Fresh audio product

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 29/05/2020 - 8:26am in


Radio, Marxism

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

May 28, 2020 Excerpts from a virtual panel sponsored by Red May, Seattle: Jodi Dean, Leo Panitch, and Asad Haider on the current crisis, with lots about how socialists should engage with the state (full session, with video, here)


Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 28/05/2020 - 5:59am in


anarchism, Marxism

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First entry into a series of blogs where I address bad political arguments I have heard from others.

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Marx on Value

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 25/05/2020 - 2:50am in

A few days ago I posted a question on Twitter with an ultimatum attached:

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I thought only a handful of people who knew me and understood my tone would read it, but somebody named Brandy Jensen replied. I don’t know who she is, but she’s clearly Mama Ru to the Dirtbag Left, because once she’d posted her reply I started getting replies and retweets from Chapo Trap House offcuts — men living in Brooklyn with names like Kurt and Kyle, competing to performatively attack me in sweaty desperation to impress Brandy (I’m not sure it worked). Through the process I learned that most people who talk about Marx do so not because they understand a word he wrote but because they need the world to see how left-wing they are.

It seems important to work out what Marx means by value. Joan Robinson, in Economic Philosophy, proposed that value is a pseudo-concept with no factual content, used by Marx not to explain any facts about capitalism but only to express his feelings towards it. Take away the feelings around the concept and very little is left.

David Ricardo had employed the labour theory of value to explain relative prices: commodities exchange at prices proportionate to the labour that went into them. He then struggled with the rate of profit — what most people today would call the rate of interest. To be worth producing, commodities produced using the same amount of labour over longer and shorter time periods must sell at different prices, to account for the compounding of interest.

For Marx the problem of profit becomes a problem of surplus value. When a capitalist applies capital and labour to produce a commodity and realise a profit, Marx insists, the capital doesn’t create any of the surplus value that makes up the profit. Labour is solely responsible for this, and the capitalist simply plunders some of what the workers produce. Yet, no less than Ricardo, Marx runs into the problem of the rate of interest. Competition must drive the rate of profit across industries to be equal to this, even though the capital-to-labour ratio is different in different industries. Marx therefore has to assume a transfer of surplus value from some industries to others: labour-intensive industries effectively subsidise the profits of capital-intensive ones.

But, as Mark Blaug pointed out in Economic Theory in Retrospect, once we have that assumption in place we could just as well hold that it is capital that alone creates value, while labour creates none of it:

If, instead, [Marx] had operated with a capital theory of value, attributing the whole of the surplus solely to machinery and implements […] he could have carried on transforming values in to prices in exactly the same way as he did. […] With a capital theory of value we can say that all capitalists share in a pool of surplus value, a pool created solely by the nonhuman factors of production; in the process of equating profit margins per unit of capital invested in both labor and machines, capitalists necessarily cause prices to fall below value in capital-intensive industries and to rise above value in labor-intensive industries. (237)

If we held a capital theory of value rather than a labour theory then the observed facts would be just the same: capitalists apply capital and labour to produce commodities, only one of these factors actually creates surplus value, and those industries employing more of that factor transfer surplus value to those employing less of it. A theory that ascribed the creation of surplus value to both factors would also be empirically equivalent to the other two.

You could reply here that Marx can explain why only labour can create surplus value through sociological facts. It is possible to pay a worker a subsistence wage — what Marx calls the value of her ‘labour-power’ — while she produces commodities worth more than that wage — the value added through the consumption of her labour-power. Surplus value is the difference, pocketed by the capitalist. But upon examination this explanation simply assumes the labour theory of value. If it were capital that supplied the difference between the value of the wage paid to the worker and the value of the commodity produced, then the worker would give no more value to the commodity than the value of her labour power — in other words labour wouldn’t create any surplus value.

This is what leads Robinson to accuse the concept of value of lacking real content. Entirely different theories of value are consistent with the same observed facts. Suppose a capitalist pays a worker £200 to live on while producing commodities that sell for £220, and pockets the £20 difference. A ‘bourgeois economist’ might explain it this way: Production takes time, and the capitalist supplies the time by effectively lending the worker money to live on while she produces the commodity. For this contribution the capitalist is compensated £20 — Alfred Marshall called this ‘the reward of waiting’.

Marx would call this nonsense, or worse, ideology. ‘Waiting’ is not an extra factor in production. It is the worker’s labour that creates the extra £20 of value, and the capitalist simply expropriates it by exploiting the fact that the worker has nothing to live on while exercising her own labour power. In effect, the capitalist is a usurer, charging the worker for a loan she cannot live without. It adds confusion but doesn’t change anything fundamental if capital — the contribution of time — involves the embodiment of past labour in machinery and implements as part of a production cycle.

Well, how do we decide between these claims about value? The bourgeois economist says that the capitalist surrenders £200 to the productive process and thus foregoes the use of it during that period; Marx wouldn’t disagree. The bourgeois economist points out that, things being as they are, production wouldn’t be possible if the capitalist didn’t do this; again, Marx wouldn’t deny it. The worker, says the bourgeois economist, might well have agreed to the deal: subsistence wages of £200 now and you give up a product worth £220 later — Marx would only add that she didn’t have much choice but to agree to this, and the bourgeois economist wouldn’t argue with that. So what is there to argue about?

If you want to say that the capitalist is entitled to profit, you will say that the capitalist contributes something to the creation of value, for example ‘waiting’. But what is the real difference between saying (a) the capitalist contributes to the creation of value in a commodity and (b) the capitalist is entitled to some of the proceeds from the sale of the commodity? Robinson seemed to take a very reductionist, non-cognitivist line on this: statements about value have no factual content at all; they boil down to expressions or injunctions or commands — e.g. ‘labour creates all value’ really comes down to ‘expropriate the capitalists!’ or ‘boo capitalism!’. I wouldn’t go that far. But since, again, the observable facts seem to be identical either way, I do think that the only basis for deciding whether or not to hold (a) seems to be whether or not you want to say (b). In that case it isn’t your theory of value that tells you what attitude to have; it’s your attitude that dictates what theory you should hold.

