And so on this day when the right wing has once again taken over America, naturally we spent Western Civ class discussing Karl Marx. Irony is just one of the things that makes history fun.
My students don’t really know what to do with Marxism. They don’t understand it, and they can’t figure out why anyone would find it appealing.
The Cold War ended before most of them were born. Instead of a Soviet Union ruled by a shuddering collection of sclerotic animatrons as it was when I was in college in the 80s, now there is a supposedly capitalist Russia and its new-fangled dictator Vladimir Putin, darling of the LOLs and internet superstar. Half the countries behind the old Iron Curtain no longer exist at all, having either been absorbed into their neighbors or split into their pieces. People who mouth Marxist slogans without irony are in short supply these days.
In their place is a foaming horde of people who can’t tell the difference between Socialism, Communism, Fascism, their hindquarters and a hole in the ground, many of whom were swept to power in yesterday’s election. I fear for the republic, but what else is new?
We spent class going through the basic tenets of Socialism – first the Utopian variety, then the Marxist variety, which, while aimed at broader things, is in many ways no less utopianist – pointing out that it is very much an ideology of its place and time, designed with the concerns of the industrial working class in mind and meant to remedy the ills of their world.
This serves two purposes.
First, it helps the students understand why people would be attracted to Socialism or its Marxist variant. Our world is defined by Lockean Liberalism, the ideology of the winners of the Industrial Revolution. Americans generally have a very difficult time grasping the idea that others might not agree with this ideology, let alone the idea that they might have something else to put in its place. Understanding the context of the Industrial Revolution and what it did to the losers in that struggle – ironically enough, a group which included most of the people who made it happen on a day-to-day basis – goes a long way toward understanding why they didn’t buy into Lockean Liberalism. Socialism in general and Marxism in particular simply spoke to their world in a way that Liberalism – the ideology of the industrial middle-class – did not.
Second, the fact that the election is now over does not mean that we will no longer be inundated by talking heads who insist that Obama is somehow a Socialist, and my students need to know that whatever they may think of the current administration and its policies – and they are entitled to approve or disapprove as their consciences see fit – there is nobody taking a Socialist line in Washington today. To claim otherwise is at best historically inaccurate and at worst deliberately misleading, and I won’t have my students leaving my class that ignorant.
I always tell my students that while it is not my business to tell them what to think, it is my business to make sure they’re thinking.
The one thing I regret from today was that I forgot to wear my Karl Marx shirt. When I was at a conference a few years back I found a marvelous t-shirt with a picture of Marx on it, looking suitably disheveled and grumpy. “Earn big money!” the caption reads. “Become a historian!”
You’d think that was funny too, if you were a historian.
My daughters always ask me who that is on the shirt. “Karl Marx,” I say. “Who’s that?” they ask. “He was one of the Marx Brothers,” I respond. “There was Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo and Karl. Karl was the serious one. He left before they got famous.”
History is fun, even if some day it will come back to haunt me.