Rethinking Marxism conference

The journal "Rethinking Marxism" hosted a conference from 12/5 through 12/8 on "Politics and Languages of Contemporary Marxism." Held at the University of Amherst in Massachusetts, it revealed divisions in the left intelligentsia that were brewing beneath the surface for a number of years. This division, roughly speaking, is one between classical Marxism and a "post-Marxism." What brought it to a head was the "Sokal Affair"

Alan Sokal is a radical physicist at NYU who had grown tired of the tendency of some postmodernists and post-Marxists to question the notion that science has universal validity. They claimed that the sciences act in a dominating and patriarchal manner to obliterate the "local knowledge" of traditional societies. While abuses do take place, according to Sokal, the problem is not in science but in the tendency for prejudice to creep into the application of science. Hence, Nazi experiments in eugenics. The answer to these abuses is a more scientific approach, not postmodernism.

Sokal submitted an article to Social Text, a post-Marxist journal, on "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity." This eventually appeared in a special issue titled the "Science Wars." The article is a send-up of postmodernist ideas and style and includes a large amount of fawning references to all the fashionable thinkers in post-Marxist circles, including Stanley Aronowitz, a founder of "Social Text." The opening paragraph states:

"There are many natural scientists, and especially physicists, who continue to reject the notion that the disciplines concerned with social and cultural criticism can have anything to contribute, except perhaps peripherally, to their research. Still less are they receptive to the idea that the very foundations of their worldview must be revised or rebuilt in the light of such criticism. Rather, they cling to the dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook, which can be summarized briefly as follows: that there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole; that these properties are encoded in 'eternal' physical laws; and that human beings can obtain reliable, albeit imperfect and tentative, knowledge of these laws by hewing to the 'objective' procedures and epistemological strictures proscribed by the (so-called) scientific method."

Shortly after the article appeared, Sokal revealed to Lingua Franca, a "review of academic life" that the article was a hoax. Notions that quantum gravity could have anything to do with a "postmodern and liberatory" science were strictly tongue-in-cheek. The revelation had an enormous impact internationally, including front-page coverage in the NY Times. The editors of Social Text became defensive and made statements linking Sokal with right-wing attacks on "tenured radicals." Why should one leftist attack another, they cried out in pain? Weren't there enough targets on the right that Sokal could attack?

***** The problem is that many Marxists both inside and outside the academy challenge the assumptions that post-Marxism makes. They question whether Marx and Engels are to blame for economic reductionism carried out in their name. They also question whether by trying to blend Lyotard or Derrida with Marx, you end up with a cure is worse than the disease. *****

The founders of Rethinking Marxism are Richard Wolff and Steven Resnick, two professors at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. They are Althusserians and those in the know often describe their journal as the voice of the "Amherst School." From the very beginning, the journal has become receptive to the postmodernist current as well as more conventional Althusserian thought. Social Text, a journal that the Frankfurt Critical Theory inspired, has also opened its doors to postmodernism. From an editorial standpoint, there is little to distinguish the two journals. They regard themselves as being sentries on the lookout for a "reductionist" Marxism.

In a tribute to the recently deceased Althusser, Resnick and Wolff stated in the Spring 1991 Rethinking Marxism that "Whether as a philosopher or as a social theorist, Althusser, like Marx before him and postmodernists today, tried to formulate an approach that would be free of the inherent conservatism represented by foundationalism, last-instance determinism, and reductionism in all of their different guises, from positivism and realism in philosophy to structuralism and humanism in social theory."

With this statement of purpose in mind, the "Amherst School" scheduled plenary sessions at the 1996 conference that excluded any speaker who did not share these general sentiments. What they did not anticipate is that many of the rank-and-file participants not share these sentiments. Neither did they anticipate that the furor aroused by the "Sokal Affair" would cast a shadow across a number of the plenaries. Opposition to postmodernism appeared not only in the plenary sessions, but in many of the workshops. The organizers expected this conference to be as well-orchestrated and as harmonious as the convention of a bourgeois political party. Instead it turned into a sometimes angry debate over the very serious question of how to define Marxism.

