What are you reading?

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Re: What are you reading?

Post by blindpig » Mon Sep 13, 2021 11:59 am

For the anniversary of the classic

September 12, 2021 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the outstanding Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem (1921 - 2006).


Science fiction plays a very important role in culture. And not only in the culture of the 20th century. The first science fiction novel in history was created almost 2 thousand years ago. His hero, the Messenger of the Highest Civilization (in the language of his time, "the Son of God") walked with his friends on the land of Ancient Judea, expressed various non-trivial thoughts for his time, helped good people and mocked greedy and self-righteous ordinary people. Probably, he also performed some other important tasks, but nothing is said about this in the novel. In the end, the authorities got tired of it: they grabbed the Messenger and crucified him on the cross. But, using some technologies unknown neither in the first nor in the twentieth century, the Messenger was resurrected, and, forty days later, having said goodbye to his friends, he ascended into the sky, where a spaceship was probably already waiting for him.

This novel is known in several versions created by different authors. The first version of the novel ("Source Q") has not reached us, although from a comparison of other versions one can draw some conclusions about its content. The name of the author of Source Q is also unknown, although he was undoubtedly a Great Writer.

In the future, one of the world's religions grew out of this novel. Science fiction can have such an impact on humans.

The official history of literature considers Lucian of Samosatsky (125 - 180) to be the first science fiction writer , who told in his works about the journey to the Moon and Venus. But in ancient times, such literature did not receive significant development.

In the 17th century, science fiction was resurrected by the Angian priest Francis Godwin ( 1562-1633 ) and the brave French warrior, duelist and writer Hercule Cyrano de Bergerac (1619-1655). They wrote about traveling to the moon and not only to the moon. But the real development of science fiction began only in the 19th century.

Faddey Venediktovich Bulgarin

The first Russian science fiction writer was Faddey Venediktovich Bulgarin (1789 - 1858), who published in 1824 the novel "Incredible fables or wanderings around the world in the XXIX century." His hero once went for a boat ride on the Gulf of Finland. A storm began, the boat capsized, the hero lost consciousness and woke up in the XXIX century.

From a modern point of view, the technique of the XXIX century described by Bulgarin looks rather archaic. Social relations are also archaic. The servant in the novel refers to his master as "master". But Bulgarin predicted one important thing correctly: the development of technology and technology will lead to an environmental crisis. Money in the XXIX century is made not from gold, but from wood, since there is a lot of gold, but few trees.

Vladimir Fedorovich Odoevsky

Apparently, it was F.V. Bulgarin introduced time travel and the description of the distant Future into world science fiction. For this, despite all his vices, about which many and justly were written by different authors, he earned an honorable place in the history of world literature. And the next novel describing a journey into the distant future was the novel by Prince Vladimir Fedorovich Odoevsky (1804 - 1869) "4338", written in 1837. In this novel, Prince Odoevsky predicted the emergence of the Internet and China's leading role in the future world. The first prediction has already come true, and the second may well come true soon enough.

The rise of science fiction in Russia was facilitated by the rapid development of the revolutionary movement and the victory of the October Revolution. A prominent science fiction writer was one of the leaders of the Bolshevik Party, Alexander Alexandrovich Bogdanov (1873 - 1928); after the revolution, such striking works as "The Country of Gonguri" by Vivian Azarevich Itin (1893 - 1938) and "Aelita" by Alexei Nikolaevich Tolstoy (1883 - 1945) appeared. These works combine science fiction with revolutionary romance.

Illustration for the novel by A.N. Tolstoy "Aelita". Artist A. Dubovik

At the end of the 19th century, science fiction appeared in the Polish language (Poland, as an independent state, did not exist then). Among its representatives are Vladislav Uminsky (1865 - 1954) and Jerzy Zulawsky (1874 - 1915).

But back to Stanislav Lem.

Stanislav Lem was born in the city of Lvov (then part of Poland) in the family of a doctor. Before the war, the future writer entered the medical faculty of Lviv University. During the years of the German occupation, he worked as an auto mechanic, participated in the Resistance movement and, along the way, wrote a short story "The Man from Mars". After the war, the Lem family moved to Krakow, where Stanislav graduated from the Faculty of Medicine of the Jagiellonian University, then worked as an assistant at this university. In 1946 he published The Man from Mars and began writing short stories. In 1951 , the novel Astronauts was published, after which Stanislav Lem became a professional writer.

The novel "Astronauts" describes an attempt to capture the Earth by a very aggressive civilization from the planet Venus. But in the end, this civilization destroyed itself in a nuclear war. The meaning of the novel is to compare humanistic and aggressive civilizations. The novel "Astronauts" was published in Russian in 1957 .

Illustration for the novel "The Magellanic Cloud". Artist A. Durasov

In 1955 , Stanislav Lem publishes the novel "The Magellanic Cloud", dedicated to the exploration of outer space in the distant communist future. It tells about the flight of an earthly expedition to the star Alpha Centauri and the establishment of contact with civilization on one of the planets in the vicinity of this star. Many features of this novel (up to the title) make it related to The Andromeda Nebula by Ivan Antonovich Efremov (1907 - 1972), but I.A. Efremov undoubtedly covers a wider range of problems.

In the 1950s, both in our country and abroad, there were heated discussions about the further development of science fiction. In the USSR, these discussions took the form of a confrontation between supporters of close-range fantasy and long-range fantasy.

Fiction close-range aimed to describe the near future and new scientific and technological advances. She played an important role in the popularization of science and technology among young people and therefore was strongly supported by the Soviet leadership.

Still from the film "Air Seller", Odessa Film Studio, 1967

On the contrary, the fiction of the long-range sight told about the distant Future. And, most importantly, for long-range fiction, the foreground was not science and technology per se, but their impact on people. The attitude of the Soviet leadership to long-range fiction was more restrained. On the one hand, most of the long-range fiction stories told about the communist future, which could not fail to cause approval. But, on the other hand, this future was not always portrayed in a sufficiently orthodox way. And, in a number of cases, it was opposed to the not entirely bright Soviet present.

The leader of close-range fiction was the engineer and writer Vladimir Ivanovich Nemtsov (1907 - 1993). He was well versed in technical problems, but he was less interested in people than in technology. Therefore, today, when many of Nemtsov's predictions came true, his work was practically forgotten.

The literary fate of the leaders of long-range fiction Ivan Antonovich Efremov (1907-1972) and the brothers Arkady Natanovich (1925-1991) and Boris Natanovich (1933-2012) Strugatsky developed differently . And not only because they wrote about the distant future. But because for them in the foreground were not science and technology, but people.

Boris and Arkady Strugatsky at work

The same opposition existed in painting. Most of the Soviet artists who painted the Future drew (and very interestingly) the technique of the future world. But the semi-paralyzed artist from Balakovo Gennady Grigorievich Golobokov (1935 - 1978) depicted not so much technology as people of the Future and the problems facing them. And therefore, he is rightfully considered the most outstanding Soviet artist of the space age.

By and large, good science fiction is little different from fairy tales. Both are thought experiments that analyze the behavior of people in an unreal situation. And allowing to draw conclusions about their behavior in real situations. The difference between a fairy tale and science fiction is only that in science fiction works Baba Yaga flies not just in a mortar, but in a mortar with a photon engine.
> As it was rightly said in V. Ozerov 's novel "Plutishka's Tale": "A fairy tale is also a weapon, and woe to those who do not have one!"
Stanislav Lem was a prominent representative of long-range fiction.

In the novel Return from the Stars (1961, Russian translation 1965), the cosmonaut returns to Earth from a stellar expedition that lasted 10 years. More than 100 years have passed on Earth during this time. In the new earthly world, everything is alien to the cosmonaut, and he is alien in this world. The picture of GG Golobokov "The Paradox of Time" can serve as an illustration of this novel.

Artist G. Golobokov "The Paradox of Time"

In the novel "Solaris" (1961, Russian translation in the same year), the Thinking Ocean is described, materializing the images lurking in the depths of the subconsciousness of astronauts from Earth. Solaris is, of course, not a book about the Thinking Ocean, but a psychological novel about earthly life and earthly people.

It is possible that the idea of a thinking ocean originated in Stanislav Lem under the influence of the science fiction novel "Black Cloud", written in 1957 by the outstanding British astrophysicist Fred Hoyle (1915 - 2001). This novel describes a giant thinking cloud approaching the Earth and the Sun and the attempts of earthlings to prevent danger.

Director Andrei Arsenievich Tarkovsky (1932 - 1986) directed the film of the same name based on the novel "Solaris" . It was released in 1972 and enjoyed great success among the Soviet, and not only among the Soviet audience.

A still from the film "Solaris", dir. A. Tarkovsky, film studio Mosfilm, 1972

In 1964, S. Lem publishes the book "The Sum of Technology", in which he tries to imagine the future of Mankind, both from the point of view of technology and from other points of view. The writer makes a number of predictions about the technology and technology of the future. Some of them have come true and some have not.

The writer's view is still generally optimistic. Although Stanislav Lem understands that serious problems will arise in the future society, which will somehow have to be solved. He calls his reflections on the problems of the Future "the study of the thorns of roses that do not yet exist."

The understanding that the future will give rise to serious problems was also characteristic of Russian science fiction writers. Vladimir Fedorovich Tendryakov (1923 - 1984) , in particular, writes about the serious problems that will arise in the communist future in his story "A Journey of a Century" (1961).

Vladimir Fedorovich Tendryakov

Among the important ideas expressed in the "Sum of Technology", the idea of the existence of general laws of biological and technical evolution should be noted. Many researchers and not only researchers have speculated on this topic. In 1956, Soviet engineer and science fiction writer Genrikh Saulovich Altshuler(1926 - 1998) formulated the main provisions of the TRIZ methodology (Theory of Inventive Problem Solving), which are based on the analysis of contradictions in designs and the search for possible ways to resolve them. It is essential that TRIZ orients the inventor not towards finding a compromise between extreme options, but towards accepting one of the extreme options, supplemented with something that neutralizes its shortcomings. Figuratively speaking, TRIZ calls on the left activist not to look for something in between socialism and capitalism, but to try to understand how one can get out of the vicious circle of contradictions of both systems and build communism.

The outstanding Soviet paleontologist and science fiction writer Ivan Antonovich Efremov (1907 - 1972) wrote about the analysis of contradictions in the design of living organisms. At present, the idea that the analysis of these contradictions is the theoretical basis of both zoology and botany has acquired many supporters in the scientific world.

Fragment of the portrait of I. Efremov

Of considerable interest to the reader is the Afterword to the Soviet edition of Summa Technologies, among the authors of which was one of the informal leaders of Soviet cybernetics Felix Vladimirovich Shirokov (1927 - 2002).

Stanislav Lem's optimism did not last long. In 1971 he publishes the novel The Futurological Congress. Its hero, space pilot Iyon Tikhiy, goes to the Futurological Congress in a certain Latin American country. During the congress, a military coup takes place in the country. A seriously wounded pilot is frozen in order to unfreeze in the Aftertime, when they learn to heal such wounds. And in the distant Future, they defrost it.

Residents of the Society of the Future with the help of chemicals immersed in the hallucinatory world, where everything is fine. In fact, everything is far from perfect, but only a narrow circle of top leaders should know about it. As a man of old upbringing, Iyon Tikhiy is trying to fight such an outrage. But the forces are too unequal. In the end, he gets hit on the head and wakes up in the basement, where he was hiding from shelling during the coup. It was all just a dream.

Still from the film "Congress" based on the novel "Futurological Congress". Dir. Ari Folman

In the world of the Future, described by S. Lem in the "Futurological Congress", there are many interesting things. For example, bribe robots (they are called corruptions ), simulator robots ( idiots ), idle robots ( robots ), boorish robots ( hamants ). And in general, nothing human is alien to robots.

The Futurological Congress undoubtedly influenced a new direction in Western science fiction called cyberpunk. Cyberpunk describes the conflict of loners living on the outskirts of society with a Social System that uses the most modern achievements of science and technology.

Shot from the movie "Blade Runner"

In 1970, S. Lem wrote the book "Science Fiction and Futurology", dedicated to science fiction literature. This book provides a fairly critical assessment of many works of Western science fiction. S. Lem criticizes them for superficial ideas, overloaded with adventures to the detriment of thoughts, and, most importantly, commercial orientation.

This book had an unexpected sequel . In September 1974, the US FBI received a letter that spoke of a communist conspiracy to take over the minds of Americans with communist propaganda disguised as science fiction. Communist agents have infiltrated American publishing houses and science fiction associations and are successfully carrying out their subversive work. And this work is supervised by a high-ranking officer of the Soviet and Polish special services Stanislav Lem. The author called on the FBI to stop the vile intrigues of the enemies of the American people.

This letter was signed by the outstanding American science fiction writer Philip Dick (1928 - 1982).

Philip Dick

Philip Dick was a very talented writer, albeit to a great amateur. During his relatively short life, he wrote 44 novels (40 of them before 1974, and twenty novels in just five years). Stanislaw Lem highly appreciated Dick's work and contributed to the publication of his works in Poland. And at the same time, F. Dick had serious mental problems, aggravated by drug use.

After reading F. Dick's letter, the FBI came to the obvious conclusion that its author needs urgent medical attention. Moreover, later F. Dick wrote that, starting in 1974, he regularly communicated with the Lord God Himself. Twenty novels written in five years have left their mark on the psyche. Therefore, they put the letter in a distant box and did not take it out again.

However, in 1976, the American Science Fiction Writers Association, under pressure from F. Dick and Philip Farmer (1918 - 2009), expelled S. Lem from its honorary members. In protest against this, some of its members left the Association, in particular, Ursula Le Guin (1929 - 2018).

Ursula Le Guin

However, in one thing F. Dick was absolutely right: many of Stanislav Lem's works objectively work for the Cause of Communism. Although, of course, S. Lem had nothing to do with the Soviet or Polish special services.

Among other works of social fiction, written by S. Lem, mention should be made of the early novel "Eden" (1959), which describes the invisible power existing on the planet Eden, which controls all information flows. Thanks to this management, the inhabitants submit to it voluntarily and without coercion.

Illustration for the novel "Eden". Artist A. Andreev

S. Lem's novel "Invincible" (1964) tells about the laws of biological and not only biological evolution of nature. On a distant planet, the evolution of robots began according to the mechanism proposed by Charles Darwin (1809 - 1882). In the competitive struggle, large and intelligent robots have been supplanted by very small and primitive forms like insects, which have grown in huge numbers. In essence, a secondary biosphere has arisen on the planet.

It is interesting that the novel "Invincible" appeared almost simultaneously with the work of the British researcher Alexander Kearns-Smith (1931 - 2016). A. Kearns-Smith suggested that initially earthly Life was built on a completely different chemical basis, and modern earthly Life is secondary; it was formed from the byproducts of the primary Life and displaced the secondary one.

Illustration for the story "Invasion from Aldebaran"

Apparently, Stanislav Lem's political views were originally communist. This, in particular, is evidenced by the novel "Magellanic Cloud". But, like many communists, these views were largely romantic and did not rely on a serious analysis of reality and its contradictions. And when it turned out that life in the countries of the Soviet bloc was far from heavenly, the writer became disillusioned with communist ideas. For many members of the intelligentsia, this path was quite typical.

In 1983 S. Lem emigrated from the Polish People's Republic; lived in Germany and Austria; in 1988 he returned back to Poland. He became disillusioned with anti-communism and became a convinced pessimist.

Stanislaw Lem was not subjected to any persecution for his political views in the Polish People's Republic.

At the same time, Stanislav Lem treated the Soviet Union and the Soviet people very well. Which was atypical for Polish intellectuals. In the USSR, S. Lem had many friends and a huge number of admirers of literary talent. Stanislav Lem's books were very fond of, in particular, the head of the Soviet space program Sergei Pavlovich Korolev (1907 - 1966) and many Soviet cosmonauts.

Stanislav Lem repeatedly came to the Soviet Union and was a welcome guest in any audience.

Stanislav Lem at a meeting with students and teachers of Moscow State University
> “Personally, I am terribly annoyed by the anti-Russian rhetoric of President Kaczynski, however, I believe that most of his statements should not be taken seriously. I have repeated many times that good-neighborly relations with Russia are an indispensable condition for the economic development and sovereignty of Poland. Russia is closest to us both geopolitically and culturally. There is no point in taking offense at each other and stirring up the past, for which extremists on both sides bear a considerable share of responsibility, ”wrote Stanislav Lem.
Stanislav Lem closely followed the development of Soviet science fiction. He highly appreciated the work of the Strugatsky brothers. S. Lem's attitude to the work of I.A. Efremov was ambiguous (as was the attitude of I.A.Efremov to the work of S. Lem). S. Lem criticized Ivan Antonovich for his desire to view Man as the pinnacle of development, as well as for excessive optimism about the future. I.A. Efremov and S. Lem were people of different cultures and held different philosophical views. Ivan Antonovich Efremov was the last great representative of Russian cosmic philosophy, Stanislav Lem was brought up on Western positivism. Therefore, it was difficult for them to find a common language.
In 1986 S. Lem wrote his last major work - the novel "Fiasco".

