[Marxism] Salon: Believe it or not: Karl Marx is making a comeback

Tristan Sloughter tristan.sloughter at gmail.com
Sun Jun 22 07:42:39 MDT 2014


Karl Marx is on fire right now. More than a century after his death, the
co-author of “The Communist Manifesto” still has the honor of being the
first smear against ideas slightly to the left of Hillary Clinton. (See:
Thomas Piketty.) Marx also graced the cover of the National Review as
recently ast last month. Few other thinkers, and certainly few
non-religious figures, can claim the honor of being so widely
misappropriated by the political rearguard. But, while most people
consider Marx only as a sort of intellectual boogeyman, the
manifestation of everything evil on the left, he has much to offer a
left increasingly divorced from the working class.

To that end, Marx actually is enjoying something of a renaissance on the
left these days. Jacobin, a socialist publication that publishes many
Marxist thinkers, was profiled by the the New York Times and boasts Bob
Herbert as a contributor. Benjamin Kunkel’s recent compilation of
essays, “Utopia or Bust,” earned that author a profile in New York
magazine, and the title “The Lena Dunham of Literature.” And that’s not
even to mention Thomas Piketty’s blockbuster work, “Capital in the 21st
Century,” which harkens back to Marx’s multi-volume magnum opus, “Das
Kapital.” The wave has even extended so far as Capitol Hill, where Sen.
Bernie Sanders, D- Vermont, openly calls himself a “democratic

Marx most certainly wasn’t right about everything, but he wasn’t wrong
about as much as people think. A revival of his thought is good news for
progressive America. It can give the left fresh arguments that were
previously forgotten to history, and new organizing strategies that
they’ve long since abandoned.

* * *

The first problem with the left that Marx might have noted is the
wholesale abandonment of the working class. As Perry Anderson points out
in his essay, “Considerations on Western Marxism,”

    The extreme difficulty of language of much of Western Marxism in the
    twentieth century was never controlled by the tension of a direct or
    active relationship to a proletarian audience.

Increasingly, the left is dominated by what the German Marxist Rosa
Luxemburg might call Kathedersozialisten – or “professorial socialists.”
These thinkers, frequently drenched in academese, talk and debate in a
way almost entirely designed to alienate anyone who does not already
accept their conclusions. The professorial left seems to have
innumerable answers for those wondering what Lacanian psychoanalysis has
to offer us, but can give us little guidance as to whether the Working
Families Party should support Cuomo or run its own candidate.

“Manifesto” co-author Friedrich Engels’s “The Condition of the Working
Class in England” was a pioneering study of the working class. He and
Marx both clearly saw the working class as the means to political power
— and viewed persuading them as the most important task the left faced.
When Maurice Lachatre asked Marx if he would be willing to serialize
“Das Kapital,” Marx replied, “In this form the book will be more
accessible to the working-class, a consideration which to me outweighs
everything else.” One struggles, however, to imagine a latter-day
Marxist champion like Theodor W. Adorno writing those words. The left
abandoned the working class and the working class then abandoned the
left. That needs to change.

Marx and Engels also offer the left a new way to discuss ideology. In
his brilliant collection, “The Agony of the American Left,” Marx(ish)
historian Christopher Lasch writes,

    The Marxian tradition of social thought has always attached great
    importance to the way in which class interest takes on the quality
    of objective reality… Lacking an awareness of the human capacity for
    collective self-deception, the populists tended to postulate
    conspiratorial explanations of history.

Lasch is arguing that, to a large extent, humans are biased toward the
state of affairs that currently exists and then work backwards to
justify it to themselves. That is, we’re more likely to embrace a deeply
unjust economic system, simply because it’s the one we’ve always known.
A recent study bears this out, finding that market competition serves to
psychologically legitimize inequalities that would otherwise be
considered unjust. Because many on the left, especially populists, do
not understand ideology, they often write and argue as though the entire
American political system is controlled by a small cabal of business or
political leaders conspiring to fool the masses.

The implications of ideology are important and numerous. The left must
not fall into the trap of believing that all Americans actually do share
our views, but that a conspiracy of the wealthy, or the power of GOP
framing, or the influence of money are preventing us from succeeding. To
some extent, these things may indeed harm the left, but widespread
ideology — the automatic assumption of capitalism’s unmitigated merit,
for example — is just as big a problem. We must win the war of ideas
before we can win the war of democracy.

