Wednesday, April 10, 2013

"Karl Marx" in 2013

Every now and then I'm tempted to post something about Karl Marx, just for the heck of it.

But it's always a bit tricky. Because he's still a polarizing image more than two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. And those who supposedly are drawing directly on his tradition go all different directions with his legacy.

But, hey, if Jerry Brown can quote the old boy to the Financial Times, I can do a blog post about him (The governor of California talks about taxes, Mother Teresa and being back in charge 04/05/2013):

In those intervening years [Brown] studied Zen Buddhism in Japan, worked for Mother Teresa in Calcutta and ran for president for a third and final time when he took on Bill Clinton in the 1992 primary race for the Democratic nomination. He was elected mayor of Oakland, on the other side of the bay from San Francisco, and then state attorney-general. And now he is back in his old office – an office which was used by his father before him and, from 1967 to 1975, one Ronald Reagan when he was California governor. I ask Brown if his improbable return disproves F. Scott Fitzgerald’s line about there being no second acts in American lives and he mentions Karl Marx’s maxim about history repeating itself – first as tragedy, then as farce. "Except now I’m thoroughly enjoying it," he says. "Much more than the first time."
So let's just pretend here that I inserted a couple of long paragraphs and the split between Social Democrats and Communists, about how things have changed a lot sense the 19th century, about how theories of revolution and social change more or less stemming from Marx multiplied over the decades, how we've learned a lot from the fall of the Soviet Union and the evolution of China, and something about Cuba, and how it's all very complicated and nothing about real history resembles the crazed rambling of Glenn Beck. Also about how weird I think Slavoj Žižek is.

And so I'll move on to what I wanted to post about, which is this article by Terry Eagleton, author of Why Marx Was Right, in Harper's Apr 2103, called The Revolutionary: Is Marx still relevant?, a review/discussion of Jonathan Sperber's new book Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life (2013).

Since Marx is considered one of the great economists of history, even if grudgingly, along with Adam Smith, David Ricardo and John Maynard Keynes - feel free to add a couple of your own favorites - as well as an important political theorist and philosopher of history, we can usually consider ourselves lucky if we get anything more than cringe-worthy stuff in a popular article, even from a noted scholar like Eagleton. Like this, in Eagleton's article: "Sigmund Freud, no friend of Marxism, held that without the necessity to labor, men and women would just spend their days in various interesting postures of erotic gratifi cation. It was the need for material survival that spurred them to forsake the pleasure principle for their banks and cotton mills."

I wish he had footnoted which of Marx' books was about how without being forced to work, we'd all be boinking all the time. In fact, I've read quite a bit of Freud and I don't really recall his saying that exactly. Hey, it sounds like a nice fantasy to me, but it's more Wilhelm Reich than Freud. Freud was was more of a mind that love and work were the two main sources of human satisfaction. If he had been around cats more, he might have added them to the list.

But I don't think Freud was averse to any realistic and humane social arrangement that would have reduced the amount of work required for the physical support of our bodies, a key concern of Marx. Also the topic of Keynes' famous essay, Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren (1930), which is still an important but much-neglected document here 80+ years on.

Eagleton continues, "Communism for Marx was a kind of political love." Ouch! Are we talking about the German Social Democratic leader Karl Marx or some third-rank Romantic philosopher of the same name?

In fact, he even says, "He was a Romantic humanist with a passion for the sensuously specifi c." I guess Marx is so little generally known, and there isn't the academic industry there once was in publishing scholarly refutations of his theories, that lots of people can read this without blinking. In the world of German philosophy in which Marx was immersed and from which his theories emerged, he was definitely not part of the Romantic tradition of Schelling, the Schlegel brothers and Schleiermacher. There was certainly an element of his thought that was humanistic in the vague sense we use it today. But to Kant and Hegel, to whom he was far closer in time and thought than to the general popular assumptions of today, "humanism" meant dogmatic Catholic medieval theology.

It gets dumber, including (of course!) some pop psychology speculation about Marx' love life and that of his patron and collaborator Friedrich Engels. It's the kind of stuff that would be entertaining to cynical frat-boys and their older counterparts.

