The Many Faces of Neo-Marxism

May 1, 2013 Topic: HistoryIdeologySociety

The Many Faces of Neo-Marxism

Mini Teaser: The German thinker's name has been attached to a wide range of modern ideas—poststructuralism, postmodernism, gender studies, etc.—yet he was more a man of his day than of ours.

by Author(s): Walter Laqueur

Gabriel’s 2011 book, Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution, is also well researched, though more preoccupied with love than capital. She deals primarily with Marx’s wife but also with his children, four of whom died before he did. Marx’s relations with his children seem to have been very good, and his daughters adored him. His wife, born into the aristocratic German von Westphalen family, had an unenviable fate. For most of her marriage, she lived in dire poverty, and her aristocratic background and upbringing had not prepared her for a life in such miserable conditions. Marx himself wrote on more than one occasion that he often felt reluctant to go home to her because of the constant whining and complaining. The only earlier serious and sympathetic study of her life was written by her nephew once removed, the Prussian nobleman Lutz Graf Schwerin von Krosigk, who served as Hitler’s finance minister (though he was not a member of the Nazi Party) and served time in Spandau prison after the war.

Thus, there is no lack of serious and reliable Marx biographies, including relatively recent ones. Sperber’s entry is a worthy addition to the collection. He is to be commended particularly for his warning against the faddish tendency of modern scholars to make Marx’s ideas more relevant to the present by putting them through a Cuisinart along with various bromides of our time such as structuralism, postmodernism, existentialism and the like.

But Sperber’s nineteenth-century focus raises some interesting questions of its own. Marx’s historical importance, it could be argued, is mainly as the man who gave Lenin his ideas, not the polemicist who wrote a book attacking the theories of, for example, Carl Vogt, whose views are almost entirely in eclipse today. Sperber certainly is justified in dismissing various attempts to update Marx, which have ranged from the ridiculous to the absurd. At the same time, he may go too far in dismissing as useless the preoccupation with Marxism, which he calls “Marxology.” After all, Marx’s private life and his interventions in the politics of his time, interesting as they are, aren’t why he is remembered today.

He is remembered—for better or worse—as the man who provided an outline, even if somewhat vague, for a postcapitalist world. Thus, the author of the draft of the future society is remembered primarily by those who lived to witness it. That is probably why Moscow authorities have seriously considered removing from the capital the last remaining statue of Marx (it stands opposite the Bolshoi Theatre). Interest in Marx and Marxism seems to be least robust today in the very countries in which his teachings were once invoked and where schoolchildren were instructed to study him.

But is it fair to blame philosophers for any and every mutilation of their ideas—the concept that a tree is known by its fruits? Francis Wheen, for one, argues that it is not. And it would indeed be wrong to blame Marx for Stalin or Pol Pot, just as Nietzsche cannot be made responsible for Hitler or Eichmann. Still, a lot of civic activity unfolded in the twentieth century in Marx’s name, much of it tragic. And his attack on capitalism, so powerful and sweeping, was destined to find resonance through the decades whenever the faults and limitations of capitalism became most visible and pronounced.

WHICH BRINGS us back to the so-called Marx renaissance and how it happened that he should be enjoying renewed interest, however muted, after so much controversy over so long a time. Some knowledge of Marx’s writing was taken for granted in my generation, between the two world wars. This was not true with regard to the generation of the parents and certainly not the grandparents. But when I was growing up a third of the world was ruled under systems that were, or claimed to be, guided by Marxism. How could people in such a time make sense of current events unless one knew something about the ideology that was the lodestar of these countries?

It should probably be revealed that this knowledge did not extend to Marx’s great opus, Das Kapital. Outside a small circle of specialists, I knew no one who had ever read it to the end. But it was the norm to at least pretend that one had started reading it.

And it is worth noting some anecdotal evidence of Marx’s place in the consciousness of people back then. My little apartment in London is almost literally a stone’s throw from Marx’s grave in Highgate. In days of old, on an afternoon stroll, rain or shine, I was asked at least once for directions to the grave by visitors, often from abroad—students from Germany, middle-aged Americans, on one occasion monks from some Far Eastern country. During the last two decades the stream of those wishing to pay homage to the man has dwindled almost to the vanishing point. There was no great outcry when the gravesite visiting hours were cut.

