Category Archives: Books

Jodi Dean – Crowds and Party

Crowds and Party

Jodi Dean Crowds and Party (Verso 2016)


Jodi Dean’s book Crowds and Party deals with the more or less long-standing battle within the political left between communist and anarchist tendencies (including autonomism, etc.), and she offers her thoughts on recent trends in the anarchist direction embodied in Occupy Wall Street and similar protest movements.  As “Lefty” Hooligan put it (in “Anarchist Purges Anarchist; No News at 11,” MaximumRocknRoll, issue #375, Aug. 2014):

“Post-left anarchism categorically rejects the Left, from the social democracy and Marxism-Leninism of the Old Left to the Maoism and Third Worldism of the New Communist Movement that devolved from the New Left, as well as any anarchism that is in the least bit influenced by the Left. This is not merely a refusal of the Left’s ideological content, but of its organizational forms as well, from meetings run by Robert’s Rules of Order to various kinds of party-building.  But nothing unites post-left anarchism beyond this negation, leaving a disparate gaggle of personalities . . . .”

Responding to this situation, and approvingly citing Ellen Meiksins Wood‘s critique of “left realism”, Dean posits that anarchist tendencies are ineffectual and recommends a return to Marxist-Leninism — updated to reflect current contexts of course, and with recognition of past errors.  This means going beyond crowds to actual political parties that can hold power. Staughton Lynd has written in somewhat similar terms, quoting Victor Serge saying that anarchism is about “idealistic aspiration” but anarchist thinking is impractical and anarchists lack any answer to the question of power.  Part of Dean’s argument focuses on how “Marxists” have over time, but especially in the neoliberal era and since the overthrow of the USSR, explicitly or tacitly substituted anarchist tenets for Marxist-Leninist ones.  She writes:

“Some on the Left—autonomists, insurrectionists, anarchists, and libertarian communists—so embrace the energy unleashed by the crowd that they mistake an opening, an opportunity, for an end.  They imagine the goal of politics as the proliferation of multiplicities, potentialities, differences.  The unleashing of the playful, carnivalesque, and spontaneous is taken to indicate political success, as if duration were but a multiplication of moments rather than itself a qualitative change.  For the fantasists of politics as beautiful moment, any interpretation of a crowd event is to-be-contested because of its unavoidable incompleteness, its partiality.  They forget, or disavow, the fact that the non-all character of the people is the irreducible condition of struggle.  And so they treat organization, administration, and legislation as a failure of revolution, a return of impermissible domination and hierarchy rather than as effects and arrangements of power, rather than as attributes of the success of a political intervention.”  (p. 125).

Dean refers to “crowds” in reference to uprisings and outbursts like Occupy Wall Street.  She looks to crowd theorists like Gustave Le Bon (The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind), Sigmund Freud (Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego), and Elias Canetti (Crowds and Power), but explores the limits of crowds in addition to their potentials and other positive attributes.  She notes how Canetti identifies crowds with what psychoanalysis calls “desire”, that is, providing direction and growth toward a fundamentally unattainable goal (i.e., a desire to desire).  Her engagement with past “crowd theorists” makes up some of the best parts of her book.

Following the likes of Slavoj Žižek and Bruno Bosteels, Dean sees the contemporary problem of the Left as being how to transform the state itself, not to abandon or merely seize it.  She insists, “What matters for us here and now is the galvanization of such a communist will.”  (p. 150).  She offers an extended critique of John Holloway‘s Change the World Without Taking Power to make this pointCuriously, she never engages Žižek’s The Fragile Absolute, which deals with the origins of communist universalist thinking in christianity and explores the problem of institutionalizing those concepts in the foundations of the christian church.  It would have been interesting to read Dean’s take on that book, which explores a topic directly related to the central topics of Crowds and Party.  

Dean emphasizes the idea of the political party as a “gap”.  “The party operates as the support for the subject of communism by holding open the gap between the people and their setting in capitalism.”  (p. 206).  She continues:

“One might object that contemporary decentered, federated, and interlinked states are not in anyone’s hands and therefore cannot be seized.  This objection, however, implicitly endorses a liberal technocratic view of the state.  It proceeds as if the system of laws and assumptions on which states are based are nothing more than neutral protocols.  The classic communist ideal of the dictatorship of the proletariat confronts this lie directly.  The liberal state is in actuality the dictatorship of capital.  Its premises ensure that the benefit of the doubt, ‘common sense,’ falls on the side of capitalism, that what feels like the right decision is the one that confirms the bourgeois mindset: protect private property, preserve individual liberties, promote trade and commerce.  The goal of taking control of the state takes aim at this underlying level of laws, practices, and expectations, targeting common sense to make it the sense for and of the common.

