Don’t bother reading Settlers



So after I pos­ted this a couple days ago it was picked up by Anti-Fas­cist News, which linked to it along with the sole re­mark that it was “in­ter­est­ing.” This led some fans of Set­tlers to then launch a cam­paign against me per­son­ally, re­fer­ring to me as “a sac­ri­fi­cial pig to be made an ex­ample of” (a Mar­rano, per­haps?) and ap­plaud­ing the fact that I’d been doxxed in the past as a “com­mie Jew” by Storm­front neo-Nazis. One per­son even threatened to send people to my door, all be­cause I cri­ti­cized a book she likes. Joshua Mou­fawad-Paul of the blog M-L-M May­hem, whose meta-re­view I linked and whose name I un­for­tu­nately mis­spelled, also re­spon­ded to the post.

Now the per­son who threatened to send people after me is de­mand­ing a re­trac­tion and an apo­logy, fol­lowed by “mon­et­ary re­par­a­tions will be made to the mul­tiple Black and in­di­gen­ous people who have had to de­fend their his­tory from the de­valu­ation of a White per­son for their labor.” You can’t make this shit up; it’s way too elab­or­ate and de­ranged. Rather than en­gage with a small group of ded­ic­ated and ob­vi­ously dis­turbed trolls, however, I’d prefer to sub­stan­ti­ate some of the cri­ti­cisms made in my open­ing tirade. Ad­mit­tedly, most of this con­sisted in me sum­mar­iz­ing en­gage­ments with Set­tlers un­der­taken by oth­er Marx­ists, with very little in the way of ori­gin­al com­ment­ary. Hope­fully this ad­dendum will give some sense of what it is I ob­ject to in the book.

To provide just one ex­ample of Sakai’s shoddy his­tor­ic­al re­search, he writes on page 53 of Set­tlers: “The pro-im­per­i­al­ist labor ar­is­to­cracy — which in 1914 Len­in es­tim­ated at roughly 20% of the Ger­man work­ing class — were the lead­ers of the Ger­man trade-uni­ons, the ‘so­cial­ist’ party, etc.” Un­sur­pris­ingly, no men­tion is made of what text Len­in sup­posedly made this es­tim­a­tion in (much less a cita­tion). I have scoured through all of Len­in’s writ­ings and have yet to find any­where he claims twenty per­cent of the Ger­man work­ing class be­longed to the “labor ar­is­to­cracy.” Neither in 1914 nor in any oth­er year.

Fur­ther, it’s very frus­trat­ing that Sakai nowhere ex­plains what his cri­ter­ia are for someone be­long­ing to the “labor ar­is­to­cracy.” In­stead he just cites US Labor Bur­eau stat­ist­ics, but then fol­lows it by par­en­thet­ic­ally claim­ing that “60% of this sec­tion is labor ar­is­to­cracy.” As if that were a cat­egory the Labor Bur­eau would ever use. On the fol­low­ing page he just baldly as­serts that “the set­tler labor ar­is­to­cracy is con­sid­er­ably lar­ger than its hard core, per­haps com­pris­ing as much as 50% of all male Euro-Amerik­ans.” Be­cause Sakai provides no in­form­a­tion for how he ar­rives at this fig­ure, there is no way of as­sess­ing its ac­cur­acy.

The “labor ar­is­to­cracy” thes­is first ad­vanced by En­gels dur­ing the 1890s and then ex­pan­ded upon by Len­in between 1905 and 1922 has already been chal­lenged con­vin­cingly by writers such as Charles Post and or­gan­iz­a­tions like the In­ter­na­tion­al Com­mun­ist Cur­rent as first “a myth” and then “a so­ci­olo­gic­al the­ory to di­vide the work­ing class.” Even grant­ing some an­ec­dot­al valid­ity to the ob­ser­va­tion that there’s an elite strat­um of skilled laborers — who, to use Len­in’s meta­phor, “fight for the scraps that fall off the im­per­i­al­ist ta­ble” — there’s no em­pir­ic­al ground­ing of the thes­is. Mostly it’s just a post-hoc ra­tion­al­iz­a­tion of work­ing class re­form­ism and de­feat.

