Friday Ephemera
Planetary Bling

Strange Omissions

I’ve previously noted the eagerness of some literary “theorists” to shoehorn Marxism into their first year reading lists with the expectation that students be “conversant with” Marx’s ideas and claims - if not those of his numerous critics - supposedly as an “exploration of theoretical issues in the study of literature.” Terry Eagleton, for instance, seems to believe that Hamlet, Heart of Darkness and Ariel are best read with Marx in mind, though the literary benefits aren’t immediately obvious to me. Nor is it obvious in literary terms why Eagleton would present students with a reading list that includes no fewer than six books about Marxism and its alleged merits: Tony Bennett’s Formalism and Marxism, Eagleton’s Marxism and Literary Criticism, Eagleton’s Ideology, Eagleton’s Criticism and Ideology: A Study in Marxist Literary Theory, Raymond Williams’ Marxism and Literature, and Leon Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution.

In their book One-Party Classroom David Horowitz and Jacob Laksin note a similar enthusiasm:

Consider, for instance, the “writing-intensive two-year course sequence” called “Intellectual Heritage” that [Temple University] requires all students to take. On the program’s web page professors post some thirty different sample exam and study questions under the title “Faculty Perspectives on Marx.” Every one, without exception, prompts students to explain what Marx said in the way one might explain the theories of Copernicus, whose theories have been confirmed by real world experiments. In contrast, all Marxist experiments in the real world have failed – in fact, they have caused the economic impoverishment of whole continents, man-made famines, and human suffering on an unprecedented scale – and yet not one of the professors contributing to the Intellectual Heritage guides bothers to note this historical fact.

In one sample guideline, a professor writes: “Marx presents an astute understanding and critique of capitalism. Is it convincing?” The question does not say, “Marx analyzed capitalism. Is his analysis convincing?” That would have been educational. Instead, the student is effectively told what to think: Marx wrote a wise critique of capitalism. Are you stupid enough to disagree with him? What if the student is not convinced and encounters that question on an exam? Since he has been forewarned that the professor thinks Marx is “astute,” will the student risk saying that Marx was catastrophically wrong, that his unfounded attacks on capitalism led to the creation of regimes that were among the most oppressive and destructive in human history, and that his professor is living in an intellectual Never-Never-Land? Or is he going to humor the professorial prejudice and maximize his chances of getting a decent grade? […]

The faculty guides to Marx on the Intellectual Heritage website fail in every respect to live up to the standards of basic academic enquiry. They offer no critical literature on Marx and Marxism, no writings by von Mises, Kolakowski, Sowell, Malia, Richard Pipes, or other scholarly critics of Marxism. Nor do they confront the connection between Marx’s ideas and the vastly destructive effect of Marxist societies, which murdered 100 million human beings and created unimaginable poverty on a continental scale.

Horowitz and Laksin’s book is well worth a read, if only to witness just how readily Marxist theorising has been grafted onto the study of comparative literature, rhetoric, communication studies, African-American studies, anthropology and journalism - very often by English graduates with no formal qualification in - or obvious grasp of - economics. Ploughing through these examples isn’t exactly an uplifting experience, in fact it’s quite depressing, not least because of the overtly question-begging nature of so many course outlines. The sense of gloom is made worse by the almost total indifference of administrators to systematic breaches of their own guidelines on bias and academic probity. Though many of the course descriptions and educators’ biographies do offer some amusement of the grimmest possible kind.

Related: A Cautionary Tale.


squid vicious

To be fair, being conversant in Marx is probably an essential requirement if one wants to pursue an academic career in almost any English department of any university, so there is that benefit. Other things that should be required in preparation for such an academic career would include coursework on how to be an irrational tyrant, how to force your opinions on others, and how to be self-nullifying and chronically unhappy in a way that is obvious to everyone but yourself.


To be clear (and as Horowitz and Laksin point out several times), the objection isn’t to students being introduced to Marxism per se; though its relevance is often doubtful and the framing tendentious, even absurd. If you’re studying Brecht or Tian Han, for instance, I’m sure some grasp of Marxism is useful. But the authors catalogue dozens of attempts to shoehorn Marxist assertions into all manner of subjects on the slimmest of pretexts and as if they were axiomatic. More to the point, there’s a remarkable lack of contrary analysis or acknowledgment of practical fallout, which may lead some students to assume that what they’re being told is uncontested and benign.

