Thursday, September 27, 2007

Dunedin (click to enlarge)

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Exposure 2007

This is a bit of self-promotion - an ad for an event I am coordinating. Thanks Muzzlehatch for designing the poster and programme!

Exposure07 Postgraduate Research Exposition is a celebration of academic excellence and student ingenuity at the University of Auckland. It has been designed to give postgraduate researchers the chance to showcase their work to peers and staff, gain public exposure, and receive important feedback about the research they do at the University.

will be held from 2nd - 10th October 2007

Exposure07 Outline
Poster presentations
Posters will be on display in the Engineering Atrium from 2 October to 10 October from 10 am to 5 pm daily.
Oral presentations
There will be six oral presentation preliminary sessions held from Tuesday 2nd - Thursday 4th October (9 am- 12 pm, 1- 4 pm), in the Graduate Centre Seminar Room. The winner from each session will go through to the oral finals on Monday 8th October, 6 - 9 pm in Engineering Lecture Room 1.401.

The detailed programme for each day may be downloaded here

If you are interested in the postgrad research that is taking place at Auckland uni, come along and watch a few presentations and check out the posters in the engineering atrium (22 symonds street).

So, that's enough self-promotion - come on Maps where are your photos from Dunedin!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Arguing with a bigot

It's normally a compliment when another website chooses to link to this blog. This morning, though, I was less than happy to discover that Robert Lindsay, whose geography is as bad as his politics, had included me in a list of 'Axis of Good Brits' on his blogroll. Lindsay's website is one of the most unpleasant I've ever seen: his posts are full of nasty jibes at dark-skinned peoples, Jews, and 'Crazy Leftists', and he links to even more extreme sites like the creepy Jewish Tribal Review. In the last week or so Lindsay has written two especially nasty attacks on indigenous Pacific peoples in general and the 'disgusting' Maori people in particular.

Bizarrely, Lindsay's blog includes links to a range of left-wing websites, including the archives of the massive international Marxmail e list, the US-based Monthly Review and, alas, this blog. After I sent a message to Marxmail to try to work out why Lindsay would try to connect himself to Reading the Maps, the man himself began e mailing me (he's not allowed to join the list, but hangs about reading the open-access archives). Lindsay challenged me to write a longer critique of his views, but I think he convicts himself with his own replies to my e mails. I've added a couple of photos I took last week to the bottom of my second message.

Date: Tue, 25 Sep 2007 10:52:43 +1200 (NZST)
From: "Scott Hamilton"
Subject: Info on Robert Lindsay, 'left-wing' racist blogger

Hi folks,

do you any of you know about this bloke Robert Lindsay?
He links to me and a lot of other left-wing bloggers, but the material on his site is very unpleasant. He's just lately been attacking Maori people in racist terms. I was going to write something about him, but wondered if somebody else had already done the same.


Date: Mon, 24 Sep 2007 17:03:25 -0700
From: "Robert Lindsay"
Subject: Who are you?
Give me your webpage addy, so I can delink you. I don't link to enemies, certainly not Cultural Marxist fools. Stalin would have never put up with you guys and your BS.

Date: Tue, 25 Sep 2007 12:22:30 +1200 (NZST)
From: "Scott Hamilton"
Subject: Re: Who are you?
To: "Robert Lindsay"

Hi Robert,

I believe that you should not only delink my site, but every legitimate left-wing website listed on your blog. The values of the left have nothing to do with the vilification of indigenous peoples, the recycling of anti-Gypsy and anti-Semitic myths, and the advertisements for white power websites which seem to be your stock in trade. If you don't remove links to the likes of Green Left Weekly and Daily Kos from your blog, then I'll certainly be letting those sites know about your (mis)use of their names.


Date: Mon, 24 Sep 2007 19:20:38 -0700
From: "Robert Lindsay"
To: "Scott Hamilton"
Subject: Re: Who are you?

The article on Gypsies references a scholarly paper referring to extremely high crime rates and associated cultural pathology using hard scientific evidence. Show me how this is mythology. Pls give me evidence anywhere on my blog of any anti-Semitic myths. AFAICT, my site is concerned with International Zionism and its colonial-settler state in Israel.

Please indicate anywhere on my Blogroll, or in any post, where I "advertise" for white power - nationalist - supremacist websites. Isn't it interesting how 99% of the Jews in the US get a free pass on their Jewish ethnic nationalism, but even one White promotes (the identical) White ethnic nationalism, and the White-hating Left (represented by YOU) bashes them to no end. Meanwhile, you clowns promote Mexican fascism (Aztlan), Black fascism (Black nationalism), Arab nationalism, and other monstrosities. As long as they hate White people, they get lotsa love for your likes.

