Capitalism and the Common Good: What’s Left of Marx?
Marx's thought makes us think about alternatives, even when it doesn't give a clear vision of that alternative or a means to achieve it.
This article originated as two keynote addresses, the first as the Presidential Address to the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies, Washington, DC, November 18, 2006; and the second to the Conference on “Redefining the Common Good After Communism” at Bowdoin College, May 1, 2009. It has been revised and expanded ever since. – eds.
“The past,” it is said, “is another country; they do things differently there.” For those of us who started doing research and teaching in what is called “Slavic Studies” five decades ago, at the end of the 1960s, the present seems to be another planet! It is not the world we anticipated. Then the objects of our study, the Soviet Union and Communist regimes in East Central Europe, were alive if not well, and few imagined that Lenin’s utopian vision, even after its decent into Stalinist nightmare, would collapse so abruptly, so completely at a moment of neo-liberal triumph. In those heady years when change really meant change, the interest in varieties of socialism and the analytical potential of Marxist approaches, particularly in the emerging field of social history, invigorated a generation of scholars, not only to attempt to understand the mysterious “Second World,” but to question the orthodoxies and complacency of Western liberalism. When I was a young professor at Oberlin College (1968-1981), that liberal oasis in northeastern Ohio, a senior professor of religion came into my modest office, past the larger-than-life size poster of Lenin on the door, and asked me, “Is it true that you are a Marxist?” In those days, confident in my radicalism, I assured him I was. “How quaint!” he said. “You know,” he continued, “you on the Left believe in the goodness of man and therefore are always disenchanted, while we who believe in Original Sin expect the worst and are never disappointed by what happens.”
For the Left, in so far as a Left actually existed in the United States, and for liberals as well, certainly the next few decades were ones of disappointment and disenchantment. The last spasm of hope for many of us came with the Gorbachev experiment in radical reform from above, but that ended only too quickly in the catastrophic collapse, not only of Soviet Communism, but of any real “third way” alternatives to the triumph of neo-liberal economics and eventually neo-conservative politics. The profession, which was centered (at least for political scientists) on Kremlinology – who would succeed the current leader — limped along, trying to find its feet in a now much-disparaged field called “area studies.” Sovietology was discarded on the trash bin of history; economics of non-capitalist societies evaporated as a field of study; though, it should be noted, other disciplines revived – I am thinking here of history benefiting from the newly opened archives and anthropology and sociology, now able to do field work in regions hitherto closed to investigation.
More consequentially, the end of Communism and the Soviet empire in East Central Europe dragged down almost any socialist alternative to Western capitalism. Almost every form, from mild European Social Democracy to Third World revolutionary movements, was weakened or discredited. To be sure, the end of the post-World War II social democratic moment was already underway before 1991, undermined by the neoliberal capitalism (Reaganomics and Thatcherism) in advanced countries that subverted unions and welfare programs in the face of transnational competition that has been sanctified and naturalized as if it were the inevitable, agentless force of history known under the anodyne rubric “globalization.” The collapse of the USSR appeared to confirm the perversity of Marxism as political practice and a view of history. The principal critical analysis of capitalism and imperialism, the major opponent of Western capitalism in both Western socialist parties and in Soviet support of national liberation movements and Communist parties, Marxism was swept from the field, driven underground. Well, not completely. It was driven into the academy, the universities, where it was occasionally taught to freshmen, perhaps having them read a section of The Communist Manifesto, which was aimed at inoculating them for the rest of their lives against Marx. It was difficult at the time to speak of a conscious working class in anything like the sense that it had meant in earlier times. In the age of Richard Nixon, workers appeared as “hard hats,” members of the silent majority. In the absence of significant secular revolutionary or reformist alternatives to the “new world order” of Western capitalism and democracy, unanticipated new forces, much more conservative and religious, appeared, first in Iran in the revolution of the ayatollahs in 1979, in the Muslim Brotherhood movements in Egypt and elsewhere, in the mujaheddin resistance to the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, metastasizing into the jihadist radical Islamic movements of the present. A Green Menace had replaced the Red Menace!
