Selective Quotations and Selective Marxisms:
A Response to Alan Sinfield
and David Siar

by Richard Levin

 

     1. First, I'd like to reply to Alan Sinfield's essay in this issue that accuses me of "selective quotation" from his writing--that is, of quoting excerpts in such a way that they don't convey his real meaning. I realize, however, that other readers will probably find it pretty boring to watch two people argue about whether one of them misrepresented the other, so I'll keep this part of my reply short and then move on to some general political issues that I hope will be more interesting. He cites five examples of my selective quotation that I've rearranged in a sequence of increasing complexity that, fortunately, also leads into these political issues.

     2. The simplest one is in a section of my "Materialising" essay that examines the claim of Margreta de Grazia and Peter Stallybrass (272) that "the latter-day incontrovertible male/female binary . . . was not yet in place" in the Renaissance. I say (96) that one of their arguments "invoke[s] 'the Galenic one-sex model' of anatomy, which they assert, relying on Thomas Laqueur, 'obtained in the Renaissance.' Laqueur is wrong, for this was not the dominant model then, as Janet Adelman has shown," and in a footnote (103n21) I add that "Other critics, as she points out, also accept this model uncritically, including . . . Sinfield [Faultlines] 134." Sinfield objects that in Faultlines he says that this model was "a major strand in early modern gender theory," which isn't the same as calling it "the dominant model." He's right, but the error isn't mine since the reference comes from Adelman (43n7, 51n39), as my note indicates. I should have checked it, however, instead of accepting it "uncritically" and I'm sorry that I failed to do this.

    3. The second example is in my "(Re)Thinking Unthinkable Thoughts" 526, where I quote his comment in Cultural Politics 19 that in the Renaissance homosexual relations "were rarely apprehended as sodomy--precisely because that was so unthinkable" and go on to show that it must have been thinkable then. He objects that I omitted the first part of his sentence: "Except when their perpetrators seemed to disturb the social order, these were rarely . . ."; but this actually confirms my contention that sodomy was not "unthinkable." In fact, in the next section of my essay I argue that when some critics say "unthinkable" they really mean "improbable," and explain (528) that "this apparently is . . . what Sinfield means when he says that sodomy 'was so unthinkable' in the Renaissance, since he adds that it was thought of as 'a continual threat.'" Because he omits my qualification, he could be accused of selective quotation from me in order to accuse me of selective quotation from him.

    4. The third one, in "Bardicide" 492, is somewhat more complicated. I say, citing their "History" 225, that "According to Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, the project of Henry V is the 'establishing [of the] ideological unity' of the state and its class system and the 'ideological containment' of threats to it."1 He points out that they use the phrase "ideological containment" in a different context, which is correct. It shouldn't be in my sentence and I apologize for it (my only excuse is that it probably was the result of careless note-taking). I believe, however, that the rest of my sentence is accurate, but I know he doesn't agree because we've argued about it for some time in the mail and at conferences, without reaching an understanding of what he objects to. In "Selective Quotation" he raises two objections. The first is that "ideological unity is a theme of the play, not its 'project'"; but in the course of their reading they refer to the play's "strategies of containment" (217, 225) and "strategies of power" (226) and its "drive for ideological coherence" (222), and say that "the basic concern of the play" is "to establish and celebrate national unity" (215), that its "heroic representation of Henry works . . . [for] ideological legitimation" (213), that it "concentrate[s] power . . . upon the King" so that "he becomes . . . the site and guarantee of ideological unity" (221), and that its "ideology strives . . . toward harmonious unity" (226). This sounds like a "project" to me. If Sinfield prefers to call it a "theme," that's his privilege, but then I'd say that the "project" of the play is to convey this "theme," and we'd just be quibbling about terminology.2 His second objection is that they said "the fantasy of establishing ideological unity" and I omitted "the fantasy of," but I don't see how this misrepresents their reading, since they're not claiming that the play presents the establishment of ideological unity as a fantasy. The term "fantasy" is their judgment of the play's project/theme, and I quote their phrase "the fantasy of establishing ideological unity" in full in a note (502n3) that Sinfield ignores, so here again he's selectively quoting from me to make it seem that I'm selectively quoting from him.

    5. The fourth example leads us directly to the realm of politics (in the narrower sense of the term). In "Materialising" 91, as one of my definitions of "materialist critics," I say that "Their approach is materialist because its purpose is to 'bring down capitalism'" and cite Sinfield's "Account" 154. He protests that what he said there was "Teaching Shakespeare's plays and writing books about them is unlikely to bring down capitalism, but it is a point for intervention," and that by omitting the rest of this sentence I leave the impression that he thinks capitalism can be brought down by literary criticism, which is absurd. I certainly didn't intend to suggest this, but I can see now that it's a possible interpretation of the passage. When I quoted his "bring down capitalism" phrase in an earlier essay ("Son of Bashing" 268), I added a note quoting the rest of his sentence (270n11). I should have repeated this note in "Materialising" (I can't remember why I didn't), or at least changed "purpose" to something like "ultimate goal." I don't think, however, that this change in wording would satisfy him, because he now claims that the group of critics to which he and Dollimore belong never wanted to eliminate capitalism: "So far from cultural materialists having a 'purpose' of bringing down capitalism, we have been preoccupied with a question about whether capitalism can be significantly influenced at all." And in "Sexuality" he says that they placed their hopes not in socialism but in the further extension of "welfare-capitalism" (40-41). That, of course, greatly complicates his case against this particular "selective quotation," and so I'll discuss it under the more general political issues.

