Our Man on Marx, Zinn and Socialism

05.11.2004 | Richard O'Keeffe | Theater | 11 Comments
Just how dead is Marx? Well, according to the International Socialist Organization (ISO), which presented a performance of Howard Zinn’s “Marx in Soho” at the Broadway Presbyterian Church this Saturday to benefit their forum “Socialism 2004,” the man’s work is as fresh as the daisies he’s pushing up. A dubious assertion to be sure but it makes for decent theater on the cheap.

ISO member and graduate of Brown University’s theater department Brian Jones gives a touching and genuinely funny performance of Zinn’s one man show, in which, due to an afterlife bureaucratic error Karl Marx is sent by the “authorities” to Soho New York instead of its London namesake, where he dwelled in life. Finding a receptive audience, he immediately begins explaining his life and work — and Karl has quite a bit of explaining to do. Which he does to powerful rhetorical result while  addressing modern capitalism’s inequities. But while I fully believed Jones in the role as the late radical author, I had a difficult time believing Marx himself, as though Socialism’s high priest had something to hide.

As the play traces the Marx family fortunes it indulges in a touch of gloss, an example being the mewling that serves as an explanation for Marx’s affair with his servant Lechen and the resultant illegitimate child. Admittedly these failings could be passed off as irrelevant, ad hominem assaults, but when Zinn attempts to paint Karl Marx as your kindly leftist uncle it opens the door to such inquiries. Besides it’s rather amusing to see Marx engage in such tedious bourgeoisie clichés as knocking up the maid.

Friedrich Engels, who also makes an appearance and who Zinn’s Marx declares a “saint” certainly didn’t behave as such towards his old comrade Moses Hess. Gloating over the seduction of Hess’ wife in a letter to Marx in 1846, the real Engels wrote, “Finally I would touch on’ the Mrs Hess affair. It’s bad, but one cannot possibly let her suffer for the stupidities of the aforementioned Hess; I shall therefore try to smuggle her across the border if, that is, I get enough money from my old man for the journey to Paris, which is still not sure. Send the enclosed scribble to the beloved man of God [Moses Hess] in Cologne, to cheer him up.”

Zinn’s play is a touching and surprisingly funny piece of agitprop, but try as it might it can’t escape the limitations of the label. While the play is meant to introduce and explain away the most uncomfortable elements of Marx the man, its explanations feel forced. One such example is Zinn’s handling of Marx’s anti-Semitism, in particular his 1843 article “On the Jewish Question,” which contains such charming lines like “What is the worldly cult of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly god? Money? … Money is the jealous god of Israel, besides which no other god may exist.”   Taking him to task on the issue is his daughter Eleanor or Tussy, as she was called by the family. This adorable moppet, in a kids-say-the-darnest-things fashion takes issue with his singling out one ethnic group as corrupted by greed, to which Zinn’s Marx calmly explains that Jews are merely a “particularly egregious example” of bougesious culture. This might be able to be written off if it were an isolated incident in his intellectual life, but a 1857 article for the New York Tribune where he writes “Christ drove the Jewish money-changers out of the temple, and that the money-changers of our age enlisted on the side of tyranny happen to be Jews is perhaps no more than a historic coincidence” indicates that it is part of a larger pattern. If this is Zinn’s idea of apologetics, it is wanting.

As for Marx’s belief that capitalist systems are always seeking out new markets and wealth to create and exploit, he’s quite right. Yes, market economies do in fact thrive upon competition. However his view was that socialist states would have no need to seek out markets and would thus live peacefully amongst other socialist states. However compelling some find this as an a priori argument, consider that the largest unarmed border in the world is between the United States (the home of the most unregulated free enterprise system in the world, for better or worse) and Canada. Conversely the largest armed border was between the USSR and the People’s Republic of China. Violent conflict hasn’t seemed to end with state ownership and economic planning.

In the face of a string of corporate scandals, endless theodicy on the part of elected officials in response to soul withering poverty in America and abroad and a war fought seemingly for energy resources, it’s an understandable impulse to turn to radical solutions. Solutions that promise to get to the core of the infections that taint the world and breed so much misery; however such desires no matter how well intentioned must not blind us to past experience, nor make us abandon liberal values. While looking for those solutions one might like to take Uncle Karl with a grain of salt, and keep him away from the scotch.