When the Soviet Union set itself up as the guardian of the faith, Marxism and socialism were identified by liberals, conservatives, and Stalinists alike as being consonant with the practices and achievements of the USSR. Stalin defanged Marx, eliminated the critical power of Marxism and turned it into a legitimizing ideology, like liberalism in the West. It may be that Marx will never be freed from what was done in his name in the last century. To my mind that would be tragic. Marx’s project remains critical as a form of analysis, an external standpoint from which to view the hegemonic social forms and practices of our time, and a cluster of values and norms that expose what needs to be changed. He provided an alternative vision of the common good that in our current conjuncture of capitalist calamity and the crisis of bourgeois democracy has acquired an unanticipated potency.
In this essay I explore my own Marx, that is what I take still to be, not only relevant, but extraordinarily important in his thought for the kind of work from which historians, political scientists and sociologists, social scientists more generally, as well as thinking citizens might still benefit. Note, I am speaking about Marx, not Marxism, which is too unbounded and varied a category for a short essay to encompass and which has its own history that requires its own serious analysis but would take us into too many different directions. I follow here the analysis of Marcello Musto, who reviewed how Marx’s loyal collaborator but somewhat reductionist interpreter, Friedrich Engels, shifted Marx’s more disparate writings into a more systematic oeuvre:
The form of a manual, an important means for the export of Marx’s thought throughout the world, certainly represented a very efficacious instrument of propaganda, but it also led to considerable alterations in its initial conception. The circulation of his complex and incomplete work in its encounter with positivism [and Darwinism] in order to respond to the practical needs of the proletarian party, translated it into a theoretically impoverished and vulgarized version of the original material, rendering it barely recognizable in the end of transforming it from Kritik into Weltanschauung.
Marx himself replied to Kautsky when asked in 1881 about possibly publishing a complete edition of his works: “First of all, they would need to be written.”
This essay is not a defense of Marx; that would be presumptuous. Those of his ideas still worthy need no defense. Much of Marx has simply become part of our everyday vocabulary, like the ideas of Sigmund Freud or Max Weber, and is employed constantly without attribution, a testament indeed to the persistence of his influence. Nor is this an indictment. That industry has closed its doors largely because nobody cares much anymore – except, perhaps, for those political opportunists who condemn almost any social reform as socialist or Marxist. This curious invocation of “socialism,” largely from Fox News and the political Right as a phantom with which to frighten the unknowing and throw liberals off balance, has in many ways had the opposite effect – intriguing the young with what this alternative to Trumpism might be.
Communism in its Leninist or Stalinist forms is a historical fact, no longer an active threat, and has lost its sting. Young people simply do not any longer take seriously the Red-baiting of conservatives. Moreover, historians have done a good job unraveling the mysteries and myths of Soviet history and the relationship of what was done in Marx’s name to the one great power where his ideas were least appropriate. Russia was conceivably the worst place to attempt to build the kind of socialism that Marx envisioned coming after capitalism had exhausted all its potential. This is a country that is still today trying to get capitalism right. Actually, many historians claim, this is a country that fucked up feudalism.
Rather than defense or indictment, I am offering a reminder that the baby of thought and theory ought not to be thrown out with the bathwater of what was once actually existing state socialism of the Leninist variety. My own sense is that Marx would have been the most fervent critic, from the Left, of the disempowering of the working class and the exploitative character of the Soviet regime, as were many Western and Soviet Marxists of the time. Even acknowledging the many achievements of the Bolsheviks – the industrialization of a beleaguered peasant country, urbanization of a continent of villages, the spread of mass literacy, the victory over fascism that made the world safe for liberalism and capitalism – for the less well-informed Marxism is likely to carry the stain of Stalinism and the destruction of millions of lives well into the future.