So this is a good place to insert this video that I recently found on YouTube of "Karl Marx The Massive Dissent" which is Episode 3 of The Age of Uncertainty, the 1977 TV documentary by John Kenneth Galbraith, the companion volume to which I quote fairly often here.

It's not often that I grump about Galbraith's presentations, but when he talks about Hegel starting at around 10:00, he uses a common but incorrect model (thesis-synthesis-antithesis) of Hegel's dialectic. That triad works for the dialectical elements of Kant's thought, but not for Hegel. Hegel worked from a model of the contradictions of opposite which were in the process of development ablated, the English word usually used for the German Aufheben, which means preserved, cancelled and lifted up to a higher level. It doesn't through Galbraith's presentation much off course, but its a chronic irritant for Hegel fans.

Karl Marx in the dramatization there looks a lot like Liam Neeson.

Despite my Hegel gripe, Galbraith's 56 minutes there is orders of magnitude more informative than Terry Anderson's article. Skipping over the rest of the frat-boy cracks, Anderson does get around to making a couple of points about what he sees as two "strikingly original contributions to human thought":

[He broke] with much previous philosophy by viewing individuals primarily as practical agents. ... What would the human narrative look like, he asked himself, if we were to start from men and women not as contemplative spirits but as self-determining individuals who create a history in common, and who need to do so because of the nature of their bodies? Is there a way of getting from the body's needs and capabilities to politics, ethics, and culture? It is not certain that there is; but to imagine so is a vastly exciting enterprise, one that Marx launched at a disgracefully precocious age in his Paris manuscripts and then more or less abandoned under pressure of his economic inquiries.

Marx’s other original move was to identify capitalism as a specific historical system, powered by its own peculiar laws.
Like many before him, Anderson seems to have constructed his own "Marx." It's fashionable in academia these days to talk about bodies in spaces. It has something to do with French literary theories that are derived in some way from some variety of existentialism. But Marx' intellectual project wasn't about updating Kant's observations in his Third Critique about the mutual relationship of humanity to Nature. Marx wasn't even especially interested in the question formulated that way. He was elaborate what he saw as laws of history and social development, not the "exciting enterprise" of imagining "getting from the body's needs and capabilities to politics, ethics, and culture." My head hurts.

And, yes, Marx did describe capitalism systematically in a way that influenced the course of economic and social thought, even among those who despised him and his goals. And, yes, he did embarrassing the system and its defenders by "throwing the workings of the system into stark relief" and disclosing "the disagreeable truth that the system represents one particular way of doing things among a range of other possibilities."

But his more specific thoughts on economics Anderson dismisses here as "some rather esoteric reflections on the forces and relations of production." Then he explains, "Marx may have shown the limits of the capitalist system, but he was by no means a fanatical opponent of it." In fact, the head of the International Workingmen's Association and co-author of The Communist Manifesto took an "admiring view" of capitalism! My head hurts worse. What is this, Marx as an inspirational figure for the Business Roundtable?

If you want clever academic parlor chat about Marx that doesn't particularly worry about, you know, actual history and stuff, Anderson's article is a good quick read. If you actually want to know something about the subject and the man then, like I said, the Galbraith documentary is orders of magnitude more informative.

Picking the relatively serious stuff out of Anderson's piece is an effort. But this one last bit is worth commenting on:

There are those who speak of democratic socialism, but this in Marx’s eyes was a tautology. For Marx, nondemocratic socialism was a contradiction in terms, rather like the phrase "business ethics." Socialism was a matter of taking democracy seriously in everyday life, rather than coming it to a purely formal, governmental set of procedures. Human beings might misuse their freedom in this respect, but they were not fully human without it.
Yikes! Contrasting "taking democracy seriously in everyday life" to "confining it to a purely formal, governmental set of procedures" actually makes some immediate sense in 2013, when apathy, passivity and de-politicization are chronic issues in the context of functioning mass democracies.

