Ellen Meiksins Wood on Post-Marxism

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


Louis:

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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