Ellen Meiksins Wood on Post-Marxism

Louis N Proyect lnp3 at columbia.edu
Wed Oct 4 13:54:56 MDT 1995


The new capitalism has its expression, too, in the altered prospects and
aspirations of university students. Lin Chun and Greg Elliott both
concluded their discussions of the British New Left with a reference to
Jonathan Ree's comment in 1974 that 'the socialist intellectual
youngsters occupy the buildings, while the socialist intellectual
oldsters occupy the chairs'. For Lin Chun, this is a comment on the
confinement of modern radicalism in the West to the academy, both
then and now. For Greg Elliott, Ree's observation highlights the
difference between then and now. 'Updated for New Times,' he nicely
observes, 'Ree's verdict might read: the post-modernist oldsters occupy
the chairs, while the environmentalist youngsters are preoccupied with
making ends meet.'

And that about sums it up. Some of yesterday's militant youngsters are
today's post-modernist chair-holding oldsters. If their high aspirations
yesterday to change (if not to rule) the world have failed to
materialize, their hopes of a comfortable career have at least been
fulfilled. Their-- I should say our-- students today can barely hope for
a decent job, never mind thinking about leading a cultural revolution.
If there ever was a proletarianization of students, this is it, as
overcrowded and underfunded universities house students many of
whom (especially in North America) are already part-time wage-
earners, and for whom a university education has become both more
economically essential and increasingly irrelevant, a necessary but far
from sufficient condition of life-time employment.

The current theoretical fashions are very far removed from these
realities. They are not about the new world order since 1989, nor even
about the long-term trends in capitalist development since the late
1970s. What passes for the very up-to-date looks less like a
confrontation with the eighties and nineties than the agenda of the
sixties running its course. At the very time that capitalism exerts its
totalizing logic on the whole 'new world order', the most fashionable
left intellectuals, cultivating their varied and fragmented patches of
discourse and difference, claim the supremacy of their discursive
practices while ruling out any form of 'totalizing' knowledge that
might be adequate to comprehend the operations of the capitalist
system. They even deny its systematic totality, its very existence as a
system, while still, paradoxically, accepting, at least by default, the
unversality and eternity of 'the market'. As the expanding logic of that
'market' creates increasing strains along the fault lines of class, we are
enjoined to pursue the fragmented 'politics of identity', with little hope
of anything more than the most particularistic and local resistances
within the interstices of capitalism.

To confront today's realities requires striking out in new directions. At
the same time, while the new conditions of contemporary capitalism
require new analyses, we should not make the mistake, as Raymond
Williams tells us the younger New Left did, of underestimating
everything that has not changed in the capitalist system. If, as now
seems very likely, the rising tide of capitalist prosperity in the fifties
and sixties proves to be an aberration, it also seems likely that in our
present condition we shall get more guidance from those who
remember the thirties and forties than from those whose ideas are
deeply rooted in an ascendant capitalism, or from the post-modern
successors who have yet to catch up with the present, let alone look to
the future.

(concluding paragraphs of Ellen Meiksins Wood's "A Chronology of
the New Left and Its Successors, or Who's Old-fashioned Now?", in
the newly published Socialist Register 1995)

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