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Friday, August 10, 2018


There have been a number of interesting comments lately pointing me in different directions.  Let me begin with Robin McDugald’s question:  “I understand it may have something to do with the over-all thrust of your course, but could you offer a brief word on why the reading and discussion of Wilmsen’s book—a book I’m completely unfamiliar with—takes up such a large part of it?”

Good question.  The authors whose writings are assigned in the course are Marx, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Karl Mannheim, Edwin Wilmsen, Charles Mills, and Martha Nussbaum.  I can be absolutely certain that every student will have heard of Marx, because he is included in the required readings for the famous Contemporary Civilization course that they will have been required to take as first or second year undergraduates at Columbia.  Inasmuch as the course is being offered in the Sociology Department, I think I have a right to assume they have heard of Max Weber and Emile Durkheim.  I mean, that is like assuming that Lit students have heard of Shakespeare and Jane Austen.  Mannheim may be a stretch, but they are, after all, Columbia students, so they will at least know how to fake it.  Mills and Nussbaum look like add-ons to satisfy the PC police.  But Wilmsen?  Who he?

The overarching theme of the course is the thesis that the Social Sciences, unlike the Natural Sciences or the Humanities, are inherently and unavoidably ideologically mystified.  The three weeks spent on Wilmsen are, in a way, the heart of the course.  Let me explain.

Ever since Marx launched the enterprise of ideological critique [I know, I know, it was Hegel, but I hate Hegel, so leave me be], the most sophisticated thinkers in the nineteenth and twentieth century intellectual tradition have been writing in ever more elevated and atmospheric ways about ideology, false consciousness, mystification, alienation, and such like things.  Their prose soars so far above the landscape below that reading it can make one feel lightheaded from a lack of facts.  Real ideological critique, of the sort that Marx and Mannheim carried on with such brilliance, requires a combination of detailed, particular knowledge with rarefied theoretical analysis that is rare indeed, even in such legendary haunts as the Frankfurt School for Social Research.  To do ideological analysis well, you must steep yourself in the object of your critique.  No one would think of offering an ideological critique of the novels of Dickens without knowing them inside and out, and knowing as well an enormous amount about the social, economic, and political milieu in which they were written.

Wilmsen’s book, Land Filled With Flies, is a devastating ideological critique of the work of a group of ethnologists led by the distinguished Canadian anthropologist Richard Lee.  Lee and his associates devoted years to a detailed study of the Zhu, a people living in the Kalahari Desert of Botswana and South Africa.  Wilmsen himself spent many years living with the Zhu, learning their language, getting to know them, recreating their history and that of the larger Kalahari from colonial archives. 

The result is, in my opinion, one of the most brilliant pieces of work ever written in the Social Scieces.  Wilmsen’s critique calls into question not only the legitimacy of the work of the Lee group but of Ethnography itself as a discipline, and it does so in the service of a Marxist perspective. 

My pedagogical message to the students in the class is this:  If you want to engage in ideological critique, this is the sort of work you must do.  You must combine an understanding of the general theory of ideological critique with a hard won mastery of the detail of the object of your critique.  Wilmsen’s book, aside from being in my estimation fascinating, is a perfect case study of how to do ideological critique.

That is why, along with such famous folk as Marx, Weber, Durkhim, and Mannheim, I devote three weeks of a thirteen week course to a book by Edwin Wilmsen.


s. wallerstein said...

Back in the 60's they read or rather they were supposed to read Mannheim.

After a year of obligatory CC for everyone, with two huge red anthologies, so big that I probably could no longer carry them around given my sciatica and osteoarthritis, we had to take another year of CC, but this time we could choose the course from a list.

I took two semesters of introductory history of political and social thought, a course which began with Plato's Republic and went up to the 20th century, where we read Sorel, Lenin, Mao (yes) and Mannheim, etc. Yes, the world has changed since 1965.

Anyway, I understood absolutely nothing of Mannheim and I don't recall that my fellow students were any more enlightened as to his meaning. As you so astutely point out above, we, being sophomores by then, all knew how to fake it.

