This Week: a Marx bicentennial with the literary critic Terry Eagleton, biographer Mary Gabriel, and black radical historian Robin D.G. Kelley. Listen today at 2pm on WBUR or anytime on our website.
Zach Goldhammer: One of the surprising aspects of this week’s show was that we mostly avoided the familiar narratives about Marx’s modern relevance. We did not talk about the 2008 stock market crash or the 2016 Bernie boom. Our guests were not part of the so-called millennial Marxist cohort; none of them use twitter, nor do they live in Brooklyn. They also did not re-litigate the standard obsessions of old guard Marxists—hairsplitting debates around orthodox doctrine, repenting for the sins of Stalinism and the excesses of the old New Left, etc.
Ultimately, our panel also spent very little time talking about labor, wealth, and other aspects of the “dismal science”—or what Marx referred to as “the economic shit.” According to them, Marxism is not so much a matter of what modern individuals owe to bankers, but instead, what individuals owe to each other.
For Terry Eagleton, Marxism distinguishes itself from liberalism by insisting that the freedom of individuals is fundamentally rooted in the interdependence of human flourishing
Marx believes in the free development of each as a condition of the free development of all. Now that’s very interesting because of course liberalism believes in the free development of each, but as it were. each doing his or her own thing. Marx’s idea of development, or if you like what he calls self-realization, is reciprocal. That’s to say you have to realize the self in and through the self-realization of others.
He goes on to suggest that Marx’s highest ethical ideal does not take the form of material equality, but instead, of love:
The idea of realizing the self through and in the self-realization of somebody else is commonly known as love. That’s what love is, yeah? Two people whose self realization happens very much in terms of the others. Now in a way, what Marx is looking for is a political equivalent of love, or what some theorists have called “political love.” What would that look like at the level of a whole society?
This may sound like a somewhat hippy-ish bowdlerization of socialism—more Cat Stevens than Karl Marx—but the importance of political love is also borne out in the biography.
As Mary Gabriel illustrates, Marx’s entire political and philosophical project was made possible through its self-realization in the hearts and minds of others—particularly in Marx’s intimate partnership with Friedrich Engels as well as with his own wife and children. In Gabriel’s story of the extended Marx family, Karl was not a mad captain Ahab— recklessly driving Engels, Jenny, and the children into financial and personal ruin as he selfishly wrestled with his own ideological leviathan. Instead, Gabriel insists that Marx’s qualified success depended on his family’s collective commitment to their shared ideal of emancipation and freedom. In the family letters, we can see Jenny’s sincere belief that Das Kapital would drop like a “bomb” on the heads of the bourgeoisie. That bomb may have failed to detonate during Marx’s lifetime, but the collective faith in Marx’s project—particularly within the “community of women” and the children who were most immiserated by capitalism—helped transfer the core ideas to later generations.
Robin Kelley was one of those children who received Marx’s ideas, however indirectly, from his family. Born in Harlem in the early 1960s, Kelley says he learned the ins and outs of dialectical thinking—synthesizing seemingly contradictory ideas and perspectives—from his mother and sister. Kelley himself was not a so-called “red diaper baby” and his mother was never a communist. They were organic intellectuals who learned the basic principles of Marx through their shared commitment to social justice:
If you grow up in a household in which you’re supposed to be committed to social justice and you’re supposed to be committed to other people other than yourself … that commitment should not be based on recognizing yourself. In other words, it’s not an empathetic recognition—the idea that, oh, I see myself and you suffering and so therefore I need to side with you. It’s the insistence that you stand outside yourself to understand. That’s what Marx did for me. For Marx, to understand the working class — he didn’t have to become working class, didn’t have to work in the factories to understand, from their vantage point, what they’re up against. So for me, the question of social justice—even in a racist, sexist, patriarchal, homophobic society—is one in which we actually need each other in order to create the conditions of possibility for true emancipation, for true freedom for all, recognizing that our own oppressions that may feel specific actually blowback—that even those who benefit from racism are themselves are victims of it. I mean Du Bois made that point. King made that point. My mother made that point, you know?
On our program, it was this form of interdependent linking and and learning which made the most compelling case for Marx’s revival today. Of course, the more familiar, even “vulgar” Marxist arguments about economics are still critically relevant as well. As the philosopher Jason Barker notes in a parenthetical in his own Marx at 200 NYT piece, “82 percent of the global wealth generated in 2017 went to the world’s richest 1 percent.” In the end, what else needs to be said about why activist and scholars alike are now looking back at Marx?
Our worry today—with the return of Marxist thinking —is not so much that will end in Stalinist tragedy, but instead, in some new grotesque form of farce:
For more on what Marx was actually all about, check out our extended reading list below:
Andrew Hartman — “Marx at 200: Just Getting Started”
Wendy Brown— “Marx for Tomorrow”
Ryan Cooper— “It’s Time to Normalize Marx”
John Bellamy Foster—”Marx’s Open-Ended Critique”
Mary Gabriel’s book is Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution. Terry Eagleton’s books are Radical Sacrifice and Why Marx was Right. For Robin Kelley, you can check out his 1990 book Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression as well as his introduction to his mentor Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition
OS Extra: A Night With Logic Magazine
We had fun hanging out with our friends from Logic Magazine this Friday during their presentation on technology and inequality at the Humanist Hub. Open Source co-produced the event with Logic co-founders Ben Tarnoff and Moira Weigel, who went deep on many of the the topics we’ve discussed with them on past programs: big data, platform / surveillance capitalism, and the ongoing “techlash.” On stage, they were joined by Tarleton Gillespie, who is now part of the team at Microsoft Research studying conflicts and controversies in digital media.
We also finally got to meet Tressie McMillan Cottom, the rising star sociology prof and author of Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy. Tressie’s vision of our techno-future is a kind of inverted Marxism, in which internet users band together not as laborers but as increasingly de-skilled consumers— “Facebook users of the world, unite!” or something along those lines. Still, Tressie says her vision of the society she wants is basically “full communism …. but with hair products.”
Be on the look out for our podcast recording + video of the panel, coming soon.
Cours, camarade, le vieux monde est derrière toi! (Run, comrade, the old world is behind you!)
Mary McGrath: Time for 50th anniversary remembrances of 1968 from across the pond. The Paris Review has reprinted some of the terrific posters from the Paris student protests, which are being exhibited in Paris.
Of course, there’s a Marx connection here as well, which you can see on display in the NYT’s photo essay:
And then, once again, there’s farce… by Gucci
More from the Paris Review: the same issue has terrific illustrations by Selcuk Demirel, illustrating John Berger’s fable about the joys of smoking
Jedediah Purdy on normcore #resistance. A Jeffrey Goldberg-TNC convo at The Atlantic leaks. Bruce Robbins on Perry Anderson. Masha Gessen on The Right to Have Rights and on Michelle Wolfe. Robin Wright on Kim Jong Un . Yanis Varoufakis on liberal totalitarianism. Frank Rich remembers Roy Cohn (the real Michael Cohen).