Today is the bicentennial of Karl Marx’s birth, and while much of his work is over my head, some of his basic ideas are spot on like how all profit is “surplus-value” (obtained by paying workers less than the value of what they produce). Marx called capitalism inefficient, wasteful, and immoral. Today this seems like an understatement. Read Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism and This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate for starters. Marx wrote of the “laws of motion” of the capitalist system before there were crippling recessions and depressions, booms and busts. Marx also predicted monopolies. Most of these predictions and assertions were writing in his masterpiece, the three-volume tome Capital: Critique of Political Economy (also known by its German name Das Kapital). While I can say I have read the passionate yet anachronistic Communist Manifesto (co-written by his friend and often financial supporter Friedrich Engels), I cannot say I have read much of Capital Volume 1 and I have never seen the other two volumes.
I had a proper introduction to Marx in high school thanks to Mr. Thorn–an exceptional economics teacher–who had his class read Robert Heilbroner’s The Worldly Philosophers. Heilbroner’s Marx seemed to me like the hero of the common laborer, but I was young and a remedial student and was aware of this deficiency. I was easy prey to the smarter kids who thought Marx was terrible. (It was the Cold War and I lived in an upper-middle class neighborhood and attended a high school of the like.) Mr. Thorn was a free-thinking kind of teacher and was open to ideas by Marx and Thorstein Veblen–another thinker in Heilbroner’s book that fascinated me. I loved the class so much that upon receiving a “C” in the course I enrolled in the class again, earning the same grade despite covering the same material. (I told you I was dull!) Without a doubt, Marx was the most challenging chapter in a very challenging book for me, but Marx cared about working person. No matter how mediocre of a student I was, I understood Marx cared for the little guy, and I liked that.
In college, my exposure to Marx was relegated to a guest speaker on one day in my Economics 1A class. My professor lectured almost exclusively on how reduced governments, free trade, deregulation, and fiscal responsibility in government was the ideal. I got re-acquainted with Adam Smith, David Ricardo and was introduced to Friedrich Hayek and other Austrian School economists, as well as Milton Friedman, and other University of Chicago economists. Just like in my high school economics class, I was horrible, garnishing a “C” and compelling me once and for all to stay away from the subject but focus on the social ramifications of economic projects. I have always been compassionate. Where I got that from I don’t know. Maybe my parents, but also there were my Sunday school teachings of Jesus. (I would later articulate Jesus feeding and healing the poor into being pro-welfare, pro-National Health Insurance, and pro-Guaranteed Minimum Income.) When I was a kid, I liked Robin Hood’s stealing from the rich and giving to the poor idea. (I would later articulate this into aggressive wealth redistribution aka Progressive Taxation.)
Anyway, I put up with the libertarian-leaning class study. In a lame attempt to be “fair” the professor had a student who was a member of a socialist party come in an explain socialism to the class. It sounded good to me, but after the socialist finished his talk a classmate who had been quiet the whole semester started asking questions. Soon he was ripping into the speaker rhetorically asking something like “How do you expect architects, engineers, doctors, lawyers, etc. will agree to be paid the same as janitors, waitresses, groundskeepers, dishwashers, etc.” The socialist stammered and the guy in class just kept coming at him. I even remember the professor smiling impishly on the sidelines not about to help the young socialist out even if he could defend the speaker if only in theory. When the capitalist apologist was done, he became the Big Man in Econ 1A. I knew there were smarter socialists on the planet who could debate this student, and for every smarter socialist, there would be a more intelligent capitalist, and so on, but I didn’t know the answers. I would like to think the winner in the Debate Royale would be a socialist. In a timeless universe perhaps Marx would be the last man standing.
After I graduated I put away Marx and socialism and settled down as a family man, discontinued my subscriptions to leftist magazines, and voted an uninspiring Straight Democratic Ticket in most elections. Twenty years later, in 2007, I would get back into following politics after falling in love with the eloquent words of Barack Obama. At the same time, though, I started reading the alternative press, like I did back in college. People were calling the U.S. Senator from Illinois a socialist and I was intrigued to know if he really was one.
