Plaksin, A Spectrum of Glass (1920)

Hysteria in Historical Materialism

A labile disorder (1995-2013)

Image: Plaksin, A Spectrum of Glass (1920)

Though one might point to any number of possible precursors, the advent of hysterical materialism proper only occurred with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. From this point forward, the phenomenon began to spread in earnest. Many factors contributed to its rise, overdetermining its eventuality, but at an etiological level the most approximate cause of hysterical materialism was the historic death of the Left in this moment. The Left had already by then been limping along for several decades, especially after “the century of Marxism” drew to a close around 1973. But the final breakup of the Bolshevik experiment brought an end to an age; the trauma of this loss proved too much  for some to handle. History having now ceased to take place, material reality itself became hysterical.

We thus at last come to hysterical materialism, and begin with a concrete case. Barely a century after historical materialism was first proclaimed, and only a few years after its seeming defeat, the germs of this new dementia found their way into a fledgling journal project dedicated to the doctrine’s renewal. As if History were playing a practical joke, the name of the journal where “materialist” hysteria became most firmly entrenched was none other than Historical Materialism. Over time some of its most notable editors and event planners came to be afflicted by this terrible illness, and to this day continue in its throes. To be sure, the vast majority of its contributors and fellow-travelers remain untouched by hysterical materialism, with outbreaks of so-called “mass hysteria” appearing far less frequently than its individual manifestations.


Materialism: Historical or hysterical?

Materialism: Historical or hysterical?

The incidence and intensity of this “materialysteria” in Historical Materialism comes through most clearly if we narrow the field to a few high-profile examples. Examining the hysterical reactions of certain members within the journal’s uppermost echelons, all in relation to a single object, serves to focus our inquiry even further. Not just any object will do, however. What object would best suit our purposes? The answer — inexorably, if perhaps a tad narcissistically — is the Platypus Affiliated Society.

Historic histrionics

Platypus has in the past been known to provoke violent bouts of hysteria in different quarters of the dead Left. Those involved in Historical Materialism who’ve proved susceptible to it are relative latecomers to the trend. As usual, the Spartacist League (ICL-FI), the advance guard of Fourth International ultra-orthodoxy, led the way on this front. Protesting the group’s inaugural event, “Imperialism: What is it and why should we be against it?”, the Sparts unleashed their entire arsenal of abuse upon Platypus. Straining the very limits of their lexicon, they released a polemic (charmingly entitled “Platypus: Pseudo-‘Marxist,’ pro-imperialist, academic claptrap”) that for all its righteous opprobrium is still unsurpassed within the subgenre of anti-Platypus diatribes. As a way of responding to this piece, Chris Cutrone submitted a letter to Workers Vanguard“Hysteria in the face of Platypus?” In it he maintained:

Platypus’ interrogation and critique of the Left seems to engender a hysterical and misguided response that is in direct proportion to the stakes of asking such questions of the Left and the history of how it got here. The Left stands in need of critique precisely to escape the dead-end it has become.

From such purer expressions of sectarian hysteria in the face of Platypus as was just witnessed in the Sparts, we now pass on to the diluted, sub-sectarian hysteria of an elite handful within the Historical Materialism conference and publication series. Despite having shown a willingness to engage with members of Platypus in the past — Chris Cutrone and others at HM Toronto 2010, Haseeb Ahmed, James Vaughn, and Spencer Leonard at HM London 2011 — it soon became clear that by Autumn 2012 an unofficial policy had been enacted so as to exclude the entire organization from participation in its events. Of course, this was never announced anywhere. It would’ve probably appeared too juvenile, too petty and unprincipled, to make public. After all, shunning is seldom practiced anymore except amongst grade-school students (the “silent treatment”) and the Amish. But after some senior members of Platypus heard back positively from the great Jairus Banaji and others on the papers they submitted papers for the HM New Delhi 2013 conference back in September 2012, only to receive no response to their follow-up e-mails, it became obvious something was amiss.

