Last weekend I attended the seventh international conference of “Rethinking Marxism” in Massachusetts; and I have to say it was disappointing. There was an interesting inter-generational dynamic there between a small number of grey- and bushy-bearded professors who had turned to academic life from the social struggles of the 1960s and eager young academics who followed them around, but apart from that it seemed to me that many of the scholars who spoke were reluctant to discuss anything other than texts or abstract economic arguments.
The round table on “The Return of Karl Marx” was a good example. It featured a number of respected Marxist writers, who all noted the tenacity of interest in Marx, despite the many academic attempts to bury him. Terrell Carver mentioned the BBC Radio 4 poll where Marx was voted the best philosopher, but he could have added that the result was somewhat embarrassing both to the BBC and the program’s presenter, Melvyn Bragg, who claimed that Marx was popular because “he had an answer for everything.” I’m sure that Professor Carver would not have given this explanation more than a C minus.
None of the speakers, however, attempted to explore why the ideas of this mid-Victorian writer would resonate emotionally with people today, as compared to, say, the works of Charles Dickens or the theories of Herbert Spencer. Most of them implied that there was a continuity of what Marx would have termed “the real movement” between his time and the present, citing passages he wrote 150 years ago which could have easily been applied to the current economic and political situation, but I find this inadequate.
I would venture that a better explanation is that Marx brought out the way the system of capital in its everyday workings continually reproduces oppression and exploitation, and that this is what people identify with; moreover it reproduces a need and longing for an alternative. Marx’s idea of a socialist alternative was based not only on his analysis of capitalism but also from closely following and participating in contemporary movements against the system like the International Workingmen’s Association and the Paris Commune. He knew that the Paris Commune could not succeed, but that didn’t stop him from becoming its spokesman.
So when Bertell Ollman dismissed co-ops as not being able to solve capitalism’s problems, after a long and turgid exposition of economic laws, I found this depressingly familiar and sectarian. True, they can’t; but why then does the idea keep on recurring? From the original Rochester wholesale society to the present, coops are born and die away; they can’t survive as islands in a capitalist sea, but surely there’s something to be learnt about the way people could organize themselves without the domination of capital?
It’s all very well lecturing people on programs for the future, but this reproduces a social relation between intellectuals and workers which derives from capitalist society. I believe strongly that this relation needs to be broken down by participating in whatever struggles are taking place and learning from them rather than trying to tell people what to do. If intellectuals don’t engage with the present then their knowledge remains cut off from people who desperately need it.