What vilification of indigenous people? Pointing out that they are not cutting it in modern Western society and advocating a return to traditional life is vilification? In what mad cultural Marxist universe?

Green Left Weekly is gone. That's obviously you. No one else is leaving unless they request it. Go spread my blackened name far and wide. I dare you! No cheers for you.

Date: Tue, 25 Sep 2007 15:53:56 +1200 (NZST)
From: "Scott Hamilton"
Subject: Re: Who are you?
To: "Robert Lindsay"

Hi Robert,

what makes your site racist is its constant attributions of monolithic ideas and abilities to whole races and cultures. You generalise about Jews, blacks, Mexicans, and other groups as though they were species of animal with universal traits. This sort of rhetoric has a long and unpleasant history which takes in Nazi Germany and the worst crimes of the twentieth century. The fact that your blog links to a beheading carried out by Russian neo-nazis only heightens the unease caused by your language. Do you honestly think any of the left-wing weblogs you link to - Daily Kos, Crooked Timber, and so on - would have anything but revulsion for the material on your site? What you are saying has nothing to do with the left.

By your own admission you know almost nothing about Maori culture and have never met a Maori person, but after watching a video allegedly created by a handful of young Maori gang members on youtube you feel able to generalise about a 'disgusting degeneration' of Maori and Polynesian culture. There are plenty of non-Maori New Zealanders in gangs, too - for instance, there are white youths in racist skinhead gangs. It doesn't follow, though, that the antics of skinheads represent the state of the culture of non-Maori New Zealanders.

You say that Maori are not 'cutting it' in 'modern' society, and that they should be forced to live pre-industrial lifestyles in isolated regions. Yet some of New Zealand's finest artists, writers, academics, and sportspeople are Maori. Maori are a large part of the working class that built the cities, power stations, and railways of this country. There are problems which Maori suffer disproportionately, like poverty and incarceration, but these are in many cases linked to the theft of their land and resources at the point of a gun in the nineteenth century, and the institutionalisation of this theft in the twentieth century.

Before they suffered dispossession, Maori had already showed that they could 'cut it' in competition with European capitalism. In the middle of the nineteenth century they created highly productive agricultural economies in the North Island of New Zealand which were the envy of white settlers. These economies were based on a fusion of traditional methods of organisation - collective labour and land ownership, for example - and modern technology and markets. Parihaka, one of the biggest centres of Maori resistance to colonisation, had massive cultivations and electricity in the 1870s. The settlers broke up Parihaka and similar communities at the point of a gun because they wanted to appropriate what Maori had created. Last week I visited a cave in the southern city of Dunedin where some of the Maori who were deported from Parihaka were imprisoned. The deportees, whose only crime had been a refusal to surrender their land to settlers, were forced to shelter in the cave when they were not working to build bridges, roads and walls for the settler city of Dunedin. More than a few of them died of exposure and diseases caused by poor sanitation, and were buried in unmarked graves in north Dunedin. Standing in the cold southern rain and peering into the miserable cave-prison, it was impossible not to feel the great weight of oppression which Maori have suffered at the hands of European 'civilisation' in New Zealand. Acknowledging this fact does not make one anti-white, anymore than acknowledging the disastrous effects of the US invasion of Iraq makes one anti-American. You seem, though, to have a pathological inability to acknowledge that the crimes of Western imperialism might have something to do with the problems of peoples like the Maori, African Americans, and the Saipanese, as well as modern-day Iraqis.


Richard Seymour, the proprietor of the popular British blog Lenin's Tomb, has also had problems with Lindsay. He writes that:

Robert Lindsay visited my site for a while, leaving comments that were increasingly anti-semitic until I told him to take a hike. Subsequently, he wrote a long and whining piece which was reproduced on the Jewish Tribal Review (an anti-semitic site run by Christian fundamentalists, which he links to). He made a number of claims about his background which seem implausible (being a member of the Green Party and CPUSA simultaneously, belonging to a CPUSA 'cell', whereas to my knowledge the CPUSA has 'branches' and not 'cells' etc), and in my view he is a racist provocateur. Also, he so happens to have adopted the name of the actor who played 'Citizen Smith' in a condescending British television comedy about Tooting-based revolutionaries.


I'm back from the warm south after spending the best part of a week in the care of Bill Direen and the other good people of Dunedin. I've got plenty of photos and anecdotes to share, but the boss wants me to write six thousand words about Micronesia by Thursday.

