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Fictionalizing Radical Activism of the 1960s, a review of Bryan Burrough’s book, Days of Rage

Published in Socialism and Democracy
no. 69 (vol. 29, no. 3), November 2015

Reprinted with permission

Bryan Burrough, Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence
(New York: Penguin Press, 2015)

Reviewed by Dan Berger

True crime traffics in the imagined thoughts, superficial characterization, and high-voltage action of characters rendered unbelievable by the dictates of a Manichean genre. It is a genre of stereotypes, of sexy-but-dangerous villains and tough-but-fair cigar-chewing cops. At its best, true crime spins a good yarn. The bank robber with a heart of gold, the doggedly persistent detective, the seductive temptress—they may be fun archetypes but they do not teach us anything about how history actually takes place. It is a genre premised on thrill and intrigue, not edification. The genre has predetermined conclusions: the good guys—represented by the police, naturally—catch, defeat, or otherwise outsmart the bad guys. Even while allowing for the occasional crooked cop, it is a narrative that reinforces the power of the state over and against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

All this would be enough to disqualify most works in the genre from consideration as legitimate history. But given the many ways in which crime has been understood through race and racist stereotypes, the stock characterizations in true crime stories have ever more damaging implications. Such distortions are more than bad history. They are toxic justifications for continued police brutality, mass incarceration, and the surveillance state in the name of “fighting crime.”

This is what makes Bryan Burrough’s Days of Rage not just disappointing but ultimately dangerous. Its genre is history as “true crime.” Burrough chronicles six revolutionary underground organizations from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s: the Weather Underground (WU), which emerged out of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS); the Black Liberation Army (BLA), an offshoot of the Black Panther Party; the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), whose best known act was kidnapping heiress Patty Hearst; the New World Liberation Front, a curious sequel of sorts to the SLA; the Puerto Rican independence group Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacio´n Nacional; and a New England group of working-class white radicals that ultimately called itself the United Freedom Front.

These groups and the young people in them, seen through Burrough’s America’s Most Wanted lens, are not activists fighting a racist, bellicose country. They are naïve bad guys and narcissistic thugs in love with violence. Their goal was not revolution so much as it was “killing cops.” Burrough provides a hackneyed depiction of one-dimensional human beings. He relies on the same tired racist and/or sexist stereotypes that lead police every day to stop and frisk, lock up, or kill Black people across the country. To render such stereotypes as history provides a dangerous justification to these forms of violence.

These groups and the young people in them, seen through Burrough’s America’s Most Wanted lens, are not activists fighting a racist, bellicose country. They are naïve bad guys and narcissistic thugs in love with violence. Their goal was not revolution so much as it was “killing cops.” Burrough provides a hackneyed depiction of one-dimensional human beings. He relies on the same tired racist and/or sexist stereotypes that lead police every day to stop and frisk, lock up, or kill Black people across the country. To render such stereotypes as history provides a dangerous justification to these forms of violence.

And what of the history? There is a growing legion of memoirs from partisans of the underground—especially the Weather Underground, which receives the most attention in Burrough’s book—with a few tabloid-worthy revelations about the group’s structure and functioning. There is also a sizable group of historians, amateur and professional alike, who have been researching and writing about these organizations and that time period for years, myself included. Burrough, however, is the first to bring all of these groups together in such great detail. At nearly 600 pages, Days of Rage is a hefty book that moves along at a brisk pace.

A special correspondent at Vanity Fair and the author of several previous books on both finance and the FBI, Burrough aims to tell the story of these organizations and of the FBI agents and police officers who chased them down. Burrough says that he has no ideology to pursue or axe to grind, and that he tried to keep his political judgments “to a minimum.” Throughout much of the book, as well as in post-publication interviews, he has labeled his subject matter “revolutionary violence” rather than “terrorism” to emphasize that the organizations he describes did not target civilians, practice indiscriminate violence, or wrack up a high body count. Rather, he sees his subjects as “young people who fatally misjudged America’s political winds and found themselves trapped in an unwinnable struggle they were too proud or stubborn to give up.”

Presenting the book as free of ideology or even politics, together with the support of a major publisher, might explain the book’s generally favorable mention in mainstream media, including some liberal outlets, by credulous journalists who, like everybody else, enjoy a good story. Burrough has been interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air and received mostly positive reviews in publications like the Washington Post, The Nation, and The New Yorker. These reviewers gloss over the fact that the book fails to understand even the most basic elements of 1960s-era social change and what led to the rise of underground movements. His ignorance is especially evident in his discussion of the Vietnam War and the Black freedom struggle. Of the former, Burrough claims that underground movements did not care about the war in Vietnam (or the counterculture), despite ample evidence, presented in the book itself, to the contrary. Following the 1970 invasion of Cambodia, for instance, students at more than 60 college campuses went on strike and numerous ROTC buildings or other military institutions were set aflame. The Weather Underground mentioned the Vietnam War in nearly all of its communiqués and writings; opposition to the war was so central to the group that it tore itself apart not long after the war ended.