James S

"…if only to witness just how readily Marxist theorising has been grafted onto the study of comparative literature, rhetoric, communication studies, African-American studies, anthropology and journalism - very often by English graduates with no formal qualification in - or obvious grasp of - economics."

David, have you seen this?

"What can we say of disciplines that license teachers to stray so far from their training? We have English professors teaching political theory, arts educators teaching the history of sexual politics, and rhetoric scholars outlining global capitalism. That's what the substitution of political agendas for rightful teaching does. It lightens the burden of knowledge and loosens the ties of rigor. People lose sight of a fundamental distinction in liberal education, which appears at the end of the book. Horowitz/Laksin do not object to Marxist, feminist, and other leftwing perspectives. Instead, they object to the presentation of them as given starting points, that is, "when professors teach a point of view that is contested within the spectrum of scholarly or intellectually responsible opinion as though it were scientific fact" (283)."



Thanks. I saw. What’s interesting is the scandalised reaction of some to this basic, fairly unobjectionable, challenge. I’ve heard lots of blather about “academic freedom” as if educators should be “free” to present students with only one side of a political argument as if it were beyond dispute, or “free” to frame a course in such a way that what matters is the approved political conclusion, not how one gets there. It’s as much about professionalism as it is about political bias.

Bauerlein also touches on something I’ve mentioned here several times. In response to accusations of “cherry-picking” the worst examples, Bauerlein notes how many such examples there are, and how bad some of them are, and asks what that says about the institutions in which they persist, even flourish: “[T]hese courses are not simply individual expressions. They signify an institutional condition, a world in which such tendencies seem normal and routine… If academics do exercise careful scrutiny of one another, then every instance of bias implicates the system of review that let it pass.”

And for me this is a key point. It’s not enough to dismiss, say, Wahneema Lubiano or Carolyn Guertin as some isolated aberrations and thus irrelevant. Guertin and Lubiano are given license by an environment that tolerates such bare-faced flummery and shocking incompetence. Their work is habitually tendentious or factually inaccurate and often simply meaningless. (Guertin repeatedly uses physics terms she has no apparent understanding of. The results are almost funny.) The fact that they arouse so little resistance within their immediate academic circles tells us something – perhaps quite a lot – about the circles in which they operate.

carbon based lifeform

Horowitz talks about academic freedom here:

"At the end of the evening, Prof. Cloud stepped up to the microphone to ask a question, which was actually a little speech. Even though the protocol for such occasions restricts audience participants from making their own speeches, I did her the courtesy she tried to deny me by letting her talk. She presented herself as a devoted teacher and mother who was obviously harmless. Then she accused me of being a McCarthyite menace. Disregarding the facts I had laid out in my talk -- that I have publicly defended the right of University of Colorado's radical professor Ward Churchill to hold reprehensible views and not be fired for them, and that I supported the leftist dean of the law school at UC Irvine when his appointment was withdrawn for political reasons -- she accused me of whipping up a "witch-hunting hysteria" that made her and her faculty comrades feel threatened.

When Ms. Cloud finished, I pointed out that organizing mobs to scream epithets at invited speakers fit the category of "McCarthyite" a lot more snugly than my support for a pluralism of views in university classrooms. I gestured toward the armed officers in the room -- the university had assigned six or seven to keep the peace -- and introduced my own bodyguard, who regularly accompanies other conservative speakers when they visit universities. In the past, I felt uncomfortable about taking protection to a college campus until a series of physical attacks at universities persuaded me that such precautions were necessary. (When I spoke at the University of Texas two years ago, Ms. Cloud and her disciples had to be removed by the police in order for the talk to proceed.)

I don't know of a single leftist speaker among the thousands who visit campuses every term who has been obstructed or attacked by conservative students, who are too decent and too tolerant to do that. The entire evening in Texas reminded me of the late Orianna Fallaci's observation that what we are facing in the post-9/11 world is not a "clash of civilizations," but a clash of civilization versus barbarism."

Sounds spot on to me.



Thanks for that. Dana Cloud is mentioned several times in the book, so it’s no great wonder she’s pissed off. (I think that’s basically what she does – she gets pissed off professionally, as it were.) Cloud calls Horowitz a “self-appointed general of the right-wing thought police” and she manages to do this without a flicker of irony. She’s also claimed that Horowitz has an unspoken agenda to “discredit, harass and censor critical intellectuals and activists on our campuses. He knows that universities have historically been spaces of critical thinking and dissent.” Again, if you compare this claim with the arguments for pluralism and rigour raised in his book – and with Cloud’s own heavily tendentious teaching methods – the projection is almost funny.

