Dialectical U

The Post-Seattle Generation Gets Its Marx Druthers

John Ehrenberg, chairman of the political science department at Long Island University, says that despite Marx's prose, students don't need Cliffs Notes to understand that they too have a world to win. "Young people are always attracted to the part of Marx which demands that capitalism live up to its potential. It's not hard for them to understand the theory of surplus value or why workers get ripped off." The time is getting ripe, he says, "for a new round of Marxist-informed social action."

Feel free to blame some of that on Andy Merrifield, who teaches in the graduate school of geography at Clark University in Massachusetts—another nook where Marx has taken up refuge—and conducted a seminar on volume one of Capital last spring. "I had to sort of lure them into it," he admits of the six students who eventually signed up. "But after the first few weeks, we were hooked. Marx is a great writer, you know." Like others teaching Marx, Merrifield has earned the enmity of certain nondialectical colleagues: "You're perceived by your peers as the devil incarnate." But he may be one of a vanguard of fortysomething professors who are striving to marry Marx's classic critique of capitalism with a new-school brand of activism. "My generation can have its foot in both camps," Merrifield says. "We read Capital, but also understand the need to put bricks through Starbucks' windows."

In his view, a post-Seattle generation of students is ready to look at Marx with fresh eyes and a healthy disdain for free-market mystification. "These kids are political, and they have a gut feeling that corporations are screwing up the world. But it's not a sophisticated theoretical understanding." And that would be where Starbucks fits in. "There's political purchase in slightly mad destructive acts," Merrifield continues. "I'm not saying that has to be the chief political means through which struggle takes place. But if you can harness it with theory and give it some depth, then you can use that destructive energy intelligently."

illustration by Brad Kendall

As scholars of revolution are wont to point out, economics has its cycles, and so does rebellion. Take note, Francis Fukuyama. History lives on.

Check out the other stories in the Winter 2001 Voice Education Supplement.

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