An interstellar ship sent from Earth lands on the planet Quinta, where a civilization clearly exists, moreover, it is very different from the earthly one. The Earthlings are trying to establish contact with her. But the contact fails.


In this novel, S. Lem put forward the "windows of contact" hypothesis, according to which any civilization is interested in interplanetary contact only at a certain stage of its development. And then civilizations isolate themselves. For they are very different and it is difficult for them to understand each other. That is why we do not see signs of the existence of alien civilizations. And earthly Humanity is doomed to loneliness in space. This point of view was implicitly opposed to the ideas of I.A. Efremov on the Great Ring.

In 1989, S. Lem published an article "The strategy of the parasite, the AIDS virus and one evolutionary hypothesis." In this article, the writer reflects on the evolutionary prerequisites for the emergence of the AIDS virus. This article was reprinted by the Soviet magazine "Nature". As the writer notes, the evolutionary strategy of the AIDS virus is based on a very long incubation period, which leads to infection not from the patient, but from the carrier. The AIDS virus strives to be overlooked for longer. This makes possible a relatively fast and covert increase in the number of carriers. This strategy is rare in nature. S. Lem expresses a number of original ideas, the question of the correctness of which currently remains open. Therefore, I would prefer to refrain from discussing them.

Stanislaw Lem died at the age of 84 in Krakow on March 27, 2006.


Lem's books have been translated into 41 languages. The total circulation of books sold is over 30 million . In 2002-2015, AST published a collection of works in Russian in 19 volumes.

S.V. Bagotsky


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"There is great chaos under heaven; the situation is excellent."

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Re: What are you reading?

Post by kidoftheblackhole » Mon Sep 27, 2021 2:11 pm

Check this guy out BP:

https://www.networkideas.org/wp-content ... 1_2020.pdf

Ali Kadr is mainly talking about China but he is actually theorizing Imperialism in a far richer and contemplative manner than most. In a way it harks back to something Anax used to say that theory is in need of an update since it has kind of been set aside for a century or so because everyone was busy. Kadr's China's Path to Development is a behind a paywall but you can find enough snippets to get the gist of it. The only notable thing is he has different "influences" than us (high level "theoreticians")

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Re: What are you reading?

Post by blindpig » Wed Oct 27, 2021 2:30 pm

MR has posted yet another glowing review of this awful book so I'm kicking this post.
blindpig wrote:
Fri Apr 30, 2021 2:56 pm
The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson

I read this so you don't have to.

I have read sf for over 50 years and am disappointed by most of it. It is said that Robinson is somewhat similar to Arthur C Clarke and I agree, he's boring. Packs in pages of fact, credentials of characters and other bulk to make up for lacking literary talent. Small wonder the old astronomer teamed up with real writers in his late years, for all the good it did...Mebbe Robinson should team up with M John Harrison. Nah.

I have disliked the work of Robinson since I first read him, one and a quarter books, having thrown down the second in disgust. If it hadn't got so much 'buzz' I would have happily ignored it. What sticks in my craw is the petty bourgeois arrogance,the assumption that these well paid and connected individuals are the class that will best address our environmental woes. The Owners are greedy but hapless, the masses are a dim audience for the acts of their betters. Well, there is a ready made following for such drivel, that said class. So I was not at all surprised that the world would be saved by bureaucrats, technocrats and lawyers in the present work, that both rich and poor would be pliant in the hands of these well meaning professionals. To quote that Zappa girl, "gag me with a spoon!"

What we got here is zero class analysis, starting with the assumption that State and Law are somehow independent of the class which created them for that class's benefit. It all follows from there, the rich will be controlled by the State and the Law will be turned against their interests. They will resist in a half-hearted manner then fold, the .01%ers will get to keep $50M to not be persecuted and all other assets will go to the common good. I'm sure. Capitalism will be tamed, in fact put on the road to extinction, in a lawful manner. Well, it is science fiction.

But it will not be just gentle persuasion, this Ministry, an afterthought of the Paris Agreement, an entity of the UN with a paultry nine figure budget for saving the world, will have a 'black ops' wing which will terrorize the booj on a grand scale,in one instance downing 60 mostly private jets in one go using new hi-tech drones en masse. The perps, even the point of manufacture of such technical devices at scale, is a completely a mystery to every cop shop on Earth. Right.

The book is one long love note to Switzerland and all of it's mythical qualities. Jfc.

There is mention of socialism: surprisingly a few good words for the Soviet Union after the obligatory potshot at Stalin, faint praise for the dead. And Cuba and Kerala get good mention, being small and safe. But China, despite it's good work, is 'Authoritarian capitalism', a sure marker of Robinson's adherence to petty booj norms. And the radical left will never get it's shit together because it is 'narcissist' in a grand display of pop psychology sans history. And by the way, the petty bourgeois will make the world safe for communism.

This book had an antecedent which came to me early on, "Looking Backwards" by Edward Bellamy .https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Looking_Backward Bellamy, like Robinson, had the petty bourgeois as the leaders of the peaceful revolution, the other classes dragged along into the sensible(and militarized!) society of the future. And Bellamy was equally dismissive of the radicals of his day, portraying them as tools of the rich, a 'false flag' op.

If the copy I read didn't belong to the library I'd wipe my ass with it.
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Re: What are you reading?

Post by blindpig » Tue Nov 09, 2021 2:49 pm


Book Review: China’s Great Road: Lessons for Marxist Theory and Socialist Practices



China’s Great Road: Lesson for Marxist Theory and Socialist Practices, Articles 2010-21 by John Ross. Glasgow, Scotland: Praxis Press, 2021. $20.50. Pp. 251.

Is China socialist? This question is guaranteed to provoke a lively discussion among any group of leftists. This is a complex question. No book and certainly no book review will settle the matter.

Whatever the Chinese system is, the Biden administration, like the Trump and Obama administrations before it, clearly sees China as the main threat to American imperial interests. This stance is creating a new cold war as perilous as the last one with the Soviet Union. Biden has not only kept in place the Trump tariffs against China, but has also just concluded a nuclear submarine deal with Australia and Great Britain clearly aimed at China. This year the CIA established a new China Mission Center, which according to its director William J. Burns “will further strengthen our collective work on the most important geopolitical threat we face in the 21st century an increasingly adversarial Chinese government.” (New York Times, October 8, 2021) In November 2021, General Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, called China the “No. 1” nation-state military challenger to the United States. He said that China is “clearly challenging us regionally, and their aspiration is to challenge us globally.” (New York Times, November 4, 2021) The fact that U.S. has about 750 military bases in some 80 countries compared to one (Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa) for China, and that the U.S. has 5,550 nuclear warheads compared to China’s 300 shows that whatever military threats exist are precisely in the opposite direction.

The new cold war is abundantly reflected in the overheated rhetoric about the so-called Chinese peril emanating every day from scholars and commentators who inflame the Chinese phobia with tales of the genocide of Uighurs, the pollution of the environment by Chinese coal, the discrimination against women (even Chinese female astronauts), the control of social media, the suppression of Hong Kong democracy, the impending invasion of Taiwan, the development of orbital nuclear weapons…the list is unending. Two recent iterations deserve mention for their level of high-pitched hysteria. In The Atlantic (November 1, 2021) Michael Beckley and Hal Brands, suggest that, unless deterred, China will initiate war with the U.S. The title and subtitle say it all: “How War With China Begins: A Cold War is already under way. The question is whether Washington can deter Beijing from initiating a hot one.” In the New York Review of Books, October 21, 2021, Perry Link, a Professor at the University of California at Riverside, manages a level of vitriol against China that surpasses the previous generation’s demonization of the Soviet Union. According to Link, China is less a socialist country than Taiwan and is best understood as a form of Murder Incorporated: “The CCP runs on hierarchical power, on personal loyalties that are outside the law, and on ruthless pursuit of private interests that employs pretense, manipulation, and where ‘necessary’ lethal force. It is more like the mafia than a modern government.”

After feasting on a daily diet of such dangerous inanity, it is a breath of sanity to pick up John Ross’s book. In China’s Great Road, John Ross, a Marxist and Senior Fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China in Beijing, makes a strong case for the socialist nature and direction of China. The book consists of articles, the majority of which were originally published in Chinese on the website Guancha.cn and others which were published in English at LearningfromChina.net. Reflecting its origins as separate articles, the book contains much annoying and unnecessary repetition, but this should not distract from its wealth of information and clear argumentation.

Ross’s argument is straightforward and compelling: that since the so-called “opening up” of the Chinese economy to private enterprise by Deng Xiaoping in 1978 and the pursuit of what Deng called “building socialism with Chinese characteristics,” China has followed a path that hews close to what Marx envisioned, and more importantly, by following this path the Chinese economic achievement“ is by far the greatest in the whole of human history—from the viewpoint of speed of improvement in living standards, rapidity of economic growth, the proportion of the world benefitting from that growth, and the elimination of poverty.”

The factual basis of this argument rests on reliable international sources, mainly the World Bank’s World Development Indicators, and others including the Conference Board Total Economy Data Base and the US Bureau of Economic Analysis, and Angus Maddison, an authority on long-term economic growth. The figures are astonishing. In 1950, the US economy was sixty-eight times greater than the Chinese economy. By 2000, a combination of slow US growth and great Chinese growth had closed the gap, and by 2022 China is poised to overtake the US. US annual average GDP growth has fallen from 4.4 percent in 1969 to 2.0 percent in 2019, while Chinese annual average GDP growth has been 12.5 percent since 1979.

This economic growth in China has been accompanied by an unprecedented growth in living standards as life expectancy and household and total consumption have increased at a greater rate in China than in any other country at any time in history. Ross points out that in China life expectancy, “the best single indicator of overall human condition,” increased at an unprecedented rate after the revolution. It reached 67 years in 1978, and with the opening up after 1978, it rose to 73 years in 2011 (compared to 79 in the United States). In China total consumption increased 7.9 percent annually in 1978-2012 and 8.5 percent annually in 1990-2012, whereas in the United States in comparable periods consumption increased 2.7 percent and 2.6 percent annually. Consequently, in the twenty-eight years leading up to 2009, China lifted 620 million people out of poverty, a number equivalent to half the population of Africa. In the same period, outside China those living in extreme poverty actually increased by 50 million.

Ross argues that the economic policies pursued by Deng Xiaoping after 1978, that is, “building socialism with Chinese characteristics,” or building a “socialist market economy, ” which meant retaining state ownership of major industry while “opening up” smaller industry and agriculture to private ownership, was entirely in line with Marxism, indeed more in line with Marxism than the Soviet policy after 1929 of socializing all productive property.

A key part of Ross’s argument here is his reliance on passages from The Communist Manifesto and the Critique of the Gotha Program where Marx discusses the transition from capitalism to socialism. In the former Marx said: “The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree [emphasis added] all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the State as rapidly as possible.” (emphasis added). In the latter, Marx said: “In a higher phase of communist society…after the productive forces have also increased (emphasis added) with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of common wealth flow more abundantly—only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”

Ross argues that these passages show that Marx foresaw a “protracted transition period” (this phrase is Ross’s not Marx’s) and saw the need to develop the productive forces of the economy before one could dispense entirely with private ownership and the market. Hence, Ross argues that Deng’s policy of opening up was more in line with Marx than the Soviet policy of nationalizing everything at once in the first five-year plan and replacing the market with state planning. Moreover, Ross submits that Deng’s policy accomplished what Marx advocated, namely the retention of the market for a time and the fostering of rapid economic development. To his credit, Ross does not deny that the Soviet model also produced rapid economic development and was a response to the need for rapid industrialization in the face of powerful enemies and impending war. Still, he regards the Soviet path as an “ultra left,” mistake that should have been rectified after World War II.

Unquestionably, Ross makes a strong case, but not one as completely convincing as he suggests. In the first place, one should recall that in the entire body of Marx’s writing, he devotes only a few sentences to describing socialism. He resisted laying out a blueprint for a socialist revolution. Consequently, it is a bit tortured to rest a judgment of an entire social system, whether the Soviet Union or China, on its conformity to a couple of Marx’s phrases. Ross rests his case on behalf of the Chinese socialist market economy on Marx’s phrase “by degree,” i.e. the proletariat wresting capital from the bourgeoisie “by degree.” Ross, however, ignores the rest of Marx’s words in the same sentence about centralizing “all instruments of production” in the hands of the state “as rapidly as possible.” These latter phrases seem to justify the Soviet approach as much as the former phrase seem to justify Deng’s approach. Moreover, it is difficult comprehend Ross’s idea that the Soviets should have returned to the market and some private property after World War II, since the external threat that justified the turn to rapid collectivization of property and central planning hardly diminished in any way during the Cold War, when the Soviets faced an immensely more powerful United States armed with nuclear weapons and surrounding the Soviet Union with military bases.

In any case, there is no gainsaying the conclusion that China’s reform and opening up since 1978 led to a great development of the productive forces. Moreover, the idea that this opening up represented not a betrayal of socialism but the basis for a new advance toward developed socialism is something that remains to be determined.

Another weakness of Ross’s argument is that he allows for no ambiguity or indeterminacy on this question. Even though reform and opening up has produced a large capitalist sector, Ross provides no account of how large it is, how much political influence it has or where China is heading. Other sources, however, indicate that the capitalist sector in China is very large and growing. For example, from 2004 to 2010 the number of private companies in China increased by 80 percent and the number of private businesses reached 3, 596, 000. Moreover, these private companies are increasingly active abroad, where 117 of them (as of 2010) have invested millions of dollars in 481 ventures abroad. By 2009, private and statement foreign investment had made China the fifth largest global investor. (See for example Elisseos Vagenas, “The International Role of China,” in Communist Review 6th issue 2010, at https://inter.kke.gr/en/articles/The-In ... e-of-China)

While Ross demonstrates the tremendous progress China has made under reform and opening up, he provides no recognition of the costs of this progress for the Chinese working class. He does not acknowledge that this progress has been purchased at the cost of growing economic inequality and of long working hours (in some cases twelve hours a day, six days a week), often harsh and dangerous working conditions, and the curtailment of trade union power. China is second only to the United States in the number of billionaires (130

Chinese billionaires by 2010). (By way of contrast, the Soviet Union managed to produce tremendous economic growth and increased living standards, while reducing working hours enhancing trade union power and reducing economic inequality.)

Furthermore, an all-sided assessment of socialism with Chinese characteristics would certainly entail a discussion of the Chinese role in the international class struggle. The record of the Soviet Union in this regard is well-known. Even while developing economically and building socialism as home, the Soviet Union materially supported anti-colonial, national liberation and socialist struggles abroad from Cuba to Vietnam and Africa. Certainly, the Chinese role has been more checkered and problematic. In the past China repeatedly aligned itself with imperial powers in Afghanistan, Vietnam, Angola and elsewhere. Perhaps it is unfair to score Ross for not touching subjects he did not intend to touch, but the omission is still glaring.

Whether China will fall under the sway of its powerful capitalists and increasingly act as an imperialist rival to the United States and Europe or whether it will continue to march toward fully developed socialism remains to be seen. There are several indications that the latter tendency may prevail. Two mainstream scholars have recently argued that China is not heading the way of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev, that in spite of the capitalist sector in China, the Chinese Communist Party has not lost control as happened in the Soviet Union. For example, in The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers, Richard McGregor argues that China is not becoming more like the West is not developing into a market-driven neo-liberal state, but rather a state with a hybrid economy of state and private ownership, where the Communist Party wields the dominant influence over politics, academia, and the economy. Similarly, Ian Johnson, A Senior Fellow for China Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, in “A Most Adaptable Party,” (New York Review of Books, July 1, 2021) asserted, “Even private companies ultimately answer to the party.” According to Johnson, the party has 92 million members, 7 percent of the population, a size that allows it “to control politics, economics, and society without losing its exclusivity.”

Recent statements by Xi Jinping also suggest that that Chinese Communist Party has decided that the progress in economic development has reached the point that China can begin to rein in the capitalists, reduce their power, root out corruption, and address economic inequality. Invoking Mao’s phrase of “common prosperity,” a goal that Deng viewed as ultimate but distant, Xi Jinping said that China should begin moving toward this goal now. In January 2021, Xi said, “Achieving common prosperity is not just an economic issue; it’s a major political matter bearing on the party’s foundation for rule….We cannot let an unbridgeable gulf appear between the rich and the poor.” (New York Times September 9, 2021).

