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SUMMER 2011


Editors’ Note

Dancing on Liberalism’s Grave

Traditionally, liberalism’s troubles have inspired two kinds of responses from the Left. The first is an abandonment of any critical distance as a crisis atmosphere takes hold and the need to confront the “threat from the Right” supersedes all other considerations. Conservative resurgence is painted as a fascist menace and any liberal alternative is by comparison invested with a “progressive” halo. This dynamic played a part in Obama’s rise as a surprising number of figures with impeccable leftist credentials made themselves appendages of the “Obama movement.” The second kind of response is a sort of theoretical Schadenfreude, a philosophy of “the worse, the better” [...]


 Essays

Seth Ackerman

Liberals and Racism

Make no mistake; my intention isn’t to praise or defend the Tea Partiers or the braying geriatrics who bum-rushed the health care reform town halls two summers ago. It is to ask why liberals, when faced with the political idiom of the American Right, gravitate so insistently toward racialized accounts of their motives. The Right talks endlessly about freedom, defined as negative liberty; yet liberals in their ordinary political discourse have no critique of the right-wing concept of freedom. The Right loudly and consistently champions free markets and capitalism; yet liberals have no principled critique of free markets or capitalism.

 

Mike Beggs

Zombie Marx: The Arrogance of Marxist Economists

[...] what we might call Frankenstein Marx – the stitching together of an argument from authority by stringing together famous quotations torn out of context. Criticizing Frankenstein Marxism is like campaigning for motherhood and apple pie – no one will disagree. What I call Zombie Marx is different – the reanimation of a corpse which is still holds organically together in some way. This is the reconstruction of Marxist economics as a coherent body of thought, not a collection of quotations.

 

Peter Frase

An Imagined Community

Can we imagine our communities as limited, without imagining them as dominant over other communities? The history of nationalist movements in state power is discouraging on this score, but perhaps Americans can find a more promising example closer to home. When we think of nationalism in the United States, we generally think of its reactionary manifestation as American nationalism: flag-waving, jingoistic, pro-business, and all the rest. But for all that the residents of the country see themselves as Americans, the United States is also home to a robust collection of regional identities, which may be more promising avenues for progressive development.


James Heartfield

Responsible Imperialism

[...] there was no other remedy for a wrong than British justice – just as today it is usually taken as read that the proper answer to the problems of indigenous peoples are intervention by government programs or even the armed force of the “international community.” They could see Aboriginal peoples as victims, but not as authors of their own destiny. Their policy was to protect, with all its hidden patrician intent.


Lars T. Lih

Questioning October

This approach is correct about one thing: the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks did resort to Marxist concepts such as these in their 1917 polemics.  Yet doctrinal arguments of this kind were far from the heart of the matter.  Indeed, they were essentially add-ons, attempts to give doctrinal legitimacy to positions based on empirical readings of Russia in 1917.  The real question facing the socialist parties was this: could the crisis engulfing Russian society be solved by cooperation with educated society, or did a solution require a new sovereign authority based exclusively on the narod, the workers and peasants?

 

Richard Seymour

How Can the Left Win?

A minimum precondition for the Left to win is that it can provide a plausible explanation for the crisis and, on the basis of that, a persuasive set of solutions that are neither captive to the logic of neoliberalism – as are the solutions offered by the center-left, focused on modified austerity and a slightly tougher regulatory regime to curtail financial “excesses” – nor improbably maximalist. Kouvelakis describes the impotence of “propagandistic attitudes” simply denouncing capitalism, in contrast to the careful “mediations through which the dominant classes are responding to the crisis.”  But the Left requires its own “mediations,” a set of reasonable demands which act on popular attitudes, provide a creditable response to the crisis, and attack weak links in the ideological articulations of the ruling class.


Slavoj Žižek and His Critics

Alan Johnson

The Power of Nonsense

Of course, some will say Žižek is a jester and should not be taken seriously. That would be a mistake. As Bertrand Russell once said, never underestimate the power of nonsense. There is a milieu out there in which red has met brown, Left has met Right, a conversation has started up, and the interlocutors are discovering they have more in common than they thought. This hybridity is not without precedent. From the 1920s to the 1940s Fascism in France was, in Zeev Sternhell’s words, “neither Left nor Right” but both.


Slavoj Žižek

The Jacobin Spirit

In the history of radical politics, violence is usually associated with the so-called Jacobin legacy, and, for that reason, dismissed as something that should be abandoned if we are truly to begin again. Even many contemporary (post-)Marxists are embarrassed by the so-called Jacobin legacy of centralized state terror, from which they want to distance Marx himself, proposing an authentic “liberal” Marx whose thought was later obfuscated by Lenin.


Book Reviews

Paul Le Blanc

Ulyanovsk (on Lenin by Lars Lih)

Lenin is likened to the Biblical Noah, confidently building his revolutionary ark as the flood waters of political, social and economic catastrophe rose higher and higher.  “As it turned out, the ark was leaky because it was built on unsound assumptions, the voyage involved more suffering than anyone had bargained for, and the ark ended up far from where its builder planned.”

 

Kaye Cain-Nielsen

Rosa’s Mail

Reading The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg one sometimes feels like a voyeur. Tender love notes are mixed in with daily triumphs and tragedies, accounts of visits with friends, what was had for breakfast, nervous missives to one lover written while hiding from another, romantic longings, and multiple self-deprecating jokes about her small stature and ungainly looks.


Culture, in association with Idiom

Gabriel Hainer Evansohn

The Frick Collection at 75

What we don’t hear is how Frick was once “the most hated man in America.” We don’t hear how he stood out among the ignoble plutocrats of his day for his violent assaults on organized labor. We don’t hear the story of the 1892 Homestead Strike wherein Frick, despite soaring profits, offered the skilled workers of the Amalgamated Association of Steel and Iron Workers a 22% wage decrease, then summarily locked them out of his factory by building high walls replete with guard towers, barbed wire, and high pressure cannons capable of shooting scalding liquid at every entrance.

 

Jeffrey Kirkwood

An Unauthenticated Avant-Garde

The paintings in the Denver Museum of Contemporary Art’s winter exhibition, Orphan Paintings: Unauthenticated Art of the Russian Avant-Garde were found, as if in a time capsule filled with Adorno’s fantasies of late capitalism, in an “unclaimed shipping container in German customs.” Subsequently, Ron Pollard, an architectural photographer in Denver, came across the inventory of unsigned paintings on, yes, eBay.


Gavin Mueller

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Cheap

Abrams, an entertainment industry brat who grew up in L.A., inserts the Spielbergian ideology directly into the time period of his own childhood, opening his film with an irritatingly plucky group of youngsters who make science fiction shorts in a surprisingly mountainous Dayton of 1979. Even amid alien shenanigans, Abrams pasting his own face onto the master’s biography is the most interesting part of the whole convoluted presentation, the sort of thing that would be creepy even if Spielberg hadn’t produced it, which, of course, he did.



 Debate

Pam C. Nogales C.

Two Steps Back (a reply to Chris Maisano)

In the face of this degeneration, how do we assess whether or not any self-purported Left either by “carrying on” with the political “struggle” or by returning to “the legacy of socialist thought,” is actually working towards social revolution? Writing amid the sound and fury of the Cold War, Mills was plagued by a sense that both the Right and the Left had become obstacles to transformative possibilities. As a critic of the Left, Mills leaves much to be admired. It is through this framework that his “Letter to the New Left” (1959) can speak to us today.