting of the strengths and weaknesses of these groups or institutions, as well as our own.

There’s another point at which a semi-orthodox Marxist such as myself could find something to question in Graeber’s argument, and that’s his emphasis on state and non-state bureaucracies in the rise of money.  It seems to me that this argument could be presented in an extremely anti-Marxist fashion, emphasizing the causal primacy of institutions and processes not related to social relations of production, and vindicating a sort of Weberian explanatory pluralism.  Though I haven’t read Debt yet, I doubt very much Graeber takes this path, though I would not be surprised to see others use his work in such a way.  I want to suggest, though, that Graeber’s emphasis on these points does not necessarily contradict Marxist hypotheses about the causal primacy of social relations of production.  After all, as Ellen Meiksins Wood, amongst others, has argued, it is only under capitalism that ‘the state’ and ‘the economy’ become separate realms of social life (paging Dr. Lukacs).  In pre-capitalist modes of production, the state and non-state bureaucracies are intimately connected to the process of production, even if they are not organizing the labor process itself (though sometimes they are).  Thus, the centrality of these institutions is not necessarily a refutation of historical materialism.

I realize this is a somewhat hamfisted attempted to deal with an argument I don’t even know that anyone is making.  But people always say silly things about their crushes.  I’m looking forward to getting to know him better.

Read Full Post »

Marxist theory has always had a strangely intimate relationship with the arts. As Hal Draper has pointed out, Marx’s criticisms of Eugene Sue’s novel Les Mystères de Paris formed a key moment in his development of the theory of proletarian self-emancipation. Lenin famously refused to listen to Beethoven during the Russian Civil War, claiming its beauty would sap him of the necessary resolve. EP Thompson, known for his virtual invention of ‘history from below,’ wrote his first and last books on William Morris and William Blake, respectively. Indeed, the closeness of this relationship, combined with its durability throughout the long trek of Marxist theory across the twentieth century, has served to obscure its strangeness. To appreciate the incongruity of the relationship, it’s helpful to try and imagine schools of literary study springing from Marxism’s intellectual or political rivals. Is an anarchist literary theory even conceivable? Who would be interested in a Weberian reading of Ulysses? Yet Marxist theorists have founded entire schools of criticism with scarcely a hint of embarrassment over the apparent mismatch between their intellectual pursuits.

Fredric Jameson’s Marxism and Form is, among other things, an attempt to explain this relationship. Jameson argues that even though Marxist criticism in the English speaking world has focused overwhelmingly on content, for dialectical thinkers the privileged moment in the form-content opposition is in fact form. To illustrate this point, Jameson takes the reader on a tour of the most important works of Western Marxism. Through an examination of theorists from Adorno to Sartre, Jameson shows how the work of each has been an attempt to locate in the form of various texts the traces and deformations of society as a whole.

If today that thesis appears original, but not earth shattering, it must have appeared as a jolt from the blue in the intellectual landscape of American literary theory in the early 1970s. While today any reasonably clever liberal arts student can tell you the thesis of Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in 1971 Marxists were only beginning their re-entry into the academy after the McCarthyite purges. Indeed, at the time the hegemonic theory was still New Criticism, whose explicit rejection of historical categories in criticism was as far from Jameson’s Marxism as can be.

For this reason, there is a third vital layer of Marxism and Form, beyond the argument for privileging form and the tour of Western Marxism. This is the layer of pedagogy. Marxism and Form is, perhaps first and foremost, a manual for dialectical thinking. This layer explains, I believe, most of the noteworthy aspects of the text. For while Jameson’s insistence on the primacy of form is an interesting argument, it hardly seems suitable to the conjuncture in which he intervened. Such a novel argument seems directed towards a field which is filled with Marxist critics who focus only on content, not the formalist and technocratic field of American criticism. Looked at from this perspective, Jameson’s argument can only appear misplaced. But judged according to the criteria of pedagogical potential, the argument about form fulfills its purpose beautifully, providing ample opportunity to illustrate the power of dialectical thought.