The value of Ross’s book is not exhausted by the main argument about China’s economic accomplishments under reform and opening up. As part of his effort to explain the success of the policy of reform and opening up, Ross provides a convincing discussion on the way in which Chinese economic policy reflects the insights of Adam Smith and Karl Marx on the division of labor, on John Maynard Keynes’s ideas of the need for state intervention to promote investment, on Mao’s analysis of protracted war, and on Marxism and globalization.

The latter topic has particular relevance given labor and the left’s skepticism of the globalization as promoted by European and American neo-liberals. Ross argues that according to Marx (and Smith) the division of labor is the primary engine of economic development and the globalization of production and the market is just a continuation of the process of the division of labor that began in the pin factory described by Smith. Moreover, Ross contends that Xi Jinping’s idea of “a common future for humanity” represents a modern application of Marx’s idea about the division of labor. Consequently, according to Ross, blanket opposition to globalization when it takes the form of “buy American,” or “Brexit” or anti-Chinese tariffs and protectionism is demagogic, backward, reactionary, and doomed to fail. This position may not sit well with those who have been on the receiving end of de-industrialization, free trade, and the so-called race to the bottom, but this idea like the rest of the book deserves serious consideration by everyone on the left.

https://mltoday.com/book-review-chinas- ... practices/
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Re: What are you reading?

Post by blindpig » Sat Nov 20, 2021 3:47 pm


Philosophers with no clothes: A Review of ‘The War Against Marxism’
Posted Nov 20, 2021 by Chris Nineham

Originally published: Counterfire by Chris Nineham (November 11, 221 ) |

This book is refreshing and long overdue. It has two main qualities. First, it dares to call out some of the fashionable idols of academic Marxism and critical theory–including Theodor Adorno, Louis Althusser, Chantal Mouffe, Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Zizek–for being obscurantist on the one hand, and often deeply misleading on the other. Second, it explains and defends the philosophical basis of revolutionary Marxism in a very clear and combative way.

The stakes are high. The issues McKenna addresses are mainly theoretical, but far from abstract. They concern how people experience capitalism, the significance of class and the potential for anti-capitalist resistance. They even raise the question of our ability to understand society at all.

McKenna’s thesis is that many of the leading intellectuals associating themselves with Marx over the last decades have not just obfuscated Marxism, but attacked its essence. As a result they have had a deeply corrosive effect on the left in the universities, and by extension on the wider movement.

In chronological order, his targets include members of the Frankfurt School of critical theory, Althusser and his ‘structuralist Marxist’ followers, some of the big names of leftist literary theory, and the pin-ups of ‘post-Marxism’. Divorced from any real movements, these theorists, he argues, have in different ways stripped Marxism of all that is antagonistic, contradictory and dynamic. The results have been disastrous. McKenna dissects each of these tendencies in detail, and I can only point to some highlights and key themes here.

The benighted masses

Hinting at bluntness to come, the book’s first chapter is titled, ‘Why the Founding Fathers of the Frankfurt School Should be Considered anti-Marxist.’ The Frankfurt school developed a ‘cultural Marxism’ in the 1930s which became influential after the Second World War. Its most influential protagonists, Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer, argued that the mass culture that was developing around them was brainwashing the masses and was the key to understanding capitalism’s staying power. McKenna quotes a typical passage by Adorno and Horkheimer about Hollywood cinema:

no scope is left for the imagination. Those who are so absorbed by the world of the movie–by its images, gestures, and words–that they are unable to supply what really makes it a world, do not have to dwell on particular points of its mechanics during a screening. All the other films and products of the entertainment industry which they have seen have taught them what to expect; they react automatically (pp.23-4).

As McKenna points out, despite Adorno and Horkheimer’s pretentious and opaque writing, (‘its esoteric, incomprehensible idiom is meant to illustrate to the reader that they are dealing with the type of thought which can only be grasped by a glittering and select intellectual elite’), the point they were making was quite simple. They argued that commodification and mass production of culture were blinding people to their real predicament. It wasn’t just that the culture produced by the expanding entertainment industry was promoting capitalist values. Few Marxists would disagree with that. Their argument was that the new techniques of production were inherently mystifying. As they put it:

The stunting of the mass-media consumer’s powers of imagination and spontaneity does not have to be traced back to any psychological mechanisms; he must ascribe the loss of those attributes to the objective nature of the products themselves, especially to the most characteristic of them, the sound film (p.23).

As McKenna argues, this is an elitist approach, and, despite its influence amongst some calling themselves Marxists, it has nothing to do with Marxism. Commodification does have an impact on working-class consciousness, but this is not because of the mass production of culture, which will be an essential part of any socialist society, but because of the commodification of labour power.

As Marx explained, and the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács further elaborated, the commodification of workers’ labour makes exploitation appear as the mere exchange of equivalents–a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work–when it actually involves the robbery by the capitalist of a portion of unpaid labour. As McKenna says, this was for Lukács, ‘the essence of reification, the moment when social relationships appear in the guise of things’ (p.29).

This is a crucial distinction. Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique can only end in a one-sided pessimism. Marx and Lukács’ understanding of reification not only leads away from the cultural snobbery of seeing mass production as a problem, but it also contains within it the possibility of change. When workers become aware of the nature of commodification they can also become aware of the possibility of challenging it. This is because, unlike any other commodity, they are fully conscious beings and they experience their commodification as the appropriation of part of their own labour power by the bosses.

The problems with the Frankfurt School go deeper. Their pessimism about the modern world ended up as a critique of the Enlightenment altogether, of the progressive capacities of rational thought. For Adorno, human beings in general cannot truly understand the world outside them, and so he argues that they have developed a thought process that deals with the natural world in an abstract, instrumental and destructive way. Such reactionary thinking remains fashionable today, but it ignores one of the most central concepts of Marxism, the centrality of labour to human development. It is precisely in understanding the historical role of labour, human beings’ active interaction with nature, that we can overcome the philosophical division between human consciousness and the objective world.

Louis Althusser turns Marx on his head

The importance of labour and class in understanding the world is the central theme of the book. The chapter on post-Marxism takes on the still influential work of the French philosopher Louis Althusser, and the enduringly fashionable theorists, Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau. Althusser called himself a Marxist, but his defining move took place when he argued that it was ideology that ‘produced’ human subjects.

Here Althusser was turning Marxism on its head. One of the central propositions of Marxism is that ‘being determines consciousness’, that people’s experience of the actually existing world, and in particular its economic processes, shapes their ideas. For Marx, labour and the struggle between the exploiter and the exploited at the heart of the capitalist economy was key to the possibility of a genuine, critical, understanding of the world. It was through these processes that the apparent division between consciousness and reality can be overcome in practice.

By turning Marx upside down, Althusser was also dragging philosophy backwards towards the idealism of so many of the highpoints of bourgeois philosophy. In McKenna’s words:

The Althusserian claim that “ideology produces subjects”–when stripped of the verbal paraphernalia of the tortured structuralist idiom–is nothing more than a vulgar idealism in which consciousness one-sidedly determines being (p.81).

This had big implications. Most importantly, if our understanding of the world is shaped by ideology as opposed to the reality around us, the unfolding of struggles and so forth, there is no obvious way in which we can ever break out of it. Althusser had to fall back on ‘scientificity’, effectively the role of the gifted individual, to relieve the masses of their delusions.

This delinking of ideas from material reality also led to the notion of the ‘relative autonomy’ of various processes from the economic structure of capitalist society. For Marx the way the main contradictions in society played out always depended on actual human practice, but the idea of ‘relative autonomy’ effectively breaks any notion of determination of human behaviour by the existing conditions, rendering Marxism redundant.

Althusser’s side-lining of labour and class struggle led in turn to the stress on ‘discourse’ that has been so dominant on the academic left ever since. Laclau and Mouffe are amongst the worst culprits. In what McKenna calls their ‘overburdened, esoteric sentences’ (p.95), they try to fuse existence and consciousness in the notion of ‘the field of discursivity’ (p.94). As a result, confusion reigns:

Mouffe and Laclau’s concepts, emptied of historical content and genuine human agency, necessarily become vague and solipsistic and we enter into a rarefied academic landscape in which the concepts themselves seem to develop an entirely artificial agency and life; reality becomes ‘decentred’, society becomes dislocated and meaning is understood in terms of signifiers which, rather surreally, tend to float (p.95).

Fredric Jameson’s false move

In the chapter titled ‘Literary Theory and the Loss of Historical Totality’, McKenna turns his attention to celebrated cultural critic Fredric Jameson, and some of Terry Eagleton’s theoretical writing on culture. Jameson’s work, it should be said (and McKenna doesn’t), mainly involves trying to hold on to a totalised understanding of society, against the odds as he would see it. For McKenna, his defining mistake is the polar opposite of Adorno’s. Where Adorno saw mass production as the key to mystification, Jameson sees the production of physical commodities as the key to workers’ ability to understand capitalism. McKenna summarises Jameson’s approach thus:

The worker simply sees the commodity rolled out as a “finished product” and therefore identifies it as a moment in the generic process of production, and from this, Jameson argues, the worker is then able to see all things in their guise as aspects of historical change, developing the possibility of a more revolutionary perspective therein (pp.167-8).

The problem here is that the totality that Jameson builds as a result is static and undynamic. In Jameson’s own words, ‘inasmuch as he knows the interrelationship of tools and equipment to each other (the worker) …will come to see the outside world not as a collection of separate unrelated things, but as a totality in which everything depends on everything else’ (p.169).

The idea that the world is a totality in which ‘everything depends on everything else’ is true but of limited explanatory value. It misses the essential point that for Marx totality involves contradiction and conflict. Jameson’s critique is therefore completely ahistorical, reduced to one of structure, to the idea that the problem with the world is that it ‘lacks a privileged centre’, that it has become a ‘serial society’ (roughly, this means a society of averaged, atomised individuals).

At this point we move onto another of McKenna’s themes, which is the fact that these distortions of Marxism ironically tend to reify society, turning socio-historical processes into static things:

When one does away with living history driven by social and class distinctions, one needs to find another way with which to describe reality; a genuinely social arrangement is replaced by a purely physical one; the work of these thinkers, therefore, consistently tends towards a systematic reification of the philosophical realm in terms of a set of conceptual categories whose physicality reflects this (p.235).

Going naked

Throughout, McKenna contrasts the dreary academicism of these ‘top-flight intellectuals’ with the dynamism of the revolutionary tradition that Marx developed out of Hegel. In particular he strongly defends Lukács’ central idea of the working class as the subject/object of history. For Lukács, the separation between subject and object which still bedevils mainstream philosophy was a product, first of all, of the bourgeoisie’s role in society. Capital appropriates the labour of another class. As McKenna argues, things are different for the worker:

It is true that the proletariat as a class stands in an irrevocable and dualistic opposition to the bourgeoisie every bit as much as the bourgeoisie does to the proletariat. But the difference is this. For the proletariat, capital, the object, “out there” is not something which it appropriates; rather it is something which has been appropriated from it; capital is the labour power of the proletariat which has been alienated by the bourgeoisie … the revolutionary move of the proletariat to take over the means of production … involves reclaiming the estranged essence of its own subjectivity (pp.216-17).

The common theme of these critiques is that in all cases the authors displace the fundamental social contradictions of class and class struggle from the centre of their analyses. The losses involved are fatal to any philosophy that wants to be ‘radical’ either in the sense of pointing the way to fundamental change or of understanding the root of things. Most importantly, the marginalisation or removal of class struggle means that the greatest potential source of anti-capitalist resistance and consciousness is side-lined. This retreat helped weaken the left’s ability to combat the subjectivism that drove the rise of identity politics.

Moreover, by expelling contradiction and conflict from their understanding of society, the authors also lose the ability to comprehend how society actually develops historically. Hegelian Marxism, that is Marxism as Marx conceived it, involves grasping totality as what McKenna calls ‘a historical unfolding of a mediated whole’ (p.170). Marxism is in fact nothing other than ‘the means by which philosophy locates, in the culmination of historical processes, the concrete answer to its own most profound questions’ (p.103). Far from removing history and struggle from philosophy, Marx’s great breakthrough involved understanding how the two are inextricably and dynamically linked.

There are times in the book when McKenna is unfairly dismissive of particular authors, I think there should have been a more balanced account of the work of Walter Benjamin, for example, who wasn’t anything like as bleakly elitist as his Frankfurt School colleagues. I think too that although he would certainly hold his hands up to the charge of eclecticism, and he undoubtedly got lost in the post-structuralist maze, Terry Eagleton has written very powerfully in defence of Marxism, something that cannot be said about any of the other authors examined here.

McKenna’s formulations will be too polemical for some tastes. But his central thesis stands and matters. Without class and class struggle at its heart, ‘Marxism’ becomes lifeless and hopeless, and turns into its opposite: an account of why society probably can’t be changed. This is not an exaggeration. A shocking number of so called leading ‘Marxists’ have so distorted Marxism that a student coming upon their work for the first time is liable to be ‘daunted and depressed’ (p.245). McKenna rightly points to the roots of these pessimistic ideas in defeats in the real world. Yet theory matters, and the work of these so-called radicals has deepened the gloom and reinforced pessimism on the left. McKenna is also right to say it is time to take on the emperors of academia, and to point out their lack of clothes.

https://mronline.org/2021/11/20/philoso ... t-marxism/

(This oughta be posted on the door of 'communist twitter'.)
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Re: What are you reading?

Post by blindpig » Mon Dec 20, 2021 3:38 pm


The Dawn of Everything gets human history wrong

Originally published: Climate & Capitalism by Chris Knight, Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale (December 17, 2021 ) | - Posted Dec 20, 2021


It’s not often that a book by radical authors gets reviewed–let alone favorably reviewed–in the mainstream press. The Dawn of Everything, by David Graeber and David Wengrow, is an exception. Published just two months ago, it has already received accolades from many of the world’s most influential English-language newspapers and magazines.

| The Dawn of Everything | MR OnlineEven reviewers who question the author’s arguments for anarchism have hailed it as “a brilliant new account upends bedrock assumptions about 30,000 years of change,” (Atlantic) and “a dazzling array of stories about civilizations across many continents and thousands of years, all of which are grappling with what it means to be free” (Washington Post). We’ve also seen positive comments–raves in some cases!–from left-wing posters on social media.

It is certainly an enthralling book, but the two reviews published below, both from materialist anthropologists, argue that its account of human history ignores masses of contrary evidence, and that its political argument is idealist and voluntarist. Both reviews are particularly critical of the book’s failure to consider the causes of the oppression of women.

Chris Knight is a senior research fellow in anthropology at University College London, where he forms part of a team researching the origins of our species in Africa. His books include Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture and Decoding Chomsky: Science and Revolutionary Politics. His review of The Dawn of Everything was first published in Times Higher Education.

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale both trained as anthropologists and are finishing a book about human evolution, class society and sexual violence. Nancy’s most recent book, with Richard Tapper, is Afghan Village Voices: Stories from a Tribal Community, 2020. Jonathan’s is Fight the Fire: Green New Deals and Global Climate Jobs. Their review of The Dawn of Everything was published in The Ecologist, and in their blog, Anne Bonny Pirate.

Both reviews are republished with the kind permission of the authors.

by Chris Knight

This book is enjoyable, informative and, at times, exhilarating. It is also in fundamental ways incoherent and wrong. If you hope to learn about relatively recent prehistory, from the time when cave paintings began appearing in Europe, it is a must-read. But if you are wondering how or why humans first began laughing, singing, speaking and creating art, ritual and politics–you’ll be disappointed.

The book’s title is seriously misleading. The Dawn of Everything? “Tea-time” would be more accurate. The story begins far too late, systematically side-stepping the cultural flowering that began in Africa tens of thousands of years before Homo sapiens arrived in Europe.

Despite its flaws, the book is a public relations triumph. Not since Friedrich Engels published his Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State have left-wing intellectuals and activists been so excited to learn about humanity’s social origins and prehistoric past.

In a short review, I cannot hope to convey the range and erudition of this book. Its core political message is blunt. Engels’ story about egalitarian hunter-gatherers practicing communism in living is a myth. The Dawn of Everything neatly turns Engels upside-down: in the beginning was private property, religion and the state. To quote the concluding words of Chapter 4, “If private property has an ‘origin’, it is as old as the idea of the sacred, which is likely as old as humanity itself.” In an earlier book with Marshall Sahlins, On Kings, David Graeber claimed that since imagined supernatural agents such as divine kings and forest spirits have always exercised authority over people, the principle of state power is an immovable feature of the human condition.

It may seem paradoxical for an anarchist–of all people–to accept the inevitability of the state. But this book adds weight to that message. Yes, say the authors, anarchist freedom can be implemented, but only in precious moments or enclaves. So much for the revolutionary slogan that “another world is possible”. Instead, Graeber and David Wengrow contend that “hierarchy and equality tend to emerge together, as complements to one another”. They seem to be saying that we cannot have freedom in one place without accepting oppression somewhere else.