If his discussion of the Vietnam War is an error of omission, Burrough’s discussion of Black radicalism is an error of commission. He says that the Black Panther Party was declining by 1968, when by all accounts (see, for instance, Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin’s Black Against Empire) the organization was at its height, with new chapters forming worldwide. He caricatures the 1970s as a time when people cared about disco, not politics. In disavowing the importance of the Vietnam War and minimizing the transformative vision of the Black freedom struggle, Burrough shows his lack of understanding of the two driving forces of social change inside the US in those years. Such distortions, which appear throughout the book, contravene both history and more than two decades of historical scholarship.

His book thus fails at a most basic level to capture why the organizations it discusses did what they did—meaning both going underground and engaging in armed struggle—when they did, and to what effect. The book is woefully under-sourced and surprisingly ill-informed about its historical context. While this absence of serious analysis seems more naïve than malicious, it forecloses any possibility of helping us better understand its subject-matter. Burrough rests his expertise on the interviews he conducted with participants, but there are serious flaws here. Already, former Weather Underground member Cathy Wilkerson published a letter in the New York Times charging that Burrough falsely claims that she described herself as the group’s “West coast bomb maker” and erroneously quotes her as saying that “all [Black Panthers] wanted to do” was “kill policemen.” Burrough says that David Gilbert, another former WU member, takes credit in his memoir for a bombing that Gilbert does not even mention in his book. The Black Panther Party, a complex organization whose combination of community programs with strident opposition to the US government captured the imagination of the time as did few others, gets reduced to an organization premised on “killing cops.” He describes the Black Liberation Army, a clandestine splinter of the Panthers, as “the first and only black underground of its kind in US history,” overlooking a succession of organized uprisings and self-defense formations throughout African American history, from slave rebellions to Garvey’s African Legion to the Deacons of Defense. Numerous other such errors, some big and others small, run through the book.

Like so many true-crime books, Days of Rage is overflowing with stock characters. Most troubling are the banal ways in which the book justifies police harassment and killings through stock portraits of Black criminality and women’s emotional imbalance. In an era of renewed nativism and explicit white supremacy, Days of Rage may seem tepid in its rhetoric. Yet in the long run, its distortions of history may prove more damaging precisely because it will be taken more seriously than the far-right extremists whose logic it shares.

Throughout this massive tome, Burrough describes white leftists as smarter, more humane, and more interesting than their Black or Puerto Rican counterpoints. He opens the book with a chapter on Sam Melville and Jane Alpert, a pair of bumbling bombers in the late 1960s who Burrough claims started it all (despite the fact that bombings had been happening for years at that point), and follows that through with a rigid focus on the Weather Underground. Indeed, the WU becomes the litmus test against which he measures all other groups: did they bomb more or fewer targets than the WU, did their structures resemble those of the WU, did they think similarly or differently to the WU? Such an emphasis overlooks the political issues motivating Black and Puerto Rican revolutionaries, aboveground as much as underground. The focus remains squarely on white people—even as Burrough claims that the entire underground was motivated by Black radicalism.

His discussion of Black radicalism leaves much to be desired. He describes Black Power as the province of a small group of charismatic men, each one neatly passing the torch to the next after being felled by death (Malcolm X), incarceration (Huey Newton), or, since he doesn’t know why they were so important, irrelevance (Robert Williams, Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown). These charismatic men, enjoying fifteen minutes of fame, spread a politics of unbridled “anger” (more on that later). Even more maddening, Burrough views Black organizing as relevant only to the extent that it interested, conned, or was itself conjured by white leftists.

This is most evident in his discussion of the 1970s prison movement. Burrough calls prison activist and bestselling author George Jackson “a thug with a fountain pen.” This is not only demeaning to someone who catalyzed a generation of prisoner rebellion; it is also factually inaccurate in that, like all California prisoners at the time, Jackson was given only a short golf pencil with which to write. The “thug” invective is transparently offensive, but the “fountain pen” reference plays up Burrough’s stereotype of Black radicals as flashy con artists. It is a dangerous dismissal of imprisoned people at the exact moment when, after forty years of unmitigated prison growth, a radical critique of incarceration has resurfaced in part due to the activism of prisoners.

Burrough’s derision of Black radialism continues. The book’s dramatis personae list includes only one Black woman, Assata Shakur. Meanwhile, it lists Twymon Meyers as “probably [the] most violent revolutionary of the underground era” and Sekou Odinga as the “most important black militant of the underground era,” whatever that means. The white radicals listed are exempted from such hierarchical rankings—they are granted more agency of active, intelligent participation.

That is not to say that the book is only about men. But white men are the only semi-rational actors in Days of Rage. For a history that involved so many women participants and leaders, it is rather remarkable that Burrough so routinely describes them as props. Former WU member Cathy Wilkerson “is a sixty-eight-year-old grandmother now, freckled and still very attractive.” He describes Fay Stender, by all accounts a dedicated attorney and tireless advocate on behalf of incarcerated people who helped make George Jackson known to the larger world, as a “plain woman with a smoldering sexuality.” Stender committed suicide in 1980 a year after being shot by an erstwhile militant, but Burrough sacrifices a genuine opportunity to inveigh against leftwing violence for a cheap catcall.

