You Might be a Marxist (Part II)
One of my first Everyday Sociology posts was titled You Might be a Marxist. In this post I made the point that despite the overwhelmingly negative connotations attached to Karl Marx in the United States, many of his ideas prophetically describe our current socio-economic realities. In fact, many of us might consider ourselves “Marxists” if we really understood some of his analytical conclusions. The tremendous social insight we get from Marx is the reason why he is widely considered to be one of the founding figures of sociology.
With just a week left before Election Day many political contests are heating up. If you follow the presidential race and even some congressional races it is likely that you may hear President Obama and other politicians accused of being Marxists (or communists/socialists). As I suggested in my first post, these accusers probably know very little about Marx’s actual ideas. They are just tossing his name around to disparage and discredit others because to be called a Marxist is among the worst insults in the American political arena.
As sociologists, we know that Marx’s ideas are not only still relevant today but that they resonate with the views that many of us hold. For this reason, I thought it might be useful to once again offer some examples of how Marx’s social commentary is much more mainstream than we probably realize.
For this post, unlike the first one, I’ve decide to focus (almost) exclusively on ideas from The Communist Manifesto (co-written with Frederick Engels). The Communist Manifesto, which is the second best-selling book of all time, is one of the most accessible, clearly written, important, and widely available of Marx’s writings. As such, it is important that as sociologists we have a baseline understanding of the text that The New York Times once called a “masterpiece with enduring insights into social existence.”
To make my points, I again borrow the format of Jeff Foxworthy’s “you might be a redneck” comedy routine. Given his endorsement of Mitt Romney, Foxworthy would probably not be too flattered that I adopted his shtick for these blogs. But even so, I’m naïve enough to believe that if he read these two posts he too might find himself uncomfortably aligned with Marx. And don’t forget to read these with Foxworthy’s southern twang—the effect is much better!
- If you believe that many of today’s environmental problems—climate change, deforestation, pollution, lack of clean water—are largely caused by a global economic push towards greater production and consumption then you might be a Marxist.
Marx and Engels warned that capitalism, with its insatiable appetite for profit, must go “over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.” This drive for capitalist production results in the destruction of the environment—something Marx wrote about later on: “All progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility.”
- If you are amazed by the wonders that have been produced since the age of industrialization—architectural astonishments such as skyscrapers, bridges, and dams, and technological achievements such as space travel, satellite communication, and robotics—then you might be a Marxist.
As much as Marx disliked capitalism and blamed it for so many societal ills, he was in awe of what it produced. The following words of Marx and Engels seem as true today as they were in 1848: “The bourgeoisie has created more massive and more colossal creative productive forces than have all the preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground.”
- If you recognize the dizzying array of changes that are occurring whereby today’s technological innovations (iPhone 4) become obsolete tomorrow (iPhone 5) and methods of communication (pagers and e-mail) become passé as soon as we learn to master them then you might be a Marxist.
Marx and Engels explained that the rapid pace of social change makes things become outdated before they even take hold. The capitalist era is characterized by “constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, and everlasting uncertainty.” The speed though which change occurs was poetically captured by Marx and Engels in of the most famous pronouncements of The Communist Manifesto: “All that is solid melts into air.”
- If you believe that the recent global economic downturn (recession) was due in part to greed, overproduction, and the un-regulation of corporate interests then you might be a Marxist.
Marx and Engels likened capitalism to “a sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.” They went on to say that such “commercial crisis” that we are experiencing return periodically to capitalism and that such a crisis arises because of the “epidemic of overproduction.”
- If you believe in full equality for women both in the home and in the workforce then you might be a Marxist.
It might be stretch to call Marx a feminist; however, he and Engels did critique capitalists for seeing their wives like they viewed their workers: simply as property. In place of such alienating social arrangements they argued that “the real point aimed at is to do away with the status of women as mere instruments of production.”
- If you believe that no one achieves financial success without the help of others then you might be a Marxist.
Marx and Engels were very clear that the accumulation of wealth is a social creation; not solely an individual accomplishment: “To be a capitalist is to have not only a purely personal, but a social position in production. Capital is a collective product.” This view runs counter to the myth of the “self-made millionaire” that is propped up and promoted in American society. Discussions about wealth and success often fail to point out that no one attains financial stability on their own merits. This is especially true for the super-rich, most of whom started out with significant economic advantages as demonstrated in the recent study Born on Third Base.
- If you believe that you are not a Marxist then you might be a Marxist!
It is often noted that Marx said, “All I know is that I am not a Marxist.” This famous quote has never been attributed directly to Marx but actually shows up in a letter Engels wrote where he quoted Marx as saying this. Nevertheless, Marx was certainly aware, even in is day, how his ideas were becoming distorted and therefore he warned against such idolization.
Between this post and my earlier one I’ve offered thirteen examples of Marx’s ideas to demonstrate that what he advocated for is not too different than what many of us might believe. The purpose of these posts is not to make people Marxists—despite their titles. Rather, I hope to promote a deeper and less dogmatic understanding of Marx’s contribution to the way we see and think about society today. I also hope to encourage readers to pick up a book like The Communist Manifesto and see for yourself what Marx had to say (my favorite user-friendly version is an annotated one edited by Phil Gasper). Who knows, you might find that like these two guys (channeling Katy Perry) you read some Marx and you liked it!