For Jameson, the argument that form is the privileged object of dialectical theories of literature does not stem from Marx, but from Hegel. For it was Hegel who first formulated the opposition between form and content in its modern guise. Prior to Hegel, the Aristotelian pairing of form and matter, in which the latter was but the passive raw stuff of the former, had dominated philosophical thinking about form. Hegel’s insistence that content itself carried its own logic, which in turn determined the form. In his system, this insight meant that the progress of the Absolute Spirit could only be expressed in certain forms along the way. His ranking of types of knowledge, from art to theology to philosophy, is a history of forms which themselves are determined by the progress of human knowledge.

In Marx’s hands, the opposition of form and content becomes not a means to understand the history of knowledge, but to understand history itself. Marx’s iconic images of historical transformation, the integuments bursting asunder, the throwing off of fetters of production, are precisely images of a content seeking an appropriate form. Without Hegel’s redefinition of the problem of form, Jameson argues, the key Marxist distinction between forces and relations of production is impossible. It is this parallelism between the key Marxist concepts and the key concepts of aesthetics that, for Jameson, explains the affinity between Marxism and art.

Hegel’s animation of content is also the driving force behind Jameson’s argument that form holds primacy in dialectical analysis. For it is precisely form’s determination by content which makes it such a valuable optic into our society. As Jameson argues, “inasmuch as the cultural is far less complex than the economic, it may serve as a useful introduction to the real on a reduced, simplified scale” (10). This formulation hints that for Jameson, the content of literary form is not so much the abstract story as society itself. Thus it is precisely because of form’s determination by content that the former holds the privileged place in dialectical criticism. For it is by reading form that we may come to see the material traces of content, which is to say society as a whole.

With this as Jameson’s central argument, it is not difficult to see why he argues that “[t]he basic story which the dialectic has to tell is no doubt that of the dialectical reversal, that paradoxical turning around of a phenomenon into its opposite” (309). The way Hegel’s subordination of form to content allows the former to stand as the privileged category of analysis is Jameson’s central example of this reversal. From this, we can begin to see its suitability not only as a worthwhile line of investigation in its own right, but also as a an example of how dialectical analysis works.

Jameson’s privileging of form carries with it some baggage, however, in his relative laxity when it comes to addressing content, or history, itself. On one level this makes an appearance with his rather loose acceptance of theories of “postindustrial society,” which often posit the disappearance of the working class (it must be said that Jameson was undoubtedly aided along this route by his endorsement of certain Maoist theorists who argued for the non-revolutionary character of the Western working classes). Forty years later, in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, it is as clear as ever that the proletariat has not been absorbed into the bourgeoisie on any level.

At another point in the text, Jameson argues that Lukács faced a contradiction in his diagnosis of modernism as a symptom of a morbid capitalism, and his strident condemnations of modernist writers. Jameson reads this conflict between objective and subjective modes of analysis as internal to Marxism itself, as illustrated by Lenin’s voluntarism in attempting revolution in a more or less pre-capitalist country. As elegant as this symmetry may be, it is essentially dependent upon a Menshevik analysis of October. In endorsing this analysis, Jameson gives credence to the grossest voluntarism of all, that of bourgeois liberalism, which held that force of good ideals could create a third way between the revolution of the Bolsheviks and the barbarism of the White generals.

Unfortunately, it is this kind of disregard for history which has come to dominate literary studies today, not Jameson’s call for a Marxism of form. Indeed, his approach of reading texts as symptomatic solutions to the problems of society has not spread in the way he undoubtedly hoped. Although figures like Benjamin and Adorno (though not Sartre and Lukács) are now firmly part of the cultural studies pantheon, they now bare little resemblance the Hegelian figures Jameson presents. Indeed, the vision of totality which animates Jameson’s entire book is often the polemical target of textual readings today. In the ideologies of textualism, a work is not determined by the problems of society which it attempts to answer, but instead appears as an unstable congeries of criss-crossing discourses, none of which attains primacy.

The hostility of today’s academy to Jameson’s totalizing Marxism helps explain why even forty years later Marxism and Form remains, above all, an exciting read. In a final dialectical reversal, Jameson’s failure (and of course it is not his alone) to organize a generation of American dialectical critics has ensured that his manual for dialectical thinking retains all the urgency with which it was originally written.

