Altars, Class Struggle, Conservatives, Cultural Imperialism, False Gods, False Idols, Ideology, Karl Marx, Marxism, Michael Eric Dyson, Political Imperialism, Progressives, Ronald Reagan, S-USIH 2015 Conference, Society of U.S. Intellectual Historians, Ta-Nehisi Coates, The New Republic, White Progressives
For so many things ideological in the US, there are more similarities than differences. That’s why the difference between most “liberals” and most “conservatives” is more issue-driven than an overall difference in philosophy or intellectual outlook.
On the issue of ideological altars, there are more similarities than differences as well. Democrats specifically — and leftists more broadly — often poke fun at conservatives and their constant invoking of Ronald Reagan as their intellectual guru and mascot. The idea that Reagan was a pro-life, anti-immigration and evangelical Christian conservative is as ludicrous as seeing Alexander the Great as a socialist muse. There’s no way that the once living-and-breathing Ronald Reagan would ever get along with most conservatives today, who tend to use his name in vain.
But if that’s true of American conservatives, many progressives are just as guilty, just as myopic, just as delusional. For them, though, their guru and intellectual Father has been Karl Marx (1818-1883), a Prussian-Jewish political philosopher and activist who found himself kicked out of Prussia, France, and Belgium before living out his final three decades in the UK. Of course, the father of Marxism makes sense, since class struggle has always been the very definition of being a progressive, a liberal, a leftist, no?
Well, class struggle has not always been at the center of being a leftist or a progressive. Standing against injustice and inequality, though, has. That is the distinction that most progressives — especially White progressives — all but refuse to make. Though Marx’s great intellectual and literary works were all about class struggle and the need to overthrow capitalism and return to the pre-classical, pre-imperialist days of communal living and economic equality, he left so much out. About the world outside of Europe, about slavery and women’s suffrage, about forms of inequality that weren’t just explained by human civilizations and class struggle. Not to mention, many of his predictions were just plain wrong.
A question at the Society of U.S. Intellectual Historians Conference last week reminded me of this over-reliance on Marx. At a plenary session on progressive public intellectuals, a graduate student asked a question about Black public intellectuals (particularly the freshly ordained Ta-Nehisi Coates and others identified by Michael Eric Dyson in The New Republic earlier this fall) and some idea about the need to return to Marxism. If I’d been on the panel, I would’ve responded, “Why Marxism? Why is this the only choice progressives, liberals, and leftist believe they have?”
Marx and his -isms don’t speak to me. I never thought to worship at his altar. I’ve almost always found White progressive attempts to make me see systems of racial inequality and discrimination as all part of class struggle ridiculous. I never saw Marx as having an answer to issues like intersectionality and Black/Latino/APA feminism, or in dealing with cultural imperialism (which is embedded in Marx’s own writings) via multiculturalism.
Plus, why do progressives need a White guy born in the nineteenth century as their utopian guide toward a twenty-first century revolution, anyway? Anybody ever heard of W. E. B. Du Bois or bell hooks, Edward Said or Erykah Badu? At this point in my intellectual life, Baduizm, Saidism or Sonia Sanchez-ism all fit where I am much more than Karl Marx. For me, Marx is just as much a false idol as Ronald Reagan and Baal.
“Though Marx’s great intellectual and literary works were all about class struggle and the need to overthrow capitalism and return to the pre-classical, pre-imperialist days of communal living and economic equality, he left so much out.”
You seem to be confusing Marx with Rousseau here. Marx wasn’t some backwards looking utopian with idealized notions of nature. He didn’t long for flowery pastoral communities like some other intellectuals of his time. In fact he was very critical of that stuff. He saw a lot of positive things in the capacities of industrialized modern capitalist societies. The basic question that propels him forward throughout his work is how to keep the good stuff (economic/technological progress and growth), without the bad stuff (exploitation, racism, slavery). And he understood (correctly) that we need to transcend the capitalist mode of production if we are to achieve a world without gross inequalities and corrupt semi-democratic institutions.
Also Marx has a lot of good insights on slavery and wrote regularly on international matters like the American Civil War. You might want to read this short article on the subject http://hiaw.org/defcon6/works/1862/08/09.html . It contains the great prophetic quote : “Lincoln errs if he imagines that the “loyal” slaveholders are to be moved by benevolent speeches and rational arguments. They will yield only to force.”