Spencer Leonard and Sunit Singh, both relatively close to Banaji (who they interviewed back in 2010 on the Naxalite rebellion), eventually learned from him that he had been “pressured” by the organizers of the conference to disregard submissions from members of Platypus. It’s a shame, too, since the research of a number of those who were looking to present in New Delhi take Indian/Pakistani history as their primary focus: Sunit Singh, Atiya Khan, Spencer Leonard, Ninad Pandit, etc. Though her paper proposal on the American Civil War was at first greeted with enthusiasm by the HM New Delhi conference organizers, Pam C. Nogales C. also saw the e-mails she’d been receiving taper off, without any explanation. Not even a notice of rejection.

Gustav Klutsis, Construction (1922)

Gustav Klutsis, Construction (1922)

(Incidentally, just a few months later, something similar happened to me. HM‘s David Broder got in touch with me about an offer to do some Russian translations:

…Hi Ross. Thanks for your e-mail about translations for the Historical Materialism book series. The book we are currently looking to translate is Foundations of the Sociology of Knowledge by K. Megrelidze. We are however going to be looking into other works [suggestions are welcome]. You might also like to suggest what you would want/expect in terms of payment. We will make a funding application to the Prokhurov fund for the Megrelidze.

Though I responded promptly to their offer, no further e-mails were forthcoming. Nothing ever “materialized,” historically or hysterically. Oh well! Their loss, really.)

Just a couple months later, in looking to organize a panel for the Anti-Capitalist Initiative’s “Up the Anti” conference in London, Laurie Rojas and Lucy Parker were alerted to some murmurs from other groups sponsoring the event that some of Historical Materialism‘s prime movers were looking to spread their own hysteria. This led Chris Cutrone to send an explanatory letter to the Communist Party of Great Britain, “Up Yours,” published in its Weekly Worker:

[R]ecently, at the urging of the conference speaker Jamie Allinson, claiming pressure from members of the Historical Materialism journal editorial board to exclude Platypus, the other sponsoring organisations voted to remove Platypus’ sponsorship of the event

The red herring was Platypus’s publication of translations of some articles by “Anti-German” tendencies, which was regarded as political endorsement of the articles’ views. In the old Stalinist manner of “amalgamation,” Platypus has been accused of guilt by association.

Bluster and ballyhoo

So it goes. So it would seem. The controversy over the two “Anti-German” translations, one by the Initiative Sozialistisches Forum and the other by Stephan Grigat, has of course been ridiculously overblown. Though it was repeatedly pointed out with reference to its editorial statement that the Platypus Review is open to submissions — and is therefore not an “organ” expressing either the views of Platypus as an organization or those of its individual members — this did not prevent hysterical misrecognitions on the part of Louis Proyect, Gabriel Ash from Jews sans frontieres, or Max Ajl with regard to the first and comparatively restrained polemics by Maciej Zurowski and Susann Witt-Stahl with regard to the second. (Witt-Stahl’s contribution sparked an hilarious backandforth between the Assoziation Dämmerung journalist the adorable NegativePotential/Angelus Novus). Not to mention the fact that Platypus solicited (and obtained) a critical response to the ISF piece from the German communization theorist Felix Baum and the CPGB/Hands Off Iran! activist Yassamine Mather, which we then published. Or the fact that the issue in which the first translation was published also contained an interview with a strong critic of Israel, Noam Chomsky.

Albert Londe, photograph of a patient diagnosed with "hysteria"

Albert Londe, photograph approximating a typical
outburst of hysterical materialism (1891)

Finally, about a week ago, what had everywhere been more or less implicit was now made explicit by Charlie Post writing on Sebastian Budgen’s Facebook wall:

Excluding these scum and scabs [Platypus] from HM was clearly the correct decision.

