At a meeting on refugee rights the other night, one of the other activists asked me if I am a Marxist. “No,” I replied, “though I used to be.” I think the last time it was a vaguely accurate description of me was probably sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s. It is hard to be sure. Not that I mind being called one, or think that being one is something to be ashamed of. In fact, I felt slightly sorry to disappoint my interlocutor. But things are what they are. So despite there being an irritating buzzing noise somewhere on the interwebs telling the world that I am a “Western Marxist”, I’m afraid I have to disclaim the title.
Nearly six years ago, I wrote the following as a suggestion for how to explain Marx to people (students) who were coming to him cold:
Suppose I were lecturing about Karl Marx: I’d do the same thing. I’d probably start by discussing some of the ideas in the Manifesto about the revolutionary nature of the bourgeoisie, about their transformation of technology, social relations, and their creation of a global economy. Then I’d say something about Marx’s belief that, despite the appearance of freedom and equality, we live in a society where some people end up living off the toil of other people. How some people have little choice but to spend their whole lives working for the benefit of others, and how this compulsion stops them from living truly truly human lives. And then I’d talk about Marx’s belief that a capitalist society would eventually be replaced by a classless society run by all for the benefit of all. Naturally, I’d say something about the difficulties of that idea. I don’t think I’d go on about Pol Pot or Stalin, I don’t think I’d recycle the odd bon mot by Paul Samuelson, I don’t think I’d dismiss Hegel out of hand, and I don’t think I’d contrast modes of production with Weberian modes of domination (unless I was confident, as I wouldn’t be, that my audience already had some sense of those concepts).
Thinking about the matter again, I think I’d stick to those themes. Of course, then there’s the question of which texts would best illustrate those themes. It seems that some people believe those themes are best illustrated by looking at Marx’s early writings and that to do so would necessarily involve a distortion of Marx’s career bu concentrating on early texts. I don’t see it myself. When Corey Robin, Alex Gourevitch and I were thinking about freedom and the workplace, a central text for us was the chapter on the buying and selling of labour power, from volume 1 of Capital, you know, the one about “the exclusive realm of Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham.” Thinking about human nature, work under capitalism, and its contrast with truly human work, I’d be sure to look at “The Results of the Immediate Process of Production” (included as an appendix to the Penguin edition of volume one of Capital). And central to explaining the importance of Marx to students of contemporary political philosophy would be the Critique of the Gotha Programme. Of course the themes you’d focus on and the texts you use are inevitably shaped by what you’re trying to achieve, the audience you’re addressing and similar matters. A comprehensive survey of Marx’s work, such as the two-year-long course Jerry Cohen ran in the mid 1980s at UCL (and which I was lucky enough to attend) would have a very different content to a taster course aimed at newbies.