Dialectical U

The Post-Seattle Generation Gets Its Marx Druthers

A decade ago, the department of Marxist-Leninist philosophy at Moscow State University was abolished by faculty vote, kicking off an ideological going-out-of-business sale—opiates of the people, all specters of communism, everything must go—and giving one more heave-ho to the writings of Karl Marx. American universities, of course, had already been giddily reshelving the volumes of Capital and other Marx tomes under the Dewey decimal heading of "Dustbin," where they have rested, largely undisturbed, as mementos of the so-called end of history.

Despite a heady dose of mainstream Marxiana a few years back—when Verso reissued The Communist Manifesto as a historical-materialist collectible, and The New Yorker pronounced Marx a sort of capitalist savant, whose books make swell reading for market mavens—Marx's legacy at most American schools seems to have been swept away with those souvenir shards of the Berlin Wall. "Nobody's frothing at the mouth anymore about the Marxists on campus," says Diana Gordon, a professor of politics at City College. "That's an indication not that they've been accepted, but that they've faded into the woodwork."

You won't find any froth flying around economics departments, where Marx's writings are considered just so much claptrap. "In a word," says City University economics professor David Laibman, "Marx is underground. Most students in economics today will go through a whole program from Econ 101 to a Ph.D. without ever encountering Marx." That assessment is seconded by Bill Tabb, who teaches economics at CUNY's Queens College. "There's a very large number of Marxist economists around, but you wouldn't know it from looking at the profession," Tabb says. "Since the Reagan years, our profession has become very narrow. There's a great intolerance to anything that's not mainstream."

illustration by Brad Kendall

Marx has been booted from plenty of other syllabi as well. "My colleagues call me a dinosaur because I take class analysis seriously," says Robert Fatton, chair of the department of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia. "Looking at Marx has become a theoretical exercise. Students see it as history, like studying medieval Europe, and no longer as something that is very real." Besides, who wants to teach Marx when one's own relative surplus value is hanging in the balance? "It is very difficult to get tenure and get published if you have a clear Marxist framework," he says. "I would never have obtained tenure if I were doing American politics with a class analysis."

Then there's the Foucault factor. Many in the social sciences note that Marx's work has been passed right by in the great pomo stampede. "There is almost a direct relationship between the loss of interest in Marx and the rising interest in postmodern and poststructural thought," says Shannon Stimson, a political science professor at UC Berkeley. "Marx is still around, but it's a vapid and ahistorical Marx. To me, looking at the construction of liberal politics without looking at the construction of liberal economics is bizarre. In some ways it really is as if Marx had never written."

Yes, it's hard to believe that the ruling classes once trembled when, in 1978, NYU professor Bertell Ollman was offered the political science chair at the University of Maryland. "When word got out that a Marxist was going to come there and head the department," he recalls, "all hell broke loose." The university retracted its offer after panic-stricken columnists inveighed that, as Ollman puts it, "We can't let a Marxist get a hold of the poli-sci department of Maryland because it's so close to the White House." Nevertheless, mentioning Marx today is a breeze compared to yesteryear. "There are far fewer people throwing the Soviet Union or its horrors at me when I talk about Marxism these days," Ollman says. "Who can I be spying for now? North Korea?" In fact, he says enrollment in his history of socialist thought course at NYU has jumped from about 80 students during most of the last decade to 131 last year—more, even, than in the radical '60s.

Those on the lookout for a materialist uptick might also recall Marx's famous declaration that he himself was no Marxist. "If you want to do Marx studies, you don't look under Marx," says City University scholar Marshall Berman, pointing out that historical materialism thrives in such niches as the new historicism in literature and critical legal studies. As it happens, we can thank Bush v. Gore for putting some spunk back into the latter discipline, according to Mark Tushnet, who teaches constitutional law at Georgetown. "Five years ago, critical legal studies was dead," he says. "The Supreme Court's decisions in the election cases have clearly revived it." But even with that jurisprudential frisson, we're not likely to see too much of Marx's bushy white beard poking out from the textbooks. "It's now part of the pluralist bazaar," says Tushnet. "Here's one way to think about things."


Still, there's a specter of sorts haunting the American academy. "If anything, students are more curious about Marx now than they were before the fall of the Berlin Wall," says Paul Thomas, who teaches in the political science department at Berkeley. "They often come into class with the impression that somewhere along the way, somebody's pulled the wool over their eyes about this man." The going isn't always easy, however, especially in the nether reaches of the 1000-plus pages of Capital. "It's fair to point out that certain books are more read about than read," Thomas says. "Capital would be one of them. More study groups have fallen apart when they dealt with Capital than with any other book I can think of."

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."

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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