[Marxism] Russell Jacoby versus Eric Lott

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Mar 24 13:25:50 MST 2006

There's a rather negative book review of Eric Lott's "The Disappearing 
Liberal Intellectual" in the latest Nation Magazine by Russell 
Jacoby pokes fun at what he sees as Lott's academic pretensions, even if 
they are ostensibly tied to a worthy goal, namely carving out "a space for 
radicals to the left of detestable 'boomer liberals,' who have seized the 
limelight and distorted politics."

These 'boomer liberals' include Todd Gitlin, Michael Lind, Joe Klein, 
Martha Nussbaum, Paul Berman, Stanley Crouch, Greil Marcus, Sean Wilentz 
and Henry Louis Gates Jr. I myself am not sure about Stanley Crouch's 
"liberalism" since most of his writing nowadays seems consumed with bashing 
Black Nationalism and making the ideas of Booker T. Washington popular once 
again. On most days, Crouch sounds dismayingly like Clarence Thomas--that 
is, if Thomas actually would ever *say anything*.

Summarizing Lott's thesis, Jacoby puts it this way:

 >>For Lott this "new liberal front" oozes with a "piecemeal, reformist 
self-satisfaction." The new reformers represent a "bone headed degeneration 
of the radical spirit." They have "created the political fog that obscured 
the left from view" and buried the "liberal alternative to hawkish 
conservatism." These liberals pander to state power and American 
nationalism. They yearn for the "old-boys' left" that was largely white and 
that claimed to be universal. Their work is "anti-corporate" rather than 
anticapitalist. (Disclosure alert: Along with Mark Crispin Miller and 
Thomas Frank, I am listed as suffering from this particular ailment.) They 
turn politics into adjuncts of the John Kerry presidential bid. They are a 
"secret sharer of neoconservative ideology," and they legitimate the Bush 
White House and its politics. They constitute an intellectual and political 

I don't know. This sounds like a book that should have been written long 
ago. Lott obviously has a handle on the Dissentoid left and anybody else 
who wants to turn back the clock to a New Deal type politics that long ago 
lost any objective basis for its existence, if one ever existed.

Since Jacoby is a sworn enemy of post-Marxism and anything remotely 
smacking of academic obscurantism (he was seen as an ally of Alan Sokal in 
a Lingua Franca article on the fight against jargon, while Lott has taken 
Sokal down a notch or two in the pages of the Village Voice: 
it is to be expected that he would attempt to smear Lott with alleged 
connections to figures such as Etienne Balibar (frankly, there are much 
worse than Balibar) and a propensity for terms like "intersectionality" and 
"the praxis potential of antinormativity." Frankly, with what I have 
learned about Alan Sokal and his anti-postmodernist rightwing allies over 
the past 8 years or so, I am more inclined to line up with the winners of 
Denis Dutton's Bad Writing Contests of yore.

Improbably invoking Lenin, Jacoby suggests that Lott's work smacks of 
'infantile leftism,' but when "Lenin used the term he was referring to new 
political parties, not professorial posturing." I don't quite know how to 
put this, but there should be a law against somebody like Russell Jacoby 
invoking Lenin. This is what the Turks call chutzpah.

But you can really figure out where Jacoby is coming from through his 
defense of Todd Gitlin's and other "old fogies" call for a "universal 
left." Let's get something straight. This "universal left" has nothing to 
do with reconstituting the Communist International. All it is a call for 
rebuilding the Labor-Civil Rights-Democratic Party coalition under the 
leadership of a latter-day Hubert Humphrey. Gitlin voted for Humphrey in 
1968 and will never forgive the radical movement for telling the truth 
about Humphrey, namely that he was a warmonger and a corporate stooge.

Russell Jacoby is coming from the same place ideologically as Gitlin and 
others who have complained about how multiculturalism (ie, uppity women, 
gays and Blacks) alienates blue collar workers from voting Democrat. It is 
really a tiresome litany that has appeared in many guises, from Gitlin's 
"The Twilight of Common Dreams" to Robert Hughes's "The Culture of Complaint."

I think that Eric Lott has it right. In many ways, the "culture wars" 
involving postmodernism and its detractors (Russell Jacoby, Alan Sokal, et 
al) are basically reflecting genuine problems facing the mass movement that 
have to be resolved in order for fundamental change to occur in American 
society. They are actually not new debates, since Marxism has always had to 
grapple with tendencies within it that pit some "universal" working class 
against "sectoral" impediments thrown up by forces outside the point of 
production. In a previous lifetime, I used to refer to this phenomenon as 
"workerism" and it is unpalatable coming from within the dogmatic left or 
from tenured professors like Russell Jacoby



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