But mendacity of this offhand denunciation should have been palpable to all but the most hysterical materialists on the web-Left. Attached to this post was a link to an post on the present author’s private blog (the blog you’re currently reading) from all the way back in 2010. 2010. Contained in that article are some admittedly stupid and wrong opinions, but opinions that were nevertheless written quite some time ago while on hiatus from Platypus doing thesis work. (Before then, I had really only been peripherally active in the organization, as an editor). One would think that it’d be common sense that most, if not all, political organizations do not necessarily endorse the opinions expressed by its members on their private blogs. Alas, sensus communis is all too often in short supply when dealing with such materialist hysterics. Those who preferred to conflate the opinion of one person with a broader organizational “line” did so anyway. Either way, a disclaimer has since been added to make this point even more blindingly obvious.

Hopefully, this minor prophylactic measure will prevent further such shitstorms (taken in the strictest imaginable sense) from ever occurring again. But one never knows. More interesting for the analyst of hysterical materialism, however, are the remarks that follow Charlie Post’s post. The first, by Paul Heideman (“Herr Naphta”), is especially revealing:

Really, I think the Left should have a policy of quarantine towards Platypus. Don’t argue with them online or in person, block them on Facebook, etc.

Though one would think cooler heads might prevail and temper some of these desperately irrational conclusions, the first reply to Heideman’s call was to second it. Loren Balhorn chimed in:

Paul is right, quarantine those motherfuckers [Platypus]. Otherwise the infection spreads, like in Germany. It’s the worst.

The common coincidence of hysteria and hypochondria is well-established within the history and long prehistory of psychiatric discourse. Mysophobia, or the pathological fear of infection, contamination, and germs, has been linked to hypochondria and hysteria as well. In this light, that hysterical materialists such as Balhorn and Heideman would adopt this hygienic language of “infection,” “quarantine,” and so on becomes far simpler to understand. Popularly known today as “germaphobia,” victims of this mania are hysterically driven to cloister themselves away from anything they believe to be infectious or contagious. While the “hysterical” aspect of such “hysterical materialism” may be fairly straightforward, the “materialist” side is also worth taking a look at. It would seem that mysophobic materialists fall prey to a far too Democritean vision of matter, with infections spreading at an almost atomic level.

George Tice, Two Amish Boys in Lancaster, PA (1962)

George Tice, Two Amish boys in Lancaster, PA (1962)

Shun and shame

But without any doubt whatsoever, the most hysterical of all the hysterical materialists is none other than impresario of Historical Materialism itself, Sebastian Budgen. Budgen, who might well be described as the John D. Rockefeller of the Left (or the Standard Oil octopus; it’s difficult to tell), has established a foothold within (extended his tentacles into?) the venerable New Left Review, the comparatively young journal Historical Materialism, the fairly old guard Cliffite group Socialist Workers Party (UK), Verso/New Left Books), and a number of other leftish milieux. For him, having a hand in these various projects is all part of a broader strategy to “build a (counter)hegemonic apparatus.” It’s never entirely clear what exactly this entails, but judging from Budgen’s activities much of it would seem to consist in indiscriminately reposting whatever links happen to enter his feed.

The revolution will not be televised. It will, however, be retweeted and shared on Facebook.

Regarding Budgen’s “hysterical materialism”: the description of his sharing habits on Facebook as “indiscriminate” was not at all indiscriminate or accidental. When this is pointed out to Budgen, it can often lead to microhysterics on his part. For instance, after he reposted Derick Varn’s excellent interview with Ben Campbell on Marxism’s relationship to science on his Facebook wall, it was brought to his attention that the interviewer and the interviewee were both members of Platypus. Realizing his “mistake,” Budgen immediately rectified it by deleting his repost. Someone asked if the reason he’d removed it was because he’d changed his mind about the value of the exchange. Here Budgen was refreshingly candid in his response:

What’s the point of shunning if not done consistently?

