You may have noticed a reference to the Marxism mailing list in the tag-line at the bottom of my CounterPunch articles. I want to take this occasion to tell you about a recent crisis that nearly put this 22-year Marxism forum out of business and recount its history. Assuming that you are one of the kinds of people that Alexander Cockburn once described as a dwindling number of leftists “who learned their political economy from Marx via the small, mostly Trotskyist groupuscules,” the mailing list might be right up your alley. Maoists and independents, of course, are also welcome. 9/11 Truthers, no thank you.
In a crowning irony, the Marxism list—better known as Marxmail—was hosted on a University of Utah server. So, you might ask how the Mormon church and Marxism could ever co-exist. Oddly enough, the economics department housing the server was one of the few in the country that was hospitable to Marxism. Hans Ehrbar, now a professor emeritus, invited us to take advantage of the department’s hospitality, so how could we resist?
On July 16, 2018, Cara MacDonald of the Daily Utah Chronicle reported on the odd coupling:
Over the years, the department’s Marxist characterization has been documented by numerous publications, including City Weekly. In an op-ed for the Deseret News, Norman Waitzman, the department chair, criticized this label.
“The hallmark of the department is its commitment to competing perspectives and their evolution (i.e., a pluralistic perspective) and as such exposes students to a range of theoretical perspectives, including Marx,” Waitzman wrote.
The department’s reputation comes primarily from the work of three professors — Emery Kay Hunt, Hans Ehrbar and Al Campbell — who are now retired. Many believe the legacy of their work continues to influence the department.
“Almost everything [in the economics department at the U] is built on Marxism,” said Luciano Pesci, a doctorate student in economics at the U. “Though there is a pluralistic approach to teaching in the department, Marx is a big component. It’s behind the gender, labor and environmental economics. We studied it at least a little bit in almost every class.”
The Al Campbell referenced above was one of those people that Alexander described as learning Marxism from small, mostly Trotskyist groupuscules. I first ran into Al back in 1970 when he would drop into the Boston HQ of the Socialist Workers Party. He was an undergrad at Brown, who eventually became part of the mass migration from the SWP. Like other “Leninist” groups, including the Maoists, it lost touch with reality after the 60s radicalization came to an end. Al served on the steering committee of the Union for Radical Political Economics for many years and worked closely with Cuban economists on how to solve problems imperialism created for a revolutionary country. I consider Al to be a member of the largest group on the left, which I have belonged to since 1978: ex-SWPers.
On Sunday, July 21st, messages to Marxmail were not reaching subscribers. When I went to the economics department website, I was surprised to see that it was down. Could it have been a result of routine maintenance? Usually, the IT staff would notify Hans Ehrbar and he would notify me. This time, it was not maintenance that brought the system down. Instead, it was an “incident” that not only crashed our mailing list but dozens of others the department hosted. That ruled out politics even though I did have my suspicions.
On August 31, 2017, Inside Higher Ed reported on the Koch brothers intervention targeting the economics department in an article titled “Economics Faculty War”. Subtitled “New Koch-backed institute at the University of Utah is raising questions about academic freedom and whether the center is designed to compete with Utah’s existing economics department,” the article described the unfolding class warfare.
Politics are at play, too. The day after the university announced the new institute, in July, the local Deseret News published an opinion piece calling it “a win for the state.”
Citing two now-retired professors by name [Emery Kay Hunt and Hans G. Ehrbar], the editorial says that for the better part of a century, “Castro’s Cuba and the University of Utah’s economics department seemed like the last bastions of Marxist thought in North America — with the latter being subsidized by local tax dollars.” Now, “local students will be exposed to a more academically vibrant suite of economic ideas.”
Since the server crash impacted mailing lists having nothing to do with Marxism, I suspect that the real problem was a security breach that was serious enough for the university to pull the plug on the economics department server. This attack was not the first one, apparently. In March there was a security breach in the school’s research hospital that involved unauthorized access to some email accounts and the downloading of malware. The odd thing about this latest incident is their failure to inform any of the key list owners, such as Hans Ehrbar, about what was going on. Understanding that our host was deceased, I asked for their IT people to at least send me the email addresses of our more than 1,300 subscribers. I got no reply.