“Capitalists will not voluntarily reorganize processes of accumulation so as to put an end to proletarianization.  They will not simply hand over control and ownership of the means of production.  States will not just stop oppressing, arresting, and imprisoning those who resist them.  Such fundamental changes will only come about through political struggle, carried out internationally.  A Left that eschews organizing for power will remain powerless.  This is why we are talking about the party again.”  (p. 207).

To take one rather arbitrary example from after Crowds and Party was published, Andreas Malm wrote an essay entitled “Time to Pull the Plugs” about the problem of and solutions to impending ecological catastrophe.  While presenting a useful present history of the state of ecological collapse, Malm asserts that Naomi Klein is a “radical thinker” who calls for “revolt” (Dean has elsewhere critiqued precisely this characterization of Klein; Dean believes Klein is precisely not radical — she accepts capitalism so long as it is not “neoliberal” capitalism), and offers cursory, conclusory dismissals of calls to end capitalism as untenable, unrealistic, reckless, etc.  It is precisely the likes of Malm that Dean rails against, because, just like “third way” liberals, they concede too much to achieve anything.  In short, people like Malm abandon the “communist will”, but in doing so refuse to acknowledge the defeatist implications of doing so.

There are a few unconvincing parts of the book.  When Dean attempts to offer new (re)interpretations of certain concepts, she mostly fails to establish these, or at least, the necessity of her reinterpretations.  Among those is her concept (actually developed prior to this book) of “communicative capitalism”.  She notes that others already have different terms for very similar concepts.  Her term is not as intuitive as some others.  She seems to be “branding” her own theory (even though she criticizes “personal branding” in general).  Frankly, she explains “communicative capitalism” better elsewhere.  Another weak spot is where she tries to offer an explanation for the rise of individualism by the 1970s.  She relies on Michel Foucault to argue that the “individual” is a limiting state created as part of social discipline.  In this, she cites Foucault to view “discipline” in a purely negative sense, as something always bad.  But some counter-examples show how “discipline” can actually forge collectives.  One such example is the Boxer Rebellion in China (admitted, a topic for which there is relatively little in-depth treatment in English).  Another is the musician Sun Ra‘s Arkestra.  Sun Ra took in former drug addicts and gang members into his musical group, and emphasized “discipline” as a way to forge a collective musical project.  Paulo Freire has emphasized, too, how discipline can enhance intuitive learning while still promoting the sort of freedom that concerns Dean.  Self-discipline is something that requires no “capital” and therefore, in at least these (counter-)examples, the poor can use it to strengthen themselves, but also to build solidarity “from below”.  Dean’s arguments for why individualism arose in recent history is unconvincing, but it is largely a distraction from her main arguments — she does establish that individualism became a dominant perspective in America, and why that was the case is at best secondary to her main theses.  For that matter, later in her book she approvingly cites communist party discipline as a way to develop learning and growth, in a way that echoes Freire.  So, her invocation of “discipline” seems to leave some loose threads.  And to the extent that the summary above unfairly characterizes here arguments about “discipline” it may well be because her argument is hard to follow.

Also, the last chapter reads like the “Lifetime Movie” of the book, as Dean seeks to unearth historical examples to illustrate how a communist party can act on an emotional level.  It is a strange chapter that seems directed to an entirely different audience than the preceding chapters.  While the last chapter certainly expands on the theoretical approach of the rest of the book, it also threatens to drift into historical irrelevancy, because Dean doesn’t try to connect the historical examples to any kind of contemporary relevance.  Instead, the examples are meant to historically bolster her theoretical principles, while, in a way, some undermine her theory that the party is of contemporary importance by lacking clear contemporary relevance (for instance, how many workers today live in “company towns” and are sons of sharecroppers?).

Reviewing Alfie Bown’s book Enjoying It – Candy Crush and Capitalism, Joe Kennedy wrote:

“‘Our ideas surrounding the enjoyment of critical theory and political resistance lead to the celebrated identity of the radical, which is another way of being a subject that suits capitalism’. In other words, the inclusive, absorptive nature of capitalism, which needs to bring everything within the scope of its mechanics of commodification, means that the radical is yet one more demographic to be sold to, another identity which can only find its expression through consumer preference. If this seems far-fetched, follow the twitter account of left-leaning London publishers Verso, who frequently retweet photographs sent in by satisfied customers of the piles of Marx (and assorted modern Marxist thinkers) which have just landed on their doormats.”

