How to misread Mike Davis
Voices of a People’s History of the United States, sets the record straight about a new book from Mike Davis., co-author with Howard Zinn of
IN A recent critical appraisal of Mike Davis’ book Old Gods, New Enigmas: Marx’s Lost Theory in Boston Review that has received some attention — after being shared by Portside and Verso Books, among others — New York University doctoral student Troy Vettese suggests that the “disparate collection,” with its “blunderbuss array” of subjects, “can only be ordered through intellectual biography.”
This biographical approach is a misunderstanding of both the book and of Davis’ work more generally, however.
Leaving aside Vettese’s factual errors (some since corrected by Boston Review) and his flawed historical framework (announcing that “international socialism writhed in its death throes” in the late 1980s, when it was actually its Stalinist distortion was collapsing), Vettese fails to appreciate Davis’ holistic method, rooted in a Marxist historiography he elucidates directly in Old Gods, New Enigmas.
To suggest that the book “lacks the analytical focus of his other works” and “lacks a unifying framework” is to misunderstand Marxism, in reality. Marxism is not a theory of economics or class struggle alone, but a science of understanding the totality of social relations, in their specificity and historical complexity, in order to better understand the agency that might bring about an emancipated society.
Vettese grudgingly quotes Davis to this effect: “Contemporary Marxism must be able to scan the future from the simultaneous perspectives of Shenzhen, Los Angeles and Lagos if it wants to solve the puzzle of how heterodox social categories might be fitted together in a single resistance to capitalism.”
Vettese claims that Davis has fallen short by focusing overly on European agency and history. This is disingenuous.
Davis’ analytical framework is what Marx named, long before others, the “world market” and the “world-historical” agency of working-class people. That is evident throughout Old Gods, New Enigmas and is also central to Davis’ foregrounding of an ecological Marxism and his reference to social crises and social agencies across Africa, Asia, South and North America, and beyond, not merely Europe.
VETTESE DOES not see the “point” of the chapter featuring “a hundred pages of paragraph-long ‘theses’ on European working-class movements from 1838 to 1921 — lovingly detailed reconstructions of how workers created their own parties, institutions and cultures.”
In fact, this thought-provoking section of the book should be read in every activist study group and reading circle possible for its critical insights into how solidarities can be forged, how a socialism centered on working-class self-emancipation has been built in the past, which ideas of Marx and Engels have been lost or distorted by those purporting to speak in their name, and what it means to develop concrete political perspectives for struggle.
It is sheer condescension to suggest that this exercise is mere “nostalgia,” and that Davis has no understanding of how conditions have changed since the 1920s or 1970s.
The question of how “these lessons [are] transferable to the present” is one Davis challenges his readers to consider, and which he acknowledges must address the specifics of our global ecological crisis and the fault lines of our current world-system. Davis states bluntly that, in the face of “the chaos that could soon grow from the convergence of resource depletion, intractable inequality and climate change...human solidarity itself may fracture like a West Antarctic ice shelf, and shatter into a thousand shards.”
But without an appreciation of how workers have “created their own parties, institutions, and cultures” — so rare in contemporary political discourse — we can be sure we will continue to repeat the mistakes of the past.
We should reject Vettese’s advice to follow the lead of the Endnotes collective, which warns us not to “draw lines in sand which [are] no longer there,” an argument that has a long, tired lineage on the left, leading to numerous political dead ends and accommodations.
It is also an argument with a straw person. To suggest, as Vettese does, that “The past’s lessons cannot simply be applied wholesale to the present” is to fundamentally mischaracterize what Davis has written, as well as what Marx wrote about class struggle and history.
It is also baffling to suggest that Davis has somehow failed to account for the failures of the Second International or “nineteenth-century European working-class movements,” given the emphasis he places throughout on nationalist divisions, intra-class economic competition, the weight of the trade union bureaucracy, racism and sexism in the worker’s movements and their organizations.
