- “You’re (Still) a Marxist, Aren’t You?”: Some Brief Notes on the Politics of Affiliation
Marxism, more clearly than any other kind of thinking, has shown us that we are in fact aligned long before we realize that we are aligned.—Raymond Williams, “The Writer: Commitment and Alignment” (1980)
Whatever their own political and intellectual affiliations, most readers will have noted that a great deal of public writing on Marxism in the last decade, as well as many private conversations among those of us who self-identify as Marxists without any qualifying prefix, have been dominated by a sense of crisis. To cite just one typical example of the public crisis mode, Terry Eagleton wrote in his 1996 introduction to a Blackwell reader on Marxist literary theory that “Marxism at present is enduring the most grievous crisis of its fraught career—a crisis which involves nothing less than the question of its very survival” (ix). Nearly all of the U.S. left journals have run articles and special issues on the “crisis in” or “end of” Marxism, some of them giving rise to debates on what might or should take its place now that we are supposedly “post-Marxist.”
Marxist academics and intellectuals are hardly the only people to have indulged in this funereal rhetoric, of course; the mainstream U.S. media have continued to delight in regularly reminding their readers and viewers that, if Marxism isn’t quite as dead as Marx himself, it lives on only as a farcical parody of itself, as a “style” devoid of any meaningful critical content or political force. Thus, the [End Page 108] May 5, 1998 New York Times story on Verso’s 150th anniversary edition of The Communist Manifesto began with a profile of Mavis Ueberall, the 77-year old manager of the Communist Party U.S.A. bookstore in New York who would have nothing of the glamorous new Verso edition. After describing the Manifesto as a “peppy little page-turner” and repeating with smug amusement Ueberall’s firm conviction that the long-awaited revolution is just around the corner, the article went on to note examples of how the “specter of Communism” is still haunting New York, but only as kitschy iconography used to sell watches, vodka, and fast food. In any case, the article concludes, the Verso Manifesto was much more likely to be purchased by trend-conscious yuppies as a cutting-edge coffee-table accessory than by anyone actually interested in its biting analysis of capitalism.
Obviously, such articles are intended to trivialize Marxism, and to reassure those yuppies and the corporations in whose interests they work that its political and economic critique is as quaintly outdated as Ms. Ueberall’s belief in an impending communist revolution. But there is also plenty of evidence in the same mainstream media to suggest that not everyone is feeling so reassured. For every four or five articles that trivialize Marxism and its revolutionary legacies, whether taking as their point of departure the anniversary of the Manifesto or the 30th anniversary of the assassination of Che Guevara in October of 1997, 1 there is another that reveals a gnawing fear that it continues to lurk vampire-like among us, an unnatural abomination left over from previous centuries, taking human form in that already most suspect of guises, “the intellectual.” In a commentary in the Wall Street Journal published on May Day 1998 and subtitled “The proletariat is passé, but the revolution lives on in the culture,” Roger Scruton describes intellectuals as those people who, instead of “recogniz[ing] the deep inequality of human fate . . . . have an obsession with equality and with the condition of the underdog.” He condemns this obsession as both perverse and dangerous in that it makes it impossible for them to recognize the legitimacy of “the forms of government that [according to Scruton] naturally emerge in human society.” Intellectuals thus tend to devote their unnatural energies to undermining the “normality of the surrounding social order” and to discrediting the achievements of “successful and powerful” people who are “committed to a social order in which talent can work its way to the top and...