Marx himself was many things in his life – a post-Hegelian radical searching for the source of the expected German revolution; an Enlightenment rationalist who believed in naturalistic explanations of social and natural phenomena, rather than supernatural or religious causes; a social scientist with a deep faith in empirical research; a moral philosopher, a secular humanist, who thought he could provide a factual, real world basis for such normative categories as exploitation, inequality, and emancipation; a historical sociologist (avant la lettre) who believed he had discovered the laws of social motion in the class struggle as well as the instrument of human liberation from capital, the proletariat. Here, one might argue, science was superseded by eschatology, and that in its futurism, Marxism became a religion done up in scientific drag. Most importantly, in my view, is Marx the poser of questions, the formulator of a vast research program that he himself had far too little time to realize. His questions, critique, his values, and his moral vision are all part of a legacy that remains a powerful spectre that still haunts global capitalism and bourgeois democracy at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Those questions, critiques, and values continue to inspire people in many parts of the world who without them would be even more disempowered before the onslaught of global capitalism and American hegemony.
The narrowly conceived opposition that divided the world in the Cold War decades between bourgeois democracy on one side and statist socialism on the other, and the dichotomy between a utopia of social and economic rights versus a utopia of exclusively political rights, has put us into a political cul-de-sac. The way out is to think about how the social and the political must be reintegrated into a fuller notion of the common good. We learned from the Soviet and East European experiments that there is no real socialism without political democracy, and we should be learning from our own experience that there is no real democracy without some kind of socialism.
The generation of social historians that was educated in the 1960s and entered the profession in the 1970s had a particularly intense engagement with Marx and Marxist historiography, whether or not they were Marxist in orientation themselves. Theirs was a moment of exploration of the new social history that came out of Britain and France, some of it overtly socialist history, the replacement of the older emphasis on structure with a gravitation toward appreciation of human agency, experience, culture, and later discourse, the problem of meaning. All those influences — whether Eric Hobsbawm’s deep study of primitive rebels, E. P. Thompson’s concern with experience, the feminists’ radical deconstruction of naturalized identities, the scholars of nationalism’s constructivist assault on primordialized communities – had the cumulative effect of historicizing what had been taken for granted, undermining what common sense told us had always been the way it was now, and giving one a sense that intellectual work was more than academic; that it could have real effects on the real world, that scholarship, even in its need to be apolitical or extra-political, had a politics that could not be denied. That generation rejected a Marxism that reduced ideas and politics to economics, dismissed the base/superstructure model of determination, echoed Engels who in his last letters repeatedly denied that he and Marx were economic determinists. This generation puzzled over the “relative autonomy” of politics and the state, was infatuated at first with the young Marx and the problem of alienation and the fulfillment of human potential. From the notion of an (yes) early and late Marx, many tried to integrate the humanist utopianism of the 1844 manuscripts with the materialist structural analysis of Capital; we trudged through the Grundrisse with Hobsbawm’s assistance, looked to Althusser and Gramsci and Lukacs for aid (and comfort), tried to find substitute proletariats – African-American, women, Chinese or Vietnamese peasants – when the white working class of America put on their hard hats and joined Nixon. It was an exhilarating journey that ended up with becoming a tenured radical just as the “revolution” turned into Reaganism. Disappointment, yes; discouragement and disillusionment, no – at least not for many of us. Marx, if he gives you anything, provides an appreciation of contradictions and a sense of historical progression (not necessarily progress, as it turned out), of not mistaking the present for the future, and a radical historicist sense that all that seems natural is historically constructed, changes, and is replaced. “All that is solid melts into air.”
Marx’s view of history, unlike Weberian or liberal modernization theory, did not end with capitalism or legitimize the present as the best of all possible worlds. Even in its appreciation of the power and productivity of capitalism, he aimed to subvert and supersede bourgeois society in the interest of a more egalitarian, socially just, and democratic form of society. This vision certainly contains within it a utopia, as does any politics except conservative acceptance of the way the world exists at the moment. That utopia, that different and better future that the overwhelming one-dimensionality of current political imagination makes appear ridiculous, retains enormous power, even for those who would not think to align themselves with Marx, as an immanent critique of the limits, mystifications, apologetics, and deceptions of bourgeois democracy and market capitalism. Utopia, in other words, might be thought of, not in the usual sense of an impossible dream, but rather a far-off goal toward which one directs one’s politics, even if the ultimate goal might not be reached. My personal goal, for instance, might be perfect health, even immortality; though I know neither is possible, that does not stop me from going to the gym for a workout.
