Sunday, June 22, 2014

The continuing return of "Marx"

Sean McElwee in Believe it or not: Karl Marx is making a comeback Salon 06/22/2014 jumps on the bandwagon of using the image of Karl Marx as a symbol of a recognition that neoliberal capitalism isn't the End of History or a democratic utopia.

McElwee's piece also shares the weaknesses of much of the recent popular commentary on the subject. He talks about "the left" without any clear point of reference for the reader of just who that might be. Especially for American readers, it's an awfully vague term. And he toggles back and forth in a short column between Grand Theory and political tactics. For example:

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. ...

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." [my emphasis]
Is this hipster Marxism? Hipster commentary on Marxism?

If "the left" is defined to be whatever group out there recognizes the leadership of "professional socialists" (?!), it's a tiny group for sure!

Okay, there's only so much you can say in a few paragraphs, so you have to use some shortcuts to describes the contours of what a symbol like "Karl Marx" can mean.

Here are a few guidelines I use in thinking about the image of Marx functions in political imagery in the US right now.

Karl Marx's political economy presented the classical criticism of capitalism, just as Adam Smith presented the classical advocacy for capitalism.

Both Smith and Marx are relevant to the capitalism of 2014 - as well as David Ricardo, Alfred Marshall, John Maynard Keynes and any number of other important economists, including living contemporaries like Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz. I recently read Smith's An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776) for the first time. Being something of a finance geek, I actually found it interesting to learn something about 18th-century markets in corn and wool. I made a point of first reading his earlier book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). Because I wanted to understand something about his broader perspective as a moral philosopher and an important figure in what is known as the Scottish Enlightenment.

I was surprised to see that the entry for Adam Smith in the ever-respectable Encyclopædia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite 2012 is by the late left-leaning economist Robert Heilbroner, who writes:

Smith saw humans as creatures driven by passions and at the same time self-regulated by their ability to reason and — no less important — by their capacity for sympathy. This duality serves both to pit individuals against one another and to provide them with the rational and moral faculties to create institutions by which the internecine struggle can be mitigated and even turned to the common good. He wrote in his Moral Sentiments the famous observation that he was to repeat later in The Wealth of Nations: that self-seeking men are often "led by an invisible hand ... without knowing it, without intending it, [to] advance the interest of the society."

It should be noted that scholars have long debated whether Moral Sentiments complemented or was in conflict with The Wealth of Nations. At one level there is a seeming clash between the theme of social morality contained in the first and the largely amoral explication of the economic system in the second. On the other hand, the first book can also be seen as an explanation of the manner in which individuals are socialized to become the market-oriented and class-bound actors that set the economic system into motion.

Do I really need to say that an 18th-century Scottish writer doesn't offer any immediate insights into tactical considerations for New York State politics in 2014?

Like Smith's laissez faire economics, Marx's economics were part of a larger philosophy which had a major influence in the world.

It's fun for modern economists to pick out quotes from Smith's political economy, which was based on a larger psychology and moral philosophy, to make a point against some aspect of present-day capitalism driven by amoral profit considerations that are sometimes blatantly damaging to the public good.

But Marx had the fortune - whether more good or bad fortune is a matter for debate - of seeing his own doctrine enshrined as dogma by the Communist political movements of the 20th century, which included numerous governing parties. This contributed greatly to a proliferation of Marxisms that was already going on before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. To name a few: revolutionary Social Democracy, Revisionist Social Democracy, Marxism-Leninism, Stalinism (a variety of Marxism-Leninism), Maoism (aka, Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought), Titoism, Trotskyism, Eurocommunism, Castroism, Guevarism.

John Kenneth Galbraith wrote in The Age of Uncertainty (1977):

The massive dissent [against capitalism] originated with Karl Marx. In considerable measure he used the ideas of Ricardo to assail the economic system which Ricardo interpreted and described. I've used the word massive to describe his onslaught. If we agree that the Bible is a work of collective authorship, only Mohammed rivals Marx in the number of professed and devoted followers recruited by a single author. And the competition is not really very close. The followers of Marx now far outnumber the sons of the Prophet.
(I'm not sure the numerical comparison with followers of the Prophet still holds in 2014.)

Not only are there many Marxisms, each of them has their own "Karl Marx."

As the study of any famous philosopher, scientist or historical figure shows, getting to the "real" perspective of the individual is a matter of interpreting the available data. And serious researchers can come up with notably different interpretations of what the person "really" meant by this or that.

When a person becomes a symbol incorporated into official dogma, that problem is magnified. In the case of Karl Marx, by several orders of magnitude. When the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China split in the late 1950s, to take just one example, they carried out an extensive polemic over the history of the socialist movement, both sides taking Karl Marx as something like an authoritative guide on all questions involved. Pick pretty much any party or sect that defined itself as Marxist and was large and long-lasting enough to have splits and factions, and you'll find that they frequently justified their differences with highfalutin Marxist theoretical justifications.

So, when we're talking about Marxism, not only are there many varieties we could be talking about. All of them had some effect on how the life  and thought of the real existing Karl Marx of 1818-1883 was viewed.

Marx himself was a materialist philosopher and Marxist politics took place - and continue to do so - in the material world.