    6. The fifth example is closely related to this last point. I note in "Marxist Criticism" 4 that Marxist literary critics typically avoid the crucial question of what social social order is preferable to capitalism, and add a clause that I thought was praising him: "Sinfield is very atypical (and courageous) in admitting [in 'Sexuality' 43] that he cannot think of a better alternative." But he isn't pleased and protests that "this reads as if I have come to think of the present capitalist regime as the best that can be envisaged," whereas what he wrote "doesn't suggest that at all," and that he did propose "a better alternative" in "a strategy of committed subcultural work" by gay activists. But I, too, didn't suggest that at all, because he has changed the meaning of what I said (and of what I said he said) by transforming "capitalism" into "the present capitalist regime." Of course he (and I) can think of better alternatives to "the present capitalist regime," such as improvements to make it more just or humane; but I was talking about a better alternative to capitalism. And the better alternative that he proposed, working for gay rights, is an alternative course of action (which I strongly support), not an alternative economic system, since it can be (and is being) carried on within our capitalist economy. So I maintain that my account (which isn't a "selective quotation") of what he said there is accurate.

    7. Before leaving this section I'd like to make one point very clear. During the past twelve years I've published a number of essays examining the approaches of some of the newer critics, in which I've used many selective quotations from their work. Sinfield seems to think that there's something wrong with this, but of course all quotations are necessarily selective (the only alternative is to quote the entire essay), and we've seen that he uses selective quotations from my own work. This is wrong only if the quotations are selected or presented in such a way that they falsify the author's meaning, so I want to state as emphatically as I can that I've never deliberately done this (although he may be implying that I have when he calls my quotations "reductive," "misleading," and "precisely inappropriate"). I think it's unethical and counterproductive. But I'm sure, given the large number of these quotations, that I made some mistakes--that I failed to check an author's references (as in the first example), or carelessly combined passages that don't belong together (as in the third), or used the passage in such a way that it could be misunderstood by some readers (as in the fourth). Therefore I welcome any corrections, and here I stand corrected in three of his five examples.3

~~~~~

    8. I'd now like to move on to some general questions about Sinfield's political position (and my own) raised by the last two examples. Let me begin with his statement, "Teaching Shakespeare's plays and writing books about them is unlikely to bring down capitalism, but it is a point for intervention" ("Account" 154), which was the basis of his fourth example and which he now claims does not mean that he wanted to bring down capitalism. I must admit that I have great difficulty in understanding his claim. In 1985, when he wrote this sentence, "intervention" was one of the codewords, along with "activist," "committed," and "transformative," that Marxist critics used to describe their work.4 When they praised a book for being a "valuable intervention" or for being "eloquently committed," they did not have to explain what it was an intervention for or what it was committed to, because everyone inhabiting their discourse knew what this meant--namely, that it furthered the Marxist project. Sinfield corroborates this conception of "intervention" when, just before the statement in question, he defines the interveners as "Socialists" (154), and two pages earlier he speaks of "the opportunity for radical intervention" (152), and in his "Introduction," published at the same time as "Account," he looks for a "space for socialist intervention" and for "modes of radical intervention" (131-32). Indeed, in the statement in question I don't see what else the "intervention" could be for.

    9. Moreover, at the end of their "Foreword" to Political Shakespeare (where Sinfield's "Account" and "Introduction" appear), he and Dollimore say that cultural materialism "registers its commitment to the transformation of a social order which exploits people on grounds of race, gender and class" (viii). "Transformation," as I just said, was a Marxist codeword (like "commitment") and I discuss it in "Language" 297, where I quote this sentence along with Ellen Messer-Davidow's call to "transform a society that is stratified by gender, race, and class" (54), and Terry Eagleton's for "the transformation of a society divided by class and gender" (Theory 210, the omission of race is unexplained), and Frank Lentricchia's to "get involved in the process of transforming . . . our society" (2), and Fredric Jameson's for "a radical and systematic transformation . . . of our social relations" (302), and note that the critics who use this codeword obviously want to suggest a very basic change, or else they would speak of "improving" or "reforming" society. This last point is crucial because it marks the difference between these radicals and liberals like me, who do want to "improve" or "reform" aspects of our society but don't want to "transform" it into another kind of society.

    10. Sinfield himself explains this difference at the end of his essay on Macbeth, published in 1986 (and reprinted in Faultlines), where he says that the Scottish Doctor "is like the liberal intellectual who knows there is something wrong at the heart of the system but will not envisage a radical alternative" (77). The first part of this sentence is wrong; liberals know there are many things wrong in our system, which they try to eliminate or at least ameliorate, but they don't believe that there is something wrong "at the heart of the system"--i.e., that the problem is the system itself.5 But the second part of the sentence is correct, since liberals do not (rather than "will not," which implies that they don't want to) envisage a better system. And the obvious implication is that radicals like Sinfield can envisage a better system that is basically different from the present one ("a radical alternative"), which presumably is socialism.

    11. It's instructive to compare Sinfield's statement in l986 with his statement in 1994 that he can't think of a radical (his word is "comprehensive") alternative to capitalism ("Sexuality" 43), which was at issue in the fifth example above. This certainly sounds like a marked change in his political position from the one affirmed in his Macbeth essay, where the "radical alternative" to our system seemed very clear to him, and liberals were criticized for being unwilling to envisage it. And this change is confirmed by his remark early in "Sexuality": "who, on the European Left in recent times, has believed that a centralized, command economy and a Soviet-style political system are the way to socialism? Virtually no one" (40). I find this very puzzling. Of course, most Western leftists opposed the Soviet political system and favored "democratic socialism," but when did they reject the role of a centralized command economy as the way to this socialism? Back in the days when I was a Marxist, we argued that a centrally planned economy would be vastly superior to the present anarchic market system because it would be much more rational and efficient, and would eliminate all the wasteful duplication of effort involved when several companies manufactured the same product, as well as all the expenses of advertising, patent litigation, stock brokers, etc., and so would result in better and cheaper products, and in "production for use" instead of "production for profit."6 Indeed it's hard to imagine what democratic socialism without central planning would be like--would the workers in each factory vote on what products to make, and how many of them, and how much to charge for them? No wonder Sinfield admits that he can't conceptualize this alternative.

    12. He makes another admission in "Sexuality" that's even more startling. He says, as I noted earlier, that for some time now he and many others on the Western European Left haven't placed their hopes in socialism at all (democratic or otherwise) but just wanted to improve welfare capitalism, and that "we hadn't really worked out a system that might supersede welfare-capitalism" (40). (He also says that welfare capitalism has failed [43], but I don't think we need to take that seriously; Marxists have been announcing the imminent failure of capitalism for 150 years, and this seems to be a residual Marxist tic.) But the improvement of welfare capitalism is, of course, a liberal project. And the immediate course of action that he proposes, as I also noted earlier, is to work within capitalism for the rights of gays and other oppressed groups, which is also a liberal project. The radical position, on the other hand, has been that this oppression is an essential aspect of capitalism itself (i.e., that it's "systemic") and so can only be eliminated by bringing down capitalism--hence the call in 1985 for "the transformation of a social order which exploits people on grounds of race, gender, and class."7

    13. What are we to make, then, of this change from radicalism to liberalism? In "Sexuality" Sinfield asserts that it's not a change at all, that even though he and others like him "often used a revolutionary rhetoric," they didn't really mean it, but were, as he puts it, "Closet Keynesians" (40). You could have fooled me, since I assumed that he really meant what he said about a "radical alternative" and "socialist intervention" and "the transformation of [our] social order." I suspect that he has changed his political position, but it's impossible to prove this since I have no access into his mind, and it doesn't really matter now (although, if he has changed his position, I wish he wouldn't make it retroactive in order to object to what I said about his earlier views, as in the fourth example above). I'm happy to recognize him as a fellow liberal and to point out that we can be proud of our accomplishments, since it it was largely because of liberalism that there has been a tremendous improvement in the situation of workers (although some of these improvements were first proposed by radicals, as I acknowledge in "Marxist" 1-2), and also in the situation of women, racial minorities, and gays--which doesn't mean that we still don't have a long way to go. I can also point out that all these improvements were achieved under capitalism, and that, as a result of these changes, capitalism today is very different from, and much more humane than, the capitalism of the last century or even the capitalism of my youth, which is why we give it new names like "welfare capitalism" (Marxists call it "late capitalism," since they're still predicting its imminent demise). And if this process continues, we may finally call it something other than capitalism, without having to overthrow it. As Marx observed, a number of quantitative changes can add up to a qualitative change.

    14. I should also warn Sinfield that as a liberal (new born or newly come out of the closet) he's also going to have some problems. In "Sexuality" he defines himself as a "leftist," but the meaning of this term changes with the context. In the spectrum of American politics outside the academy, liberals like me are on the left and are regularly attacked by conservatives who invoke "the L-word" against us, as if liberalism were an unspeakable evil. And inside the academy we're regularly attacked by radicals like John Drakakis, who calls me a "self-confessed liberal" (Review 406), as if that were a self-evident crime. That's the fate of liberals, as I explain in "Polarizing" 65-66, and I take it as a sign that we're probably doing something right. I'm sure, however, that Sinfield will be able to bear up under it, and I'd like to take this opportunity to welcome him, without the benefit of any selective quotations, into the "leftist" liberal fold.