In the meantime, I wanted to thank Kay McKenzie Cook for her generous review of my reading and the launch of Bill's journal Percutio last Wednesday night. I was a bit worried that I might seem like (or, indeed, be) an arrogant JAFA descending on Dunedin to recite inscrutable postmodern poetry, but these words from Kay have set me at ease:

Scott Hamilton's poetry I found to be grounded, interesting and almost-narrative. I liked it. The subject matter hints at the subversive. His poetry can sometimes segue, then end in an unexpected and abrupt manner, which I also like. He admitted to being a fan of Dr Who and sci-fi; an influence which I think adds an interesting edge and depth to his poems. He read in a non-bombastic, slightly self-deprecating manner. We like that down here. He was good value.

Kay hails from Southland, another unjustly neglected region of Aotearoa. The next time I cross the Cook Strait I want to get all the way to Bluff...

Monday, September 17, 2007


I'll be flying to Dunedin on Wednesday to guest at the fourth instalment of the 2007 Octagon Poetry Series . I'm a bit embarrassed to be near the top of a bill which is also includes Peter Olds, New Zealand's first and best beat poet and a lively character in some of James K Baxter's late poems. I'm sure Peter, who has lived in Dunedin for many years, will teach me a trick or two.

Besides MCing, Bill Direen will be using Wednesday evening to finally launch the second issue of his journal Percutio (he was supposed to bring the thing up a here a week or so ago, but it got quarantined by the printers). Percutio is a heroic attempt to bridge the gap between New Zild and European literature, and includes translations of the work of fair dinkum Kiwis Peter Olds and Jack Ross into Kraut and Frog. See you at the Circadian Rhythm Bar, wherever that is.

Footnote: speaking of rogue journals, I've just received this e mail from Bill:

Andrew Schmidt, who saw you Dead Men and Buildees perform has just sent me the fourth volume of MYSTEREX, a magazine about Kiwi Punk and Beyond. This issue features The Feature, yours truly (long essay and my own drivel) 'Indie NZ in 1982 Post Punk Chch 1981' and 'The Worst of Flying Nun' by Gene Pool Belmondo.

Andrew's myspace site is here.

At first an article on the worst Flying Nun bands seemed to me as a counterintuitive idea, like a call to nominate George Bush's best idea or Spike Lee's worst film, but after thinking for a minute I did remember one or two bands who besmirched the Nun roster in the '80s and '90s.

My bet for bottom place on any list of Nun bands would be the Society for the Protection of the Unknown Dog, or SPUD as they preferred to be known on their travels around Auckland's most desperate bars. I remember them playing at the old Dog (gettit?) and Trumpet at the end of K Rd, to a crowd of five or six punters. SPUD were so loud and so ugly that I left for the safety of the Open Late Cafe; my mate Adrian Price, who was reluctant to forsake his ten dollar investment, opted to run for the bogs and stuff toilet paper into his ears. (Go on then, use the comments box to tell me SPUD was an aural feast, and that Aido and I were both just despicably soft and bourgeois...)

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Degenerate art

You've got to hand it to Hitler - when it came to the arts, he had an uncanny, unerring ability to differentiate the good stuff from the bad. He always preferred the bad. Hitler used the label entarte Kunst to justify his repression of the work of artists like Max Ernst, Picasso, and Marc Chagall, not to mention anyone decadent enough to play jazz, but today the phrase seems like a badge of honour. The revival of Hitler's criticisms by one of the night of the living dead types at the top of the Catholic church can only be a compliment for contemporary art.

Speaking of degenerate artists, Joe Zawinul, who played organ on Miles Davis' classic albums In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew, died last week. Miles' face and name are on the album cover, but Zawinul wrote most of In A Silent Way. When I suffered from tinnitus in my early twenties (too many loud gigs at Kurtz Lounge and Bob's Bar?) I used to listen to the oceanic murmur of Zawinul's tracks to help me get to sleep at night. My dreams were full of psychedelic reef fish and baobab trees.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The short version

The internet is a wonderful place. I went googling for some images to go with that last post, and discovered that some bright spark has put the satirical illustrations that EP Thompson included his raging polemic 'The Poverty of Theory' online. Besides being rather funny, the pictures manage to summarise Thompson's (sometimes unreasonable) argument against poor old Louis Althusser quite well. Check 'em out here.

EP Thompson, Marx, and bad abstractions

[Warning: heavy stuff ahead! This is another exercise in the minutae of Marxology, not to mention Thompsonology, drawing on my PhD research. For something more enjoyable, you could always go here.]

Last Friday I blogged about some scholars who have tried to use Marx's late writing on non-capitalist societies to correct the misapprehension that the hairy guy was an apologist for unconstrained capitalism and imperialism. One of the first commentators to sense the significance of Marx's late work for arguments like these was British historian EP Thompson in his 1978 polemic 'The Poverty of Theory'.

