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Vale James O’Connor

by Stuart Rosewarne on December 15, 2017

James Richard O’Connor (Apr 20, 1930 – Nov 12, 2017)

The passing of James O’Connor marks a significant moment in the history of Marxist scholarship and politics. Born in 1930 and growing up in Boston, a short stint in the merchant marine introduced him to a world beyond the oppressive cultural and political environment of Cold War America. This aroused his interest in a more critical engagement in understanding the world beyond capitalist America. He completed studies in economics and sociology before working on a doctoral thesis exploring the forces that had resulted in the Cuban revolution, a study, which was subsequently published under the title of The Origin of Socialism in Cuba in 1970

This set him on the path as a warrior, along with others such as Joel Kovel, as a radical in the face of the cultural wars that were unfolding with the civil rights movement, feminism and student movements. He joined an emerging group of young intellectuals interested in drawing on the writings of Marx and other radicals intent on critiquing capitalist hegemony. He was intent on reinvigorating debate within Marxism and investigating established interpretations of this tradition to forge an invigorated Marxist analysis of capitalism, first publishing a series of reflections that contributed to exposing the nature of American imperialism and the unfolding contradictions with global capitalism.

After some teaching positions on the east coast, Jim took up academic positions in San Francisco where he joined a cohort of other radical thinkers in the early 1970s, and where he began to really make his mark on radical thinking and politics and particularly Marxist discourse. His particular focus concentrated on interrogating the role of the state in contemporary capitalism, and he drew together similar thinking colleagues to debate and develop critique. He led the way in setting up the journal Kapitalistate in 1973. The journal brought together comrades from the San Francisco Bay Area and from across North America and the world, including Italy, Germany and the U.K. His own thinking was developed in The Fiscal Crisis of the State, a pathbreaking analysis of the fundamental contradictions inherent in the role of the state’s inability to reconcile all of the claims for resources being made on the state. The Fiscal Crisis firmly established his standing as one of the foremost Marxist critics of the era.

The originality of The Fiscal Crisis lay in the innovative approach to drawing on Marxian categories to rethink how we should analyse the state. This capacity to revisit Marx’s concerns was also demonstrated in subsequent publications that concentrated on the multiple crises of capitalism, with the publication of Accumulation Crisis in 1986, followed by The Meaning of Crisis in 1987.

Settled in Santa Cruz at UCSC, and drawing on Barbara Laurence’s enthusiasm for protecting the red wood forests on the Californian coast, Jim turned his attention to the environmental destruction being wrought by the capitalist system. Indicative of his longstanding efforts to encourage others to join in and develop critiques of contemporary capitalism, he, Barbara and others, fostered a coterie of graduate students to contribute to this developing critique. He reconnected many of his old comrades to focus on the environmental question and established the journal Capitalism Nature Socialism as a global enterprise and the Center for Political Ecology.

Once again, Jim returned to exploring ways of creatively building on Marxian categories to reformulate how we might go about interrogating capitalism’s destructive force. Incorporating insights from Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, Jim posited the notion of ‘the Second Contradiction’ of capitalism, the inherent tendency for the process of capital accumulation to undermine the natural (environmental) conditions of its existence.  This concept contributed, if not spearheaded, a dramatic engagement of Marxists and other radicals in recasting their critical focus on the environment.

The formulation of ‘the Second Contradiction’ was posed in opposition to the shift in radical discourse that had been influenced by post-structuralist thought and which had jettisoned Marxist theory to privilege the place of social forces, other than class. Jim was determined to re-establish the import of the working class in the forging of a progressive politics, and this prompted some intense and often acrimonious debate, not always confined to the battle for intellectual primacy in understanding the force of social struggle. But the significance of the notion of ‘the Second Contradiction’ lies in the extent to which it has become a foundation, or reference point, for the extraordinary growth in radical analysis of the array of environmental problems across the globe.

Jim will be remembered by friends and foes alike, as well as those who he encouraged to join the cause, as an iconic figure in our efforts over the last fifty or so years to rebuild the force of radical discourse and to take control of our political future. Over the last decade or more, he was working on extending this project by developing a critique of the many contradictions embedded in the processes of globalisation and neoliberalism, a project that remained frustrated by ill-health. However, he leaves behind a remarkable legacy that will continue to frame and inform radical analyses of capitalism’s many contradictions well into the future.

Other tributes to James O’Connor are being collected by the Center for Political Ecology.

Cover photo: James O’Connor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1978, by Carol Foote.

Stuart Rosewarne
Stuart Rosewarne’s research and teaching interests are in environmental and ecological economics, critical socialist ecology, international political economy, and the political economy of gender.

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