The Use of Marx

More than a month ago, Dan Drezner noted on his blog at Foreign Policy a resurgence in interest in Karl Marx. Young liberals, disillusioned with capitalism and modern progressive politics (Obama; the Democratic institution more generally), are turning to Marxism, intrigued by its status as a theory capable of providing, “a thoroughgoing critique of the system, not just a way to ameliorate its excesses.”

I think (for what it’s worth) his take on this trend is spot-on. Much of our experience with Marxism is of it as a 20th Century political movement; one that visited disastrous consequences on almost every place it touched. But this obscures the fact that the vast majority of what Marx wrote did not actually address Lenin’s still unanswered question of, “What is to be done?” In fact, nontrivial portions of his writing have been hugely influential in ordinary, non politically radical arenas. To be sure, he got plenty wrong; World War I suggested, and geopolitics continues to confirm, that national allegiances trump those of class. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that as a polity we would be better served by a more balanced popular understanding of Marx’s contribution to the social sciences.

As a college freshman, I was lucky enough to have a professor for my first year seminar who was keenly aware of this. In fact, it was his contention that, since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the “triumph” of Western liberal democracy, Communism’s absence as an even semi-credible alternative (credible at least insofar as governments operating on an obviously different model from that of the West persisted and claimed to be Communist) had let liberal democracy off the hook. However unworkable radical leftists’ political programs may have been, their presence had at least served as a sort of conscience for liberal democracy, and had moderated the worst excesses of capitalism.

At the time the idea struck me as more than a bit silly; if a set of views had been thoroughly discredited, why bother keeping them around? But in the intervening years it has come to seem like an increasingly plausible assertion; that liberal democratic politics has lost a check on its worst instincts. It would be enormously condescending to suggest that we should somehow conspire to keep around a few Marxists as useful idiots to serve as the conscience for mainstream politics. And if we can discard political ideas with no practical utility, I am all for it. But what do we do when there’s a chance some of them, impractical though they might be, have an important role to play in shaping broader political thought?

Luckily, when it comes to Marx, there looks to be at least a theoretical solution; since most of his work doesn’t address practical politics, his valuable insights can be conveyed and preserved without being overshadowed by the fact that the Red Army Faction were Marxists, or that Stalin killed 20 million people in the name of Communism. Unfortunately, there exists such an overwhelming popular conception of Marx in which he is exclusively the father of the modern era’s most destructive ideology (and not, for example, the father of sociology), it’s difficult to hold much optimism for a broadly accepted revision of his role coming about any time soon.