Reds Recede, but Marx Still Leaves a Mark
MAY DAY'S HEYDAY IS OVER
Watch what you say around the world's remaining Marxists. They don't think communism has necessarily been tossed on the ash heap of history.Skip to next paragraph
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Take George, a ponytailed Australian staked out at the Conference of Socialist Scholars held in April at the Borough of Manhattan Community College in New York. When someone mentions the word "boss" during a lively debate, he knits his brows earnestly. "It's interesting that you used the word 'boss,' " says George, a class-conscious member of the Revolutionary Party, a tiny group that advocates armed insurrection. "There's some exploitation there."
Marxism, the basis of communism expounded by 19th-century philosopher Karl Marx, was supposed to have become an intellectual Edsel. The Soviet Union and its empire are five years gone, and red China flows with the green of capitalist money. Only tiny North Korea and Cuba have not embraced Adam Smith, Marx's 18th-century free-market nemesis.
But even though few Marxists today are as extreme as George (who refused to give his last name), they all insist that Marx's ideas on the inevitability of "struggle" between different classes of people remain relevant.
Marxism marches on
On May 1, once celebrated in dozens of leftist or communist nations as International Workers Day, Marxists count their impact not by the numbers of workers on parade but by the pervasiveness of their ideas.
"It is charmingly naive" to think that because the Soviet Union is gone "we are somehow done with it all," says Richard Wolff, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, which has one of the highest concentrations of Marxist professors on any American campus. "There is not a country on the face of the earth that does not have Marxist movements."
Like every Marxist, Professor Wolff is quick to distance Marx from his popular reputation. In the Communist Manifesto of 1848, Marx urged workers to unite against the wealthy and create a utopia of shared ownership. For that, he has won lasting fame as the intellectual progenitor of communism, which dictators from Lenin to Mao used to take and hold power.
But Marx's modern admirers argue that he can't be judged by his errant apostles. Marx's chief worth lies in his economic analysis, they say, which identifies critical tensions between the poor and rich and offers an alternative to lean-and-mean capitalism.
The United States is the Western nation least receptive to Marx, but parts of his 150-year-old theories resonate in mainstream politics even here. Many Marxists find a forlorn kind of vindication in the popularity of conservative Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan as he wins blue-collar votes by attacking corporate America.
"It's sad. People like me ... have been talking about class struggle for years. But people listened to him because he was right wing," says Bertel Ollman, a professor of politics at New York University. Mr. Ollman has written "The Left Academy: Marxist Scholars on American Campuses" and developed a board game called Class Struggle. In condemning the excesses of corporate leaders, "Buchanan was just recognizing the nose on everyone's face," he says.
Marx's way of thinking about conflicting forces in society has spread to many academic disciplines. It would be difficult to find a university where his ideas were not addressed in departments of history, philosophy, literature, and political science.
"It's part of a more holistic analysis," says Alison Bernstein, director of education and cultural programs at the Ford Foundation. While she sees few grant proposals that cite Marx specifically, scholars are still asking the questions that Marx popularized, she says.
Yet few people who admire Marx invoke his name today, partly because they don't want to be pigeonholed by conservatives. Also, their interests have become more varied - as witnessed by the diversity at the Conference of Socialist Scholars.