Alternatively, as many of my Twitter correspondents suggested, we could simply define value as the (socially average) labour-time that goes into the production of a commodity. But then the labour theory of value, which tells us that the value of a commodity is created by the labour that goes into it, becomes either a nonsensical statement of value’s self-creation or an empty triviality, reducing to the claim that the labour that goes into a commodity is the labour that goes into it. If saying that is your way of telling Brandy Jensen that you’re on the far left, then I hope you get the affirmation you crave. But if you want to state an interesting fact, then I’m not quite sure what it’s supposed to be.

On Analytic Marxism's Displacement of Dialectics

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 22/05/2020 - 10:23pm in



In each sense of 'analytical', to be analytical is to be opposed to a form of thinking traditionally thought integral to Marxism: analytical thinking, in the broad sense of 'analytical', is opposed to so-called 'dialectical' thinking, and analytical thinking, in the narrow sense of 'analytical', is opposed to what might be called 'holistic' thinking. The fateful operation that created analytical Marxism was the rejection of the claim that Marxism possesses valuable intellectual methods of its own. Rejection of that claim enabled an appropriation of a rich mainstream methodology that Marxism, to!its detriment, had shunned....I said (see section 1 above) that analytical Marxists do not think that Marxism possesses a distinctive and valuable method. Others believe that it has such a method, which they call 'dialectical'. But we believe that, although the word 'dialectical' has not always been used without clear meaning, it has never been used with clear meaning to denote a method rival to the analytical one.[1] There is no such thing as a dialectical form of reasoning that can challenge analytical reasoning. Belief in dialectic as a rival to analysis thrives only in an atmosphere of unclear thought. G.A. Cohen "Introduction to the 2000 edition" (2000 [1978]) Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence, xvii-xxiii.

Cohen takes non-trivial pride in having helped  found the method of analytic marxism (see p. xvii & xxiii).  This is explicitly opposed to, and intended to displace, what is known as dialectics. Dialectics is dismissed for being unclear . In the quoted passage, and later in the introduction, he suggests dialectics is only taken seriously in a context pervaded by unclarity such that resistance to analytic marxism (by those wedded to dialectic) exhibits "irrational obscurantism." (xxiv) Presumably, the footnote [1] is supposed to illustrate the lack of clarity. It reads,  "I do not think that the following, to take a recent example, describes such a method: 'This is precisely the first meaning we can give to the idea of dialectic: a logic or form of explanation specifically adapted to the determinant intervention of class struggle in the very fabric of history.' (Etienne Balibar, The Philosophy of Marx p. 97.) If you read a sentence like that quickly, it can sound pretty good. The remedy is to read it more slowly." (p. xxiii) 

As regular readers know, I am a bit allergic to the habit, cultivated by my analytic peers, to quote exemplary sentences (generally by continental philosophers) out of context, add some snark (here disguised as sincere advice), and say, see. Perhaps, Balibar's work on Marx is as shallow as Cohen suggests.  But the choice for Balibar (an academic best known by me for his work on Spinoza) is revealing because it is neither Marx nor an accomplished revolutionary practitioner of dialectics, say, Rosa Luxemburg, who calls the "dialectical materialist method of historical analysis" one of two "principles" of the "essence" of Marxism ("Foreword to the Anthology The Polish Question and the Socialist Movement.")

Let's stipulate that clarity is an important intellectual virtue even within Marxism. And if you are already socialized in a certain intellectual habitus, it is perfectly legitimate to take it for granted (even for polemical purposes). But, speaking strictly as a bourgeois intellectual, it is an odd choice for a Marxist to rest one's case on. Let me explain.

For Carnap, whose socialist commitments were not disguised, clarity is, in fact, a property or by-product of formal systems.* Carnapian clarity is really a second-order property of an otherwise esoteric, expert practice.  But if one is interested in revolutionary or even emancipatory politics,  it is not obvious that such clarity is the ruling virtue (as opposed to virtues that motivate action, or enable the proletariat to fulfill their revolutionary potential).  I don't mean to deny that for Carnap, presumably, anybody can be trained to become such an expert. And there is an attractive feature of communism -- emphasized, say, by Ernest Mandel in The Economic Formation of the Economic Thought of Karl Marx 1843 to Capital -- that under communism everybody will be intellectually literate. But that's supposed to be the end-point of the revolution not the (prefigurative) means. 

Be that as it may, the introduction I quoted from is a later addition. In Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence, Cohen does not (as far as I can tell) engage with the question at all.** I have been unable to find any place where Cohen does the intellectual work to show with some care what's wrong with dialectics. Throughout the book he cites his own (1974) "Marx's Dialectic of Labor;" this paper explicitly sets aside anything that non analytic Marxists might mean by dialectic and only focuses on "the descriptive residue" of the concept.

Earlier yet, in 1969, Cohen did a lovely review essay, worth re-reading for many reasons, "Critical Theory: The Philosophy of Marcuse," of Marcuse in New Left Review . This is a more general critique of (what Perry Anderson has called) Western Marxism to move from to "the aspirations of people" (and being a spokesman for them) to a focus on "culture" (and ideology). In this piece, Cohen suggests there is an authentic Marxist spirit from which Marcuse has deviated. An example of this more authentic Marxism (by Cohen's lights in 1969) is Karl Korsch.+ 

As it happens, Korsch is a lucid writer. And in his (1923) Marxism in Philosophy he offers a useful diagnosis of the motives of those who reject dialectics and a hint of what it might be:

Setting aside any philosophical considerations, it is therefore clear that without this coincidence of consciousness and reality, a critique of political economy could never have become the major component of a theory of social revolution. The converse follows. Those Marxist theoreticians for whom Marxism was no longer essentially a theory of social revolution could see no need for this dialectical conception of the coincidence of reality and consciousness: it was bound to appear to them as theoretically false and unscientific.-- [Emphases in original.] Translated by Fred Halliday.

In context, it is clear that the coincidence of consciousness and reality -- hereafter: the coincidence thesis -- is a constitutive feature of dialectics, but does not exhaust it. That consciousness and reality coincide is a position associated in different ways and with different political sensibilities with Platonism, Spinozism, and Hegel. It is easy to make fun of, but it is not unintelligible or, if you try working through it, nor obscure. (It is a bit tricky to learn to embrace the coincidence between epistemic and ontic perspectives if you have been taught this is a blunder.) Somewhat amusingly in Spinoza the epistemological and metaphysical achievement (recall this post on Tarski) of such coincidence is itself associated with full clarity. Korsch doesn't claim that Marxist dialectic is itself clear, but he thinks it is clear that the coincidence thesis is necessary for the way in which a critique of political economy could become a part of a theory of social revolution. And this, in turn, is a key feature to generate (the right sort of) revolution. 