Marx had a philosophy of history that held social development to be driven by class struggle. If we accept the reading of his close collaborator Friedrich Engels in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884) as part of the original Marxist perspective, it also assumed that the dynamic of sex roles played an equally important part.

Marx had a theory of political economy that he described in the three volumes of Capital (the last two edited by Engels and published after Marx' death), and in other shorter works. It describes the development and function of capitalism, including the system's tendency to periodic crises, which we know today as recessions and depressions.

Marx was also a key political leader in the social democratic movement in Europe. Part of that leadership role came in the form of extensive commentary on political issues of the day, in which he looked carefully at the role of particular players and the contingencies of the moment.

Each of those aspects of Marx' thought and heritage need to be evaluated differently. That's why it's a little silly to dismiss the handful of academics consciously working in a Marxist tradition in the Western world that are well-known enough to be considered public intellectuals on the grounds that their most theoretical formulations don't tell you exactly what's best to do in a particular political decision in this year, this state, and this week. Knowing the science of internal combustion engines doesn't tell you how to tune up the engine on a '57 Chevy. Nor does it give you the skills to be a champion drag racer. But obviously without the science behind it, there wouldn't be Chevy engines to tune or drag races to be run. At least not with automobiles using internal combustion engines.

Politics is politics, as Joe Stalin famously said, not long before he signed a Non-Aggression Pact with Hitler Germany.

Politics is about grand visions. It's also about transient issues of the day. And about constituent service. And about "bringing home the bacon," however much the Tea Party may claim to reject "pork barrel" politics.

The parties in the West today that most directly draw from a Marxist tradition would be those like the Left Party in Germany, which is in part the direct organizational heir of the East German ruling Communist Party. But you don't see them promoting themselves with banners like this one from the German SDS youth group of the 1960s:

"Everyone talks about the weather. Not us."

Those faces would be Marx, Engels and Lenin.

The Left Party in Germany engages with the issues of the day. And, like all parties, they have to be able to show enough success in elections and enough ability to satisfy their constituents in terms of immediate representation and service to keep winning votes. Whether they represent some true Marxist tradition is a matter of judgment. And of polemics, of course, since their opponents are happy to stigmatize them with the old and not-much-lamented East German Communist state. The old symbols that were intensely evocative in the 1910s or 1920s are, not surprisingly, no longer so.

Except in a limited nostalgic role. I'm kind of fond of the Rote Riese (Red Giant) myself:

But like most brands, whether it's the Rote Riese or the Jolly Green Giant, his appeal wasn't forever. Whether some of the strategic perspectives or historical and economic assumptions of the Social Democratic and Communist parties that made use of the Rote Riese's image still have something useful to say to people today is another question.

As William Faulkner didn't quite say: The Cold War is never dead. It's not even past.

The actual quote is from a Faulkner character, Gavin Stevens, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." (Requiem for a Nun [1951], Act 1, Scene 3.)

Cold War polemics spawned a whole set of stigmas and taboos attached to Marxism. Marxism still has the virtue and defect of being on the margins of respectability. Those intellectuals McElwee mocks still find themselves these days tippie-toeing around anything to do with Marx or Marxism. And, as often as not, they seem to be stuck in the Western Cold War role of highlighting the (real and alleged) failures of Marxism. (See "Žižek, Slavoj," although he's so over-the-top in trying to sound counter-intuitive that it's hard to tell how serious he actually is.)

There's always a market for trashing Marx and Marxism. Hipster-wise, or not. Most of what is produced in that vein is pretty boring. And usually lazy.

Why do I say it's also a virtue for Marxism to be on the margins of respectability? Because it still has the transgressive appeal that the German SDS poster above invokes. And if you're trying to shake up tired ideas about conventional wisdom, a little transgressive appeal is usually required. Žižek is one who tries to combine the "transgressive" thing with Cold War respectability, which makes for an awkward mix.

Karl Marx was a man of the 19th century.

Like Adam Smith, his work can still inform us about enduring aspect of our own current situation. But if we're looking at Marx as a philosopher, economist and politician, he does need to be understood in reference to the concrete historical situation in which he lived. (Does saying that make me an "essentialist"? I wouldn't say so, but opinions may differ.)

Sam Gindin, who apparently comes out of the Canadian social-democratic tradition, makes a similar point in Unmaking Global Capitalism Jacobin June 2014:

In terms of the impact of historical defeats, it's worth noting that in the wake of the 1848 revolutions Marx's emphasis on changing the world and not just interpreting it underwent a reversal. Marx was too optimistic about the potential of 1848, and those disappointments led him to return to the importance of understanding the world as a condition for changing it. This search for a historical materialist understanding dominated the rest of his life. In light of our own defeats, it is likewise crucial for us to learn more deeply about the nature of the world we confront.
While Gindin is right about Marx giving high priority to understanding the world realistically, it's misleading to assume that he didn't prioritize changing the world in the direction he thought it needed to go. He was very much politically engaged to the end of his life and highly focused on the actual movements, parties and events that were actually pushing for the kinds of changes he wanted.

For a more substantive current look at Marx's own theoretical heritage, see Nancy Fraser's Behind Marx's Hidden Abode New Left Review 86/March-April 2014. Warning: it does not discuss Andrew Cuomo's current political situation!

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