He refers to the very same London publisher of Dean’s Crowds and Party.  There is a risk in getting caught up in the “identity of the radical”, but Dean has, I think, gotten past those concerns, illustrating positive uses for such a collective identity.

Still, Dean’s vision of a communist party certainly runs against other conceptions of communism generally.  After all, Friedrich Engelspersonal motto was “take it easy.”  Dean’s reliance on Žižek runs up against this too.  Dean seems to endorse something close to a Stalinist total mobilization, though this hardly seems like the sort of ideal likely to attract many adherents.  Of course, there remains a difference between a communist society and a communist party, but this distinction is a potential sticking point for how persuasive Dean’s approach will (or will not) be to potential party members.

Anyway, Dean’s book presents a number of opportunities for further research.  For example, in a number of places the way she describes party activity bears a striking resemblance to pro-capitalist “business guru” advisers’ writings.  She describes the contents of the Communist Party of the United States’ Party Organizer publication in the 1930s, and highlights how it “expresses the pressure of the relentless injunction to do more[.]”  (p. 194).  This compares closely to the concept of a “big hairy audacious goal” of business consultants Jim Collins and Jerry Porras (in their discredited book Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies).  Elsewhere, Dean states,” “Without the party, there is no body capable of remembering, learning, and responding.”  (p. 260).  This sounds very close to the dubious business organizations concept of Peter Senge‘s The Fifth Discipline, which posits that organizations (rather than the people in them) can learn and retain knowledge.  Of course, certain noted communists have at various times suggested that capitalist management practices should be adopted and adapted to communist ends where appropriate, so perhaps these parallels aren’t totally odd.  But they present opportunities for elaboration, at least in a comparative sense.

Crowds and Party, measured by how many good ideas it presents is a great success.  Measured by readability or consistency, it stumbles, due to the extensive academic jargon and sometimes cluttered prose, and because whole sections of the book are throwaways.  All together, it is a worthy and important piece of analysis that probably could have benefited from a bit further revision and refinement.  In short, people like Lenin successfully refuted the anarchists a century ago, and once all the historical revisionism is stripped away, the anarchists are still wrong for all the same reasons.  So, if readers step away with anything concrete, it hopefully is a desire to read (or re-read) Lenin‘s The State and Revolution with the understanding that it still presents the most relevant formulation of left politics a hundred years later, and, for good measure, Žižek’s recent Trouble in Paradise: From the End of History to the End of Capitalism (arguably his most readable and relevant recent book) — even Domenico Losurdo‘s War and Revolution: Rethinking the Twentieth Century.  It is also relevant to note that Dean is active in the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), so anyone located in the United States who is enthusiastic about what she has written here should perhaps investigate that political party.  Dean certainly has a better bead on effective left politics than other commentators.

Moshe Lewin – The Soviet Century

The Soviet Century

Moshe LewinThe Soviet Century (Verso 2005)


Moshe Lewin was one of the great historians of the former Soviet Union writing in English.  He actually lived in the Soviet Union for a time, working on a collective farm and later in the Soviet Army, eventually ending up in the West in academic positions.  His breakthrough book in the late 1960s was the superb Lenin’s Last Struggle (first published in French), which here he confirms was on the right track but which formerly secret documents now show did not go far enough in establishing how much Lenin despised Stalin and his political ambitions.  What separates Lewin from so many other English-language historians is that he approaches the Soviet government, and its attempts to realize the “communist hypothesis” (Alain Badiou‘s term), in a sympathetic yet critical light.  Mostly that takes the form of accepting the original Bolshevik objective in founding the USSR, together with rather commonplace statistical measures and evaluations against the government’s own internal objectives, and asking how well the government operated against those sorts of metrics, in context, without dwelling on the insentience that Bolshevik objectives were and are normatively wrong.  As Lewin puts it near the end of this book:

“Reflection on the USSR has been marred — and still is — by two frequent errors . . . .  The first is to take anti-communism for a study of the Soviet Union.  The second — a consequence of the first — consists in ‘Stalinizing’ the whole Soviet phenomenon, as if it had been one giant gulag from beginning to end.

“Anti-communism (and its offshoots) is not historical scholarship: it is ideology masquerading as such.”