Char­ac­ter­ist­ic­ally, moreover, Sakai neg­lects to men­tion that op­pressed pop­u­la­tions in the New World have just as of­ten been at each oth­er’s throats — e.g., the “Buf­falo Sol­diers,” all-black vo­lun­teer cav­alry units which served with dis­tinc­tion in mas­sac­ring Plains In­di­ans for nearly a quarter-cen­tury. Sev­er­al cen­tur­ies earli­er in what today is Mex­ico, the ma­nu­mit­ted Afric­an slave Juan Gar­rido be­came a highly suc­cess­ful Span­ish con­quista­dor. He also helped con­quer Pu­erto Rico, Cuba, Guada­lupe, Domin­ica, and Flor­ida. Or the Cher­o­kee lead­er Stand Watie, a slave-driv­ing plant­a­tion own­er who fought on the side of the Con­fed­er­acy dur­ing the Civil War and rose to the rank of bri­gadier gen­er­al. Watie was the last South­ern gen­er­al to stop fight­ing. Jews owned some of the ships in the Dutch and Eng­lish transat­lantic slave trade. Treach­er­ous at­ti­tudes and be­ha­vi­ors to­ward oth­er ex­ploited and op­pressed groups was hardly lim­ited to the white work­ing class.

Need­less to say, as a side note, I do not in any way deny the hor­rors en­dured by black and in­di­gen­ous people in Canada, the US, and else­where throughout the world. For a far bet­ter ac­count of ra­cism and white su­prem­acy check out Theodore W. Al­len’s The In­ven­tion of the White Race (1994), Bar­bara and Kar­en Fields’ Race­craft: The Soul of In­equal­ity in Amer­ic­an Life (2012), or Loren Gold­ner’s ma­gis­teri­al es­say on “Race and the En­light­en­ment” from Race Trait­or (1997).

Spanish inquisition, Marrano Jews 1

Open­ing tirade

J. Sakai’s 1983 screed Set­tlers: The Myth­o­logy of the White Pro­let­ari­at has been mak­ing the rounds again lately. Pre­sum­ably be­cause it of­fers a readymade ex­plan­a­tion for why the so-called “white work­ing class” voted for Trump en bloc, a premise which is it­self de­bat­able. Rhizzo­, an on­line mes­sage board where shit-tier Maoist Third Worldists and oth­er ran­dom nerds can meet and mingle, spear­headed the ini­ti­at­ive to re­launch Read­Set­ amidst the 2016 US Pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. You can fol­low the #read­set­tlers hasht­ag on Twit­ter, and there’s even been a tumblr ded­ic­ated to the in­junc­tion.

Un­for­tu­nately, the “ana­lys­is” offered in Set­tlers is tenden­tious garbage. Few Marx­ists have had the pa­tience, however, to read through the book in or­der to of­fer a point-by-point re­but­tal. This isn’t so much due to its style, which fam­ously flouts aca­dem­ic con­ven­tions and es­chews ac­cep­ted dis­curs­ive norms. I’m all for shit­ting on MLA writ­ing stand­ards, to say noth­ing of the stil­ted jar­gon of ad­juncts and pro­fess­ors. But if you’re go­ing to make de­tailed stat­ist­ic­al claims about the per­cent­age of white col­on­ists in­volved in vari­ous lines of work dur­ing the sev­en­teenth cen­tury, I ex­pect a foot­note ex­plain­ing the meth­od­o­logy used (how data was col­lec­ted and sor­ted, what “class” means in this con­text, etc.). Continue reading

On Stalin and Stalinism today

Editorial note

Watson Ladd’s recent review of the latest issue of Crisis and Critique, in which a number of authors reflect on Stalin’s contemporary significance, appears below. It’s a huge issue, and the collection itself comes to almost five hundred pages. Some of the articles are probably worth checking out, especially the ones by Lars Lih, Evgeni Pavlov, and Paul LeBlanc. (LeBlanc is easily the most credible political and intellectual historian within the ISO, largely because he comes from a tradition outside Cliffism). You can download and read Crisis and Critique 3.1 further down for free.