His puerile objectification of former WU leader Bernardine Dohrn, who went on to a distinguished legal career at Northwestern University, constitutes a narrative thread in itself. He goes out of his way to describe her sexual appeal and (imagined) activities, at one point suggesting that she was “too beautiful to take seriously.” With a barely stifled erection, Burrough quotes FBI agents bragging about having stolen a pair of underwear from Dohrn’s sister Jennifer during an illegal break-in of her apartment. Yet he fails to mention that the Bureau also considered kidnapping Dohrn’s infant son in a macabre plot to force the surrender of the Weather Underground leader. Meanwhile, the women in the United Freedom Front spend most of the book fretting and worrying; they have no politics, no ideas of their own. In the dramatis personae list, they are described only as wives and mothers, whereas their husbands are “charismatic leader,” “radical,” “recruit.”

Given that Burrough sees Black Power as largely a boys’ club, few Black women appear in Days of Rage. Their absence flies in the face of history, as demonstrated through in recent studies such as Sherie Randolph’s biography of Florynce Kennedy, Barbara Ransby’s biography of Ella Baker, and Jeanne Theoharis’s biography of Rosa Parks. It also contravenes the present-day landscape, where Black women lead a host of activist efforts, including the Black Lives Matter movement. The one Black woman who does appear in the book is described by federal prosecutors as the “heart and soul” of the Black Liberation Army: Assata Shakur. In a small sign of the many ways in which Burrough relies almost solely on government sources, he refuses to call her by the name she chose more than forty years ago. Rather, he refers to her exclusively as Joanne Chesimard, the name law enforcement officers and New Jersey officials continue to use in their ongoing effort to apprehend her.

Shakur is, thank God, conventionally attractive. Her arrest on the New Jersey Turnpike in May 1973, after police pulled over the car in which she was traveling (in an incident Burrough acknowledges may have been racial profiling) provided “the first time the press was obliged to introduce and attempt to explain a black revolutionary—and an attractive woman at that—to a mainstream audience.” (Angela Davis, for some reason, just does not rate.) After her arrest, Shakur was charged in a number of unsolved cases. Burrough admits that there was little evidence against her, that police created myths about her to justify their efforts to capture or kill her. And yet, it would seem that Shakur is too beautiful for Burrough to take seriously. He describes her as the “unlikeliest field marshal,” “ferocious,” and “spitting-mad angry.” Her “anger” would seem to make her a perfect fit for the “murderous” group of “thugs” and “gangsters” Burrough describes as the Black Liberation Army.

“Anger” should be listed in the book’s cast of characters. Anger is the structuring trope for Burrough’s engagement with Black and Puerto Rican people, as well as women of all races—there is, after all, a passing reference to the “angry lesbians” of the underground. It is anger without a source, rationale, or end goal. He casts the Black Panther Party as bloodthirsty cop killers and describes the divested education system of the 1970s in Chicago’s Humboldt Park as a “seething cauldron of Puerto Rican resentment.” What can be done with such unrestrained, seething anger? It cannot be reasoned with, cannot be dealt with in any way besides brute force. And that is why the NYPD and the FBI dedicated 150 officers to kill suspected BLA member Twymon Meyers on a New York City street in 1973 and then stationed snipers on rooftops at his funeral in Harlem. According to Burrough, Meyers was simply “cut to pieces” in a “blizzard of bullets” that pre-empted an arrest or trial. Yet Burrough describes the unsolved killing of two police officers, shot eight and six times respectively, allegedly by Meyers and two others, as somehow and without explanation “one of the most gruesome murders in the history of New York.”

That discrepant value of human life is the deepest flaw in the book. Yet it is a flaw deeply seated in our society writ large. Burrough had fantastic, even startling (and perhaps, given the outcome, infuriating), access to former members of the underground. He interviewed several participants, seemingly at length, including a number of people who had not shared their stories publicly before. Yet it is the police, especially the FBI, who provide the book’s interpretive frame. It is not only that he relies on FBI agents to fill in the blanks or settle any disputes in the historical record. Burrough is interested in their morale. As with any garden-variety cop show, Days of Rage sees police efforts to capture radicals quelled by government bureaucracy and political correctness, what Burrough absurdly calls “newfound sensitivities about race.”

The “sensitivities” in question are the revelation of the FBI’s counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO), a paramilitary underground set up by J. Edgar Hoover in 1956 to destroy the American Left, focusing especially on Black as well as Puerto Rican and indigenous communities. COINTELPRO included mass surveillance, identity theft, illegal break-ins, physical attacks, specious arrests, direct and indirect assassinations. For a book so interested in the previously undisclosed details of who did which illegal action, Days of Rage fails to give us some much-needed inside scoops: which agents wrote the letters encouraging Martin Luther King to commit suicide? Which agents injected fruit with powerful laxatives in order to sicken antiwar activists? Which agent determined and procured the drug combination used to subdue 21-year-old Black Panther Fred Hampton so that Chicago police could kill him in his sleep? Who drew the cartoons mocking rival Black organizations in order to provoke such rancor that ultimately led to two members of the Black Panther Party being shot and killed on the UCLA campus in January 1969? Who debriefed the informants that set up twenty-one members of the New York Black Panther chapter, helping to concoct fanciful charges to pursue against them that ultimately destroyed the chapter? And how do such dirty tricks show up in contemporary campaigns against anarchists, radical environmentalists, Muslim activists, peace campaigners, and others? There is so much about the state’s clandestine attacks—a kind of underground that has had a far more decisive role in shaping contemporary America than the six radical organizations spotlighted here—that Burrough fails to uncover or much mention.