To that end, Lewin occasionally reminds readers how anti-communist detractors are often quick to criticize the Soviet Union while at the same time overlooking similar if not worse occurrences in other countries.  Such a decontextualized approach he likens to propaganda.

Lewin does not resort to hagiography or fawning praise for the former Soviet Union.  He does hew pretty close to the Lenin/Trotsky analysis of the new nation’s prospects for becoming socialist (which in turn drew from various non-Bolshevik commentators of the day), describing Stalinism as “agrarian despotism” that rebuilt many aspects of the failed tsarist system, and the post-Stalin period as “bureaucratic absolutism”.  As Lenin and Trotsky both believed that it would take a long time and much effort to actually reach socialism, Lewin looks back and finds that socialist objectives were never achieved (though such conclusions can be taken too far, suggesting an impossible purity).  But he is ready to credit many advances in industrialization, literacy and education, feminism, science, life expectancy, and so on, plus a critical role in the defeat of Nazism.  He laments how some scholars have omitted the decline in many of these measures after the fall of the Soviet Union — he likens the immediate post-Soviet economy to a “mafia” capitalism, something that he suggests materialized in part because there was already a kind of privatization of the commons underway in the late Soviet era proper.

The book is not a chronological history, but rather is more of a collection of essays on various topics.  This fits in the category of reflective history, cutting across subspecies of universal, pragmatic, critical and fragmentary methodologies, following Hegel‘s taxonomy in Reason in History.  What emerges here is a useful portrait of the administrative and bureaucratic aspects of the state, and how those elements rose and fell, and engaged in internal fields of struggle with other social elements.  The segments on Stalinism make for difficult reading, given the gruesome nature of arbitrary persecutions that involved massive waves of executions and institutionalized slavery via the gulag system.  And yet, Lewin admirably traces the both the rise and fall of Stalinism, and some of its lingering effects.

There is an enlightening segment tracing the careers of various post-Stalin politburo members (i.e., the top leaders).  Lewin shines in some of these portraits, drawing on a host of memoirs from these figures and the people working around them, as well as from reports made public only decades later.  He skips past many of these politicians as hapless fools, and focuses only on those with wits about them.  Khrushchev is the first of them.  He was a kind of country-bumpkin of sorts, who did numerous admirable things leavened with politically naive mistakes.  It was Khrushchev who dismantled the gulag system and instituted reforms of the NKVD (the predecessor to the KGB that operated the gulags) and the state’s dependence on the economics of gulag slave labor.  And yet, he was ousted and the incoming Brezhnev regime was neo-Stalinist in some respects, setting the stage for overall decline based on a tendency to corruption (including, in Stalinist style, blaming all mistakes on the lower rungs but taking all credit at the top) and ineffectiveness (epitomized by surrounding the general secretary with mostly dumb, non-threatening, and self-interested loyalists).  For comparative purposes, the Khrushchev era offers useful examples for how the dismantling of corrupt and discriminatory policing structures in other countries, like the United States, might proceed, and the challenges those efforts will face during the inevitable pushback by those invested in the status quo.  Andropov is the most interesting figure chronicled (I admit to being unfamiliar with him until this book).  A former head of the KGB, he was well-informed about the unvarnished facts of the state’s decline and inefficiency, and encouraged free communication in his office, thereby developing new theories and rapport with officials who reported to him.  This is surprising, in that he was seen as part of the conservative Brezhnev block and headed the KGB — although he was a liberalizer when it came to internal political repression via the KGB.  Although Andropov died too quickly to achieve anything of significance once he assumed the position of general secretary, Lewin ponders what a vaguely Leninist but quite radical restructuring of the state under Andropov might have accomplished to avoid the entire state’s collapse a decade later (mostly likely a sort of New Economic Policy [NEP] part two).

Another memorable passage is Lewin’s takedown of the writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.  He says, “Solzhenitsyn considered himself the depository of higher values inherited from Russia’s distant past[,] *** [a] fine writer, but politically inept and with a highly inflated sense of his own importance . . . .”  He considered him a dubious source of information on the gulag system, quoting extensively Vladimir Lakshin, of the literary magazine Novyi Mir, an outspoken contemporary Soviet critic of Solzhenitsyn.  Lewin also suggests that Solzhenitsyn was a bit of a fraud in the way he criticized the gulag system after it was essentially dismantled, without ever explicitly noting that the gulag system was already a relic of the past.  He sees Solzhenitsyn as finding notoriety principally via anti-communists who didn’t question his underlying anti-democratic impulses.  These are biting criticisms, and worth reading for anyone who might otherwise rely on Solzhenitsyn.

