Lukács, Meszaros and speculations on left scholarship under capitalism

October 26, 2009

The Master’s Knave: S2 for the good of S1

In 1972 Istvan Meszaros was contracted to take a post at York University as a professor in the Social and Political Thought programme (i.e. my program), but was denied entry and permanent residence to Canada on the basis that his presence was not in the public interest. He was branded a security risk. Though in the end he did successfully take up his position at York, he shortly thereafter left because the Canadian Government made it nigh impossible for the rest of his family to follow him.

Meszaros was a student of Georg Lukács. While Lukács was both a theoretician and a member of a communist government, Meszaros was only the former – he held a position at Sussex University and had a reputation as a respected Marxist scholar. I bring up Meszaros’ case to point to a contrast with the way Marxist thought is treated today: whereas in 1972 left-wing thought was dangerous enough to merit keeping prominent Marxist scholars out of the country, today the Canadian government funds Marxist scholars to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. This contrast demands an answer as to why.

Meszaros and Chavez

Meszaros and Chavez

I’ve been thinking about his for a while in regards to SSHRC grants. There was a stink made recently because the Harper government had proposed transforming the SSHRC fund such that its monies would be directed to projects that were business oriented. People in the social sciences and humanities revolted; the change was not made. However, what I think need be pointed out here is that transforming SSHRC grants from a means to fund the social sciences to a means to increase the efficiency and competitiveness of Canadian business is perhaps not such a shift in its function as one might suppose. Yes, such a change would have directed money away from certain kinds of research. This funding is not however, otherwise simply directed at the liberal ideal of research/knowledge-for-knowledge’s sake. While it is true that Harold Innis had his hand in the creation of SSHRC as a means to stave off the militarization of the university (there were attempts made, at the expense of the liberal arts and social sciences, to use it largely as a means to create research that is useful for the military), it is also true that this was done with the aim of funding research that sought to answer Canadian problems. SSHRC grants were created with nationalist ideals in mind. To go the full mile (rather, kilometer), it’s research that is useful for the Canadian state. It’s not a mistake that it’s the Minister of Industry who is responsible for this program in parliament, and this isn’t a hidden historical fact, either. It’s plainly stated on the SSHRC’s website:

Research in the social sciences and humanities advances knowledge and builds understanding about individuals, groups and societies – what we think, how we live and how we interact with each other and the world around us. Knowledge and understanding inform discussion on critical social, cultural, economic, technological, environmental and wellness issues and provide communities, businesses and governments the foundation for a vibrant and healthy democracy. Through research and training programs, SSHRC fosters the development of talented and creative people who become leaders across the private and public sectors and who are critical to Canada’s success in the globalized 21st century.

Further, we learn that “SSHRC grants and fellowships programs allow researchers to explore, invent and develop deep expertise in a wide variety of disciplines, as well as to target research to specific social needs.” And they also fund partnerships between “government, business and non-profit organizations” (and we know that “non-profit” doesn’t necessarily mean non-government any more than “NGO” does. For example, the Canadian NGO known by the acronym CESO uses government funds to send volunteers into other countries to help them develop their businesses and economies … and I have it on good authority that they used to encourage their volunteers to ask about opportunities for Canadian business while doing their benevolent work. They also do similar work in Canadian aboriginal communities.) To this end SHHRC has been given a budget of $900 million over 5 years.

There is also the case of the Canada Research Chair program, one of the products of which is the “Empire” seminar that I attended a few days ago: it’s put on by Leo Panitch as a forum for the discussion of Marxist theorizations of American empire. The one I just attended was a promotion for the book edited by Panitch and Martijn Konings entitled American Emprire and the Poltical Economy of Global Finance, and the discussion centred on the role of the American state (as the financial heart of the ‘empire’) in managing the current economic crisis. Panitch is the Canada research chair in comparative political economy (note that his write up lacks any Marxist overtones, making it sound very compatible with liberal scholarship…). Canada spends 300 million every year for 2000 of these positions with this stated aim: “The Canada Research Chairs program stands at the centre of a national strategy to make Canada on of the world’s top countries in research and development.” The list of chairs includes many from the sciences, but also “social justice” and “law”. Again, all of these – including Panitch’s chair – are seen as a benefit to the Canadian state.

Now, I’m not trying to suggest that none of this research is progressive. I’m sure that a great deal of it is quite worthwhile. Perhaps Panitch’s work, or Rosemary Coomb’s chair in intellectual property (also at York – one of her books is critical of IP and talks about the non-market side of it), or a similar chair held by Parliamentary watchdog Michael Geist are examples of something progressive. There are probably engineering and health projects that are similarly progressive and actually improve human existence. The problem is, of course, that all of these knowledges, technologies and other products are funded because they are seen as useful for a liberal-democratic market economy and are (one supposes) eventually put the use of that market and subject to its imperatives, put to the use of the capitalist regime under which we live. But all this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise: even as far back as Plato’s Republic we see “liberal education” defined as an integral part of the state and its defense.

The question, again, is what role critical scholarship plays in this $2.4 billion (/5 years) system (though, this doesn’t include other funding agencies like the NSERC…). But it must first be acknowledged that the above is largely speculation: just because the government says all of this research is to foster business, (liberal) democracy, etc, does not mean that this is actually the case. How much of this research is put to use? To what use is it put? What effect does the legitimation of Canadian universities have on their global competitive capacities and those of Canada? Who is making money (if any) from this research? Where is that money invested? Etc. etc. etc. all down the chain. If anyone has seen scholarship on this topic, please let me know. All I have is anecdotal evidence and some theory… So let me start with the latter.



