Book Reviews

Joel Kovel, Overcoming Zionism: Creating a Single Democratic State in Israel / Palestine (London and Ann Arbor: Pluto Press, 2007).

Joel Kovel has given us an impressive and important book. Its first printing sold out without a single review, major or otherwise. Nevertheless word of this extraordinary work is spreading. The taboo in the United States (not Israel) against seriously discussing and criticizing Zionist Israel has been broken with the publication of Jimmy Carter’s bold book labeling the situation in the Occupied Territories “apartheid” and with the exposure by prestigious professors Mearsheimer and Walt -– in the London Review of Books after rejection by the Atlantic Monthly –- of the power of the Israeli lobby. Kovel, by focusing squarely on how to “overcome” Zionism, takes the discussion exactly where it needs to go from there. He writes beautifully, even poetically, not just on Zionism’s sordid history, but on its ideology, its ethics, and even on the terrible ecological devastation in Israel itself, where every river is polluted, some to lethal levels. And he writes with courage and hope.

Kovel believes that the creation of Israel in l948, as a colony of settlers who established an exclusively Jewish and discriminatory state, has created a multi-faceted disaster -– “a dreadful mistake” -– that should be undone, with Israel de-Zionized and integrated into the Middle East. His solution is stated in the book’s subtitle and restated in the title of the last chapter: “Palesrael: A Secular and Universal Democracy for Israel/Palestine.” This is an elegant solution, and he lays out an action program to accomplish it.

How did Kovel, a Jew from Brooklyn, the oldest son of Ukrainian immigrants who did well -moving with Joel to “the purgatory of Baldwin, Long Island” –- come to this radical critique and equally radical solution? Joel graduated from Yale and became a successful psychiatrist. He taught at medical school before switching careers and taking a social science professorship at Bard, where for a time he held the Alger Hiss chair. He is still there, the only Marxist on the faculty. This book is not going to further his career.

“What kind of Jew am I?” he asks, and answers “a very bad one.” More accurately, he defines himself as what Isaac Deutscher called “a non-Jewish Jew.” Not that he is not spiritual; he writes of reaching for the infinite. But he is not religious. Being part of a sect is too narrowing and confining. He identifies with the Jewish heretics who transcended Jewry, but who are nonetheless part of the Jewish tradition –- he lists Spinoza, Marx, Freud, Proust, Einstein, Kafka, Wittgenstein, and Luxemburg -– and for whom “the true glory” of being Jewish is to live “on the margin and across boundaries.”

Kovel writes that the ethical reference point for Jews is the tribal unit. Since ancient times they set themselves off as “a people apart,” chosen by Jehovah, with whom they have a covenant. In Kovel’s view, “Zionism’s dynamic was drawn from the most tribal and particularistic stratum of Judaism, and its destiny became the restoration of tribalism in the guise of a modern, highly militarized and aggressive state,” which they implanted in the center if Islam. Herein lies the tragedy.

At the turn of the 20th century, a Zionist conference in Vienna delegated several rabbis to travel to Palestine on a fact-finding mission. The rabbis cabled back, “the bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man.” Kovel writes incisively of what ensued. The “tremendous struggle” to dislodge Palestine’s inhabitants would involve three great difficulties:

the resistance of those who stood in the way and would have to be displaced; the exigencies of geo-politics; and one’s own inner being, which would have to be retooled from the self-image of an ethical victim to that of a ruthless conqueror. All of these obstacles could be dealt with by signing onto Western imperialism and capitalism.

Jewish suffering and persecution became justification for aggression in asserting the “outlandish claim to a territory controlled 2500 years ago by one’s putative ancestors.”

The Israelis took 78% of the territory in l948 and the remaining 22% in l967. The logic of Zionism –- to create an ethnically pure Jewish state -– led to organized terrorism; “the essentials had been put in place by the mid-1930s” and the opportunity came in l948. The leaders of Zionism, Chaim Arlosoroff, Vladimir Jabotinsky, and especially David Ben Gurion, quietly articulated the need to drive the Arabs out. South African Prime Minister Henrik Verwoerd said in l96l something the liberals wouldn’t: that the Zionists “took Israel from the Arabs after the Arabs had lived there for a thousand years. In that, I agree with them, Israel, like South Africa, is an apartheid state.” When the smoke lifted in l948, 531 Arab villages had been destroyed, some 750,000 Palestinians driven out. In l948 Menachem Begin (later Prime Minister of Israel) organized the dynamiting of the British headquarters in Jerusalem, killing 88 persons, including 15 Jews. That year also saw the terrorizing of the village of Deir Yassin. With Begin in command, Yitzhak Shamir -– who was also to become a PM and whose frankly fascist organization the Stern Gang had actually made overtures to the Nazis to create a Jewish state along totalitarian lines -– took part in the operation. The terror at Deir Yassin was a decisive factor in the Arab exodus. The ethnic cleansing had been clearly planned by the Zionist leadership, as Israeli historian Ilan Pappe has documented. Thus the Zionists established Israel with a crime against humanity.