As for the circulation of Marx’s works, a cursory inquiry shows that there has been a rise of late, with 1,500 copies of Das Kapital sold by one publisher in Germany in 2008, up from the roughly two hundred it previously sold annually. There has also been an increase in China, where in 2009 one of the country’s principal publishing houses reported a fourfold rise in the book’s sales following the onset of the financial crisis. But it isn’t much of an uptick. Marx’s works don’t sell more notably than other political-theory classics—less than Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom, and far less than certain cult books such as those by Ayn Rand. But Marx’s Communist Manifesto, a long essay of sixty to eighty pages, does seem to sell well.

The Marx renaissance seems concentrated mostly on the United States and Germany. The German city Chemnitz, renamed Karl-Marx-Stadt after the Communist takeover of East Germany in 1945, has regained its old name. But a local savings bank there has issued a credit card called the “Marx card,” complete with a rendering of the man, and it proved to be a successful publicity stunt. Leading German movie producer Alex Kluge has made a ten-hour “poetic documentary” (his words) on Das Kapital. The idea was not entirely original to him. The great Soviet movie director Sergei Eisenstein contemplated a similar project decades ago and even tried to persuade James Joyce to collaborate with him on it. Nothing came of it.

But Kluge’s extended work, available on DVD, takes Eisenstein’s concept as a starting point and goes from there. He titled his film News from Ideological Antiquity. And it must be noted that the work serves to justify Sperber’s misgivings about trying to make Marx “more relevant to our time” by reinterpreting him in the light of structuralism, poststructuralism, postmodernism, existentialism or elements of so many other movements that have littered the modern intellectual landscape over the past century or so. Attempts have been made, for example, to meld Marxism with postcolonial criticisms of Western imperialism, but this is a difficult argument to make in light of Marx’s observation that Britain played a progressive role in the development of India.

One sees similar disconnected analysis elsewhere in the Marx renaissance. Terry Eagleton—who wrote Why Marx Was Right and is a leading figure in the revival—is a staunch fighter against Islamophobia and a well-known theoretician in the field of literary theory. Others involved in the revival are students of religion, philosophy, psychoanalysis, postcolonialism, commensality (eating together), identity politics, gender politics, the environment and so on. All may be important subjects, but they are not ones that were particularly close to Marx’s heart and mind.

Some examples of people from various specialties who have jumped on the Marx bandwagon: Etienne Balibar, who wrote on Baruch Spinoza; Alain Badiou, whose specialty is truth and logic; Slavoj Zizek, a scholar of psychoanalysis, film theory and many other subjects; and Jacques Ranciere, a philosopher of education. A distinguished professor of geography and anthropology at the City University of New York, David Harvey, offers a course dedicated to a close reading of Das Kapital.

MISSING FROM this parade of people attempting to bring Marx up to date in our time are professors and scholars whose expertise centers on economics and finance—the subjects to which Marx devoted most of his life and which are at the center of the present global crisis. Historians such as Sperber also are rare in this pantheon. Of course, no one would argue that only economists and actual scholars of Marxism should participate in these debates, but their almost-total absence makes one wonder what this debate is all about.

It is difficult to discern, for example, what creative impulses Marx may have contributed to “Marxist Feminist Notes on the Political Valence of Affect,” the title of a paper given by Rosemary Hennessy of Rice University at the Berlin Marxism conference.

All of which raises a question: If this perceived Marx renaissance has little to do with the actual teachings of Marx, with which the poststructuralists, postmodernists and gender scholars seem only vaguely familiar, how does one explain the renaissance, however modest it may be and however restricted to elite Western universities that have little connection to today’s industrial working class?

Image: Pullquote: 'Marx' has become something like a shortcut or a symbol indicating a predilection for radical change in a wide variety of fields loosely called 'cultural studies.'Essay Types: Essay