review of the left press july/august 2009

by Nathan Coombs

It is a well-worn cliché to decry the separation of theory and practice on the Left.

Firstly, you are meant to start by pointing to the specialised jargon and stuffy scholasticism of academic Marxism – a well-deserved reproach in my opinion; at least for anyone who has picked up a text by Theodor Adorno, or, god forbid, the yawn inducing post-Marxist procrastinations of Jurgen Habermas.

Secondly, you are then meant to imply that if only academic Leftists could remedy this state of affairs some sort of revolutionary synergy (praxis) would magically transform the situation – an attitude that could be surmised as “make your works ‘accessible’; take responsibility to lead the vanguard!”

The reality however is surely more mundane and ego deflationary. That is, more mundane in the sense that academic Leftism is a generally a closed circuit of thought in a professional debating chamber. And more deflationary, most people simply don’t have the time to keep up with it all – why should they?

Or perhaps worst of all there is the stinging sense in which we could take Louis Althusser’s idea of Marxist knowledge after Marx[i]: only a transformative movement that takes action and is thrown into a directly political situation can create knowledge which does not dissolve into idealist speculation. If we take Althusser seriously, then the best academic Marxists can seek to do is describe the situation, give class and production oriented historiographies, and provide critique. The separation of theory and practice is inevitable.

In any case, this unresolved apologia out of the way, what I want to do in this regular column for The Commune is to take a critical reading of the main (non-specialist) Left journals to at least help provide a short-cut to the best of the best and the best of the worst out there.

This includes a survey of old favourites such as the New Left Review, the SWP’s International Socialism Journal, the underappreciated Radical Philosophy, and various other forays into territories with questionable Left credentials: the Monthly Review, pandering to Greens (of the Islamist and environmental varieties), and Spiked Online, whose writers’ supposed Leninism and admiration for communism seems to have devolved into a knee-jerk liberalism and cryptic cheerleading for ‘subjectivity’ and ‘self interest.’

New Left Review

The good old reliable New Left Review. July/August is fairly typical issue, demonstrating both the merits and pitfalls of the journal. Old faithfuls Etienne Balibar and Frederic Jameson are here. Balibar with a recounting of Althusser’s relationship with the Ecole Normale Superiere (ENS) University in Paris – surely taking the incestuous nature of academic Marxism to another level: academic Marxists writing about the relationship of other academic Marxists to their Universities! Frederic Jameson, on the other hand, indulges his proclivity for obscure aesthetics and discusses a filmmaker who has used montage to narrate Karl Marx’s Capital – which I imagine would invoke a certain kitsch curiosity amongst some of us.


Elsewhere in the journal are more timely discussions: the debate between R. W. Johnson and Patrick Bond on what went wrong with the ANC is an example of the journal at its best. As the townships burn, the dialogue in these pieces helps to clarify the hollowness of the ANC’s leftist rhetoric and the uncertainty of any transformative movement in the country in the future with the predominance of ethnic political mobilization.

As usual, the book review section is the liveliest and most political section. Although adding little new to the critique of neoliberalism in Latin America, Tony Wood’s piece (free online) is at least a good polemical retort to Michael Reid’s book Forgotten Continent.

International Socialism Journal

The ISJ has the advantage of being free online. Why is it then that I do not often bother to read it, and in fact have only skimmed the current issue (number 123) for the sake of this review?

A small clue is given by the cover story: “How do we stop the BNP?” where the BNP are introduced as “fascists” in the second word of the article – in case we might miss the point I suppose. As David Broder has argued in The Commune this questionable strategy of labelling the BNP as fascists and at the same time evoking their ‘successes’ (two MEPs) as a unifying cause for the Left speaks more to the SWP’s desperate lack of strategy and inability to build any roots beyond a transient body of student activists, for whom reaction currently trumps the slog of building a transformative movement. It is as if chanting “one solution, revolution!” at the TUC’s ‘Jobs, Justice, Climate’ rally – to the chortles of bemused policemen – or pelting Nick Griffin with an egg, is considered productive politics.


Funnily enough, the author Martin Smith even seems to think there is something fishy about his own argument. For instance, he makes the incredible claim: “Worryingly, during the election campaign sections of the Labour Party tried to downplay the threat of BNP election victories. They were backed by some sections of the media.” – totally refuted by the endless scaremongering hype about the BNP we all remember – then follows a paragraph later with the admission: “Overall its national vote went up by 135,397 from the 2004 Euro election figure, increasing its share of votes by 1.3 percent. Griffin’s share of the vote only increased by 1.6 percent. The number of votes for the BNP in the two seats it won was lower than in 2004.” So supposedly the media downplayed the threat of the BNP, erroneously, and at the same time the facts supported this supposed downplaying. Eh? Talk about an inverted world.