Ariel Sharon, the third Israeli terrorist PM, was actually found guilty by an Israeli court for permitting the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon in l982, where as many as 3000 Palestinian refugees were killed. In l953 Sharon led a cross-border raid on Qibya, Jordan, “in which the community was reduced to rubble, with 45 houses blown up and 69 people killed, the majority women and children.” He repeated his mass murder in Lebanon in 2006, using US-made cluster bombs. It is truly remarkable, as Kovel points out, that a terrorist could ascend to national leadership three times and “scarcely anybody has bothered to ponder its meaning.” Kovel notes the consequent bad conscience of the Israelis and remarks on how their resulting feelings “become projected and turned into the blaming of others” –- whether these be expropriated Palestinians or critics of Israel, who are then labeled as antisemites and/or as that curious entity, the “self-hating Jew.”

Israel, as a racist state, discriminates in the critical areas of immigrants, settlements, and land development. Any Jew in the world who can show that his grandmother on his mother’s side was Jewish may obtain automatic citizenship, yet the Arabs expelled in l948 and l967, despite international law and United Nations resolution 194, are not permitted their right to return. 92% of the land in Israel is administered by The Jewish National Fund, which does not allow its use by non-Jews.

Racism is in the nature of a colonial settler state. What is remarkable is the degree to which Zionists deny this. Kovel gives examples of a top Israeli general calling Palestinians “drugged cockroaches in a bottle”; he cites a 2006 poll showing that more than two-thirds of Israelis would refuse to live in the same building as Arabs and that the idea of deporting Arab citizens is popular. Many Jewish soccer fans curse and attack Arab members of their national team.

Kovel writes, reminiscent of Thomas Jefferson, that no state has an absolute right to exist, hence all states are to some degree illegitimate; he adds that states may be relatively or absolutely illegitimate, and that a racist state is illegitimate. Israel, being an exclusively Jewish state, is a racist state. He concludes that “the problem then is with Zionism and the Jewish state as such, and not its illegal occupation of the West Bank.” The point is to change it, “to dissolve the Jewishness of the state. For this, one does not smash or trample Zionism; one overcomes it and frees people from its chains.”

He goes beyond the two-state solution, necessarily, because by steady aggression and aggrandizement the Zionists have whittled the Palestinian territory down to 8% of what it was in l948, leaving the natives with a negligible fragment, without much water, polluted, economically unviable, denuded of its agriculture, isolated by Jewish-only roads, and partly encircled by an obscene wall.

What to do? Speak the truth about Israel. Expose the Zionist lobby. Force it to register as an agent of a foreign government. Bring lawsuits for violations of human rights, as the Center for Constitutional Rights did against an Israeli general for mass killing in a village, or against the US Caterpillar company for making gargantuan bulldozers sold wittingly to the Israeli army for the express purpose of house demolition (one of which, ran over and killed Rachel Corrie, to whom Kovel partly dedicates his book). Place Israel where it belongs, in the company of apartheid South Africa. Cut the threads of Israel’s support system; boycott it academically, economically, and culturally.

Palestinians are the largest and oldest refugee population in the world. Central to the campaign against Zionist Israel is to support their right of return. Zionism can thus be brought down in an entirely peaceful manner. The Right of Return is more basic than liquidating the occupation, which would leave the Zionist state unchanged. The Right of Return would require the end of the occupation as a pre-condition and can directly undo the Jewishness of the state with the returnees having full and equal rights. Even now, counting the occupied territories, the population is roughly 50/50, Jew and Arab.

The new state -– “Palesrael” -– could reshape itself according to the South African anti-apartheid precepts of recognition and responsibility, which point to a society organized along essentially non-capitalist lines. Kovel knows that this will not come easily and that the outcome will depend partly on unforeseeable convulsions in the outside world. He concludes: “Such is the reality facing dreamers for a better world: a slim chance, and a long haul. As ever, it is the journey that counts, the seeking of good conscience, good will, and good comrades.”

This is a rich, multi-layered book, reflecting the author’s wide reading and travel. Kovel’s background as a psychiatrist is evident in his wise understanding. Judaeophobia in Nazi Germany “draws from a time when Jews were, if not blameless, at least powerless and were made to pay the debts demanded by the anticommunism of the fascist state and by Christendom’s bad conscience.” He calls it “intellectual barbarism” to take current criticism of Israel as “antisemitism,” but he well understands that given a situation of invasion and occupation of another people’s land, it is not surprising to find “the whole spectrum of human responses… ranging from emancipatory and nonviolent expression to crude atavisms including racist belief.”

