Final exchange with "Bad Subjects" editor

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Thu Nov 18 08:36:37 MST 1999

>in it, but I'm glad that they are presented together. Our goal was to
>include a diversity of opinion on the state of the Marxian legacy and I
>think we did an admirable job of achieving it.

Charlie, the Marxian legacy is something very much on my mind as moderator
of a Marxism mailing list with over 220 subscribers.

To make a long story short, I think that Marx was not just an analyst of
bourgeois society, but an activist who was driven by the need to organize
the working-class politically. That is my background as well. I spent 11
years in the Trotskyist movement from 1967 to 78. After that I worked with
ex-Trotskyists and Maoists to start a new non-sectarian Marxist
organization. Our efforts overlapped with those of the people who would
launch both Committees of Correspondence and Solidarity. Although I am not
a member of either group, I applaud their work.

The postmodernist legacy has had an unfortunate legacy on many young people
who, while being appalled by capitalism, consider themselves too smart to
make the "dumb mistakes" of "conservative Marxists" like ourselves. That's
the spirit that permeates the articles; you "won't get fooled again"--as
the Who put it. When you mix together postmodernism and irony, you are
almost by necessity compelled to reject party building ambitions as both
oppressive and oppressing. In the Foucauldian sense, the only legitimate
resistance is that which does not pose political power as a goal.

I think postmodernism in itself would be harmless and have enjoyed Philip
Johnson's buildings while strolling about Manhattan. I also relished a
recent performance of Schoenberg's "Moses und Aron" that was a
postmodernist tour de force (the golden calf was a rotting carcass bedecked
with Rolex watches.)

But when you mix postmodernism with Marxism, you subvert Marx's purpose
which was to unite all people, regardless of gender, ethnicity or sexual
preference, into a party that can effectively challenge the rule of
capital. The ruling class we face is not generally characterized by
skepticism and a playful sense of irony. It is militant and single-minded.
To meet them head on, we need to inculcate the same spirit in Marxism.

Basically, this marriage of postmodernism and Marxism can be analyzed in
class terms. It is the direct result of big capital's ability to influence
political and intellectual developments on the left through the medium of
university endowments. In the absence of a healthy and vibrant working
class movement, conferences of the sort sponsored by Rick Wolff become a
surrogate for what's really needed. The same thing is true with the rafter
of journals that set the tone for the academic left. If you removed the
funding, they would wither on the vine.

The Bad Subjects articles were preoccupied with the collapse of "official
communism". It is important to understand that the articles themselves were
dialectially related to this collapse. Postmodernist Marxism of the sort
that Rick Wolff puts forward is a symptom of decay of the working class
movement. When the working class movement is in the ascendancy, as it was
in the 1930s and 60s, intellectuals and artists tend to be inspired by a
vision of emancipation. In such a climate, skepticism and a playful sense
of irony can hardly be noticed at all. Basically, the Bad Subjects folks
strike me as a well-meaning but rudderless group that would leap in the
direction of the first upsurge of the working class movement. I suspect
that those days are closer than we dream, so let's stay friends until then.

Louis Proyect



That was an articulate and illuminating reply, so I'll take this "off
list" as it were.

Basically, I can see why you might read the issue as being an example of
"postmodern Marxism," but would counter with three points:

A) I'm not as convinced as you are that post-structuralism has nothing to
contribute to a Marx-based movement. I would agree that, if we followed
Foucault, Derrida etc. to the letter that there would be a basic
incompatibility between their positions and one still committed to a
Marxist agenda. Laclau and Mouffe pretty much demonstrate this problem.
But I'm not interested in following their ideas to their logical
conclusions. I may be a heretical Marxist but I'm certainly a heretical
post-structuralist. I think that a little post-structuralism goes a long
way towards throwing certain basic problems of any discourse -- including
Marxian theory (or theories) -- into sharp relief. This is how I use
post-structralist ideas: as a tool. I'm not afraid to bring on the
ideological closure when it's called for strategically.

B) *Bad Subjects* began as an attempt to critique the mainstream
multiculturalism of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and with it the
postmodern/post-structuralist ideas which helped to rationalize it. If
you look back at our early issues -- try #1, #3, #7, and #14 -- you'll
get a different sense of where we're coming from. We have softened over
the years, largely as a result of the influx of new members and a wider
range of contacts worldwide. It's hard to run a democratic organization
while enforcing an intellectual party line. But I think you'd find that,
even today, more of our regular contributors agree with you about the
problems of "postmodern" politics than you might initially believe.

C) The *KMY2K* issue has a particularly critical feel w/ regard to
"conservative" Marxism (as you call it) because several of the
contributors and my co-editor have had concrete experience of life in
Communist states or their ruins. I don't think it makes much sense to
refer to someone like Eva Pagacz or Viet Nguyen as "postmodern" merely
because they have ambivalent feelings about Marxism. I'm not one of those
people who thinks that life in the so-called Eastern Bloc was as bad as
Western propaganda would have us believe. But it seems pretty clear that
communist states like the USSR had some pretty serious problems.

Anyway, thanks for the thought-provoking exchange.



Louis Proyect

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