On a few points a disagree with Ladd somewhat, though for the most part I agree. For example, here: “The name [Stalin] means nothing. It can be deployed for a hundred different political purposes.” Here, if one ignores his subsequent qualifications of this point, Ladd almost seems to come close to something Doug Enaa Greene wrote in a since-deleted thread on the Kasama Project website a year or so ago:

One of the most useless terms thrown around on the left is “Stalinism” (statist and totalitarianism are two others that rank up there). Stalinism is often utilized as a swear word by leftists against anything they disagree with. And this means that Stalinism is used to refer to such differing figures, ideologies, movements and governments that it loses all coherent meaning. For example, I’ve known leftists who refer to both Mao and Deng as “Stalinists.” Never mind that these two figures had opposite politics (Mao led a socialist revolution and Deng reversed one). Some other examples of “Stalinism” are the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India (Maoist). Yet any commonality between these two parties disappears on closer inspection. The CPI (Marxist) is strictly parliamentary party which enforces neoliberalism and massacres workers and peasants, while the CPI (Maoist) is leading a revolutionary people’s war among the most oppressed masses, fighting the Indian state, including clashing with their “fellow Stalinists” in the CPI (Marxist), and establishing liberated zones of popular power. The list goes on and on…

As should be clear, when calling these wildly different figures, movements, and organizations “Stalinist,” deprives the word of all meaning (assuming it has one in the first place). What I am getting at here is that rather than looking at how these differing figures, movements, etc operate based on their own particular contexts, it is assumed that because they don’t fall under the label of the correct political line (whether Trotskyist, anarchist, etc) that they must be Stalinist. It is further assumed that by those using the label Stalinist that if you have the “correct” view on the nature of the inner-party debates of the Soviet Union in the 1920s or the class character of the Soviet Union in the 1930s, often derived from the work of Trotsky, that this can just be mechanically applied to completely different situation (the classic case is Maoism = Chinese Stalinism) without doing any investigation of that particular situation. Effectively this says that you don’t have to learn anything about one of the most important revolutions of the last century, set aside with a simple verdict. And the politics that comes out of this dismissal is bland and lifeless, unable to learn from any other experiences because all the verdicts are already settled.

Certainly, “Stalinism” refers to a group of sectarian traditions and theoretical bloodlines which are often at odds with one another. Sometimes seemingly opposite. But the same could easily be said for Trotskyism. Look at the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty in the UK, which verges on Zionist apologetics, and the Socialist Workers’ Party, which waves placards at rallies which declare: “We are all Hezbollah!” Yet both stand within the Trotskyist lineage, even if the former is mediated by the Shachtmanite-Matgamnan moment and the latter by the Cliffite-Callinican moment.

There are a number of common features that immediately stand out with regard to Stalinism: 1. first, and most obviously, the principle of социализм в одной стране [socialism in one country]; 2. second, and no less fundamentally, the elevation of the State to a semi-permanent Lassallean role as the guarantor that capitalism will never reemerge; and 3. the schizophrenic logic that brands parliamentary socialists as “social fascists” in one moment and welcomes alliances with bourgeois parties or outright reactionaries as part of anti-fascist or anti-imperialist popular fronts in the next.

Any Maoists who took issue with Loren Goldner’s perfunctory remark that “Maoism is a variant of Stalinism” can take it up with the following image.


Methodologically, and as a matter of course, Stalinism stood for the perversion of dialectic from an immanent logic used to critically grasp alternating and emergent conditions into an ex post facto rationalization of defeat. “Zigzags,” as Lenin called them:

The great Hegelian dialectics which Marxism made its own, having first been turned right side up, must never be confused with the vulgar trick of justifying the zigzags of politicians who swing over from the revolutionary to the opportunist wing of the Party, the vulgar habit of lumping together particular statements and developmental factors belonging to different stages of a single process. Genuine dialectics does not justify the errors of individuals, but studies the inevitable turns.

