[Marxism] Historical Materialism Conference 2013
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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