Read Full Post »

When Georg Lukács was arrested for his participation in the Hungarian rebellion of 1956, a KGB official asked him if he had a weapon. Lukács calmly reached into his pocket and handed over his pen.

It is no small irony that the legacy of Georg Lukács, genealogist of the antimonies of bourgeois thought, has come to rest upon two supposedly divergent concepts: that of totality and that of realism.  Fredric Jameson has ably condensed the biographical narrative which underlies this bifurcation: the strident Hegelianism and workerist militance of the young Lukács, which culminated in the essays collected in History and Class Consciousness, gave way under criticism from the Comintern to an aesthetic focus that represented a retreat from politics and an accommodation with Stalinism.  The key texts of this narrative are essays which are often reduced to slogans: “orthodoxy refers exclusively to method,” the proletariat as the “identical subject-object of history,” or “modernism means not the enrichment, but the negation of art.”  One reads “What is Orthodox Marxism,” then “The Ideology of Modernism,” and meditates on the gulf that separates them.

It is perhaps because The Historical Novel does not fit neatly into this categorization that it has suffered a relative neglect when compared with Lukács’ more well known texts.  This obscurity has unfortunately led to the Marxist tradition’s under-utilization of an exceptionally wide-ranging work.  Indeed, the sheer breath of topics covered in this work, which significantly opens up our picture of Lukács as a Marxist thinker, should mark it as a resource for a whole host of streams of Marxist thought.

For example, the book opens with a discussion of the formation of modern historical consciousness.  For Lukács,  modern historical inquiry began with the struggle against absolutism.  Enlightenment thinkers, particularly in France, endeavored to portray the unreasonableness of absolutist rule, its arbitrary and capricious nature.  Historical inquiry became a weapon in this battle, as ‘the lessons of history provide the principles with whose help a “reasonable” society, a “reasonable” state may be created’ (Lukács 20).  This was the role played by historical works such as Voltaire’s Henriade.

In Germany, the situation was much different.  Living in a land fractured into competing princedoms, the philosophers of the German Enlightenment found need not only for a historical explanation of their current state, but also a “national past greatness” which could “giv[e] strength to hopes of national rebirth” (22).  While Lukács is vague as to whether this past national greatness refers to some real past state or, in the mode of present studies, something imagined, he is clear that the invention of the modern nation was an act of tremendous intellectual labor, and not some inevitable form of social existence.  There is thus an intimate relationship between the emergence of nationalism as a modern structure of feeling and the emergence of historical consciousness.

The French Revolution transformed this process in two ways.  First, the rise of a reactionary historical tradition (de Maistre, Burke) forced progressive Enlightenment thinkers to deepen their historical method.  The reactionary historians countered the critique of absolutism by arguing that history evinced a slow logic of change, a gradual accumulation of shifts in tradition which were beyond the control of any one generation.  The great sin of the French Revolution, for these thinkers, was its dramatic severing of the traditions  holding the nation together.  To respond to this critique, Enlightenment historians were forced to move beyond a story of history as reason versus unreason, and instead comprehend the historical necessity of various forms of seemingly unreasonable society (this is the historical consciousness which reaches its apogee, in idealist form, in the philosophy of Hegel).  Here the French Revolution appears not as some catastrophic break from previous history, but instead as the rational form of a society which had outgrown the constraints of feudal rule.

The second transformation was of a more material nature.  The wars which followed the French Revolution resulted in the creation, for the first time, of mass armies on a European scale.  The involvement of broader layers of the population in the making of history “enormously strengthens the feeling first there there is such a thing as history, that it is an uninterrupted process of changes and finally that it has a direct effect upon the life of every individual” (23).  Later, Lukács argues that this popular involvement in history was a vital precondition of the historical novel, insofar as it furnished a means of narrating world-historical changes.

The preceding summary only covers the first twenty pages or so of The Historical Novel.  Yet I hope it is clear that Lukács’ discussion of nationalism and historical consciousness, despite its brevity, constitutes a real resource for Marxist discussions of the topic.  Its neglect is obvious in the fact that two excellent (relatively) recent articles on nationalism, both from writers sympathetic to Lukács, ignore his contributions in this area[1].