On the rare instance in which he does mention police violence, Burrough resorts to the passive voice, as if to remove police agency from causing harm. For instance, in describing the 1981 police torture of BLA member Sekou Odinga, Burrough says simply that when “he was escorted from the 112th Precinct that evening, Odinga’s body was covered with bruises and cigarette burns” and that he was “found to have sustained damage to his pancreas.” It would seem a mystery as to how those burns and bruises and pancreatic damage got there, though Odinga walked into that precinct a healthy man. Burrough is unwilling to acknowledge that police hurt people. Yet he quotes an FBI agent’s complaint that the bureau got a bad rap in that time period. Burrough lets stand the agent’s erroneous claim that the Weather Underground set “hundreds of bombs,” even while elsewhere in the book Burrough seems to look down on the group for “only” planting two dozen bombs over a six-year period when other subsequent groups did more attacks. As in so many police killings, the facts get in the way of the narrative of police benevolence.

Other than acknowledging the existence of racial profiling and a general movement concern with repression, Burrough does not discuss violence by the state or by right-wing paramilitaries. Burrough repeatedly cites the frequency of bombings in the 1970s, which the FBI said was a daily occurrence in some years. There were, he quotes a retired FBI agent in the prologue, more than 1,900 domestic bombings in 1972. The implication is that all of those bombs were being carried out by the left-wing revolutionaries described in Days of Rage, or at least people like them, even though a tally of the all the bombings those groups did in twenty years would not approach that number. He makes no mention of the white racists, neo-Nazis, anti-Castro guerrillas, the Jewish Defense League, and other paramilitary forces that carried out a string of attacks in those same years. Certainly the FBI agents he interviewed do not mention them. The implication, then, is that the Left was the only proponent of violence. There is a related implication too, a refrain of the canard that a handful of underground organizations somehow “destroyed” the larger Left and did so all by themselves.

The turn to clandestinity was, and remains, a controversial decision. There is a lot to criticize about the sectarianism and violence that accompanied it—as well as the sectarianism and state violence that precipitated it. Burrough is not up to that task, however. Perhaps the most troubling thing about Days of Rage is the way it justifies state violence in the present, with Burrough attributing the rise of the American security state as a response to these groups. He cannot conceive of the state as already having a monopoly on violence that it has consolidated even further. Burrough notes that, for all the bombings, the revolutionary underground killed few people. The same cannot be said for the heroes of Days of Rage: the police. The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that police have killed at least 38,000 and perhaps as many as 52,000 Americans since 1973. The Counted, a new database maintained by The Guardian newspaper, reports that police have killed 572 people in the first six months of 2015 alone. Put another way, American police kill more people in a week than six underground groups did in more than twenty years. Days of Rage profoundly misses both the source and substance of violence.

Burrough says the underground was motivated by the “plight of black Americans,” yet it is a plight he fails to engage or understand. The few Black Americans he discusses are “bloodthirsty cop killers,” “thugs,” and, of course, bizarrely “angry.” It is the same doubletalk used by commentators who today bloviate about “black on black crime” and “inner-city thugs” when confronted with examples of police violence. Collectively, they refuse to see the many ways in which police violence structures and eliminates life in the United States. But it does. They refuse to see the many ways people stage creative, life-affirming forms of resistance to state murder. But they do.

Dan Berger is Assistant Professor of Comparative Ethnic Studies in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington at Bothell and Adjunct Assistant Professor of History at the University of Washington at Seattle. His work focuses on race, prisons, and social movements in U.S. history.


Remarks on Capitalism and the Environment It Produces

“Remarks on Capitalism and the Environment It Produces” is a recently discovered draft paper of Harry Magdoff’s. The exact date and location of its presentation is unknown; however the occasion was quite clearly a panel on economist Michael Tanzer’s The Sick Society (1971). We can therefore assume that it was written in 1971 or 1972. It is provided here in its original form with only minor copyediting. The title has been added. In our view, the chief importance of the paper is Magdoff’s early development of ecological ideas, ideas that are now much more common on the left.

—The Editors, Monthly Review

Strike at the Helm

The First Ministerial Meeting of the New Cycle of the Bolivarian Revolution

On October 7th, 2012, after hearing of his victory as the nation’s candidate with 56 percent of the vote, President Hugo Chávez Frias announced from a balcony in his hometown that a new cycle was beginning the very next day, October 8th.

