Marx bicentennial

Karl Marx’s two hundredth birthday was celebrated on May 5 — at least, it was celebrated in a few places such as Marx’s home town of Trier, where there is reportedly a thriving trade in Marx-themed tourist tschotchkes; and in China, still a communist country, at least from its own perspective.

In most of the United States, Marx’s birthday was studiously ignored. There were a few newspaper editorials (remember newspapers?), most of which, I suspect, assumed the gently mocking tone of the editorial in the Chicago Tribune, which wound up concluding that Marx was wrong: “Germany conducted an exhaustive 40-year experiment on the comparative value of a market-based approach and a statist one. In 1989, it was the latter that expired, along with the Soviet-aligned dictatorship that ruled in the east.”

Social media was far less restrained in its open criticism of Marx; when philosophy professor Brian Leiter posted birthday greetings to Marx on Twitter, both he and Marx were, not surprisingly, viciously attacked, and to a lesser extent, viciously defended.

For most people in the United States, the main thing to know about Karl Marx is that he has been proved wrong. Communist states murdered tens of millions of people, communism couldn’t compete with capitalism, and since 1989 when the Soviet Union imploded, communism and Karl Marx are irrelevant.

Was Karl Marx wrong? It depends on how you read him. If you accept the Soviet Union’s interpretation of Marx (which most Americans do without questioning it), an interpretation in which the Soviet Union had the only true interpretation of Karl Marx, then you have a pretty strong argument that Marx was in fact wrong.

As for me, I was introduced to Marx through the Frankfurt School, which offered a substantially different interpretation. The Frankfurt School pointed out that Marx demonstrated the ways capitalism causes alienation, and the ways women are subjugated under capitalism. The Frankfurt School also made it clear that reading Marx seriously required intellectual freedom that only came from disaffiliating with existing communist parties. While I’m critical of the Frankfurt School, it was the Frankfurt School helped me learn how to be critical — critical of economic systems that cause harm; critical of social structures in which a few people dominate everyone else; and critical of any belief in supernatural forces that are supposed to save us.

I’ve found this last kind of criticism — the criticism of belief in supernatural forces that will supposedly save us — to be very powerful. Whenever I hear that something is going to save us, if we would just put our trust in it, I get very skeptical. A lot of Americans want us to have unquestioning belief in the motto “In God we trust”; but I’m very skeptical that some big Daddy God is going to save us from infidel Muslim terrorists, unemployment, or whatever the bogeyman of the month happens to be.

And most Americans, including all our political leaders, have an unquestioning belief in a supernatural force called “The Free Market” that will solve all our problems. I find this even less believable than the idea that a Daddy God is going to solve all our problems.

Marx’s writings have distinct limitations, and we should read him critically. Some of the best criticism of Marx may be found in Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, where Piketty points out that because Marx did not have access to big data sets, Marx simply couldn’t be very accurate.

Despite those limitations, Marx’s writings taught me how to be critical of the society in which I live. Things do not have to be the way they are now. History shows that things can change. We do not have to put up with injustice. That’s the fundamental message of Marx, one that is still as fresh today as when he was writing the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, Capital, and the Theses on Feuerbach which end with the statement:

“Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”

Happy birthday, Karl.

“The U.S. left has been dead for decades….”

Philosopher Peter Leiter makes some crucial points in a May Day interview with Il Manifesto, “Italy’s leading communist newspaper” (look for the link to download an English translation of the interview). Here are three highlights from the interview:

“The U.S. left has been dead for decades, starting with the state purge of communists in the 1950s and continuing with the neoliberal revolution since the 1980s and the war on the organized labor movement — so Trump is more symptom than cause of the fact that there is no left in the U.S….”

This is probably the most important thing that Leiter says in this interview. The lack of meaningful leftist politics in the U.S. not only means that Bernie Sanders, a center-left politician, is popularly thought to be a socialist — it also means that most U.S. residents do not actually know what leftist politics look like. This is a huge hole in our political discourse. Leiter goes on to add:

“‘Identity politics’ is the narcissism of the aspiring bourgeoisie, who want to get their share of the ‘capitalist pie,’ including their share of ‘respect’ as reflected in language and culture. … Insofar as ‘left’ politics in the U.S. has been captured by identity politics, it has been rendered impotent against the real obstacle to human flourishing….”

In other words, in the absence of actual leftist politics in the U.S., we have a putative leftist politics that does not aim to reform the economic injustice perpetuated by capitalism; instead, this putative leftist politics wants to keep capitalism going by offering it to historically marginalized groups. Even for those who strongly support capitalism, it’s important to understand that the goal of identity politics is not fundamental economic reform; its goal, while worthwhile, is much narrower.

Leiter will be taken to task here by U.S. academics who will point out that he is a white man and therefore can not understand identity politics; but as Leiter points out, most academics come from “bourgeois backgrounds” and indeed some of them are “actual or aspiring members of the ruling class”; as apologists for capitalism, they are not going to engage in serious critique of capitalism. So if he as a white man can’t understand identity politics, then they as aspiring members of the ruling class can’t understand leftist politics.