Let me take stock. I have not here tried to articulate a full theory of dialectics. (That's for another time and perhaps not my role in life.) I have also not discussed the merits of analytic marxism. More narrowly, while Cohen is an early mover in analytic marxism, he is fairly late in the history of analytic philosophy. And so this makes one wonder if anybody in the analytic tradition did the serious work of showing by way of argument what's wrong with dialectics. This question is especially urgent because there are many indications that marxism is receiving renewed consideration within analytic philosophy or at least by our students.

To find such an attempt, we must look, I assume to Vienna (in the 1920s-30s) or New York (in the late 1930s), or perhaps Lodz (in the 1930s). As it happens, Cohen echoes in uncanny fashion -- the lesser,  lazy polemics*** of -- Ernest Nagel's treatment of dialectics; Nagel presents (recall) dialectics like the early moderns treat the terms of scholastic philosophy: as fundamentally unintelligible. And so, we seem to be stuck in an eternal return of name-calling. However, Nagel was intimately familiar with Sidney Hook's (1939) "Dialectic in Social and Historical Inquiry," (published in JPhil) which presents itself as doing such thankless work, and, perhaps, the only such effort in the analytic tradition (now broadly conceived).++ I shall turn to it soon in order to establish whether Nagel's (and so by extension) Cohen's polemics rest on intellectual granite or quicksand.



*Quine, by contrast (recall), has a tendency, as Greg Frost-Arnold has shown, (i) to associate clarity with more general forms of intelligibility. In later years, Quine might argue that (ii) his program (developed in Word & Object) of the philosopher regimenting scientific language to exhibit its ontological commitments, may also be aiming at a species of clarity (about the 'ontology' of science), alongside systematicity.  He also (iii) came to think of clarity as a more general theoretical virtue of a system. 

**Janosch Prinz called my attention to Sayer, S. (1984). Marxism and the Dialectical Method: A Critique of G.A. Cohen. Radical Philosophy 36, pp. 4-13; reprinted/revised as Sayers, Sean (1990) Marxism and the Dialectical Method: A Critique of G.A. Cohen. In: Sayers, Sean and Osborne, Peter, eds. Socialism, Feminism and Philosophy: A Radical Philosophy Reader. Routledge, London, pp. 140-168. This piece nicely argues that in so doing Cohen really distorts Marx. It is an interesting question, one Sayer doesn't quite confront, whether Cohen's distortion may be (sorry for the serious joke) dialectically necessary.

+He quotes a passage from Korsch without giving a citation. Presumably the readers of the New Left Review back in 1969 would have automatically recognized Karl Korschs (1938) Karl Marx, but I was grateful for Google's assistance.

***Cf. The standard set by Carnap on Heidegger, which is (recall) a work of poetics (and here).

++I welcome other suggestions. .Nagel (a scientific pragmatist) is central to the future trajectory of analytic philosophy (despite now being understood primarily as a philosopher of science and teacher of Suppes and Levi). Hook is now largely sidelined as a Deweyan pragmatic naturalist.

On Vestal Virgins, Marxism and Final Causes (via Ernest Nagel, Huxley, and Bacon)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 18/05/2020 - 11:39pm in



The third type of philosophy of science will require only brief exposition. It is professed, among others, by a number of scientists in this country and England, whose object is to show the social implications of theoretical research and thereby to rob modem theories of their air of mystery. They explain, frequently with admirable lucidity, the new sources of power opened up by science, the economies in human effort which it is capable of effecting, and the close interdependence of science and the technological arts. The dominant emphasis is thus placed upon scientific theories as engineers' "blue-prints for action," rather than as disclosures of some final reality.
There might be little to object to this approach to science if those who take it would not confuse their thesis by other claims: that scientific research ought always to be conducted with the social good in view, or that all significant research is in fact deter­mined by the organization and practical needs of society. There is, however, no evidence for the proposition that a warm social conscience is the best guide for the conduct of research; there is no ground for assuming that everyone knows what is socially desirable, that what is not of immediate social value will never prove to be so, or that devotion to socially valuable results neces­sarily contributes to the fullest development of systematic knowl­edge. There is overwhelming evidence to show that the content and direction of theoretical research is in the main controlled by technical problems internal to the sciences, and that changes in the social economy do not in general constitute the sufficient con­ditions for the specific content of theoretical inquiries.
A number of writers in this group make the further claim that the methods as well as the conclusions of science conform to the triad of "dialectical principles" sacred to many followers of Hegel and Marx. For example, Levy has argued that the occurrence of a distinct type of wave produced by a ship after it reaches a critical velocity illustrates the law of abrupt change of quality with sufficient increase of quantity; and Haldane has borne witness to the inestimable value of all three laws in his own biological researches. Space is lacking to examine these and other claims for the virtues of the dialectic laws. It must suffice to recall Einstein's remark that philosophers are fortunate indeed in beingg always able to establish the agreement of the latest findings of science with their own metaphysical principles. The principles of dialectic can be guaranteed never the fail, because their terms have no fixed content; they can be stretched to cover any facts whatsoever, after the facts have been independently established.
Were it not for the mysterious profundity claimed for them, and did they not serve to check inquiry by the glib finality with which they resolve all problems, the laws of dialectic could be left unreproached as a curious verbal game. As instruments for disentangling the web of theoretical constructions, however, they are as barren as the purest of vestal virgins.--Ernest Nagel (1941) "Recent Philosophies of Science," Kenyon Review (Vol 8), reprinted in Sovereign Reason (1954) 45-46.