At any rate, I don’t think that Marxists can simply disown Stalinism, as if it had nothing to do with the political precepts laid down by Marx. Those who take their inspiration from Lenin and the Bolsheviks can still less absolutely dissociate themselves from Stalin as an historical figure and Stalinism as a world-historic phenomenon. Dzugashvili had been a dedicated cadre and party operative for almost a quarter century, after all, by the time his faction assumed the reigns of power. However vulgar and buffoonish he was as a theorist, it is not as if he was simply an inexperienced interloper.

Obviously, I consider Stalinism monstrous. While Hitler was incomparably worse in terms of his crimes, Stalin murdered more dyed-in-the-wool Marxist revolutionaries than Hitler ever did. In that sense, the Gulag system should disturb us more than Nazi barbarism. Nazism was transparently right-wing, chauvinist, and genocidal in its intent. Communism was meant to herald the liberation of mankind — i.e., not a grim, self-perpetuating authoritarian interlude on the way to capitalist restoration. In a way, it would be a relief if the demise of the USSR wiped Stalin’s legacy clean off the record books.

Stalinism lives on. Just barely, though, eking out a miserable existence in “critical support” for rackets like the FARC, the Naxalites, or the PFLP. (This position the Trots and tankies have in common, but it is more a museum-piece of Cold War natlib than anything having to do with Lenin’s line, or even Zinoviev’s narrow interpretation of it as a prerequisite for entry into the Comintern). Ladd is right, however, that if Stalin’s name stands for nothing today, it’s “not because Stalin stood for nothing, but because what he stood for has been forgotten. As a period of politics on the Left, globally, the history of Stalinism has all but faded from view.”


Seventeen ways of looking at Stalin

Watson Ladd
Platypus Review
№ 90,

Journal Review:

Frank Ruda and Agon Hamza, editors
“Stalin: What Does the Name Stand for?”
Crisis and Critique 3, no. 1 (3.29.2016)1

Stalinism’s impact is difficult to see in the world today. North Korea and Cuba limp along, sponsored by a capitalist China and caudillo-ist Venezuela, respectively. The official Stalinist parties in the Western world remain, at least on paper, but tend to throw support behind Hillary Clinton or the local equivalent. In one way or another, any examination of Stalin is thus historical — not a critique of a living political movement, but of a movement situated in a time remote from our own. The object of investigation is a legacy whose practical effect in the present is deeply obscure.

The journal Crisis and Critique has recently published a compilation of such examinations. In the introduction, editors Frank Ruda and Agon Hamza emphasize their desire to examine the politics that led to Stalin and shaped the period during which he lived, neither damning nor defending, and hoping to avoid the reduction of complex questions to the status of a single individual.

As Lars Lih points out in the first contribution, Soviet artists celebrated Stalin as a mythical figure, an ersatz czar who defended the Russian people. Indeed, Stalin invites a series of historical comparisons. By turns he is Robespierre,2 by turns a brute responsible for the failure of a revolution.3 For Domenico Losurdo, he is the Soviet Gandhi, fighting against colonialism with methods no more dictatorial than the global crisis of the 1930s demanded.4 Enver Hoxha’s essay, which closes out the volume, does not need to mention Stalin by name to argue that he enabled the people to “write their own history,” and that we must stay to the course he laid out, if we wish to defend the revolution and achieve the political empowerment of the masses.

Elsewhere Stalin curiously recedes into the background. He becomes the pretext for a discussion about the metaphysics of language,5 or for an analysis of how his early seminarian experiences influenced the creation of the new communist man.6 Or the topic shifts to the philosophical school of dialectical materialism,7 analyzed without really taking stock of Stalin, who hovers quietly in the background. And there is the experience of those who lived under Stalinism,8 and the memory of the political struggles over revisionism and orthodoxy.9


With all these views (and more) of Stalin represented in this volume, one might think that the subject, if not exhausted, had at least been opened up for inquiry. Unfortunately this is not the case, unless we want to understand the long shadow of Stalinism as only the latest in a line of tragedies. However, whatever else we may think of him, Stalin is far more than merely a Tamerlane or an Alexander Nevsky.