Socialism was, and remains, an alternative imaginary of modernity and not an alternative to modernity. It might be thought of today as a classic “empty signifier,” a concept without specific content, or as Marx proposed, the content to be filled by actual practices within the ongoing movement of history. From its origins, socialism has been a movement with the goal of expanding the power of ordinary people, that is, of extending as far as possible the limits of democracy — not only in the realm of politics (which was the goal of democratic radicals and left liberals), but also in the economy as well. Since the power implicit in property and wealth, they believe, would inevitably distort and corrupt the democratic political sphere, socialists have searched for mechanisms of social control over or social ownership of the means of production. In addition, socialism – in contrast to liberalism but closer to some forms of conservatism, religion, and nationalism – seeks a restoration of social solidarity fractured by the individualizing effects of competitive market relations. That remains their utopia, a telos for their politics.
Marx, however, was not only a visionary proposing a more egalitarian, just, and democratic alternative. He also developed what he took to be a materialist, scientific theory of exploitation that made that vision realizable. In our own times, I would argue, that theory is better seen as an ethical vision rather than an argument from economics: workers ought to have the whole product of their labor. That is a principle to which a just society (i.e., Communism) was to realize. Since all value is produced by labor in Marx’s economics, capital, which is the product of labor (frozen or dead labor) does not for Marx have a right to a reward. As political scientist Jan Elster put it, “Many of Marx’s ideas may be rejected by Marxists, but not his argument that private property in capital goods does not justify a reward to capital owners.” How different from a view that justifies CEOs of giant corporations making hundreds of times what their employees make because of an implied contribution or risk taken. The neo-classical theory of income distribution, which has led to such polarization of wealth in the poorest and the richest countries, is for those who follow Marx fundamentally unjust and indefensible.
The science here has been challenged by neo-classical economics – and that debate continues — but the moral principle stands as a standard, a guide toward which a society might aspire, even if fully reaching it is impossible. The labor theory of value, then, in my view, is primarily a moral theory and a theory of politics, a tool for normative theories of income distribution. It is a radical critique of the injustices that derive from private property in the means of production, and the power such possession implies over all kinds of economic and political decisions. It is also an argument in favor of establishing real social democracy in place of bourgeois democracy, which Marx from his earliest writing understood to be a colossal fraud. “Political emancipation,” he wrote in On the Jewish Question, “certainly represents a great progress. It is not, indeed, the final form of human emancipation, but it is the final form of human emancipation within the framework of the prevailing social order.” Great wealth and property when unchecked by countervailing institutions, their power justified by the dominant discourses, inevitably distort democratic choices. If one imagined a perfect bourgeois democracy, it would be one in which the rich could influence elections by spending large sums of money, buy private media and use it to create or limit popular opinion; where the wealthier members of society had easier access to courts and lawyers and medical care than poor people, where the dominant legal philosophy would be “law and economics” rather than critical legal theory, and where money spent in elections would be equated with freedom of speech. Such a perfect bourgeois democracy, of course, would be viewed by its pundits and preachers not as serving only the rich and powerful but by the talking classes as well as the bulk of the population as working in the interests of the whole people, for the common good.
As an empirical investigator of capitalism, Marx gives us stunning insights into its generation in England, the effects of labor legislation, a fulsome appreciation of the system’s productive potential, and a bitter indictment of the burdens placed on workers and the poor. As a social scientist he suggested an analytical approach to politics that requires a larger appreciation of the nature of society and the distribution of economic power, an approach that originally had been available in the early liberal thinkers of the Enlightenment and the first decades of the nineteenth century before liberalism increasingly turned into the justification of the relations of production and their consequences implicit in the new economic order. Therefore, he describes the sphere of circulation, exchange, as the “Eden of the innate rights of man” where “alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property, and Bentham.” And on capital: “Capital is dead labor that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labor and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.” In other words, capitalism sucks!
