April 19, 2019
Google knows that I have an abiding interest in Marxism. Consequently, I receive frequent links to articles that Google’s algorithms select as popular or influential. Consistently, at the top of the list, are articles by or about the irrepressible Slavoj Žižek. Žižek has mastered the tricks of a public intellectual– entertaining, pompous, outrageous, calculatedly obscure, and mannered. The disheveled pose and the beard add to a near caricature of the European professor gifting the world with big ideas embedded deeply in layers of obscurantism– a sure-fire way to appear profound. And a sure-fire way to advance one’s commercial entertainment value.
Close followers of the “master” even post videos of Žižek devouring hot dogs– one in each hand! He is currently cashing in on a public debate with a right-wing gas-bag counterpart which reportedly brings in obscene prices for tickets. Marxism as entrepreneurship.
Žižek is one of the latest iterations of a long line of largely European academics who build modest public celebrity from an identification with Marxism or the Marxist tradition. From Sartre and existentialism through structuralism, postmodernism, post-essentialism, post-Fordism, and identarian politics, academics have appropriated pieces of the Marxist tradition and claimed to rethink that tradition, while keeping a measured, safe distance from any Marxist movement. They are Marxists when it brings an audience, but seldom answer the call to action.
The curious thing about this intellectual Marxism, this parlor, dilettante Marxism is that it is never all in; it is Marxism with grave reservations. Marxism is fine if it’s the “early” Marx, the “humanist” Marx, the “Hegelian” Marx, the Marx of the Grundrisse, the Marx without Engels, the Marx without the working class, the Marx before Bolshevism, or before Communism. Understandably, if you want to be the next big Marx-whisperer, you must separate yourself from the pack, you must rethink Marxism, rediscover the “real” Marx, locate where Marx got it wrong.
Previous generations of well-meaning, but class-befuddled university students have been seduced by “radical” thinkers who offer a taste of rebellion in a sexy academic package. Student book packs carried unread, but fashionable books by authors like Marcuse, Althusser, Lacan, Deleuze, Laclau, Mouffe, Foucault, Derrida, Negri, and Hardt– authors who shared common features of exotic, provocative book titles and impenetrable prose. Books that promised much, but delivered murk.
With a new generation of radically minded youth looking for alternatives to capitalism and curious about socialism, it is inevitable that many are looking toward Marx. And where do they turn?
A Yale professor unabashedly offers a handy primer, featured in the hip Jacobin Magazine, entitled How to be a Marxist. Professor Samuel Moyn is currently the Henry R. Luce Professor of Jurisprudence. Apparently, Moyn feels no unease with holding a chair endowed by one of the country’s most notorious anti-Communist, anti-Marxist publishers, while offering a guidebook to Marxism.
Moyn’s How to… presumption to guide the unknowing to Marxism is neither justified nor explained. Nonetheless, he feels confident to recommend two recently deceased academics, Moishe Postone and Erik Olin Wright (along with the still living Perry Anderson), as representing the last of “…the generation of great intellectuals whose 1960s experiences led them to adopt a lifework of recovering and reimagining Marxism.”
I confess that his choice of Moishe Postone had me baffled. Should I be embarrassed to say that I had never known Professor Postone’s work or known him to be a Marxist? When I found a YouTube interviewwith the esteemed Professor Postone, I quickly discovered that he emphatically and without reservation denies being a Marxist. Further, Postone contends that most of what we call Marxism was written by Frederick Engels. Postone concedes that Engels was “really a good guy,” but Engels never properly understood Marx. Postone, on the other hand, does. And his Marx does not “glorify” the industrial working class.
I am, however, familiar with the other alleged exemplar of a “great intellectual” devotion to Marxism, Erik Olin Wright. Wright was a long-standing, prominent member of the so-called “Analytic Marxism” school. Wright, like the other members of this intellectual movement, attempted to place Marxism on a “legitimate” foundation, where legitimacy was earned by subjecting Marxism to the rigors of conventional Anglo-American social science. The conceit that Anglo-American social science is without flaws or that it has nothing to learn from Marx’s method is never questioned with this clique. But to Wright’s credit, he struggled mightily to grasp the concept of social class.
In order “to save the Left from going down various cul-de-sacs again,” Professor Moyn offers the latest book of his “brilliant colleague,” Martin Hägglund. Moyn assures us that “This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom is an excellent place to start for those who want to energize the theory of socialism, or even build their own theory of a Marxist variant of it.”
It takes only a brief moment to see that Martin Hägglund and his admiring colleague are taking us down other cul-de-sacs, ones trod by many earlier generations. Hägglund’s journey would revisit existentialism, Hegel, and Christian traditions in search of the elusive “meaning of life.” Though many of us thought that Marx offered a profoundly informed analysis of social change and social justice, Moyn/Hägglund, following Postone, bring forward “the ultimate questions anyone must ask: what work should I do? How should I spend my finite time?” Accumulating capital contrasts, they submit, with “maximizing… each individual’s free time to spend as she pleases…”
Thus, the struggle for emancipation, in this rethinking of Marxism, is not the emancipation of the working class, but the wresting of freely disposable time from the grip of work. The professors concede that this struggle is far easier for academics than for “the wretched of the earth.”