Professor Cloud is a member of the International Socialist Organisation, a campus group that organised the disruption of, among others, Don Feder’s speech at the University of Massachusetts. Presumably, Cloud thinks the use of air-horns and screamed epithets is a yardstick of academic probity and “critical thinking.” Perhaps she thinks arguments are won with decibels.


"she accused me of whipping up a "witch-hunting hysteria" that made her and her faculty comrades feel threatened."

The only thing being "threatened" is her chance to behave like a spoilt teenager.

Horace Dunn

I often think that, when lefties get together on a demonstration, their placards should have slogans such as "My parents said that I won't get my allowance unless I tidy my room - smash capitalism!!" or "My dad won't let me get my ears pierced - destroy fascism!"

Aside from that, I have been challenging my brain to come up with a recent example in which right wing factions have behaved thuggishly on campus in order to silence people with whom they disagree. In truth I can't think of one, though I would be surprised if there were no examples whatsoever. Nonetheless, intolerance seems to be very much the purview of the left these days - that is to say the mainstream left.

The concern is, for me, that there is something truly dysfunctional here. A broadly socialist (that is to say statist, perhaps even dirigiste) approach to governance is now the norm in western democracies. For my part I admit that it has brought things that I approve of, so I would not wish to decry it absolutely. But those who have been dogmatically attached to leftist philosophies to continue behaving as though they are a plucky minority fighting an implacable and inhuman foe must surely require a degree of self-delusion. Well, let them delude themselves, you might say, but the fact that society generally treats them so indulgently suggests to me that there is a sickness here that should be of paramount concern.

If I might make one other point. Some years ago I talked to a woman from Romania. She was making use of the possibilities available to her in a post-communist Europe by moving to London and pursuing a career of her choice. She took a degree course in London, and spoke to me of her distress about the way in which the lecturers at her University – the LSE – covered the subject of communism. As she put it to me “it was as though it was a really good idea but a couple of things had gone wrong”. It seemed that there were several other Eastern Europeans attending the same lectures. I asked whether anyone had challenged what the lecturers were saying and she replied “no, we were too scared”. The generation of youngsters attending that course at that time would have been children when communism died, but they knew of the privations that their parents felt, and they carried with them their parents’ hopes for a better future. I think any further comment from me on this matter would be superfluous.



“As she put it to me, ‘it was as though it was a really good idea but a couple of things had gone wrong’.”

Heh. Once in a while something similar happens in the Guardian. It’s often Seumas Milne. Shortly afterwards a letter will appear by someone who actually lived with the fist of Communism up their rear. He or she will patiently point out that what was inflicted upon them had quite a bit to do with that “really good idea” and what follows from it. I’ve often marvelled at how those with a vicarious enthusiasm for Communism can perform elaborate mental manoeuvres to utterly disconnect the theory, which is morally reprehensible, from its practical consequences, which are typically monstrous and obscene.

Cue another Horowitz and Laksin quote:

“Another Intellectual Heritage professor, who is also the chairman of the Political Science Department, provides an extensive study guide that denies in so many words that the awful acts committed in the name of Marx have anything to do with Marx or his ideas. ‘The collapse of authoritarian Communism,’ he writes, ‘means the death of Marxist-Leninism [which] has little to do with classical Marxism.’ This would be news to millions of very intelligent people – including Lenin himself and such intellectual luminaries as Gyorgy Lukacs, Antonio Gramsci, Louis Althusser and Eric Hobsbawm – who thought authoritarian Communism was Marx’s plan. At the very least the relationship between classical Marxism and Marxism-Leninism is a much-debated issue. It is, therefore, an issue worthy of academic enquiry, not of a sweeping, unsupported statement that the two had ‘little to do’ with each other.” [p.169]



"as though it was a really good idea but a couple of things had gone wrong."

"The estimates of the deaths caused by communism are staggering indeed: 65 million in China, 20 million in the former Soviet Union, two million each in Cambodia and North Korea, 1.7 in Africa, one million each in Vietnam and Eastern Europe and 150,000 in Latin America. All told, approximately 100 million lives were taken by the Communist regimes, as opposed to 25 million by Hitler's Nazi regime-a regime almost universally regarded as the quintessence and paradigm of evil.";col1

8th time lucky? 9th? 10th? What was Einstein's definition of madness?