One might, at this point, justifiably ask: but doesn’t this effort to achieve radical equality fly in the face of the basically acquisitive nature of human beings? For Marx human nature is a constant creation of the historical activity of human beings, living in and changing nature. What passes for the acquisitive human nature in capitalist societies is actually the human nature produced in capitalist societies, not an effect of nature constant for all time but the product of a particular historically constructed order. “It’s the economy, stupid,” is more the view of liberals, political economists and rational choice political scientists than it was for Marx. Rather than economic determinism, Marx argued that the social organization of production shaped people’s attitudes and practices, while peoples’ actions and thoughts in turn created the world. Such a view is susceptible to a reductionist take, and Marx himself frequently argued that a particular mode of production produced a particular mode of thinking. But reading through his work, it becomes clear that rather than a one-directional determination from materialist bottom to ideational top, there is a dialectical, reciprocal influencing of thought and production of the world.
For Marx, in other words, discourse – what people understand, mean, and articulate – is related to social relations in some sense. For much of social science that relationship is the beginning of a powerful explanatory theory; for historians in particular, it is too simple, too monocausal, and elides the significance of contingency and agency, and underestimates the autonomy of discourse and culture. My own view provisionally accepts a radical middle position – that there is some relationship, an affinity, between social relations and production, on one hand, and the discursive realm, on the other, without firmly settling on a causal or necessary relationship between them. Socioeconomic relations both enable and constrain human actions and are key to explanation, but they are not all encompassing. They do not explain everything, or anything completely. Hence, the need for that imprecise phrase “relative autonomy” as a place marker for additional explanations irreducible to economic causalities. “Relative autonomy” is not supposed to be an explanation of, say, the state or politics, but a recognition of the need for further explanation. “Relative autonomy,” therefore, as Sudipta Kaviraj puts it, “designates an untheorised or inadequately theorized logical space rather than a theory of politics.”
Taking Marx as a starting point, as setting up the problem, we can move to a more elaborated answer – that contingency and accident often get in the way of historical necessity, disrupt the one-to-one functionalism of ideas to modes of production, and make impossible any guarantee of a predictable outcome. There is no longer any end of history – neither an inevitable or even likely socialist revolution nor the eternal continuation of capitalism. Traditional Marxists as well as liberals and neo-conservatives have to give up their historical trajectories.
If you push capitalists to justify their power, position, and wealth, they often make an argument that it is precisely their efforts and achievements – narrowly self-interested as they are – that contribute most to the common good. Their wealth creation helps all – but, of course, some more than others. One might accept Joseph Schumpeter’s famous defense of capitalism as “creative destruction,” but with the caveat that, like war which it so closely resembles, capitalism is much more creative for those at the top and much more destructive for those at the bottom. Adam Smith himself noted that “those who labor most get least.” “To be sure,” Richard Sennet reminds us, “Smith equated the growth of markets and the division of labor with the material progress of society, but not with its moral progress.” The Smith of The Theory of Moral Sentiments and even of The Wealth of Nations was concerned about human welfare and worried that the division of labor and the deadening routine of repetitive work suppressed the natural feeling of sympathy among humans. This is an idea akin to Marx’s view that societies might survive, even prosper, even as they degrade human beings.
Raising the question of the common good is inherently about a moral choice, one that has been subordinated if not abandoned to self-interest, individualism, greed and “making it” in a competitive environment that erodes social connectivity and mutual sympathy. American capitalism in the last forty years looks far less Smithian, certainly not Keynesian, than it resembles the predator or prey model of James Galbraith. “In a predatory regime,” he writes, “nothing is done for public reasons. Indeed, the men in charge do not recognize that public purposes exist.” They speak primarily of the “bottom line” and creating wealth for their “shareholders.”
The grand transnational movement of the neoliberal age is both celebrated and denigrated with the anodyne term “globalization.” Rather than chaste or neutral, the very word is highly ideological. Hear it, and people take sides. From a historian’s point of view globalization is the current phase of a process that has gone on in fits and starts, with long ruptures but seemingly relentlessly for over four hundred years. It should more precisely be referred to as the spread and penetration of internationalizing capitalism. It is both a set of material processes – labor migration, increased ease and rapidity of communication, cultural diffusion, the elimination of trade barriers, multinational incorporation – as well as the current set of discursive claims about the essential need for free trade, for reduction of state interference, for letting market forces take us where they will, for the need for hegemony by the benign superpower, the United States, and for the ultimate rightness and justice of this unavoidable, necessary, and desirable process.