“And finally,” Moyn concludes, “there is Hägglund’s proposal that Marxists can ditch communism — which in any event Marx described vaguely — in favor of democracy. It is not totally clear what Hägglund means by democracy, something which neither Marx himself nor many Marxists have chosen to pursue theoretically.” So Hägglund distills “Marxism” into a rejection of Communism and an embrace of a vague “democracy.” I would have to agree with Moyn: “Indeed, it is remarkable how little of what most people have thought Marxist theory was about make it into Hägglund’s …attempt to restart it for our time.” Apparently, the now revealed secret of becoming a Marxist is to discard Marx.
Like many self-proclaimed “Marxists” who came before Postone, Hägglund, and Moyn, their intent seems to be to defang Marxism more than it is promote it.
The naked truth is that Marxism– from the time of Marx’s censorship and multiple expulsions from different countries– is a dangerous idea. Marx’s inability to secure academic appointments and his constant surveillance and harassment by authorities proved to be a harbinger of the fate of nearly all authentic Marxist intellectuals. Capitalism does not endow those who advocate the undoing of capitalism with academic honor or celebrity. And those “Marxists” who do rise to academic acclaim, who get lucrative book deals, who enjoy media exposure, seldom present much of a threat to the system.
It is a telling fact that, though history has produced many “organic” Marxists, Marxists with roots in the working class and in movements challenging capitalism, their contributions seldom populate the bibliographies of university professors, unless to deride. University employment is rarely available to purveyors of dangerous ideas or the advocacy of a version of Marx that calls for revolutionary change.
A Marxist historian like the late Herbert Aptheker, who did more than any other intellectual to challenge the twisted Birth of a Nation/Gone With The Wind depiction of the benign South and its heroic defense of a noble way of life, could not find work in US universities. Indeed, it took a free speech movement to get him to be permitted to speak at all on US campuses. His books have disappeared from circulation and few students of African American history are exposed to his contributions.
No one has created a history of the US labor movement to rival the late Marxist Phillip Foner’s 10-volume History of the Labor Movement in the US. Foner’s 5-volume The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass reestablished Douglass as a preeminent figure in the abolition of slavery in the US. An historically Black university, Lincoln University, courageously hired Foner after years of blacklisting. Sadly, today, his works are largely ignored in fields where he pioneered.
The serious contributions of many other US Marxist intellectuals can be found in back issues of publications like Science and Society, Political Affairs, Masses, Masses and Mainstream, and Freedomways resting on out-of-the-way library shelves gathering dust, diminished by McCarthyism, blacklists, scholarly cowardice, and blatant anti-Communism.
The doors and public discourse of the academy and the mass media have equally been shut to working class Marxists (unless they renounce their views!). Despite his leading of working class movements and his writing prolifically, Marxist William Z. Foster’s works on organizing, labor strategy and tactics, and political economy are largely forgotten, unless they reappear as someone else’s thinking. Other key Marxist figures responsible for and interpreting some of labor’s finest moments such as Len De Caux and Wyndham Mortimer are denied membership in the club.
Similarly, Marxist pioneers in the Black and women’s equality movements like Benjamin Davis, William Patterson, and Claudia Jones are neither hailed as such nor offered as examples of “How to be a Marxist.”
What these Marxists all share is an activist political life in the US Communist Party, a proud badge, but one denigrated by most US intellectuals.
The best writing of the venerable Monthly Review magazine suffers the same marginalization. Its founders were threatening enough to be victimized by the Red scare. And co-founder Paul Sweezy, a serious Marxist political economist, never was enthusiastically welcomed into academic circles.
Today, Michael Parenti is the most dangerous Marxist intellectual in the US. I know this because despite countless books, videos, and speaking engagements, despite an uncompromising commitment to a Marxist interpretation of history and current events, despite a profound, but reasoned hatred of capitalism, and despite an admirably approachable style and manner with big ideas, he is otherwise unemployed by universities and denied access to all but the most left or marginal media.
Another impressive US Marxist scholar, Gerald Horne, though enjoying academic tenure, deserves to be studied by every “leftist” in the US for the integrity, accessibility, and quality of his work.
Authentic Marxism, as opposed to fashionable, trendy, or faddish Marxism, is relentless, aggressive, and inspiring of action. It diligently dissects the inner workings of the capitalist system. It is ruthless and unsparing in its rejection of capitalism. It challenges conventional thinking, making few friends in the capitalist press and rocking the gentility and collegiality of the staid liberalism of the academy. Marxism is not a career move, but a thankless commitment.
Real Marxists are necessarily outliers. Until the conditions for revolutionary changes ripen, they are often subjected to skepticism, disinterest, even derision and hostility. Marxist poseurs are allergic to political organizations, activism, and intellectual risk, while committed Marxists are compelled to seek and join movements for change; they are driven to serve Marx’s oft-quoted, seldom heeded eleventh thesis on Feurbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”