Only a few days later, on October 20th, he headed the first meeting calling together the ministers of this new cycle, the Comandante called for a series of critiques and self-criticisms in order to expand efficiency, strengthen communal power, and further develop the National System of Public Media, among other themes regarding the construction of socialism.

This document synthesizes his words, as a tool for a debate in which we should all participate.

A Critical Reading of Steve Keen’s Debunking Economics (L’imposture économique

Samir Amin is director of the Third World Forum in Dakar, Senegal. His books published by Monthly Review Press include The Liberal VirusThe World We Wish to SeeThe Law of Worldwide Value, and, most recently, The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism. This article was translated from the French by Shane Mage.

1. Let me begin by saying that I have read Steve Keen’s book Debunking Economics (L’imposture économique) with the greatest pleasure and, moreover, that I learned a great deal from it. I have never read anything quite so convincing on the absurdity, the absence of simple realism, the nonsensical hypotheses and unforgivable errors in logic, that characterize the whole of vulgar economics—the “neoclassical” self-proclaimed mainstream economics. For my part, I needed no convincing as to the ideological (in the worst sense of the word) nature of that pile of rubbish cluttering up the economics taught in our universities. That is why I never thought it worthwhile to waste time in proving it by a detailed and precise examination of those “Nobelists'” lucubrations.  It was enough for me briefly to point out the absurdity and logical mistakes of all the tendencies in conventional economics, whose only real concern was to set up an “anti-Marx” in opposition to the scientific analysis of capitalism initiated by Marx.  The reader of my early book, (written as a doctoral thesis in 1954-1955 and defended in 1957) L’accumulation à l’échelle mondiale (Accumulation on a World Scale) will have understood that my overall concern was to continue the work of Marx through an analysis of modern globalized capitalism under the forms and conditions characterizing it in that period—i.e., the 1950’s, the morrow of the second world war.  Because it was marginal to my main preoccupation, as  a committed intellectual, caring above all to help reinforce progressive struggles through the best possible analysis of capitalist reality, I regarded  the critique of conventional academic economics as relatively unimportant. In that framework, I thought the most important thing was to emphasize in my analysis the reality of the mechanisms of global capitalism’s unequal reproduction mechanisms, the contrast between the dominant imperialist centers and the subaltern peripheries struggling for their emancipation.

Such being the case, there remained the need for a serious critique of conventional economics. Indeed, the false ideas it conveys are not limited in their devastating effects to professional economists and the bourgeois ruling class’s decision makers; they have injected the Liberal Virus (see my 2003 book of that title) into the working classes themselves. So I am personally grateful to Steve Keen for having accomplished that, and having done it brilliantly.

2. It will not be hard for me to point out, though briefly, our areas of basic agreement.

(i) I began my career in higher education with studies in mathematics and physics, which I gave up in favor of “economics” in order to secure for myself a professional life more in concordance with my intention to live as a militant. What I learned in mathematics (a bit faded, now) had showed me that those economists claiming a mathematical basis for their doctrines were very poor mathematicians. As I have written, no scientific profession would ever employ them, so striking was their incompetence. For example, setting zero as the final point of a curve tending toward zero amounts to ignoring the real effects of the specific and individual form of the equation at issue.

(ii) I affirmed that the general rule is decreasing, not increasing, costs; and because of this firms naturally try to get bigger, a necessary condition for them to retain market share and stay profitable. “Size is decisive,” I wrote. Accumulation naturally leads a firm to gigantism, to oligopoly (or monopoly) status.

(iii) I affirmed that the real capitalist economic system proceeds from one state of disequilibrium to another, without ever “tending toward equilibrium.” Each of the successive states of disequilibrium results from working-class struggles, from conflicts among capitalist sectors, and from actions of nation-states within the globalized system—with all these factors modifying the conditions under which the accumulation process proceeds.

(iv) I deduced from the preceding proposition that it is useless and pointless to seek out the conditions for general market equilibrium. I criticized Walras for his attempt to do so and pointed out that the “Auctioneer” he specified as prerequisite to his solution amounted to a veritable God knowing in advance everything about the reactions of market participants and all the effects of those reactions. General Equilibrium would thus be the instantaneous effect of such perfect knowledge about all the participants in the over-all market.

(v) I subsequently sharpened that observation by calling attention at least to the distinction between two sorts of markets: the market for real investment goods (production and purchase of new machines) and the market for titles to the ownership of capital (such as equities).

There exists no generalized market allowing someone to confound the two,  unless it be a someone by whom money would be deemed nonexistent. Financialization is an immanent characteristic of capitalism.

(vi) I likewise sharpened my critique of conventional economics by ridiculing its having resort to “expectations” and, to boot, to “rational expectations,” which, taken to its limit, leads to Debreu’s preposterous notion of a society of Godlike individuals with foreknowledge of the entire future. Only thus would the decisions of each and of all result instantly in general equilibrium—the best, because the only possible, of all equilibria.