Shortly after Obama took office, I started wondering how this guy could be a socialist when he was hiring the same people Clinton used to betray American workers with their free trade agreements, screwing the poor by reforming welfare and passing the Crime Bill, and opening the door for catastrophe by dismantling Glass-Stegall. I was flipping through an issue of The Nation Magazine one day and saw an ad for the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). It sported the faces of Cornel West, Noam Chomsky, and the Independent U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders–three people I had a lot of respect for. West was one of Obama’s biggest supporters. (He would later call Obama a “counterfeit.”) I knew of the erudite Chomsky back in college. The Senator from Vermont I just had heard about. Sanders had recently done a filibuster on the Senate floor corporate greed and the decline of the middle class that lasted over eight hours. I had read extracts from it in The Nation and was inspired: I hadn’t read Marx in years but thought this hero of the working class and poor was the closest thing to it. When I became a member of the DSA, it was the first time I called myself a socialist. By the time I read the full transcript of Sanders filibuster in his book The Speech I was a big fan, but I also knew–long before he ran for president in April of 2015–that he was a lite version of a socialist. Bernie was–is–more like a pre-neoliberal Democrat. Noam Chomsky has referred to him as a “New Dealer” and others have likened him to LBJ. I knew he was the best bet by far for president in that election, but neoliberalism has both parties and the mainstream media in a death grip. Bernie didn’t stand a chance. At least in 2016.
Shortly after the Mid-term elections of 2010, I began attending meetings and reading groups at my local chapter of the DSA here in Sacramento, but while my fellow members were warm and welcoming all my years of reclusiveness had taken its toll. Additionally, I was often by far the oldest person in the room. Most of the attendees were college students–my kids’ ages. I stuck out. I continued to attend meetings off and on, then quit for a while, then started up again, then I just decided to watch from the sidelines. I remain a member. I pay my dues, contribute whenever there are fund drives, but otherwise, I’m more of an armchair socialist.
I have read the Max Beer biography The Life and Teaching of Karl Marx, portions of Eric Fromm’s Marx’s Concept of Man, as well as revisiting the chapter on Marx in Heilbroner’s book. I admire Marx mainly in some of the ways he has inspired thinkers that I better understand and follow. For one there is the filmmaker Raoul Peck, director of the new film The Young Karl Marx. The movie is good if not stunning like his previous film I’m Not Your Negro. The interview below of Peck by Amy Goodman is interesting because they show how the National Rifle Association uses fear of Marx(!) to combat the rise of anti-gun protests after the Stoneman Douglas High School shootings in Parkland Florida.
Another interesting note about Wayne LaPierre’s C-PAC speech is that it is highly speculative that “on college campuses ‘The Communist Manifesto’ is one of the most frequently assigned texts” and it is dubious, at best, that “Karl Marx is the most assigned economists” [sic]. The complaints from Marxist professors like David Harvey, Erik Olin Wright, and my favorite, Richard D. Wolff, is that heterodox economics is not being taught in many colleges in the U.S. enough. The trend for some time now has been towards Neoclassicalism, a school of thought that has no room for Marx, or Keynes or any of the others outside the orthodoxy. I like Wolff (and Harvey and my youngest son who is a Marxist) because he is so accessible. He hosts the excellent podcast Economic Update, he is a frequent guest on The Thom Hartmann Program and here he is on Real Time with Bill Maher.
Finally, I accidentally found the video below when looking up Wolff on YouTube. Wolff is the narrator for this Join the Socialist Party USA video. I am not endorsing the party, but maybe I should. I’m still a Democrat for some inexplicable reason. (More about me and my attachment to the Party of FDR and LBJ (and not the Clintons and Obama) in an upcoming post.)
Anyway, I agree (at least on an intellectual level) with the message in the video. I’d like to think Marx would, too, if he were around today.