In honor of faking it, I would like to pay tribute to one of my freshman room-mates, Jon Jarvik, who was a master at that under-rated art. He had to write a term paper on Thomas Hardy and not read anything the night before the paper was due. He stayed up all night on no-doze (or maybe something stronger) and cranked out ten pages of pure bullshit about Hardy. I still recall his last sentence: "thus Hardy found his absolute, but the absolute failed Hardy".

I sometimes read literary criticism and I often find it to as vague and as bull-shitty as Jon's masterpiece, except that it is written by people with doctorates while Jon was a sophomore who went on to major in biology, not literary theory. I take my hat off to Jon.

Matt said...

This article, by the very good Sherri Berman, may interest some here:

I highly recommend her book "The Primacy of Politics" as well.

Dean said...

The "very good" Sheri Berman? I'm not so sure. She concludes, "But critiques unaccompanied by viable solutions do little more than whip up the already angry and frustrated, with more destabilization the likely upshot." This sounds to me a lot like Trump, who did prevail. Why shouldn't Socialists or Communists or Anarchists likewise succeed by whipping up anger and frustration? On top of that, she plays the ridiculous "purity" card, as if anybody wants to give up his or her own commitment to principles.

Berman's review of Corey Robin's book prompted him to take her to task for its mistaken interpretations: I really doubt that she's "very good."

Matt said...

Well, I think you're both over-stating Trump's success (that's yet to be determined, thank goodness), giving Robin too much credit, and either misunderstanding her critique of "purity" or being a fine example of what's wrong with it. (I've read a fair amount of both, and think it's clear she's much smarter and a better scholar than Robin, though of course people can disagree. You should look at her book. (Or, if not that, the book symposium on it on Crooked Timber.) It's very good.

LFC said...

Thanks to Matt for the pointer to Berman's article. Although Berman links to articles in Jacobin and Vox and quotes Ocasio-Cortez and Salazar, in a piece purporting to criticize democratic socialism in its U.S. context she makes no reference at all to Eugene Debs, Norman Thomas, and Michael Harrington, the secular trinity of the American democratic socialist tradition. Instead, all of her specific historical references are to the history of the European left, not the American left.

She is probably right that a weakness of democratic socialism, at least in the presentation of some of its proponents, is its vagueness about what socialism means and how it would "work." But she exaggerates the differences, in terms of strategy and outlook, between American social democrats and democratic socialists, wrongly takes Jacobin to be the quasi-official organ of the movement, and ignores that there are some significant differences in viewpoint and tendency within DSA itself (which has always been the case, but is especially so now given the organization's recent explosive membership growth). I think many in DSA are aware that a candidate who can succeed in a district like Ocasio-Cortez's will be different from one who can win in parts of the Midwest. Moreover, a lot of what DSA's active members (I'm a member, but not active) do relates to specific local issues and involves the kinds of broad coalitions she suggests, incorrectly, that democratic socialism is allergic to. As a perspective on current U.S. politics, I find Berman's piece, despite one or two reasonable points, to be quite unimpressive and unpersuasive.

Magpie said...

I highly recommend her book "The Primacy of Politics" as well.

You've gotta love serendipity. Prof. Wolff and S. Wallerstein make passing comments about "faking it" and in the very same comment thread we get another of Matt's Really Good and Unjustly Ignored Book ™ recommendations!

Man, this takes the cake. :-)

Matt said...

Wow, Magpie, that's a strangely hostile response. I have no idea what the reference to "faking it" is supposed to mean here, so I'll leave that to you. But, the article by Berman seemed relevant to me, so I thought I'd note it, and her book on a subject a lot of people here are interested in. People don't have to like either one. (I think LFC's comments are useful but a bit off - Berman could have said more about the history in the US, but a) she's a scholar of European politics, so it's not surprising she focused on that and b) she's discussing cases where socialists had the chance to actually influence politics in countries and failed to do so for various reasons. For good or ill [ill, I'd think] that doesn't apply to the US, where Debs, who I very much admire, never got close to influencing the outcome of a major election. I also think that, in the context of an editorial, the other decisions she makes are defensible, but others can reasonable disagree.) Her book is not "ignored", either justly or unjustly, so I didn't say so or even suggest it. I noted it had a symposium devoted to it on the Crooked Timber blog, after all, which usually doesn't happen to "ignored" books. My thought is that the book is really good scholarship on left politics in a time that has scary similarities with the US now, and that some people might find it interesting. Lots of people who are not academics read this blog, and there's no reason to think they'd know about the book, so I thought I'd mention it. Nothing more than that. I assume that's still acceptable.