~~~~~

    15. I wanted to end on this positive note, but I feel that I should respond to Sinfield's penultimate paragraph, where he abruptly descends from his moral high ground as my aggrieved and selectively quoted victim and attacks me for "taking up the generally discarded mantle of the Cold War" and regarding the critics I argue against as "Commits" with "an undercover Stalinist allegiance." There's no selective quotation here--there's no quotation at all, since he doesn't produce any words of mine that might justify these charges, and I don't think he could. Nothing I ever said in any of my essays critiquing the approaches of the newer critics even remotely suggests that I connect my activity (or theirs) with the Cold War, which was over before I wrote most of them, and I don't see how my alleged Cold Warism could possibly account for the fact that roughly half of the critics I oppose in these essays aren't Marxists (or for the fact that two of his five examples of my selective quotation have nothing to do with Marxism). And I certainly never suggest that the Marxists among these critics are Stalinists, since I know very well that they're not. Nor do I ever call them (or think of them as) "Commies." I call them "cultural materialists," "radicals," "Marxists" or, occasionally, "socialists." I even avoid calling them "communists" because of the association of that word with McCarthyism, which is pretty ironic because here Sinfield seems to view me as a McCarthyite, though he doesn't come out and say it. If that's what he means, let me state for the record that I hate McCarthy and what he stood for. I lived through the McCarthy era in America, and although I was too young and insignificant to be made a target, I saw many liberals like me condemned as "pinkos" or "comsymps" or "fellow travelers," just as I'm now condemned by some academic Marxists as a McCarthyite, Cold Warrior, reactionary, etc.8 But that, as I said, is the fate of liberals.

