July 26, 2011

You Might be a Marxist

Peter_Kaufman_Bio_Pic By Peter Kaufman

If you have taken an introductory sociology class, and certainly if you have taken a sociological theory class, you have probably heard that Karl Marx is one of the founding figures of sociology.

You may find this to be both surprising and troubling given what is usually taught about Marx in most high school social studies classes. When I teach about Karl Marx I often begin by asking students what they know about him. Overwhelmingly, the responses are negative:

  • “Marx was the father of communism and communism is bad.”
  • “Marxism was connected with the Soviet Union and Cuba and they were our enemy for many years during the Cold War.”
  • “Marx wanted everyone to be the same and not have any freedom.”
  • “Marx was a radical who wanted revolution.”
  • “Marx’s ideas are irrelevant today because communism was defeated and capitalism prevailed.”

If you listen to media pundits and politicians, especially as the 2012 election cycle gets into full gear, you’ll know that these less-than-flattering depictions of Marx are still the norm. In fact, it’s still quite common to accuse someone of being a Marxist as a way to suggest that they are the antithesis of all things good and American. For proof of this, all you need to do is a quick Internet image search for Marx and Obama and you’ll see what I mean.

Given these prevailing sentiments toward Marx and his ideas it’s no wonder that most students enter college with a very negative view toward him. Imagine how surprised students must feel when I suggest to them that not only is Marx more relevant and insightful today than when he was writing 150 years ago, but that most of us would be considered Marxists if we really understood his ideas.

To demonstrate this point let me use a modern-day commentator on social class: Jeff Foxworthy. You are probably aware of this comedian’s routine about identifying rednecks. Well consider this sociological version of Foxworthy’s comedy act based on some of the key ideas of Karl Marx (the effect is better if you can read it with Foxworthy’s southern twang):

  • If you’ve ever said “it all comes down to money” or if you believe that the economy is the driving force of society then you might be a Marxist. Marx referred to this as historical materialism—the idea that our lives evolve and are shaped by our quest to fill our basic material needs (food, shelter, clothing, etc.).
  • If you are concerned that in the United States and across the globe the gap between the rich and poor continues to grow each year then you might be a Marxist. Marx predicted that under capitalism income inequality would continue to expand as the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. He also warned that this may ultimately lead to widespread social unrest.
  • If you believe that we live in an era of globalization then you might be a Marxist. In The Communist Manifesto, his most famous book and one of the most important political texts of all time, Marx and his co-author Fredrick Engels predicted way back in 1848 that capitalists would have to go all across the globe to find cheap labor and new markets to sell their goods. As all politicians and economists agree, this is the defining feature of our current globalized reality.
  • If you believe that many people have lives in which they feel disconnected, disengaged, dissatisfied, and disillusioned then you might be a Marxist. When you feel like you are not fully invested in or do not have any personal connection to your schoolwork, your job, and even some of your social relationships, you are experiencing what Marx termed alienation or estrangement.
  • If you can admit (or are bothered by the fact) that you are more interested in the goods you buy than the people who make these goods then you may be a Marxist. Most of us never think about the human labor that goes into all of the things we buy and consume. Have you ever considered the people working in far-away sweatshops (often in horrible working conditions) who make your clothes, your cell phone, or your athletic equipment? Or the migrant workers who harvest the fruits and vegetables that show up in your local supermarket? This process of desiring the product but disregarding the people who produce the product is what Marx called commodity fetishism.
  • If you believe that your social position—such as your gender, race, class, nationality, ability, religion, etc.—determines what you think, believe, and even feel then you might be a Marxist. Some people believe that their ideas are independent of their social position. They may attribute their ideas to their biology or personality: “It’s just who I am; I was born like this.” Sociologists reject this idea. No one is born a racist. No one is born aspiring to be a doctor instead of a criminal. Our social structural position has a tremendous influence on how we come to see the world and find our place in the world. This is a foundational principle of sociology and it comes directly from Marx: “It is not the consciousness of [individuals] that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.”

Like all great thinkers and prolific writers, Marx said things that weren’t true. And his most famous prediction that capitalism would be replaced by communism certainly has proven false. But does that mean we should reject everything he said? Isn’t this a classic example of the old cliché: throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

From a sociological perspective, Marx had some truly prophetic and insightful ideas. Wherever you stand on the political and economic spectrum (Republican/Democrat; Capitalist/Communist) there is no denying that much of what Marx said over 150 years ago still rings true today. Now that might not be enough for you to walk around with a button that says “Kiss me, I’m a Marxist.” But the next time you hear someone accuse someone else of being a Marxist you may stop and wonder if these stones are being thrown from a glass house.