Magpie said...

Wow, Magpie, that's a strangely hostile response. I have no idea what the reference to "faking it" is supposed to mean here, so
I'll leave that to you.

Hostile!? Not at all, Matt. Not at all. You are mistaking my reaction. I even left a smiley!

Amused and in awe are closer to the mark.

But let's establish something first. When you highly recommend a book, one is entitled to believe you read the book, yes? It wouldn't do to recommend a book one has not read, after all.

One can assume you gave the book some consideration. You learned from it, in other words. Moreover, you considered different points of view. You know, you exercised critical thinking and all that.

Those would seem to be reasonable assumptions. Am I mistaken?

Magpie said...

Now, about my reference to “faking it”.

Because you have no idea what that was about, I’ll remind you of some of your previous high recommendations:

The main debate is, of course, old. Eduard Bernstein got drummed out of the International for arguing that piecemeal reform could work and was infact (before WWI), working. The mainstream Marxists at the time were not happy to hear this claim. Bernstein's book, _The Preconditions of Socialism_, however, is really very good and very unjustly ignored. There's excellent discussion of this in Sheri Berman's really very good book, _The Primacy of Politics_. I'd highly recommend it (and Bernstein's book.)
April 20, 2015 at 11:14 PM

More generally, I think it's worth it for people to look at Eduard Bernstein's mostly forgotten _The Preconditions of Socialism_. Not because Bernstein, who had been one of Marx's literary executors, has the magic formula for today, but because it's useful to see the ways that he had noted, as early as the 1910's that many of the economic predictions of Marx had not happened, and that the world had changed in ways Marx had not predicted, and that therefore people wishing to be loyal to the spirit, and not the text, of Marx needed to change, too. Unfortunately, he was more or less run out of the "mainstream" Marxist/socialist movement for this heresy, but a significant part of European social democracy was built along the lines he suggested. For the general moral it is still worth reading.
June 21, 2015 at 9:29 PM

Let me put it this way, Matt: if those remarks were a part of an exam, I would have failed you. There’s nothing one can salvage from them.

You didn’t exercise any critical thinking. You didn’t consider alternative views. You didn’t even consider history. Bernstein was a careerist and an opportunist, an uneducated and underqualified one at that. He was a slanderer and a liar. Marx’s predictions, which you claim did not happen, actually did happen. In actual fact, Bernstein was wrong. You don’t need to take my word for that: but you do need to understand what was Bernstein’s argument, which you show no indication whatsoever of understanding.

But it’s not even a matter of your lack of judgement. It’s a matter that the few factual details you mentioned are wrong. I’ll give just one example: one may call Bernstein Marx’s literary executioner, he sure as hell wasn’t his literary executor. He was Engels’ literary executor. The funny thing is that I myself didn’t know that. I learned it from the book you highly recommended.

I did what you didn’t. I exercised critical thinking, Matt. Yes, I followed your recommendation: I bought and read, on and off, Preconditions. It was a painful, frustrating, time-consuming job, but I did it. You can see part of the results here:

Let me warn you: if you thought I was “strangely hostile”, you won’t enjoy reading that.


So, how can one understand your failing that “exam”, Matt? A possibility is that you have serious reading problems. Another possibility is that you are a normal person … who didn’t read the book you recommended. You, in other words, faked it.

Makes sense?


Now, maybe I'm being unfair to Berman, but your recommending her book after your high recommendation of Bernstein's very good and very unjustly ignored book doesn't bode well.

Matt said...

