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Misadventures in Marxism
How can well-meaning American academics continue their romance with Karl Marx? European scholars can only guess.
September 1, 1999
(SALON) -- Of all the 19th century prophets, Karl Marx is the most stubbornly resistant to the ravages of age. The ideologies he spawned may have tumbled along with the watchtowers and barbed-wire walls that accompanied them, but something about the Old Man proves irresistible to the sensitively academic and to the affluently dissatisfied.
In an age of corporate tyranny, his extravagant Old Testament beard, gimlet eyes and air of apocalyptic indignation seem to satisfy a desperate nostalgia for moral fire. Boredom with what C. Wright Mills described as the drab vacuity of America's white-collar "boutique" breeds a yearning among the bookish for redemption with an identifiable name -- and whose better than Marx's? Like most academics who march under his flag, Marx never set foot in a real factory or mine, but this lack of relevant experience only seems to make his condemnations of industrial alienation all the more appealing and lyrically impervious to criticism. In a strange way, with his neuroses and his journalistic violence, he is psychologically tailor-made for us.
Two new books appearing this fall, one American, one European, ask us to reconsider the credibility of Marxism in the modern university. From CUNY's Marshall Berman, author of "All That Is Solid Melts Into Air," comes a collection of essays called "Adventures in Marxism," to be published by Verso in September. From the other side of the Atlantic, meanwhile, comes the massive, somber "Black Book of Communism," edited by French historian Stephane Courtois of the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique in Paris and editor of the Journal Communisme.
The first book is a celebration of the insurrectionary and purportedly libertarian spirit of the young Marx. The latter, assembling a circle of experts in various regions from Cambodia to Russia to China, bills itself as the first systematic investigation of genocide committed in the name of the same prophet.
Could they possibly, one immediately wonders, be talking about the same phenomenon?
The answer is yes, although the two volumes could not be more different. Berman's naively romantic, charmingly self-indulgent ramblings around the radical landscape come in a canary yellow cover with gayly colored Toys "R" Us letters and an adorable little cartoon of Karl himself leaping about in a spasm of what looks like pure revolutionary glee. "The Black Book," on the other hand, is, well, black, with the forbidding sub-title "Crimes, Terror, Repression."
Indeed, these covers alone seem to reflect the differing moods toward Marxism in American and European academia respectively. Europeans, after their long and arduously fruitless love-affair with Marxism, seem to have finally thrown in the towel; Americans, on the other hand, geographically remote from the actual thing, seem not to have lost their taste for radical effusions and postures. If the American campus is the ultimate refuge of lost causes, as it is so often accused of being, then it is the perfect sarcophagus for an ideology more or less abandoned by the vast swathes of humanity that actually lived under it. But then again, dreaming of the young Marx in a Manhattan loft and lining up for sub-standard soap for four hours a day in a Warsaw suburb were never exactly the same thing.
American leftists, too, are prone to the proclivities of their extremely waffly and un-Marxist environment. Berman, a good-hearted old-time "Marxist humanist," loves to enthuse about the great ecumenical faith as if it were a combination of pop art, group therapy and virtuous Rolfing. Here he is, for example, on his mystical first reading of the "Manifesto":
It helped me see how the bad things and the good things of the world could spring from the same place, how suffering could be a source of growth and joy, how radical thought could escape doldrums and dualisms and gather energy and vision for better times.
In a chapter called "Unchained Melody," he waxes ecstatic on the transformational spirituality of creating unions:
And it is not just educational but existential: the process of people, individually and collectively, discovering who they are. As they learn who they are, they will come to see that they need one another in order to be themselves.
According to Berman, the really distasteful thing about capitalism is that it forces people to "freeze their feelings towards each other." The inmates of the Lubyanka, one supposes, would have sympathized.
Next page | "The iconic looks more convincing than the ironic"
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