    16. I suppose I should also respond to Sinfield's charge that I find his literary criticism "threatening" and "dangerous." This is another common gambit of some of the critics (not only Marxists) that I argue with.9 I've been accused of feeling "threatened" or "anxious" about as often as I've been accused of being a reactionary red-baiter, and I wrote a short piece about it ("Panic") that I can highly recommend. So now I'll limit myself to saying, again for the record, that I don't feel the least bit threatened by them--indeed I can't even figure out what the "threat" or "danger" is supposed to be. And I'm disappointed that he should stoop to this silly tactic.

 


 

     17. David Siar's criticism of my recent work is quite different from Alan Sinfield's, since Sinfield accuses me of misrepresenting his own writing, while Siar accuses me of misrepresenting Marxism. It's also much more difficult to answer. Sinfield is only one person and has only written a limited number of books and essays in only two decades (although even here, as I pointed out in my response to him, there are questions about what he really meant and whether he altered his views); but a great many Marxists have been writing a great many things for a great many years, which makes it very hard to determine what exactly is "the Marxist position" on any given subject.

     18. The problem begins with Marx himself, who had a long and prolific career, during which he changed some of his ideas, or at least his emphases, so it's now possible for two Marxists to arrive at very different conceptions of "real" Marxism because each one selects a different period or strand of his work (the "Hegelian Marx," the "empirical Marx," etc.) and claims it's "basic" or "central" to Marxism. Thus Raymond Williams, in the passage quoted by Siar, relates his cultural materialism to what he selected as "the central thinking of Marxism" (5-6), and Siar himself distinguishes the Marxism he selects, which he calls "good materialist practice," from the Marxism he rejects, which he attributes to "Neanderthal Marxists." A similar situation arises in controversies about the meaning of the Bible (which is even more heteroglosial), where rival sects can both quote scripture to prove they're the true Christians. Many Marxist polemicists treat the founder's texts as a kind of scripture that must be invoked to legitimize their own views and delegitimize those of their opponents, which further complicates the problem.10 Some even feel the need to do this when they disagree with Marx. I remember hearing Peter Stallybrass maintain that his approach to literature was really Marxist even though it was very different from Marx's, since Marx didn't have a Marxist theory of literature. This may sound strange but it's perfectly logical; he selected one aspect of Marx's thought that he considered fundamental to the system and found that Marx's treatment of literature was inconsistent with it and therefore unMarxist, so in this area he was more Marxist than Marx himself. That move isn't available to religious polemicists, who can't claim to be more Christian than Christ; but Marxists unlucky enough to live under Marxist regimes were similarly constrained: they had to argue that their views were closer to some text of Marx's (or Lenin's or Mao's) than were the views of their adversaries, rather than improvements upon it, because the text was supposed to be inerrant (to adopt the term that fundamentalists apply to the Bible).