Well, I'm glad to see you think my blog comments are worth such research, Magpie. But still, I don't see the point. yes, I've read the books I recommend. Why would I recommend them otherwise? I don't get royalties or any sort of career bonus out of posting blog comments, for sure. I got interested in reading Bernstein's book after reading Berman, and I read Bernstein's book and liked it a lot. I think it stands up quite well. It's okay for you to disagree with it. I don't mind. And, you're right, I made a mistake about Bernstein being one of Marx's literary executors and not Engels - I'd misread a line in the bio section in the Cambridge edition of _The Preconditions of Socialism_. (What's there is pretty much all I know about his life, which doesn't interest me _all_ that much, as opposed to the book.) And of course if you think my judgment is bad, then I strongly recommend you don't bother following any suggestions of mine. Rest assured, I won't take any offense or be bothered in the slightest.

Magpie said...

Phew! I'm most relieved you didn't take any offense, Matt.

But I'm afraid you again misunderstood. I am not questioning your literary tastes, Matt, nor am I surprised you liked Bernstein's book. You may find it hard to understand it, but I can see why you liked Preconditions.

My point is that that book is crap: Bernstein was an ignoramus and an opportunist.

Austin F. Harrison put it best:

"His criticism was purely negative; his language—and probably intentionally so— obscure; his argument a labyrinth of antitheses, discussions, digressions."

That doesn't appeal to me, but I can see how that would appeal to you, Matt.


Incidentally, Harrison wasn't one of Bernstein's opponents, Matt. He was one of his supporters.

You see, Matt, I did my homework. You didn't. I checked what others wrote about Preconditions. I checked contemporary literature. I found data. I thought, I compared, I analysed, I exercised judgement.

You only liked it.

LFC said...

I hesitate to wade into this exchange but I think the tone is not, um, v. good.

I have not read anything written by Eduard Bernstein as best I can recall. However, I do know that he is well known as a main founder, or the main founder, of so-called Revisionist Socialism, and a lot of European social democracy, at least in some of its varieties, descends from that. (This is what you wd get in any standard Hist. of Socialism course, or other basic source.)

I took Matt, in recommending the Bernstein book for its "general moral," simply to be expressing his favorable view of Revisionism (as it used to be called). Now, I myself do not nec. agree w Bernstein's take on Marx and the alleged failure of Marx's predictions, and if I read Bernstein's book (which I don't plan to do frankly) I might end up agreeing more w magpie than w Matt about its merits. That said, I think magpie is being unnecessarily snarky -- well, nasty, actually.

Just b.c you think the Bernstein bk is terrible, and may have good reasons to think so, doesn't mean everyone else has to share that judgment or that a contrary judgment is necessarily the product of a failure to do one's "homework." Blog comment threads, imo, work best when they follow, within some reasonable limits, the approach that everyone gets to voice his/her opinion w/o being criticized for failure to do homework. B/c there is no homework here: that's one of the things that distinguishes a blog comment thread from a course.

So magpie, it's admirable that you took the time and effort to read the book and do some associated research and write blog posts about it, but, you know, chill out. B/c if everyone has to do graduate-seminar level research before expressing a view of a book or an author, pretty soon no one's going to be expressing any opinions here at all, and it will go the way of certain other blogs where there are zero comments on the majority (or all) posts. Which would be too bad, imo.

s. wallerstein said...


I'm going to nominate you for wise and solomonic judge of the year, or maybe of the decade.

No irony at all!!!

LFC said...

s. wallerstein,

I haven't always lived up to my own standards of behavior in the blogosphere, so I really wasn't trying to pass judgment on anyone -- with that said, thank you for your seconding-of-the-motion, so to speak.

s. wallerstein said...

Solomon doesn't pass judgment on anyone. He passes judgment on the situation or case, which is very different.

Magpie said...


Let me propose an exercise. Did what I did. Follow Matt's recommendation: read Preconditions. But really do read it. Spend time on the task. Try to make sense of the argument, relate it to the history of the socialist movement.

It's an important book. It's worth the effort.

Keep in mind these words: "unnecessarily snarky -- well, nasty, actually". Keep in mind Matt's own recommendation.

After that, we talk.

This is the book you need to check:

Preconditions of Socialism, edited and translated by Henry Tudor for Cambridge University Press (“Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought”). ISBN: 0521391210, hardback; and 9780521391214.