Dear Emily Post-Avant,

I am a first-year English PhD student at UC Berkeley. I was curious whether you’ve heard of the “After Post-Marxism” conference at Cal this coming weekend. Convoked by professors Nealon and Nye (and featuring Commune Editions as a trio), the conference refers ominously to “the present-day return to Marx.” (Where did he go? I know, Emily, he has always had your heart. Ideas in the academy are like high-end commodities, so is Marx now in for the season?) “Value theory” seems to be at the core of the conference, which is described as taking its point of departure in this semi-woke way online:

For humanities scholars, this attention to value-production opens the possibility of thinking beyond some of the main strands of twentieth century Marxist criticism, especially debates about modernity, ideology, and form. In the heyday of “the cultural turn,” Marxist debates tended to center on modernity rather than capitalism as a temporal and spatial concept. Meanwhile, transformations in the idea of ideology were transferred to the analysis of culture largely by way of Marx’s concept of base and superstructure: that is, an idea of capitalism as driven by an economic “base” that shaped, more or less directly, a range of cultural and ideological practices. And, of course, the quest for a formalism adequate to historical change lay at the center of earlier intra-Marxist debates about art and literature, such as the one between Bertolt Brecht and Georg Lukács in the 1930s. Each of these strands of Marxist thinking, though, left us with a legacy of antinomies between class and identity, culture and economy, and form and history.

Here is the first of what promises to be an afternoon of intellectual own-goals. I’m putting aside several head-scratchers (how ungrounded is the “Marxist” who would write “an idea of capitalism as driven by an economic ‘base’”? or how exactly is culture and economy an antinomy?) because comrades Lukacs and Brecht should be freed from their kidnapping by this paragraph’s rudimentary theoreticism.

I know the comrades from the Niebyl-Proctor Library were hoping for a balance-sheet appraisal of post-Marxism in historical view: of the 1977 Il Manifesto conference, of Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, or of the whole development of the crisis of Marxism, usually taken to be Marxism’s eclipse as an idealistic force capable of changing the world. The conference title is both unclear and revealing: do participants accept the premises of post-Marxism and come “after” it in the sense that they are transcending them immanently and returning to class struggle and critique of capitalism (my undergraduate theory teacher told me that this is what Slavoj Zizek did, for example, 20 years ago); or do they reject the premises of post-Marxism as comrades do and did at the time? Here Ellen Wood is good example, and she’s another person I studied in college.

The schedule is printed online and its panels sound distant from actual struggle. Acknowledging his continuing debt to post-Marxism, Joshua Clover anchors the day. Perhaps the event will prove productive and Clover will use the occasion to respond to the devastating critique of his distorted understanding of concepts in Marxism printed in Jacobin or to his outing as a Narc in your column for these pages.

–First-year English PhD Student at UC Berkeley

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Dear First-year English PhD Student at UC Berkeley,

You do seem to know your stuff, for someone so young? Too bad “Nye” isn’t Bill Nye the Science Guy. Because it does sound like this crowd could use a good-humored hand with their “scientific method.”

Yes, as you do suggest, the “After Post-Marxism” conference abstract is a mishmash of seemingly stoned non-sequiturs. And verily, I nearly tore the stiches out of my brand new bariatric incision when I read the nugget you shared from the program. I mean, I can see how stomping one’s feet that there is no Marxism without the Labor Theory of Value, say (as some folks still do), might be a bit doctrinaire, but one most assuredly cannot have Marxism–or even a watered-down materialist conception of history–without [ahem] “an idea of capitalism as driven by an economic base.”

Did they really write that last phrase? Well, remarkably, it looks like they did. (The compañeros apparently forgot about this book called Capital, which sort of has that “idea.” And actually, why just the “idea of capitalism”? Wasn’t the “idea” of Confederate slavery driven by an “economic base,” too? The Ancien Régime, también? Won’t socialism be? What’s that base “idea” supposed to be? The formulation makes it sound like some figment of philosophical Idealism!)

Though to be fair, I guess, this is–and by the conference’s own admission–all about Post-post Marxism. And I guess, too, and as the saying goes, that from the After-Post-Marxism you want, you get whatever freaking Marxism you deserve. Which in this case, apparently (and please read Trotsky on the political consequences of petit-bourgeois, ultra-left voluntarism), is not much elementary Marxism at all. Maybe Hegel’s to be stood back on his feet, now? Well, who knows.

Are the “Marxists” who’ve organized this gathering really UC profs? This longer passage you quote from the conference “overview” is, indeed, a total riot, if I may employ the pun. Can you imagine anything like the following getting past CLR James?

In the heyday of “the cultural turn,” Marxist debates tended to center on modernity rather than capitalism as a temporal and spatial concept. Meanwhile, transformations in the idea of ideology were transferred to the analysis of culture largely by way of Marx’s concept of base and superstructure: that is, an idea of capitalism as driven by an economic “base” that shaped, more or less directly, a range of cultural and ideological practices.

