Karl Marx once memorably observed that “the dead generations weigh like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” Perhaps a bit harsh. He meant that political movements, even when they are engaged in forging an entirely new future, generally feel the need to justify what they’re doing by establishing connections to some venerated past. But sometimes that can be more dream-like than nightmarish, more liberating than imprisoning. Our current political turmoil seems explicitly tethered to the past in both ways. The liveliest political developments in the country are the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. Each in its distinctive way invokes some mythic long-ago. The Tea Party deploys enormous throw-weight inside the GOP and has made it a close approximation to an ideologically driven political party, something the American mainstream doesn’t normally tolerate, something new under the American sun. Yet it draws its energy from a great range of restorationist impulses. Those include madder-than-hell “tenthers” and “birthers,” idolaters of the Founding Fathers, Constitutional fundamentalists, creationists and other flat-earthers, free enterprise zealots, and guardians of traditional morality—especially as it relates to women.
Occupy Wall Street, on the other hand, recalls in its most captivating slogan—“We are the 99%”—the Populist heroics of bygone years, a sense that what today is about is what yesterday was about, namely a life-and-death struggle between the haves and the have-nots (although the 99 percent encompasses people who have quite a bit). Moreover, OWS has of late combined this revivified populism with an infatuation with the “General Strike,” an inspiration from the golden age of working-class resistance. So in preparing for this year’s May Day, “Occupations” all around the country tried to conjure up that rarest (and most dream-like) of uprisings. Workers’ movements around the world have celebrated May Day with strikes and other actions since the late nineteenth century. But although that holiday was originally invented in America in 1886 as the culmination of the Eight-Hour-Day movement (back then it was called “Emancipation Day”), it has been several generations since anything resembling that kind of mass mobilization has happened in the United States. Therefore the widespread demonstrations, marches, and direct actions that took place this year on May Day were enormously encouraging. That nothing like a general strike emerged is hardly surprising. It presumes a degree of grass-rootedness, especially within the working class, that the Occupy movement, despite the widespread (if latent) sympathy it continues to enjoy, simply hasn’t yet established. Here the liberating dream of the “General Strike” functioned as a usable past, if perhaps also one still in need of fleshing out.
The more conventional progressive-left also relies on its own preferred moment from yesteryear. That would be the Age of Roosevelt and the New Deal. For many trying to hold back or reverse the tide of right-wing reaction, the summa of their ambitions is a new New Deal, some version of a more civilized, publicly monitored capitalism. Restore those regulatory mechanisms which once reined in capitalist greed and the future will look more like the good old days. Meanwhile, however, actually existing free market capitalism, facing its own systemic crisis, also looks backward. This is not so much a matter of some retrograde ideological return to the world view of Adam Smith for which corporate America only has a contingent, tactical—but not philosophical—commitment anyway. Rather it is a survivalist drive to reignite the engines of capital accumulation by a general lowering of the standard of living and so raising the incentives and profit margins for a new round of investment and accumulation. Dismembering what it took a century [End Page 4] to erect is modern-day capitalism’s perverse homage to the past.
Wrestling with the past and its relationship to the future is a concern of many of the articles in this issue of New Labor Forum. Here we introduce a new series on Marxism. Are we living through what some have called a “Marxist moment”? Does this voice from the past tell us anything essential about what’s happening now and...