I must admit I never got very far with Capital. I remember something Kolakowski wrote about it. Marx decided to update the statistics in the book for the second edition. And he hit on a problem. It was absolutely central to the thesis of Capital that workers' real wages should fall. But all the available data showed they were actually rising. What should Marx, the scientist, do? Obviously he should rethink his theory, since the data contradicted it. Instead, Marx updated all the other data, but left the wage data as it was in the first edition.

I've read other bits of Marx, and he frequently says things which modern lefties wouldn't like at all. He's anti-Green, for instance. No other thinker in human history is more firmly tied to the idea of progress than Marx - which is as un-Postmodernist as it's possible to be. In the Communist Manifesto he famously despises the "idiocy of rural life" (George Monbiot take note). His attitude to western imperialism is rather complicated. Regarding India, for instance, he loathes the rapacity of the British conquerors like Clive; but he also sees benefits, in the railway and the telegraph. Ultimately, he thinks eastern societies have no choice but to become more western. He doesn't really believe in multiculturalism of the modern sort.


"We have no compassion and we ask no compassion from you. When our turn comes, we shall not make excuses for the terror."

- Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels ("Suppression of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung," Neue Rheinische Zeitung, May 19, 1849)


A New Hope...,5143,705298649,00.html


"He's anti-Green, for instance."

Yes. There were several currents to Socialism and one of them was, for want of a better term, Pasteural Socialism. It thought that modern life (ie in the early industrial era) was dehumanising and wanted a return to an earlier era when man lived in harmony with nature. It valued things like craft guilds and rejected industrialism, particularly mass production. The arts and crafts movement was closely aligned.

And the lesser known Fellowship of New Life

During the nineteenth century "Scientific Socialists" emerged as the dominant faction. Elements survived, most obviously in the Green movement today. Clearly, when scientific socialism was tested and found wanting then the other varieties will re-emerge. It's interesting to note the frequency of socialists complaining about cranks amongst their followers. Lenin famously refused to use "Bolshevik doctors" because of their preference for alternate medicine.

Orwell observed:

"Socialism, " attracts "with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, 'Nature Cure' quack, pacifist and feminist in England."

There is nothing new under the sun. Perhaps the only difference is that today the lunatics have taken over the asylum.


This is where the argument really gets interesting. The pre-bourgeois aristocracy held similar views to the green socialists you reference - a distain for modernity, science, trade and urbanism, and an exaggerated esteem for the homespun and folkloric. For the aristocrat and the hereditary monarch this attitude makes complete sense. His authority comes the mystique of historical prescription; from the idea that because people have been doing something for a very long time, that makes it right. The old traditions are the best. It's no surprise Prince Charles is both a green and a fan of homeopathy.


“For the aristocrat and the hereditary monarch this attitude makes complete sense.”

I’ve met several socialists who seemed to imagine themselves as aristocrats of a sort. Not in so many words, of course, but in their assumptions of utopia and how to steer others to those elevated plains. Polly Toynbee is perhaps an obvious example, with her paternalistic airs, unshakeable hypocrisy and her claim to know what’s best for everyone else, even when they disagree quite loudly. (Readers may remember her suggestion that everyone should reveal how much they earn – and blush with shame – while she, hardly a pauper girl, refused to do the same, despite several invitations from readers. Presumably, come The New Beginning, she’ll be an administrator of great importance, and thus exempt from such piffling details. She’ll be looking down on us, no doubt benevolently.)

It’s rather like the mental fudging required with the “dictatorship of the proletariat” schtick. This perversely named and supposedly temporary phase seems to be where the great Marxist project always grinds to a halt, with no-one having much freedom or influence (or, quite often, food), except for the grander egalitarians who take it upon themselves to dictate *on behalf* of the proletariat. But only until the proletariat gets its act together, honest. Somehow the utopian heights of moneyless, non-exploitative enlightenment are never quite reached. Can’t imagine why.


I thought Polly Toynbee WAS aristocracy. She acts like she was born to rule over us.


“I thought Polly Toynbee WAS aristocracy.”

