Groucho Marxism

Michael Enright, the host of CBC Radio’s Sunday Edition, has a flair for spotting ideas of coming importance, or at least importance for CBC employees and those who depend on the CBC to provide them with their enlightened opinions. So it was not all that surprising that he chose the 165th anniversary of the publication of The Communist Manifesto to mull whether Marx and Marxism were now going through an improbable revival.

He began the show with a dramatic flourish, a scratchy old recording of Lenin thundering to some 1920s Soviet audience, but leaped nimbly past the next seventy years of Lenin’s handiwork and that of his followers. What Enright wanted to talk about was Marxist ‘thought’ today, not in any of the past embarrassing instances of its actual governmental application. As an initial explanation of why a 21st century version was germinating, he first pointed out that the Great Crash of 2008 had led to a renewed interest in the idea of Marx the prophet.

To help prove the point, he observed that, since the Crash, copies of Das Kapital have been ‘flying off the shelves’ in Germany. However, that may just show that young German university students are maintaining their great tradition, not just of devouring bad ideas from their professors, a habit as common among Canadian and American students, but unlike the latter, actually trying to read, or at least skim, even the dreariest works placed on their class reading lists. Millions of past Marxists worldwide, from murderous revolutionaries to mild academic blowhards, undoubtedly used to read and drew their ideas from the Manifesto, a forceful polemic pamphlet, which the youthful Marx and Engels whipped off in under 300 pages. But Das Kapital, only ‘Volume I’ of Marx’s never completed magnum opus of almost twenty years later, is not only three times as long, but as a laboured synthesis of 19th century English political economy and the tortuous dialectics of Hegelianism, regularly defeated even his fanatical worshippers, and belongs on that long shelf of books which are much admired but not read.

Enright deftly navigated the minefield of voluminous writings by Marx and Marxists by throwing out a few questions to his three interview guests: Leo Panitch, a York University professor of political science, editor of The Socialist Register, and co-author of a recent book on The Making of Global Capitalism; Ursula Huys, another political science professor, from the University of Hertfordshire, who writes mainly on the new working world of outsourcing and call centres, and who has published a book on The Making of a Cybertariat; and Baskhar Sunkara, the 23-year-old editor of a New York City magazine called Jacobin. It is unlikely that many Canadians had previously ever heard of them, although all three were clearly legends in their own minds. Enright, a little like Scrooge’s midnight visitors, may have chosen Panitch to represent Marxism past, Huys as Marxism present, and Sunkara as Marxism future.

Panitch, who speaks in the measured tones of a well-fed bishop of his church, is one of that army of ‘social science’ academics who largely rewrite ordinary media stories in what might be called Marxian demotic. That is, he takes familiar current political and economic news and rewrites and restates it with a ‘class analysis’, that provides nothing not already obvious, but in much more splendidly pretentious form. For example, he daringly admits that Lenin’s theory of economic imperialism can not be used to describe how international capitalism works today, since American corporations actually invest far more in places like Great Britain than they do in developing countries in Africa and Asia. Indeed, he notices that British capitalist enterprises also invest in the U. S., explaining this as the ‘interpenetration of capitalist imperialism’. Give him a few more years, and he may make the still more exciting discovery that this is what is called ‘trade’.

Both he and Huys give the impression of trying very hard to offer an avant-garde of socioeconomic interpretation, but like Wallerstein, Hobsbawm, and similar lifelong Marxist academics, they just sound like unusually cranky readers of the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, constantly tripping on the Protean nature of the Great Beast. You can’t really blame them; the reporters and analysts of the WSJ and FT have to work harder and faster than these academic bad poets limping along behind them..

Consider Silicon Valley alone. Five of the six biggest websites in the world are there (one is Chinese). The two Google founders are tied for 13th richest person on earth. Tens of thousands of young technical workers in the Valley work long hours, but make well over $100,000 a year. That may do nothing to solve the unemployment problems of young and old living in rust belt cities, but whatever this means in the longer run, it hardly fits any of Marx’s own prophecies about the ‘bourgeoisie’ and ‘proletariat’, or even the Marxian glosses being provided for the American economy a few decades ago, which were all about ‘alienation’, not the arriving information revolution. The present Marxists like Panitch and Huys have been as forced to ‘go global’ as the corporations they bewail, in search of a shape-shifting ‘working class’.

Marxists still sometimes indulge in the joys of ‘dialectics’, a kind of flimflam to escape tight corners, but a sense of irony is not their strong suit. Ursula Huys is an even better demonstration of this than Panitch. He has now spent three decades at York University, which was created at the very beginning of the 1960s, and has kept several departments in 1960s aspic ever since. Hertfordshire is a quite different sort of place, beginning as a modest Hatfield Technical College, on land provided by the once-famous Dehavilland Aircraft Co. It became a university only in the early 1990s, and retained a strong connection to engineering and technical education right into the present. It also keeps winning awards for being an unusually innovative and ‘entrepreneurial’ school. Since Professor Huys has been there since the 1970s, she may very well participate in its ‘entrepreneurial’ innovations and take pride in them, apparently little bothered by the thought that Marxist and socialist past policies have been about as beneficial to entrepreneurs as a compulsory diet of cyanide.

Huys claimed that Marxism is ‘just a toolbox’, although apparently containing a mighty hammer. She talked to Enright about the possibility of eliminating the capitalist system through a general ‘withdrawal of consent’, a syndicalist dream sounding more like Georges Sorel than Marx, or even a kind of inverted version of Atlas Shrugged. But undoubtedly the Marxist for the age of i-phones and Gangnam Style was Baskhar Sunkara, the 23-year-old American son of prosperous Asian immigrant parents who dropped out of university to create Jacobin, first an online periodical that began getting many hits (elegant web page, topics much more lively than those found in old Marxist periodicals like Monthly Review), and has now become a quarterly periodical based in New York City.

Sunkara’s growing little enterprise appears to be bound on the same course as the one followed by the British Marxism Today a few years ago. That is, to become a venue for bright young leftists, mostly of upper-crust background, whose ‘Marxism’ is essentially a Whig aristocratic pose, not at all revolutionary, and not even very friendly to dogmatist keepers of the sacred Marxist flame, able to find in the ‘toolbox’ almost anything they want. This is a Marxism at last fully emancipated from its fierce revolutionism and romance of the stubbornly unrevolutionary proletariat; not the path to a political party, or even a moral program, but what is most of all an aesthetic stance. Contributors, once reaching middle age, may very well evolve into solidly reactionary curmudgeons. In the meantime, it will probably be useful for conservatives to read Jacobin – occasionally. Almost everything Marxists still apparently believe about their ‘toolbox’ has been shown to be hopelessly wrong, not just by the past horrors of Stalinism and Maoism, but by repeated refutations from major thinkers through the whole 20th century, many of the most acute critics being themselves ex-Marxists. But the world today is undoubtedly in a new kind of mess, with governments, banks, and corporations generating feeble economic growth mostly through borrowing more and more money. Libertarians and conservatives make more sense than Marxists, but are little more confident about what should be done next. So both may learn something by reading each other. Those who really want to know what Marxism is all about, as filtered through a great mind, should read the Polish philosopher, Leszek Kolakowski, especially his Main Currents of Marxism. Jacobin is probably just a preparation for Vanity Fair.

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