Israel has become, in Kovel’s view, the most dangerous place on earth for Jews. It now has the largest gap between rich and poor in the whole industrialized world. Forty percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Half of Israeli families cannot meet their monthly bills. Kovel reports that the immediate cause of this has been a fierce neoliberal assault on the poor and the public sector, which has left Israel with “the worst primary and lower secondary education in the Western world.” Socialist ideals lie in ruins. As a result, a serious amount of emigration is taking place, with some 760,000 Israelis living abroad in 2004. Jews leaving Russian prefer, ironically, to go to Germany.

I think that if persons concerned about the problems of Jews and Zionism could have but one book on the subject on their shelf, it should be this one.

Review by Michael Steven Smith
Attorney, New York City
Member, National Lawyers Guild and 1985 NLG fact-finding trip to Israel & the Occupied Territories <>


Nikolas Kozloff, Hugo Chávez: Oil, Politics and the Challenge to the U.S. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).

While Hugo Chávez has yet to define the “socialism for the twenty-first century” that he has vowed to create in Venezuela and enable elsewhere in the Americas, he has shown us a credible first step: a political and economic project meant to redistribute wealth and power downward and southward, from the privileged to the poor, and from the U.S. to the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean.

As inequality continues to grow both within and between the countries of the Americas, this projected redistribution, a political project made credible by Venezuela’s enormous oil reserves, has given Chávez and Chavismo a global resonance, accompanied by substantial lists of friends, clients and enemies. In Venezuela, these lists have been lengthened by another dimension of the Chavista project, the consolidation of political power in the hands of the presidency.

Power, of course, is at the heart of any significant redistribution, and oil (for the moment, at least) is at the heart of Chávez’s power. Hence the appropriate subtitle of Nikolas Kozloff’s new book on the political trajectory of the Chávez presidency, Oil, Politics and the Challenge to the U.S.

Kozloff is principally interested in power, and is at his best when writing about the oil industry and the political uses to which it has been put in Venezuela. It is in this context that an oil expert and one-time leftist guerrilla named Alí Rodríguez emerges, second only to Chávez, as the book’s hero. In 1999 Rodríguez became Chávez’s first Energy Minister; in 2001 he became Secretary General of OPEC, probably as a reward to Venezuela for its role in resuscitating the comatose oil cartel; and following the short-lived anti-Chávez coup of 2002, he was named President of the state oil company, PDVSA. In the wake of PDVSA’s determined effort to oust Chávez from office, the savvy President apparently considered Rodríguez to be the only political player capable of reining in the oil company’s independent power. Within a year of his appointment, Rodríguez had faced down a work stoppage called by an alliance of PDVSA’s management and corporatist union, stabilized the company’s daily operations, and brought it, for the first time, under reasonably firm government control.

Though this story has been told before, Kozloff tells it well and makes a convincing case for the key role played by Rodríguez throughout the Chávez presidency. Kozloff argues that Chávez’s earlier role in strengthening OPEC by helping (with his own example) to enforce production quotas, his successful determination to bring PDVSA more firmly under governmental control, and his subsequent strategic use of Venezuela’s plentiful oil resources to forge regional alliances that may one day produce a genuine South American community, were all guided by Rodríguez. This story is at the core of the narrative and key to Kozloff’s analysis of how Chávez has maintained himself in power.

The story, of course, is subject to different interpretations. There have been other influential pro-Chávez actors in the oil industry -– the influential energy theorist, Bernard Mommer, for example. But no matter how you slice the story, Kozloff is quite right to argue that oil, its control, and its international price fluctuations are crucial to whatever political, economic and social changes Chávez would like to bring about in Venezuela. These factors are so crucial that some critics –- including many on the left –- have argued that the current oil boom, rather than any structural redistribution, is funding the country’s impressive health, welfare and education programs, along with the state institutions that have facilitated the increased political participation of the poor. If that turns out to be the case, when oil prices fall, so will the institutions of welfare and participation. The “socialism for the twenty-first century,” say some of those critics, may have more to do with Chávez’s concentration of political power than with any redistribution of wealth.

One wishes that Kozloff had taken some time to discuss this criticism from the left. Travelers to and residents of Caracas now recount scenes of opulence in the city’s wealthy neighborhoods that rival those of the 1970s when suddenly wealthy Venezuelans became known as the people who traveled the world and bought two of everything: the “dame dos” (“give me two”) of the Miami tourist shops. Since Kozloff is presenting a general overview of Chávez’s years in power, and his own reaction to Chávez as a complicated political animal, it would have been interesting to see him tackle this contradiction head on.

Kozloff’s immediate reactions to events are, for better or worse, a central part of this book. He has written a narrative history of Chávez’s political trajectory and at the same time, stepping back a bit, a narrative history of his own interest in and evaluation of Chávez and his project.