She is, it’s true, a rather grand woman - born into a privileged, quasi-aristocratic family, descended from the 9th Earl of Carlisle, privately educated, with a second home in Tuscany, a well-into-six-figure income, etc. She’s also the unofficial empress dowager of the Guardian, which has to count for something. As many have pointed out, Toynbee is grander (and wealthier) than many of the “toffs” and “fat cats” she berates, and she’s keen to deny others access to the choices from which she and her children benefit. All of which suggests not so much keen political analysis as the influence of personal demons. Alas, she’s not alone in her patrician egalitarianism and its dubious origins:


David (and others),

If you haven't seen this...

Hope you like it.





The article itself is a piece of work, and the Guardianista comments are up to the usual lofty standard:

“We don’t occupy any moral high ground to lecture Cuba because we don’t live in free societies either.”


“Every advert on television, every mindless game show, every reality TV show, every billboard, every car showroom etc is propaganda for the capitalist consumerist dream.”

Though I quite like this one:

“Well yes. We can all agree the Cubans have the right to reject Western consumerism and capitalism. But that is not the question. The question is will Dr Yaffe accept that she does NOT have the right to reject Western consumerism on behalf of the Cuban people? Will Dr Yaffe accept that the Cuban Communist Party does not have the right to reject Western freedom on behalf of the Cuban people? Will Dr Yaffe accept that the only people who have the right to reject freedom and democracy are the people of Cuba? …By all means, let the Cubans reject what they want - but let’s hear them say so in free and fair elections. Does Dr Yaffe support that I wonder idly? …In the meantime I wonder how much Western consumerism all those friends of the Castro’s dictatorship in the West reject for themselves?”

And this:

“With the Soviet Union gone, there is no longer a rational reason to treat Cuba as any kind of threat. However, it also means that delusional people like this author start realizing that the Cuban revolution was not an overall success for the Cuban people, but it was for academia and ideologues who did not have to actually live under the system.”


"We don't occupy any moral high ground to lecture Cuba because we don't live in free societies either."

That explains all the boat people leaving Florida and heading off to Cuba.


Big surpise- Dr Helen Yaffe is a big Che fan:

"Che stands for what's best about a revolutionary. So believes Helen Yaffe, a young Briton captivated by the Heroic Guerrilla's depth of thought and for whom internationalist solidarity was Che’s greatest legacy to humanity."

"Che's thoughts are so transcendental…"


Poland 'to ban' Che Guevara image

The proposal, which could see the faces of some of the leading lights of communist history such as Lenin and Trotsky removed from t-shirts and flags, reflects a Polish view on communism far different from the rose-tinted and romantic images often found in the West.

After experiencing 40 hard years of communism, as well as the horrors of Nazi occupation, few Poles have qualms equating under law the inequities of Nazism and communism.

"Communism was a terrible, murderous system that claimed millions of lives," said Professor Wojciech Roszkowski, a leading Polish historian and member of the European parliament.

"It was very similar to National Socialism, and there is no reason to treat those two systems, and their symbols, differently. Their glorification should be prohibited."

He added communism had accounted for the slaughter of thousands of Poles in the Katyn Massacre while its gulags had consumed countless millions of victims.


I think the socialist/leftist view isn't simply a preference for the homespun and the traditional, which are part of its utopian nature, but this utopian system is in favour of a societal structure that sets up a two-class system: the elites and the, ah, peasants.

There is no middle class, understanding a middle class as made up of individualists, free-thinkers, entrepreneurs. In the middle class, there is no hereditary wealth, it's all self-organized and self-made wealth. This is the same with knowledge - it's entrepreneurial.

Socialism and the left are actually replications of the 17-18th c elites, the landed gentry, focused on hereditary authority, and contemptuous of anyone 'in trade', or anyone who was 'self-made'.

The socialists/leftists see themselves as having a superior knowledge and indeed, a societal duty and right, to tell everyone else how to live. And this lifestyle they advocate is certainly without individual freedom - for - there is no middle class. Dissent is not allowed.

It's fascinating to see how closely the left fits in with the soft decadent landed gentry of the 18th c.

By the way, I like Popper's analysis of Marx in The Open Society and Its Enemies.

virgil xenophon


You should read Eric Voegelin and his analysis of the Gnostics who felt they were in possession of "the Word" and thereby the superior knowledge it encompassed. He considered modern-day "progressive" worshipers of the great Agustus Compte and logical positivism to be the natural extension of the gnostic tradition and that the end result of such man-made certitude was totalitarianism.

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