The authors are uncomfortable with Darwin’s theory of natural selection, conflating modern evolutionary theory with “social evolutionism”–the narrative of a ladder of stages progressing from “savagery” through “barbarism” to “civilization.” Modern evolutionary theory claims to be scientific, we are told, but in reality is pure myth. Quixotically, Graeber and Wengrow expect readers to give serious consideration to a perspective on human origins that doesn’t acknowledge evolutionary theory at all.

The only science they do recognize is applied science–in this case, “archaeological science”, and then only if the archaeology doesn’t go too far back. They justify dating “the Dawn of Everything” to a mere 40,000 years ago by arguing that nothing about politics or social life can be gleaned from archaic human “cranial remains and the occasional piece of knapped flint”. This excuse looks weak in the light of compelling recent evidence that our species’ most unique trait–art and symbolic culture–emerged in Africa three or four times earlier than was previously thought. By no means limited to bones and stones, the evidence consists of beads, geometric engravings, burials with grave goods and artefacts such as grindstones and paint pots, all invariably found in association with red ochre.

Someone whom they term a “feminist” (actually the leading evolutionary anthropologist Sarah Hrdy), Graeber and Wengrow concede, has said interesting things about the critical role of collective childcare in shaping our modern human instincts and psychology. But they comment that “such insights can only ever be partial because there was no garden of Eden, and a single Eve never existed.” Tricks of this kind–in this case ignoring the fact that Hrdy’s work is focused on the emergence of the genus Homo 2 million years before the dating of “African Eve”–are clearly aimed at undermining the very idea that human origins research is worth pursuing.

While rejecting the concept of early egalitarianism as a “damaging myth,” Graeber and Wengrow do agree that many hunter-gatherers display “a whole panoply of tactics collectively employed to bring would-be braggarts and bullies down to earth–ridicule, shame, shunning … none of which have any parallel among other primates.” Why then are they so hostile to the idea that the instincts and capacities that define our humanity were shaped by an egalitarian way of life?

We all feel happiest when able to laugh, sing, play or socialize with our social and political equals. But instead of building on this fact, Graeber and Wengrow seem to be saying that our hunter-gatherer ancestors might equally have chosen harassment, abuse and domination by aggressive males. Summing up their objection to evolutionary anthropologist Christopher Boehm’s picture of a morally conscious society forged in anti-authoritarian resistance, they describe his idea that our hunter-gatherer ancestors consistently preferred egalitarianism as “casually tossing early humans back into the Garden of Eden”.

Graeber and Wengrow’s fundamental point concerns freedom of political choice. To illustrate their thinking, they remind us of anthropology’s classic account of traditional life among the Eskimo. These seal-hunters established patriarchal family arrangements during the summer, only to revert to communal living–sharing everything, including husbands and wives–through the winter months. By our very nature, the authors conclude, we humans are driven to make bold social experiments. Sometimes the results have been catastrophic, with extreme forms of hierarchy culminating in slavery, human sacrifice and mass killings. The good thing about the distant past, however, was that at least we weren’t stuck in just one system as we seem to be today.

This history is bursting with oppositions and alternations, but its periodicities–modelled on those of the Eskimo–are one-sidedly seasonal. Don’t Graeber and Wengrow know that most hunter-gatherers follow not just the annual seasons but the monthly cycles of the moon? Women’s rituals, bound up with menstrual ebbs and flows, are scheduled essentially by the moon.

The crucial question the authors ask is not “How did we become unequal?” but “How did we get stuck?” Since they come within striking distance of answering their own question, it’s deeply frustrating that they never get there. One self-imposed handicap is their tendency to overlook hunter-gatherer research by female anthropologists. Without proper referencing, for example, they touch on Morna Finnegan’s concept of communism in motion. She records how women in the Congo rainforest deliberately encourage men to display their potential for muscular courage and dominance–only to mock and defy them in an all-female ritual known as Ngoku before surrendering gracefully in a “pendulum of power” between the sexes. But instead of acknowledging this expression of political intelligence, Graeber and Wengrow mention it without seeing any accomplishment here, any pattern.

Asking why we got stuck is a good question. A good answer would refer to humanity’s increasing dependence on farming, with an ever more one-sided solar calendar relentlessly taking precedence over moon-scheduled ceremonial life. The indigenous people I know best–the Hadza bow-and-arrow hunters of Tanzania–still hold their most important religious ceremony, Epeme, monthly during the darkest nights around New Moon.

A halfway house between sun and moon, one of countless compromise solutions arrived at around the world, was medieval Europe’s tradition of annual carnivals. The one tradition the common people still treasured was this license to reverse the prevailing patriarchal order–but now just annually and for a short period instead of once a moon.

Unfortunately, because it starts far too late and so cuts Africa out of the story, this “new history of humanity” cannot explain the causal connection between women’s oppression and our current predicament of being stuck in a rut.

by Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale

Graeber and Wengrow’s new book is energetic, committed and kaleidoscopic, but also flawed. This presents us with a problem.

David Graeber died young, only a year ago. His masterwork, Debt, may be specious in parts, but its ambition was inspiring in its time. David Graeber’s work as an activist and a leader in the Occupy and social justice movement was unusual, and exemplary. The respect and affection for him from his colleagues in the anthropology department at LSE speaks volumes. And his heart was always with the oppressed.

But precisely because Graeber was a good guy and left us only recently, there is a danger that for many people The Dawn of Everything will frame their understanding of the origins of inequality for a long time to come.

The back cover of the book carries praise from Rebecca Solnit, Pankaj Mishra, Noam Chomsky and Robin D. G. Kelley–eminent and admirable thinkers all. Kelley is representative: ‘Graeber and Wengrow have effectively overturned everything I ever thought about the history of the world. The most profound and exciting book I’ve read in thirty years.’

The book has received considerable recent attention in the press, and it would be unfortunate if such praise became the general view.

The question of the origins of inequality in human evolution and history matters a great deal for how we try to change the world. But Graeber and Wengrow want change without attending to equality and class, and they are hostile to environmental and ecological explanations. These flaws have conservative implications.

So here goes. This is a rambunctious, and partial, review of an enormous book. We console ourselves with the knowledge that Graeber loved, and excelled at, the cut and thrust of intellectual debate.

The Dilemma

In the final paragraph of their book, on pages 525-526, Graeber and Wengrow set out clearly where they stand. They write,

When, for example, a study that is rigorous in every other respect begins from the unexamined assumption that there is some ‘original’ form of human society; that its nature was fundamentally good or evil’ that a time before inequality and political awareness existed’ that something happened to change all this’ that ‘civilization’ and ‘complexity’ always came at the price of human freedoms’ that participatory democracy is nature in small groups but cannot possibility scale up to anything like a city or a nation state.

We know, now, that we are in the presence of myths.

So here our myth-busters are saying the opposite – that there was no original form of human society; no time before inequality and political awareness; that nothing happened to change things; that civilization and complexity do not limit human freedom; and that participatory democracy can be practiced as part of cities and states.

Such categorical statements, stated so boldly, make their claims to have written a new human history attractive. But there are two stumbling blocks.

First, the very arguments they make are at odds with their own political project. Second, the evidence doesn’t fit what they are trying to say.

Their Political Project and Theory

Two of the key questions of our age are –

*How do we have a social justice revolution in our present world?
*And what can we learn from the history of our species that will help us go beyond this impasse?

These questions have exercised serious thinkers and activists throughout history. And now in the face of global warming, we need compelling answers urgently. These are questions Graeber and Wengrow also ask and this is surely why the book has caught people’s attention. There is, however, a third question most of us ask:

*How did human society become so grossly unequal?

Surprisingly, Graeber and Wengrow are not interested in this question. They say so explicitly: their first chapter is entitled ‘Farewell to Humanity’s Childhood: Or, why this is not a book about the origins of inequality’.

One of the central arguments of the book is that inequality, hierarchy and violence have always been possible ways of organizing any human society. There was no time, they say, before inequality. And although they use the words ‘equality’ and ‘egalitarian’ a good deal, they claim that equality is an empty concern, a fairy story, and to speak of an ‘egalitarian society’ is to say nothing.

An Odd Spin

There is an odd spin to all this. Graeber and Wengrow ignore the new remarkable scholarship that describes the adaptation, or ecological niche, our primate ancestors and early humans found for themselves by becoming equal. This means they also eschew the classic anarchist and Marxist view that because humans had once been equal, there was hope we could be so again.

The conservative argument is that once inequality appeared as a result of farming, urban life and economic complexity, there was no hope of changing the world. Graeber and Wengrow resist this argument about farming, and clearly hope change is possible. And it becomes clear, their enemy is not inequality, it is the state.

The question they ask is how did we come to be dominated by authoritarian, bureaucratic, centralized states? And though inequalities of colonialism, slavery, classism, racism and sexism crop up throughout the book, these are not their central concern.

The political argument Graeber and Wengrow make is that people–from the beginning of time–have always been able to choose between domination and freedom. For them, people can choose to escape what they call the ‘small-scale’ stuckness of state control, and become ‘free people.’

They reject arguments that there are environmental and technical limits to the choices people can and do make. For them, in short, people make history in circumstances of their own choosing.

The payoff of this position is that it allows them to argue that with political will, we can have a revolution and a society run by popular assemblies working through consensus. All of which sounds excellent, and liberatory, but there are problems with the evidence.

Their Argument–Step By Step

Graeber and Wengrow begin the book with the aim of debunking the idea that there was an ‘original’ human society, whether good, or evil. To do so they resurrect long standing debates between Rousseau and Hobbes.

More important, they set out at the beginning their perfectly proper loathing of the Social Darwinism of the 19th century and more recent Stalinist theories of ‘stages of history.’ And here too they express their deep contempt for the modern Hobbesians of evolutionary psychology like Jared Diamond, Napoleon Chagnon and Steven Pinker. Both stages theories of history, and evolutionary psychology are serious and important targets, both of which we share.

Social Darwinism and Stages theories of History. In the 19th century social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer and Lewis Henry Morgan and in later versions, the first humans are primitives, then savages, followed by barbarian horticulturalists and pastoralists, after which came the advent of farming, the development of ancient civilizations, through the middle-ages until the dawn of modern capitalist society. Each step is understood to signal moral and intellectual progress.

Explicit and outspoken prejudices of this kind are no longer acceptable in many circles, yet social Darwinism lurks everywhere and remains the ugly cornerstone of most mainstream political thought. And it continues to underwrite the racisms and neocolonialism of our present era.

For many people, including many on the left, Graeber and Wengrow’s demolition of the stages theories of history will be new, and experienced as both revelation and relief. And it is easy to see why.

And there is an extra kick in Graeber and Wengrow’s attack. Though they say next to nothing about the work of Marx and Engels in their book, by rejecting stages theories of history, they also implicitly reject the traditional Marxists accounts of evolution.

This is most glaring in Friedrich Engels’ book, The Origin of the Family Private Property and the State. There Engels argued that humans had evolved in equality, but with the invention of farming came inequality in all its forms. So far so good.

However, Engels took his framework directly from Spencer and Morgan, whose work was saturated with white racism. Consider, for example, why Engels thought pastoralists with herds of animals became racially superior to other savage peoples.

“The plentiful supply of milk and meat and especially the beneficial effect of these foods on the growth of children account perhaps for the superior development of the Aryan and Semitic races. It is a fact that the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico, who are reduced to an almost entirely vegetarian diet have a smaller brain than the Indians at the lower stage of barbarism who eat more meat and fish.”1

Engels’ book is full of such passages, and he was by no means alone in writing thus.

Franz Boas. Graeber and Wengrow are absolutely right to want to destroy such repellant arguments. However, they present themselves as if they are among the first to do so, and this is emphatically not the case. Franz Boas, whose early ethnography of the Kwakiutl people of the Pacific north-west coast Graeber and Wengrow draw on extensively, did this long before.

Franz Boas was the son of Sophie Mayer, a Jewish feminist and one of the leaders of the German revolution of 1848 in the town of Minden in Westphalia. By 1851, her book group was reading Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto.

Boas became an anthropologist. He did field research in Canada with Innuit people on Baffin Island and Kwakiutl people on Vancouver Island, and eventually became a professor at Columbia in New York.2

In 1913 he founded modern anthropology by demolishing the racism of stages theory. In The Mind of Primitive Man, Boas argued that ‘primitive’ people were as smart as anyone, as wise and as creative. In 1913 Boas was not rejecting his mother’s politics, but as a Jew and a partisan of indigenous America, he hated racism.

Boas was a lifelong socialist. His mother’s influence was also evident in his nurturing of a generation of women anthropologists like Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Zora Neale Hurston and many more. Boas and his students solved the problem of racist stages by simply deciding to stop talking about the evolution of human cultures, the topic was so polluted.

But we are no longer in 1913. In 1982 Eric Wolf’s ironically titled Europe and the People Without History launched a wave of anthropology that was anti-imperialist, anti-racist and took history seriously.

Anthropologists have long been acutely sensitive to the racism dripping from the binaries–simple and complex, savage and civilized, backward and advanced, progressive and retrograde, developed and underdeveloped, higher and lower, secular and religious, traditional and modern. Yet tragically these binaries continue to be deployed to justify the genocide of indigenous America, the African slave trade, colonialism by white empires, and today the war on Islam.

New Evolutionary Theory and the Human Adaptation

Anthropologists and archaeologists since have now constructed an entirely serviceable account of the origins of human inequality. Key figures here are Kent Flannery, Joyce Marcus and James C. Scott whose work we discuss below.

Unfortunately, Graeber and Wengrow fail to engage with the enormous body of new scholarship on human evolution. In ignoring these new studies, Graeber and Wengrow have set themselves against a careful, and now extremely well-documented, arguments about comparative primate evolution and the human adaptation. Their problem is that this material would upend their assertion that there was no ‘original’ human society, and make their arguments about choice seem rather silly.

Graeber and Wengrow do not deny that humans once lived by hunting and gathering. But they are deeply uninterested in the environment and the material bases of human existence. And they do deny that these societies were necessarily equal.

The first step in their argument is to say that human evolution is all in the past, and we cannot know what happened then. Everything is speculation. But this is simply not true.

Over the past forty years, the scientific revolution has been remarkable, and there has been an enormous flowering of research in the field of human evolution. There are now many amazing new studies of non-human primates and primate behavior, new archaeology of early humans and new ethnographies of near contemporary hunter-gatherers.

Thanks to chemical microanalyses, DNA sampling, radiocarbon dating and patient archaeology in humble homes, we have learned a great deal about the people who lived in pre-class and then early class societies. Among our heroes are the extensive publications of the readable Christopher Boehm, Frans de Waal, R. Brian Ferguson, Sarah Hrdy, Martin Jones and Laura Rival.

This work is transforming the study of human evolution and human history. And the starting point may come as a surprise. It now seems that we became human by becoming equal. This is a remarkable and precious insight. But it is an insight that strikes at the very foundation of Graeber and Wengrow’s account.

A Brief Summary of the Human Adaption

Dozens of long-term field research projects with different apes and monkeys now show, for each species, how a particular complex adaptation allows them to survive in a particular environment. That adaptation includes the details of how their staple diets, their alternative diets in bad times, their brains, hands, feet, stomachs, teeth, genitals, grunts, songs, dominance relationships, sharing relationships, child rearing, aggression, loving, grooming and group structure fit together.3 That is the baseline, and it is our method for understanding human evolution as well.

Over time, several parts of a new adaptation came together to produce modern humans. The short story is that early humans were puny primates. To survive, they had to learn to share meat and vegetables, to share childcare and to share sexual joy. To do this, they had to discipline would-be bullies and transcend the dominance hierarchies of their primate ancestors. And for at least 200,000 years, they lived in egalitarian societies where men and women were equal too.

Some Details

In a bit more detail, the picture goes like this. The line who would be human invented digging sticks to get at tubers buried underground. Some men became ambush hunters of big animals where kills depended on speed, endurance and weapons. We know this from the changes in teeth, arms and legs, but also from the pattern of fossil injuries and the diet and bones found in caves, and from how surviving contemporary hunters hunted big game.

The breakthrough that separated the human line from all competing predators was a combined diet, and food cooked with fire. This meant they needed to use far less calories for digestion. As Richard Wrangham argues, those extra calories were able to serve growing brains.

Ambush hunting was unreliable, and a hunter might only make one big kill in a month. The human line changed their social organization to cope. The food was shared among the whole group at the home base. This change meant that everyone has regular meat, but on meatless days hunters can fall back on tubers and other fruits and vegetables.

Our primate ancestors and early humans seem to have managed these changes is two ways. First, to ensure that everyone got a share of the good food, they found ways to limit competition among the hunters and to discipline potential bullies.