If The Historical Novel broadens our picture of what Lukács was a philosopher of, it also transforms our received image of his method.  For  example, the Althusserian concept of overdetermination has oven been deployed against Lukács as a critique of his supposed “expressive totality,” in which every level of reality is nothing but the expression a single, primary contradiction.  But compare Lukács discussion of social upheaval (in the context of a discussion of historical drama) with Althusser’s own:

Lukács: “A real popular revolution never breaks out as a result of a single, isolated social contradiction.  The objective-historical period preparatory to revolution is filled with a whole number of tragic contradictions in life itself.  The maturing of the revolution then shows with increasing clarity the objective connection between these isolatedly occurring contradictions and gathers them into several central and decisive issues affecting the activity of the masses.  And, in the same way, certain social contradictions can continue unresolved even after a revolution or, indeed, emerge strengthened and heightened as a result of the revolution” (98).[2]

Althusser: “How else should we summarise these practical experiences and their theoretical commentaries other than by saying that the whole Marxist revolutionary experience shows that if the general contradiction (it has already been specified: the contradiction between the forces of production and the relations of production. essentially embodied in the contradiction between two antagonistic classes) is sufficient to define the situation when revolution is the ‘task of the day’, it cannot of its own simple, direct power induce a ‘revolutionary situation’, nor a fortiori a situation of revolutionary rupture and the triumph of the revolution. If this contradiction is to become ‘active’ in the strongest sense, to become a ruptural principle, there must be an accumulation of ‘circumstances’ and ‘currents’ so that whatever their origin and sense (and many of them will necessarily be paradoxically foreign to the revolution in origin and sense, or even its ‘direct opponents’), they ‘fuse’ into a ruptural unity: when they produce the result of the immense majority of the popular masses grouped in an assault on a regime which its ruling classes are unable to defend. Such a situation presupposes not only the ‘fusion’ of the two basic conditions into a ‘single national crisis ‘, but each condition considered (abstractly) by itself presupposes the ‘fusion’ of an ‘accumulation’ of contradictions.”

It is only the relative neglect of texts such as The Historical Novel that has allowed homologies such as this between Lukács and Althusser to go unnoticed in most discussions of Marxist theory.

One could go on in describing how The Historical Novel upsets our image of  Lukács (the extended discussion of drama, which complicates the image of the critic concerned only with novels, or the concluding section on the anti-fascist novel, which surely clashes with the narrative of a critic who has retreated from politics), but the main argument of the book also deserves considerable attention.  Lukács’ task is to anatomize the historical novel as a genre, trace its evolution, and explain its decline.

Lukács locates the emergence of the historical novel in the ideological matrix described above.  While authors of the eighteenth century and before had produced works which took place in historical settings, Lukács argues that these texts contained no true historical consciousness, but merely a projection of contemporary attitudes back in time.  The true historical novel emerges with the work of Sir Walter Scott, whose novels of the Scottish clans portray the disintegration of archaic social forms in the face of capitalist transformation.  Scott went beyond dressing modern characters in kilts, and instead drew his characters in such a fashion that the various details of their personalities were linked with the basic conditions of their existence.

This change in the content of the novel necessitated changes in form as well.  While the historical dramas often focused on ‘world-historical individuals’ (think of Shakespeare’s histories), Scott’s protagonists were often persons rather removed from the centers of historical conflict.  Lukács argues that this choice allowed Scott to investigate all sides of historical change with detail, where choosing a figure closely linked with any faction of the struggle necessitated a reduction in depth of portrayal of the opposing factions.  Scott’s average protagonists, unburdened by historical responsibility, could plausibly interact with different sides, and thus allow the novel to attain a fuller representation of social totality.