Davis observes, to give one of many such examples, that “a poorly organized strike” can “leave a long trail of recrimination, division and despair: a negative inoculation to further militancy.”
And it is to ignore the important political and organizational lessons drawn by those socialists (V. I. Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Clara Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg, James Connolly and Eugene Debs among them) who, at great risk, stood up against their comrades who betrayed their internationalist commitments to support the World War. That is plainly the tradition Davis stands in.
DAVIS IS also by no means a voluntarist who believes that, as Vettese asserts, “working-class power can simply be willed into existence.” Rather, as Davis carefully demonstrates, it needs to be built through difficult work over decades and even centuries, across national boundaries, in the face of repression and opposition, and without any guarantee of its success.
Davis writes that “class consciousness, as David Montgomery reminds us, ‘is always a project,’” and “even the most elementary forms of solidarity must be consciously constructed.” And he adds, “As all careful readers of Capital know, class struggle...takes many forms...This recognition of the multivariate nature of class conflict is a key innovation in The Class Struggles in France.”
From the outset of the book, Davis stresses, contrary to Vettese’s claim, that “proletarian grievances and aspirations” must be articulated “in specific conjunctures and crises,” while “conditions which confer capacity, we should recall, can be either structural or conjunctural.”
Davis is also clear that by workers, he does not mean simply those employed in factory labor, writing that “Marx makes a central but often overlooked distinction between wage-labor in the broadest sense and highly socialized factory labor employed in machine-dominated production.”
Davis adds: “The picture of class formation in Capital...is far more complex, with economic growth producing a heterogeneous working class whose modern core of factory workers and miners is surrounded by a penumbra of construction and transport laborers, farm and sweatshop workers, service and office employees, and staggering numbers of domestic servants.”
Erica Benner, who Davis draws on for his study of nationalism, comments on the “tendency to reconstruct Marx and Engels’s views on national issues from their most abstract statements of theory, while overlooking the concrete strategies they recommended in specific political contexts.”
Davis rightly draws from this some important lessons about how we should read Marx and Engels generally, not just on questions of nationalism, and applies those lessons in his own analysis in Old Gods, New Enigmas.
In Marx’s work, Benner adds, “the relations between class and nationalist aims, class and national ‘consciousness,’ appear as far more complex and variable than the standard class-reductionist account allows.”
Marx’s historical writings on France, for example, “defy simple classification as theory, journalism or instant history,” Davis explains, “and perhaps are best understood as an original genre of political writing in which theoretical concepts are developed and applied, but not abstractly formalized, in the course of trying to think and enact socialist politics.”
Such is the method Mike Davis also deploys with agility in Old Gods, New Enigmas.
VETTESE ALSO fails to honestly consider what Davis is calling on his readers to do. The “problem of human survival in the later twenty-first century,” Davis argues, require us to transcend “the dismal politics of the present,” which “presupposes a radical willingness to think beyond the horizon of neoliberal capitalism toward a global revolution that reintegrates the labor of the informal working classes, as well as the rural poor, in the sustainable reconstruction of their built environments and livelihoods.”
This is a daunting challenge, “but to raise our imaginations to the challenge of the Anthropocene, we must be able to envision alternative configurations of agents, practices, and social relations, and this requires, in turn, that we suspend the politico-economic assumptions that chain us to the present.”
In writing on the threats of species extinction posed by global climate change, Davis is clear-eyed about the possibility of defeat.
Yet he sees a critical current of thought that could be the basis for an emancipatory politics that could avert disaster: “One of the most encouraging developments in that emergent intellectual space where researchers and activists discuss the impacts of global warming on development has been a new willingness to advocate the Necessary rather than the merely Practical.”
Davis begins with a simple injunction: “Read Marx.” His book is an apt reminder of why we need to do precisely that, and why we must also apply Marx to the dilemmas of the present, as he has artfully done in Old Gods, New Enigmas.