(vii) I treated with equal ridicule the hypothesis, necessary to the conventional theory of general equilibrium, that postulates an original “layout of the cards” (the asset distribution determined by individual property rights); with, behind that hypothesis, the hypothesis of a “righteous despot” who decides, though nobody can ever know how, the moral definition of justice to be expressed in that layout.

All of these fundamental considerations simply stem from my refusal to treat economics as an atemporal, transhistorical, science. As did Marx, I considered historical materialism—historical reality—to be the source from which flows the analysis of the economic forms proper to the successive epochs and various locations in the framework of which those economic forms were operative. “Theory is history,” I wrote.

3. The convergence between Steve Keen’s writings and my own extends beyond the brief comments in the preceding section.

(i) I pointed out—already in l’Accumulation—and subsequently made more explicit my understanding of what I termed “the active role of [credit] money in the accumulation process.” For each of the stages of its unfolding (corresponding to the time required for existing capital equipment to wear out to the point where it has to be replaced with new and more effective equipment) the process requires the borrowing of funds, and I have given the formula by which their quantity can be calculated with precision. The supply of [credit] money determines the demand for it. The money supply does not exist independently from the demand for credit.

(ii) I disclosed the relationship linking the real-wage rate apparently needed to allow accumulation to proceed in accordance with the allocation of labor and capital goods between Department I (production of capital goods) and Department II (production of consumption goods). From this I deduced that conformity to this proportionality does not result in any tendency of the profit-rate to fall. Having made that point, I immediately added that strikes, etc., (struggles to maintain or increase the real-wage rate) do not act like a magic dial showing what real-wage rate is really needed (a counterpart, thus, to the invisible hand invoked by apologists for the market). On this I made my own the analyses of Baran and Sweezy; the normally dominant tendency of capitalism is to prevent real wages from increasing in proportion to the productivity of social labor, and, because of this, to the two Departments of Production in Marx’s model must be added a Department III of surplus absorption. Capitalism cannot function otherwise.

(iii) I made Marx more complete (and even “revised” him) in two respects: that which concerns the level of ground rent and of mineral rent; and that involving the determination of the rate of interest, as distinct from the rate of profit. But those two subjects are not directly of concern in my evaluation of Steve Keen, which is the topic of this note.

4. On one basic point I disagree with Steve Keen and intend to stick to my positions, unconvinced by Steve Keen’s arguments that criticize Marx by citing supposed logical inconsistencies.

The transformation of values into prices of production, if carried out properly (i.e., by denominating the contribution of productive inputs in terms of prices of production rather than of values) precludes equality between the rate of profit calculated in terms of prices of production and the rate of profit calculated in terms of values. All the bourgeois critics of Marx—Böhm-Bawerk followed by all the neoclassics—concluded on such basis that this was  “Marx’s error” and signaled the failure of his attempt to treat labor as the source of the values from which prices can be determined. Sraffa and Keen, though themselves critics of neoclassical economics, share this viewpoint with Sraffian Marxists (Ian Steedman, Ronald Meek, Arun Bose) whose arguments are repeated by Keen.

In my opinion, this criticism of Marx is meaningless. I have always contended that the difference between those two versions of the profit rate is normal, reflecting capitalism’s characteristic phenomenon of economic alienation (sometimes termed market alienation). For those two profit rates to be equal would render transparent the phenomenon of exploitation of labor by capital—as, for example, was the exploitation of an enserfed peasant who had to work three days for himself on his allotted land and three for the enfieffed lord and master. The distinctive nature of capitalism is precisely that it overclouds exploitation, since the wage-worker who sells his labor power thinks that he is selling his labor.  The above criticism of Marx results from an empiricist philosophy, dominant in Anglo-Saxon culture, that recognizes and considers only the immediate appearance of phenomena—in this case, the market prices known to prevail.

Having made this criticism his own, Keen falls back on Sraffa’s model of a generalized market directly denominated in prices. Unfortunately, Sraffa’s model (see my criticism of it in The Law of Worldwide Value) proves nothing; it merely exhibits the unmediated reality. In Sraffa’s model prices are elucidated on the basis of a system in which they depend on the distribution of income between wages and profits; however, in Marx’s model the values are independent of that distribution.

For Sraffa, of course, commodity production (and the price-mechanism whose elucidation it allows) is indeed a sort of production whose operative factors are labor and commodities (capital equipment and raw materials). A trivial observation. Marx never thought labor was like a set of magic words whose enunciation, as if by a sorcerer, would by itself produce “things.” Labor operates with other commodities—capital equipment and raw materials—that it transforms into new use values (consumer goods and other capital goods).

Sraffa’s argument is that, in the last analysis, “transformation” (deducing prices from the starting-point of values) involves an endless regress. For the capital goods in current use were produced at a previous time, and by use of capital goods that were themselves produced still earlier. And so forth, right back to Adam and Eve. Once given their place in such a limitless chain, commodities are indeed objects that are always produced by means of other objects and of labor. A correct remark, but trivial: yes we today would be incapable of producing what we today produce, absent the contributions of our ancestors. That observation is not much help in understanding the ways in which commodities are produced currently, in the framework of capitalism’s specific social structures—ways that are very different from the ways regulating, ten thousand years ago, the social organization of a hunting community that likewise used objects, arrows for example, in their hunts.

