Tuesday, November 18, 2003

All time best
I love all-time-greatest lists. They are completely subjective, unscientific, and unverifiable. Their only real purpose is to provoke discussion. The book The 100 and all its spinoffs have provided a full generation of history students with an excuse for endless pontification and argument and provided history teachers with a fast lesson plan. Today, I ran across two good lists on the Web, both based on polls.

Next week Rolling Stone will put out a special issue for "The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time." Their top ten list contains four Beatles, two Dylans, a Beach Boys, a Stones, a Marvin Gaye, and a Clash album. The list is narrow in time and narrow in scope. “Greatest Albums” seems to mean rock related English language albums. That shows three of the biggest problems with these lists.

First, the writers never define what best-of or greatest means, and even when they do the respondents ignore the criteria and respond with a mix of most influential, best selling, and personal favorites. At one point, Time’s person of the year cover went to the most influential. They gave it to Hitler and to Stalin. Lately, they’ve gotten timid and never give it to unpleasant people. Did Osama get the cover in 2001. No.

Second, these lists inevitably have no historical sense. All through 1999, BBC put out monthly lists of the greatest of the millennium. When the got to the most beautiful women of the last 1000 years, they had nine women who were living English-speaking media figures under forty years of age (the tenth was Marilyn Monroe). What an amazing coincidence! How lucky we are to live at the exact moment when the most beautiful women of the millennium are young and active!!

Third, of course, is the cultural subjectivity. Do you think the Stones list will have any albums by King Sonny Ade? Antonio Carlos Jobim? They don’t even have any women till you get to Joni Mitchell at 30. How aware do you think they could be of the stars of Brazil, Nigeria, Iran, Thailand, or from behind the Iron Curtain during most of the album era?

The Stones list has another problem for me, and that is that I just can’t get that excited about it. And not because I don’t care about music. I do very much. But Anglo-American pop music has been largely driven by lists, American Top 40, the Billboard Hot 100, and Top of the Pops. Every music related show and magazine puts out a special issue for the end of the year and a double special issue for end of the decade best of. Another top pop list just isn’t interesting. To get excited about another pop music list it needs to be more novel. My favorite has been to create a ten album primer for jazz (listen to these ten and you’ll be able to fake expertise). The same sort of history of rock would be fun, but, of course, we’d have to define rock first (do we include Big Joe Turner? How about Run DMC?).

The poll that came out this week that is more interesting to me is Joshua Cherniss’ Top Marxists poll in Sitting on a Fence. Unfortunately, I wasn’t familiar with Cherniss and the poll was over and the results in before I discovered it. I would have loved to nominate Milovan Djilas (the topic of my never-completed dissertation – sob!) and a bunch of other obscure Balkan revolutionaries.

The obscure Balkan revolutionaries would have been for the perverse joy of skewing the poll results (“How could you leave out Sima Markovic, Anna Pauker, Karl Renner, Georgi Dimitrov, or Andrija Hebrang?”) and showing off my erudition. After all, I get so few chances to play this game anymore. In my own studies on Marxism and Balkan national questions, I could even make a case for including all of these footnote figures, but in the larger sphere of general Marxism, only Djilas really deserves a position.

In Cherniss’ poll, Djilas was in a seven-way tie for seventeenth place with Eugene V. Debs and Simone de Beauvoir among others. Cherniss himself puts Djilas in seventh, which is probably close to where I would have put him. Djilas is an interesting case. For many years he was invisible as were most of the Balkan revolutionaries. Prior to WWII most of them were pseudonymous underground conspirators. According to Fitzroy MacLean, as late as 1942, the British intelligence services weren’t even sure what gender Tito was. After the war Djilas was thrust into the public eye as one of the most unwavering Stalinists among the bunch. In 1948 he morphed into the author of an interesting orthodox Leninist challenge to Stalinism (and as such, one of the leading proponents of the idea that Stalinism was a separate phenomenon from Leninism). In 1953, he pushed his critique further by beginning a Marxist challenge to the right of Leninist (and Stalinist) parties to rule. This critique was finalized in his book The New Class. By then he had resigned from the Communist Party of Yugoslavia and was cooling his heels in prison. Certain elements of the American Right adopted his critique (they inevitably called it an expose) and made him the world’s most famous political prisoner for a few years (a dubious honor he shared with Sakharov and Mandela).

After prison, as an ex-Marxist, he became a favorite interview of journalists and graduate students (myself included) who wanted to understand the Balkans. He always resisted any portrayal of himself as an apostate; he did use in a conversion narrative to describe his intellectual journey. For nearly fifty years as his restless mind moved across the political spectrum, he was a major figure in forming the West’s understanding of Communism and the Balkans.

Other than demanding recognition for the subjects of my own expertise (of course they are important. I studied them, didn’t I?!), when I get serious, I really just one comment to make about the poll results. They look rater heavily weighted toward intellectuals and prominent politicians. Most of them are European. Some of Marxism’s most powerful influence was in the third world, especially emerging post-colonial states. Part of this was due to their being made proxies for the superpowers during most of the cold war. But part of this was due to the genuine appeal of the Marxist critique of the Western economic model. By that painful social science phrase, I mean they didn’t always like what they saw when they looked at us. Marx allowed the third world, which had been defeated and conquered by the West, to argue with the West in terms the West had to accept. Although Marx’s solutions were themselves often a bad fit when applied to non-Western economies and cultures, the credibility of his language was too seductive to refuse.

Frankly, if I had to name names to represent the third world Marxist tradition, I’m not sure whom I would name. Nkruma? Sandino? Chao? Nyerere? Ho? DeBray? Roy? When I’m out of the Balkans, I’m out of my depth. I just know someone needs to be there.

Also, for it’s appeal in the third-world, the revolutionary/insurrectionist strain of Marxism needs more weight. Djilas writes in his memoirs that most of the Balkan revolutionaries knew little else of Marxism until they were in power. Only then did they actually study the vast body of Marxist social and economic critiques.

Ultimately, I think that these lists press against the limits of usefulness for the Web. Comment strings, bulletin boards, and chat rooms are a poor substitute for conversation. To get the full collegiate experience of debating a best-of list you need loud music and alcohol.

Me: “How can you say Kwame Nkruma doesn’t count? To think, five minutes ago I called you my best friend, and now I find out you’re a Eurocentric wanker.”

Peter: “This has nothing to do with Eurocentrism. My point is that if you separate socialism from its urban industrial origins you are no longer talking Marxism. You have something new.”

Me: “Socialism isn’t a product of the industrial revolution. Peasants have always practiced primitive socialism. Didn’t Engels go on at great tedious length about this?”

Joe: “Not socialists; Marxists. By the way, whose turn is it to buy a round?”

Alan: “I think it’s Byron’s.”

Joe: “Byron isn’t here.”

Alan: “Slacker. Just like him to not be here when it’s his round.”

Glen: “Ah. They’re refilling the pretzel baskets.”

Peter: “Did you know pretzels were ennobled after the last siege of Vienna?”

Me: “I thought that was croissants.”

Alan: “I like croissants.”

Peter: “No. It was pretzels.”

Me: “That’s silly. Pretzels are dangerous. You could choke on a pretzel and die.”

Peter: “What kind of an idiot chokes on a pretzel?”

Alan: “I think croissants are one of the three best bread products ever.”

Joe: “ What are the other two?”

Me: “Tortilla chips.”

Glen: “Tortilla chips aren’t bread.”

Me: “How can you say that? To think, five minutes ago …”

Like that. The discussion needs to be as free ranging as a bug-fed chicken and about as serious.

Happy arguing.

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