Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Luk√°cs

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Histomat Marx-like Genius Awards

Just as the NME has its 'Godlike Genius Awards', I thought I would mark clocking up 200,000 'hits' on Histomat by unveiling the 'Marx-like Genius Awards'. Woo. Rather than just another meaningless and random list of Top Ten Revolutions, or Top Ten works of Marxist writing on History, or whatever, this time around I have decided to attempt to compile a list of the top ten greatest living Marxists on the planet today, (including people who have made an historic contribution to Marxism even if they are not now Marxists). Oh yeah. I should therefore remind readers lest it need saying that this is actually the definitive comprehensive official list of greatest Marxists, considered, peer-reviewed and approved by a panel of experts at great length. It is not therefore to be taken lightly, as any sort of personal top ten list that was put together quickly over a lunch hour when I suddenly noticed that my stat-counter had hit a significant milestone and couldn't think of a better idea for a post. No, that is not my style at all. However, I must take full responsibility and blame for the fact that the list is Anglo-centric as hell, and with a distinct (but perhaps sadly unavoidable?) race and gender bias. I would however appreciate comments, criticism, ridicule, suggestions of the thousand and one people who I missed out, etc etc etc and if people want to go away to draw up alternative lists that would be cool. I would certainly learn a lot from that. Indeed, any attempt by one person to compile such a list in the end only really reveals that persons ignorance/arrogance. Okay then, that all said, in alphabetical order by surname, the greatest living Marxists are...[drum roll]

Perry Anderson

Grace Lee Boggs

Alex Callinicos

Loren Goldner

Irfan Habib

Chris Harman

Eric Hobsbawm

Victor Kiernan

Michael Lowy

John Saville

Remember, some of these people are on the list for their historic contribution, rather than their current political contribution. Right. And if you think there are too many historians on the list then well, sorry, but that's kind of your problem not mine. Anyway, I have lit the fuse as it were...what is now done is done...

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33 Comments:

At 2:20 pm, OpenID readerswords said...

Good to see one name from India- Irfan Habib. IMHO, though, Romilla Thapar (again a historian) is far superior and more deserving than Habib. That Thapar is a woman would help to give a more gender balanced list (though that is not the reason I am bringing up her name).

 
At 2:25 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Many thanks - this is exactly the sort of comment I was after...feel free to suggest other Indian Marxists to read...

The motto to remember people is:
More women!
More non-Europeans!
More historians!

 
At 2:53 pm, Blogger Roobin said...

Does Mike Davis count? He doesn't tick many boxes, although he is good. Also, what's the Marxist definition of genius? How does it avoid the pitfalls of great-man-theory?

 
At 3:13 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Mike Davis came close to making the Histomat top ten list Roobin, but sadly for him just missed out. I bet he is gutted.

For info, others who just missed out include David Harvey, Robert Brenner, Tariq Ali and Stuart Hall (a quick preemptive strike of sorts there).

The 'Genius' category avoids the great man theory of history because quite simply Marx himself was a genius. I hope that makes things clear...

 
At 4:32 pm, Blogger Roobin said...

"The 'Genius' category avoids the great man theory of history because quite simply Marx himself was a genius. I hope that makes things clear..."

IN-DEED! What is a genius?

 
At 4:33 pm, Blogger Roobin said...

"Stuart Hall"

He of It's A Rebel's Knockout fame?

 
At 7:18 pm, Blogger Keith Watermelon said...

you forgot chris hitchens and nick cohen ;-)

seriously though, no zizek!? he's popularised marxist thought to a younger generation, and his name's spelled with an exclamation mark

 
At 11:07 pm, OpenID readerswords said...

There is a long list of Indian Marxist historians, I don't think they would qualify as geniuses, but all very important ones:
Sumit Sarkar
Ranajit Guha
Bipan Chandra
R.S. Sharma
besides Romilla Thapar and Irfan Habib. DD Kosambi, who died in 1966, is a must read too.

 
At 10:40 am, Blogger Snowball said...

I have heard good things about DD Kosambi - I will certainly check him out at some point...