Lewin is a fine writer and historian, drawing mostly from secondary sources with a scrupulous eye for their shortcomings and biases.  This is still “eat your vegetables” sort of reading, though well worth it in terms of revealing a lot of information that was previously secret during the Soviet era and most certainly presenting a view of the former Soviet Union not regularly taught (or even suggested) in Western schools.  It would have been nice had Lewin included a few more topics, such as more about the arts, and some sort of discussion about ecology (in a country whose government basically destroyed the Aral Sea).  But no matter.  Historians have a tough task, in that mere collections of isolated facts serve no purpose, and meaningful histories tend to require the application of theory from sociology, political science, and even, in the case of sketches of important personages, psychoanalysis.  Lewin proves adept in many of those areas, even if he occasionally stumbles by suggesting that it is possible for historical analysis to step outside of ideology and be “objective”.

Jeffrey Reiman – …And the Poor Get Prison

...And the Poor Get Prison: Economic Bias in American Criminal Justice

Jeffrey Reiman…And the Poor Get Prison: Economic Bias in American Criminal Justice (Allyn and Bacon, 1996)


Jeffrey Reiman’s …And the Poor Get Prison: Economic Bias in American Criminal Justice is a 1996 edition of a book first published in 1979 and republished in revised editions through the eleventh edition in 2016 (most under the title The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class, and Criminal Justice).  Paul Leighton became a co-author on later editions.  The book is intended primarily for use as a textbook for college-level criminal justice coursework.  But it remains readable for general audiences as well.  This review addresses an edition now over twenty years old, and does not compare either newer or older editions.

In short, this book presents an outstanding critique of the ideology behind American criminal justice, concluding that the system and its institutions are biased against the poor.  What is most commendable about the book is that it is structured in a logical and coherent way, it provides citations and evidence for every one of its arguments, and it responds to typical counter-arguments.  In other words, rather than a polemic that simply asserts its thesis without testing it, or attempting to side-step normative moral and political judgments by hiding behind technocratic language, the book attempts to ground and defend its positions in an explicitly materialist way.  While it would be fair to say that not every individual argument in the book is well-taken, be it due to outdated or incomplete statistical information or something else, the overwhelming majority of what is presented is supported by both coherent theory and some type of empirical data.

The normative positions taken by Reiman are ultimately defended on moral terms, rather than on a “mistaken facts” basis.  In other words, he does not fall back on the weak justification that things would change if only people knew what the facts really were.  The saying from the total quality improvement discipline, that every system is perfectly designed for the results it currently achieves, fits perfectly into Reiman’s analysis.  Indeed, he mentions teaching a class in which he asked his students a question: how would they design a criminal justice system so that it “would maintain and encourage a stable and visible ‘class’ of criminals.”  The students indicated that it would look pretty much like the current American criminal justice system.

As Alex S. Vitale writes in a more recent book, The End of Policing, “Powerful political forces benefit from abusive, aggressive, and invasive policing, and they are not going to be won over or driven from power by technical arguments or heartfelt appeals to do the right thing.”  Reiman recognizes this too.  In this edition of his book, he alludes to this problem.  His goal is not to outline a specific political problem merely to justify addressing it in a particular predetermined way, but rather to detail the set of interrelated problems that justify a significant political intervention of some sort the particulars of which are not fully determined.

Reiman establishes a few points that should, now at least, be considered incontrovertible:

“1. Society fails to protect people from the crimes they fear by refusing to alleviate the poverty that breeds them . . .

“2. The criminal justice system fails to protect people from the most serious dangers by failing to define the dangerous acts of those who are well off as crimes . . . and by failing to enforce the law vigorously against the well-to-do when they commit acts that are defined as crimes . . .

“3. By virtue of these and other failures, the criminal justice system succeeds in creating the image that crime is almost exclusively the work of the poor, an image that serves the interests of the powerful . . . .”

In the details, Reiman admirably explains how bias in upstream aspects of criminal justice are more damaging than downstream ones.  For instance, legislation that exempts the actions of the rich from the definition of “crime” means that the rich never enter the criminal justice system in the first place, and sentencing fairness is therefore irrelevant to them.  While bias in downstream events like sentencing do matter, by that stage most of the rich have been filtered out of the system.  A key point here is prosecutorial discretion.  Reiman notes how it remains an opaque process rife with opportunities for bias that have been restricted in other areas.