But it's a painful anachronism to read those things back into Marx' life and the Social Democratic struggles of which he was a part. As Galbraith's documentary reminds us, Marx himself was dogged for much of his life by Prussian spies. The leading German Social Democratic Party (SPD) was outlawed under Bismarck's Anti-Socialist Law of 1878-1888. So the SPD, which operated under a program acceptable to Marx, certainly had to take democracy - specifically the fight for democracy, for a "formal, governmental set of procedures" incorporating democracy - very seriously in their everyday lives. As did Marx himself.

One of the great issues between the Social Democrats and the Communists, the description of which I asked everyone to imagine I gave at the start of this post, was what was meant by democracy. And this is worth more comment than Anderson's frat-boy sharing permitted him in Harper's. What the Social Democrats in Germany and the rest of Europe were fighting for was parliamentary democracy. In Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and most of Europe, parliamentary institutions were either non-existent or a sham. Suffrage was very limited and structured on a class basis in Germany. One-man one-vote was a radical democratic goal in the 19th century, and one-person one-vote even more so. The SPD in Germany and the SPÖ in Austria were the primary parties pushing for democracy, the "formal, governmental set of procedures."

This is a 1920 national election poster by Mihály Biró for the Austrian Social Democrats, featuring Biró's Der Rote Riese (The Red Giant), which became a popular and familiar figure symbolizing the left. The slogan on the poster say, "Against the Unity Front of Capitalism - the United Front of the Working People! Vote Social Democratic"

But Marx and the Social Democrats also were working off a model of revolution largely based in images of the French Revolution of 1789. They preferred to take power non-violently and working worked hard to do so. But they were also aware that revolutions happened in a non-peaceful way, as well. They viewed capitalism as a class dictatorship and they assumed that the capitalist and aristocrats aligned with them against the workers were not attached to democracy nor deeply committed to legal and peaceful means of maintaining their rule. And they were, of course, correct in that assumption.

Which brings us to the Paris Commune of 1871, a violent uprising in France that was violently suppressed by the government with the connivance of Prussian troops that had just beaten them in the Franco-Prussian War; it's discussed from about 48:00 in the Galbraith video. Marx defended the revolt and praised it as a "dictatorship of the proletariat." (Proletariat means "working class"; why the German word was taken over in radical theory to English as it was, I've never known.) Lenin and the Russian Communists took that concept and applied it in the way that made it familiar in its current meaning, which was very different from the parliamentary goals that the Social Democrats continued to follow after 1917.

Since both trends claimed to be heirs to the Marxist heritage, one big question about Marx was which of the two major trends would he have supported, if either. It's genuinely difficult to say. On the one hand, the Social Democrats fought to establish parliamentary democracy and worked through it. In the language of Marx, a popular government devoted to the socialist program supported by a majority in advanced industrial countries like England, France or Germany would be a dictatorship of the working class because in his conception, the state was an instrument of class rule. But the Social Democrats of Marx' lifetime also envisioned that even a seizure of power in the eventuality of an uprising would have to be validated in a democratic process with a "formal, governmental set of procedures." On the other hand, as a student of revolution he certainly knew that a revolutionary party that had just seized power might have to practice some form of emergency rule for a period of time.

The events after the Second World War that brought the enduring Social Democratic/Communist split were not ones that Marx expected in that form. The Social Democrats accepted an invitation from the Imperial government in 1918 to form a new government to replace the de facto military dictatorship that was then running Germany. The Bolshevik government seized power in Russia, a country in which peasants were a majority and the working class a distinct minority.

One thing that was clear about Marx and the Social Democrats of his time who followed his lead is that they favored the radical democratic idea of a unitary government by the parliamentary body. A Madison/Montesquieu notion of separation of powers was not their vision. But the rhetoric of democracy persisted for both Social Democrats and Communists. Mikhail Gorbachev understood himself to be a committed Communist when he tried unsuccessfully to put the Soviet Union on track to establish an elected government that would formally have been more in the social-democratic tradition. Social Democrats in Germany, France and Spain today don't understand themselves as working directly in the Marxist tradition but they do consider themselves democrats even while they embrace the brutal austerity politics demanded by German Chancellor Angela "Frau Fritz" Merkel that damage their own base voters and directly dis-empower the working class and the democratic majority.

The 19th century was a long time ago.

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