Second, they invented new styles of child rearing. The feminist primatologist Sarah Hrdy has written extensively about patterns of primate infanticide, and, in a key change in gender relations, how mothers came to trust other women, and men, to look after their young children. Another change is that, alone among primates, human beings of both sexes typically live past the age of female menopause. The evolutionary advantage appears to be partly that the expertise of the old is valuable, but also that they provide child-care.

These and an array of other differences meant that humans can multiply faster than other apes. And at certain periods, they were able to spread quickly across the world.

This early history squares with the kinds of societies anthropologists have reported from groups of near contemporary hunter gatherers all over the world.4 In these societies no one has power over anyone else. Key to this is the absence of wealth or surplus.

People move regularly. No one owns more than they can carry, with a child on the other hip. Bands are not bounded. People change groups all the time, and everyone has real or fictive kin in several other bands. When tension builds over food, sex or anything else, someone moves. This means neither women nor men are trapped, and in these societies, there is no regular patterns of gendered inequality. And the ability to restrain bullies is an another important pattern among recent hunter-gatherers.

We see this from the anthropologists’ accounts. But there is also the evidence from the anatomical changes from our ape ancestors. The large male canines used for fighting other males have disappeared, as have great differences in size. Human males are about 15% larger than females. Comparison with other primates suggests that this means some male domination, but not much.

Male genitals have changed in many ways. Among primates, and many other species, the size of testicles indicates how exclusive sexual partnerships are. Human testicle size falls in the middle range, suggesting customary forms of monogamy modified by affairs.

The changes in the human penis are many, and wondrous. Cormier and Jones argue in their aptly titled book The Domesticated Penis, that all these changes are the result of mate selection by female choice.

The changes in female sexuality are even more marked. In other primates, females have sex only when ovulating. Female humans have sex year-round. This means they can have more sex, but it means that the ratio between sexually active males and females is one to one. In other apes and primates, it varies from 2 to 1 to 40 to 1. That suggests it was easier to create pair bonding and gender equality.

The primatologist and anthropologist Christopher Boehm has presented the last piece of the puzzle, in a key article and two influential books. Boehm argues that the equality and sharing among hunter and gatherer bands was culturally and consciously achieved.

He says that we retain our ape heritage which encourages us to submit, to compete and to dominate. But for humans to survive we had to agree consciously together to repress the jealousy, aggression and selfishness which welled up in us, and we had to repress selfishness in others.

Boehm’s ideas are now widely accepted. All of this is not because people are naturally egalitarian or nonviolent. It is because we have that potential within us, and its opposite. But we understood that we had to share and be egalitarian to survive.

Boehm’s theory also fits with our big brains. Scientists long assumed they had to do with hands, hunting, weapons and tools. But with all other primates the best predictor of brain size is the size of the group.

Among most primates standing in a dominance hierarchy depends on the ability to build alliances in a complex and constantly shifting political world. And the chance for males to reproduce depends on their standing in that hierarchy. Social intelligence is critical. In a group of ten, there are 45 different relationships to keep track of. In a group of 20 there are 190 different relationships. In a village of 200–you do the math.

And perhaps, with people, the ability to restrain bullies, to live in equality and to share was the crucial achievement of our social intelligence. The brains that can be used to compete can be used to cooperate.

In Sum

In sum, the work of scholars in many fields makes it possible to put forward a coherent picture of a human adaption to a particular ecological niche evolved over two million years and led to the emergence of humans some 200,000 years ago. Yet apart from brief disagreements with Sarah Hrdy and Christopher Boehm, Graeber and Wengrow deal with this impressive range of new material by ignoring it.

Indeed, had they taken it on board, they would then they would then have to accept both the egalitarian character of this adaptation and the extent to which it is intimately tied to the material conditions of specific environments, and these would throw their arguments about humans choosing freedom out the window.

To hang on to their commitment to free choice, and keep their political project intact, their argument ducks and dives.

The writing is dense, yet full of flourish and apparent authority. The book roars on at a great pace. The apt illustration is wearying and it is hard to unpick the non-sequiturs and slights of mind. The reader should be warned that their use of evidence is often not reliable. It is also something of an ethnographic midden–so good luck to the uninitiated who have never met the Hadza, the Montagnais-Naskapi, the Shilluk or the Nuer for there is madness in the detail.

The Advent of Agriculture

The transformation from equality to hierarchy, and from gender equality to marked gender inequality, is generally associated with farming, and this presents Graeber and Wengrow with considerable problems. Because of their interest in choice, they seem determined to avoid materialist arguments or consider the ways the environment conditions and limits the choices people have.

Agriculture was invented independently in many places in the world, beginning about 12,000 years ago. Hunter-gatherers shared their food, and no one could own more than they could carry. But farmers settled and became invested in their fields and crops. This created a potential for some people to seize more than their share of the food.

Over time, groups of thugs and bullies could come together and become lords. They did this in many ways: theft and pillage, rent, sharecropping, hiring labour, tax, tribute and tithes. Whatever form this took, such class inequality was always dependent on organized violence. And this is what the class struggle has been about until very recently: who worked the land and who got the food.

Farmers were vulnerable as hunters were not. They were tied to their land, to the work they had put in to clear and irrigate the fields, and to the stores of crops. Hunter-gatherers could leave. Farmers could not.

However, Graeber and Wengrow set their faces against this narrative–that farmers were able to produce and store a surplus and that made possible class society, exploitation, the state and, as it happens, gendered inequality as well–and they do so again in the face of remarkable new archaeological and other material.

Flannery and Marcus. In 2012, the archaeologists Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus published a brilliant book on The Creation of Inequality. They trace the ways that agriculture has led to inequality in many different parts of the world.

But they insist the association was not automatic. Agriculture made class possible, but many farmers lived in egalitarian societies. In some places the gap between the invention of farming and the invention of class was measured in centuries and in some places in thousands of years.

Flannery and Marcus also show, through careful examples, that where local thugs or lords did seize power, like as not they were later overthrown. In many towns and cities, elites appear in the archaeological record, then disappear for decades, the appear again. In effect, the class struggle never stops.5

James C. Scott. Flannery and Marcus’s magnificent comparative study, was anticipated in the work of Edmund Leach in his 1954 book, Political Systems of Highland Burma which radically changed anthropology, and latterly, in the work of the anarchist political scientist and anthropologist James C. Scott.6 In 2009, Scott published The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. It covered centuries across the whole region.

Scott is concerned with the multitudes of rice farmers in the kingdoms of the plains who did run away to the hills. There they reinvented themselves as new ethnic groups of ‘slash and burn’ shifting cultivators. Some of them created smaller class societies, and some lived without class. All of them had to resist continuous slaving and military raids from the kingdoms and states below.

Technology. In some ways Graeber and Wengrow build on the work of Leach, Scott, Flannery and Marcus. Wengrow, after all, has been part of the changes in archaeology which Flannery and Marcus are summarizing. And the influence of Scott is everywhere in The Dawn of Everything.

But Graeber and Wengrow do not like the links the other authors make between technology and environment, on the one hand, and economic and political change.

Flannery, Marcus and Scott are very careful to say that technology and environment do not determine change. They make change possible. Equally, the invention of grain agriculture did not automatically lead to class inequality or the state. But it made those changes possible.

Class Relations and the Class Struggle. The change in technology and environment set the stage for a class struggle. And the result of that class struggle determined whether equality and inequality triumphed. Graeber and Wengrow ignore this crucial point. Instead, they constantly take issue with the crude form of stages theory that makes such changes immediate and inevitable.

This allergy to ecological thinking is probably one of the things behind their refusal to deal with the new literature on human evolution.

All of that literature tries to understand how the animals who became humanity built a social adaptation to the environment they inhabited, the bodies they had, the competing predators, the technology they could invent, and the ways they made their livelihood. As it happens, they built egalitarian societies in order to cope with that ecology and those circumstances. That was not an inevitable result. But it was an adaptation.

Graeber and Wengrow, on the other hand, are not materialists. For them, thinking about ecology and technology threatens to make the choices and revolution they want impossible. This is why, for example, they are not happy with Scott’s book on ancient Mesopotamia, because it emphasizes the material reasons why grain agriculture in particular led to inequality.

This is not a trivial matter. The climate crisis we face now brings into sharp relief the question of how humanity might change society to adapt to a new technology and a new environment. Any politics of equality or human survival must now be profoundly materialist.

The Absence of Gender. We have seen that Graeber and Wengrow have little interest in the environment and the material bases of human existence.

In the same way, they observe an almost religious avoidance of the concept of class, discussions of class relations and class struggle. Graeber certainly, and presumably Wengrow, have an understanding of class relationships and class struggle. They know what class does, and, indeed, which class they are from, but cannot, or will not, treat class relations as a motor of social change.

Just as striking is Graeber and Wengrow’s lack of interest in the social construction of gender. In passing they reproduce a near-Bachofen of matriarchy in Minoan Crete, on the one hand, and on the other, they include a scattering of patriarchal stereotypes in which women are nurturing and men are bullies.

Because they hold that inequality has always been with us, Graeber and Wengrow have next to nothing to say about the origins of gendered inequality among humans.

There are basically three schools of thought about the evolution of gendered relations. First there are the evolutionary psychologists whose arguments are deeply conservative. Jared Diamond, Napoleon Chagnon and Steven Pinker argue that inequality, violence and competition are fundamental to human nature. They say this is because men are programmed by evolution to compete with other men so the strongest can dominate women and father more children. This is regrettable, Pinker says, and luckily Western Civilization has partly tamed such primitive feelings.

The great biologist, and trans activist, Joan Roughgarden, has rightly described these ideas as ‘thinly disguised rape narratives’. These arguments are indeed repellant, and surely were rejected by Graeber and Wengrow for this reason alone.

For a very long time, a second school of thought held sway among feminist anthropologists. This too essentialized differences between women and men, and accepted some form of inequality between women and men as a given in every society.

The third option is the one to which we subscribe. There is a striking feature of the historical, anthropological and archaeological record. In almost every case, where people lived in economically and politically equal societies, women and men too were equal. And wherever there have been class societies with economic inequality, there too men have dominated women.

The question that has obsessed us is: Why?

Graeber and Wengrow do not address this question. They have no explanation for sexism, nor are they interested in how or why gender relations change. But they are not sexists. They mention instances of the oppression of women many times, but in passing. It is just not central to their concerns. So what seems to us a striking congruence, is for them a mirage.

Complex Foragers

In their determination to downplay the connections between farming, class inequality and the emergence of states, a key part of Graeber and Wengrow’s account focuses on groups of hunter-gatherers who did have class inequality, warfare and even slavery. Archaeologists call them ‘complex hunters and gatherers’ or ‘complex foragers.’

Graeber and Wengrow take these people as evidence that prehistoric people could be either stateless and egalitarian, or violent and unequal. That is not what the evidence shows. 7

The classic examples are the Kwakiutl, studied by Franz Boas, and their neighbors on the west coast of Canada and on the Columbia and Frazer Rivers. The rivers and the coast saw enormous salmon runs. Whoever controlled a limited number of choke points and fishing sites could amass an enormous surplus. The Galles on the Columbia River is an example. There were days when a small group of people could catch 100,000 pounds of salmon.

That was exceptional. There was variation from site to site. But across the coast and the rivers, the better the stocks of salmon, the more class inequality is revealed in the archaeology and written accounts. Inequalities of wealth were often extreme. These people also had complex military technology, with great war canoes that carried large numbers of warriors and required many months for several men to make.

In effect, these people were trapped by fishing places, just as farmers were trapped by their fields. And like farmers, storage was essential to these salmon fishers. For a long way back in the archaeological record, examination of their bones and teeth shows that between 40% and 60% of their annual diet came from salmon. The fish ran for only a few weeks, so that most of that diet must have come from dried salmon.

Just as with farmers, environmental constraints and new technologies were opening the possibility of class society. None of this process is visible in The Dawn of Everything. Instead, we get the standard account of the Kwakiutl for undergraduates fifty years ago, as the people of the wasteful, greedy potlatch feasts. This account ignores the great amount of scholarship since.

We now know that those chaotic feasts were a celebration of traditional life managed by a ruling class who were desperately trying to hang onto their power, among people who had lost five-sixths of their population to smallpox and syphilis, who had been conquered and then overrun by gold prospectors, and whose potlatch feasts were eventually forbidden by the Canadian government. A deeply material tragedy is recounted as irrational farce.8

The fisherfolk of the west coast were not the only ‘complex foragers.’ There are other examples around the world. But it is notable how few there were. Moreover, archaeologists have found none older than 7,000 years before present, and no evidence of warfare before 14,000 years ago.

The small number and recent origin of complex foragers may be a matter of technology. Certainly, the Chumash along the coast of California did not develop inequality and warfare before 600 CE when they learned to build large ocean-going plank canoes, which enabled them to hunt large marine mammals and dominate the coastal villages militarily.9 Graeber and Wengrow ignore the Chumash, taking instead the example of the less well understood Yurok further inland.

They do choose a third example of ‘complex foragers’, the Calusa of southern Florida. In one sense, these too were fisherfolk with ruling chiefs, warriors, class inequality, slavery, expensive war canoes and a reliance on fishing for sea mammals, alligators and large fish.

Graeber and Wengrow describe the Calusa as ‘a non-agricultural people’. But as they acknowledge, the Calusa fisherfolk were the dominant group in a much larger polity. All the other groups were farmers, and they paid tribute to the Calusa rulers of large amounts of food, gold and enslaved European and African captives. That food enabled the Calusa elite, and 300 full-time warriors, to live without working.10

Being Against the State

Following Flannery and Marcus, Scott, et al., for us, the central political struggle in all class societies until recently was over who worked the land and who got the food. Graeber and Wengrow see things differently. For them the central issue is power, and the central enemy is the state. This leads them to ignore class in several ways. This is not because they are anarchists. Most anarchists have always been able to hold class and power in focus simultaneously.

But the omissions in The Dawn are important. Graeber and Wengrow seem so keen to push an argument in favor of consensual, participatory assemblies that they leave us with a series of puzzles. Four brief examples can illustrate the problem.

The authors are not interested in the rise of class inequality in villages that so often precedes states in cities, and they dismiss the literature. Nor are they interested in small kingdoms, lordships and baronies. As long as there are no large, centralized states, it’s OK. We have seen some the twists and turns this created in their account of the complex foragers. These reappear in a number of other examples.

The Indus. They point, quite rightly, to the astonishing and important example on the ancient city of Mohenjo-Daro on the Indus, where about 40,000 people lived without class inequality or a state.

They then suggest, as do the Hindutva historians, that Mohenjo-Daro was in fact organized along South Asian caste lines. But, Graeber and Wengrow say, these were egalitarian caste lines. Initially the mind boggles, but what they mean is that caste inequality without kings is acceptable.11

Natchez. They consistently minimize the power of traditional kingships. The native kingdom of Natchez on the Mississippi is a good example. Graeber and Wengrow say that the power and vicious cruelty of the sun king did not extend beyond his village. Yet, in fact Natchez was a major regional force in the slave trade servicing white planters.12

Human Sacrifice. Graeber and Wengrow rightly emphasize the important fact that cruel public festivals of human sacrifice are found in early states around the world. Dozens or hundreds were sacrificed, often war captives, young women or the poor.

They are rightly outraged. But they also feel that the aim of these sacrifices was to terrify their enemies, the people of other states. We think, by contrast, that the main aim was to terrify the actual audience for the bloodshed, the subjects of the cruel local state.

Indeed, this is probably why such cruelty is characteristic of the early history of each state. That was the time when the legitimacy of the state was still weak, and terror most needed. That’s also probably why the spectacular public sacrifices disappear as state power is consolidated, though warfare and enemies continue.

Assemblies. The assemblies themselves are an important final example. Graeber and Wengrow point quite rightly to the power of city assemblies in kingdoms and states in ancient Mesopotamia. They say that this is evidence that kings were not all powerful. In this they are right. You would have to be very naïve to believe that the class struggle stopped in those kingdoms.

But then Graeber and Wengrow make a leap. They suggest that those city assemblies resembled the assemblies of Occupy and other social justice movements, with participatory democracy.

There is no evidence for this one way or another for any form of participatory democracy in ancient Mesopotamia. But we do have enormous evidence for city-wide and national assemblies in other class societies. All of them were dominated by the richer men and by powerful families. In ancient Sparta, landowners dominated. The same was true in the Roman senate. And with King John and the Barons. And until very recently the voters for every parliament in Europe were limited to the rich.

This myopia is important. Like many others, we understand kingdoms and states as the way that dominant classes in unequal societies come together to consolidate and enforce the rules. In The Dawn, that process is invisible.

* * *

Graeber and Wengrow are angry. There is an energy in this anger which will please readers, like ourselves, who despair at global inequality, hate the politics of the global elite and are fearful of climate chaos.