Like the classical liberal view of capitalism (now enshrined in neo-conservatism and neo-liberalism alike) and the liberal view of the democratic state, so the liberal view of globalization is both a rationale for the status quo, with minor adjustments, and a refusal to go beyond the terms with which it defines the possible. Here too Marx provides both an analysis and a prescription (not necessarily a prediction!). In one of his most prescient forecasts of the future, Marx in The Communist Manifesto (1847-1848) laid out the likely path of the economic system, then in its infancy in England, America, Germany, and other lands along the Atlantic, into its maturity as a global phenomenon. This triumph of global capitalism in the wake of the demise of its most formidable opponent, the USSR, thirty years ago is echoed in the economistic theories in social science that have moved from the most dismal of sciences into neighboring disciplines. As my colleague Geoff Eley has written,
Events that at one level are taken to have refuted Marxism’s validity as a theory of the direction of history – Communism’s ending, the collapse of viable alternatives to capitalism, the obstacles to a politics centered around class – at another level precisely instantiate Marxism’s analysis of the dynamism of capitalist accumulation. Similarly, neoliberal thinking has now made the possibilities for democracy so strictly dependent on a particular conception of the economy as to put the most vulgar of all vulgar Marxists to shame.
Marxism, for better or worse, remains the principal critical theory of capitalism (and of the unchallenged liberal biases of social science as well). Even as the history of capitalism has moved on, and basic categories such as class have to be rethought, the grounding of a social or historical analysis in that larger context of capitalist development cannot be avoided as it so often is. As a predictive theorist, Marx failed in part (e.g., in forecasting how the Western working class would perform or underestimating the revolutionary role of peasantries), while as an observer of general trends he was remarkably on target. As a method of analysis his ideas remain extraordinarily important as a point of departure for serious study but not as foregone conclusions or holy writ to be repeatedly verified. As a constellation of values and preferences, his theories continue to inspire political thought and action in a direction set out long ago by the most progressive Enlightenment thinkers. What Marx’s message has lost, at least for the time being, is the means to make the changes that its system of values and preferences believe is so necessary for human well-being and, increasingly, survival. There is no proletariat anymore, at least not in the sense of a unified historical subject in the developed world; there is no coherent material force positioned as the gravedigger of and alternative to capitalism. That modernist belief in a unified, conscious class that embodied progress has had to give way to a greater appreciation of the scattered, disjointed elements of dissent and refusal – working people, the Latin American Left, environmentalists, feminists and people of color, those who struggle for their identity and dignity — that day by day struggle and often fail to constrain the seemingly inevitable expansion of global capitalism.
The question then becomes: is knowledge enough in democratic societies to make a difference? Is understanding of crisis likely to lead to change? More than ever, with the looming environmental catastrophe coming ever nearer, Engels’ injunction – the choice is between socialism [whatever that is likely to be] or barbarism – takes on new meaning. Or as Eric Hobsbawm put it at the very end of his The Age of Extremes,
We do not know where we are going. We only know that history has brought us to this point…. However, one thing is plain. If humanity is to have a recognizable future, it cannot be by prolonging the past or the present. If we try to build the third millennium on that basis, we shall fail. And the price of failure, that is to say, the alternative to a changed society is darkness.
At its best moments, from its origins to its present dismal state, the struggle for socialism has been fundamentally about a struggle for democracy – the extension of empowerment to the greatest number of people. This was true from Marx’s early indictment of liberal parliamentarianism through the enviable record of European Social Democracy and even to Vladimir Lenin’s anti-colonialism and Soviet support of national liberation movements. The commitment to democracy, however, was repeatedly compromised by political expediencies, the imperatives of gaining and holding state power, and the usurpation of socialism’s aspirations by self-serving politicians. Yet democracy, greater social justice, the promotion of equality, and popular control over the economic as well as the political sphere remain the program of those who would take Marx seriously and on his own terms.
