You Might be a Marxist
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.