Friday, May 4, 2018

Karl Marx at 200

Karl Marx (1818-1883) would have been 200 tomorrow (May 5). And, if his side hadn't so spectacularly lost the Cold War, his bicentennial might be getting much more notice around the world right now. After all, for some 70+ years of the 20th century much of the population of what, until 1917, had been the Russian Empire was held in bondage by a totalitarian government that at least formally swore allegiance to Marx's ideas. After World War II, more nations and peoples were added to those ruled by supposed disciples of Marx and believers in his theories, while Marxist parties played a profoundly powerful part in the politics of major Western countries like France and Italy.. But, whatever remaining influence he still has in rarefied intellectual circles, Marx now no longer holds serious sway over governments and politics.

But Marx (or at least certain versions of Marxism) remained very much in vogue when I was in college and then graduate school in the 1960s and 1970s. In college, I studied Marxist Critical Theory with an old German socialist, whose “New Trends in Marxism” seminar first exposed me to the Frankfurt School and other contemporary “New Left” and psychoanalytic appropriations of Marxism. I studied Ancient and Modern Political Theory with the author of All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: and Adventures in Marxism. Along with so many in my generation I was wrestling, both personally and politically, with the question of what could, would, and should a meaningful and fulfilling life look like, now that modernity had at last made it possible to imagine a world in which we could all aspire to a “good” rather than a “mere” life. For the pre-modern Aristotle, that had been impossible except for a small population of citizens. So it seemed obvious to me that a major part of Marx’s modern appeal was precisely in how he could envision that possibility of a thoroughly revolutionized, post-“pre-history,” human history.

For historical reasons, we read The Communist Manifesto and at least parts of Das Kapital. But what really engaged us was the "early" Marx, notably his so-called Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. We talked endlessly about Entfremdung ("alienation"), and we actually argued about whether Ludwig Feuerbach's "explanation" of religion in Das Wesen des Crhistentums ("The Essence of Christianity") really solved the "problem" of religion once and for all. And the Marxist idea that "the relations of production" should be determinative for the cultural "superstructure" of which religion was notably a part, was still surprisingly alive and well. I remember one classmate contending that she could understand why there would be religion in the Society Union (because of continued "alienation"), but she couldn't understand the survival of Russian Orthodoxy since "the relations of production" had changed since the Revolution. In other words, Russians under Communism were alienated enough to have religion but since they were under Communism it should be a different form of religion from what had gone before!

In point of fact, as less ideological academics acknowledged, Marx was quite wrong  in his historical analyses and even more obviously totally wrong in his predictions, but his analysis of the politics of his own time (e.g. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte) could often be quite insightful. That left one with the sense that there wasn't too much in Marxist theory that was all that valid in the last third of the 20th century - except some vague invocations of "alienation" and "mystification" and the not so vague tool of class analysis. 

To me the one abiding value in having studied so much Marx is in that sensitivity to the importance of economic class for political analysis. Class never has and never will explain everything, but neither can it be ignored - as it often has been, especially in American political analysis. Religious, racial, and ethnic conflicts have been a recurring component of American history. Class analysis does not deny the distinctly religious, racial, or ethnic component of conflict, but it amplifies that analysis and calls attention to important but neglected dimensions of such social and political conflicts.

If nothing else, Marx has also left us with some famously quotable quotes, which may in fact be true - even if often in ways somewhat different from what Marx himself may have meant or intended at the time. For example:

The emancipation of the state from religion is not the emancipation of the real man from religion (On the Jewish Question, 1843).

Private property has made us so stupid and one-sided that an object is only ours when we have it  (Economic and Philosphical Manuscripts, 1844).

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has piteously torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his "natural superiors," and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous "cash payment." It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation  (The Communist Manifesto, 1848).

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add:the first time as tragedy, the second as farce  (The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852).

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