Roobin - yes, that Stuart Hall...he does football reports too you know.

Keith - I am going to see Zizek play at Leeds Uni tonight as part of his UK tour - I am not that convinced by his 'Marxism' personally, but I'll see if I have changed my opinion after tonight's gig.

And shit yeah - I also missed out Norman Geras! How the hell did that happen?

 
At 8:31 pm, Blogger Keith Watermelon said...

i'm not completely convinced by zizek either, but you putting that then suggests you are convinced by hobsbawn, which is worrying

 
At 11:32 pm, Blogger Mark202 said...

No place for Antonio Negri? like it or not, him and Michael Hardt have written the communist manifesto for the 21st century.

 
At 11:37 pm, Blogger Keith Watermelon said...

hardt and negri have written shite that has, by and large, led to a political dead end. callinicos destroying negri at the paris esf was a terrific political spectacle. marx and engels, meanwhile, wrote the communist manifesto for the 21st century, and indeed any century in which the working class exists

 
At 1:05 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

One great merit of the Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels was that it was clearly written in a passionate yet precise and unambigious style, in language which while slightly dated today has been able to be understood by millions and millions of people.

Empire by Hardt and Negri on the other hand is written in a kind of obscure opaque language which makes it quite unreadable to anyone without a PhD. It has no chance of being 'the Communist Manifesto for the twenty-first century' for that one simple reason alone, regardless of its content.

Hobsbawm easily deserves his place on this list, for his unparalleled contribution to Marxist historiography alone (Labouring Men, Worlds of Labour, Bandits, Primitive Rebels, Age of Revolution, Age of Capital, Age of Extremes, etc etc etc), whatever one thinks of his politics.

 
At 6:10 pm, Anonymous lazynative said...

Not sure Ranajit Guha would classify himself as a Marxist nor Sarkar these days.

Zizek should be on the list even if you don't agree with the guy think he is very influential and has interesting ideas plus you gotta admire somone who tries to combine Lacan and Marx even if they are a little crazy.

Not sure why Hobsbawm isn't on the list; think David Harvey should be on too for one of the best books on Capital I have seen.

I don't think Chris Harmna should be on the list; respect his work but it isn't original or good enough to merit the label genius Marxist or otherwise. He is very much a typical Marxist thinker imo.

Other possibilities include Jon Elster and Ellen Meiskins Wood but I am not familiar enough with their work to comment.

 
At 11:07 am, Blogger Snowball said...

lazynative - I sadly can't really comment at length now - Zizek and Harvey you might well be right about, fair point. Harman is not a genius, true, but he has done more than just defend Cliffite orthodoxy, he has tried to develop Marxist theory as well.

And Hobsbawm is on the list. One other person who deserves a mention somewhere is Robin Blackburn.

 
At 3:23 pm, Blogger Mark202 said...

Could you really claim the communist manifesto has been understood by millions and millions of people? On the whole, it could easily be argued that it has been mis-understood. Language, even when it is presumed to be written concisely and clearly, holds the possibility for mis-understanding and mis-communication.

I also second the claim about David Harvey. I really enjoy reading his work. Also, what about Fredric Jameson? One of the greatest cultural Marxists alive.

 
At 11:17 pm, Anonymous MichaelRosen said...

Pause a mo, while you ponder on the matter of what you've done. First the category, 'living Marxist' which you seem to define as someone who writes essays and books and gives lectures. Harumph! IN theory you could be a Marxist ballet dancer, couldn't you? And if you were a) brilliant at ballet and b)expressed some aspect of Marxist thought through the ballet in a brilliant way, you might qualify as being the greatest living Marxist, no? If Neruda was alive, wouldn't he have qualified? Or one of the great Italian Communist film-makers? No one's mentioned John Berger, theorist, novelist and essayist...ans still alive. Or what about a great populariser of some of Marx's ideas eg Pilger? Or a great photographer...is his name Salgado? I know Ken Loach isn't exactly flavour of the month down this way, but hasn't he been working away at the same coalface all these years?

Just stirring the pot.

 
At 11:18 pm, Anonymous MichaelRosen said...

