Marx This, Marx That, So What?

Crisis engulfs. We react. Too often, out comes Marx, and for some pundits, even Lenin, Trotsky, and who knows who else. Really? Again?

Icons quoted, quoted, and quoted. And our own words? Too often into the hopper of history to come out transformed so we can claim that Marx said it and therefore it must be right. We are on the side of the Ultimate Angel.

I work at ZNet, a big left website and so I see tons of material daily. So much bad – it is rarely a picnic. Weeks, months, years, and decades come and they go. Left “scholars,” especially elderly ones, just keep on muttering. Marx said it. Marx tells us it. Marx knew it. See Volume Three. The subtext (intended or not): If you don’t study Marx for years on end – and for some, study Lenin and Trotsky too –  you are deficient. And perversely, the quoting and posturing escalates whenever reaching large audiences appears possible.

This is incredible in so many ways. Think, for example, what a physics class – not a history of physics, but physics per se, was told that if they didn’t read the original Heisenberg or Bohr they didn’t know quantum mechanics. Imagine someone making arguments about the subject and its application, by quoting distant originators.

The Marxologists, how many it is now, I no longer have a good estimate of, do all their quoting oblivious to or sometimes aware of but not caring that it makes normal people want to run and hide due to anticipating they will hear regurgitated unexplained old fashioned jargon that lacks clarity, timely rootedness, and especially actual words of their own from the person making the noises – you know something not mechanical, but heartfelt. It doesn’t matter, by the way, if in some particular or conceivably even in all cases the listener’s expectations of obscure, impersonal, irrelevance is right or wrong. The expectation alone cripple communication.

Okay, even as I say not to do it, I will now quote, both for insight and legitimacy, the big man, the optimistic oracle, the grandest grand daddy, the international flag bearer, or whatever so many leftists think this guy who is, after all, dispersed into the sod, is. Why will I do this? Well, whatever else, Marx was often very often eloquent and spot on, as they say. So, here is my favorite Marx, in this case, both eloquent and spot on for this essay:

“The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

The non Marxologists might be forgiven for thinking that Marx must be referring here to reactionaries celebrating and wishing to return to the past – but no, he isn’t.

“And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before…

Whooops, Marx is talking about revolutionaries, not reactionaries…

“…precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time honored disguise and borrowed language.”

So it is revolutionaries, not reactionaries, that Marx is castigating for borrowing “names, battle slogans, and costumes” from the past in order to present the present in “honored disguise and borrowed language.”

“Thus Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793-95.

So we find, over and over, today is costumed as if it was yesterday, and this is done, ironically, by those claiming to seek tomorrow.

“In like manner, the beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue.”

Maybe all those wanting to offer their thoughts and deeds in ways enabling them to say “Marx is on my side,” ought to, for this one time, pay really close attention to their favorite thinker’s words. He had a point, above, very insightful, very germane – worth assimilating.

Some will say I exaggerate the problem. Maybe I do, but did Marx exaggerate it too? If I am exaggerating, then there is no one, or very few, at any rate, who need to forego conjuring spirits of the past. Great. However, I will proceed in this screed because I think the problem is instead pretty widespread, and recently increasing – exactly in accord with Marx’s prescient prediction.

But what is comrade to do? I was recently asked, in fact, what if I think I do operate in the tradition of some great thinker? Should I flaunt it? Should I hide it?

My answer was, first, you may be wrong. That is you may be updating so much that you have transcended the tradition, not just refined it, which in the case of Marxism would be good since we are talking about borrowing from a century and more in the past. But, again, it just doesn’t matter. There is no need to display your lineage, much less to trumpet it, whether the claimed lineage is accurate or not. What matters instead is to make clear what you believe and to show why you believe it, all in the words of today, your words, and certainly not quoting words treated like scripture as if quoting them provides an argument or evidence. The real task is to present relevant experiences and logical claims and connections of your own, from contemporary times, in your own words, with your own feelings and passion, on behalf of your own views.

Can you present your views your way, in light of your own circumstances, also attending to the expectations, fears, and knowledge of those who you wish to now address? If so, that is excellent. It is so much better than a conjuring trick.

So let me put this as bluntly as I can.