At the opening plenary on "Knowledge, Science and Power," three speakers spoke in favor of exactly the "postmodernist" version of science that Alan Sokal had been criticizing. They were Jack Amariglio, an editor of the "Rethinking Marxism" journal, Sandra Harding of the University of California, Los Angeles and Vandana Shiva of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Natural Resources in New Delhi.

Harding attacked Sokal by name in her talk, which addressed the "ethnocentrism" of Western intellectuals and the danger that the "science wars" were bringing out tendencies toward "residual positivism" in among leftists.

Vandana Shiva was the most outspoken of the three speakers on the threat that "Western science" poses to traditional societies, including India. She made the point that adherence to a Cartesian model was the reason for the outbreak of Mad Cow disease. She has become a major celebrity at various ecological conferences calling for an anti-industrial development model. Nobody has reported her refusing on principle to take jet planes to and from these conferences rather than sailboats.

Earlier that day Meera Nanda, a physicist born in India who teaches at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, presented views that lined up with Alan Sokal's on the contested issues. At a panel on "Rethinking Knowledge and Class in Third World Political Movements," she presented a paper that argued that the postcolonialism of some Indian intellectuals on the left has abetted reactionary Hindu nationalism. They claim that Hindu nationalism is an appropriate response to the "dominant" ideology of the West. Nanda's answer was to promote a universalism that can unite all of the oppressed sectors of Indian society across national lines.

Nanda became incensed when she discovered that the point of view that she and Sokal stood for had no representative at the opening plenary. She had phoned Steven Cullenberg, one of the conference organizers, to complain. He responded that the organizers had actually intended that the plenary serve as a reply to Sokal and not an exchange of views.

What Cullenberg, Wolff and Resnick did not anticipate was the degree to which people at the conference identified with the Sokal point of view. This included a number of young Indian women who were ready to defend it vocally. One of these women spoke up during the opening plenary's discussion period and claimed that all the talk about Difference and Identity was superfluous because "traditional Marxism was capable of dealing with all these questions."

Nanda told me that she was pleasantly surprised by the change in attitude among young Indian radicals. In years past there was a tendency to accept many of Vandana Shiva's arguments as legitimately "anti-imperialist." Now the tide has turned and there is little patience for post-colonialist ideas.

Tensions between the classical Marxist and post-Marxist camps exploded the very next evening at the plenary session on "Race and Class: A Dialogue." This featured Cornel West, a noted African- American scholar at Harvard and Etienne Balibar of the University of Paris. Balibar is a very important figure in Althusserian circles since they view him as heir apparent to Althusser himself.

Balibar interpreted the high regard of the conference organizers as a license to speak long past his allotted time of twenty minutes. After seventy minutes, he was not finished and no end appeared in sight. This provoked an angry outburst from the floor by a group of young Indian females, including the one who had confronted the speakers the night before. They shouted that Balibar was being "authoritarian". This proved to be very embarrassing to the conference organizers who make a great show of being sensitive gender and national oppression. They were not prepared for this type of revolt from the very subalterns they thought they represented.

The conference organizers leaped to the conclusion that the ring- leader of the group was Meera Nanda herself. What they did not realize is that Nanda herself had left 30 minutes before the outburst and had actually sympathized with much of what Balibar was saying. The organizers set up a meeting with her in order to clear the air. They wanted to try to understand why the outbursts were taking place and what role Meera Nanda was playing. She told them they were taking place because there were genuine political differences and that they were suppressing them. She reported that they were angry for having a display of such unpleasantness at their big conference, but had to agree that there was no master mind.

Most people on either side have come to the realization that the differences are too much out in the open for future conference organizers to sweep under the rug. The "Sokal Affair" represents a turning-point in the American left intelligentsia and the signs are clear that the postmodernist phase is rapidly coming to an end.