Putting aside the fact that there’s been plenty of focus on “capitalism as a…concept” all during the long “cultural turn” (apparently the multitude of analyses by leading socialists in NLR and Monthly Review have gone unseen–with cool charts and graphs to boot–along with classic tomes like Ernest Mandel’s Late Capitalism, etc), the implicit assumption that “Marxist debates” during the 70s and 80s were relegated to academic circles could only have been made by, well, academics. Are these conference conveners unaware that Marxist polemics were ongoing, often raging, within and between dozens of Marxist organizations, many of whose militants were stationed (as I was, by the way, and as were Fric and Frac, in their better youth) in basic industry, doing union work and party building? Theorizations of “modernity” in the pages of the New German Critique, for many of us, back then, were a bit on the backburner… And that’s just talking of the English-speaking world; in Latin America, people were theorizing capitalism and socialism like mad and risking life and limb in doing so, not always with the best of outcomes. On which, as they say, check your privilege, Bay Area poets.

And setting aside the “temporal and spatial” howler (shades of Alan Sokal: how could anything, much less a whole mode of production, not be temporal and spatial?), the implication that the Marxist tradition only starts in the 1980s to slough-off rigid base/superstructure schemas to embrace “discourse analysis,” or whatever, is naked nonsense. Aside from Gramsci’s heroic work (without which lesser Laclau and Mouffe don’t happen, of course), there are concurrent strains in the 1930s of revolutionary anti-Stalinist thought, not least among the organizations comprising the Trotsky-leaning “London Bureau,” wherein policies to push forward strategies of cultural “counter-hegemony” are prioritized as essential revolutionary activity, something brought to mass apex years earlier, in fact, by the network of Workers Clubs affiliated to the German socialist parties–not least Luxemburg’s Spartacus League/KPD–for the training of “organic intellectuals.”

One of those “London Bureau” communist groups, the POUM, in calling for a freely elected government of citizen councils, becomes the largest revolutionary Marxist party in Spain, even holding de facto power in Catalonia with the anarchist unions, before being crushed at direction of the Comintern. Trotsky himself, soon later, joins with André Breton in writing a manifesto (a short-lived international cultural front, the FIARI, is established) calling for the unconditional liberty of art and literature in the revolution—before and after—and which openly expresses comradeship with anarchist cultural workers, representing a radical turn for the former head of the Red Army, shortly before his murder. In the 60s, manifold international formations arising within the New Left wave–not least the Situationists–stand unequivocally (if variously) in opposition to passive notions of “an economic ‘base’ that shape[s], more or less directly, a range of cultural and ideological practices.”

All of which pretty much shows the door to what the old folks, back in the 19th century, were already calling “vulgar Marxism. Engels himself, even, late in life, rejected (and spoke for Marx in doing so) any kind of “direct,” mechanistic relation between base and superstructure, especially in the matter of culture and ideology. If this “more or less direct” mode was the predominant way of theorizing ideational phenomena in the “cultural turn” before so-called “Post-Marxism,” then me and my old commie mates really missed some central stuff about the New Left zeitgeist. Which one of the foundational essays of the “cultural turn,” Raymond Williams’s “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Studies,” seems to have naively missed the boat on, too, so I shouldn’t feel so bad, I guess.

Sorry to keep going, but seriously: Forget about British Cultural Studies or the Frankfurt School. Take, even, back-to-rules Althusser, for goodness sake: His analysis of ideology and its interpellations are in no way harnessed to some absolute, reflectionist “base/superstructure” carriage. The various Ideological State Apparatuses, as he terms them, are hardly monolithic and can be turned, at particular conjunctures, to strategic benefit of the working classes. As, again, per Luxemburg. Or Gramsci. Or late Trotsky. Or Mariátegui. Or Stuart Hall. Or Debord. Or Mélida Anaya Montes, etc.

Here’s the thing, and please let the apparently clueless Communards know, if you attend: The vital living currents of Marxist thought, clashing as they are, and from long before and long after the catastrophe of Stalinism, have calmly and confidently rejected the notion of some taut line between an “economic base” and “cultural and ideological practices.” There is no reason to be “Post-post” about it! Frankly, the confused premises of this self-promo academic conference begin to sound, however unconsciously, like opening moves for an adieu to Marxist thought and praxis altogether. With a fabricated excuse.

Anyway, I hope the proceedings are made available. I’m sure it will be entertaining. By the way, are you saying, First Year English PhD Student, that poet Joshua Clover never bothered to respond publicly to the Jacobin article that put his Riot/Strike/Riot book under a rather devastating lens? If not, then comrade Clover needs to go back and consider the basic, hallowed tradition of candid dialogue and debate in the communist movement. Like starting in 1864.

I told one of my employers, the obnoxious, chest-pounding Frac, that I was going to be writing about this topic. He sent me a link to something he wrote a few years ago. He asked me to suggest to the Berkeley participants they skip all the ethereal Post-post stuff and take up some of the pragmatic proposals to poets he proffers therein. Fat chance, of course, but here you go. If I didn’t share the link, he and Comandante Fric would probably hold back the measly check for this column. I’m lumpen-prole, and I need it for the rent.

I’m sorry this response is rather humorless. These Commune peeps with travel stipends do put me in a sour mood.

Long live the memory of the socialist heroes of Kronstadt. (I would have gotten expelled from my old party for saying that.)

–Emily Post-Avant

Erratum: It has been called to our attention that the last name of one of the two co-conveners of the “After Post-Marxism” conference is Lye, not Nye, as Emily has it at the beginning of her response, where she refers to Bill Nye the Science Guy. Emily has requested we put up this note of correction. Emily also extends her personal apology to Colleen Lye for the honest mistake, even though she tells us she still thinks the conference could use some help with “scientific method.”