'The Poverty of Theory' was intended primarily as an attack on the French structuralist philosopher Louis Althusser, and his followers in British universities, but it could not avoid being, in part at least, an exercise in Marxology. The Althusserians that EP Thompson was criticising in his essay had usually wrapped their arguments in close readings of key texts by Marx. Althusser's claim to have discovered the true path of Marx's career, and to have differentiated the 'scientific' and 'non-scientific' aspects of his thought, was perhaps the most inflammatory of the many inflammatory arguments in his calssic books For Marx and Reading Capital.

In the 1960s and '70s Marx's oeuvre seemed to be growing. A new generation was giving the 1844 Manuscripts the attention they deserved, and the Grundrisse was finally being widely translated and interpreted. Althusser's curt dismissal of the 1844 Manuscripts and the rest of Marx's early work, and his claim that not even Capital, let alone the Grundrisse, was 'fully' Marxist, struck many scholars and activists as a renewal of the attempts that the leaderships of 'official' Communist Parties had made to limit the reading and discussion of Marx in the bad old days when ‘comrade Stalin’ had set the parameters for Marxology. Even if he used intellectual rather than bureaucratic methods, Althusser seemed to many of his detractors to be determined to impose a single, inflexible interpretation of Marx on a new generation which had little time for the orthodoxies of the past, and to proscribe those parts of Marx's oeuvre which did not fit with his interpretation.

EP Thompson makes it abundantly clear throughout 'The Poverty of Theory' that he does not accept Althusser and his followers' claims to be 'completing' Marx's thought. It would be difficult for him to maintain such a stance without at least sketching his alternative view of the meaning of Marx's life and work. Thompson provides such a view in sections nine and fifteen of 'The Poverty of Theory'. These two sustained excursions into Marxology take up thirty-four pages, or about a sixth of the total text, and are complemented by remarks scattered through most of the other fifteen sections of 'The Poverty of Theory'. A pattern emerges when we examine the responses reviewers made to the Marxological sections of 'The Poverty of Theory'. Critics of Thompson's text have tended to make the interpretations of Marx a focus of their attacks. Supporters of Thompson, by contrast, have tended to pass over the Marxology, and discuss other aspects of 'The Poverty of Theory', like its eloquent defence of the art and craft of history, or the elaborate and occasionally amusing lampoons of Althusser and his theoretical progeny. Both defenders and critics of 'The Poverty of Theory' have made many references to the supposed unorthodoxy of Thompson's interpretation of Marx. More than a few commentators from both camps have decided that the essay is the work of an ex-Marxist.

Thompson's argument

Perry Anderson's book Arguments within English Marxism includes a chapter on the Marxological arguments in 'The Poverty of Theory'. Like the book to which it belongs, Anderson's chapter is a careful mixture of sympathy and firm criticism. Because Anderson’s discussion does a generally good job of summarising Thompson's dispersed and lengthy interpretation of Marx, and because his response to that interpretation mirrors the responses of many commentators, we can make it the basis for our a discussion of the Marxology of 'The Poverty of Theory'.

Anderson begins by suggesting that 'The Poverty of Theory' 'proposes a complete new account of Marx and of Marxism'. As Anderson notes, Thompson believes that Marx was the inventor of historical materialism, and that the goal of historical materialism is a 'unitary knowledge of society'. The 'charter' for historical materialism was set out in the 1840s, in texts like The German Ideology, The Poverty of Philosophy, and The Communist Manifesto. Those works were tremendously promising, but in the 1850s Marx wandered off the trail they had opened up. He had become 'hypnotised' by bourgeois political economy, and the result was the Grundrisse, a text that substitutes arid economic categories for the real world, and (mis)understands history as the faux-Hegelian self-unfolding of these categories, rather than as the product of the ideas and actions of real men and women. In the 1860s Marx partially 'corrected himself', in Thompson’s words, as the influence of the First International, the British labour movement, and Darwin's Origin of Species made him think in less economistic and less teleological terms.

Despite the advances of the 1860s and the fact that it is considered Marx's magnum opus, Capital is for Thompson a 'mountainous inconsistency'. Tour de forces like the chapter on primitive accumulation are juxtaposed with the sort of arid, reductionist abstractions that filled the Grundrisse. Anderson puts it well when he says that Marx was guilty, in Thompson's eyes, of the 'extrapolation of the purely economic categories of capital from the full social process'. In other words, Thompson believes that Marx sometimes confuses capital with capitalism. The metaphor of base and superstructure contributes to this error, because it encourages the tendency to reduce the intricate ideological, cultural, political, and legal 'superstructures' of a society to mere epiphenomena of a simplified model of that society's economic system.

