The Communist Manifesto does not equal Marx

Some people don’t like Marxism because they benefit from capitalism, and they’ll say any random thing (and do any inhuman thing) to assert how good it is to love capitalism and how bad it is to not love capitalism. That is one issue, and a main one.

Here I want to address another issue. This issue is a problem for social movement, and the importance of developing, incubating, and communicating ideas in social movement. It manifests itself where people make ideas their business–in academia and even a bit in community activism and establishment politics.

The vast majority of people benefit from capitalism little to not at all (and probably significantly less than they would benefit from many other kinds of systems, even without the monstrous ecological footprint or 100 energy slaves/American). But that means they don’t have much power in this capitalist system.

Given their limitations, the deal that many folks (especially North Americans) strike with themselves, is that they’re not going to critique or address capitalism. They’re going to focus on other, non-class forms of oppression, oppressions which are awful but not in their specificity necessary under capitalism, and which can be traded off against each other over time and space to staff the “natural” underclass ranks. So if you don’t look at oppression broadly, with some hard-won reforms, it feels like oppression is quantitatively diminishing, progress is being made. This myopic illusion gives meaning to liberals and pomo people’s lives (and is in that way a little self-serving).

So where and when a lot of people with some small degree of discretionary power self-righteously focus their ideas and life work like this, working to valorize easily-mobilized identities, they have to ignore human suffering as it shifts around and even increases on the aggregate. As well, non-conservatives neglect the major social movement problem of the hegemonic war of positioning.

These kinds of people, if they’re interested in seeming scholarly, will sometimes read something written by Marx. To be specific, they will read “The Communist Manifesto” only.

Marx’s “The Communist Manifesto” is 30 pages of easy reading. That’s because he wrote it as a rallying cry to inspire workers who were already mobilized to fight for their rights as workers. It’s full of Marx’s most vivid, poetic, acerbic prose, and Marx can excel in such prose. You’ll find great quotes in “The Communist Manifesto.”

However, if all you’ve ever read of Marx is “The Communist Manifesto,” you do not know Marx’s work, and this is not a matter of mere intellectual snobbery. A rallying cry is a far cry from Marx’s life work of secondary (and in some cases primary) historical and cross-societal comparative research, using both rational and empirical epistemological approaches to inquiry. What Marx mainly did was study how capitalism works. And he and Engels and many antecedents did a really awesome job at this over many decades. They were smart, dedicated, hard-working people, whose rational epistemology was rooted in materialist assumptions (and so they believed power, oppression, and exploitation exist), and who firmly held that a materialist approach needs to be historically (comparatively, empirically) articulated.

I’m not saying you have to study the whole body of work. I’m simply calling for people interested in ideas to either try to be literate in Marx or to refrain from feigning familiarity with Marxism.

Say you haven’t studied (because it’s sometimes difficult, even sarcastic, 19th century writing) the inquiry-driven work of Marx, which is almost all of his work. If you are intellectually honest, you will not make statements as if you had some clue about what Marx talked about or how or why he talked about it. Know your limitations–does materialism (in the philosophical sense) come easily to you? (It does not to most people raised in an Anglo-American tradition, and if you don’t believe me, talk idealism/materialism to some Americans v. some Swedes.) To test this, read one chapter, “The Structure of the Artifact,” in Elaine Scarry’s”The Body in Pain.” It’s modern and beautifully and tenderly and boldly written. If that Scarry chapter is difficult for you, then you are illiterate to anything Marx wrote that has philosophical content, which is a lot and it’s a central engine to his program of inquiry. You might be able to turn to “Capital” if you have an interest in economics or political economy. But “Capital” is a big study. It would take time as well.

Unless you’re an intellectual quack, you either admit the limitations of your understanding, or you don’t go there. What’s the draw? Buying legitimacy with moral exclusion? No pro-capitalist conservative is going to throw a liberal the keys to the city just because the liberal tried to help build a cheap-shot, straw-man consensus around the impossibility/illegitimacy of thinking beyond capitalism. Conservatives have got plenty of company men already on the payroll for that, and like I said, in the Anglo tradition, conservatives are very sophisticated about hegemonic power.

Even if liberals are mad at Marxists because they don’t do the same analysis liberals do (what’s wrong with niche marketing under capitalism?), and Marxists don’t really appreciate liberals’ work much or promote their careers (OK that is admittedly a problem under capitalism–one that people could be forthright about), that doesn’t mean liberals have to be intellectually dishonest and pretend they know Marxism because they have read “The Communist Manifesto” or know someone who has.

It’s a small thing to ask–intellectual honesty. It’s not even asking liberals to recognize that piecemeal reform for some groups won’t reduce the fundamental systemic requirement for oppression and exploitation, or that if they really wanted to quantitatively reduce oppression, their efforts might be needed to help challengers in the big, pervasive, modern-historical war of positioning.

Of course in this argument I’m being deliberately naive about liberals’ opposition to oppression. (Discrimination bad, exploitation good.)

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