     19. The problem is complicated even further by the fact that Marx's canon, like the Bible, comes to us encrusted with layers of commentary from various exegetes and numbered Internationals and Party Congresses that sought, like Church Synods and Councils, to define the true faith and anathematize heretical departures from it, which never settled anything because most of the heretics went right on insisting that they were the true believers and that their persecutors were the heretics.11 And in the West some influential "revisionists" have rejected or radically altered aspects of Marx's thought and of this Marxist tradition while still claiming to be Marxists. As a result of such a complex and conflicted history, it's very difficult to tell what "the Marxist position" is on any subject, as I noted, and we might even ask if it's still meaningful to talk about something called "the Marxist position." I'll raise that question later, but for now I just want to emphasize that there are a number of different varieties of Marxism and of "selective Marxisms," and, therefore, that we shouldn't make statements about what "Marxists" believe without some qualification such as "most Marxists" or "many Marxists." I haven't always done this in my previous essays and I resolve to be more careful in the future.

~~~~~

     20. With this by way of preamble, I'll now turn to the two specific charges that Siar makes about my misrepresentation of Marxism. The first is that I present a reductive view of the Marxist conception of causality as "an all-encompassing determinism," and it focuses on my remark in "Evidence" 404-5 that "Marxists . . . claim to have found the one real cause of all human behavior, which they locate . . . in class conflicts rooted in the material socio-economic 'base' that ultimately shape all activity in the 'superstructure,'" which he denies, asserting that no "actually existing Marxists . . . ever made such a statement." Let me begin my response with three qualifications. As I just explained in my preamble, I should have said "most Marxists." Also, when I made similar statements in my other essays, I usually added that some of the more recent Marxists, "influenced by Althusser and others, say they have loosened up the causal nexus by granting the superstructure a kind of quasi-autonomy, but they still find that 'in the last analysis' or 'ultimately' the basic cause is always in the base."12 I don't recall why I didn't add such a qualification in "Evidence," but I probably assumed that it was covered by my use of the word "ultimately." And thirdly, my reference to "all human behavior" was misleading, since I was thinking not about individual behavior (as in Siar's example of cooking eggs) but about the social behavior of groups of people in the political arena and in the fields of religion, law, the arts, etc.--in short, in the activities that most Marxists include under the "superstructure." I realize now that I should have made this clearer, although I thought I had when, right after the sentence in question, I set up a contrast between Freudians, who apply their causal explanations to individual actions, and Marxists, who apply theirs to "large-scale phenomena that occur . . . on the public stage of history" (405). With these three qualifications, then, I maintain that what I said is an accurate representation of what most Marxists believe about causality.

     21. I'm not sure, however, that Siar would accept even this qualified version, or still insist that no "actually existing Marxists . . . ever made such a statement." It's true that I didn't supply any supporting quotations here, since I didn't think they were necessary, but they're easy to find. Mas'ud Zavarzadeh, for example, says that "'objective' social reality is based on the logic of exchange in capitalist society . . . and all other forms of social and cultural life (scientific practice, subjectivity, theory, pedagogy, desire) are determined by this unsurpassable materialist objectivity" ("Reading" 28). Perhaps Siar considers him a "Neanderthal Marxist," but he's obviously an "actually existing Marxist." Siar himself gives us another passage, which he clearly agrees with, from Frederick Engels: "According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimate determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life." This sounds very much like my statement of what most Marxists believe, even in its reliance on the word "ultimate." (Siar's point in quoting it is that Engels goes on to explain that Marxists don't believe that "the economic element is the only determining one," but all I claimed is that they believe these other causes are "ultimately" less important than or subordinate to the economic cause, which is also what Engels says.) I can even quote Siar's own comment that class struggle in the base is "the central dynamic of historical development," for what is the "central dynamic" if not the "ultimate" or "basic" cause? And earlier he criticizes Graham Bradshaw's reading of Henry V because Bradshaw just "counts pennies" without realizing that Henry's invasion of France is "the result of exploitation and the ruling classes' . . . compulsion to extract [surpluses] from the 'lower orders,'" which is another way of saying that the basic cause of the invasion (in the play and in history) must be economic. Indeed the base/superstructure paradigm itself--even the very conception of a "base and a "superstructure"--assumes that activity in the "base" is "ultimately" the cause of activity in the "superstructure." If I'm wrong, Siar can easily refute me by pointing to some significant superstructural phenomenon that many Marxists believe does not have an economic cause. And while he's at it, let him point to a Marxist reading of a Shakespeare play that does not discover that the basic cause of the action lies in the economic base.

     22. Toward the end of his section on causality, Siar shifts from the question of whether most Marxists believe in this doctrine to the question of whether it's true, and asks me "to take the dialectical challenge and grapple (dialectically) with" the issue, so I better restate what I said in "Capitalism" 42 about my own position. I believe that, given the great complexity of social behavior, it's very unlikely that this should always "ultimately" have one basic cause. It's much more likely that several major causes are involved, which are often interrelated, and that their relative importance or "basicness" will vary depending on the situation. I believe that economic motivation is one of the most important of these causes and that in many conflicts (for example, in most strikes) it's the basic cause, but that in other conflicts (for example, the strife between Hindus and Moslems in India) it's present but isn't basic. I'd be happy to debate Siar about this if I had clearer idea of what he means by "dialectical." As far as I can tell, Marxist "dialectic" is a method that confirms the base/superstructure paradigm by proving that whatever a conflict "seems" to be about (e.g., religion or ethnicity), it's "really" about what Marxists want it to be about--namely, the economic base.13 (In this respect it's similar to the method used by Freudians to prove that whatever a dream "seems" to be about, it's "really" about a Freudian paradigm.) Thus it ensures that Marxists will never have to encounter any evidence that contradicts their theory. But if I'm wrong, Siar can, again, easily refute me by showing that the application of Marxist "dialectic" to analyze some conflict produces a different result.14

~~~~~

     23. Siar's second specific charge is that I present a reductive view of the Marxist conception of morality as "Manichean," and it focuses on my statement in "Capitalism" 41 that for Marxists "every . . . issue must be viewed as a struggle between two--and only two--sides, one totally good and the other totally evil, and . . . all these struggles must turn out to be the same," which he asserts "isn't Marxist thinking." Let me begin here with another qualification. In my more detailed discussion of Marxist Manicheanism in "Activist" 265-67, I emphasized that it's a tendency of many--but not all--people on the far left (and the far right), and I should have repeated this in "Capitalism." My only excuse is that in "Capitalism" I was responding to Michael Sprinker's "Teaching," which is a textbook case of Manicheanism, since on every issue that he takes up, ranging all the way from the Yale TA strike to literary criticism, he finds, as I said, that there's a struggle between two opposing positions, one totally good and the other totally evil, and that all these struggles are really the same. I urge anyone who doubts my account to read his essay (I can also, throwing modesty to the winds, recommend my response to it). It may not be typical of Marxism, but I don't believe Siar would dismiss Sprinker as a "Neanderthal Marxist" or deny that his ideas are "Marxist thinking."