Sraffa’s argumentation is no different from the professedly timeless and transhistorical argument of vulgar economics. It is directly perceptible that labor, equipment, and nature really do contribute to production. I here add-in nature, since no more than the other factors is it exterior to the results of labor: the same work, with the same tools, will yield more wheat on a field receiving abundant rainfall than on an arid, unirrigated, plot. But, again, this trivial ahistorical comment says nothing about how agriculture currently functions under capitalism.

Böhm-Bawerk was the first to have seen that Sraffa’s model (which, of course, he never saw; he was speaking, in the manner of his time, about a general model of the market) implied, in the last analysis, resort to a series projected into a past of unlimited duration. One must “date” labor, must compare the value of current labor to its value yesterday, the day before yesterday, the day before that….And to do that we need a rate by which to discount the past or, if we are looking forward, to discount the future. But how are we to choose the rate to be used? Going back to Adam and Eve rates of .1 or .01 percent might seem suitable. Looked at that way, “time” is “productive” in the banal sense that it is the past which makes the present possible. Yet another trivial observation: it takes time to make anything, production is never instantaneous, as it would be if done through the magical words of a sorcerer. Or should we set the rate at which we discount according to what the current set of humans think right: perhaps 10 percent, perhaps 50 percent? But here again there exists no rational rule, valid for all now-existing human beings, that would allow determination of a single precise and universal measurement of that discount-rate. For a starving man a loaf of bread now is worth more than a thousand loaves after his death; for the rich man, with no need to care for his future, one loaf today is worth exactly the same as one loaf tomorrow.

Marx stays clear of any resort to such trivialities of  coffee-house anthropology. Therefore he chooses to examine how, in contemporary capitalism, production is organized according to the distribution of labor and of capital equipment between two concomitant series of productive activities: that of consumption goods and that of the capital goods required for their output under today’s conditions.

When we, like Marx, speak of “today” we don’t signify a momentary instant (as always is supposed in the theory of general equilibrium) but a stage defined by utilization of certain types of capital equipment—those whose use is possible and effective given a society’s level of scientific and technological knowledge. In the (stationary) model of simple reproduction the values of consumer goods and of capital goods are entirely determined by that technological know-how under the prevailing distribution of capital equipment between the two Departments of Production—we are dealing with productive actions carried out simultaneously, not successively. But in an expanded-reproduction model (in which output grows over time) improvements in technological know-how allow, at the ensuing stage, for greater production of consumer and capital goods using the same quantity of direct labor in the two Departments taken together. In this sense, at each stage the successive types of capital goods invented and put into operation have different use values. On this point, Keen is entirely in the right: Marx does not slight use-value; he combines it with exchange-value.  Keen is entirely in the right when he states that a simplistic and vulgarized Marxism which ignores the existence of use value falsifies what Marx thought and wrote. Unless use value be taken into account, Marx’s sentence declaring that capitalism “constantly revolutionizes the production-process” would have no meaning.

By choosing, for the formulation of his reproduction-model, the quantity of capital-equipment objects currently available—which are owned as private property by each capitalist, which are extremely diverse (different machines having each one its specific value in use), and which are distributed suitably for the productive activities of each of the two Departments, Marx seems to avoid considering the question of the origin both of those capital goods and of their distribution among different owners. On this topic, Keen is entirely in the right to state that this question equally needs consideration by any formulator seeking to model the workings of the market. Keen is entirely in the right to point out that, to legitimize the distribution of that stock of capital goods, conventional economics has to postulate a “despot” responsible for the original distribution of cards. Marx avoids any such incongruous and fantastical hypothesis. In its place he gives an historical analysis of the ways in which some (in the course of becoming the modern bourgeoisie) dispossessed others (the former direct producers) from ownership of their means of production.  The enclosures expropriating the poor peasantry and forcing them to emigrate toward cities where they could sell their labor power, and then the effect of competition allowing some capitalists to wipe out others, constitute the warp and woof of the real historical process—in sharp contrast to those lucubrations about an original layout of the cards.

At the conclusion of my criticism of Walras, of Sraffa, and of all conventional economics I emphasized the concept—which I believe is Marx’s own—of the productivity of social labor. This does not signify the productivity of a worker as distinct from that of the machines with which he works—a laborer who is working, to boot, under given natural conditions. Marx linked together the concrete work done, the capital equipment possible under contemporary knowledge, and the natural conditions of production—all of which conventional economics breaks apart in its attempt to arrive at separate productivities for labor, for capital, and for natural resources. He knew that conventional economics is doomed to failure in trying to evaluate those separate productivities, as Keen brilliantly proves.

The linkage established by Marx among what we might agree to term “factors of production”—concrete labor, distinctive types of capital equipment, available natural resources—implies that we should continue Marx’s work on the transformation of concrete labors (involved in the production of different use-values) into abstract labor.  In this regard I have put forward an answer to that question (see Three essays on Marx’s Theory of Value).

