Friday, March 26, 2010

Karl Marx and Postmodernism

It's been quite some time since I read Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto. Maybe I should read it again, or at least Walter Russell Mead thinks so, "Literary Saturday: The Communist Manifesto." What's interesting is Mead's counterfactual asking what Marx and Engels would think of today's academic postmodern Marxists:

Karl Marx

I don’t think the various strains of academic radicalism rooted in the New Left of the 1960s would much enjoy a new edition of the Manifesto, either. Marx and Engels were unreconstructed Old Lefties who saw progressive ideology as being rooted in and concerned with the interests of the masses of the working poor. The New Left emphasis on identity, ethnicity and self-expression would fill them with contempt. The academic New Left would, I am pretty certain, appear to Marx and Engels as a new form of vile and self-indulgent petty bourgeois ideology that elevates the historical despair of a class at the end of its tether into a worldview. That ideology, rampant in the academy today, is what we sometimes call postmodernism. It’s the belief that the ‘grand narratives’ of history have collapsed, including the Marxist enlightenment of proletarian revolt and the broader Enlightenment narrative of progress. Instead of a grand social march forward into a better world, society as a whole seems stagnant. Liberation is no longer a project for society at large; it is something that small groups — cultural, ethnic, sexual minorities — achieve on their own. It is a kind of dystopian version of Frank Fukuyama’s end of history: things can’t get much better, and they aren’t very good.

Marx and Engels would, I think, excoriate this ideology of ‘tenured radicals’ and foundation staff as the attempt of petty bourgeois intellectuals to console themselves for their own political irrelevance — and to take their own ironic fate as ineffective and marginal critics in a society still dominated by the demands of a capitalist order as the inevitable fate for all mankind. The ’struggle’ to get another tenure-track position for an ethnic studies program, or to defeat a rival faction’s candidate for an academic post can be seen, sort of, as the contemporary version of the inspiring political struggles of old. One is at the barricades, even if all one ever actually does is publish technical articles in obscure journals. The continuing breakdown of academic disciplines into ever smaller and (at least in some cases) ever less relevant subspecialties reflects the wider breakdown of the social progress into the struggles of various smaller and more specialized minorities to define their identities and carve out some living space. From an old-fashioned Marxist point of view (and perhaps not only from that perspective) this looks indescribably petty and vain, especially when measured against the enormous scale of the upheavals and social explosions reshaping today’s world.

I may be missing the point completely; I’m sure that there are readers out there who could ‘unmask my ideology’ and Marxists used to say and show how my own take on the Manifesto reflects my own miserable economic interests and background. Certainly I’m not going to embrace any wild-eyed ideologies that would let the unwashed hordes past the gates of the stately Mead manor in glamorous Queens! And I’m careful to keep my copy of their collected works where the more excitable members of the grounds staff won’t see it lying around.
Mead's funny, but I think he needs to get out on the street more often. Lots of folks truly believe that we're now living crisis of capitalism foretold in the Communist Manifesto. The workers of the world are looking to throw off their chains, or at to least burn Israel to the ground. It's all about power, really. And today's academics, beyond their daily squabbles over tenure and contracts, would love to initiate massive capitalist expropriation, and they'd perhaps send a few capitalists to the camps as well. In any case, I'm looking at the Wikipedia entry for the Communist Manifesto right now, where it cites what's perhaps the most controversial passage of the book:
When, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared, and all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation, the public power will lose its political character. Political power, properly so called, is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another. If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by the force of circumstances, to organize itself as a class, if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production, then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class.
This is the thesis of the "withering away of the state," which is the Big Lie of communist revolutionary theory. The state will not wither away, and in fact the state will grow in inverse proportion to the immiseration of the people.

I like Walter Russell Mead. I just wonder if he spends as much time with actual Marxist revolutionary cadres as I do.