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Comments

Very good article, but perhaps it would be better to say that Marx's assertion that communism would replace capitalism.....just has not materialized yet!!!

Why are we so preoccupied with categories and labels. Sometimes the issues can get lost in the need to label the contents. As a recent graduate I find one of the most frustrating aspects of sociology is trying to categorise everything

I'm chagrined to admit I'm one of those people who would have expressed overwhelmingly negative sentiments about Marx. I had to re-read the section on commodity fetishism. I would have thought if you are bothered by the fact that people work in terrible conditions would make you a Marxist, but you are saying that being more interested in the products than the people makes you a Marxist. Hmm. A lot of food for thought here. Thanks for opening my eyes!

I love your analysis Peter. Your posting is really inspiring and deeply examines the "heart" of sociology in a single page. Thank you for sharing!

Well done, Peter. I enjoy your folksy reference to Jeff Foxworthy which is a nice compliment to Marx's ideas that most of Foxworthy's typical audience would not, at first blush, probably find very appealing.

Thank you so much! Very much enjoyed. I am a fan of Foxworthy and I am about to take my final in my Intro to Soc today.
ps I even read it with the twang ;)

Você pode ser marxista
Com o título em epígrafe, um texto do sociólogo Peter Kaufman referindo Marx enquanto um dos pais fundadores da sociologia e enquanto motivo para diabolização. Aqui. Para traduzir, aqui.
Nota: o autor chama a atenção para as imagens que foram sendo construídas a propósito do suposto marxismo de Obama. Aqui.

Read more: http://www.oficinadesociologia.blogspot.com/#ixzz1VXQDMVbM

Capitalism might indeed be replaced by something else. Not communism, but something entirely unpredictable. I've never been interested in reading Marx, because like many Americans I always thought he was "wrong." Now I see the error of my ways.

I'm chagrined to admit I'm one of those people who would have expressed overwhelmingly negative sentiments about Marx. I had to re-read the section on commodity fetishism. I would have thought if you are bothered by the fact that people work in terrible conditions would make you a Marxist, but you are saying that being more interested in the products than the people makes you medyum

I'm chagrined to admit I'm one of those people who would have expressed overwhelmingly negative sentiments about Marx. I had to re-read the section on commodity fetishism. I would have thought if you are bothered by the fact that people work in terrible conditions would make you a Marxist, but you are saying that being more interested in the products than the people makes you medyum

Nice article, but I disagree with "Marx said things that weren’t true. And his most famous prediction that capitalism would be replaced by communism certainly has proven false." History isn't over yet ;)

Capitalists always deny the plain truth that their system is propped up by fraud, violence, and terror. Capitalist criminality follows from the reality that capitalism is fundamentally about exploiting workers; consequently, capitalists have a vested interest in crushing all working-class resistance to exploitation

Violence is not the only tool that capitalists use to get workers to tolerate exploitation, for the bourgeoisie rule through a combination of force and fraud. They will use deception in lieu of violence as long as it proves effective. Capitalists are always willing to trick workers into accepting the capitalist system through the ceaseless propaganda of the profit-driven, capitalist-controlled media and to dupe the working class into believing that it possesses a real political voice through corporate-controlled “bourgeois democracy." With its Fox News and other corporate media outlets and its pay-to-play,

I loved this article; thanks so much for the great read. I currently have an economics teacher who is extremely one-minded about everything, and comes from a conservative background. (So do I, really, but him -- even more so). It is a bit hard dealing with someone who teaches HISTORY from a slant perspective in ECONOMICS class, to say the least. Thank you for the relief, and the logical common sense--I believe this is what holds me together at the seams sometimes!

ENOMOUS: You whine. You depend on others to make YOUR happiness and YOUR success. You do NOT and are NOT using the brains GOD gave you to make YOUR OWN WAY in the world.

Let's take each stupid statement you make and show you that you are a walking, talking "liberal" talking points paper and someone who has NOT done his own research.

Please explain your statement that violence is a tool capitalists use to get workers...Where? When? How?

and since you are on THIS site - you may be redeeming yourself as you are reading and learning for yourself....but I doubt it as you want to be a victim.

Ask HOW they are manipulating YOU for example? Hmmmmm?

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