The great Italian politician Antonio Gramsci was well aware of the lure
of such cabalistic conspiracies, but also of their limitations, and his
idea about cultural hegemony led him to advocate for educating the
working class. This task is difficult, but it will lead to more
substantial progress than simply explaining away failures by complaining
about the influence of the wealthy. The rich certainly have different
interests than the rest of us, but Gilens and Page note in an often
overlooked passage of their oft-cited paper on “American oligarchy,”

    The preferences of average citizens are positively and fairly highly
    correlated, across issues, with the preferences of economic elites.

Groups like the Chamber of Commerce and other business-oriented
organizations, on the other hand, have preferences that do not correlate
with the interests of the middle class. But even with that caveat, the
left should not overstate the extent to which Americans agree with the
leftist economic critique. In an apt description of the American
ideology, John Steinbeck noted, “Socialism never took root in America
because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as
temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

Finally, Marx’s moral critique of capitalism and markets has never been
fully comprehended or considered by anyone (other than the socialists,
of course) but the most ardent libertarians and a strain of thinkers
broadly called communitarians. Broadly speaking, Marx’s critique of
capitalism resembles the Catholic church’s critique: That by relying on
greed and self-interest, markets degrade humans and encourage our worst
impulses. Marx quotes Shakespeare’s “Timon of Athens”:

    This yellow slave

    Will knit and break religions, bless the accursed;

    Make the hoar leprosy adored, place thieves

    And give them title, knee and approbation

    With senators on the bench

Marx writes, riffing off of Shakespeare, “I  am bad, dishonest,
unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honoured and therefore so is its
possessors. Money is the supreme good, therefore its possessor is good.”
Jesus warned that the love of money is the root of all evil. This fact
seems self-evident. Religious critics of capitalism have noted this core
delusion for decades. Economist and Catholic E. F. Schumacher writes,

    Call a thing immoral or ugly, soul-destroying or a degradation to
    man, a peril to the peace of the world or to the well-being of
    future generations: as long as you have not shown it to be
    ‘uneconomic’ you have not really questioned its right to exist,
    grow, and prosper.

With the exception of libertarians, who have tried to turn the
immorality of capitalism into a sort of perverse morality (“greed is
good”), most politicians and economists are entirely unconcerned with
the fact that capitalism is based on a collective drawing upon our
deepest desire: to exploit.

The underlying logic of capitalism is that if we all take our most
primordial impulses and mix them up in the magical mechanism called
“markets,” we are left with progress. Recent history suggests we may be
left with only more ugliness. As G. A. Cohen writes, “the immediate
motive to productive activity in a market society is (not always but)
typically some mixture of greed and fear.” The participants in market
transactions are not interested in fulfilling human needs — they are
interested in making a profit. Fulfilling human needs is one way to make
a profit — exploitation, the creation of desire through advertising or
downright fraud are others. Human progress is an ancillary
consideration, individual profit is the goal. Today, speaking in moral
terms is not incredibly popular — inequality is seen not as a moral
issue in which a small class has a dangerous amount of power, but
instead as an inefficiency to be corrected with a technocratic policy. 

We don’t know for certain what Marx would say about the modern left. Its
radicals often foster a poisonous aversion to pragmatism in favor of
pious purity, its politicians are guilty of  wholesale abandonment of
the working class, and many of its leading thinkers have succumbed to a
dreadful technocratism. Marx failed to account for the adaptability of
capitalism and left little in the way of alternatives. In the end, this
void was filled by murderers and fools. Marx, a deeply humanistic
thinker, would certainly have abhorred the violence in his name some
half a century after his death. But rational people do not blame Christ
for the Crusades, nor Muhammad for 9/11 nor Nietzsche for the Holocaust.
The taboo of Marx has prevented the left from learning his most
important lesson; in the words of Gil Scott-Heron, “the revolution will
not be televised.”

Sean McElwee is a writer and researcher of public policy. His writing
may be viewed at seanamcelwee.com. Follow him on Twitter at

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