This creates some difficulties for the reader because Kozloff doesn’t so much put himself in the story as tell us where he was and what he was thinking as the story was unfolding somewhere else. A style that worked for masters like John Reed and George Orwell meets with less success when the up-front story (Chávez vs. Empire) is a fascinating one, and the author’s experiences are on the order of, “Prior to my studies in England, I studied Latin American history at the University of Miami. There I became aware of the activities of the Southern Command.”

More difficulties emerge in Kozloff’s frequent steps to the side to present brief synopses of events outside of Venezuela or equally brief profiles of other Latin American leaders. One understands that he is trying to give us a more complete picture of the political moment, but I’m afraid these valiant attempts to broaden the story result in more confusion than clarification. The book’s conversational, informal narrative tends frequently to decompose into a string of anecdotes -– or worse, a string of sidebars –- in which it becomes hard to extract the analysis of key events from the chatty background.

But distractions aside, Kozloff has done us a service by recounting the recent history of the politics of Venezuelan oil and by showing us how savvy political actors have succeeded in guiding that history, though not, of course, precisely as they choose.

Review by Fred Rosen
North American Congress on Latin America


Stanley Aronowitz, Left Turn: Forging a New Political Future (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2006)

Stanley Aronowitz is distinguished, among other things, as an intellectual link between the many historical, political and ideological incarnations of the U.S. left. In Left Turn, he confronts the critical condition of left politics in the post-Soviet, post-welfare-state era. He describes the exhaustion of 20th-century Communism and Social Democracy, offers explanations for their collapse, and confronts the abyss where once stood dynamic parties setting direction for mass movements affecting and moving millions.

Aronowitz has taken on some of the left’s deepest and most delicate problems. What he condemns as “the retreat to postmodern politics” might be better described as a retreat from politics altogether. While internationally the left lost political credibility after 1989, in the U.S. it could find no organized vehicle at all. Worse, many activists embraced this development as a relief from the clumsy, failed attempts of “Leninistvanguardism”  (Maoist and Trotskyist cadres) to impose political direction on still-maturing social movements from the mid-60s through the 80s. In the 1988 Jesse Jackson campaign, their last attempt to intervene in a presidential contest where winning was even a possibility, left forces could bring nothing to the table but sweat equity and the goals of stymied movements.

Totalities such as ‘the movement,’ the working class as the primary agent of change, and social transformation were quietly abandoned by activists. Aronowitz finds an intellectual exemplar of this paralysis in Sheldon Wolin, “arguably the leading left-liberal political philosopher in the United States.” After groundbreaking work introducing social theory into the study of politics, Wolin’s liberalism, “his misreading of Marx and contemporary marxism [sic] prevents Wolin from taking the point of view of the totality and produces only a fragmented vision,” Aronowitz argues. Whether Wolin’s thinking influenced social movement activists or simply mirrored their emerging rhetoric and practice, the result is the same: an inability to formulate an opposition politics that can give content to the “new grassroots radicalism” that Aronowitz sharply observes as the contemporary embodiment of a left effectively devoid of parties.

From 1989 to 2006, social movements’ aversion to political organizing and strategic thinking exacerbated left fragmentation and powerlessness, in the face of resurgent conservatism and unprecedented freedom of motion for capital. Meanwhile, promoters of rightist campaigns — like tax-cutting, opposition to abortion rights and affirmative action, and church control of public education — have become major power brokers. In turn, activists have practically embraced marginalization and segregation by issue and constituency, often accompanied by dearly guarded insular subcultures. The rejection of the Marxist concept of class from social movement thinking (replaced, if at all, with the superficial concept of ‘classism,’ i.e., snobbery) results in activists’ mistrust of the feasibility or even desirability of government by working people.

Left Turn also targets the strand of populism based on economic demands promoted by Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?, and by even the most left-leaning Democrats. This approach focuses on ‘middle-class’ economic concerns in hopes of retrieving the votes of ‘Reagan Democrats.’ The appeal to populism is presented as an alternative to the supposedly divisive demands of social movements, such as affirmative action and aid to dependent children. Aronowitz takes on this approach for effectively ditching social movements, whose radical content inherently threatens liberal bureaucratic strongholds at the heart of the Democratic Party project.

Aronowitz’s biggest political concern is the ever-recurring question of whether to build the left within America’s two-party electoral system, or outside and against it. For some this question is settled every time the Democrats betray their fear of association with social movements and their constituencies (coded as ‘special interests’). Yet even anarchists find it hard to resist pushing for the Democrats when faced with the stark horrors of the 1980s and the present decade. In the last century, the Socialists and the Communists played an in-and-out game with the Democrats. The principle of independent action was weighed against buttressing the power of the labor movement (and the SP’s and CP’s’ own influence in unions). As well, repeated threats to the left’s existence, in periods when the far right held sway over centrists and liberals, made electing Democrats seem the only available option. The third party vs. boring-from-within debate continued in the New Left, but numerous attempts to form third parties were never able to galvanize support among social movement activists and supporters.