There are a few flaws in this edition.  For instance, Reiman argues that his “Pyrrhic Defeat” theory is not a “conspiracy theory”.  But this is somewhat a strawman argument, with Reiman applying an unduly narrow criminal law definition of “conspiracy”.  It also overlooks a similar sort of middle-ground position like the “propaganda model” of mass media put forward by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, which emphasizes the reinforcement and reproduction of an ideological system while also suggesting causal intent, or the psychoanalytic concept of denial/disavowal/Verleugnung, in which denying something that affects an individual is actually a way of affirming what he or she is apparently denying.  Indeed, Reiman’s focus on the criminal justice system as such means he only discusses mass media complicity in passing, which seems like too little treatment.  Additionally, Reiman makes a conservative argument about gun control that is contrary (i.e., non-materialist) to his other arguments, and counterfactual.  More recent evidence suggests that banning firearms will not reduce murder or suicide, directly contradicting Reiman’s claims.  And lastly, Reiman concludes the book with some suggestions to make the criminal justice system minimally morally defensible.  What is interesting here is that Reiman abandons the materialistic critique that grounded the entire book to that point and instead justifies his policy recommendations based on an entirely different foundation, namely that of center-left liberalism.  He cites the likes of John Rawls and John Stuart Mill.  While Reiman applies this approach because he seeks only to suggest the minimum necessary moral reforms, not the best possible reforms, his abrupt abandonment of a materialist philosophy renders the basis for these suggestions incompatible with his overall critique.  With the exception of of the “gun control” position, which is not defensible, everything else is sort of unobjectionable, even if it comes across as kind of arbitrary as presented.

On the whole, this is a wonderful book.  It makes an essential introduction to the operation of the American criminal justice system, and provides a durable critique of its most fundamental moral flaws.

David Roediger – Class, Race, and Marxism

Class, Race and Marxism

David RoedigerClass, Race and Marxism (Verso 2017)


I found this book to be quite trivial.  It pulls together previous essays that Roediger has written with some new material, and focuses its attention on a selected history of pro- and anti-“identity politics” commentators, together with extensive personal anecdotes.  The book’s major fault is that its central premises are disingenuous.  Roediger claims in the introduction to have undertaken self-criticism.  But on close examination that is not exactly what he does.  Rather, he carefully frames his self-criticism in order to advance certain underlying ideological presuppositions, and to signal that he identifies with certain groups and not others.  He claims that he is investigating the need to engage in both theory and action.  Yet he ends up not really questioning his theoretical assumptions much, and dwells on action.  So, for instance, he opens the book with a mild critique of David Harvey, only to immediately signal that his disagreements with Harvey and a few others are really minor and constructive and that they are really on the same side — by which he means they can both support “identity politics” and craft/trade union social democracy.  He then mentions the anti-“identity politics” positions of Walter Benn Michaels and Adolph Reed, Jr., dismissing them as “simplistic”, and, later in the book, also dismisses the work of Pierre Bourdieu and Loic Wacquant and others’ similar views.  And yet, Roediger’s dismissal of these contrary positions actually reveals much more about his own simplistic frame of reference than it does to explicate the supposed flaws of these other thinkers.  For example, Roediger argues from the vantage point that craft/trade union advocacy is of crucial importance, that “Marxism” is about “class” identity rather than a universalism of shared antagonisms, that such groups tend to have substantially consistent/homogeneous internal cohesion, and, crucially, that “ideology” is not an important framework.  Accordingly, his overview of the anti-“identity politics” position (which he clearly rejects) omits any discussion of many of the most prominent recent advocates of that position: Jodi Dean, Alain Badiou, Slavoj Žižek, Sharon Smith, etc. While many of these other thinkers rely on psychoanalysis, it is psychonalisis of an entirely different sort than what Roediger occasionally references.  This is significant.  It is possible to disagree with Roediger’s flavor of “class” consciousness and on that basis alone arrive at a different balance of class and race (and gender, etc.) concerns.  Much of the book explores a history of what amount to “tactical” considerations, without digging into deeper philosophical and theoretical underpinnings.  While some of Roedinger’s statements ring true, I tend to think a better and more far-reaching formulation of the theory and action dialectic that Roediger professes to apply in this book is stated by Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, for example.  Adolph Reed’s criticism of Roediger and his ilk (echoing Walter Benjamin), that they are part of “a strain of the professional-managerial class whose worldview and material interests are rooted within a political economy of race and ascriptive identity-group relations[,]” seems spot on — hardly something “simplistic”.  This is evidenced by the extensive bloviating that Roediger puts forth about academic appointments and the trials and tribulations of various race-conscious academics seeking prestigious university positions.  This recalls “lean in” boardroom (neoliberal) feminism, or Maresi Starzman’s statement, “Even if precariously employed academics may be, in economic terms, best considered part of the working class, their interests are aligned with the aspiring middle and upper-middle classes. At the end of the day, academic desires — for a career, for status, or maybe for some fame — ensure that even the ‘lumpen professor’ remains a professor, cash strapped but with a solid middle-class habitus.  The result is a seeming paradox: an impoverished workforce deeply loyal to the exploitative structures it is embedded within . . . .”  It all gets very tedious.  I was left feeling that Roediger is furthering a debate in what I consider a cul-de-sac of increasingly irrelevant non-Marxist discourse that panders to craft/trade unions, the university appointment system, and defeatist sentiments that the “communist hypothesis” must be tempered if not rejected. While no doubt, “identity politics” has become hegemonic in academic departments of late, Roediger too easily relies on that hegemony to proffer very superficial criticisms of anti-identity politics positions.  But, again, this is essentially a critique of the ideology that Roediger adopts, and Roediger is careful to bracket out ideology from his purview.  He also makes some dubious characterizations of fact.  For instance, in the introduction he claims that police unions actually have very little power.  This is borderline laughable.  Take for instance Minnesota, where in around 2011 the police union succeeded in having state law modified to shield them from disciplinary investigations by citizen boards.  When Martin Gilens & Benjamin Page released their widely publicized study of the impact of ordinary citizens and unions on government policy, they concluded that unions, as interest groups typically aligned with ordinary citizen interests, have very little influence.  These examples tend to show that police unions have considerably more influence than other types of unions, calling Roediger’s claim into doubt.  In spite of his claim to be self-critical, he spends these pages mostly trying to rally allies to fend off criticism from the likes of Reed, Benn Michaels, and a host of others he doesn’t bother to cite — something that is fundamentally populist rather than Marxist, and is not a problem unique to Roediger.  It is rather hard to see how this book is of any interest to anyone other than the “opposition” academics specifically mentioned, to the extent that they might wish to rebut specific claims Roediger makes.  Though this book is best ignored.