To present Karl Marx as asnything other than a scumbag is insane. Consider that Marx once avoided a duel by sending a revolutionary brother to fight (and nearly die) in his place. He seduced and impregnated his maid while he was speaking out against exploitation of the working class. He always noted his wife's aristocraitic ancestry while proclaiming the aim of egalitarianism. He was a rabid and crazed antisemite. He pruposefully distorted most of the data in "Das Kapital". He refused to visit the factories he wrote about. He jealously denounced and spread lies about real liberal champions of the working-class like Lasalle.
He was a fraud from start to finish.
05.12.2004 | Jonathan Leaf
Roger Clemens is a scumbag, Marx is something much worse. Not only did he slander Lasalle, he did it in real Marxist fashion by calling him a "jew nigger." Anybody who signs their letters 'Prometheus' (as Marx did in his exchanges with Engels) should be hung by their toenails before they can inflict themselves on the world.
05.12.2004 | Jacob
Boys, boys, boys!

And Einstein was a scumbag for how he treated his wives, but are we any closer to understanding his theories when we go that route? Not that Mr. O'Keeffe entirely avoids it, such as offering up a primary source to prove an instance of spurious sleaze on Engel's part.

Karl Marx provided the seminal analysis of capitalism, which continues to inform understandings of global economics today. Anti-trust laws and legitimate labor unions were bolstered by Marx's understandable descriptions of class interests and conflicts.

He also wrote a lot of horseshit about Jews, communism, and a host of other subjects. As an analyst, he could be dead-on. As a programist, he was a charlatan.

His advocates glorify too many of his published works; his detractors try to marginalize a pivotal figure in the world's intellectual history.

I would hope Mr. Leaf is not suggesting that Mr. O'Keeffe is "insane" for acknowledging Marx's place in history. Or that he himself is suggesting that intellectual movements are somehow unmade when their leaders are found to have been hypocrites in their personal lives.

Shall we put Queen Elizabeth on the currency because President Jefferson's DNA is in Sally Hemming's descendants?

C'mon, fellas!
05.12.2004 | David L Steinhardt
The point of the article wasn't so much to bad mouth Marx, per se, but to take issue with Zinn's hagiographical approach to Marx's life and work. I agree with Mr. Steinhardt that attacking the man as a vile hypocrite is inappropriate if your goal is understanding his theories, but they're fair game if a playwright tries to humanize the late political economist.
05.13.2004 | Richard O'Keeffe

Mr Steinhardt,
I am glad you posted your comment. For a variety of reasons, I think that it is now an important time to reevaluate the ideas of Karl Marx. You are right when you say that Marx's personal hypocricy does not, in itself, impugn his ideas. But Marx's critique of capitalism, although occassionally incisive, is consistently wrong. Asking others to acknowledge Marx's "place in history" (as Mr. Steinhardt seems to do) is an empty challenge or at best a flourish of rhetoric. The real question here concerns the consequences of Marx's profound and undeniable influence.
Marx did not stand outside of history and observe the true nature of capitalism, as he and his followers believed, his ideas were very much the product of his historical circumstances. Marx's faith in scientific progress was something he shared with his fellow bourgeoise. His analysis of capitalism pivoted on the polarization between the growing proletariat and the shrinking class of capitalists--does anyone still believe that this phenomenon is occurring? Mr. Steinhardt refers to Marx's contribution to labor unions, a point that I suspect most any labor union socialist--or any real Marxist for that matter--would dispute.
As for Marx's character, who he was schtupping might be besides the point, but his misanthropic messianism has everything to do with his ideas and their legacy. I'll say again that anyone who signs their letters 'Prometheus' and means it is worse than a scoundrel, they're a murderer in waiting. Historical determinism, the engine of Marxist thought, is nihilism dressed up as science and a sure license for dehumanizing terror. Casting nine tenths of the world as barely alive and suffering under false conciousness is a conceptual massacre that clears the way for the real thing. In comes Marx the savior, posessing the conciousness that the masses lack, inaugurating a class of Promethean despots who bring a fire that does not enlighten but burns men alive.
Most of us acknowledge that Stalinism was not a plague that descended spontaneously on Russia, Leninism (and arguably Tsarism) did its part in preparing the Soviet atrocities. Those who would fight capitalist abuses in the tradition of honorable socialism should find much to criticize in the man who gave Stalin his recipe for omlettes when he wrote that: "what certain proletarians, or even the entire proletariat, imagine to be their goal is of no importance."

05.13.2004 | Jacob
Wish but that I could say it as well, sir.
If I can add anything, I might just again note that Marx FALSIFIED HIS DATA - so, again, his criticism was never accurate. The status of the proletariat was noticeably improving in his own lifetime. He engaged in deception to cover that up.
05.13.2004 | Jonathan Leaf
Marx's metaphysics of socioeconomic science is almost as embarrassing as the 20th century Americans I recall parroting such fantastically fatuous nonsense.