I have quoted all of section 3, from a brief, critical "survey" of then prominent four philosophies of science by Ernest Nagel. Near the end of the paper, Nagel himself is forthright that he favors the fourth approach, which "does not aim at a compact system bt at painstaking analyses of the details of scientific procedure (46); but he associates it with names like "Mach, Poincare, Duhem, Campbell...Pierce....Russell, Wittgenstein, Tarkski...Carnap...James, Dewey, Cohen, Neurath, and Woodger;" (46) This approach frequently "goes under the somewhat unprecise and misleading of of "operationalism." (39) The two other approaches are associated with Whitehead (which gets a respectful critical treatment) and Eddington (which does not: his "philosophy of science consists of "outrageous puns."" (45)) 

The third type involves what we may call Marxist philosophy of science and Nagel's two exemplars are Haldane and Levy (surprisingly Bernal is not mentioned). I assume J.B.S. Haldane is somewhat familiar to readers of this blog. (And his work is due a rediscory given his interest in infectious diseases and pandemics.) I am pretty confident that most of my readers are less familiar with Levy. The index to Sovereign reason suggests this is a H. Levy. And with help of Google, I am pretty confident this is the author of (1938) A Philosophy for a Modern Man because it is also mentioned by Robert S. Cohen in "Marxism and Scientific Philosophy" a longer and more scholarly (and fascinating) review article in Metaphysical Review (1951).

The four features of Marxist philosophy of science that Nagel rejects are: (i) the normative claim that science ought to be guided by social aims; (ii) the empirical claim that it is always guided by social aims. In addition, (iii) the historicist thesis that science is determined by social economic context. And, finally, (iv) dialectical principles and its laws.

As an aside, (iii) was not just associated with Marxist philosophy of science. Institutional economists who were progressives (but not necessarily socialists or marxists) also accepted a version of (iii). As I have demonstrated, George Stigler, the Chicago economist, who was well read in philosophy of science (including Nagel) polemically rejects a version of (iii) in the 1950s-1960s; Stigler called it the “environmental theory" and he associated it with the historian of economics (and sociologist of knowledge) W. Stark and Wesley Mitchell, one of the leading institutionalists of the previous generation (who had died in 1948) and one of Milton Friedman’s mentors at NBER. 

Some other time I want to reflect a bit, from a sociological perspective, on the significance of the polemical rejection of dialectics by (would be) analytic philosophers, including those self-proclaimed analytic marxists more friendly to Marxism. Unlike his treatment of (i-iii), and his criticisms of the other approaches to philosophy of science, Nagel clearly does not think it is worth his effort to try to argue against dialectic and its laws. His only criticism that does not reduce to name calling ("no fixed content';" "mysterious profundity;" glib" etc.)* is that its practitioners engage in retrospectifve confirmation ("after the facts have been independently established"), which may be true but it is not a criticism of it qua philosophy of science. (As Nagel frankly admits it his own favored approach is not interested in "canons" of discovery. (47))

Here I want to close with an observation on Nagel's assertion that the laws of dialectic are as barren as the purest of vestal virgins. As it happens (friend of the blog, recall), David Haig discusses some of the history of this phrase in the history and philosophy of science in chapter 1 of his (2020) From Darwin to Derrida, a book I have had occasion to mention before. For, it is often the case that final causes are likened to barren virgins and, thereby, to be rejected. As Haig shows a version of the phrase goes back to Bacon's (1623) De Dignitate et augmentis Scientiarum, where Bacon is referring to the virgins consecrated to God (as vestal virgins were). Although it is likely, as Haig, suggests that the modern association of Bacon with the phrase "vestal virgins" is due to William Whewell, the founder of philosophy of science. (Whewell himself thought of final causes as constitutive and regulative to speculations.) It is with Huxley, while reviewing Darwin (1859), that the association of final causes as "barren virgins" to be left aside is put in place. (Haig and I both agree this was not exactly how Darwin thought about it.) 

We can assume that Nagel, who was widely read, was reasonably familiar with the association of the rejection of final causes as barren virgins since Huxley.[UPDATE: SEE FOOTNOTE]** Circumstantial evidence for the widespread familiarity of this point can be found in an essay in 1927 by C.D. Broad on "The Philosophy of Francis Bacon," where Broad warns his readers not to assume that in Bacon the phrase signals rejection of final causes. (I can't prove Nagel read this paper, but he was familiar with Broad's writings on the mind as a teleological system.) In the philosophy of biology, Nagel wrote quote a bit on teleological explanation. Much of it is naturally read as redescribing teleological concepts in terms of efficient causation or underlying laws. But near the end of his career he granted that "teleological concepts and teleological explanations" are not obscure (301

So, to sum up, Nagel treats the dialectics of those inspired by Hegel and Marx as fundamentally obscure. Writing in 1941, he thereby foreshadows the more common criticisms by analytic philosophers of folk who much later came to be known as continental philosophers.+ But the trope he activates to do so is one then commonly associated with the rejection of final causes.

But at no point were final causes thought obscure or unintelligible (even Spinoza did not go that far); rather from Huxley's polemics onward they were taken as local final causes to be thought unfruitful in scientific or experimental research. Because (recall) Huxley himself was an agnostic about fundamental matters, Huxley could acknowledge that general final causes were intelligible and perhaps appropriate in the domain of fundamental metaphysics. 

Nagel treats dialectics a bit like the early moderns treat the terms of scholastic philosophy: as fundamentally unintelligible. He simultaneously treats dialectics in the way Huxley treats local final causes: as intelligible albei unfruitful in (the philosophy of) science. But Nagel is so focused on his polemics that he forgets it can't be both.




*One may claim that Nagel's 'no fixed content' does represent an argument. Fine, if you want to believe that. It seems to me simple name calling (especially in light of the other claims he is making).

+ Regular readers know I think of Nagel as the person who invented how analytic philosophers think about analytic philosophy as a particular social kind

**UPDATE:  David Haig just  my attention to: Nagel E (1961) The structure of science. Problems in the logic of scientific explanation. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London:

"Modern science, on the other hand, regards final causes to be vestal virgins which bear no fruit in the study of physical and chemical phenomena; and, because of the association of teleological explanations with the doctrine that goals or ends of activity are dynamic agents in their own realizations, it tends to view such explanations as a species of obscurantism." [page 401f]

Marxism and Sexuality

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 11/05/2020 - 8:17am in

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Contradictions at the heart of the capitalist mode of production affect human relations at the level of the superstructure. The ideological, cultural, linguistic, and organisational forms prevalent in contemporary society are not independent of the social and economic structure of our society, and are bequeathed to us from previous modes of production. Sexuality, like other spheres of human activity, is not exempt from this.

As Marxists, our framework is different. We do not believe in conflicting rights, we do not seek a sensible equilibrium.