Much better is Joseph Choonara’s survey of “Marxist accounts of the Current Crisis.” This is an excellent comparative piece looking at all the Marxist currents of thought in explaining the crisis, including the unresolved question of the idea of a ‘real,’ as opposed to financial, economy. He even discusses the work of Andrew Kliman, whose recent talk in London was co-hosted by The Commune. It shows that when the ISJ is not tied to the absurdities of the latest SWP initiative (i.e. called upon to give some respectable intellectual justification), or promote the legacy of Tony Cliff, it is capable of publishing competent pieces that are worth a read. I, for one, might actually check out the next issue from my own initiative next time.

Radical Philosophy

The subtitle of Radical Philosophy is “a journal of socialist and feminist philosophy,” but you will have to look inside to the contents page to find it; or more importantly, pick up the right issue to see it demonstrated. Radical Philosophy tends to swing wildly from issue to issue between engaged radical thought to scholastic post-modern whimsy on aesthetics and the like.


For instance, issue 155 May-June is a good example of the journal: it has a critical symposium on Keynes – where much of the Left since the crisis have either embraced Keynes or stayed politely silent on his legacy. It also has a two-page report on university occupations over Gaza, a review of the Birkbeck Communism conference, and a critical review essay on the new Latin American Left. In the recent past they have also published a three-part article on “Walter Benjamin and the Red Army Faction” (152-154) and a discussion and review of the Tarnac 9’s “The Coming Insurrection.” (154, free online) For those that missed the Tarnac 9, they were a situationist collective based in rural France arrested as terrorists in an over the top raid which prompted a wave of fear mongering by the French state about a return to Baader-Meinhof style leftist terrorism on the continent. Thankfully the reviewer, Alberto Toscano, avoids uncritical cheerleading of the total rejectionism of these ‘radicals.’

On the other hand, the latest issue (156) is mostly devoid of any socialist thought; focusing on the theme of the ‘image’ – kicked off a piece by Jacques Ranciere. In one noteworthy exception, there is a fascinating discussion on “The criminalization of the sexual transmission of HIV” (free online) which demonstrates that there is legitimate mileage in the Foucaldian idea of biopolitics – an idea that as Marxist and communists we need to take seriously even if it cannot be traced back to any orthodox pronouncement by Marx or Lenin.

Miscellany –

To borrow a catch phrase from Nick Cohen: what’s left of the left? Not much it seems once we plunge into the depths of the other journals floating about out there. A glance across to the U.S. publication, the Monthly Review, might indicate that we are looking at the journal of New Maoist thought – and that would be the Mao of the Great Leap Forward, rather than the Mao of the Cultural Revolution. The entire issue for July to August 2009 is devoted to agriculture, “food sovereignty,” land reform and, or course, the relevance of climate change to all these matters. The May 2009 issue even has a favourable review of a book of Mao’s poetry. It seems that under John Bellamy Foster’s editorship (author of the fraudulent “Marx and Ecology”) the Monthly Review is becoming entirely devoted to slightly left of liberal North American thought: climate change, anti-Zionism, anti-war. Anything, it seems, than engagement with the working class, the labour movement and the promotion of communist ideas.


At the other end of the spectrum, Natalie Rothschild on Spiked Online is having an apoplectic fit about the new invention the LifeStraw, which allows emergency drinking of contaminated water. She asks “Is it the most degrading gadget ever invented?” One thinks probably not if you are in danger of dying from dehydration.

Apart from Patrick Hayes’ admirable coverage of the recent factory occupations in Visteon and Vestas, which manage to avoid the usual abject cynicism and smug reflection on the ‘defeat of the working class,’ there is not much of interest going down at Spiked. No decrying of Palestinian solidarity as anti-Semitic. No shrill calls for capitalism to be defended. All – and this they would really take umbrage at – appears quite dull on the post-RCP front.

Nathan Coombs is co-editor of the Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies.

[i] See Louis Althusser. For Marx. London: Verso.

4 thoughts on “review of the left press july/august 2009

  1. Good review – if only to remind me of why I stopped bothering to read those journals years ago!

    Just a quick question for Nathan: what is it about John Bellamy Foster’s book, Marx’s Ecology, that you regard as fraudulent?


  2. Parker – actually I am very fond of both the New Left Review and Radical Philosophy. I am even a contributor to RP (I include my pieces as partly post-modern whimsy).

    Of course, calling ‘Marx’s Ecology’ “fraudulent” was a bit of rhetorical flourish. The use of quotes and so forth are not fraudulent, but I would argue that the overall framing, decontextualisiation and distorting of Marx’s message is.


Comments are closed.