Where Keen does fail—he fails to replace the two theories he considers erroneous, that of the neoclassics and that of Marx, with a new economic theory enabling us better to understand our world—shines forth in the latter pages of his book. His discussions devoted to Hayek, to the post-Keynesian and Sraffian schools of thought, to complexity theory, and to the evolutionist school are—in my opinion—severely impoverished. I find in them nothing important that would be helpful in letting us understand the contemporary world any better.

Of course I share Keen’s point of view: a great deal of intellectual effort is still needed to understand the actual world better; and the exegesis of Marx is no effective replacement for the critique of conventional economics. Marx’s work needs to be furthered without any reluctance to innovate. Which is what, in all modesty, I have tried to do. Chaos-theory models, linked to complexity theory (which has always been that of Marx) are worth much more study than has yet been the case. In that regard I wish Keen the best of luck.

Keen, with excellent arguments, predicted the oncoming financial crisis. I merely note that my Marxist tools likewise led me to the conclusion that a great financial crisis, inscribed in the logic of the new generalized-monopoly capitalism, was inevitable (I make reference to my 1978 book, co-authored with André Gunder Frank, N’attendons pas 1984 [Let’s Not Wait for 1984]). Answering in 2002 a question from a journalist, I foresaw the financial collapse. “When?” he asked me. “In less than ten years” I replied to him. In my analysis I distinguished the market for real capital equipment from the market for titles to capital-ownership, a distinction excluded in principle by the absurd hypothesis of “rational expectations” economics. For the same reasons I had, from the very outset, foreseen the unviability of the Euro system, which today is coming apart under our very eyes.

The Compleat Economist

Nirmal Kumar Chandra (1936-2014)

Nirmal Chandra was, for half a century, among the very closest friends of Monthly Review. A comrade of Paul Sweezy and Harry Magdoff, Nirmal continued to guide their successors in the economics and politics of South Asia. He played a central role in the creation and survival of the sister edition of Monthly Review in India, the Analytical Monthly Review. His contribution to the entire Monthly Review project was offered freely and immediately at the first request, and was invaluable. The loving memorial by the venerable Ashok Mitra, reproduced below, first appeared in The Telegraph on April 4, 2014.

The Baran Marcuse Correspondence

Paul A. Baran and Herbert Marcuse were close, life-long friends, both of whom had been attached to the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt in pre-Hitler Germany, and both of whom later emigrated to the United States—Marcuse to become a professor of philosophy at Brandeis University and Baran to become a professor of economics at Stanford. They corresponded frequently and met with each other when possible until Baran’s death in March 1964.

A Critique of Heinrich’s, ‘Crisis Theory, the Law of the Tendency of the Profit Rate to Fall, and Marx’s Studies in the 1870s’

Michael Heinrich’s article is really a continuation of the argument by Monthly Review that Marx’s law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (LTRPF) is not the main cause of economic crises.… Heinrich makes the following points: 1) Marx’s law is indeterminate; 2) it is empirically unproven and even unjustifiable on any measure of verification; 3) Engels edited Marx’s works badly, distorting his views about the law in Capital Vol. 3; 4) Marx himself, in writings during the 1870s, began to have doubts about the law as the cause of crises and started to abandon it in favour of some theory that took into account credit, interest rates and the problem of realisation (similar to Keynesian theory); 5) Marx died before he could present these revisions of his crisis theory, so there is no coherent Marxist theory of crisis.

Response to Heinrich—In Defense of Marx’s Law

It was Marx’s ultimate purpose, as stated in the preface to the first edition of Das Kapital, “to lay bare the economic law of motion of modern society.” It is clear that Marx regarded as his central achievement in this regard the “Law of the Falling Tendency of the Rate of Profit.” In vol.3, (p.303) he declares that: “The barrier of the capitalist mode of production becomes apparent

Critique of Heinrich: Marx did not Abandon the Logical Structure

Heinrich’s article is mainly about the falling rate of profit and crisis theory, but another important point has to do with Marx’s logical method in Capital, and in particular with the levels of abstraction of capital in general and competition. Heinrich argues that Marx encountered difficulties in the Manuscript of 1861-63 concerning this logical structure, and as a result of these difficulties, Marx abandoned this logical structure in the final versions of Capital.

Heinrich Answers Critics

For Marx, is a rising rate of surplus value (s/v) a part of the law itself (as it is presented in chapter 13 of vol. III of Capital) or is it a counteracting factor (dealt with in chapter 14)? There is an easy way to check: we just have to read chapter 13. Marx starts his presentation with a constant rate of surplus value and shows that a rising organic composition of capital leads to a falling rate of profit (pp. 317-18, all pages from the Penguin edition of Capital). Then very quickly he includes a rising rate of surplus value in his considerations (see pp. 319, 322, 326, 327, 333, 337). At pages 333 and 337 Marx even realizes the possibility of a profit rate rising with a rising rate of surplus value, but excludes such a possibility as an “isolated case” or not realistic without going into details. It is clear that he maintains the “law itself” not only with a constant rate of surplus value but also with a rising rate of surplus value!