Continue reading

“Identity” — the bane of the contemporary Left

From a brief exchange

The following is taken from a recent exchange that took place on Facebook between Michael Rectenwald and myself, and constitutes a reflection on the baleful effect of “identity politics” on contemporary left-wing movements. In a subsequent post, I’ll further specify what “identity” means in this context, because the term “identitarian” as used by Michael, me, and for example Adolph Reed is not identical to the term “identitarian” as used by Theodor Adorno. Both uses are valid, I will contend, but they address different problems.

Michael Rectenwald

Identity is the bane of the contemporary Left. Should the forces of revolution rise up tomorrow, “leftists” will spot-check them, making sure they are comprised of the “right” identity groups. If they are not properly composed, the Left will call off the revolution, suggesting that more “marginalized” people need to be involved in the leadership, in speaking roles, and so on. It wouldn’t matter that the revolution would’ve benefited everyone, made life bearable and indeed even exhilarating for the entirety of the marginalized, inclusive of all the working class, the overwhelming majority of the social order.

Carole Brémaud, Le ruban blanc  (54 x 72 cm, acrylique)

Carole Brémaud, Le ruban blanc (54 x 72 cm, acrylic)

Nothing impresses the Left unless all of the proper identitarian symbolics are observed and lip-service is paid. The Left today does not offer universal human emancipation. All it offers is tokenism, and merely linguistic emancipation for token groups. Anything that promises more — the Left will check, stop-and-frisk, and put an end to. Continue reading

Traversing the heresies: An interview with Bruno Bosteels

IMAGE: Cover to Bruno Bosteels’
The Actuality of Communism (2011)

Platypus Review 54 | March 2013

Alec Niedenthal and Ross Wolfe


On October 14, 2012, Alec Niedenthal and Ross Wolfe interviewed Bruno Bosteels, Professor of Romance Studies at Cornell University and author of such books as Badiou and Politics (2011), Marx and Freud in Latin America (2012), and The Actuality of Communism (2011). What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Alec Niedenthal:
 It is well known that 1968 was a critical moment for the Left in France, but the simultaneous events in Mexico are not so well-known. What was at stake for you in making this connection more explicit?

Bruno Bosteels: The events of 1968 were definitely pivotal globally for the Left. The reason why 1968 in France was a key moment was because the so-called theories, what people now call “French theory” and the philosophical elaborations and politics stemming from it, all share this interest in “the event.” Whereas Foucault, Derrida, Badiou, and Deleuze were once read as philosophers of “difference,” now it is common to read them as philosophers of the event — that is, 1968. So, we might ask, “Why is it an important moment or event in the history of France or Mexico or other places where, in the same year, there were riots, uprisings, popular movements, rebellions, and so on?” But also, “What does it mean to think about ‘the event’ philosophically?” The theoretical traditions that led to this pivotal moment have a longer history in France than in other places where one must search obscure sources to get to the same theoretical problem. Within the French context, for institutional, historical, and genealogical reasons we have a well-defined debate that can be summed up, as what Badiou himself called “The last great philosophical battle”: the battle between Althusser and Sartre, between structuralism and humanism, or between structure and subject. One can place these in different contexts, but they are extreme versions of the debate on the transparency of the subject versus the opacity of the structure. What I thought was interesting was that the most intriguing theoretical (but also experimental, literary-essayistic, or autobiographical) writings to emerge from 1968 are situated somewhere at the crossover between those two traditions, breaking down both and making caricature impossible. A similar debate also took place in Mexico with José Revueltas, typically considered a kind of Sartrean humanist-existentialist writer and theorist, versus a very strong tendency of Althusserianism on the Mexican left. Continue reading