Anderson notes Thompson's argument that the elderly Engels became aware of the weakness in Capital and tried, in his famous Letters on Historical Materialism, to rectify the dogmatic schematism it was helping create in a generation of self-proclaimed Marxists. Unfortunately, the warnings in Engels' letters were not always heeded. In the twentieth century, according to Thompson, Marxist historians have resumed the quest for a 'unitary knowledge of society' that Marx began so brilliantly in the 1840s. In the process, they have discovered a crucial lacuna in Marx's ideas. Without an explanation for how the conceptual modes of production Marx discovered and the real 'historical process' actually correspond, Marxists have struggled to avoid either economic determinism, which reduces diverse societies to a few simple economic formulae, or a sort of hopeless particularism, which treats every society as unique, and struggles to make useful generalisations across time and space.

Thompson compares the absence in Marx's thinking to Darwin's inability to explain how mutations are transmitted during the process of evolution. Just as Mendelian genetics filled the absence in Darwin's thinking, so the Marxist historian's concept of 'human experience' has filled the gap in Marx's thinking. It is human experience which relates the conceptual models Marx created to the real world and its history. To understand human experience, though, it is necessary to go beyond the writings of Marx and Engels, and encounter the ethical, utopian socialism of William Morris. Morris' emphasis on the importance of culture, ideas, and ethics to the lives of individual humans and the movement of history is taken up, according to Thompson, in the work of twentieth century Marxist historians. The result is the crucial concept of human experience, which becomes a sort of mediation between the 'objective' world of economics and the 'subjective' life of the individual. In one of the more famous passages of ‘The Poverty of Theory’ Thompson explains that:

Experience walks in without knocking at the door, and announces deaths, crises of subsistence, trench warfare, unemployment, inflation, genocide. People starve: their survivors think in new ways about the market. People are imprisoned: in prison they meditate in new ways about the law.

Thompson insists that the shortcomings of Marx and Engels mean that Marxism as a science or 'high theory' must be rejected. Nor can the notion of a single Marxist tradition, which Thompson advanced in the 'Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski', be sustained. Althusser and his cohorts comprise one of many strains of a 'theological' and 'irrational' Marxism which is locked in mortal combat with the 'reasoning' Marxism that Thompson identifies with. Thompson's tradition is marked by 'open, empirical inquiry, originating in the work of Marx, and employing, developing, and revising his concepts'. Both tendencies, or traditions, can be traced back to Marx and his inconsistencies.

Anderson’s response

Perry Anderson thinks that the Marxological sections of ‘The Poverty of Theory’ represent the ‘most novel’ part of the whole essay. Thompson has produced 'a quite new reading of Marx's intellectual trajectory' because he privileges 'neither the early philosophical writings nor the late economic works, but instead accords central importance to the polemical texts of the mid-40s'. It is not hard to take Anderson's talk of the originality of Thompson's Marxology as a rather backhanded compliment. 'Novel' seems a proxy for ‘eccentric’, because Anderson's praise is followed by a series of attacks on the credibility of two key points in Thompson's argument.

Anderson argues that the 'unitary knowledge of society' that Thompson expects from Marx was simply not possible in the middle of the nineteenth century, when the human sciences were in their infancy and much of the world of political economy remained a mystery even to Marx and Engels. Had Marx tried to write the encyclopedic text that Anderson associates with the goal of a 'unitary knowledge of society', then he would have ended up with something like Kautsky's, rambling, speculative, rather pretentious The Materialist Conception of History, rather than the rigorous work of science that is Capital. Marx had to launch the project of historical materialism somewhere, and he chose the field of political economy, because historical materialism asserted that the economy played the ultimately decisive role in any society. The intense studies in political economy recorded rather artlessly in the Grundrisse were the foundation stone of the house of historical materialism:

To establish a secure notion of the ‘economic structure’ of society is not thereafter to preclude or compromise historical study of its cultural or political ‘superstructures’, but to facilitate it. Without the construction of a theory of the mode of production in the first instance, any attempt to produce a ‘unitary knowledge of society’ could only have yielded an eclectic interactionism.

Anderson also upbraids Thompson for his objections to the base-superstructure metaphor and the use of the concept of mode of production, unmediated by the concept of 'human experience', outside the discipline of political economy. Anderson feels that Thompson's objections are irrational, given that he (supposedly) accepts the 'determinate nature of the base of modes of production'. Anderson perceives that Thompson is afraid of the prospect of economic reductionism, but he insists that this is not a necessary consequence of using the concept of mode of production or the base-superstructure metaphor in a field like history. (In one of the best passages in Arguments within English Marxism, Anderson goes on to show that Althusser's notion of mode or production is compatible with Thompson's own work as a historian in Whigs and Hunters. )

Anderson’s misunderstandings

We have noted that Anderson gives a reasonable summary of Thompson's arguments about Marx, and that he outlines reservations that seem common amongst both admirers and critics of 'The Poverty of Theory'. But Anderson's case against Thompson's reading of Marx is redundant, because it rests on a misinterpretation of Thompson's concept of 'unitary knowledge of society'. Anderson takes 'unitary' to mean something like 'total' or 'comprehensive', and assumes that Thompson wanted Marx to follow The Communist Manifesto up with some sort of communist encyclopedia. (Anderson is quite correct, of course, when he says that such an undertaking would be quixotic; he is also justified in ridiculing The Materialist Conception of History, which nowadays reads less like a history and description of the world than a catalogue of the prejudices of Second International Marxism.)

