[Marxism] Shades of Alan Sokal?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jul 25 15:28:56 MDT 2011

On 7/25/11 5:23 PM, Sergii Kutnii wrote:
> Well, "there is something reactionary" - I have the same feeling about this
> anti-postmodern sentiment - but the question is what exactly.

This post has touched off a big debate on PEN-L. I just posted this for 


Dear Richard and Brett,

I was glad to see your commemoration of the 25th anniversary of Stephen 
Jay Gould’s “Mismeasure of Man” in the current Monthly Review, 
especially as it resonates with Cliff Conner’s “People’s History of 
Science”, a book that I am about 1/3 the way through now. Cliff’s book 
can be described as a marriage of Stephen Jay Gould and Howard Zinn and 
it doesn’t get much better than that.

I do want to raise an issue that is close to my heart, namely your 
linking of Alan Sokal to the project of rescuing science from 
postmodernist obfuscation. As an old friend of Alan’s, as president of 
the board of the nonprofit that placed him in Nicaragua and as a 
long-time opponent of postmodernism, I was initially excited–as most 
socialists were–by his hoodwinking of Social Text.

Now with the clarity afforded to me by hindsight, I have a somewhat 
different take on the whole affair.

To start with, it is important to acknowledge that the Social Text 
issue, that was devoted to the “science wars” and which published Alan’s 
spoof, was itself a response to a conference held at NYU on the topic. 
Norman Levitt, who Alan describes as a social democrat, was the chief 
organizer but funding came from the ultraright Olin Foundation.

In your footnote on Sokal, you quite rightfully place some distance 
between him on one hand and Norman Levitt and Paul Gross on the other. I 
am much more familiar with Levitt’s reputation but assume that Paul 
Gross has pretty much the same ax to grind. You put it this way:

“Paul Gross and Norman Levitt’s book Higher Superstition: The Academic 
Left and Its Quarrels with Science, published in 1994, in part inspired 
Sokal to perform his hoax. Gross and Levitt deserve credit for rightly 
criticizing some anti-science scholars, but, unfortunately, present only 
a partial truth, in that they fail to seriously acknowledge the strong 
anti-science tendencies of the right and the long tradition on the left 
of commitment to reason.”

I think it is important to understand that Norman Levitt is actually 
part of the right, although not the Christian/Republican right. Surely 
the Olin Foundation has a way of discerning who is promoting their 
agenda. If Levitt would not be caught dead being associated with 
“intelligent design”, he has had a long and sordid record supporting 
corporate domination in the name of science. For this sector of the 
right, DDT, nuclear energy, GM crops, etc. are the salvation of humanity.

Levitt can be placed ideologically on the libertarian right that 
includes Virginia Postrel’s “Reason” magazine and spiked-online, a 
publication associated with the same crew that used to put out LM 
magazine. Levitt, Postrel and the spiked-online people mounted a 
conference at the New School about 5 years ago that warned about fear of 
risk. In their eyes, worrying about Frankenfood is the same thing as 
worrying about Friday the 13th.

In a recent article in spiked-online, Levitt lashed out at the academic 
left in terms found on David Horowitz’s Frontpage. He warns that some 
professor might be fired for “Suggesting that affirmative action might 
conflict with other standards of justice and equity, or that opponents 
of affirmative action are not ipso facto Klansmen waiting for their 
white sheets to come back from the laundry.” As far-fetched as this 
seems, he really believes it. He also believes that your own university, 
the University of Oregon, is a spawning ground for such threats to 
academic freedom, especially under the auspices of ‘cultural 
competence’, a program designed to ensure that the school respect 
diverse cultures. This program has infuriated Horowitz, the Murdoch 
press and all the other usual suspects.

It should not be assumed that it is easy to distinguish between the 
libertarian right’s enmity toward postmodernism and our own agenda as 
socialists. Back in 1997, MR published something called “Science and the 
Retreat from Reason” by John Gillot and Manjit Kumar that was sent along 
to them from Pluto Press with the assurance that it was in the same vein 
as Sokal’s efforts. Alan was originally intended to review it.

But when I got wind of this, I felt compelled to warn MR that their 
reputation would be damaged since Kumar and Gillot were long-time 
adherents to the LM sect. Upon reading it, John Bellamy Foster was 
alarmed to discover a vitriolic attack on Rachel Carsons as well as a 
paean to DDT, which in those circles has the same weight as the 
Transitional Program has in the Trotskyist movement. Foster went on to 
review the book in MR magazine and was forced to disassociate himself 
from the more noxious aspects of the book, which seemed largely beside 
the point. Kumar and Gillot’s problem was not in what they said about 
Rachel Carsons, but in their estimation of the role of science as a 
discipline beyond a class analysis and existing in a pure, almost 
Platonic, sphere.

Returning once again to the aforementioned Cliff Conner, this is an 
outlook that is challenged on virtually every page of his 
ground-breaking work. Unlike Gross, Levitt and even Sokal, he believes 
that science is indebted to the very peoples whose “local knowledge” 
they disparage. Indeed, without the American Indian’s discovery of the 
anti-malarial effects of quinine bark or the pain-killing powers of the 
willow tree (ie., aspirin), the world would be a lot worse off.

In solidarity,

Louis Proyect


Dear Louis,

Thank you for this highly informative and thoughtful message, which has 
added quite a bit to my understanding of this complex issue. I will look 
into Conner’s work right away.

Thanks again and best wishes, Richard York

Dear Louis Proyect,

Thanks for the insightful and informative message. Our intent in the 
footnote was to indicate a difference, but obviously it would have been 
useful to be more explicit in our statement. Incidentally, last week I 
actually picked up a copy of Clifford Conner’s book and started reading 
it. It is a wonderful book.

Yours, Brett Clark

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