I write not to praise Marx but to avoid throwing out red diaper baby with the bathwater. As a member of three labor unions for decades (SAG and AFTRA since 1977; NWU intermittantly since 1989), I'm quite comfortable with crediting Marx with summarizing a concept not popular previously: that one way to understand history is as clashes of classes. By defining ourselves as Workers rather than peasants, employees, or what have you, the rights of hundreds of millions of laborers worldwide were brought into the 20th century. Seven-day employment gave way to five, with the expectation that working conditions could be negotiated, not merely imposed. Do I attribute all that gain to Marx? Of course not, but he was one of the labor movement's intellectual godfathers.

In the age of Wal-Marts locking employees indoors as they work overtime off the clock, that progress is sliding back now.

Are the numbers of the poor rising? Is our middle-class shrinking? Is the privileged class increasingly super-privileged, resented, oblivious? Will great concentrations of capital lead to increasing social unrest and renegotiations of the social contract?

Time will tell.

I have a grudging admiration for the Great Dubious Figures of History, when they get at least one key concept right. Jesus may or may not have thought he was the messiah, but he was certainly right to insist on the centrality of love and mutual respect within the Judaic tradition. Freud went loony extending his theory of sexuality into ever more bizarre fantasies, but his key characterization of the unconscious clarified the field of psychology as none had previously.

I happen to think Marx, despite his legendary failings, outright fraud, and the nightmares of Stalinism and Maoism, shined a light on the tensions between labor and capital which offered a vocabulary to many who had previously been merely oppressed, depressed, or confused. Like firearms and other weapons, Marx's legacy has been both a critical tool and a catalyst for horror. Like religion, his legacy has both opened eyes and shut them.

Marx, the opiate of the Lefty.

We do ourselves no service by insisting on monochromatic views of history. Just think, this week especially, how easy it would be to view this nation as wearing the black hats in Iraq and Afghanistan.
05.14.2004 | David L Steinhardt
David L Steinhardt on 05.12.2004 Writes:

>"He also wrote a lot of horseshit about Jews, communism, and a host of other subjects. As an analyst, he could be dead-on. As a programist, he was a charlatan."

If this is the correct analysis, how are we to distinguish between the pragmatic charlatan and the brilliant analyst, David?

Was Marx brilliant when he wrote Das Kapital, but a charlatan when he wrote his Manifesto which is based on the brilliant Kapital?

Even Marx himself would have eschewed a separation of praxis from analysis.

Marx, to my mind was a typical German "Jewish" bigot who attacked his people in order to endear himself to the anti-Semites in the International, just as leftist Jews today attack their fellow Jews in order to endear themselves to the anti-Semites in the leftist educational establishment.

For people, like David, who believe that there may have been an element of truth in some of Marx's analysis of Capitalism, it's for them to point out what these elements are and it's up to us to evaluate them on a case by case basis.

05.16.2004 | J. Dyer
I received the following uncivil email from Mr. Steinhardt:

Dear Mr. Dyer,

Don't understand why you've responded to my 5-12 posting to the Zinn piece when my 5-14 posting, directly above yours, answer many of your questions.

The key question on this site is, What is enduring? Well, I'll go to the mat to prove that some of Marx's legacy is enduring for both good and ill.

Your claim that "it's up to those" you disagree with to make their points, while you needn't fully make your own, is quite silly. That might fly at a right-wing website, but here we have some diversity of viewpoint!


Mr. Steinhardt

Dear it's hard to know how to answer your bad temper email.

You use personal attack as well as sarcasm to make your point. Unfortunately your attacks are off the mark and your sarcasm is merely a private sneer.

I don't believe you answered the fundamental point in my post which was meant to answer one of the few comments in your post that had some analytic validity. You said:

"As an analyst, he could be dead-on. As a programist, he was a charlatan."

To which I responded with the following:

'If this is the correct analysis, how are we to distinguish between the pragmatic charlatan and the brilliant analyst, David? Was Marx brilliant when he wrote Das Kapital, but a charlatan when he wrote his Manifesto which is based on the brilliant Kapital? Even Marx himself would have eschewed a separation of praxis from analysis.'

If you care to discuss Marx like an adult you need to address the above methodological concern.

Besides, I don't know what you mean by the following:

" Karl Marx provided the seminal analysis of capitalism, which continues to inform understandings of global economics today. Anti-trust laws and legitimate labor unions were bolstered by Marx's understandable descriptions of class interests and conflicts."

Did he? How is it that Capitalism, more than a hundred years after Marx wrote, is still the pre-eminent economic system in the world to the dismay of many people (including myself)?