What Thompson actually means by a 'unitary knowledge of society' is a knowledge that takes into account the diverse levels - ideological, political, cultural, economic - on which any society exists. Thompson has nothing against detailed investigations of a particular aspect of a society, but he insists that the subject under investigation should not be isolated in the sort of conceputal pigeonholes that the base-superstructure metaphor encourages. Thompson rejects the base-superstructure metaphor not because he rejects political economy in toto, but because he denies that the economy can be usefully analysed for long in isolation from 'superstructural' phenomena like culture and the law. When Thompson talks of a 'unitary knowledge of society' he is not naively expecting the impossible of Marx, but rather making an argument against the abstractions that Marx often chose to employ in the Grundrisse and in Capital.

We can grasp the last point more firmly if we remind ourselves of the nature of Marx's dialectical method of analysing and presenting his material. As Bertell Ollman has explained, Marx's dialectical method is based upon the abstracting of discrete elements of the very complex reality which surrounds human beings:

the role Marx gives to abstraction is simple recognition of the fact that all thinking about reality begins by breaking it down into manageable parts…Our minds can no more swallow the world whole at one sitting than can our stomachs…‘Abstract’ comes from the Latin, abstractere, which means ‘to pull from’. In effect, a piece has been pulled from or taken out of the whole and is temporarily perceived as standing apart…a focus is established and a kind of boundary set…

Anderson, of course, is suggesting that Thompson did not understand the sort of point Ollman makes here. According to Anderson, Thompson did not understand that Marx could not study 'everything at once', and had to abstract certain features of capitalism and its pre-history to write Capital. Other commentators on 'The Poverty of Theory' have levelled the same charge. In a long, angry essay called 'The Necessity of Theory', Paul Q Hirst accused Thompson of believing that 'Capital is doomed' because 'its method of analysis of economic relations through categories in abstraction contradicts the nature of historical research'. In his generally more positive response to 'The Poverty of Theory', Bill Schwartz convicts Thompson of the same mistake:

no-one can deny that problems exist in Capital, but what Thompson does is reject the text itself, in its totality...for the reason that it is built up out of abstractions...Abstraction itself is ahistorical [according to Thompson], as it disrupts the real historical process and is thus inherently reductionist.

Charges like these are not upheld by a careful reading of 'The Poverty of Theory'. Thompson does not reject Capital 'in its totality', and he does not convict Marx of failing to write an encyclopedia. Near the end of the Marxological discussion in section nine of his essay, he explains that Capital, while 'immensely fruitful as hypothesis', requires 'supercession' at the hands of contemporary historical materialism:

How could it be otherwise? To suppose differently would be to suppose, not only that everything can be said at once, but that immanent Theory (or Knowledge) found its miraculous embodiment in Marx, not fully mature to be sure (it had yet to develop to Althusser's full stature), but already perfectly formed and perfectly proportioned in its parts. This is a fairy story, recited to children in Soviet primary classes, and not even believed by them.

Thompson's ridicule of the idea that 'everything can be said at once' makes it clear that, to him at least, 'unitary knowledge' does not mean complete knowledge. And, far from dismissing dialectics and the method of abstraction at its heart, Thompson criticises his opponents for being insufficiently dialectical:

The eviction of dialectics from the Althusserian system is my own work as a historian I have...come to bring dialectics, not as this or that 'law' but as a habit of thinking...into my own analysis.

Insisting that 'the dialectic was not Hegel's private property', Thompson points to William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and to a related tradition of poetic and mystical writing, arguing that they influenced Marx, and should be read today by scholars of Marx. For Thompson, the static, ultra-structural quality of Althusserian thought is partly the convergence of a forgetfulness about dialectics. What Thompson is questioning in 'The Poverty of Theory' is not Marx's dialectical method, but rather the restricted range of the dialectical abstractions Marx employs in parts of Capital and in the Grundrisse. He believes that too many of these abstractions suffer from ‘stasis’ and ‘closure’, because they have separated human economic activity from the rest of human activity.

