Marxist-Humanist Initiative (MHI) has learned that Brill, the company that publishes the Historical Materialism journal and a related book series, has started to investigate whether an article recently published in Historical Materialism should be retracted because its publication violated publication ethics. After first saying that “this situation isn’t grounds for retraction,” Brill now has decided that investigation is warranted. We welcome the investigation.
In late January, Andrew Kliman requested that Historical Materialism and Brill retract the offending article. In an essay, “Value, Price & Prattle: A Response to Lopes, Byron, and Historical Materialism,” published in With Sober Senses, MHI’s online publication, he wrote:
[B]y documenting the paper’s serious errors and misrepresentations, I am providing the evidence and arguments needed to support the request, which I hereby make, that the editors and publisher of Historical Materialism retract the paper. They are the ones who bear ultimate responsibility here. Anyone can have thoughts that are not ready for prime time. It takes a “scholarly” journal to turn such thoughts into a “scholarly contribution” that has been peer-reviewed and deemed worthy of publication.
This request was rejected by the editors of Historical Materialism and, initially, by Brill as well.
However, the request for retraction continued. Kliman spoke about his essay and the issues at stake in an episode of the MHI-sponsored podcast Radio Free Humanity. In “Historical Materialism Doubles Down on its Embrace of Untruth,” he also discussed Historical Materialism’s dismissal of the request for retraction, and its offer to “consider” carrying a response to the Lopes & Byron article on its website. With Sober Senses published four open letters on the issue by Seth Morris, Vann Seawell, Gabriel Donnelly, and Ralph Keller. Keller included a fact sheet detailing inaccuracies in the original Lopes & Byron article. The four open letter writers spoke out on a subsequent episode of Radio Free Humanity. Kliman later published an open letter to Brill after it, too, rejected the request for retraction.
If you missed any of this—if you are only now clicking on links and digging through the material that MHI has produced on this issue—you’ll see that the calls for retraction have always been about more than just one faulty article replete with misrepresentations and untruths. Historical Materialism published an article replete with errors that its reviewers and editors did not catch—either because they genuinely missed the errors, or because they did not care to remove them. This is why the offer to “consider” carrying a response from Kliman on Historical Materialism’s website could not be accepted: it was an insulting poison-pill offer that avoided the entire crux of the issue.
The crux of the issue is that, in some cases, a dispute is not a mere “difference of opinion”; there is truth and there is error. This is such a case. The efforts to win a retraction of the Historical Materialism article are about standing up for truth. The journal’s effort to characterize this dispute as a difference of opinion, and its willingness to let misrepresentations and inaccuracies go uncorrected, are signs of philosophical retrogression: a disregard for truth.
The fact that Brill is now investigating the retraction request is thus an important victory in the fight for truth. It signals that Brill recognizes that the dispute may not be a mere difference of opinion; that Historical Materialism may have published what the industry calls “[u]nreliable content”—an article that “contain[s] such seriously flawed or erroneous content … that [its] findings and conclusions cannot be relied upon”; and that retraction of the article may be warranted if it did so.
By opening an investigation, Brill is thus affirming crucial principles of truth-seeking and scholarship. Affirmation of these principles is welcome and important.
We find it significant that Brill says that it will consult with disinterested advisors, independent of Historical Materialism, after first having said that Historical Materialism editors “will be central to any discussions/solutions.” We welcome the involvement of disinterested persons. Historical Materialism isn’t capable of serving as the judge of itself.
We hope that this fight, and this effort to draw a line in the sand for truth, can trigger a turning point on the left. To make it a turning point, what is required is that you—everyone reading this—not be afraid to demand accountability and stand up for truth as well.