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On The Origin of Capitalism: Meiksins Wood, The Ordos, and Walter Lippmann on Productivity of Property

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 30/04/2020 - 8:23pm in

In fact, capitalism, in some ways more than any other social form, needs politically organized and legally defined stability, regularity, and predictability in its social arrangements. Yet these are conditions of capital's existence and self-reproduction that it cannot provide for itself and that its own inherently anarchic laws of motion constantly subvert. To stabilize its constitutive social relations - between capital and labour or capital and other capitals - capitalism is especially reliant on legally defined and politically authorized regularities. Business transactions at every level require consistency and reliable enforcement, in contractual relations, monetary standards, exchanges of property. The coercions that sustain these regularities must exist apart from capital's own powers of appropriation if it is to preserve its capacity for self-expansion. (178-179)

England's particular process of feudal centralization produced a legal and political order more unified than was the European norm. So...England had long had a unitary national parliament; ...England had a more nationally unified legal system, especially its 'common law' adjudicated by royal courts, which had become the preferred and dominant legal system very early in the development of the English state.....Instead, state formation took the form of a cooperative project, a kind of division of labour between political and economic power, between the monarchical state and the aristocratic ruling class, between a central political power that enjoyed a virtual monopoly of coercive force much earlier than others in Europe and an economic power based on private property in land more concentrated than elsewhere in Europe. (172)

Here, then, was the separation between the moment of coercion and the moment of appropriation, allocated between two distinct but complementary 'spheres', that uniquely characterizes capitalist exploitation. English landlords increasingly depended on purely 'economic' forms of exploitation, while the state maintained order and enforced the whole system of property. Instead of enhancing their own coercive powers to squeeze more out of peasants, landlords relied on the coercive power of the state to sustain the whole system of property, while they exercised their purely economic power, their concentrated landholdings, to increase the productivity of labour, in conditions where appropriators and producers were both becoming increasingly market-dependent. Ellen Meiksins Wood [1999/2017] The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer view,  172-3

Yesterday, I noted that according to Meiksins Wood and Adam Smith, the origin of agricultural capitalism can be found in a change in the character of land-leases (which became fixed-term, but lengthy) such that tenants and landlords submitted, mediated by the estimations of surveyors, to the discipline of the market-place which internalized a practice of unceasing improvement. As Smith noted this system was made possible, in part, by a change in legal practice in which the state provided legal remedies to  tenants.

This last point also fits a key strain in Meiksins Wood's argument: that agricultural capitalism is made possible by the state's capacity and willingness to maintain "order" and enforce "the whole system of property." In particular, on her view it also meant a willingness to give preference to a notion of property right that itself both encouraged improvement and, in part, is ground in or justified by such improvement. While she claims the account of property precedes Locke, she treats Locke (and by ignoring Grotius) as its greatest spokesman of a view she calls the "productivity of property" (111).

While her view skips the intrinsic defense of property rights (beloved by libertarians), that is, what Locke has to say about natural rights, I am not unsympathetic (recall) to her more instrumentalist and consequentialist reading of Locke's account of property (as an interpretation of Locke). This latter, more instrumentalist account is also (recall) visible in Toland's argument for Jewish naturalization and emancipation. Meiksins Wood is not inclined to see the productivity of property approach as emancipatory. Rather, she sees it rooted in the original sin of enclosure and the violation even "extinction of the customary rights of English commoners" (159) on which "many people depended for their livelihood" (108). 

My  interest today is not to debate the merits of the charge. Rather, I assume the 'productivity of property' is a doctrine that has entered and become entrenched in aspects of legal practice and statecraft; we see it, for example, in the practice of eminent domain (even though Locke has historically been associated with the natural law inspired criticism of eminent domain). This 'productivity of property' two important characteristics the first familiar, the second less so to liberal thought. First, as Meiksins Wood notes, the productivity of property presupposes independent state capacity to create a stable system of property rights that can shape expectations. And she is right to note that capitalism itself may create the institutional conditions -- rent-seeking, state capture, etc. -- that also create the incentives under which the impartial rule of law is undermined. One need not be a marxist to recognize she is onto something; the past two sentences describe the central obsession of the Ordoliberals (ORDOS), who worried that without both independent judiciary and independent civil service with esprit des corps, democracy provided a fast-track to the mechanisms by which the productivity of property was undermined. 

This is all familiar enough. But there is also a second feature, which she notes in the following paragraph:

We need to be reminded that the definition of property was in Locke's day not just a philosophical issue but a very immediate practical one. As we have seen, a new, capitalist definition of property was in the process of establishing itself, challenging traditional forms not just in theory but also in practice. The idea of overlapping use rights to the same piece of land was giving way in England to exclusive ownership. From the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, there were constant disputes over common and customary rights. Increasingly, the principle of improvement for profitable exchange was taking precedence over other principles and other claims to property, whether those claims were based on custom or on some fundamental right of subsistence. Enhancing productivity itself became a reason for excluding other rights. (114-115)

Now, Meiksins Wood's rhetorical point is to give a reader a sense of the unfairness or suffering that accompanies the exclusion of other rights. But lurking in it is the seminal point that to embrace the 'productivity of property' also means embracing unseizing conflict over property rights. That is, it is not just accepting the friction that accompanies a change in legal regime (from, say, common and customary rights to the productivity of property). But once the productivity of property is hegemonic even more legal friction is to be expected.*

To the best of my knowledge, writing in the midst of the Great Depressions (1937), Walter Lippmann (no Marxist) was the first to really grasp this point (although surely elements of it are in Marx); entrenched technological change would help drive open ended possible improvements in productivity, and, thus, constant relative changes in productivity of different factors of and property in production, but technological change would also drive a constant reconceptualization of what counts as property (and commodity), as witnessed by recent debates inspired by changes in artificial intelligence, financial innovation, and the status of genetic code of (say) plants and animals.