Lukács has an essay called “the changing function of historical materialism” in which he writes the following in regards to the function of ‘proletarian science’ and those Marxist renegades who became bourgeois intellectuals:

…however this is to be judged from the standpoint of the proletariat, its meaning for the bourgeoisie is unmistakable: namely that it is incapable of defending its own position ideologically and with its own resources. It not only needs these renegades from the camp of the proletariat but also – and this is the main point of the issue – it is unable to dispense with the scientific method of the proletariat, admittedly in a distorted form. The existence of the theoretical renegades from Bernstein to Parvus is doubtless the symptom of an ideological crises with the proletariat; but at the same time it signifies the capitulation of the bourgeoisie before historical materialism (History and Class Consciousness, 228).

I’m not totally convinced this is the case, but sitting in the “Empire” seminar made it quite clear that the Marxist economists present are quite clearly true economists and have insight into how the American Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department work, and the strategies the people in them may take to ‘manage’ the crises. That is, I might not agree that the bourgeois need proletarian science, but the information produced by Marxists could definitely come in handy.

(On a side note: in the essay I just quoted Lukács talks about the ‘natural laws of capitalism’ and how each crisis in capitalism opens a space where these laws no longer function, and from which there is no return, during which capitalists must set in motion practices that engender new laws… or suffer the risings of the people ‘one the bottom’ as they transform capitalism in the “long process” that is the “leap.” This he relates to ‘freedom’. More on this below. Trudeau, perhaps, confirms this thesis. I looked briefly at some of his writing today, and he discusses how stagflation couldn’t be understood or counteracted in terms of the Keynesian problematic of high and low cycles…)

But there is definitely something to the notion that the defection of socialists to the bourgeois camp says something about an ideological crisis within the proletariat. More on that in a moment. First, the other half of Lukács’ thesis finds its other bookend in the last few pages of his essay:

If, hitherto, the task was to deduce from the objective course of history what was going to come anyway in order to turn it to the advantage of the proletariat, if ‘necessity’ was until then the positive guiding element of the process, it now becomes an impediment to be fought. Step by step it is pushed back in the process of transformation until – after long, arduous struggles – it can be totally eliminated. The clear and relentless knowledge of what really is the case, of what must – inevitably – happen is not diminished by all this; indeed, it is the decisive premise and the most potent weapon of struggle. For every failure to realize what power still remains at necessity’s command would reduce the knowledge that revolutionizes the world to an empty utopia and would strengthen the power of the enemy. But recognition of the tendencies of economic compulsion no longer serves the purpose of accelerating this, its own process or of profiting from it. On the contrary, its function is to combat it effectively, to force it back, and where possible, to turn it in another direction or – in so far as it has really become necessary – to elude it (HaCC, 251).

Lukács is obviously excited here – nowhere else in the essay do we find so many asides (the bits in between the dashes). What I want to take from this is that the information, the “clear and relentless knowledge” produced by ‘proletarian scientists’ is a waste if there is no movement to make use of it. People must seize power, and armed with a knowledge of the necessity of capitalist laws thereby change that necessity. To relate this to the “Empire” seminar, it should come as no surprise is nothing was said of what could be done with this information, how it might be of use to the labour movement, if they were going to be presented with this info, if they would simply seek it out, etc. (though it could well be that there is plenty going on that they just didn’t talk about. Gindin, for example, used to be an economist for the CAW, so it could be that he is still connected to them and the rest of the labour movement…) What should come as a surprise is that no one even pointed out that none of the presenters brought up the political implications of their research (which always seems to happen elsewhere… and there is always something pathetic about it, no matter how true it may be…and so I didn’t say anything!).

This brings me to the anecdotal evidence that I mentioned: Thatcher used to give her cronies copies of the first volume of Capital that they might better understand capitalism; the RCMP used to read Kline’s No Logo to better understand and deal with the protests against globalization. Granted, in these two instances the works in question were actually associated with movements. However, this is not necessarily the case with research produced for (i.e. with the money granted by) SSHRC. In relation to these grants, a friend recently told me that they received a “super-SSHRC” for a proposal on ‘festivalization,’ although she used oodles of Marxist terminology; I have another friend who has been given the same grant to study oppositional movements in Canada; One of these friends told me of another person they know who was in fact contacted by the RCMP to get copies of their research on oppositional movements south of the American border. That is, scholarship produced by Marxists and other critical scholars is good and therefore of use to the Canadian state, but not necessarily used by those who struggle against it.

(Re: festivals, note that any discussion of a festival is quickly followed by a quantification of the good it will do for the economy. On the Pride Parade website, for example, the festival is valued at $100 million dollars of economic goodness.)

Again, this is perhaps not in itself a problem. What is the problem is that there is no one else to make oppositional use of radical uses of space or descriptions of forms of radical organizations. If the left is nothing but an intellectual movement, is nothing but talking, then it might be said that it does more harm than good. Again, this is speculation: I would have to find out how often this type of research is used for state purposes and what the outcomes are. The question then becomes whether or not one should accept state funding to do work that opposes the state and is yet fully compatible with its own purposes. On this I think I am forced to answer “yes”, as without these knowledges there would be much more work left to do once a movement started; these works could well be used to start a movement or encourage an existing one. Of course, all speculation. What of the case of the RCMP, who would likely take information about radical groups and likely use it to kill the people involved? Is the price worth it?


One Response to “Lukács, Meszaros and speculations on left scholarship under capitalism”

  1. battleofthegiants said

    In related news,

    an american congressman thinks that CNN is the only poli-sci that the american public needs.

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