Aronowitz argues the need to break with the Democrats as do-or-die for the left. In this he lines up with the unwavering stance of Trotskyists, some Maoists, and anarchists and other antiauthoritarian tendencies, who have consistently opposed the Democrats as irredeemable agents of corporate capital. Aronowitz’s proposal differs from the Greens, as well as various Bolshevik-inspired strategies, in his rejection of the state as an arena for emancipatory projects, either under or after capitalism. The capitalist state, he argues, “has been transformed so that its coercive, police functions overwhelm the ‘legitimating’ functions such as social welfare.” He poses as “the main question”:

How can a new series of social arrangements transform the state from an institution of hierarchical repression and control into a series of agencies of coordination of a series of self-managed cooperative enterprises that organize the production and distribution of material goods and the dissemination of knowledge and information -– in which case the state is no longer the state but something else?

Aronowitz poses such a ‘high concept’ goal with no apparent illusions that it might be achieved in short order, or even that it would hold together as a programmatic vision were it to be embraced by the left. His purpose is not to carve a new tablet for the left, but to encourage broad thinking and discussion that could lead to the formation of a radical party.

This party would seek no strategic alliances with liberal leadership figures or groups, less because of their class position than because of the liberals’ programmatic commitment to bureaucratic state solutions. But Aronowitz seeks to bring together the traditionally alienated sectors tagged ‘working poor’ and ‘middle class’ –- an insight that should seem obvious but which rarely occurs to activists, probably because in day-to-day practice, such solidarity seems less likely than, say, the end of the world.

Another crucial insight is introduced regarding the organization question. Distinct types of left formations serve particular functions, none of which engage politics strategically. Outside the vanguard party model, there are diffuse, multi-tendency umbrella groups -– coalitions that mobilize far-flung local groups and individuals at critical moments -– and small groups focused on producing and disseminating propaganda. Left Turn proposes an alternative model. The radical party’s practice would include ongoing linkage of the fragmented left in its varied forms, and horizontal coordination of efforts nationally, in order to deepen political consciousness and enhance political strength. Aronowitz calls for centralization -– a dreaded term in the contemporary anti-hierarchical mood -– as “the accumulation of human, financial, and physical resources of organization without which, in complex societies, effective interventions are next to impossible to implement.” The process would require “organs of discussion and analysis,” including independent media, schools, and think tanks.

The contributions of Left Turn stand out, but its flaws are real. Aronowitz’s mind races, and in trying to juggle political theory, philosophy, sociology, recent events and scarcely recorded history of the left, some fumbles can be embarrassing. He gives short shrift to the experience of the post-SDS ‘party building’ movement, whose participants numbered in the thousands, and who broke socialized racial segregation patterns that still plague the left. He declares that “only the Weather Underground made an effort to rethink the traditional party form” -– and goes on to disparage the entire New Left for failing to “address the specificity of the United States.” On both counts, anyone familiar with the journal Radical America –- which would undoubtedly include Aronowitz -– knows these assertions are wildly off the wall.

Precious little attention is given to the threat of fascism as a distinct, autonomous phenomenon in society. This is, in fact, a driving force behind the perpetual rallying to the Democrats, and for good reason. Under Republicans, religious fundamentalists (including dominionists and violent anti-abortion rights groups) and white supremacists in various guises (including the nativist Minutemen and Confederate nationalists) enjoy greater leeway and access to power. Most leftists and liberals would prefer the short-run safety of Democrats in office –- for all the broken promises -– to confronting violent haters on their own turf. What would a new radical party be prepared to do?

Another area that needs more attention is the role of militarism in social control. This has proven to be a major weak spot in the matrix of bourgeois hegemony, yet with or without a draft, young people will be forced into the service by the lack of jobs. Furthermore, the unprecedented concentration of military power will move domestically if it finds itself threatened by hostile mass sentiment. Again, here is a problem where constituencies are in jeopardy and their representatives must be prepared to defend them.

The biggest problem that Left Turn bypasses is the historic role of race in defining class politics in the U.S. Aronowitz tends to view black movements as one more sector that needs to be addressed and included, but this is disingenuous: the black community’s awareness of the consequences of capitalism is far ahead of other sectors’. Yet society’s implacable racial separation has infected and hobbled every social movement and independent political effort. Lacking allies, the black community has sought influence in any institution that would allow them to exercise it, i.e., the Democratic Party. Aronowitz outlines “the three core domains of struggle and alternative”: the deteriorating economy, the ecological crisis, and the breakdown of democracy. How will this framework address the reality of a working class stratified economically, politically, and socially by a seemingly permanent color line? Any approach that pleads color blindness would end up falling in neatly with the populism Aronowitz sets out to challenge.