And here’s perhaps my favorite passage from the interview:

“Moral and political ideals are very important to human beings, but there is no evidence that the often unintelligible theoretical writings of academics about these ideals make any difference at all. Marx, who was a good writer (unlike Habermas), seized the imagination of revolutionaries in the 19th-century because he explained to them the causes of what was visible to them and what to do about it; he didn’t have to persuade them that they were suffering. No one who reads Marx could mistake him for Habermas….”

I once went to a lecture given by Jurgen Habermas. He spoke with a heavy German accent, but the real reason I found his lecture incomprehensible is the same reason I find his books incomprehensible: he’s a lousy writer. You can’t go about changing the world if you write specialized books that only appeal to a tiny number of professional philosophers and other academics.

There is more to Leiter’s interview, and no matter what your political persuasion, it’s definitely worth reading — it’s hard to find any American these days who can speak intelligently about leftist politics as they relate to the U.S. context.

Pete Seeger: a brief appreciation

When my older sister and I were young, our parents used to play this one record that I liked to try to sing along to: “Pete Seeger at Carnegie Hall.” I loved all the songs on that album: “Little Boxes,” and “We Shall Overcome,” and “Guantanamera,” and “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.” I can still remember Pete Seeger’s spoken introduction to “If You Miss Me at the Back of the Bus,” when he talks about the violent measures taken against civil rights protesters. I can remember trying to memorize the words to “Little Boxes,” and in the process learning how to be critical of the assumptions undergirding middle class suburban culture, which probably helped lay the intellectual groundwork for my studies of critical theory and Marxism about ten years later, when I was in college. I had already learned from my parents how to be critical of what I was taught in school, but listening to “What Did You Learn in School Today?” made that seem fun and mischievous and delightful, and a few years later when I started working with children the memory of that song gave me a standard by to judge my own efforts as an educator.

Pete Seeger’s greatest strength was his ability to sing for children and young people. He was a teacher as much as, or more than, a musician. When he sang, he taught about big concepts like justice and human rights and racism and social inequality — he taught all these big concepts in a way that a six year old could understand them. His infectious songs and style of singing ensured that the children and young people who heard him sing would remember the lessons he taught for a long, long time. Continue reading “Pete Seeger: a brief appreciation”

Cornel West and us

I’ve just been reading historian Gary Dorrien’s essay “Pragmatic Postmodern Prophecy,” which discusses Cornel West as an intellectual and as a religious leader. (This essay, from Dorrien’s 2010 book Economy, Difference, Empire: Social Ethics for Social Justice, is an updated version of a chapter from his 2008 book Social Ethics in the Making.)

Dorrien tells the story of West’s intellectual evolution, and his evolution as a public intellectual. Dorrien also gives succinct reviews of major critiques of West. Towards the end of the essay, Dorrien summarizes West, casting him as primarily a religious thinker:

He [West] never really changed, notwithstanding the Left critics who liked his early writings and claimed that he sold out later. From the beginning West was committed to a Christian liberationist vision of social justice and reconciliation, though some readers wrongly took his early writings to be Marxism dressed up as Christian though. West was not “really” a Marxist who used Christianity; it was more the other way around. He began as a liberationist social critic committed to building progressive multiracial coalitions, and he remained one. (p. 334)

I’ve never quite understood why Unitarian Universalists (and other religious liberals, for that matter) don’t spend much time thinking about West, but Dorrien’s summary helps me understand why so few of us seem to bother with West. It’s not his forthright Christianity; for although some Unitarian Universalists might be uncomfortable with West’s trinitarian Christianity, our own humanist theologian William R. Jones showed us back in 1974 how liberal “humanocentric” theists and liberal humanists have plenty in common, or at least enough to build alliances to fight oppression together.

Instead, I think it’s because West is firmly aligned with liberationist Christian theology, while we Unitarian Universalists mostly remain aligned with the old Social Gospel. West is a Christian socialist who’s not afraid of revolutionary ideas, not afraid of taking risks that don’t always work out, and he’s committed to rapid change. The Social Gospel, as it exists today, still uses liberal but not revolutionary ideas, plays down risk, and works towards slower evolutionary change. Unitarian Universalism (and many other liberal religious groups) are not going to be comfortable with West because his theology is further to the left than we are comfortable with. Unfortunately, this means we have cut ourselves off to some extent from one of the few religious progressives who is a public intellectual, someone who has engaged both the academics and the broader public in conversations about progressive religion.

I’ve long been interested in West because in my view he’s the most prominent intellectual still working in the long tradition of American pragmatism that stretches back to Emerson, Peirce, and Dewey. All of us who are American religious liberals really should have some understanding of the pragmatist tradition, since it has been so influential for our religious tradition. So I wonder if we could think about West as a sort of successor to Emerson: a public intellectual who writes essays that are both popular and deeply thoughtful — and on that basis, we might think of taking his theology seriously, even if we don’t quite agree with it.