A person quoting Marx (or whichever other long gone icon) to make a point about contemporary relations or current prospects – as compared to making a point specifically about intellectual history – is too often more concerned about getting his or her audience to genuflect to Marx, or about demonstrating his or her own allegiance to Marx, than about getting anyone to thoughtfully consider and then hopefully agree about some observation based on actual evidence and reasoning. Indeed, seeking to elevate Marx or to be identified as a supporter of Marx often has more to do with trying to ratify one’s own identity and “be true to it,” whatever that means, than it has to do with trying to accomplish something more worldly. The down side is that conjuring the past typically induces communicative poverty and often risks a slip slide toward sectarianism.

So in this particular case, why not take Marx’s advice? Let the “dead generations” rest in peace. Awake from “nightmarish” mimicry. Make your own case. Use your own words. Use your own examples. Stop “borrowing.” Create.


  1. Satan The Devil August 24, 2015 2:58 pm 

    I could hardly disagree more. Real forward steps in ideas are rare. Then the new steps are smaller than people often think. Not only did Lenin and Trotsky give us nothing really new but they failed to keep up. If they had kept up with the ideas of Marx then they would have seen that democracy was a step forwards for Russia as dictatorship was a step back. Marxist means for a start simply to keep up with the ideas of Marx.

    Especially for James here’s Marxism boiled down:

    A free worker owns the means to work 1) alone to use small means to work 2) as a co-op to use big means to work.

    Please show me where was the hard bit?

    As a non-Marxist you may ask which is the one true way to own: 1) alone or 2) as a co-op?

    But as a Marxist there is not one true way to own both small and big means. You change small production into big production. So you must change your ways to own too.

  2. avatar
    James Wilson October 7, 2014 9:24 am 

    See, the above expresses what I have felt quite often. Constant references to the old dead fella don’t usually make me feel comfortable in my own skin or confident in my own knowledge but rather, that there is a gap, sometimes a huge one, that needs filling before I can enter the conversation, so I tend to stand down. Further, if some Marxian scholar took the time to reduce the huge wad of material that constituted Marx’s contribution to something manageable, easy to grasp and usable, then one probably wouldn’t need to read and read and read, unless of course, the dude got it all horribly wrong. If that be the case, how the hell would I know? All I could do is use my own discernment to see if it all made sense and was usable. But if Marx cannot be reduced to simple language, simple concepts, then what’s the point? It remains as the play thing of the highfalutin, the entertainment of those that find all that intellectual jousting stuff entertaining. I don’t have any problem with that, but in the small world of trying to make the big world a better place, it could be an unnecessary distraction, an opportunity cost gone horribly wrong, a creator of hierarchies and authoritarianism that if unheeded, could cause many in that small world trying to make the big world better, to slink quietly into the background, UNparticipate themselves, to remain unheard out of fear or leave altogether.

    One of the things I found attractive about Parecon right from the start was the way it was presented, without a massive bibliography, without huge wads of quotes and references to the “great” thinkers of the past (as if that’s how one gains credibility). It was easy to understand and written in simple language. And one can gain a very credible understanding of how capitalism works by merely comparing the two economic systems. “Yeah Karl, see, I did it another way!” Parecon was/is?, an act of unique creation.

    Frank Zappa wasn’t a genius. He was just some person who wanted to build stuff out of other stuff of an aural nature. Something that moved air molecules around. Something that HE wanted to hear, and if someone else liked it, so be it. He did it without any real study of the usual “masters” of the past, who usual wrote music for consumption by the kings and queens of the world, the aristocracy, those with loads of money. While those of lesser fortune, possibly with a cheap nasty fiddle and other vulgar instruments, were tearing it up down at the local tavern, ignored and unknown to the world that mattered, to die ignored and unknown to that world as well. Who want’s to dance like you have a rigid pole up your arse when you can let loose down at the local!? Folk music, folk creation never dies, but Karl did.

    It’s not that learning from the past or others, from the past, masters or not, can’t be helpful, of course it can, but when you put people on pedestals they can cast a shadow over you and in that dim place you can easily deny your own very real and valuable creative abilties. Lord knows, I’ve been doin’ it for years.

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