     24. Siar's argument that Marxists aren't Manichean, however, is based on their "ambivalent" attitude toward capitalism. He's right about their judgment of its early stages. In fact this ambivalence can be seen in the "classical" texts of Marx and Engels: at the beginning of The Communist Manifesto they treat the emergence of capitalism as an unmitigated disaster that destroyed the good old days of feudalism,15 while in other places they claim it was a "progressive" development. But if we turn to the prevailing Marxist view of present-day capitalism, this ambivalence tends to disappear. Stephen Greenblatt notes that many Marxists now regard it as a "unitary demonic principle" (151), and this can easily be demonstrated. Jim Neilson and Gregory Meyerson say that they "identify capitalism as the engine behind global suffering" (242). Barbara Foley takes pride in "hating capitalism more than I did 25 years ago," which she announces in her first paragraph to establish her "radical" credentials. Peter Widdowson describes capitalism as "the huge confidence trick being played upon us" (4). Even Siar, who I don't regard as a Manichean, characterizes our capitalist system as "one in which we presently bounce around on boom-bust cycles." One searches in vain through such examples of "Marxist thinking" for any acknowledgment that in advanced capitalist societies workers have a much higher standard of living than in any other societies, including socialist ones, and that it's continually rising (with temporary setbacks, of course).16 Most Marxists don't see that; they only see the setbacks or the gross disparities of wealth (which Siar also highlights) or other problems, and parade them as proof that capitalism is both evil and a failure. But capitalism, unlike Marxism, never promised a problem-free utopia. I believe that we'll always have problems, as will every other conceivable society, but that we've been doing a pretty good job of dealing with them, since, as I said in my response to Sinfield, capitalism today is much more just and humane than the capitalism that Marx witnessed, or even the capitalism of my youth (to take just one example, which Siar apparently hasn't noticed, we've found ways to flatten those "boom-bust cycles" and haven't had a major depression in over 60 years). I think it's important, therefore, to recognize both the successes of capitalism and its problems, and I hope we'll always have people who call our attention to the problems so we can do something about them; but this is quite different from the prevailing Marxist Manichean view of capitalism as an evil system that can't be reformed and so must be "transformed" into a radically different system.

     25. When I said that many Marxists tend to be Manicheans, however, I was thinking primarily not of their views of capitalism but of their attacks on other political or intellectual positions and the people who hold them, which I just pointed out in Sprinker's "Teaching." To exemplify this I'll begin with a quotation from what Siar would presumably regard as a "classical" Marxist text (I noted that he calls himself a "classically oriented" materialist), written by someone who certainly represents a major strand in "Marxist thinking." It appears in Lenin's What Is to Be Done? and serves as the epigraph of Deb Kelsh's essay:

There is no middle course (for humanity has not created a "third" ideology, and, moreover, in a society torn by class antagonisms there can never be a non-class or above-class ideology). Hence to belittle Socialist ideology in any way, to deviate from it in the slightest degree, means strengthening bourgeois ideology. (italics in original)

I think this is a "classical" demonstration of Marxist Manicheanism, since it insists that there are only two sides in every political controversy: there's the right side ("Socialist ideology"), and anyone who deviates from it "in the slightest degree" is on the other side and is helping the enemy. It's also a "classical" demonstration of the Marxist totalitarianism that follows from this, because the one correct "Socialist ideology" must be determined by the position taken by the "vanguard party," and the position taken by the "vanguard party" must be determined by the Central Committee, which usually means by the Maximum Leader. Thus Lenin's Manicheanism leads directly to Stalin's purges, and Mao's Cultural Revolution, and Pol Pot's holocaust, which aren't "aberrations," as many Western Marxists maintain, but the logical consequences of this aspect of "Marxist thinking." The aberration would be a Marxist regime that permits dissent, but none has ever appeared. No doubt Siar would say that the totalitarian societies weren't really Marxist, but I wonder if he has a Marxist explanation of the curious fact that whenever Marxists come to power they always establish these nonMarxist societies.