Besides shunning, the other main hysterical materialist method Budgen relies upon is shaming. Though this presumably also goes on in private — as when he “pressured” readers like Banaji to disregard all paper submissions from known members of Platypus (irrespective of content), or when he and a couple other editors “pressured” Jamie Allinson to get Platypus’ sponsorship removed from “Up the Anti,” or ordered David Broder to rescind his funding offer for translations from a persona non grata such as myself — much of this shaming takes place publicly, in broad daylight. Here once again, Budgen’s tactic seems to be culled from a North American Protestant religious sect. But whereas the inspiration for his policy of shunning can be traced to the Amish, his tactic of shaming is clearly patterned after the Puritan sect portrayed in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. Both methods operate by applying social pressure to enforce or maintain a prevailing sense of hysteria.

Eyre Crowe | De Foe in the pillory in 1703 | (colored engraving, 1862)

The fate of those who do not abide by Budgen’s edict to shun Eyre Crowe | De Foe in the pillory in 1703 | (engraving, 1862)

Of course, the two techniques are often used in tandem with one another. Shunning necessarily precedes shaming. Those who fail to shun are to be shamed. Accordingly, if anyone inside the orbit of Budgen’s leftist publishing empire is seen cavorting with the “enemy,” they are to be tied and pilloried for all to see. And so it’s not uncommon to see Budgen stooping to guilt and intimidation tactics not only amongst those writers whose work he publishes, but anyone remotely connected to his bloated “(counter)hegemonic apparatus.” With respect to Platypus, this means anyone over whom Budgen feels a sense of ownership must be reprimanded if he dares interact with the organization’s membership.

To cite a few examples of Budgen’s lame attempts to visit his brand of hysterical materialism upon others (who are generally of sounder mind), we’ll note three separate incidents:

1. Most disappointing Mr. LewisThat’s right, you’re just just spreading enlightenment to whoever will hearken. And after all, Platypus is all about “open discussion” and “debate,” with no hidden agenda.
2. We should talk, Paul — these [members of Platypus] are very dubious characters.
3. Disappointing to see you in association with these dishonest scumbags [members of Platypus], Bruno

One can only imagine what he said in private to scold Jodi Dean, Boris Groys, and Domenico Losurdo for agreeing to do interviews with Platypus. But then again, I can’t really see Dean, Groys, or Losurdo giving much of a fuck even if he did.

If only these were mere rumors, simply hearsay and insinuation. But, sadly, it’s not. Perhaps to Budgen’s credit, he’s quite open about his fear-mongering. Most of this takes place on Facebook, where as we know all the great issues of leftist politics are settled these days. He makes no attempt to hide it. Of course, this kind of petty authoritarianism and overwhelming sense of propriety on the part of Budgen is embarrassing enough. Such hysterical tantrums really should be beneath someone of his stature and “reputation.” To see someone of such undeniable managerial and apparatchik talent go into paroxysms at the mere mention of a semi-aquatic mammal — having to be revived afterwards with the aid of scented salts — is sad, sad, sad (to quote Albee).

It’s far easier to sympathize with the authors and contributors to Historical Materialism, few of whom are hysterical at all.


A slight correction:
It turns out that Sebastian Budgen is no longer a member of the Socialist Workers Party of Great Britain. In resigning, it would seem that Budgen is following the example set by his far more principled and admirable comrade, author and blogger Richard Seymour. Budgen was far less public about his resignation than many others, however. But this must have been a difficult time for him, after all, as he was forced to ponder whether leaving the SWP would be good for business.

7 thoughts on “Hysteria in Historical Materialism

  1. Pingback: Studies on hysterical materialism | The Charnel-House

  2. 1) I didn’t get in touch with an offer of work, I merely asked you to send us a CV as there was none in your initial message. Yet you have excised this line from the middle of your “quote”. Funny that. – 2) How dare you suggest I would append an exclamation mark to the words “suggestions welcome” – 3) Sorry you feel this merited defriending me on Facebook. Tears.

    • I defriended you? I don’t think I did. I wonder, as the song goes:

      Why can’t we be friends? Why can’t we be friends? Why can’t we be friends?

      Seriously though, no hard feelings. I doubt it was your decision not to return any of my follow-up e-mails anyway.

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