Daniel Denvir – Donald Trump’s Reactionary Mind

Link to an interview with Corey Robin, author of The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump (2017), conducted by Daniel Denvir:

“Donald Trump’s Reactionary Mind”

 

Bonus links: Liberalism: A Counter History and War and Revolution: Rethinking the Twentieth Century and The Theory of the Leisure Class and “The Left Hand and the Right Hand of the State” and “Slavoj Žižek on Law” and “Slavoj Žižek on Political Struggle”

Notice that basically all of the key points that Robin makes in the interview have already been made by others, going back over a hundred years.  But Robin does simplify a lot of this, for better or worse.  His most dubious claim is that the reactionary project began at the time of the French revolution.  Historical figures/movements like the opponents of the Gracchi tend to indicate this stretches back to classical antiquity, though perhaps not in an unbroken chain.

Ed Rooksby – Review of Domenico Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History

Link to a review by Ed Rooksby of Domenico Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History (2005; 2011 trans.).  Losurdo’s counterpart book War and Revolution: Rethinking the Twentieth Century (2015) should also be considered here, because it is arguably a better written (or better translated) book with a better exposition of its central argument.

“Liberalism: An Ideology of Exclusion? (Part 1)”

 

Selected quote:

“How do we make sense of this paradox at the heart of liberalism – the simultaneous invocation of liberty on the one hand and the justification and promulgation of severe forms of oppression on the other? The key to all of this, Losurdo argues, is to grasp that liberalism is founded on an implicit logic of exclusion. Only once we have understood this can we start to resolve the seeming inconsistencies. Liberalism has always pivoted, Losurdo argues, on drawing a dividing line between ‘us’ and ‘them’ – those who are worthy or capable (morally, intellectually, biologically/racially) of the gamut of rights and liberties we associate with liberalism and those who are not. Liberalism was always, of course, centrally concerned with the condemnation and limitation of despotic power and the corresponding assertion of rights to self-government, autonomy and so on – but this struggle was always waged by, and on behalf of, an exclusive section of humanity – what Losurdo terms ‘the community of the free’. The history of liberalism is thus in great part a history of how the particular specification and location of the boundary line between ‘the community of the free’ and the excluded has evolved and shifted.