Surely the people who would agree with your, "Karl Marx provided the seminal analysis of capitalism, which continues to inform understandings of global economics today" are the people who are thoroughly disenchanted by the seemingly invincible nature of this economic system.
To use anti-globalization notions to praise Marx is like using Islamo-Fascist notions like those of
Qutb to praise Islam.

We need a stance outside Marxist polemics, if we are to assess Marx's views impartially.

The distinction between theory and praxis is insufficient to save Marx's theory. Practical application of a theory can neither support nor impugn a theory's validity.

Had Marxism succeeded in Russia that would not have been sufficient to validate Marx's economic theory. Nor is its failure evidence of that it's a failed theory.

Consider this, it is well known that National Socialism in Germany was from an economic point of view a success. It abolished the old German Imperial order. It also built the country up economically in a way that the Soviets could only dream of. Yet who in his right mind would consider National Socialist theory a true theory. National Socialist theory is untrue because its aim is the mimicking of what it considers "natural existence," to set up a culture which is in continual warfare first against its (decreed) internal enemies and then against all outside enemies and finally, if they are to be true to their theory against themselves. National Socialism is a sort of grand deconstructive effort,

I would suggest that Marxist theory is, on the other hand, in principle untrue because its practice of necessity contradicts its theory's aim: the creation of a new [communist] man (I am using 19c communist language) capable of existing within the context of an egalitarian society as a producer.
In other words, Marxian economics theory is based on entities that are totally fictitious.

Those who still praise Marx do so because they claim that while Marx's aims were incorrect his critique of Capitalism still holds true. But Marx's critique of Capitalism led him to conclude that that bourgeois economic system would collapse because of its own internal contradiction. That hasn't happened, so what is left of Marx's critique of Capitalism?

I personally believe that what is valid in Marx's critique of Capitalism are notions that antedate Marx's own theoretics.

Mr. Steinhardt says: " Anti-trust laws and legitimate labor unions were bolstered by Marx's understandable descriptions of class interests and conflicts."

It would be interesting to see when and were the first anti-trust laws were enacted. In the US the Sherman anti-trust laws hail from the 1890's and some States had already adopted such measures prior to that date. I didn't do the research I would doubt that these antitrust measures were the result of Marxian theory.

Finally, I don't know what you mean by "labor unions were bolstered by Marx's understandable descriptions of class interests and conflicts."

Modern labor unions are a mid-19C phenomenon. What made them necessary was the working conditions of factories at that time.

Treat people badly and they will find the means to fight back. Just as Spartacus didn't need Marx to tell him the theory of rebellion neither did the early labor leaders needed to be told that for them to get anywhere in the struggle for better living conditions they needed to band together and fight with one voice. This is a lesson that many need to relearn today, and I doubt a Marxian theory will help them learn it.

I really believe that Marxian notions are getting in the way of successful struggle for a better life for the majority of people in our nation. Howard Zinn is as guilty as anyone in perpetuating a failed legacy.

05.18.2004 | J. Dyer
I am delighted Jackson Dyer and other readers feel so passionately about their positions to argue them here. I'm curious, however, which economic system he would prefer to capitalism, since he mentions his dismay at its continuing preeminence.
05.18.2004 | David L Steinhardt
"I'm curious, however, which economic system he would prefer to capitalism, since he mentions his dismay at its continuing preeminence."

I don't believe in "economic systems," as an abstract construct, are capable of improving the life of individuals. "Systems" by their very nature tend to offer a unified and consistent view of economic life that is never the case in actuality.

Hence, I prefer an eclectic set of economic principles: I am a strong believer in capitalism (small c) as a motivator of individual productivity. However, the capitalism
I envision is a fettered capitalism. To put it differently, I believe in a laissez-faire system in the context of rules laid down by society.

The time in American economic history that produced the strongest economy alongside the broadest distribution of wealth was the fifteen or so year period between 1955 and 1970. What made possible the expansion of production along with a relatively fair distribution of wealth were, from my point of view, two factors:

First, the fear of communism, and second a strong government intervention in the economy, including confiscatory tax rates. The idea that government intervention of necessity leads to low productivity is false.

What we need to do in order to create a better economy is to reproduce as best we can successful periods of economic expansion along with a fair distribution of goods.

In other words, without preaching communism (the worst of all possible economic systems) we have to put the fear of communism into the private sector. To do so we need strong union system as well as a sophisticated citizenry! To achieve this we need a stronger education system (lots of history, philosophy, literature, the visual arts, as well as the sciences) that doesn’t devalue or trash culture.

I am a strong supporter of bourgeois culture and I like to see it expanded to the majority of households.

I don't have the time to expand on these proposals but this is the socio-economic
Structure that I favor. I have no name for it, and I doubt it will ever be realized.

05.19.2004 | jdyer

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