Scott McLemee

  • Road Warrior

    Victor Serge (1890–1947) was a Russian revolutionary born in Belgium who wrote in French and died in Mexico. His parents had fled from their native Russia to Western Europe in the 1880s during the wave of repression that followed the assassination of Czar Alexander II by bomb-throwing radicals. “On the walls of our humble and makeshift lodgings,” Serge wrote of his childhood, “there were always the portraits of men who had been hanged. The conversations of grown-ups dealt with trials, executions, escapes, and Siberian highways, with great ideas incessantly argued over, and with the latest books

  • culture August 26, 2011

    Red Summer by Cameron McWhirter

    Think of any period from the past century or so, and a few images or events will probably come to mind—often transmitted by popular culture as much as the history classroom. We remember the Depression through Henry Fonda playing a migrant Okie; the Eisenhower era's spirit of ruthless normality is preserved in the adventures of Jerry Mathers, as the Beaver. The enormous and rather puzzling exception, at least in the U.S., is World War I and its immediate aftermath. This marked the arrival of American military and political power on the global stage. But the images in our public memory are few

  • The Socialist Network

    My dear Rosa,

    You will not, I trust, take this mode of address as disrespectful, least of all coming, as it does, from a comrade. Familiarity with you makes contempt impossible. Your name belongs on even the shortest list of revolutionary theorists, though our academic Marxists, prone to quoting Lukács and Lyotard, rarely cite Luxemburg. As a young militant—this was not yesterday!—I studied your pamphlet of 1900, Reform or Revolution, as a cornerstone of the socialist tradition. And so is your analysis of the mass strike, written after the Russian revolution of 1905, which seems exceptionally

  • culture February 04, 2011

    Punching Out: One Year in a Closing Auto Plan by Paul Clemens

    In the early 1950s, my friend Marty Glaberman wrote a pamphlet called "Punching Out," reflecting on his experience of working in the auto factories of Detroit. Marty later became a professor of labor history at Wayne State University. But when you talked to him or read his writings, it was always clear that he'd gotten the better part of his education from his decades "on the line,"—participating in the constant struggle of workers to retain their humanity as they coped with the unrelenting pace of the assembly line.

  • Psyched Out

    Bringing together Marx and Freud in a united theoretical front was an urgent task for radicals throughout much of the twentieth century, with benefits that would flow to historical materialism and psychoanalysis alike. The stakes were already clear in Wilhelm Reich’s ill-fated efforts of the 1920s and ’30s: The central but under-developed notion of class consciousness (about which Marx himself had written just a few suggestive pages) might be put on better footing by annexing a theory of the mind that was, after all, materialist in its basic assumptions. And revolutionary expropriation would

  • Barbarians at the Gate

    In the summer of 1967, subscribers to the obscure far-left theoretical journal Socialisme ou Barbarie received notice that it was suspending publication and that its sponsoring organization, familiarly called SOUB, had dissolved. This cannot have come as too great a shock. Two years had passed since the last issue. But the shuttering of SOUB marked the end of an important collective project within the anti-Stalinist left, one whose influence was felt well beyond France.

    SOUB had started life in the mid-1940s as “the Chalieu-Montal minority”—a small, beleaguered faction within the French

  • Changing Places

    It is unlikely that anyone has ever confused a page of Thomas Friedman’s with one of Immanuel Kant’s, but between them it is possible to triangulate a prevailing sensibility of the past two decades. Call it managerial cosmopolitanism. It celebrates the idea of a global civil society, with the states cooperating to play their proper (limited) role as guardians of public order and good business practices. The hospitality that each nation extends to visiting foreign traders grows ever wider and deeper; generalized, it becomes the most irenic of principles. And so there emerges on the horizon of

  • Empire Burlesque

    Ten years ago, as the antiglobalization movement began imposing itself on both the windowpanes of Starbucks and the narcotic slumbers of the mass media, there emerged in the United States a certain fable about what was (at the time) the newest New Left. It verged on a belief in the Immaculate Conception.

    The fable went, roughly, like this: Protesters in the streets of Seattle and elsewhere were challenging the effects of the worldwide expansion of the free market, and some even identified themselves as anticapitalist; yet the movement itself was for the most part uninfluenced by any doctrine


    If two mirrors are turned face-to-face, each will reflect the other’s reflection of itself, and so on. Thus is generated (at least in theory) an image that resembles a tunnel going on forever—albeit to nowhere in particular. In practice, of course, there are limits to just how far this regress reaches. The mirrors have to be absolutely parallel, and any distortions on their surfaces ruin the effect. But even a glimpse of this virtual abyss can be sublime. Either that or queasy-making.

    Precisely that range of affective response was common in the early days of what François Cusset calls French


    More than four decades have passed since readers made the acquaintance of a figure who has assumed an almost mythological role in the stories that are sometimes told about the way we live now. This was the bricoleur, introduced into the cultural conversation by Claude Lévi-Strauss in the opening pages of The Savage Mind at the high tide of structuralism in the early 1960s. The bricoleur is, simply, a kind of handyman. Unlike the carpenter or the electrician, he has no particular set of tools or domain of expertise. He can perform any number of tasks, but his knack is for improvising. “The rules

  • After The Last Intellectual

    In 1997, writing in the journal Contemporary Sociology, Russell Jacoby passed along the pithy advice a literary agent once gave him. “Put ‘Intellectuals’ in your book title,” he was told, “and kiss sales good-bye.” Jacoby ignored the advice, or defied it, and wrote The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe, published twenty years ago this fall. The book did well, going into a second printing within weeks. It remains in print and continues to produce cultural effects—most of them indirect and densely mediated, for its argument has long since circulated much further than the

  • Red State

    In 1896, in a text that anticipated Borges’s merger of the essay and the short story, Paul Valéry introduced readers to a character he called Monsieur Teste. This was the modernist hero as creature of pure intellect, capable of an almost inhuman intensity of self-conscious lucidity. Through a “frightening discipline,” M. Teste had “[set] his pleasures to killing his pleasures.” He had not withdrawn from social life entirely. But while living in the world, he was not of it—a mind preparing itself to tear up everything and begin anew. “What,” asks the puzzled narrator, “had he done with his