And no Eagleton?

 
At 12:24 am, Blogger Keith Watermelon said...

too modest to say it, but you fancy including yourself, don't you michael? fair enough in any case - you were the only marxist my zionist parents ever read to me, so you're certainly worthy of nomination for this award.

certainly, you're the only marxist to ever be named laureate

 
At 1:59 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chris Harman??!!

You've got to be kidding me.

Please expand your personal reading list beyond the SWP CC and you'll realize that it's quite silly to even include him in this list.

 
At 2:32 pm, Blogger DJN said...

anon - There are eight others not in the SWP CC.

Michael raises an important point. But now I will ignore it and continue to say what I wanted :)

Harman's work is incredibly readable, accessible and always tackling pressing and/or big issues - a far cry from many obscure academics who call themselves Marxists. On almost every fundamental issue for revolutionary socialists (Marxist economics, the failure of the Russian Revolution, the national question, base and superstructure, 1968, from feudalism to capitalism - the list is long), Harman has contributed an essay, series of articles or a book which makes sense of things and ties it into practice - something that never happens with the academics.

He may not be an "original" theorist, but I think that the retreat of Marxism into the academies has led to a fetishization of "originality", if you know what I mean. As far as I can tell, a lot of this "originality" is the result of not giving the Marxist "canon" a thorough reading. That's why we still have academics saying Marxism still hasn't addressed the state, women, nationalism, blah blah blah. Within the academy, reading a Marxist who ties theory to practice - think Lenin and Trotsky - is unconscienable, though Gramsci is acceptable so long as we don't talk about what he did before prison.

 
At 2:32 pm, Blogger DJN said...

apologies for rant...I am taking a much needed day of from my studies...

 
At 3:53 am, Anonymous lazynative said...

Ah yes, Eagleton and Jameson are notable absences who should be on the list.

I have to say I really disagree about Harman; firstly I am sorry to say that while he is very readable, lucid in his theoretical outlines and knowledgeable about basic Marxist theory and how it can be applied to a wide variety of topics that doesn't make him a great thinker or even a great Marxist. He may well play an important role in popularising and making Marxism and Marxist thought accessible but so what; I would no more call him a great Marxist thinker than I would call Isaiah Berlin a great Liberal thinker/genius just because he fashionably made come liberal ideas accessible to a wider public.

Secondly, imo a lot of Harman's thinking is just not impressive; I really don't see him going beyond the orthodoxy or trying to build on traditional Marxism or re-work in a way that significantly illuminates our understanding of various topics. All the things you mention from 1968, the Russian Revolution etc. can't see where he has said something that can really be seen as a major breakthrough. Unlike people such as Harvey, Zizek and Eagletong who I think have made major contributions to our understanding of the political geography of space and architecture, psychology and film as well as literature.

I admit some of my opinion is coloured by the fact that I have heard and interacted with Harman and while I liked and respected his position on a variety of issues; on quite a few major ones ranging from Indian political economy, the current war in Iraq and the Industrial Revolution I was less tham impressed with his arguements and thinking on them.

Also am unsure about the 'Academic Marxists' you talk about here; Zizek is quite active politically and run for office as well as being involved on-off in several movements; all the Indian Marxists are quite active politically as well and as public intellectuals locked in a particularly bitter struggle with the Hindu Nationalists over the interpretation of Indian history and society as a result of which several have received death threats and have difficulty in getting their work published or attract lot of protests from the Hindu right in a number of unpleasant ways.

Harvey and Eagleton are also pretty active in their respective ways; Eagleton probably still has a lot of direct connection with various Marxist groups while Harvey works with several NGOs and social movements on issues like urban housing and poverty.

Just because their work may not be as accessibly or easy to read (though actually barring perhaps Zizek and Jameson I don't think any of the thinkers mentioned are any harder to read and understand than Harman) doesn't mean that it is irrelevant or somehow less powerful/valuable than those who write in a more simple and straightforward manner. After all Marx was probably one of the least accessible of the 19th century socialist writers to read when you look at his actual theoretical works as opposed to his journalism and pamphleteering but this is where his greatness lies. I don't think most of the thinkers mentioned would denigrate the importance of practise; but their real contribution imo comes from their thought more than their revolutionary activities.

