The “Marxism is coming back” trope

Published online 21 April 2014.

Recently in the mainstream media one now can read short essays (well, OK, they’re really Ideological Guides To What You’re Supposed To Think) on the idea that “Marxism” (to be distinguished here from marxism, which is “Marxism” without all of the straw man connotations) is now intellectually an Accepted Part of the Conversation.  Well, sort of.

Much of this recent Marx vogue has to do with the publication of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a book which compiles nearly seven hundred pages of evidence and several disavowals of Marx to show what the real marxists knew already: if you are rich and own capital, capital accumulation makes you richer.

To be fair, Marx himself stacked the deck in his analysis of capital accumulation: capital is itself defined as money designed to make more money.  So of course capital accumulation makes you richer — it’s defined that way.  However, Marx also walks us through the process of capital accumulation: the capitalists skim off the surplus produced by wage labor, and redeem this surplus as profit through sales.  The capitalists watch the money roll in, while the workers must be satisfied with mere wages, which they use to buy back a portion of what they themselves produced.  This really happens, folks.

This walking-through bit is the main difference between actual marxists and commentators upon “Marxism.”  The rich have been getting richer since the inception of capitalism; yet the commentators upon “Marxism” conclude, time and time again, that the whole of Marx is constituted by his hubris about revolution in his (1847) propaganda work “The Communist Manifesto” — oh, but long analyses of the labor theory of value are so tedious!  Much easier to simplify the whole of Marx to that one bold statement at the beginning of the Manifesto:

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

That way you don’t need to read the rest of Marx’s stuff, especially that tricky book Capital.A recent manifestation of this “Marxism revival” talk is Ross Douthat’s recent column in the New York Times, titled “Marx Rises Again.”  Douthat’s pattern is common to the genre: Mention the name “Marx,” then loudly dismiss the idea that history has anything to do with class struggle.  Insist that Marx only came up because of some media event (in this case, the publication of Piketty’s book and the conversation around it).  Promise that this subject will eventually go away.

I suppose the name “Marx” has to be mentioned at all because even the serious people have had to recognize that there’s something very marxist about the present moment — that in keeping the profit rate for the rich people high while fortunes for the rest of us decline, our economy has wandered into increasing crisis.  All this has, all along, been very well described by those marxists doing serious work on the subject — Robert Brenner, David Harvey, and so on.

Ross Douthat is of course a prominent conservative — and that’s what’s amazing here: that a conservative of his pedigree would even bother to mention Marx, when it’s so much easier for conservatives to avoid writing about such a topic.  A couple of Douthat quotes will reveal the unstable realities he’s trying to hide. Quote #1:

Even if the income and wealth distributions look more Victorian, that is, the 99 percent may still be doing well enough to be wary of any political movement that seems too radical, too utopian, too inclined to rock the boat.

I dunno, Ross.  Occupy looked pretty big to me, and Occupy was designed by anarchists.  Quote #2:

The taproot of agitation in 21st-century politics, this trend suggests, may indeed be a Marxian sense of everything solid melting into air. But what’s felt to be evaporating could turn out to be cultural identity — family and faith, sovereignty and community — much more than economic security.

Reassertions of “cultural identity” only appear to center the various agitations surfacing now and then around the world (if they indeed do that — Occupy was a primarily economic phenomenon) because “cultural identity” binds people together.  What causes agitation, of course, is that people feel a need to agitate, and here if Douthat had bothered to examine why people were agitating, he might have found economic reasons in each instance.

What apparently motivates Ross Douthat’s need to comment upon Marx is that another such discussion appeared in The Nation magazine two weeks ago — Douthat refers to Timothy Shenk’s piece, “Thomas Piketty and Millenial Marxists on the Scourge of Inequality.”  Now, of all the comments made on Shenk’s piece, those made by marxist blogger Louis Proyect are often a bit on the caustic side — but his critique of Shenk’s piece is on-target here.  Even though Shenk appears to know his stuff given the sheer volume of historical names he drops, his piece isn’t all that substantial.  As Proyect insists, marxists already knew that history was and still is a tough thing to get right.  It was never really true that (as Shenk said) “all that socialists needed to seal their victory was a revolution, which capitalism’s contradictions would deliver to them” — marxists knew that the real work begins once capitalist government has been removed from power.  And I’d also like to cite Shenk’s conclusion, as Proyect does:

Reflexive grasping at the language of the past, vividly displayed in the Marxist resurgence, brings a sense of order to what would seem like chaos. But a more promising alternative might be on the way. Marxism is one kind of socialism, but history suggests a much richer set of possibilities, along with some grounds for hope. So does a work like Capital in the Twenty-First Century—a sign that another lost tradition, the postcapitalist visions in abeyance since the 1970s, could be poised for a return; or, even better, that we might put aside old pieties and chart our own path.

Blah blah blah.  All the cool people who want to get published in The Nation (with a few exceptions) make marxism or radicalism into some sort of straw man — “you see,” we are told, “the radical ‘Marxists’ are all a bunch of dogmatists who think revolution is the big thing, and so you should loudly proclaim your indifference to the scene.”In real life, however, there’s a tradition called “marxism” because Marx addressed philosophical issues which weren’t being addressed elsewhere.  In avoiding these issues, moreover, the mainstream academy made Marx into an obvious absence — and so scholars built an alternative discussion around “marxism.”  No, they don’t all agree with Marx on everything.  No, their tradition is not being “revived” — it was there all along.  Yes, they read and interpret Marx and apply some of what he said to the current scene.  Serious marxists are not dogmatists.  Yes, you actually have to read Marx if you want to have something to say about what he said.  And, finally, no, Marx isn’t just about revolution, nor are marxists only revolutionaries.  “marxism” constitutes a great number of different lines of thought, all of which are studied in earnest by a fair number of people who wish to know what’s going on in the world today.

Appendix: Marx you should knowThe 1844 manuscripts: contains Marx’s early philosophy of alienation, and of money

The German Ideology: written with Friedrich Engels, contains Marx’s early ideas of history

The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon: This is about French history, of 1851

A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy: This contains some of Marx’s earliest doodlings on political economy — the preface is well-known, however, by students of culture.

The Civil War in France: This is about the Paris Commune, Marx’s model for the revolution

The Critique of the Gotha Program: This contains the most complete idea we have of what Marx thought needed to be built after capitalism.

Capital, vol. 1: This is the volume of Capital that Marx saw published in his lifetime — there are also two other volumes compiled by Friedrich Engels after Marx’s death.  It contains the core of Marx’s critique of political economy.

(also published at Voices on the Square)


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