The elements of the second features give rise to the need for what (echoing Lippmann) one might call the 'spirit of adaptation' in government and law. The legal and political system can't merely stand back, but must "adapt itself successfully to the intensely dynamic character of the new technology.” (Lippmann's The Great Society: 16) Drawing in part on Adam Smith, Lippmann notes that this dynamic character of technology and property involves showing “how law and public policy may best be adapted to this mode of production which specializes men's work, and thereby establishes an increasingly elaborate interdependence among individuals and their communities throughout the world.” (174)

That is to say, Meiksins Wood is right that the productivity of property generates innumerable sites and constantly new forms of legal conflict. The rise of capitalism puts great, perhaps too great, demands on state capacity. It must provide a legal and tax framework that can generate reliable expectations, and simultaneously the governing elites must be willing, despite great temptations to profit from or steer it to partial ends, to adapt that framework in light of the friction generated by the practices shaped by it in open ended fashion. And it must do so while pursuing other political goals (connected to defense, public health, public goods, etc.)

Meiksins Wood closes her book with the observation that "as capitalism spreads more widely and penetrates more deeply into every aspect of social life and the natural environment, its contradictions are increasingly escaping all our efforts to control them." (198)  As should be clear, I agree that the contradictions are real; they are features not bugs. This suggests, in fact, that the marxists are right in thinking that political and economic crises are intrinsic to capitalism, despite their shape and content being often wholly new or genuinely uncertain. Writing in the pandemic, with living memory of the financial meltdown of 2007-9, this fits the lived experience of adult life under capitalism. But despite repeated and entirely justified collapses of confidence in the liberal project (broadly defined), it has also shown enormous resilience under adversity. And this resilience is also ground in lived experience. What's needed is a firmer grasp and critical evaluation of the spirit of adaptation that is itself shaped by the forces unleashed by the productivity of property, and that shapes these in turn. 

*It's to be expected, in part, due to the nature of modern sovereignty which is legalistic in character (recall Siedentop on the canon law roots of the modern conception of sovereignty). I develop the significance of this soon.

On the Origin of Capitalism; On Ellen Meiksins Wood, and Adam Smith

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 29/04/2020 - 8:12pm in

it was unfixed, variable rents responsive to market imperatives that in England stimulated the development of commodity production, the improvement of productivity, and self-sustaining economic development. In France, precisely because peasants typically enjoyed possession of land at fixed and nominal rents, no such stimulus existed. It was, in other words, not the opportunities afforded by the market but rather its imperatives that drove petty commodity producers to accumulate....The same process created a highly productive agriculture capable of sustaining a large population not engaged in agricultural production, but also an increasing propertyless mass that would constitute both a large wage-labour force and a domestic market for cheap consumer goods - a type of market with no historical precedent. This is the background to the formation of English industrial capitalism.--Ellen Meiksins Wood (1999 [2017] The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer view, 102-103

Meiksins Wood  (whose book I warmly recommend) relies on a distinction between commerce and capitalism. Commerce is historically ubiquitous; whereas capitalism originated once,  relatively recently in human history (in the English countryside). The former is characterized by voluntary exchanges in which people buy low and sell dear and occurs primarily in (what we may call) arbitrage opportunities. While societies in which commerce exists are durable, their growth potential is limited. The latter occurs from necessity, that is survival, in which in order to survive people engage in ever cheaper and more efficient production of their factor. Growth in capitalism is, in principle, open-ended bounded at some limit by Earth's resources (and internal instability). Crucially, in a capitalist system everybody, or all factors, experiences structural domination by the market: "compulsion lies at the heart of the new economic dynamic." (138)

Meiksins Wood explores the question of the origin of capitalism in order to (use her terminology) denaturalize it (cf. p. 74). In particular, she attacks the idea, which she repeatedly associates with Adam Smith and the phrase associated with him, 'truck, barter, and exchange' (11, 21, 28 75, 193), that there is an "economic man" whose shackles (e.g., feudalism, slavery, trade-protection, etc.) simply need to be undone in order for capitalism to emerge naturally. The idea behind this thought can be found in a famous passage in the Wealth of Nations (hereafter WN): "all systems either of preference or of restraint, therefore, being thus completely taken away, the obvious and simple system of natural liberty establishes itself of its own accord."

For Meiksins Wood, capitalism emerges, as it happens (but this is less important) under a certain version of feudalism, in which, and this is important, term-limit leases are introduced in agriculture and the price of these leases are determined by an estimation by surveyors of the value of that land after improvement (a key word) in light of prevailing, or at the least the abstract perception of prevailing, market conditions. I quote two representative passages: "As for the tenants, they were increasingly subject not only to direct pressures from landlords but also to market imperatives that compelled them to enhance their productivity." (100) And "We can watch the development of a new mentality by observing the landlord's surveyor as he computes the rental value of land on the basis of some more or less abstract principle of market value, and measures it explicitly against the actual rents being paid by customary tenants."  (101) These new kind of leases create the "rupture" (8) that generates the "laws of motion" associated with capitalism "that uniquely compel people to enter the market, to reinvest surpluses and to produce 'efficiently' by improving labour productivity - the laws of competition, profit maximization, and capital accumulation." (16) 

Some other time, perhaps, I'd like to discuss her fascinating treatment of Thomas More and, especially, Locke. And the role of the state in facilitating the growth of capitalism. For now I want to note that one need not be Marxist to appreciate her effort. Determining the historical origin and naire of capitalism is fascinating  and undoubtedly sheds some light on the possibilities, if any, of articulating alternatives or changes to it. This is so, even if one were to reject the commerce vs capitalism distinction. So, for example, if one has a liberal mindset, the relevant distinction is within capitalism: one between mercantilism and commerce (or liberalism). And the liberal is willing to grant that mercantilism is historically prior (albeit not, perhaps, conceptually). 

