[OPE] Goran Therborn's roadhouse blues of the Left

From: Jurriaan Bendien <adsl675281@tiscali.nl>
Date: Sun Mar 01 2009 - 06:51:11 EST

I just obtained a copy of Goran Therborn's "From Marxism to Post-Marxism" as
I was interested in the notion of post-Marxism, and learnt a lot from Prof.
Therborn's writings, but this book is intellectually very disappointing.

I thought wrongly it would be new material, but it is just a re-edit of some
old papers stuck together for the academic market - mimicking the style and
formats of Perry Anderson's "Considerations on Western Marxism" (which
failed to explain anything much about Western Marxism, among other things
because it ruled out the Western communist movement). Prof. Therborn now
teaches at Cambridge.

He wrote a creditable book once called "Science, class and society"
(although influenced by Althusser's authoritarian Stalinist philosophy, like
most New Leftists were) and some good essays, such as "The Rule
of Capital and the Rise of Democracy". But this latest effort of his
is more in the genre of the old New Left "chaps" patting each
other on the shoulder, and self-congratulating each other on their own
amazing erudition and profundity - an activity which they don't mind sharing
with their (paying) admirers. A sort of old boy's club of a New Left
that has really become an Old Left, and is a bit past it.

The book is readable in a salon magazine sort of way, but for the
rest annoyingly superficial, to the point of becoming question-beggingly
banale - like a lot of the Verso salon literature, where the real point is
lost altogether amidst elitist verbiage from the "chaps" (they all cite each
other as well, and, for instance, Prof. Therborn bills New Left Review as
the "generally recognized flagship of leftwing social thought" - p. 173).

Therborn says his aims are to "situate the leftwing political practice and
thought of the twenty-first century in the terrain of the previous century"
and to "provide a systematic panorama of leftwing thought in the North ...
and compare it with the Marxism of the preceding era" (p. x). Then why,
exactly, the title of the book? Suddenly the "Left" and "Marxism" are the
same thing, but are they really? His survey of Left forces in the world
is just superficial. When he discourses on the "dialectic of modernity"
it is not clear what the dialectic is. In his essay on the afterglow of the
New Left generation, mainly just a few of his NLR-type buddies are
discussed. All he really proves is that the Marxism of these people
had no real roots in the working class, was rarely formed
out of real political struggles, and therefore existed only as an
academic construct, that blows away eventually like any fashion.

He would have been better off looking at the previous century from the point
of view of what we know now, and his choice of "leftwing thought" (largely
from well-to-do academics) is pretty terrible. He doesn't tackle any serious
questions such as what is Marxism? Where did it originate? How did it
develop? and Where is it going? What is post-Marxism exactly, and what gives
rise to it? All we get is some brief descriptions, which evade every
important question. He says he aims to explain in the book why the future of
Marxism is "uncertain" (p. ix) but there is no real explanation (what is
there to say?), except a Weberian "ideal type" of a "triangle" of social
science, dialectical insight and activism which has been "broken", perhaps
a bit like a torn G-string (e.g. p. 116).

A glib Zeitgeist story results - it seems to say something but it doesn't.
Naturally, when it comes to the crunch, or when they really have to explain
something and not merely interpret it, the erstwhile NLR "Marxist surfies"
typically ditch their Marxism - the only difference nowadays is that they
project their rejection on a much broader historical canvas. It's obvious
that saying "contemporary thought doesn't make sense" is not the same thing
as saying "I cannot make sense of contemporary thought". But we could also
go and talk about something else instead, avoiding the real thing at issue
and call "a spade" not a spade but a "sedimentation conveyance receptacle".

I think the effect of Prof. Therborn's evasion and avoidance is, that he
helps to disorient the new generation further, instead of providing a "map
and a compass" (p. ix), and that, lacking a good analysis, in fact he is
unable to reach any substantial conclusions.

In line with the fashionable trend, he implies everything about the past
can be explained, but as regards the future - well, anything can happen.
But that is not a basis for intellectual leadership or an orientation,
it's apologetics. It mystifies the successes and failures of Marxism.
In overreaching himself, the author necessarily becomes pretentious
even though he intends to stay sober and modest.

At the beginning of the book (p. ix) he wanted to toast Karl Marx for
his liberality, rationality and sense of history, but his concluding
comment from the pulpit is just that we need a "defiant humility" (p.
180-181). This misses the main point entirely, which is that the analyses of
the Leftist intellectuals are mainly terribly bad, and that most
academic Leftists don't actually know how to analyze anything real,
beyond engaging in ideological thinking.

Moreover, Prof. Therborn strangely credits the opposition
with a power it simply does not have. On that basis, all Leftist politics
must fail. Perhaps that is why it is "Left"? In his discoursing about the
malaises of the Left, Prof. Therborn mainly proves that his own
writing about it is symptomatic of it. Oddly, at the very moment
that the global economic crisis confounds bourgeois thought,
Marx's narrative is marked unsatisfactory!

So, anyway, I think that I will start with defying Goran Therborn and the
NLR, for whom being prosaically uncertain is an erudite virtue of nuance
or even the mark of superior intelligence. Some leftists will no doubt
object this is being "not nice", but that's just too bad. I am not
in idol worship, including New Left pomo fetishism.

In plain words: post-Marxism describes the realization that Marxism
contains both severe faults (to be rejected) and valuable insights
(to be preserved), without however there being a clear alternative
to move towards. But Prof. Therborn does not really illuminate this
predicament in an honest way.


PS - The Ass and His Shadow (Aesopian fable)

A traveller hired an Ass and a driver to take him through the
desert to the next town. When they stopped to rest, the sun
was beating down and the traveller sat down in the Ass's shadow,
which was large enough for one person. "Get up, I want to sit
there", said the Ass's owner. "You hired the donkey, but not his
shadow". "Nonsense", said the traveller, "when I hired the the donkey
that included his shadow". The quarrel proceeded from words to
blows, and while the men fought, the Ass galloped off.
Moral of the story: In quarreling about the shadow, we often lose
the substance.

ope mailing list
Received on Sun Mar 1 06:56:31 2009

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.8 : Tue Mar 31 2009 - 00:00:03 EDT