It is to Aronowitz’s credit that he has produced a platform for discussion broad enough to evoke these questions. Left Turn is serious enough to win attention from activists, and visionary enough to stimulate the left’s imagination.

Review by Ethan Young
Brooklyn, NY


Jonathan Scott, Socialist Joy in the Writing of Langston Hughes (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2006).

This book, the latest addition to the substantial body of Hughes scholarship, is different from previous critical studies. In Socialist Joy, Scott crafts the paradigm for a new, dialectical approach to the work of Hughes — and to Hughes the writer and activist — thus paving the way for a new beginning in American studies. Scott demonstrates that Hughes’ work was motivated by the dialectic between activism and art and that his expertise in a myriad of genres made him into a literary Renaissance man. Readers, teachers, students, and scholars of Hughes therefore need to approach his work in that vein. Hughes cannot be reduced to the poet or the columnist –- or the columnist or the activist; instead he must be recognized as all of these things along with translator, essayist, novelist, and traveler, to name but a few of his attributes. Hughes was a master dialectician and, as Scott’s thorough discussion shows, only scholars and critics who think dialectically will recognize the same quality in his work.

The book is divided into four chapters: 1) “The Backward Glance”; 2) “Socialism, Nationalism, and Nation-Conscious: The Antinomies of Langston Hughes”; 3) “The Poet as Journalist: Aesthetics of Black Equality”; and 4) “The College Aesthetic: The Writer as Teacher.” Each chapter corresponds to an area of Hughes’ intellectual work: his connection to Afro-Caribbean arts, including his translations of the Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén; the relationship between the Soviet Union and the Harlem Renaissance; Hughes’ extensive work as an anthropologist; and his writings for youth.

Scott shows that the thread running through all of Hughes’ work is the “socialist joy” produced by a “…triangular relationship among Hughes and ‘non-American’ traditions such as the Bolshevik Revolution, Latin American and Caribbean music and poetry, [and] communist ideology” (2). In other words, Scott shows that Hughes’ ingenious method of moving between the arts and activism — something long overlooked by his biographers and critics — is the basis for his creative achievement.

Scott begins his study with an introduction that takes into consideration the white blindspot in American studies that has contributed to the balkanization of Hughes’ work. Scott points out that the dominant assumption in the United States, despite the arguments put forth by eminent literary artists such as Toni Morrison, Amiri Baraka, and Hughes, is that “American is a synonym for ‘white.’” This realization opens the door for reading and analyzing Hughes’ work — his aesthetic theory and his intellectual practice — as a whole. Scott approaches Hughes’ work from three angles (6). First, he criticizes recent forms of cultural theory such as post-structuralism for positing “timeless and unsurpassable contradictions between historical determinism (social being) and art and literature (ideology).” Second, he “explores old ‘truths’ about Hughes in a way that allows them to be understood from new perspectives,” and third, he “suggests possibilities for programmatic research projects on [Hughes’] writing” (6). Throughout, as Scott emphasizes in his conclusion, the focus is on Hughes’ intention and method.

One of the most interesting themes of the book is Hughes’ theory of the North American mestizo. The common literary figure of the tragic mulatta/o or mestiza/o is precisely what Hughes’ mestizo is not. Rather than concentrate on the tragedy of being neither “white nor black” (or in the case of the mestiza/o neither Indian nor European), Hughes celebrated the North American mestizo as a new archetype, and the concept of mestizaje (mixing) as a site of creativity and empowerment. Organic to the Americas as a result of the slave trade, this archetype is a synthesis between African Americans (“blues people”) and the oppressed peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean. Free from the agonizing implications of being out of place because of one’s skin color, the North American mestizo — and Hughes himself was one — represents a new beginning for U.S. national identity and a new trope in U.S. letters. Based on a rejection of the color caste system of the Caribbean and Latin America and the white supremacy of the U.S., the Hughesian beginning is a socialist beginning (i.e. born of the U.S. laboring class) and hence a source of socialist joy.

The expressions of socialist joy in Hughes’ work are particularly discernible when his career is not periodized in Cold War terms, contrasting the communist with the post-communist years, separated by Hughes’ encounter with the House Un-American Affairs Committee (HUAC). Scott shows that far too much emphasis has been placed on Hughes’ later work, reflecting the distorting effect of anti-communist ideology in the bourgeois academy. Teachers, scholars, and biographers (including many who profess leftist leanings) tend to focus on the second half of Hughes’ career because the bourgeoisie is comfortable with a “post-communist” Hughes whom they deem safe, understandable, and patriotic.

These adjectives, however, do not aptly describe Hughes in the wake of his interrogation by the HUAC. Because Hughes’ biographers and critics have not paid attention to his method, his response to anti-communist ideology in works such as Simple Takes a Wife (1953), The First Book of Rhythms (1954), and I Wonder as I Wander (1956) has been misunderstood and underappreciated. Hughes’ method, which produced work characterized by love and approbation of the working class, stands in dialectical opposition to the anti-communist ideology of the bourgeois literary establishment. The synthesis, then, is Hughes’ work itself: the poems celebrating the North America mestizo and the everyday working woman and man, for example, or Jesse B. Semple who has to school his foil, Boyd.

