3.11.2009

Marx Was Not A Dumbass and Other Things to Tell Your Students

It's too easy to be a smart-ass in historical hindsight. If you teach European history, you invariably get students who can't be bothered to learn how to properly use a semicolon or, for that matter, to ever read an assigned book, who still think they're smarter than Marx was.

Let me make this as simple as I can: Marx was wrong about the inevitability of proletarian revolution. He was not wrong about how capitalism works, though, nor were his predictions unrealistic given the state of the European economy in the 1840s - 1870s. Mmm K?

Marx on Capitalism: The classes of workers in the pre-modern era generally had rights to their livelihood: a small parcel of land, access to the common lands, the tools of their trade in the case of artisans. They had some kind of protected access to "the means of production." In the modern era, those rights and those things were systemtically taken away from them. The commons were closed off and replaced with the legal ownership of all land. Artisans were forced out by the growth of industry. Peasants were pushed off the land or owned plots so small their children had to look for work in the cities. The net effect was, generally, that the class of workers who had "nothing to sell but their labor," the proletariat, grew.

At the same time, the people who did own things, "the bourgeoisie," were under pressure themselves. In the climate of absolute competition, of unregulated markets and the triumph of liberal economic theories by the 1860s or so, it was terribly easy to fall behind and go out of business. Thus, former members of the bourgeoisie lost out and became proletarians themselves. The net effect was that the proletariat grew and every other conceivable "class" shrank.

At the same time, industry produced more and more stuff. Eventually, there was simply too much out there and not enough people who could afford to buy it, as one of the things about the proletariat, one of their forms of "alienation," was their inability to buy the very things they made. This resulted in a "crisis of overproduction" and a massive economic collapse.

In the midst of one of these collapses, Marx wrote, the proletariat could realize its common interests in seizing the unprecedented wealth that industrialism had made possible and put it to the common good. Instead of a handful of super-rich expropriators, everyone could share in the material comfort and freedom of freedom from scarcity, something that had never been possible before.

What Actually Happened: Marx was really writing about what would happen if capitalism was allowed to run completely rampant, as it did at various times in the 19th century. The hellish mills, the starving workers, the destitution and disease and anguish, that was all part of 19th century European capitalism. Everything that could check those factors, primarily in the form of concessions to workers, state intervention in the economy, and so on, hadn't happened on a large scale when Marx was writing. And none of those factors are financially beneficial to any individual capitalist (think of the present-day resistance to regulation by your average republican free-market enthusiast; his taxes and the legal restraints on his business are perceived by him as a hindrance, even though their net effect is to make his business possible), so Marx thought that they'd never come about on a large scale.

In short, what actually happened, historically, is that states gradually came around to trying to prevent capitalism from eating itself and the socialist movement convinced people that the living conditions of the citizens of a nation matter, not least of which because people who genuinely have "nothing to lose but their chains" may very well stage a bloody revolution.

The history of communism, socialism, and Marxist theory in the twentieth century is a whole other barrel of monkeys (one that I happen to be getting a PHD in), but the point I want to make here is that it's incredibly short-sighted and ignorant to pass judgement on Marx himself from the vantage point of 2009. He was indeed wrong about all kinds of things, but what he wrote about the logics of capitalism itself, what my guy Andre Gorz called "economic rationality," were and are dead fucking on.

6 comments:

FOSCO said...

Word.

Believe it or not, they hate Freud too; although they mainly just think he was crazy, not wrong.

Sometimes it's hard to teach so many geniuses.

Austin Rich said...

I've often thought that, in a classroom setting, you shouldn't be commenting on something that you didn't read. This seems like a no-brainer, but so many students feel like their Wikipedia know-how is enough to argue about nuanced ideas, which experience has shown is not the case.

I finally had a prof this term who called out students who did that.

Student: "I think blah blah blah-"
Prof: "It sounds like you didn't read the text. Anyone else have a comment?"

I finally felt awesome for being so anal all these years about reading every single assigned word. After a few Prof interactions like this, the discussions, not surprisingly, were impressively on point, and much more interesting.

Kelly said...

can I print this out and distribute it?

I've heard the Freud bashing as well.

kungfuramone said...

Oh, for shizzle. Maybe modify the F-bomb at the end, but that's entirely up to you. :]

Rachel said...

I admit I have a much harder time with Freud than Marx, but I get really caught up in how late 19th century male Freud is as regards women, and it kind of colors everything I've ever read of his.

Students who don't read shouldn't open their mouths. Or have their girlfriends come to class to take notes for them.

SuperJew said...

I love that when I read your blogs, I feel myself getting smarter. It reminds me of 615 and Rennie's retreats. Keep on with your brilliant insights my friend!