 
At 6:24 pm, Anonymous a very public sociologist said...

No John Rees?

Your card is marked Snowball old son ;)

 
At 12:23 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Thanks people for keeping the pot well and truly stirred...

Michael is right - what I really have done here is, in the main, compiled a list of great living Marxist historians and then in a highly provocative gesture without pausing for thought labelled them greatest 'living Marxists'.

This is offensive to Marxist literary theorists, ballerinas, poets, film makers, etc etc - I hope they accept my apologies. Eagleton, Berger, Loach, Rosen, Pilger etc etc all are worthy of consideration here. People should feel free to expose my ignorance and arrogance even more by suggesting more cultural contributors to Marxism.

I also take lazynative's point about accessibility, but I would still also want to second Doug for defending Harman though - Marxism, at least in its classical form, is about a unity of theory and practice, and whatever one thinks of the importance of say a Zizek theoretically, and whatever his past political practice, one cannot say that his base in the academy and, crucially, his apparent orientation around the world of academia helps to reforge the current weakest link in the chain of Marxist thought - that of organisation - in a satisfactory manner.

Now this is perhaps understandable in Zizek's case because of his experience of Stalinism, but from a Leninist point of view it remains slightly problematic. And it is I think from a Leninist point of view that we should still want to ultimately judge any list of great living Marxists, whether they be dancers or dockers.

 
At 4:13 pm, Anonymous lazynative said...

Snowball I think you are right about the importance of organisation and its relevance to Marxist practise but imo the truth of the matter is that thee things are at a low ebb in most of the industrial countries at the moment. Also I am sorry to say I don't think much of the attempts of people like Harman to advance them; still seem stuck in the last century tbh. Also I would argue that Marx's record as an organiser or a practitioner in this regard is hardly stellar; if we judge him on this ground he would have trouble making a list as well. Still a lot of this is perhaps being in the right place at the right time.

These days I think it is almost impossible to make a big impact on theoretical debate at such a level and also have the time/energy for the kind of politics you speak of. Could perhaps be done but would require a sacrifice on the personal front of things like leisure, family life that few people would be willing to make.

As an aside in reference to Michael Rosen's point about other kinds of great Marxists, thought that mentione should be made of Miyozaki apart from just making fantastic anime you can see a strong critique of capitalist modernity that owes a fair bit to his marxism though with a strong 'green' slant to it as well.

 
At 4:22 pm, Anonymous Roy said...

As erudite and prolific writer as he is, I can't say I've read anything particularly original from Callinicos. Always regarded Harman as a more talented theorist.

Can someone enlighten me?

 
At 10:03 pm, Anonymous a very public sociologist said...

If you want a storm of protest, how about compiling a list of your top (living) non-IS bloggers?

A cheque will be in the post upon receipt of a favourable position.

 
At 3:01 am, Blogger Editorial Collective said...

And why am I not on the list? I wrote that clever little Marxist analysis of the Simpsons.

I proposed it for our (Canadian) Marxism conference this year, but it didn't make the cut. Looks like I'll have to split off and form my own group...

 
At 3:02 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

err, that was me - doug from the proles, clearly logged in on another gmail account

 
At 12:09 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Doug, I am currently engaged in a protracted struggle to get this years British Marxism to allow me time and space to properly develop my thoughts on Simon Pegg's 'Marxism' and the 'romantic anti-capitalism' of Iron Maiden, but they are not buying it, so I can understand how you feel...definitely worth considering splitting off over this kind of stuff...

AVPS - I will have a think about a top 10 list of non-IS bloggers...hmm...

 
At 6:06 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

lol

I think you can definitely form a faction on that issue.

Maybe an SWP day school on pop culture is in order. That would draw a shit load of people and blow a lotta minds.

~Doug

 
At 7:23 pm, Anonymous JM said...

Accuse me of being Eurocentric if you will but Europe's most influential Marxist politician must be Olivier Besancenot.

 

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