I was now in deep anguish. After moderating Marxmail for 22 years, I would now have nothing. Fortunately, we had a backup of our subscribers that Marxmail’s technical coordinator Les Schaffer was taking. Without Les’s conscientious support, the Internet would have lost one of its oldest radical forums. When Les is not looking after the security of Marxmail, he is developing sophisticated systems for hospital patient care and writing articles about astrophysics. With an engineering degree from MIT and a Ph.D. in Physics from Cornell, he can handle just about any technical challenge.
Marxmail was born on Mayday, 1998. It emerged from a badly scarred mailing list that the Spoons Collective had created as part of its suite of cultural studies forums. They had hoped that the discussion on the original Marxism list would be the sort of thing you’d read in Social Text alongside articles about Derrida, but it soon became a battleground for sectarians. One of the moderation board members trying to keep things from exploding into smithereens was a graduate student named Zeynep Tukfeci. After getting her Ph.D, she walked away from the Spoons Marxism list and developed a career as a professor and NY Times op-ed contributor.
Although my crankiness might have made me a weak candidate for moderating a Marxism list, I decided that I couldn’t have been worse than the Shining Path supporters who had hijacked the Spoons list. One of them was Adolfo Olaechea, the chairman of the Stalin Society in London and a most disagreeable sort. At one point, another Shining Path supporter on the list issued a death threat against Adolfo. Many years later, I reunited with Adolfo on Facebook and enjoyed tussling with him until his death from cancer of the pancreas. I’d take him any day over a Marxist urging a vote for Biden.
With Les Schaffer’s expertise, we were able to migrate successfully to a new location at https://groups.io/g/marxmail. To subscribe to Marxmail 2.0, just send mail to email@example.com. Unlike the bad old days of Marxism on the Internet, Marxmail is a civil and productive forum that is better suited, IMHO, to discussion and debate than social media. To start with, we have archives that allow you to keep track of a thread. Good luck trying to find a thread on FB from a month ago. You can even read the archives without being a subscriber .
Let me conclude with some comments on Alexander Cockburn’s astute observation about those who learned their political economy from Marx via the small, mostly Trotskyist groupuscules. That phrase appears in a 2006 article titled “The 9/11 Conspiracists and the Decline of the American Left.” Although 9/11 conspiracism represented a trend mostly disparaged by serious radicals, Marxist and non-Marxist, it continues to be a dominant feature of left discourse. At its extreme, you end up with COVID-19 denialism at the off-Guardian website that goes hand in hand with their sad attempt to breathe new life into 9/11 conspiracy-mongering.
Although far more mainstream, the “axis of resistance” thinking that became ubiquitous on the left over the past decade continues to be a big problem. You end up with a formula, where the world becomes a geopolitical chess game. Every move made by the West (black) is evil, and every counter-move by Russia or China (white) is good. You read Nicholas Kristof only to formulate a position opposed to his. If he says that Assad is a bloody dictator, then you find reasons to support him. If he blasts the Chinese for putting Uighurs into concentration camps, you have to debunk this as fake news. Why bother to study the history of Syria or the Uighurs when all you need to do is robotically take contrarian positions?
This methodology has a long history. In a 1938 article titled “Learn to Think: A Friendly Suggestion to Certain Ultra-Leftists,” Leon Trotsky discusses the same reductionist methodology that fails to see the class struggle in its complexity. Marxmail subscribers generally accepted his analysis:
In ninety cases out of a hundred the workers actually place a minus sign where the bourgeoisie places a plus sign. In ten cases however they are forced to fix the same sign as the bourgeoisie but with their own seal, in which is expressed their mistrust of the bourgeoisie. The policy of the proletariat is not at all automatically derived from the policy of the bourgeoisie, bearing only the opposite sign – this would make every sectarian a master strategist; no, the revolutionary party must each time orient itself independently in the internal as well as the external situation, arriving at those decisions which correspond best to the interests of the proletariat. This rule applies just as much to the war period as to the period of peace.
If this makes sense, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org