     26. There's plenty of evidence of this Manicheanism in more recent Marxist writing. Michael Sprinker, for example, in his discussion of controversies about literary criticism in another essay, says that "the only real question . . . is: Which side are you on?" ("Commentary" 116), which assumes, again, that there are only two sides--his side, which is good, and the enemy side (i.e., everyone else), which is bad. Mas'ud Zavarzadeh devotes much of "Stupidity" to arguing that all those who disagree with him are "reactionaries" and "counter-revolutionaries" who are "complicit with capitalism," which includes, among others, Michael Berube, Henry Louis Gates, Fredric Jameson, Gayatri Spivak, Gerald Graff, Stanley Aronowitz, Richard Rorty, and Michael Sprinker (who here has his Manicheanism turned against him), and he concludes that they are therefore all on the same side and are "allies of Alan Bloom, Margaret Thatcher, Kohl, and Colin Powell in their defense of the interests of the North Atlantic ruling class" (111). This is no doubt an extreme case (by a "Neanderthal Marxist"?), but I noted in my response to Sinfield that a number of non-Neanderthal Marxists adopt a similar viewpoint when they find that liberals like me who criticize Marxism are really "red-baiters," "Cold Warriors," "McCarthyites," etc. Another aspect of this Manicheanism can be seen in the Marxist practice of taking two positions that seem to be very different or even opposed (such as the Edenic and Whig views of history, or idealism and empiricism, or the old historical criticism and the New Criticism), and lumping them together because they aren't on the Marxist side and so must be on the enemy side. I comment on this practice, with a number of examples, in "Son" 267-68, and suggest there that Marxists have difficulty in counting past two, which is the Manichean disability. I must emphasize again, however, that I regard Manicheanism as a tendency of "Marxist thinking" and that I don't attribute it to Siar or Sinfield.

~~~~~

     27. I'll now turn to the two points made in Siar's final paragraph. He says he has little hope of changing my mind because I don't "believe that exploitation in the materialist sense even exists." I believe that material exploitation exists in our society and every other known society, but I assume that he means exploitation in the Marxist sense, which means the extraction of "surplus labor" from workers' wages. My question then isn't whether it "exists" but whether it's a useful way to define "exploitation." According to this theory, as far as I can tell, the CEOs of our big corporations, with seven-digit salaries, are "exploited in the materialist sense" because they sell their labor for money and someone makes a profit on them, while the workers in Stalin's slave labor camps weren't "exploited in the materialist sense" because no one made a profit on them. If I'm wrong about this, I wish Siar would explain how the theory of "surplus labor" applies to these two cases.17 If he can, he has some hope of changing my mind about Marxism.

     28. For my part, I have no hope of changing Siar's mind because academics who are still Marxists in 2001 aren't going to be led to see the error of their ways by anything that I or anyone else could say, or by anything that could happen. If we point out to them the failure of Marxism in the USSR and Eastern Europe, they can always answer that those regimes weren't really Marxist. If we point out to them the success of capitalism in the West, they can always answer that it has problems (those "boom-bust cycles," etc.). And I noted earlier that in their Marxist "dialectic" they have a method that guarantees in advance that they'll never have to encounter any negative evidence against Marxist theory. They must also realize that there isn't the remotest chance that they'll ever be called upon to put this theory into practice. They therefore have no reality check, and hence no reason to reexamine their beliefs. But if I'm wrong about this, Siar can, once more, easily refute me by naming some possible situation or event which, if it occurred, would cause him to question his Marxism. I have no trouble responding to this challenge from my side: I'd seriously question my opposition to Marxism if a Marxist regime came into existence in which the workers had as high a standard of living as those in the advanced capitalist countries, or even had as much freedom as they do.

     29. Siar's second point at the end is that he and his fellow materialists "remain committed to the creation of a more just and equitable society," which is another reason that academic Marxists aren't going to reconsider their views--they've managed to convince themselves that they're helping to make a better world. In "Bardicide" 500 I point out that many Marxist critics "regularly end their articles and books with calls for action to change society," but that these calls for action are "always very brief and very vague" since "they never explain what the goal is . . . or how it can be achieved . . . or how this process is promoted by writing literary criticism," and I suggest that they are "a kind of ritual" or "an imaginary, fantasy resolution of the critics' need for 'commitment.'" It seems to me that this also applies to Siar's closing statement, but if I'm wrong he can again easily refute me (and I promise that this will be my last challenge) by telling us something about the kind of society that he's committed to creating and about how his writing helps to create it. I feel that I should take up this challenge myself, since his statement seems to imply that I'm not "committed to the creation of a more just and equitable society." As a liberal, I am committed to doing this, not by a "transformation" of our capitalist system into some totally different (but unspecified) system, but by a process of reforms that will alleviate its problems, and that has already, as I noted earlier, had considerable success. I don't flatter myself, however, with the belief that I'm promoting this process by my criticism, which, as far as I can tell, has no discernible political effect outside the academy (and I'd say the same about Marxist criticism). I never claimed to be a political "activist," but for many years I've been a card-carrying member of the ACLU, NOW, Amnesty International, Planned Parenthood, the New Israel Fund, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, which are all liberal organizations that are actually doing things to make this a better world, instead of waiting for that "transformation" of society. I'll be interested in hearing what Siar is doing to fulfill his commitment.

     30. I'd like to conclude by considering what I've learned from this exchange with Siar, which brings me back to my preamble. For one thing, it has reaffirmed what I said there about the variety of "selective Marxisms" and, therefore, about the need to qualify any assertions about "what Marxists believe" or "the Marxist position." (It's also taught me to be more careful in my wording of these assertions so that I don't overstate their beliefs, and to avoid the word "reduce," which is itself a kind of overstatement and has unfortunate connotations.) But it also raises the more basic problem, mentioned in my preamble, of whether we can still talk about something called "the Marxist position." Perhaps the problem can be clarified if I construct two very brief imaginary conversations with Siar that get to the point much more quickly than an exchange of essays in a journal (even an electronic journal). The first conversation would go like this:

SIAR: Marxists don't believe in X.
LEVIN: But B believes in X.
SIAR: Then he's doesn't represent good Marxist practice and so doesn't count.

And the reverse would be:

LEVIN: Marxists believe in Y.
SIAR: But C doesn't believe in Y.
LEVIN: Then he's not really a Marxist and so doesn't count.

