September 30, 2020

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, September 2020

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste, and no credentials to opine on the history of Marxism, sociology, or even social network analysis.

Anna Lee Huber, An Artless Demise
Mind candy historical mystery, 7th in the series; continuing to be enjoyable.
Perry Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism
A brisk survey of Marxist thought from continental western Europe*, 1918--1968, which proceeds from the premises that (1) real Marxist insight is directly translatable into, and derives from, joining the working class in revolutionary action, and (2a) Lenin fulfilled these conditions and accordingly made great advances in Marxist theory, as well as (2b) founding a genuinely proletarian state. As Anderson brings out, all the western Marxist theorists he surveys (except Gramsci) were children of the middle or even upper classes, and were philosophers disconnected from concrete questions of politics (except Gramsci) and economics. It is thus suggestive that a lot of what they did was combining classical Marxism with other philosophies or ideologies (psycho-analysis, existentialism, structuralism), in writings too obscure for most people with university educations, let alone contemporary workers. (Such syncretism of apparently-incompatible traditions, in increasingly arcane prose, is very common when communities of literate intellectuals are left to their own, inward-looking devices [cf.].) Anderson trembles on the verge of a historical-materialist analysis of western Marxism as, in fact, an ideology of (a fraction of) the educated professional classes, but doesn't quite go there, perhaps because he thinks those works were intellectually valuable — and in any case Anderson spent a lot of his career importing this stuff into English-speaking, especially British, intellectual life.
A rather extraordinary concluding chapter points out that there was in fact another Marxist tradition in western Europe which did try to be revolutionary and keep its eye on politics and even economics, namely Trotskyism. Anderson ends by saying, or at least strongly hinting, that there needed to be some synthesis between the Trots and the philosophers.
An even more extraordinary afterword, from a decade later, walks back premise (1). The new argument is that historical materialism is supposed to be a science of history, and practical action in the present can't change the past, so correct Marxism can't be all about the unity of theory and practice. (The afterword does not re-examine premise (2b), about how Lenin founded a workers' state.) This shows commendable intellectual honesty and willingness to revisit ideas on Anderson's part, but does raise a lot of "Where else were you confidently wrong about?" questions.
Still, if you are willing to accept, or mentally divide through for, premises (1) and (2), this is a really good high-level survey of half a century of left-wing thought, from a very learned and intelligent commentator. The best alternative I can think of is volume III of Kolakowski's Main Currents of Marxism, but this is vastly shorter, if more schematic. (I would pay a lot to read Anderson and Kolakowski seriously reviewing each other.)
*: Anderson mentions British Marxist historians, but doesn't discuss their work; no other Marxist historians get referred to. As for Marxist economists, he mentions Sweezy in the USA and Sraffa in the UK, but mostly to say that they marked end-points for the tradition of distinctively Marxist economics, Sweezy by hybridizing it with Keynes, Sraffa by, well, whatever the hell it was Sraffa was up to. (That last is a jest but I'm actually curious about Anderson's thoughts on Sraffa.)
Norman Geras, Marx and Human Nature: Refutation of a Legend
The legend is that Marx thought there was no such thing as a trans-historical, universal human nature, that he dissolved into the "ensemble of social relations" which are so malleable that the idea is meaningless. Geras is very, very patient in picking apart all of the textual evidence offered on behalf of this, and countering it with all of the places where Marx plainly does rely on the idea of an un-changing human nature. Geras is also very patient in distinguishing "There is no trans-historical human nature" from "X, which is claimed to be part of trans-historical human nature, is no such thing but a product of a particular ensemble of social relations", and distinguishing between "Marx asserted that there was such a thing as human nature" and "Marx was right about the content of human nature" and "Marx was right to assert that there was such a thing as human nature".
Linton C. Freeman, The Development of Social Network Analysis: A Study in the Sociology of Science
This is a self-published history, by a participant, so it's not very sophisticated historiographically. (There is little or no attempt to trace the development of any individual's thoughts, or explain how the idea of network analysis took off, or failed to, in particular contexts, for instance.) But it's good on bringing together all the different strands and efforts that contributed to the field of social network analysis, within sociology, as that was understood circa 2000. Something which astonished me, though, was to learn that Harrison White was in fact a Ph.D. physicist (and former Carnegie Tech faculty).
Erik Olin Wright, Understanding Class
A collection of Wright's essays and reviews on the theme of what classes are, how they work, and why some essential core of Marxism is true, dammit, even if Uncle Karl's original formulations are indefensible.
Valen the Outcaste [1, 2]
The Spider King
Comic book mind candy, fantasy flavors, no pun intended. (Technically Spider King is science fiction.)

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; The Progressive Forces; Philosophy; Commit a Social Science; Networks; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime; Scientifiction and Fantastica

Posted at September 30, 2020 23:59 | permanent link

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