Thompson is quite correct when he writes that different parts of Capital employ quite different levels of abstraction. He appreciated the chapters which understood aspects of political economy by abstracting them as part of historical processes involving non-economic forces. Many commentators on Capital have noted the sudden and dramatic entrances that history makes into the text. Discussing the chapter on the length of the working day that occurs about halfway through the first volume of Capital, Anthony Brewer notes that:

A much larger and more dramatic canvas emerges [here]...the concepts here have not been given the same rigorous theoretical foundations as the strictly economic concepts used so far. The argument is much looser.

The chapter on primitive accumulation that closes volume one of Capital was one that Thompson admired for its fusion of political economy and history. By bringing together the concept of capital accumulation and the actual history of the enclosures in one abstraction, Marx provides a foundation for concrete historical investigations into the transition from feudalism to capitalism, modernisation, and urbanism. The moral outrage that marks his discussion of primitive accumulation would also have delighted Thompson. Yet there is, for Thompson, a tension present even in the best parts of Capital:

the history in immensely fruitful as hypothesis; and yet as hypothesis which calls into question, again and again, the adequacy of the categories of Political Economy.

It should be obvious that Thompson's objections to the base-superstructure model are intimately connected to his objections to the categories of ‘stasis’ and ‘closure’ that mar the Grundrisse and parts of Capital. Thompson opposes the model not because he is an idealist who thinks that the 'superstructure' fell from the sky, or because he resists the necessity to abstract discrete aspects of reality, but because he contests the possibility of usefully thinking about 'basis' and the 'superstructure' in isolation from one another. In 'History and Anthropology', the talk he gave in Emergency India on the last day of 1976, Thompson outlined the case against the basis-superstructure model:

However much the notion is sophisticated, however subtly it has on many occasions been employed, the analogy of basis and superstructure is radically defective. It cannot be repaired. It has an in-built tendency to lead the mind toward reductionism or a vulgar economic determinism, by sorting out human activities and attributes and placing some (as law, the Arts, Religion, ‘Morality’) in a superstructure, others (as technology, economics, the applied sciences) in a basis, and leaving yet others (as linguistics, work- discipline) to float unhappily in-between.

In 'The Poverty of Theory' the same argument is levelled at much greater length; Anderson does not grasp its terms, because he does not understand that Thompson objects not to abstraction per se, but to a certain type of abstraction.

The Missing Marx

The false moves in Anderson's argument are connected to a small but telling omission from his summary of Thompson's account of Marx's career. Anderson gives a great deal of attention to Thompson's praise for the 1840s texts and criticisms of the 'classic' works of political economy, but he ignores Thompson's suggestion that in his last decade Marx reconsidered some of the Grundrisse and Capital, and retreated from the 'whirlpool' of political economy that had threatened to swallow him. Thompson writes that:

I have argued that Marx himself was, for a time, trapped within the circuits of capital – an immanence manifesting itself in ‘forms’ – and that he only partly sprung that trap in Capital…How far Marx himself ever became fully aware of his imprisonment is a complex question…we should note that Marx, in his increasing preoccupation in his last years with anthropology, was resuming the projects of his Paris youth.

These brief sentences are intended to draw attention to the vast amount of energy that Marx expended studying pre-capitalist and semi-capitalist societies during the last decade of his life. Thompson's reference to these late and still relatively obscure labours plays a cruical part in the account he offers in 'The Poverty of Theory' of the development of Marx's thought. As I noted in last Friday's post, a succession of scholars who have followed Thompson have shown that the late Marx abandoned the dangerous faith in capitalism and colonialism apparent in works like The Communist Manifesto, and from the sharp focus on political economy of the Grundrisse and Capital. In his last decade, Marx emphasised as never before the cost of industrialisation and other features of capitalist 'progress', insisted on the importance of the state, ideology, and other 'superstructural' factors to the growth of capitalism, and argued that pre- and semi-capitalist countries could achieve socialism without having to move through a 'stage' of capitalist development. The result was a series of rich but unfinished texts which both complement and revise the arguments in Capital.

Without the reference to the late work, Thompson might easily seem to be taking a quite negative view of the course of Marx's career. If Capital is the endpoint of that career, then Thompson's unfavourable comparisons of Capital to some of the works of the 1840s might suggest that Marx's was a story of a promise lost in the ‘whirlpool’ of political economy. When the reference to the late Marx is considered, though, then Thompson seems to be saying that Marx reached a sort of nadir in the 1850s with the Grundrisse, then recovered some of his balance and scope with Capital, and then, his detour into political economy over, resumed the quest for the 'unitary knowledge of society' that the 1840s had promised. If his career took this shape, then Marx made an implicit but profound self-criticism, and perhaps even took a view of the Grundrisse and Capital not entirely dissimilar to the one Thompson advances.