“With this exclusionary logic in mind we can make sense of the paradoxes of liberal slavery, liberal empire and liberal authoritarianism towards wage labourers and the poor. In each of these three apparent paradoxes we are, in fact, confronting particular instances of the opposition between the justly free and the justly unfree. It is not that the brutal world of slavery, for example, represented a failure or negation of proclaimed liberal values, or revealed the hypocrisy of contemporary liberals, it is that the ‘community of the free’ in which the sphere of liberal rights and freedoms applied did not, and was not intended, to encompass black people. Liberalism, for Losurdo, was never a doctrine of moral universalism. We can see now, how racism and class contempt operated as necessary ideological supports for this system of exclusion. Slavery and colonial expropriation and domination was justified on the grounds that non-white peoples were by definition uncivilised, in a condition of ‘nonage’ (Mill), not fully human or even ‘savage beasts’ (Locke) and were thus rightly excluded from the ‘community of the free’. Similarly, workers and the poor in the metropolis were not intelligent, morally developed or, again, human enough to be admitted into the sacred space of the free community of liberals.

“It is not just that liberalism was long characterised by exclusion for Losurdo – it is also that, to a great extent, the liberty of the community of the free has depended on the exclusion and oppression of the unfree. That is, the relationship between the community of the free and the excluded has been one of exploitation in which the privileges of the former have been rooted in the expropriation and coercion of the unfree. It is here that class relations come into play.”

 

Bonus links: Critical Moral Liberalism: Theory and Practice (“liberal theories often serve as ideological cover for oppression of one group by others.”) and Against Liberalism and “François Furet, 20 ans après”

Alex Vitale – Police and the Liberal Fantasy

Link to an article excerpted from the book The End of Policing by Alex Vitale:

“Police and the Liberal Fantasy”

 

Bonus links: Review and “The Left Hand and the Right Hand of the State” and “Stop Kidding Yourself: The Police Were Created to Control Working Class and Poor People” and “Policing Class” and Punishing the Poor and The Fabrication of Social Order: A Critical Theory of Police Power and The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison and “Locking Up the Lower Class”

Ernesto “Che” Guevara – The Motorcycle Diaries

The Motorcycle Diaries

Ernesto “Che” GuevaraThe Motorcycle Diaries (Verso 1995)


The Motorcycle Diaries is a book based on a diary that Ernesto “Che” Guevara kept while on a lengthy journey through South American in 1951 and 1952 with his friend Alberto Granado.  Guevara was 23 when he began the more than six-month trip, and was still in medical school (in his native Argentina) at the time.  These aren’t raw diary entries, but are eloquently re-written vignettes based on the diary notes.  The prose is excellent, poetic even.  Guevara comes across as a more compelling version of beat writer Jack Kerouac, with more of a sense of purpose and minus the narcissism of Kerouac.  There are a few comments here and there about politics and political economy, but for the most part this is just an engaging coming-of-age travelogue about two bohemian vagabonds getting to know a wider world and its people.  Tennessee Williams‘ character Blanche duBois has the famous line in A Streetcar Named Desire, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”  That more or less perfectly describes Guevara and Granado’s approach to their expedition, as they lacked sufficient funds and provisions and therefore begged, connived, and (sometimes) worked for food, shelter, rides, and other provisions much of the time.  Guevara has a keen eye for character and motivations as he describes the people he encounters.  He also acknowledges the undercurrent of decadence in the trip.  Some editions of the book reprint part of a 1960 speech Guevara gave that nicely adds context to how the expedition shaped his own character, and also contextualizing how such experiences are the sort of thing that are socially necessary in shedding goals that involve striving for individual recognition in favor of advancing common dignity.  After his assassination, Jean-Paul Sartre would famously describe Guevara as “not only an intellectual but also the most complete human being of our age.”  And as Thomas Sankara said about Che in a speech October 8, 1987 commemorating the twentieth anniversary of Che’s assassination, a week before Sankara too was assassinated, that Che “turned his back on the easy road in order, on the contrary, to assert himself as a man of the people, a man who makes common cause with the people, a man who makes common cause with the suffering of others.”  He added, “Finally, let us remember Che simply as an embodiment of eternal romanticism, of fresh and invigorating youth, and at the same time of the clear-sightedness, wisdom, and devotion that only profound men, men with heart, can possess.”  One can get a glimpse of why Sartre and Sankara, and so many others, said these things by starting with The Motorcycle Diaries, which sounds out a portrait of an imperfect human being trying to be better.