Above, I suggested that it is not unfair (to Meiksins Wood and Smith) to see Adam Smith as the proper target of Meiksins Wood's analysis. Even so, while reading her book I had the recurring thought that Smith had anticipated her in a key respect. This is not strange because as many authors have noted that despite the pin factory example, Smith seems almost ignorant of the industrial revolution (if he notices it at all), and focuses quite a bit of attention on land rents. For, in fact, Smith calls attention to the very leases singled out by Meiksins Wood, and he concludes his discussion of them: "Those laws and customs so favourable to the yeomanry, have perhaps contributed more to the present grandeur of England than all their boasted regulations of commerce taken together." (Wealth of Nations, 3.2.14, p. 392)

The three features Smith singles out are [i] "When such farmers have a lease for a term of years, they may sometimes find it for their interest to  lay out part of their capital in the further improvement of the farm; because they may sometimes expect to recover it, with a large profit, before the expiration of the lease." & [ii] since the time of Henry VII, the protection of the tenants'  value in improved land by "the action of ejectment" which allowed legal remedy of recovery against premature. (WN 392; in the next paragraph, Smith  notes that some such law was introduced in Scotland already in 1449) 

Before I get to the third feature, I want to stress this is not a side comment, in Smith's analysis. I offer two kinds of evidence. First, when Smith formally analyzes 'rents of land' in (WN 1.11) he describes variable, fixed-term leases of agricultural capitalism described by Meiksins Woods as the exemplary kind: landlords "In adjusting the terms of the lease, the landlord endeavours to leave him [the tennant] no greater share of the produce than what is sufficient to keep up the stock from which he furnishes the seed, pays the labour, and purchases and maintains the cattle and other instruments of husbandry, together with the ordinary profits of farming stock in the neighbourhood. This is evidently the smallest share with which the tenant can content himself without being a loser, and the landlord seldom means to leave him any more." (WN 1.11.1, 160). Throughout the chapter, Smith makes clear that these leases drive productivity and that they represent a conflictual model (and, but I explore this some other time, in some ways even violate our sense of fairness and justice).

Second, Smith praises the Physiocrats (or "Oecenemists"), when in their plans to eliminate French famine and to have French agriculture catch up with English standards, they emulate British practices:  "it has been in consequence of their representations, accordingly, that the agriculture of France has been delivered from several of the oppressions which it  before laboured under. The term during which such a lease can be granted, as will be valid against every future purchaser or proprietor of the land, has been prolonged from nine to twenty-seven years. The antient provincial restraints upon the transportation of corn from one province of the kingdom to another, have been entirely taken away, and the liberty of exporting it to all foreign countries, has been established as the common law of the kingdom in all ordinary cases. (WN 4.9.38, 678);

So, Smith both knows that the paradigmatic cases of rent, which are crucial to the analytic core of his system, are themselves historically conditioned by institutional factors and not eternal pre-existing forms of exchange.* And it is this paradigmatic case that drives commercial development as he sees it. So, why has this not been emphasized (even missed by friends and critics of Smith). This gets me to the third point.

In explaining the downfall of feudalism and monastic estates, Smith emphasizes [iii] that foreign commerce developed vain, new tastes in landlords, who, in order, to increase revenue from their holdings set in motion the kinds of leases which form the backbone of what Meiksins Wood calls agricultural capitalism.  In fact, scholars love to quote the passage, which emphasizes the political effects, of the rise of agricultural capitalism:

The expensive vanity of the landlord made him willing to accept of this condition; and hence the origin of long leases...The tenants having in this manner become independent, and the retainers being dismissed, the great proprietors were no longer capable of interrupting the regular execution of justice, or of disturbing the peace of the country. Having sold their birth-right, not like Esau for a mess of pottage in time of hunger and necessity, but in the wantonness of plenty, for trinkets and baubles, fitter to be the play-things of children than the serious pursuits of men, they became as insignificant as any substantial burgher or tradesman in a city. A regular government was established in the country as well as in the city, nobody having sufficient power to disturb its operations in the one, any more than in the other. (WN 3.4.13-15, p. 421; elsewhere Smith makes the same claim about the demise of feudal, monastic landholding: "But this increase of rent could be got only by granting leases to their tenants, who thereby became in a great measure independent of them.")

Scholars and critics have loved to focus on the moral psychology and providential morality tale, even theodicy, immanent in [iii], which Smith himself attributes to Hume. But there is no doubt that Smith has the very same explanation [i-iii] of the origin of commerce as a social stage in the four stages of development as Meiksins Wood. (Well not entirely the same because she downplays the significance of the existence of foreign trade.) It is in what she calls the slow development of agricultural capitalism made possible by a certain kind of variable but secure lease that Smith sees the great source of England's wealth. These leases represent  the (improving) reproductive potential of the tenant and the discipline of the market-place. 

So, while I think it is correct to say that Smith also propagated the rhetorical seeds of the naturalized version of the origin of capitalism, he is crystal clear about the origin and significance of agricultural capitalism. None of the above is meant to deny that Meiksins Wood and Smith offer different interpretations of the wider moral significance of agricultural capitalism (Smith thinks it generates a new kind of interdependent independence; Meiksins Wood a new kind of structural domination), but about these matters some other time more.


*"By convention chapters 1-7 are the analytic core of Smith's system. So, here's evidence for my claim from there: "In settling the terms of the lease, the landlord and farmer endeavour, according to their best judgment, to adjust that rate, not to the temporary and occasional, but to the average and ordinary price of the produce." (WN I.7.18, 76) Here the surveyor's activity is presupposed. (As I often note, Smith's analytical core only applies to one of the stages of development.)

What Does the Communist Left Do?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 24/04/2020 - 9:55pm in



image/jpeg icondoing_nothing.jpg

What we will focus on in the following is how we understand the inseparable link between theory and practice and how that reflects on our activity.

If you agree with what we say, get in touch and help us build an internationalist political organisation worth the name.


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Erich Fromm’s Marxist Sociology Forty Years Later

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 21/04/2020 - 4:45am in

Fromm was famous for this critique of consumer capitalism as well as for his penetrating studies of authoritarianism. He was a significantly influential figure on U.S. radical thought during the second half of the 20th Century.


By Kieran Durkin
Marxist Sociology Blog

April 15, 2020 – Erich Fromm (1900-1980), who passed forty years ago March of this year, was a leading Marxian sociologist who made considerable contributions to U.S. sociology and to U.S. Marxism. Best known for books such as Escape from Freedom, The Sane Society, and The Art of Loving, Fromm’s account of authoritarianism and critique of mid-twentieth century “consumer capitalism” influenced millions both inside and outside of academia.

Prior to arriving in the U.S. in the early 1930s, amidst the rise of Nazism in Germany, Fromm, who was raised in an orthodox Jewish family, was a central member of the early Frankfurt Institute for Social Research. There he worked alongside Max Horkheimer on an interdisciplinary project that sought to mix social philosophy with the empirical social sciences. Having studied sociology under Alfred Weber (Max Weber’s less famous brother) at Ruprecht-Karls-University in Heidelberg, followed by training at the famous Berlin Psychoanalytical Institute, Fromm was given central responsibility for the Frankfurt institute’s attempts at synthesizing sociology and psychoanalysis.