Democracy, as Americans must now be most acutely aware, does not come easily, cannot be exported on the tips of bayonets, and its gains even in the most stable of polities can be easily reversed. In the unique and distinctive part of the world that Russian and Soviet historians study, where a gargantuan experiment was attempted, failed to achieve what is most idealistic proponents had hoped for, but also radically transformed the social and political landscape of Eurasia, democracy is (once again) in its infancy in some places, has been eroded in others, and never appeared in still others. Many of the important choices that people can make about social and political life are being played out in that region. Thirty years ago, the turn was made against anything that smelled like socialism, both because of the legacy of the old regime and the momentary hegemonic power globally of neo-liberal economics and the neo-conservative assault on the state. That choice of turning to the actually existing West was overdetermined, and alternatives to adopting Europe and America as a model seemed inconceivable, at least outside the Islamic world. That failure of political imagination left an entrepreneurial view of society as an arena of exploitation for private gain. Any idea of the common good harkened back to the discredited socialist past. Even within one of the last bastions standing against the unfettered market, that is, the university, administrators and consultors proclaimed that what was needed now, as in all realms of life, was a business model! Survival was about seizing opportunities without concern for the long term or the public good.
For those who see capitalism, particularly in its unbounded triumphalism, as a grave danger to popular power, democracy, and environmental rationality, a loss of hope in the future and an accommodation to the present realities is understandable. The United States, simultaneously one of the most progressive and the most reactionary countries on the globe, bestrides the world like a colossus that has stood in the way of any movement or idea that would curb its dominance. Such a view culminated in the neo-conservative expansionism of American administrations that envisioned US dominance entailing the freest of free market economics and the greatest freedom for the USA to have its way in the world. Obama curbed those ambitions to a limited extent, and Trump was simply disinterested in the rest of the world. But with the liberals back in the White House, familiar tunes of the need to rule the world in the way it ought to be ruled can be heard once again. The United States, not China, is seen as the indispensable nation.
Perry Anderson is certainly right when he writes of Western Marxism in the twentieth century as a “Marxism of despair.” The task for concerned progressive citizens is to recognize frankly and honestly (and to work hard to understand) how we came to be where we are. For those in the academy, and particularly those in Soviet and East European studies, it is essential to explain the failures of undemocratic socialism without collapsing the Soviet experience into evidence that socialism is an impossible utopia. For those concerned about the directions things are moving, who still care, a slim hope, in my view, is to recapture a kind of political imagination that too many socialists themselves abandoned as a worthy political goal toward which to dedicate one’s energies.
So, what is left of Marx? And what is to the left of Marx? It is still about democracy, which is still so fragile in much of the world. The utopian aspect of thinking beyond the present – for all of the dangers associated with attempting to impose utopias- at least arms us with a way to think critically about what needs to be changed. Marx makes us think about alternatives, even when his own theory fails any longer to give us either a clear vision of that alternative or a means to achieve it. Granted this might not be enough, especially for pragmatic Americans, but without vision politics circles endlessly around its present conceptions. History should be seen not as a science with predictable outcomes. Here Marx relied too much on a scientific model borrowed from the physics of and Darwinism of his time: the working out of objective laws that underplayed human agency. Another model of science, that of evolutionary biology, suggests humans and society constantly adapting to new circumstances in order to survive, and changing their environment in the process. Along with slow determinations, unforeseen sudden ruptures contribute to social as well as biological change.
In the absence at the moment of a material force to assist us in a progressive direction, Marx’s historicity helps us out: change happens, perhaps not in determined, predictable ways as he might have thought, far more contingently, but it happens, and humans still make their own history even if not under circumstances chosen by themselves. But to make history, you had better know history, and the world. That is where scholars, activists, and all who are concerned come in – not just as closeted observers but as interpreters, explainers – and in their noble, necessary work of critique and analysis, they contribute to those exalted goals of Marx himself, enlightenment and emancipation.