The first version comes pretty close to my arguments with Siar about the Marxist conceptions of causation and morality. The second doesn't appear in our arguments, but it easily could have because there's now a real question of how much of the Marxist tradition one can abandon and still be a Marxist. Stephen Greenblatt observes that

It is possible in the United States to describe oneself and be perceived as a Marxist literary critic without believing in the class struggle as the principal motor force in history; without believing in the theory of surplus value; without believing in the determining power of economic base over ideological superstructure; without believing in the inevitability, let alone the imminence, of capitalism's collapse. (3)

     31. I'm certainly not going to suggest that there should be some kind of belief test that people must pass in order to qualify as Marxists. Back in my Marxist days I thought that the base/superstructure paradigm (or what we called "economic determinism") provided such a test and that anyone who didn't believe in it was outside the fold, and I see that Michele Barrett claims that it is "difficult to dislodge without bringing down the whole theoretical edifice [of Marxism] as well" (138). Yet I noted earlier that some recent Marxists have loosened up this causal scheme by granting the superstructure a kind of quasi-autonomy, and Siar points out that Raymond Williams wanted to "dump" the paradigm while insisting, as we saw, that he remained faithful to "the central thinking of Marxism." Barrett is mistaken, I think, in treating Marxism as a single "theoretical edifice," like a complex scientific hypothesis, in which all the components are necessarily connected, so that the removal of one of them will destroy the whole (this is clearly Lenin's view, since he won't allow any deviation from it "in the slightest degree"). That may have been true of the older Marxism (though I doubt it), but it's not true of Marxism today, which exists, not as a unified "edifice," but as a collection of related beliefs in the minds of individuals, so it's possible (indeed quite common) for them to "dump" some of these beliefs but retain others. And I don't know of any reason why they shouldn't. This leads me to suggest, very hesitantly, that it may now be time to drop the Marxist label (except in historical accounts, of course) and simply talk about what individuals believe. One obvious advantage of this would be that we could stop debating about whether their beliefs are really Marxist, which no longer matters, and focus instead on the much more interesting question of whether they are really true.

 

 

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Notes

1 He also objects to this statement in Faultlines 126.

2 They call the play's representation of "the fantasy of a successful Irish campaign" a "project" (226). I used the term in "Bardicide" because I found it in many of the readings I examined there. Perhaps he objects to it because he thinks I mean that the project succeeds, but I make it clear (496, 498, 499) that according to all these readings the play's project is always undermined, and I quote (497, 498) passages from the Dollimore-Sinfield essay that make this point about Henry V.

3 Since I use many more selective quotations from him that he doesn't mention and presumably doesn't object to, by focusing on these five he's again guilty (in another sense) of selectively quoting my selective quotations.

4 In "Materialising" 91, after quoting Sinfield's "bring down capitalism," I list some of these codewords, including "activist," "committed," and "transformative," but omit "intervention."

5 He still has trouble with this distinction. In "Selective Quotation" he quotes his earlier statement that "we live in an unjust social order" and says that "I hadn't realized that was going to be contentious"; but it is contentious because it implies that our society is basically unjust (that the injustice is "at the heart of the system"), whereas liberals would say that our society contains many injustices that should be dealt with, not that it is unjust in itself.

6 Sinfield may be relying on this argument when he says that capitalism is "inherently . . . inefficient" ("Sexuality" 42), although he doesn't say what it's less efficient than. The argument is wrong, since the capitalist market system has turned out to be much more efficient than planned economies in the creation and distribution of goods and services, as can be seen by comparing the per capita incomes in East and West Germany before the unification, or North and South Korea. I might add that, as a political pluralist (which goes with my liberalism), I hoped that at least one of the liberated countries in Eastern Europe or the former USSR would opt for democratic socialism, so we could see how (and whether) it worked. But that was not to be.

7 Dollimore and Sinfield wrote this before the movement for gay rights became prominent, but I also think it's even more difficult to blame capitalism for homophobia than to blame it for sexism and racism.

8 See, for example, FitzGerald 1173, Sprinker, "Commentary" 125, and Drakakis, "Terminator" 64.

9 See Adelman, et al. 77, Goldberg 458, Sprinker, "Commentary" 127, and Belsey 87, 88, 89, 90. My "Panic" is a response to Belsey.

10 Michael Bristol supports his position by saying that he returned to "the Marxist classics" (43). I don't know if Siar shares this view (he calls himself a "classically oriented" materialist), but he can easily prove that he doesn't by pointing out some significant error in Marx or Engels.

11 Although it also has aspects of a religion, and a founder whose canon is at least as conflicted as Marx's, Freudianism had a different history because its arch-heretics didn't claim to be the true Freudians but instead founded sects of their own that bear their names--Adlerians, Jungians, Horneyites, Rankians, Reichians, etc.

12 "Materialising" 102n4, see also "Defending" 53 and "Bardicide" 498.

13 Thus when Bertell Ollman, in the passage quoted by Siar, says that "dialectics" relates any event to the "encompassing system" (11), we don't have to ask where that "encompassing system" is located.

14 Siar tries to reverse this challenge by asking, "where's the evidence that 'economics' isn't 'fundamental' to conflicts that 'appear' to be 'fundamentally' about something else?" But what kind of evidence could prove this negative? Surely the burden of proof is on him to show that the conflict is fundamentally about something quite different from what it seems to be about and what the participants think it's about.

15 This is the unambivalent thesis of a book by Francis Barker, who clearly believes that he's engaged in "Marxist thinking."

16 The passage from Terry Eagleton quoted by Siar does present a much more balanced judgment of capitalism today, but ends with the assertion that under it "the great majority of men and women [are] condemned to fruitless labour for the profit of a few" (Illusions 61). He doesn't explain why their labor is "fruitless" or acknowledge that it yields a lot more fruit for them than does the labor of people with comparable jobs in socialist societies where no profit is made.

17 I've argued with Siar about the theory of "surplus labor" in our correspondence and don't want to go through it again here, except to point out that this theory is based on the medieval concept that labor and its products have a "real" value, so that if a manufacturer makes a profit in selling these products, he must be paying his workers less than their labor is "really" worth. I'll just ask one question: if the manufacturer makes a big profit in one year and a much smaller profit in the next, does this mean that he extracted much less "surplus labor" from the workers' wages in the second year, even though their wages remained the same?

 


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Form copyright © 2001 Early Modern Culture.

Content copyright © 2001 Richard Levin.