In many ways their book is a howling wind of fresh air. And we share their hostility to all existing states. But going forward, in order to halt climate change, we need an understanding of the human condition that includes the central importance of class and the environment.

1↩ Fredrich Engels, 1884, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. The book was revived as a key text by socialist and Marxist feminists in debates about women’s liberation. Pace the 19th century social Darwinism which clearly took a lead from the Old Testament, it is now quite clear that both pastoralism and slash and burn agriculture appeared after, and not before, the advent of settled agriculture.
2↩ Franz Boas, The Mind of Primitive Man, 1911; Claudia Ruth Pierpoint, ‘The Measure of America’, 2004; Ned Blackhawk and Isaiah Lorado Wilner, Indigenous Visions: Rediscovering the World of Franz Boas, 2018; Rosemary Lévy, Franz Boas: The Emergence of the Anthropologist, 2019.
3↩ Very good examples of this work include Sara Hdry, Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding, 2005; Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, The Old Way, 2001; two articles by Steven Kuhn and Mary Stiner: ‘What’s a Mother To Do’, 2006 and ‘How Hearth and Home Made us Human’, 2019; Loretta Cormier and Sharon Jones, The Domesticated Penis: How Womanhood has Shaped Manhood, 2015; a key paper by Joanna Overing, ‘Men Control Women? The “Catch-22” in the Analysis of Gender’, 1987; two books by Christopher Boehm: Hierarchy in the Forest and the Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior, 1999, and Moral Origins, 2012; every book by the primatologist Frans de Waal; the two chapters by Brian Ferguson in Douglas Fry, ed., War, Peace and Human Nature, 2013; Richard Wrangham, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, 2010; and two books by the trans biologist Joan Roughgarden: Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender and Sexuality in Nature and People, 2004, and The Genial Gene: Deconstructing Darwinian Selfishness, 2009.
4↩ Our favourites among the ethnographies of our near contemporary hunter-gatherers are Marjorie Shostack, Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman, 1981; Jean Briggs, Inuit Morality Play: The Emotional Education of a Three-Year-Old, 1998; Phyllis Kaberry, Aboriginal Women: Sacred and Profane, 1938, Karen Endicott and Kirk Endicott: The Headman was a Woman: The Gender Egalitarian Batek of Malaysia, 2008; Richard Lee, The !Kung San: Men, Women and Work in a Foraging Society, 1978; and Colin Turnbull, Wayward Servants: The Two Worlds of the African Pygmies, 1978.
5↩ Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus, The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistorical Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery and Empire, 2012; and James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland South-East Asia, 2009; Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, 2017. Martin Jones, Feast: Why Humans Share Food, 2007, is also very useful.
6↩ Edmund Leach had made a similar argument in 1954 in Political Systems of Highland Burma, and radically changed anthropology. For a brilliant ethnography of one group of anti-class hill rebels at the end of the twentieth century, see Shanshan Du, Chopsticks Only Work in Pairs: Gender Unity and Gender Equality Among the Lahu of Southeastern China, 2003. For Scott’s recent extension of his argument to ancient Mesopotamia, see Against the Grain.
7↩ This is all succinctly described in Brian Hayden, ‘Transegalitarian Societies on the American Northwest Plateau: Social Dynamics and Cultural/Technological Changes,’ in Orlando Cerasuolo, ed., The Archaeology of Inequality, 2021.
8↩ Start with Philip Drucker and Robert Heizer, 1967, To Make My Name Good: A Reexamination of the Southern Kwakiutl Potlatch; and Eric Wolf, Envisioning Power: Ideologies of Dominance and Crisis, 1999, 69-132.
9↩ Jeanne Arnold, ‘Credit where Credit is Due: The History of the Chumash Oceangoing Plank Canoe’, 2007; and Lynn Gamble, The Chumash World at European Contact: Power, Trade and Fighting among Complex Hunter-Gatherers, 2011.
10↩ On the Calusa, see The Dawn, 150-2; Fernando Santos-Cranero, 2010, Vital Enemies: Slavery, Predation and the Amerindian Political Economy of Life, 2010; and John Hann, Missions to the Calusa, 1991.
11↩ Rita Wright, The Ancient Indus: Urbanism, Economy and Society, 2010; and Andrew Robinson, The Indus: Lost Civilizations, 2015.
12↩ Robbie Ethridge and Sheri M. Shuck-Hall, Mapping the Mississippian Shatter Zone, 2009; and George Edward Milne, Natchez Country: Indians, Colonists and the Landscape of Race in French Louisiana, 2015.

https://mronline.org/2021/12/20/the-daw ... ory-wrong/

'The Dawn of Everything' seems like it was purpose written to justify the liberal anarchist, That Noam Chomsky endorses it seals the deal.

And we DO NOT " share their hostility to all existing states". This sort of 'a pox on all of their houses' reveals the lack of substantive ideology and thus inability to change the course of history characteristic of the infantile far left.
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Re: What are you reading?

Post by blindpig » Fri Dec 31, 2021 3:15 pm

How to Hide An Empire
13 Oct
Written By Matthew James Seidel

How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States
Daniel Immerwahr
Macmillan, 2020

The United States and British establishments are in mourning over Afghanistan. Not because of the tens of thousands of lives lost or trillions of dollars wasted that could have been put towards education, healthcare, housing, or infrastructure. Rather, they are mourning the fact that the U.S. withdrew its forces at all. Twenty disastrous years, it seems, were not enough.

What underlies these reactions is a deeper concern over what this means for the future of the American Empire, assuming it has one. This fear is on full display in a New Yorker piece published on September 1, 2021, anxiously entitled, ‘Is the U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan the End of the American Empire?’ Staff writer Jon Lee Anderson frets that, ‘it feels as if the American era isn’t quite over, but it isn’t what it once was, either,’ and wonders whether ‘the U.S. may soon reassert itself somewhere else to show the world that it still has muscle’ (because showing muscle should be any country’s chief foreign policy objective). Rory Stewart, a former government minister under Prime Minister Theresa May, claims the withdrawal from Afghanistan is ‘deeply disturbing’ and asks, without irony, ‘whether the United States can claim much moral authority internationally.’ Former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense James Clad has a far more level-headed response. ‘It’s a damaging blow,’ he admits, ‘but the “end” of Empire? Not yet, and probably not for a long time… In the wider world, America still retains its offshore power-balancing function.’ The defeat in Afghanistan is, in his estimate, ‘the geopolitical equivalent of egg on our face.’

If Clad’s imperial optimism sounds strange, that’s only because the true form and scope of America’s empire is rarely discussed in the media. It’s true that the U.S. does not overtly claim sovereignty over as much territory as it has in the past, but only because it doesn’t need to – with roughly eight hundred military bases around the world (all other countries combined operate about thirty overseas bases), it is fully capable of exerting influence across the globe. Then there are all the regimes the U.S. has either installed by force or offered support that ensure their domestic policies benefit the neoliberal world order, not to mention the traditional kind of colonies the U.S. still maintains such as Puerto Rico.

The withdrawal from Afghanistan has reignited discourse in the mainstream media over the future of American Empire, making it more important than ever for the public to understand America’s imperial past. Unfortunately, the American education system has traditionally ignored this history, which makes sense given it is a history full of broken promises, violent oppression, and outright massacres. The mere existence of colonies (or the more-friendly sounding ‘territories’) contradicts the idea of America as a democracy.

It is easier not to think about American Empire at all. But this ignorance comes at a price. The recent events in Afghanistan are the direct result of America’s empire, as is the continued suffering of Puerto Rico post-Hurricane Maria. The storm devastated the island, leaving it vulnerable to capitalist predation as documented in Naomi Klein’s The Battle for Paradise. The aid and attention it received were negligible compared to Florida, which makes sense given only a slight majority of mainlanders (Americans living in the contiguous forty-eight states) were aware Puerto Ricans were fellow citizens. Even before Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico was undergoing an economic crisis due entirely to policies Puerto Ricans themselves were not allowed to vote on, let alone help shape. Understanding contemporary politics is simply impossible without understanding the legacy of the American Empire. And just as importantly, the people who live in these territories deserve to have their histories remembered, not buried in unmarked graves – regardless of whether those histories relate to current events.

That is what makes Daniel Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States such a vital resource. While reading it I felt consistently ashamed at my ignorance and grateful to finally be receiving a full history of my own country. But even if you are already familiar with the Aleutian internment, the Insular Cases, or the fact that the Japanese did not only attack Pearl Harbor in December 1941 but the US-controlled Philippines, Guam, Midway Island, and Wake Island, along with a number of British colonies such as Singapore and Hong Kong, How to Hide an Empire has much to offer – particularly to those on the left. Far from being just a more robust history of the United States, Immerwahr offers an international perspective that connects the development of American Empire to revolutionary movements across the world, including Puerto Rico, Vietnam, Cuba, China, and the Middle East. By connecting so many disparate struggles, How to Hide an Empire demonstrates why international solidarity must be the foundation of any Marxist analysis that seeks to free the world from the obvious and subtle forms of imperialism that continue to haunt the world today.

Immerwahr’s book can be divided into three periods – the United States’ initial expansion across North America, its accelerated overseas expansion after the Spanish American War, and the apparent contraction of its empire post-World War II. The first period is likely the most familiar to readers and defined by the United States’ genocidal campaign against Indigenous peoples. But Immerwahr reveals much that is traditionally ignored. For example, the United States’ founders were against expanding the country’s borders at first. They believed the United States needed to expand at a slow, controlled pace as opposed to the more chaotic, random expansion promoted by men like Daniel Boone (who far from being hailed a pioneer was derided by political elites as a ‘white savage’). Their chief concern was maintaining white supremacy and their trepidation about bringing in black, Indigenous and people of colour would be a recurring theme of American Empire. It has always been interested in gaining territory, but preferably without people. Actual people, specifically non-Europeans, brought up all sorts of problems.

Another significant episode Immerwahr explores in this first section concerns Indian Country and Western Territory. The former was an initially massive refuge for Indigenous peoples that was gradually chipped away, while the latter was nearly a state governed by Native Americans who would have a representative in Congress. This last point in particular was too much for Congressmen who could not imagine having a Native American colleague when the vast majority still denied Indigenous peoples’ basic humanity.

The agricultural crisis of the mid-1800s is potentially the least well-known to readers and most consequential event from the pre-Spanish-American War period. Capitalism drove agricultural policies that led directly to ‘soil exhaustion’ – a lack of necessary nitrates in the soil that threatened the entire agricultural industry. Salvation came in the form of guano (bird and bat excrement), more specifically hundreds of islands where guano had built up over centuries. The United States supported corporations that went out to seize these uninhabited islands and collect the soil-rejuvenating substance.

These islands would prove crucial to America’s imperial ambitions. Without this guano, the massive population boom that propelled America’s westward expansion (and further terrorized Indigenous peoples) would not have been possible. But just as importantly, these islands would later provide sites for military bases, airstrips, and more. Just as the early American expansion depended on guano from these islands, these islands provided the logistical means for the United States to assert its global hegemony from the second half of the 20th century up to the present.

The real turning point, however, came in 1898. The Spanish-American War – which Immerwahr notes could be more accurately named the Spanish-Cuban-Puerto Rican-Philippine-American War – left the United States in possession of its first real overseas colonies. Granted, the guano islands were technically colonies. In fact, they functioned as corporate fiefdoms operating beyond the normal reach of the law. But until now the United States had done its best to acquire as much territory as possible without bringing in additional people. For instance, there was a sizable Muslim population in the southern half of the Philippines. Were these non-Christian, non-white people going to enjoy the same rights as mainlanders?

Between republicanism, white supremacy, and overseas expansion, Immerwahr explains, ‘the country could have at most two.’ ‘In the past,’ he continues, ‘republicanism and white supremacy had been jointly maintained by carefully shaping the country’s borders. But absorbing populous nonwhite colonies would wreck all that.’ In the end, the United States sacrificed republicanism.

America’s new colonies suffered dearly during the first few decades of the 20th century. Gregory Pincus, the inventor of the birth control pill, used Puerto Rican women for his research without warning some of his subjects about possible side-effects (and this was after he failed to force prisoners to undergo his experiments). These side effects ranged from dizziness and nausea to cervical erosion. However, all complaints were blamed on ‘the emotional super-activity of Puerto Rican women.’ Meanwhile, another doctor, Cornelius P. Rhoads, bragged about how he was purposefully giving his Puerto Rican patients cancer.

The Philippines provided another ‘playground’ for capitalists. In an early example of what Klein would later call the ‘shock doctrine,’ U.S. architects and politicians conspired to transform the city of Manila. This was a city that had suffered plagues and fires, not to mention the wrath of the Spanish and U.S. military. Amidst the rubble a new command center was built that included a country club, boat club, casino, and luxury hotel. Immerwahr notes they were not ‘built for Filipinos, and indeed some clubs would refuse to admit them.’ Rather, they were designed to attract foreign investors.

These horrors were only possible because Americans, by and large, had no idea they were happening. Most were unaware the United States even had colonies in the years leading up to World War II. It was this widespread ignorance that gave capitalists, backed by the state, free reign.

It did not have to be this way. The colonies themselves expected America to live up to its professed love of freedom and democracy and give them independence. But President Woodrow Wilson chose to prioritize empire and white supremacy after World War I, vetoing ‘even the principle of racial equality’ from being articulated in the League of Nations covenant. Wilson’s decisions would set in motion a series of events that would facilitate the rise of Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, and Pedro Albizu Campos, who would be transformed from a Harvard-educated America-loving Puerto Rican into ‘the most dangerous domestic anti-imperialist the United States would ever face.’

Everything changed again with World War II. As in the first section, Immerwahr highlights historical facts that are traditionally diminished, rationalized, or deliberately erased. One of the more startling examples is how Hawai’i was ruled by the military after Pearl Harbor until well after the war ended. The justice system was a farce, with no real trials and excessive sentences for transgressions, however slight. A black man discovered just how harsh the American military’s rule over a U.S. territory was when he was fleeing from a group of white men trying to beat him. He bumped into a police officer who, instead of helping the man, arrested him. He was sentenced to five years in prison.

After the war, the American Empire appeared to shrink. The Philippines became independent, territories like Alaska and Hawai’i became states, and Puerto Rico became a commonwealth. Granted, Puerto Rico was and remains in essence a colony. But the fact that so much effort was put into making it not seem like a colony is significant, especially given that the United States was in a position to practically conquer the world if it desired.

So why did the empire contract? Immerwahr grants that the surge in revolutionary movements in various colonies played a part, as did the growing anticolonial sentiment world-wide. But he argues the most important factor was technology. Technological advancements made simply traditional empires unnecessary. Before World War II, and for most of human history, controlling territory by force was necessary to ensure access to raw materials, rapid and secure communication, and as a means of waging war. Synthetic substitutes, however, made raw materials less vital, while radio and the Internet diminished the need for actual land over which to carry messages. As for war, drones have made it possible to devastate entire regions without putting a single soldier on the ground. These weapons depend on satellite technology, which offers a level of surveillance beyond the most sinister dreams of past imperialists.

That said, the physical American Empire didn’t disappear, as evidenced by the enormous number of bases throughout the world. With so many bases in so many different countries, the United States doesn’t need to directly control territory to ruthlessly exploit it. This is especially true in areas where the United States merely needs to overthrow a government and install a more capitalist-friendly regime. It has also used more subtle means to exert influence – I certainly never thought of the standardization of industrial products like screws as helping cement America’s hegemony. But, as with guano, Immerwahr once again proves how something typically overlooked can be a major driver of history.

By September 11, 2001, the U.S. was completely disavowing its imperial past and denying that its current empire even existed. This put the Bush administration in a difficult position in regards to Afghanistan. While conservatives like Max Boot believed the United States needed ‘a colonial office – fast’ in Afghanistan, the government resisted. It is bizarre to hear conservatives now despair over whether the American Empire is at an end given that the twenty-year debacle began with George Bush insisting ‘We’re not an imperial power.’

From Immerwahr we learn that in the years following the American Revolution the nation was ambivalent about whether it should be an empire at all; after 1898, it was proud to be an empire; and after WWII it denied being an empire while enjoying a more powerful, if shadowy, imperial force than ever. Now we may be living through another turning point in the story of American Empire, as elites fear the empire is at an end. Whether this proves to be the case remains to be seen. Either way, How to Hide an Empire provides a fascinating account of American Empire that details the way capitalism has consistently shaped the imperial ideology of the United States. And for leftists of all stripes, it is an invaluable tool in understanding how the empire was born, how it changed, and, perhaps, how we might liberate the world from its grasp once and for all.

https://www.ebb-magazine.com/reviews/ho ... -an-empire

Sounds interesting. Here's an uncommon rational comment I grabbed from that bucket of madness known as MoA Comments which is in agreement with the final paragraph:
I rather believe the empire will cave-in. Whether we'll be informed that they essentially caved or not, I'm not sure. But the empire has been caving for a few years now. We saw how Trump's trade war petered out; we saw how Hillary's "Syria is already dead" proclamation bit the dusts; we saw how Obama's Asia Pacific pivot flew out the window. We were never told that these clowns failed, but we do witness how the empire is not getting what it wanted more and more frequent. They are used to wimping out without too much fuzz by now, and we'll see Ukraine STFU soon.