This choice of protagonist also allowed world-historical individuals to appear in the novels with proper mediation.  The varied  experiences of the protagonist across the social landscape creates a portrait of social forces so that, by the time major figures such as kings and the like appear, it is clear that their importance arises not from their extraordinary personal characteristics in abstract, but from the way they represent the important social forces of the day.  Lukács combines this critique of a great man theory of literature with a critique of attempts to write “literature from below” which ignore the goings on of the higher levels of society.  In a critique of anarchist mistrust of official politics, he argues that “[t]he appeal to the immediate, material existence of the people, which had been the starting-point of a really enriched picture of the social world, is transformed into its opposite, if it remains in this immediacy” (210).  For Lukács, the best novels narrate neither from above nor below, but with an aspiration towards totality.

Though Scott was the first to articulate the historical novel, he is joined by a host of other novelists who Lukács sees as upholding its classic tradition.  Among these are Alesandro Manzoni, James Fenimore Cooper, Leo Tolstoy, and above all, Honore de Balzac.  These authors all wrote during the ‘heroic’ period of the bourgeoisie, when representatives of that class fought against absolutism and were compelled to defend themselves against reactionary romanticism.

After 1848, however, the situation changed dramatically.  Confronted by the insurgent proletariat in the revolutions of that year, the bourgeoisie began its long retreat from the modes of thought which gave rise to the historical novel.  For Lukács, that retreat would mark the aesthetic of the historical novel with two key tendencies: archaeologization and modernization.  As capitalist reification and alienation became more intense, writers turned to the past not in order to explore it, but as a means of escape from the brutalities and banalities of modern life.  To fulfill this ideological function, history had to become a zone decisively severed from modern life.  Such a conception of the past resulted in a historical portrait which was essentially static, bereft of its own dynamics of change.  Lukács named this tendency archaeologization.

Lifeless portraits of the past do not make for good reading, however, and as such, novelists turned to other means to inject life into their novels.  The subjects of these novels contain the psychology of the present, regardless of whether the mode of life of the past implied anything resembling present subjectivities.  For writers in this mode, “it is really quite immaterial  whether one attributes to Hannibal’s sister the psychology of a French petit bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century or of a Spanish nun of the seventeenth” (188).  Modernization is the dialectical other of archaeologization.

A further means of enlivening the archaeologized past is the explicit portrayal of brutality and pathology.  Lukács argues that this attempt to achieve the aesthetic effects of true historical novels without their methods ends up short-circuiting: instead of producing outrage in the reader over the tortures and executions of the past, their explicit narration only numbs the reader, further reproducing the anesthetized past (one thinks of the ubiquitous torture scenes in New Historicist texts when reading Lukács’ argument here.)

These ideological tendencies are combined with a tendency in modern life for the further development of the division of labor to isolate writers more and more from what Lukács, in good Popular Front fashion, refers to as ‘the popular classes.’  This isolation from the progressive classes of the day further impoverishes the historical imagination, as writers are further separated from the lived experience of contemporary historical forces.

While there is something to this, Lukács’ consistent use of Popular Front terminology is one of the weakest points of the book.  In describing the popular classes, Lukács too frequently blurs the line between different subaltern classes, from peasants to wage workers to artisans.  Indeed, the working class as such is by and large absent from the book.  While the presence of concepts like reification and totality point towards convergences between History and Class Consciousness and the aesthetic works, the absence of the proletariat does form a key difference.

Overall, however, the similarities clearly outweigh the differences.  The Historical Novel displays a striking degree of continuity with Lukács’ early work, especially in light of a narrative which has, to use a favorite phrase from the work, placed a Chinese wall between the two.  These links are even more significant when one considers that Western Marxism has often been characterized by its focus on aesthetic questions and its relative distance from direct political matters.  Given that Lukács is something of a progenitor of this tradition, The Historical Novel, as a text which closely combines his political and aesthetic philosophies, provides a touchstone for rethinking Western Marxism with an eye towards the key political questions of the day which Lukács, for all his faults, always kept at the center of his work.

[1] See Chris Harman “The Return of the National Question,” International Socialism 56, 1992. (http://www.marxists.de/theory/harman/natquest.htm) and Neil Davidson “Reimagined Communities” International Socialism 117, 2007. (http://www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=401&issue=117#117davidson_35)

[2] This last sentence also puts in doubt the picture of Lukacs as a mouthpiece of Stalinism.

Read Full Post »