If socialist joy is the thread that holds together five decades of Hughes’ work, methodology is the thread that holds together Scott’s study. As Scott affirms in the conclusion, the objective of the book is to show “that the staying power of Hughes’ irreducible discourse derives from a dialectical approach to art and politics that was neither opportunistic nor ideological” (225). Convincingly argued in a language that is both poetic and succinct, Socialist Joy in the Writing of Langston Hughes denotes more than a new beginning for American studies.

Because the focus is on Hughes’ method, much of the text is devoted to Hughes’ paradigms for teachers of writing. For example, Hughes’ own work on an anthology of Black poets demonstrates a departure from the linear rigidity that characterized previous anthologies and introduces the writing “collage” where sundry forms of poetry are layered or “pasted” and juxtaposed according to one “overarching theme.” Other paradigms developed by Hughes that Scott focuses on include developing writing assignments that appeal to popular tastes and teaching literature that tells the stories of working people in their own language. By teaching this kind of literature and encouraging this kind of writing, teachers can help their students become conscious and consequently political, which is the ultimate goal of the Hughesian model. These new beginnings would revolutionize education in the Americas if incorporated into the school and university curricula. And there are other new beginnings discussed throughout the text.

Intellectually stimulating and pleasing, Scott’s analysis of Hughes and his work is a read that won’t disappoint.

Review by Anamaría Flores
CUNY Graduate Center


Steve Martinot, Forms in the Abyss: A Philosophical Bridge between Sartre and Derrida (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006).

Considering that both Sartre and Derrida are known as icons of twentieth-century philosophy, one would reasonably expect to find a voluminous body of literature addressing their relation. However, this is not the case -– such works are surprisingly rare. In this sense alone, Steve Martinot’s rigorous engagement of Sartrean and Derridean philosophies is a groundbreaking work. But as one already familiar with Martinot might expect, this book has much to offer beyond a study in the history of ideas. It is also a fascinating work of contemporary critical theory relevant to political issues, exploring the possibility of dialogue within situations of domination and subjugation.

Over the years, there has been more silence than engagement between Sartrean existentialists and Derridean post-structuralists. Except for a few polemical remarks in which Derrida and other post-structuralists have distanced themselves from Sartre (in what Martinot notes as a tone of bitterness), there has been little communication. Martinot refers to this strange silence as a “mutual refusal.” Sartre, for his part, refuses to engage what he sees as a misguided critique of language in Derrida’s post-structuralism. For Sartre, Derrida had abandoned what is “essential to philosophy and philosophical politics: an account of the subject, an approach to history” (2). Derrida, on the other hand, refuses to speak of consciousness –- a notion central to Sartre’s existential phenomenology. This is because he understands all accounts of the subject to be misguided, as “one constructs the subject by investigating it” (2).

According to Martinot, the most important issue separating Sartre and Derrida is that of writing. Whereas Sartre wants a language that is direct and message-bearing, Derrida claims that writing is always ambiguous, with multiple meanings. In this “irreducible divergence” between the two Martinot sees reflected a broader question of incommensurability -– a problem that has challenged philosophers for millennia. How can we understand the relation between two disparate (incommensurable) thinkers or ideas, when there is no common ground for comparison? As we will see, the solution to this problem has political implications, and the goal of Martinot’s project is to find space for communication between two sides that are radically separated.

Despite the polemics and refusals separating Sartre and Derrida, Martinot convincingly argues that we should also understand them as “kindred souls… seated at a common historical table” (20f). At this table we also find Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, Foucault, and others, all involved in the broader intellectual movement of “striving against metaphysical apriorism” (21).

Martinot identifies a striking number of common themes in the work of Sartre and Derrida, although they have traditionally been portrayed as incompatible opponents. He finds similar critiques of the rationalist view of the subject, and “a notion of history that is itself a critique of an ideological dimension inherent in all historical discourse” (20). He explores the importance of Heidegger as an influence on both. He also finds a similarity between Sartre’s exposition of subject-object relations in Being and Nothingness and Derrida’s project in Of Grammatology, drawing comparisons between Sartre’s nominalism and Derrida’s critique of language, between Sartre’s notion of néantisation (nihilation) and Derrida’s différance.

