[Marxism] Historical Materialism Conference 2013

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Apr 28 13:52:59 MDT 2013

Historical Materialism is a quarterly journal that costs $78 for a 
yearly sub.  Like New Left Review, with which it shares editorial 
perspectives and an editor (the ubiquitous Sebastian Bludgeon), it is a 
mix of the substantive and the trivial. As a Columbia University 
retiree, I have access to the journal but only for issues at least a 
year old, like issue number one of 2012. You can find both a useful 
article on the trade union movement by Kim Moody and something titled 
“Manfredo Tafuri, Fredric Jameson and the Contestations of Political 
Memory” that I found relatively easy to ignore.

It also publishes scholarly Marxist hardcover books at the same price 
point. For example, a hardcover version of Jairus Banaji’s Deutscher 
prize-winning “Theory as History” costs $135. Fortunately Haymarket 
Press publishes paperback versions of HM books, one of the ISO’s major 
contributions to the movement.

I am not sure when HM began organizing conferences but I attended my 
first yesterday at NYU. I wondered beforehand why there was a need for 
HM Conferences when we have a Left Forum in NY as well. But it became 
clear throughout the day that HM addresses a need that Left Forum does 
not. Generally, you will find a sharper Marxist focus at HM while the 
Left Forum is far broader with many panels featuring movement activists. 
The HM conference, by contrast, is much more of an academic conference 
with just about every speaker holding an academic post.

10am-12pm: Neil Davidson’s “How Revolutionary were the Bourgeois 

This featured Neil presenting the main ideas of his new book, followed 
by “discussants” Jeff Goodwin and Charles Post.

Some background is in order. Post is a Brennerite, in other words an 
acolyte of the prize-winning UCLA professor Robert Brenner who developed 
a theory in the 1970s that capitalism originated in the British 
countryside in the 1500s quite by accident due to demographic changes 
brought on by the bubonic plague. Without going into any detail, the 
loss of population led to a series of social-economic transformations 
that fostered the creation of tenant farming out of but against feudal 
institutions. With the widespread adoption of tenant farming, Britain 
enjoyed a “take off” that was not possible anywhere else. That “take 
off” explains the rise of the British Empire and the diffusion of 
capitalism to the rest of Europe and everywhere else in the world. 
Without those diseased rats, Britain might have followed an evolution 
like Kenya or Uganda. For all we know, the Kenyans might have enslaved 
Britons and put them to work in the cotton fields of Africa if 
contingency had blessed them with dukes, duchesses, and diseased rats.

As an ancillary of the Brenner thesis, a school known as “political 
Marxism” has taken root in the academy that denies that there is such a 
thing as a bourgeois revolution. This has led to some intriguing 
conclusions; among them that France was not only devoid of capitalist 
property relations before 1789 but even afterwards. The Brennerites have 
never bothered to describe the social system that existed there except 
to dub it precapitalist. That category, of course, includes late 18th 
century France, the Britain of Robin Hood and Ivanhoe, as well as the 
igloo-dwelling Inuit people. It serves their theoretical needs even if 
it is rather imprecise.


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