Posted by: Oriental Voice | Dec 30 2021 22:31 utc | 30

https://www.moonofalabama.org/2021/12/t ... .html#more
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Re: What are you reading?

Post by blindpig » Mon Feb 07, 2022 2:57 pm


Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin: ‘The Dialectical Biologist’
Originally published: Marx and Philosophy by Martina Valković (February 2, 2022 ) | - Posted Feb 06, 2022

It is not every day that one comes across a brand-new review of a book that was published almost forty years ago and still demands further scrutiny. The Dialectical Biologist by Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin is one such book.

One reason why this review came to be decades after said book’s publication involves the loss of Richard Lewontin, the great American geneticist and evolutionary biologist, who passed away last July at his home in Cambridge at the age of 92. Lewontin was a truly towering figure, one of the greatest thinkers in evolutionary theory and responsible for some of the earliest work in population genetics. He was also a long-standing critic of sociobiology, and did not shy from social and political critique, both in his written works and in public lectures for a wide audience (such as the Santa Fe lecture series from November 2003), discussing topics ranging from genetic determinism, research on IQ, ‘scientific’ racism, to the politics of agricultural research. In his writings and lectures, Lewontin comes across as opinionated and unapologetic, sharp-witted and often sharp-tongued, a man with as much sense of humour (exemplified by the writings of Isidore Nabi) as full of conviction. During his long and fruitful career, most of which was spent at Harvard, Lewontin surrounded himself with scholars from diverse disciplines, and was much admired and beloved by many of his students and colleagues –even if there were, of course, others like Edward O. Wilson who admired him somewhat less. André Ariew, one of the last associates in Lewontin’s lab, describes Lewontin as an excellent philosopher of biology, part of whose lasting legacy is the way he collaborated, mentored and communicated, together with the fertile atmosphere he fostered in his lab. Lewontin was, in his words, very generous with his time, non-hierarchical, inexhaustible, kind and, above all, a mensch.

The news of Lewontin’s passing shook me deeply, surprisingly so considering both his advanced age and the fact that I have never even met him. As a first-year doctoral student, struggling to make sense of my very rudimentary ideas and the sea of literature sprawling in front of me, I came across the brilliant Biology as Ideology. The effect which that little gem of a book had on me and my work I can only attempt to describe as my own personal paradigm shift. Considering the book was hardly fresh from the shelves–and was, in fact, first published a year before I was born–makes this experience even more noteworthy. It can only be seen as a testament to the book’s sharpness, originality and enduring relevance that the ideas I encountered on those yellowed pages had such a mesmerising effect.

Published seven years before Biology as Ideology, The Dialectical Biologist, co-written with the late ecologist Richard Levins, discusses many of the same topics. The latter is comparably more technical, not to mention more than twice as thick. Rather than presenting us with a strictly coherent whole, the book is a representative collection of essays on various topics, all of which illustrate doing biology in a self-consciously dialectical way, which the authors claim has been ignored and suppressed for political reasons.

Levins and Lewontin diagnose the dominant view of nature as a reflection of the nature of social relations in the last six centuries, or ‘the social ideology of bourgeois society,’ according to which individuals are ontologically prior to the social, have their own intrinsic properties, and create social interactions as they collide (1). Thus, to understand society it is necessary to analyse the properties of individuals, since, after all, the society is taken to be just the outcome of the individual activities of the individuals that are taken to make it up. The claim is that this ‘bourgeois view of nature’ was explicitly formulated in Descartes’ Discours, making the science we practice therefore ‘truly Cartesian’ (1). While this Cartesian method of reduction has been successful in various sciences, including physics, chemistry, and several areas of biology, this should not be taken to imply that it truthfully describes the whole of reality. Indeed, the commitment to this method also leads one to overlook the problems and phenomena which do not yield to it easily, such as the structure and the function of the central nervous system and various aspects of development (2-3).

Levins and Lewontin describe four ontological commitments of ‘Cartesian reductionism,’ which all affect knowledge creation (269-70). These amount to the claim that there is a natural set of homogenous parts of which any system is made up, that are all ontologically prior to the whole–that is to say, they all exist independently and come together to make the whole–with their intrinsic properties, which they hold in isolation. Additionally, causes and effects are separate, with causes being the properties of subjects and effects the properties of objects. The world described by these Cartesian principles Levins and Lewontin term the alienated world, ‘in which parts are separated from wholes and reified as things in themselves, causes separated from effects, subjects separated from objects,’ and which ‘mirrors the structure of the alienated social world in which it was conceived,’ according to which individuals are social atoms colliding in the market (269-70).

Levins and Lewontin criticise contemporary science as blind to the fact that social forces influence, and often even dictate, the scientific method, theories and facts (4). Levins and Lewontin ascribe this to the Cartesian social analysis of science which, much like the Cartesian analysis of science, alienates science from society, making scientific method and fact objective and free from social influence (4). In contrast, Levins and Lewontin see science as a social process both caused by and causing social organisation: in their eyes, science is fundamentally political for it is the dominant ideologies that ‘set the tone for the theoretical investigation of phenomena, which then becomes a reinforcing practice for the ideology itself’ (268). In fact, to deny this interpenetration would itself be political, since it would give ‘support to social structures that hide behind scientific objectivity to perpetuate dependency, exploitation, racism, elitism, colonialism’ (4). This line of thought is vividly illustrated by the example of deciding on the cause of tuberculosis (270):

The tubercle bacillus became the cause of tuberculosis, as opposed to, say, unregulated industrial capitalism, because the bacillus was made the point of medical attack on the disease. The alternative would be not a ‘medical’ but a ‘political’ approach to tuberculosis and so not the business of medicine in an alienated social structure. Having identified the bacillus as the cause, a chemotherapy had to be developed to treat it, rather than, say, a social revolution.

Levins and Lewontin are aware of the fact that they too, like other scientists, are not free of preconceptions. However, the authors aim to make their pressupositions explicit, which is why their essays are written from an openly Marxist perspective. In contrast with the Cartesian worldview, Levins and Lewontin present a dialectical world, in which things are ‘assumed from the beginning to be internally heterogeneous at every level’ (72). One way the authors suggest to liberate ourselves from the hold of Cartesian science is to take a better look at our concepts of part and whole (3). Importantly, parts and wholes cannot exist without each other. Parts are defined by the whole and they generally acquire their properties as a consequence of being parts of that particular whole (273), that they would not have on their own or as part of a different whole. In other words, ‘it is not that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, but that the parts acquire new properties’ (3). The other side of the coin is that, as parts acquire new properties, they also impart new properties to the whole, which then affect changes in the parts themselves, and so the process continues. In other words, parts and wholes both evolve as a consequence of their relationship, as does the relationship itself (3). This makes them dialectical: they cannot exist with one another, they acquire their properties from their relation, which evolves due to their interpenetration. In this view, change is central: ‘Because elements recreate each other by interacting and are recreated by the wholes of which they are parts, change is a characteristic of all systems and all aspects of all systems’ (275).

The book is divided in three parts. The first part comprises three essays on evolution, as both a theory and ideology, as well as the question of adaptation and the organism as its subject and object. The three essays in the second part all concern analysis, while the final part illustrates that science is a social product which in turn results in social product. Essays here discuss topics such as the political economy of research in agriculture, pesticides, community health and human nature.

While several of the essays in the collection retain a primarily historical relevance, such as the essays on Lysenkoism and doing applied biology in the ‘Third World,’ most remain socially relevant today. These include the analysis of the penetration of capital into agricultural production (ch.9) and of the myopic and reductive approaches to public health (ch.12), but maybe especially the account of the commoditization of science (ch.8) which rings just as, if not more, true today. Levins and Lewontin describe how research has become a business investment (200) with scientists ‘scientific manpower’ (202) that is ‘increasingly proletarianized’ (202) in the name of cost management. The relation between grants and research has been reversed: ‘whereas initially the grant was a means for research, for the entrepreneurs of science, the research has become the means to a grant’ (204). Scientific publishing has come to depend ‘on the publisher’s and editor’s need to fill the journal and the author’s need to be published in time for tenure review, a job hunt, or a raise,’ while the necessity of publication is rarely questioned (205). Furthermore, Levins and Lewontin characterise a coherent implicit bourgeois ideology among scientists, which is individualist, asserting that ‘progress is made by a few individuals (who just happen to be “us”)’ (205), as well as elitist in a profoundly antidemocratic way, ‘encouraging a cult of expertise, an aesthetic appreciation of manipulation, and a disdain for those who do not make it by the rules of academia’ (206).

On the whole, the reason for The Dialectical Biologist’ s ongoing relevance is not primarily the particular sample of the themes that the essays explore, but rather its radical approach, which remains as disregarded today as in the time of its publication, making the book all the more exceptional and significant. It is this distinctive approach that merits reassessment in the light of the problems we face today in our alienated world.

I would like to thank André Ariew for sharing with me his memories of Dick Lewontin.

Martina Valković is a Research Assistant and a doctoral candidate at Leibniz University Hannover, and a Visiting Researcher at Radboud University Nijmegen. She works on cultural evolution and norms.

https://mronline.org/2022/02/06/richard ... biologist/

As I've said previously, the books mention here should be required reading for a bachelor's degree in Biology. Ya don't get further without mastering these concepts.
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Re: What are you reading?

Post by blindpig » Sun Mar 13, 2022 5:02 pm


The Last Years of Karl Marx: An Intellectual Biography (Book Review)
March 11, 2022
By: Carlos L. Garrido – Mar 7, 2022

Marcello Musto’s The Last Years of Karl Marx: An Intellectual Biography provides an illuminating glance at the work and life of Karl Marx during the most unexamined period of his life. Musto’s oscillation between Marx’s work and life provides readers with both an intellectual allurement towards research in Marx’s later years, a task facilitated by the 1998 resumed publication of the Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe (MEGA2) (which has sense published 27 new volumes and expects to conclude with 114), and with a warm image of Marx’s intimate life sure to guarantee both laughs and tears.

The last few years of Marx’s life were emotionally, physically, and intellectually painful. In this time he had to endure his daughter Eleanor’s extreme depression (she would commit suicide in 1898); the death of his wife Jenny, whose face he said “reawakens the greatest and sweetest memories of [his] life”; the death of his beloved first born daughter, Jenny Caroline (Jennychen); and a lung disease which would keep him sporadically, but for substantial periods, away from his work (96, 98, 122). These conditions, among other interruptions natural to a man of his stature in the international workers movement, made it impossible for him to finish any of his projects, including primarily volumes II and III of Capital, and his third German edition of Capital volume I.

The time he spent with his grandchildren and the small victories the socialist struggle was able to achieve (e.g., the more than 300k votes the German Social Democrats received in 1881 for the new parliament) would give him and Jenny occasional moments of joy (98). A facet of his latter life that might seem surprising was the immense enjoyment he took in mathematics. As Paul Lafargue commented regarding the time when Marx had to endure his wife’s deteriorating health, “the only way in which he could shake off the oppression caused by her sufferings was to plunge into mathematics” (97). What started as a “detour [to] algebra” for the purpose of fixing errors he noticed in the seven notebooks we now know as the Grundrisse, his study of mathematics ended up being a major source of “moral consolation” and what “he took refuge in [during] the most distressing moments of his eventful life” (33, 97).

Regardless of his unconcealed frailty, he left a plethora of rigorous research and notes on subjects as broad as political struggles across Europe, the US, India, and Russia; economics; mathematical fields like differential calculus and algebra; anthropology; history; scientific studies like geology, minerology, and agrarian chemistry; and more. Against the defamation of certain ‘radicals’ in bourgeois academia who lift themselves up by sinking a self-conjured caricature of a ‘Eurocentric’, ‘colonialism sympathizing’, ‘reductive’, and ‘economically deterministic’ Marx, Musto’s study of the late Marx shows that “he was anything but Eurocentric, economistic, or fixated only on class conflict” (4).

Musto’s text also covers the 1972 Lawrence Krader publication of The Ethnological Notebooks of Karl Marx, containing his notebooks on Lewis Henry Morgan’s Ancient Society, John Budd Phear’s The Aryan Village, Henry Sumner Maine’sLectures on the Early History of Institutions, and John Lubbock’s The Origin of Civilisation. Out of these by far the most important was Morgan’s text, which would transform Marx’s views on the family from being the “social unit of the old tribal system” to being the “germ not only of slavery but also serfdom” (27). Morgan’s text would also strengthen the view on the state Marx had since his 1843 Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, namely, that the state is a historical (not natural) “power subjugating society, a force preventing the full emancipation of the individual” (31). The state’s nature, as Marx and Engels thought and Morgan confirmed, is “parasitic and transitory” (Ibid.). The studies of Morgan’s Ancient Society and other leading anthropologist would also be taken up by Engels who, pulling from some of Marx’s notes, would publish in 1884 The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, a seminal text in the classical Marxist corpus.

More unknown in Marxist scholarship are his notebooks on the Russian anthropologist Maksim Kovalevsky’s (one of his close “scientific friends”) book Communal Landownership: The Causes, Course and Consequences of its Decline. Its unstudied character is due to the fact that it had, until almost a decade ago, been only available to those who could access the B140 file of Marx’s work in the International Institute of Social History in the Netherlands. This changed with the Spanish publication in Bolivia of Karl Marx: Escritos sobre la Comunidad Ancestral (Writings on the Ancestral Community) which contained Marx’s “Cuadernos Kovalevsky” (Kovalevsky Notebooks). Although appreciative of his studies of Pre-Columbian America (Aztec and Inca empires) and India, Marx was critical of Kovalevsky’s projections of European categories to these regions, and “reproach[ed] him for homogenizing two distinct phenomena” (20). As Musto notes, “Marx was highly skeptical about the transfer of interpretive categories between completely different historical and geographical contexts” (Ibid.).

The study of Marx’s political writings has usually been limited to the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), the “Critique of the Gotha Program” (1875), and The Civil War in France (1871). Musto’s book, in its limited space, goes beyond these customary texts and highlights the importance of Marx’s role in the socialist movements in Germany, France, and Russia. This includes, for instance, his involvement in the French 1880 Electoral Programme of the Socialist Workers and the Workers’ Questionnaire. The program included the involvement of workers themselves, which led Marx to exclaim that this was “the first real workers’ movement in France” (46). The 101-point questionnaire contained questions about the conditions of employment and payment of workers and was aimed at providing a mass survey of the conditions of the French working class.

Concerning Marx’s political writings, Musto’s text also includes Marx’s critiques of the prominent American economist Henry George; his condemnations of the Sinophobic Dennis Kearney, the leader of the Workingmen’s Party of California; his condemnations of British colonialism in India and Ireland and his praise of Irish nationalist Charles Parnell. In each case, Musto stresses the importance Marx laid on the concrete study of the unique conditions pertaining to each struggle. There was no universal formula to be applied in all places and at all times. However, out of all of his political engagements, the most important of his involvements would be in Russia, where his considerations on the revolutionary potential of the rural communes (obshchina) would have a tremendous influence on their socialist movement.

Russian socialist philosopher Nikolay Chernyshevsky (1828 – 1889)

​In 1869 Marx began to learn Russian “in order to study the changes taking place in the tsarist empire” (12). All throughout the 1870s he dedicated himself to studying the agrarian conditions in Russia. As Engels jokingly tells him in an 1876 letter after Marx recommended him to take down Eugene Dühring,

You can lie in a warm bed studying Russian agrarian conditions in general and ground rent in particular, without being interrupted, but I am expected to put everything else on one side immediately, to find a hard chair, to swill some cold wine, and to devote myself to going after the scalp of that dreary fellow Dühring

​Out of his studies, he held the Russian socialist philosopher Nikolai Chernyshevsky in highest esteem. He said he was “familiar with a major part of his writing” and considered his work as “excellent” (50). Marx even considered “’publishing something’ about Chernyshevsky’s ‘life and personality, so as to create some interest in him in the West’” (Ibid.). Concerning Chernyshevsky’s work, what influenced Marx the most was his assessment that “in some parts of the world, economic development could bypass the capitalist mode of production and the terrible social consequences it had had for the working class in Western Europe” (Ibid.).

Chernyshevsky held that

When a social phenomenon has reached a high level of development in one nation, its progression to that stage in another, more backward nation may occur rather more quickly than it did in the advanced nation (Ibid.).