By ignoring Thompson's reference to Marx's post-Capital work, Anderson misrepresents Thompson's entire account of Marx's career. It is no surprise that commentators who have deemed 'The Poverty of Theory' an exercise in post- or anti-Marxism have also ignored the reference to Marx's late work.

The account of Marx’s thought in ‘The Poverty of Theory’ took some time to exert an influence over other Marxist scholars. As we noted earlier, the reaction to reviewers was either to highlight the supposed weakness of Thompson’s Marxology or else, if they were favourably inclined toward the rest of The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays, to pass it over in silence. Eventually, though, Thompson's words began to exert an influence. Franklin Rosemont’s important essay on Marx's late work included a frank acknowledgement of the significance of Thompson's arguments:

The most insightful commentary on these Notebooks has naturally come from writers far outside the mainstream - "Marxist" as well as academic. Historian, antiwar activist and Blake scholar E. P. Thompson, in his splendid polemic, The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays, was among the first to point out that "Marx, in his increasing preoccupation in his last years with anthropology, was resuming the projects of his Paris youth."

The tribute Rosemont pays is well deserved. With the benefit of a quarter century of scholarship by a succession of advocates of Marx’s late work, we can see the full meaning of the account of Marx’s career that Thompson gave in ‘The Poverty of Theory’. Most importantly, we can see the relationship between Thompson’s criticisms of Capital and his endorsement of Marx’s late work. Thompson’s view that the concepts in much of the Grundrisse and parts of Capital needed to be broadened to take in history and the ‘superstructure’, his insistence on the necessity of investigating the uniqueness of individual societies and events, and not subordinating them to the prescription of some universal history, and his inveterate opposition to economic reductionism have all been echoed in the work of a series of Marxologists. The reading of Marx that Perry Anderson and many others considered eccentric and obviously mistaken has proved remarkably resilient.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Six years on

it's depressing to read things like this. I've noticed '9/11: the truth' stickers on lamp posts in Upper Symonds St and K Rd - a zone of Auckland that has incubated kooky ideas before. Surely there are enough real-life conspiracies that leftists can publicise? Let's not follow Bush and his apologists down the rabbit hole...

Monday, September 10, 2007

Attack of the crazies

The thirty-fifth issue of brief, New Zild's longest-persisting avant-lit journal, has been turning up in mailboxes this week, much to the displeasure of my old foe, Anony Mouse. After Wellington writer Harvey Molloy gave the new issue a plug on his blog, Anony Mouse turned up the heat in the comments box:

Aren't the people who run that journal a bunch of Auckland crazies? Their work eludes my understanding but, hey, I'm only 78.

Age is no excuse for ignorance, my dear mouse. You ought to get in touch with new, superefficient brief editor Brett Cross and buy a subscription, so that you can psychoanalyse scribblers like Jack Ross, Liv Macassey, Richard von Sturmer, Jen 'slash 'n burn' Crawford and Michael Steven-Arnold at your leisure. Matt Kelly's cover is worth the price of the new issue on its own (Matt and Ellen Portch should go into business together).

As a teaser, and no doubt also an example of mental abnormality, here's a poem I was lucky enough to sneak into the new issue:

A Dream (for Ted Jenner)

I feel stupid, cooking a feast like this, even after fasting for a week. A whole chook, caked in gravy thick as farmyard mud. Cobs of corn the size of forearms. Potatoes as big as fists. Perhaps I should set a place for another diner?

I pissed the worm out of Lake Malawi. I remember stumbling out of my tent and down a clay bank, then aiming the yellow stream into dark water beside a big rippling moon. ‘It was at the embryonic stage, then’ the specialist explained, scratching his second chin. Small enough to shimmy up a jet of piss, all the way into my bladder, my stomach. ‘It’s a little bigger now.’ Agreed. The thing looked like an extra intestine. I pushed back the X-ray and retched into an imaginary bucket beside the door. ‘You needed to see. It’s feeding off you. There’s only one way -’. I retched again.

I fill my plate, sit down, open my mouth. Perhaps I should say grace? What harm would it do? Dear Lord, I thank thee, I think to myself. Not quite right. Dear Lord, we thank thee. I can feel it now, uncoiling, loosening its grip on the lower intestines. Smelling the hot chook, the gravy, the buttered cobs, remembering the taste of food after seven days’ famine, sliding through my stomach, into my oesophagus. For what we are about to receive. Filling my throat, pushing greedily between my jawbones, filling my mouth, sliding over my trembling tongue toward the table and its mountainous plate. Suddenly I close my mouth, and cough, and retch. In a second the worm recoils, sliding backwards down my throat and through my empty stomach, until it sits still again in my intestines, an indigestible meal.

I stop retching, and part my lips again, but before the worm can respond my right hand begins to move by itself, picking up a fork and shovelling a potato into my mouth.