BOSTON — 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.
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.
The meeting hosted a dozen political parties, four presidential candidates, and publishers ranging from the University of Minnesota Press to the Red Balloon Collective (which includes the work "I Was a Teenage Communist"). The Democratic Socialists of America helped sponsor the gathering, proclaiming proudly on their T-shirts, "We Organize With Class."
Yet even the largest parties or lobbying groups present boasted barely 10,000 supporters, while the membership numbers in more radical groups hovered into the low hundreds. Most of the 1,500 people attending appeared to take it for granted that they have little sway in mainstream politics.
Neither do they agreed on how or whether to unite. If they do, it won't be under Marx's banner.
"Marxism is a scarlet letter now; you can't use it" because it is wrongfully equated with the communism of the Soviet Union, says Jordan Erdos of Weehawken, N.J., who attended the conference. Yet he maintains that Marx is "completely relevant."
Judging by comments from the elder comrades of Mr. Erdos at the conference, he's one of the few recent college grads who admire Marx, at least openly. "I wish there were more young people here. But let's face it. They can't afford to come," he says, referring to the high cost of higher education and the tough job market.
Some Marxists say this economic anxiety could boil into a crisis that could help their cause, spurring students to revive the political activism of the 1960s.
The cost of education is "the single issue that cuts across all backgrounds" to unify students on campuses, says Paul Loeb, the Seattle-based author of "Generation at the Crossroads: Apathy and Action on the American Campus." "Even affluent students can make the connection" that their education suffers when people of diverse backgrounds can't afford to go to college.
Broader concerns emerge
In recent years, many of those influenced by Marx have broadened their concerns beyond economics to try to enhance the role of minority groups in academia.
They have tried to ensure diversity through "multiculturalism," an effort to incorporate on campuses those issues that are especially relevant to women and ethnic minorities. Multiculturalism offers new elements to radicalism that Marx didn't address, many say. Marx argued that class struggle was the single defining characteristic driving humanity's march toward communism.
Political activism encouraged Joan Scott to rethink her priorities more than 20 years ago.
"I wrote my first book on glass workers, and I didn't mention women in it at all," says the professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. "Women did that kind of work too, but it never occurred to me to take that into account.
"It was in the context of the feminist movement of the early 1970s that I started to think about gender. Feminists were raising all kinds of questions about where inequality came from that I couldn't answer," she adds, conceding that "there are pieces of Marxist analysis that are still very useful, such as relations between workers and their employer." But on other questions he left gaps, she says.
Some observers argue that multiculturalists see society through Marx's lens - where race or gender supplants economics as society's key problem.
"Multiculturalism is a political evolution of the apparatus of Marxism in the sense that a single variable can explain a great deal of society," says Abraham Miller, a professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio. "Multiculturalists have taken Marx and replaced race for class. But essentially it's the same thing."
Multiculturalists have been blamed for trying to establish "politically correct" language and actions, such as referring to the "physically challenged" instead of the handicapped, or to "first-year students" instead of freshmen.
Politically correct, or PC, language is designed to keep people from offending each other. But critics also see PC as an infringement on free speech.
In this sense, many academics draw a direct line from the radicalism of the left in the 1960s to a new left today. The phrase "politically correct" itself was once used in self-mockery by Marxists referring to Communist Party strictures and jargon. Now an increasing number of students say PC has become an all-too-serious effort by a few campus radicals to tell people how to think.
"Many people in the PC world are reconstructed Marxists," says Alan Wolfe, a professor of sociology at Boston University. "Some think that political correctness itself reflects a kind of defensive politics ... that has its roots in the Communist Party. It's a suppression of free inquiry."
Hostile 'sensitivity' session
Some students describe required "sensitivity training" sessions conducted by panels of representatives from minority groups as hostile confrontations.
One graduate student at a public university in Indiana describes one required session where a panelist blamed Christians for oppressing homosexuals. "That infuriated me. She talked about how we need to be more sensitive to other people's backgrounds, and she lumped everyone together," said the student, who describes himself as a devout, open-minded Christian.
When he denied that he discriminated against homosexuals, a colleague shouted him down. He says people still label him as right wing.
The intensity of such clashes is bringing an increasing number of professors and students to question the benefits and relevance of PC to daily life.
"You have to have a sense of humor about what you believe. But if you are on a mission from God, you can't laugh at yourself," says Professor Miller. Many professors and students describe cultural-training sessions as "Maoism."
'What went wrong?'
Yet the widespread anxiety about multiculturalism indicates that it may still be the voice of the few on campuses. "Look at the flood of commentary about the left-wing takeover of culture. If that's true, how come everything that appears is an attack on it?" says Noam Chomsky, a professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.
Eugene Genovese, a retired historian and former Marxist who lives in Atlanta, argues that the current atmosphere on campuses is "immeasurably more closed" than in the 1960s. Yet he judges his former ideology even more harshly.
"You'll hear [that the Soviet Union] wasn't real socialism, but don't make me laugh. It's the only socialism we ever got. The tyranny is built into the system," says Professor Genovese, who helped found the Conference of Socialist Scholars 14 years ago.
The fall of European communism in 1989 accelerated his change in thinking. "We built a political movement that conquered a third of the world, with 100 million corpses to show for it. And at that point you have to ask yourself, 'What was wrong at the beginning?' " he adds.
Marxism is hardly about to take over the world today. Instead, the philosopher's lasting impact is in the world of ideas - an ironic fate for a man who argued that ideas flow from material conditions, not vice versa.
As ideas, his theories remain enticing for some students. For them, "There's a certain kind of daring in taking a course [on Marx].... When you tell your parents at the Thanksgiving table, 'I'm taking a course on Marx,' that's kind of sexy. It's independent," says Professor Wolff in Amherst.