​For Chernyshevsky, the development of a ‘backwards’ nation did not need to pass through all the “intermediate stages” required for the advanced nation; instead, he argued “acceleration takes place thanks to the contact that the backward nation has with the advanced nation” (51). History for him was “like a grandmother, terribly fond of its smallest grandchildren. To latecomers it [gave] not the bones but the marrow” (53).

Chernyshevsky’s assessment began to open Marx to the possibility that under certain conditions, capitalism’s universalization was not necessary for a socialist society. This was an amendment, not a radical break (as certain third world Marxists and transmodernity theorists like Enrique Dussel have argued) with the traditional Marxist interpretation of the necessary role capitalism plays in creating, through its immanent contradictions, the conditions for the possibility of socialism.In 1877 Marx wrote an unsent letter to the Russian paper Patriotic Notes replying to an article entitled “Karl Marx Before the Tribunal of Mr. Zhukovsky” written by Nikolai Mikhailovsky, a literary critic of the liberal wing of the Russian populists. In his article Mikhailovsky argued that​

A Russian disciple of Marx… must reduce himself to the role of an onlooker… If he really shares Marx’s historical-philosophical views, he should be pleased to see the producers being divorced from the means of production, he should treat this divorce as the first phase of the inevitable and, in the final result, beneficial process (60)

This was not, however, a comment from left field, most Russian Marxists at the time also thought the Marxist position was that a period of capitalism was necessary for socialism to be possible in Russia. Further, Marx had also polemicized in the appendix to the first German edition of Capital against Alexander Herzen, a proponent of the view that “Russian people [were] naturally predisposed to communism” (61). His unsent letter, nonetheless, criticizes Mikhailovsky for “transforming [his] historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe into a historico-philosophical theory of the general course fatally imposed on all peoples, whatever the historical circumstances in which they find themselves” (64).

It is in this context that the famous 1881 letter from the Russian revolutionary Vera Zasulich must be read. In this letter she asks him the “life or death question” upon which his answer the “personal fate of [Russian] revolutionary socialists depended” (53). The question centered around whether the Russian obshchina is “capable of developing in a socialist direction” (Ibid.). On the one hand, a faction of the populists argued that the obshchina was capable of “gradually organizing its production and distribution on a collectivist basis,” and that hence, socialists “must devote all [their] strength to the liberation and development of the commune” (54).

On the other hand, Zasulich mentions that those who considered themselves Marx’s “disciples par excellence” held the view that “the commune is destined to perish,” that capitalism must take root in Russia for socialism to become a possibility (54).Marx drew up four draft replies to Zasulich, three long ones and the final short one he would send out. In his reply he repeated the sentiment he had expressed in his unpublished reply of Mikhailovsky’s article, namely, that he had “expressly restricted… the historical inevitability’ of the passage from feudalism to capitalism to ‘the countries of Western Europe’” (65). If capitalism took root in Russia, “it would not be because of some historical predestination” (66). It was then, he argued, completely possible for Russia – through the obshchina – to avoid the fate history afforded Western Europe. If the obshchina, through Russia’s link to the world market – “appropriate[d] the positive results of [the capitalist] mode of production, it is thus in a position to develop and transform the still archaic form of its rural commune, instead of destroying it” (67).

In essence, if the internal and external contradictions of the obshchina could be sublated through its incorporation of the advanced productive forces that had already developed in Western European capitalism, then the obshchinacould develop a socialism grounded on its appropriation of productive forces in a manner not antagonistic to its communistic social relations. Marx would then, in the spirit of Chernyshevsky, side with Zasulich on the revolutionary potential of the obshchina and argue for the possibility of Russia not only skipping stages but incorporating the productive fruits of Western European capitalism while rejecting its evils. This sentiment is repeated in his and Engels’ preface to the second Russian edition of the Manifesto of the Communist Party, which would be published on its own in the Russian populist magazine People’s Will.


​Musto’s text also provides an exceptional picture of the largely unexamined 72 days Marx spent in Algiers, “the only time in his life that he spent outside of Europe” (104). This trip came at the recommendation of his doctor, who was constantly moving him around in search of climates more favorable to his health condition. Eleanor recalled that Marx warmed up to the idea of the trip because he thought the favorable climate could create the conditions to restore his health and finish Capital. She said that “if he had been more egoistic, he would have simply allowed things to take their course. But for him one thing stood above all else: devotion to the cause” (103).

The Algerian weather was not as expected, and his condition would not improve to a shape where he could return to his work. Nonetheless, the letters from his time in Algiers provide interesting comments about the social relations he experienced. For instance, in a letter to Engels he mentions the haughtiness with which the “European colonist dwells among the ‘lesser breeds,’ either as a settler or simply on business, he generally regards himself as even more inviolable than handsome William I” (109). After having experienced “a group of Arabs playing cards, ‘some of them dressed pretentiously, even richly” and others poorly, he commented in a letter to his daughter Laura that “for a ‘true Muslim’… such accidents, good or bad luck, do not distinguish Mahomet’s children,” the general atmosphere between the Muslims was of “absolute equality in their social intercourse” (108-9).

Marx also commented on the brutalities of the French authorities and on certain Arab customs, including in a letter to Laura an amusing story about a philosopher and a fisherman which “greatly appealed to his practical side” (110). His letters from Algiers add to the plethora of other evidence against the thesis, stemming from pseudo-radical western bourgeois academia, that Marx was a sympathizer of European colonialism.

Shortly after his return from his trip Marx’s health continued to deteriorate. The combination of his bed-ridden state and Jennychen’s death made his last weeks agonizing. The melancholic character of this time is captured in the last writing Marx ever did, a letter to Dr. Williamson saying “I find some relief in a grim headache. Physical pain is the only ‘stunner’ of mental pain” (123). A couple months after writing this, on March 14th, 1883, Marx would pass away. Recounting the distress of the experience of finding his life-long friend and comrade dead, Engels wrote in a letter to Friedrich Sorge an Epicurean dictum Marx often repeated – “death is not a misfortune for the one that dies but for the one that survives” (124).

In sum, it would be impossible to do justice, in such limited space, to such a magnificent work of Marxist scholarship. However, I hope I have been able to clarify some of the reasons why Musto is right to lay such seminal importance on this last, often overlooked, period of Marx’s life and work.


Chernyshevsky was the author of What is to be Done (1863), a title V. I. Lenin would take up again in 1902.

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Re: What are you reading?

Post by blindpig » Tue Mar 15, 2022 1:42 pm


The enduring importance of Eric Williams’ “Capitalism and Slavery”
Originally published: Areo Magazine by Ralph Leonard (March 10, 2022 ) | - Posted Mar 14, 2022

As a new generation grapples with the effects of racism and capitalism, it is no surprise that Penguin Modern Classics has been publishing new editions of classic texts authored by black radical thinkers: Frantz Fanon’s Black Skins, White Masks (first published in 1952); Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism (first published in 1983); and, most recently, Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery.

First published in 1944, Capitalism and Slavery is an investigation of the notorious relationship between the Atlantic slave trade and the emergence of European industrial capitalism from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries. Williams, a black West Indian scholar who later served for nearly two decades as Trinidad and Tobago’s first prime minister, wrote the book during an era in which there was still apartheid in the US and South Africa, and global decolonization had not yet appeared on the horizon; thus, the book is also a lesson in twentieth-century history.

Capitalism and Slavery is based on Williams’ 1938 dissertation, written when he was a graduate student at the University of Oxford: “The Economic Aspect of the Abolition of the British West Indian Slave Trade and Slavery.” He describes it as an “economic study of the role of Negro slavery and the slave trade in providing the capital which financed the industrial revolution in England and of mature industrial capitalism in destroying the slave system.” The book quickly took its place alongside works such as C. L. R. James’ Black Jacobins and W. E. B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction and did much to expand people’s understanding of the history of slavery and its abolition—and the significant role that black labour, in the form of chattel slavery, played in building modern western civilisation.

Williams’ thesis was inspired by Karl Marx’s striking—though underdeveloped—theory of so-called primitive accumulation: Marx believed that the emergence of capitalism was not a peaceful or benign process: it began by forcibly taking land away from people—or taking people away from their land—thus depriving them of their original source of livelihood and forcing them to survive by providing cheap labour for businesses owned by other people. In the nineteenth century, as Marx observed, this process fed the emerging factory system in Europe. Williams notes that, when European colonisation of the Americas quickly led to a drastic reduction in the number of indigenous peoples (mostly due to the spread of smallpox, estimated to have killed 90% of the native population), this created an economic incentive to develop the global slave market in order to supply the colonists with cheap labour for their businesses. In this way, as Marx notes, “the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins signalled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.”

Williams makes three arguments in Capitalism and Slavery. One is that slavery has become “too narrowly identified with the Negro.” In the beginning, he notes, “unfree labor in the New World was brown, white, black and yellow; Catholic, Protestant and pagan.” However, eventually, the use of enslaved African labour became dominant—for a variety of reasons (for example, Williams notes, “Escape was easy for the white servant; less easy for the Negro,” who was “conspicuous by his color and features” and “the Negro slave was cheaper”). As a result, slavery in the Americas became racialised, he argues—synonymous with the African—and this gave rise to dehumanising rationalisations for slavery, based on supposed racial inferiority. In this way, as Williams puts it, a “racial twist” had been added to what was originally an “economic phenomenon … Slavery was not born of racism; rather, racism [against blacks in America] was the consequence of slavery.”

Williams’ second argument is about the causes and effects of the so-called triangular trade between Europe, Africa and the New World. European slave ships sailed to Africa, where they supplied local inhabitants with European manufactured goods in exchange for kidnapped Africans; the ships then carried these kidnapped Africans to the Americas, where plantation owners bought them to hold as slaves—providing the European traders, as payment, with sugar, cotton, molasses and other New World products, which the European traders then transported to Europe, and sold for cash.

Williams argues persuasively that the profits generated by this slave trade “made an enormous contribution to Britain’s industrial development.” Those profits were the capital needed to invest in developing new technologies and new means of production in Britain, thus spurring the industrial revolution that made it possible to develop what became the modern capitalist economy. While Williams’ work focuses primarily on the impact of the slave trade on the British economy, the slave trade had a similar impact on the economy of continental Europe, as the historian Robin Blackburn demonstrates in his excellent 2010 book, The Making of New World Slavery. Blackburn bolsters and extends Williams’ argument by demonstrating the important role of the slave trade, beginning in the era of pre-industrial mercantile capitalism, in supplying New World goods not only to consumers in Britain, but also to Europeans (particularly in Holland). He points out that this created a widespread and growing demand for these exotic products, leading to the emergence of robust consumer markets, which in turn generated capital that funded the industrial revolution. Blackburn also notes that profits from the slave trade helped to fund all manner of British projects: to endow “All Souls College, Oxford, with a splendid library, to build a score of banks, including Barclays, and to finance the experiments of James Watt, inventor of the first really efficient steam engine.” Merchant bankers also invested some of their profits from the slave trade in the cotton textile industry, in metal manufacturing, in shipbuilding and in the building of roads, canals, wharves and harbours.

Williams’ third argument is a repudiation of the idea—commonplace at the time he was writing—that British abolitionists played a central and heroic role in ending the Atlantic slave trade. He argues that slavery was abolished for economic rather than humanitarian reasons, noting that British abolitionist sentiment arose only after economic conditions changed: the plantation economy in the Caribbean had begun to decline, industrial capitalism had firmly taken root, the mercantile monopoly capitalism of earlier centuries had given way to what was seen as a more efficient and less capital-intensive method of producing goods—and thus the slave trade had become unprofitable.

In an effort to get Capitalism and Slavery published in England, Williams approached the country’s most politically radical publisher, Frederic Warburg, who had published Orwell’s Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four and C. L. R. James’ Black Jacobins. However, Warburg declined to publish the book because, he said, Williams’ claim that the British supported the abolition of slavery for economic rather than humanitarian reasons ran “contrary to the British tradition,” adding: “I would never publish such a book.” Thus, although the book was published in the US in 1944, it was not published in Britain until 1964.

Critics have long complained that Williams was too enamoured with economic determinism, and that his argument about the abolitionists’ motives is cynical and reductionist. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that at the time Williams was writing, most scholars ignored the extent to which the change in economic conditions had made possible the rise of abolitionism. The focus of the time was on the heroism of the abolitionists, and on the idea that they were valiant dissidents who had won an uphill battle against the powerful plantation oligarchy of the West Indies, to eventually bring about the passage of the 1806–7 laws that ended Britain’s direct involvement in the slave trade and the 1833 legislation that made it illegal for British people to own slaves. This narrative arguably encouraged British citizens to believe that Britain was an unalloyed force for good in the world, providing cover for British imperialists to impose oppressive practices in foreign countries without losing domestic support. It conveniently elided the fact that the British empire had supported the Confederacy during the American Civil War—presumably because it was economically dependent on access to US cotton, which was produced by slave labour—and that, from 1833 to 1917, British-run plantations relied on South Asian forced labour in a way that was arguably as brutal as American slavery. Moreover, as Williams points out, some prominent abolitionists were hardly humanitarians. For example, William Wilberforce’s Society for the Suppression of Vice and Encouragement of Religion actively opposed the trade union movement, and the demands of the nascent working class for political and labour rights. As Williams puts it, sardonically, Wilberforce “was familiar with all that went on in the hold of a slave ship but ignored what went on at the bottom of a mineshaft.”

Of course, one can reject the self-serving nationalist myth of British imperial humanitarianism, and the claim that abolitionist agitation was the sole (or even dominant) cause of the end of slavery, and still acknowledge that the abolitionist movement contributed to ending it, and that the movement was infused with popular energy and strongly motivated by ideals of liberty and common humanity. As one example of the democratic universalist sentiment that helped power the abolitionist movement, the historian Adam Hochschild, in his 2005 book, Bury the Chains, describes a public meeting in 1794, in Sheffield, England—ironically one of the cities that greatly benefitted financially from the slave trade—which was attended by thousands of local metal workers who were calling for “the total and unqualified abolition of Negro slavery” and for action to “avenge peacefully ages of wrongs done to our Negro brethren.”

Nor does Williams fail to acknowledge the contribution of the abolitionists: indeed, he notes that to do so would be to “commit a grave historical error.” Rather, his point is that abolitionist sentiment would have had a negligible effect had it arisen in the earlier era of mercantile capitalism, when every national political and economic interest seemed to be supported by slavery. For example, in The Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith provides an exhaustive list of the reasons that slavery is a bad system on which to base an economy—not only for moral reasons, but for economic ones—and yet he was pessimistic about the prospects of abolition. This pessimism made sense from his standpoint: the institution of slavery had existed across many cultures, and throughout many eras, and every powerful political and mercantile interest of his time supported it.

So, what changed to make the abolition of slavery possible? There was no single cause: the political and economic consensus that sustained slavery in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had begun to dissipate by the early nineteenth century for many reasons: Enlightenment ideas about liberty began to spread, especially after the French revolution; the Haitian revolution at the end of the eighteenth century prompted more frequent and more intense slave rebellions, making the plantation system more costly; the needs of capitalism changed as it transitioned from mercantilism to industrialism; there was a growing abolitionist movement in the west; and there was inter-imperialist conflict between Britain and France (and to a lesser extent, Spain) that led to British maritime dominance, allowing Britain to blockade French trade, including the slave trade. Nevertheless, Williams was right to highlight the contribution of changing economic conditions, because in the absence of those changes, the abolitionist movement would have been unlikely to have had as much influence as it did.

Although few today argue that the effort to fuel capitalist economies played no role in supporting the institution of slavery, historians and pundits continue to debate how central that role was. Although many of them cite Williams as having argued that slavery was entirely fuelled by capitalist goals, they often fail to recognise that he also argued that industrial capitalism eventually destroyed slavery. Williams viewed slavery as crucial for pre-industrial mercantile capitalism, but argued that it was mature industrial capitalism that made slavery obsolete: he presents the demise of British mercantilism, of the late-eighteenth century coalition known as the West India Interest, and of the plantation class in the Caribbean as examples of how industrialism and free trade initiated a process of creative destruction of the slave system. He argues that industrial capitalism—a system more dynamic, innovative, productive and efficient than any previous economic regime—did not make the abolition of slavery inevitable. But it did, he writes, make it possible.

Capitalism and Slavery challenges the self-serving British imperialist narrative that admiringly characterised the historical perpetrators of slavery as having “overcome” their past, and in so doing, it became an enduring manifesto for anti-imperialism. Though complex and deep, it is succinct and tautly written. To this day, Williams’ work figures prominently in debates about the degree to which the emergence of capitalism and bourgeois society was shaped by the Atlantic slave trade. Whether one accepts his thesis or not, Capitalism and Slavery continues to be one of the strongest influences on those debates, and is one of the most original, creative and powerful history books that has ever been written. All those who are curious about this topic should have it on their bookshelves.

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