In the very few studies of Sartre and Derrida that have come before, a common mistake has been to reduce the thought of one to accommodate it within the language of the other. For Martinot, to translate the innovative and irreducible thought of either in order to fit the other’s framework is to do violence to the texts. The challenging task he sets for himself, then, is to address Sartre and Derrida in relation to one another without transforming them, preserving the “disparity of language” between them. He will do this “without attempting to existentialize Derrida or to transmute Sartre into a post-structuralist discourse. It will demand absolute respect for the incommensurability” (24). He writes,

If their discourses are fundamentally incommensurable, while seeming to reveal certain commonalities of parenthood, project, and strategy, then any conjunction that would hope to traverse the abyss between them must reveal itself at a certain distance from their disparity of language itself.… A sense of a common language would then have to be derived from elsewhere than in their respective philosophical terms. To encompass both, a mode of discursive construction will have to be found that will transcend this critical difference of discursive level. (23f)

Martinot, then, must maintain an ambiguity in his study of Sartre and Derrida, preserving the differences while bringing the similarities into engagement. He refrains from reducing either element, and yet successfully brings them into dialogue, to create something productive and new in this encounter. It is interesting to note that Martinot’s approach is strikingly similar to Sartre’s own hermeneutical method found in later works such as the Critique of Dialectical Reason.

It is precisely this project of building a space for dialogue, somewhere within the “abyss” that lies between incommensurable realms of discourse, that Martinot sees as politically relevant. He claims that incommensurability can actually be found at the heart of political power, since political power establishes itself by inventing a hierarchy of incommensurability in the real world. This incommensurability is found in the “incompatibility” between different classes and groups in the hierarchy -– their worldviews, interests, and in particular, their languages are incommensurable. Martinot explores the example of an imposition, in which something is imposed upon a lower level of the hierarchy from above. He explains that the very possibility of such an imposition is grounded in an assumed “unanswerability.”

The incommensurability is structural, written into the actual political structures of our world within relations of domination and subjugation. As such, it stands in the way of any possible dialogue that could take place between the oppressed and their oppressors in relationships of domination. Martinot’s goal, then, is to explore the possibility of creating “bridge structures” to build a domain for interaction.

Again, like Sartre in his later dialectical works, Martinot argues that analytic thinking is insufficient for this task, and he tries to find a structure for mediation between incommensurables. This pursuit of mediation takes Martinot into theories of language. He is looking for the “formal connections” between incommensurables, “the form of their thinking, its logic, structures of reasoning, style, and poetic or discursive geometry” (25). He proposes a solution in what he refers to as the “glyph,” which is a

complex structure combining several dimensions of meaning, discursive form, and narrative. [… It] combines two levels of narrative: a coming upon the world and a social production of meaning. The glyph envelops these disparate dimensions of the discursive and amalgamates them into a single structure that becomes iconic for meaning, reference, objectivity, definitude. (219)

This glyph, he proposes, can help us to transcend specific systems of thought and to find a common language in which dialogue can take place.

It is worth noting that the style of this text is not for beginners. As a reader, one must be willing to go deep into the complexities of the theories at hand, but the results are well worth it. Martinot’s intention is not to cover the breadth of work of either Sartre or Derrida, but rather to focus upon the formal elements of their thought. This means that it is helpful if the reader already has some basic familiarity with them. Also, the vocabulary employed is of a highly specialized nature common to analyses of French philosophy. I would emphasize that it is not jargon – on the contrary, the word choice is consistently precise and meaningful. But if the reader is not up-to-date on the terms of the conversation, he or she may well need the help of a philosophical dictionary.

Martinot’s text, I believe, can be understood as the latest contribution to the on-going discussion in critical theory of “what to do after postmodernism?” So many thinkers, in so many forums, have asked the question -– what is it about post-structuralism that has made it unable, despite its profound liberatory insights, to contribute work that is meaningful or relevant for real, everyday political struggles? The dissatisfaction with post-structuralism, and with “postmodernism” more generally, in relation to politics has led to a wave of writings in recent years, each asking in its own way, what comes next? Some have called this project “new critical theory,” others “third wave critical theory.” Common questions include, how can we preserve these liberatory insights, while also finding a way to avoid getting lost in the impotent abyss of foundationless thinking? How can we incorporate these insights into ethically and politically meaningful work, in which judgments are still possible? Many of these authors are also returning to insights from earlier thinkers, such as Sartre, Adorno, and Marcuse, in order to find a way to ground post-structuralist claims.

Martinot does not explicitly locate himself within this genre, but the shared projects are clear. In his “attempt to read Sartre in a more up-to-date fashion through Derrida, and the complementary attempt to read Derrida in a more down-to-earth manner through Sartre” (25), he finds a way to bring some of the liberatory insights of post-structuralism to bear on concrete political issues of dialogue and mediation. In bringing his high-theoretical discussions of Sartre and Derrida into relation with concrete topics such as racism, colonialism, and chauvinism, Martinot provides an example of how we might move forward to an ethically meaningful post-postmodern philosophy.

Review by Elizabeth Butterfield
Georgia Southern University

This entry was posted in 45, Volume 21, No. 3. Bookmark the permalink.