KNAYSI: Reviving Marx

Marx’s ideas are still relevant to discussion of political and economic issues

A new year begins, and Karl Marx remains a relevant albeit controversial figure. Though “Marxist” is often used as a slur in our current political climate, his work offers a fresh perspective on history and economics, as well as a useful analytical tool for digesting current events. And thanks to a new generation of young leftist thinkers, Marx is getting a makeover.

Marxism does hold heavy implications for what an ethical society should look like, but it is primarily a method of socio-economic analysis—a study of the relationships between history, class relations and capitalism. For more than 150 years, Marx’s work, which includes “The Communist Manifesto” and “Capital,” has proven a stimulating and useful method for understanding how society operates. For example, a now-classic Marxist study of medical care begins by discussing how “the health system mirrors the society’s class structure through control over health institutions, stratification of health workers, and limited occupational mobility into health professions.”

Marx’s brand of analysis leaves much open to interpretation about what constitutes a desirable society, and many interpreters (such as the notorious Joseph Stalin) have taken Marx-inspired ideas and reasoned their way to decidedly un-Marxist conclusions. Common American views on Marx are less generous than my own. We are all familiar with these attitudes: Marx and his work are associated with totalitarianism, prison camps, starvation and other failures of the “communist” experiments of the twentieth century. This mentality is perhaps more common in generations that grew up during the Cold War.

This past Thanksgiving, my family attempted to discuss Pope Francis’s recent critique of capitalism, in which he warned the current system could lead to “a new tyranny.” When I made a passing comparison to a Marxist idea on class struggle, my 60-something uncle promptly boomed across the table: “Communism can’t work. Just look at the Soviet Union. They tried it, and it was a disaster.” Though there’s a lot wrong with this statement—for one, the USSR was more state capitalist than communist—I found his reference to the Soviet Union unhelpful and unnecessary.

If you keep tabs on leftist thought, you might notice a resurgence of Marxist analysis in the past few years—and it is often millennials who are responsible. It seems that the end of the Cold War has freed a new generation of leftist thinkers (those too young to remember it) to find fresh meaning in Marxist analysis without the old stigmas and reservations.

Millennials, it turns out, have good reason to resurrect Marxist questions on class relations and capitalism. The older members of our generation began careers in an economic recession, one started by capitalism’s crown jewel, the financial sector. For those of us who have yet to enter the workforce, we too will deal with job insecurity, student debt and decreased economic mobility.

The often Marx-friendly Occupy Wall Street movement of the past several years was largely a young people’s campaign. And though it has mostly died down since it began in 2011, many political commentators predict that economic inequality will emerge as one of 2014’s key issues.

The Left’s Marxist resurgence is most visible in millennial-led publications. Consider my personal favorite: Jacobin magazine, founded in 2009 by the then 21-year-old Bhaskar Sunkara. In one article titled “Zombie Marx,” the author, Mike Beggs, warns against “embalming” the Marx of the 1860s and reverentially treating his work as “a fully-formed alternative to modern economics.” Beggs argues that in order to intelligently apply Marx’s insights, we must account for the intellectual, historical and social differences between the political economy of the 1860s and that of 2013. Similarly inadequate is a “Frankenstein Marx pieced together from scraps of quotations.” Publications like Jacobin, n 1, The New Inquiry, and the older (but now millennial-managed) Dissent have all found ways to introduce a stigma-free Marx to a new generation.

Leftist politics is an exciting but flawed arena. Though it is essential to learn from the mistakes of the past, we must acknowledge Marx’s continuing relevance in thinking about current events. In our hyper-partisan political climate, referencing him does not usually inspire consensus or harmony. But for those who desire broad-minded and creative political dialogue, openly discussing Marxist interpretations can be an educational and even entertaining experience.

George Knaysi is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. His columns run Tuesdays.

Published January 13, 2014 in Opinion

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