One of the first manifestations of this synthesis was an innovative study of manual and white-collar German workers, which was led by Fromm along with Hilde Weiss. Through use of an interpretative questionnaire, Fromm and Weiss were able to reveal that while the majority of respondents identified with the left-wing slogans of their party their radicalism was considerably reduced in more subtle and seemingly unpolitical questions – pointing to what Fromm argued was evidence of an “authoritarian” character.

Although the study itself wasn’t published until the 1980s, under the title The Working Class in Weimar Germany – this was at least partly due to the breakdown in Fromm’s relationship with Horkheimer – it is clear that it shed considerable light on what transpired in Nazi Germany, as well as telling us something about the nature of the left-wing authoritarianism.

Escape from Freedom, Fromm’s most famous work, was published in 1941, after he had left the Institute (Fromm was effectively pushed out to make way for Theodor Adorno in 1939). The central theme of Escape from Freedom was that Europe, which had hitherto been marching towards greater and greater forms of political freedom, and even towards socialism, over the course of the preceding centuries, had capitulated to fascism. Fromm wanted to try to understand this process in order to explain how and why it was that Nazism had taken hold in Germany, and why so many individuals came to support Hitler.

Like most Marxist analyses at the time, Fromm focused on the role of the lower-middle classes. He argued that the decline of their socio-economic status in the face of monopoly capitalism and hyperinflation alongside the defeat Germany suffered in the First World War and ensuing Treaty of Versailles had a deep psychological effect, removing traditional psychological supports and mechanisms of self-esteem.

In an expanded Marxian account, in which ideas and emotions played an important mediating role, Fromm identified deep feelings of anxiety and powerlessness in this class, which Hitler was able to capitalize on, with his sadomasochistic messages of love for the strong and hate for the weak (not to mention a racial program that raises “true-born” Germans to the pinnacle of the evolutionary ladder), which provided the means of escape from intolerable psychological burdens experienced on a mass basis.

Fromm’s next engagement with Marxism came in the form of his The Sane Society (1955). The book is notable for its criticism of Marx, particularly of his account of revolution. Fromm argued that the famous statement that concludes The Communist Manifesto, that the workers “have nothing to lose but their chains,” contains a profound psychological error. With their chains they have also to lose all those irrational needs and satisfactions which developed because these chains were worn. Because of this, Fromm argued that we need a concept of “revolutionary humanism,” of revolution not only in terms of external barriers, but internal ones too, one that deals with the roots of sadomasochistic passions, sexism, racism, and other forms of character that aren’t necessarily going disappear immediately in a new society.

The Sane Society also contained an extended critique of mid-twentieth century U.S. capitalism, which for Fromm was an essentially bureaucratic form of mass-consumer capitalism. As part of this critique, Fromm put forward the notion of the “marketing orientation” to describe what he saw as the newly dominant form of personality that was associated with this stage of capitalism. A social psychological refraction of the Marxian notion of alienation, the marketing orientation for Fromm was one in which people experience themselves and others as commodities, literally as something to be marketed.

Fromm’s critique of contemporary capitalism continued a year later in The Art of Loving, perhaps his best-known work. Not the most obviously socialist or Marxist book (in fact, Herbert Marcuse criticized Fromm for supposedly betraying radical thought, and becoming a “sermonistic social worker”) Fromm was nevertheless adamant that “[t]he principle underlying capitalistic society and the principle of love are incompatible,” and thus that the criticism of love (which, as he understood it, referred to the antithesis of narcissistic, racist, sexist and other forms of interpersonal relations) was also a criticism of capitalism and the ways in which it mitigated against genuine forms of love that would manifest in a more human society. Fromm believed that we must analyze the conditions for the possibility of realizing love and integrity in the present society and seek to strengthen them.

It is also during the 1950s that Fromm joins American Socialist Party-Social Democratic Federation and seeks to rewrite its program. The resulting document, although rejected for this purpose, was published as Let Man Prevail (1958). It marks out Fromm’s distinctive form of Marxism, which he here calls “radical humanism” and characterizes as a democratic, humanist form of socialism. This analysis is deepened in 1960, in May Man Prevail?, an analysis of Soviet Communism that was intended to influence the move to unilateral disarmament during the Cold War.

Fromm’s most significant contribution to U.S. Marxism, however, was Marx’s Concept of Man (1961). Containing the first full English translation of Marx’s 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, prefaced by a few short essays by Fromm, Marx’s Concept of Man helped to popularize Marx in the U.S., as well as counteract some of the more common misinterpretations of Marx.

Fromm’s contribution to Marxism continued during the 1960s, with the publication of Beyond the Chains of Illusion (1962), in which Fromm developed his Freudo-Marxism social psychological theory of social character. Fromm was also responsible for the publication of Socialist Humanism: An International Symposium (1965), an impressive global collection of humanist Marxists and socialists, largely from Eastern Europe (including many from the Yugoslav Praxis school) but also from Africa and India.

In the years that followed, Fromm was a prominent figure in the anti-War left, influencing Martin Luther King Jr. and writing The Revolution of Hope, an attempt to influence the 1968 Presidential election. Aware of criticisms of such apparent social democratic reformism, Fromm protested that “if one is not concerned with the steps between the present and the future, one does not deal with politics, radical or otherwise.” He also wrote, Social Character in a Mexican Village (1970), The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973), and To Have or To Be? (1976), all of which further developed his distinctive Freudo-Marxian inspired humanist sociology.

Looking back on Fromm’s legacy today, at a point where sociologists and Marxists are increasingly returning to his work, it is clear that what Fromm left us is a nuanced form of Marxian sociology that can help account for the relations between economic life, political movements, and inner emotional dynamism that underpin many of the changes that we are witness to in the current world situation. In a situation that is rapidly moving into dangerous territory, in what promises to be a recession as deep as 1929, we could do worse today than to look to Fromm for assistance.

Kieran Durkin is Marie Sklodowska-Curie Global Fellow at University of York, and Visiting Scholar at University of California Santa Barbara, where he is conducting the first dedicated study of the Humanist Marxist tradition. He is author of The Radical Humanism of Erich Fromm, and editor with Joan Braune of Erich Fromm’s Critical Theory: Hope, Humanism, and the Future.