Marx was absolutely wrong on some things and ignorant or disinterested on other some important things. But his contributions are momentous. Leftist thought would be ridiculously more impotent if it wasn’t for his capacity to contextualize and analyze various phenomena and his philosophical process of dialectical materialism.
No, after 46 years (and 25 years in academia), I’m pretty sure I know who Karl Marx was. I’m hardly suggesting leftist get rid of Marx. I’m saying being a leftist shouldn’t mean making Karl Marx the end-all and be-all of progressive thinking, ideas, and revolutionary revival. I know damn well that Marx wrote about slavery, primarily from a class/capitalism perspective. If that were the only consideration for me, then my post would be moot. But as someone whose world view is more than anti-capitalist, I find Marx and those who worship at his feet about as blind in devotion as the GOP with regard to Ronald Reagan and evangelical Christians regarding Jesus (at least, their Whiteness, pro-capitalist imprint they’ve put on him). Nothing you’ve said takes away from my point. In fact, you’ve actually reinforced it with your defense of Marx.
Of course we shouldn’t limit ourselves to Marx. That’s not what being a Marxist is about. In fact, worshiping the altar of Marx as you say (and you are right that some people do that), would be un-marxist because it reifies the thinker and lacks a dialectical component, which is most important.
Now I might argue that your comparison to GOP-Reagan is a false equivalency. Even the most naive or obsessive marxist doesn’t come close to the craziness of the Reagan fetishists on the other side.
As to the matter of class and race that is at the heart of this discussion, we seem to have different experiences. The very idea of intersectionality and contextualization has its roots in marxist thought. The sociological arguments that Marx used back then are remarkably similar to the current discourse of progressives. So, yes obviously race and class intersect. But in order to end or at least limit racism, concrete redistributionist, socialist proposals are needed. Not just appeals to reason or emotion. Transform material reality and institutions first, and the transformation of minds will follow. In my book, that’s what marxism is about. Changing one thing (race and gender), by changing one other thing (economic relations between people).
I would recommend this article if you haven’t read it already: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/08/bernie-sanders-black-lives-matter-civil-rights-movement/
See, your response is exactly the kind of Marx-ist worshipping I’m talking about. Marx was hardly the first person to recognize economic exploitation as a central part of the human condition, and its context/intersection with other -isms, even in the post-1750 period of industrial capitalism. Marx may well have been the first man to articulate clearly some of the connections between capitalism and the misery of the proletariat in the 18th and 19th centuries, some of which many folks clearly rely upon in analyzing the world in which humans have lived over the last 300 years. However, Marxism is not, nor should ever be, the main lens for analysis on every front of exploitation. It loses its explanatory power in the American context, specifically around race. I thought this 23 years ago, I know it in my bones and in my work and in my experiences now. While Marx may be central to how you understand the world, it will NEVER be for me. So please, stop trying to shove articles down my throat to explain what I have understood for more than half of my life. You disagree, fine. I’m not asking you to read Jesus, Muhammad, Locke, Berkeley and Hume, Martin Delany or W. E. B. Du Bois, as if your problem is you don’t read enough or see the light. So don’t assume to think that another article will change something that I’ve given years of thought to. Let’s agree to disagree. Have a good night.
One final thing, seeing as you’ve mention Locke. I consider him the sort of anti-marx and an interesting example in our discussion, in that he’s actually the one who blurred the complicated relationship between race and class, in favor of white supremacy. A lot of classical liberal and conservative thought is based on his view of property, which were antithetical to those of Marx on the same subject. I would recommend these two articles on him and his legacy: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/06/locke-treatise-slavery-private-property/ + https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/10/locke-classical-liberalism-treatise-nozick-constitution/
Also, I think that marxism can help reveal a lot of the underlying causes of, specifically American, white supremacy. White people feel economically empowered when they compare themselves to black people and their racism is all the more potent for it. A more egalitarian economic system, that addressed specific racial disparities and problems would make traditional white racism impotent (at least less powerful) because it wouldn’t go hand in hand with economic dominance anymore.
As I said earlier, I am very familiar with these arguments, and I do read Jacobin. It isn’t your job to educate me on issues I’ve been working through for more than two decades. Good night!