Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Ooh, That Will Leave Marx

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.


niknik said...

Чтобы понять историю страны, недостаточно изучать ее по печатным изданиям. Надо пожить в стране и поговорить с народом. Только тогда, Вы поймете, что то, что говорят Вам и нам политики- это не мысли всего народа. Как и неправильно воспринимать Путина как некого идола нации))) Это же просто смешно! И народ наш не только пьет водку, как преподносится всему миру, но еще и умеет думать. Давайте не будем воспринимать друг друга только так, как хотят политики!)))

Jennifer said...

Very timely.
I also love the bit about the Marx Brothers. I can just see the three with their shenanegans, with Karl sitting in the background looking irritable.

Sort of like an 8th Dwarf.

Eric said...

I started typing this long comment that probably reflected my own prejudices more than it would have actually said anything interesting. (I'm proud to consider myself a socialist in the Social Democratic vein and we can leave it there.)

I will say that it sounds like your class is talking about early/mid-19th Century socialism, which is something Americans should have a better grasp on, but that I hope you also get to teach them about the late-19th/early-20th Century socialist movements, e.g. Debsian socialism. No, not as a sales pitch, but just because I think one of the things that generates a lot of FUD in political discourse these days is that Americans take for granted the ways 20th Century socialist movements influenced American culture, particularly in the way they failed by succeeding (a little); that is, we take a lot of things for granted like the definition of a work week or even something as token as having Labor Day off, apparently not realizing that these were largely compromises offered by a government panicked that the excesses of unfettered capitalism were going to lead to a bloody socialist revolution (which, when you look at the history of the labor movement, wasn't as far-fetched as it might sound).

It's all very interesting stuff, too, regardless of how one feels about it. I hope your students enjoy it as much as they ought to.

David said...

According to Google Translate, niknik said:

To understand the history of the country, not to study it in newspapers. We must live in the country and talk to people. Only then will you realize that what they say to you and our policy is not the thoughts of the people. As correctly perceive Putin as a certain idol of the nation))) It's just ridiculous! And our people are not just drink vodka as being touted around the world, but also knows how to think. Let's not take each other just as they like politics!)))


You are absolutely correct, niknik – the best way to get to know a country is to live there. One thing I learned growing up in and around Philadelphia at a time when City Council meetings routinely featured fistfights is that one must always make a sharp distinction between a place and its government. I have never had the opportunity to visit Russia, unfortunately, but someday perhaps I will.

I did have the pleasure of hosting a visit from about a dozen Russian businessmen a few years back, and they were great people – friendly, interesting, thoughtful and above all human, not stereotypes. Perhaps I will post something about that experience here on the blog. I will say, though, that their consumption of vodka was impressively high. :)

My comment about Putin was directed at his image here in the US, not necessarily in Russia. If you’ve ever looked at sites like Pundit Kitchen (a political humor site) you will see Putin being treated as a rock star, a teddy bear, a ninja, a comedian, as pretty much anything but the politician he is.

Welcome to 4Q10D, niknik!

David said...

Hi Eric –

I was wondering how you would respond to this post, actually ;).

You are correct that I was describing early/mid-19th-century Socialism – in fact, the students had to read a selection from The Communist Manifesto (1848) for class. I don’t spend a whole lot of time focusing on 20th-century Socialism in this class, but I do incorporate a few of the points you mentioned (this is a union town, and yet students are always surprised at where things like “weekends” come from) as we move into the 20th century and Socialists and Liberals start stealing ideas from each other.

This shortcoming (admitted as such) is largely a function of the structure of the class. It’s a European history class, mostly, so while I do bring in the US at times as part of larger Western Civilization, I don’t focus on it much until we get to the 1930s. And it’s a survey class, which means we’re covering a ridiculous amount of material – I start in 1300 and end, fifteen weeks later, in 2010. And in order to do that, you have to create stories – narratives that leave a lot out, unfortunately, but that tell a coherent story that the students can hang things off of.

I divide the class into three stories. The first, running from 1300 to around 1750, is more or less, The Birth of the Modern, and is focused on how you get from medieval Europe to the world of the Enlightenment. This is a problematic unit, and I’m still working on it. The second is focused on the Long 19th Century and centers on the question of “How did Europeans seek to organize their rapidly changing world?” It’s very ideological and Socialism fits here. The last unit is 1900 on, and focuses on the largely self-inflicted destruction of European hegemony that starts with WWI and WWII and continues to today. There’s just so much to cover there that I don’t get to do much else, though I try.

It is interesting stuff, though, and I think I got my point across in a way that they enjoyed. This stuff happens to real people, people who adopted these views in response to concrete problems that needed to be solved. More than anything else, I wanted my students to understand why someone might see Marx as a possible solution, given the circumstances.

Eric said...

I wondered how much time you really had after I posted. This was always a problem I had with the whole concept of "Western Civ" and similar survey classes--yes, surely it's possible to compress a thousand years of history covering thousands of square miles and thousands of ethnic/cultural groups eventually dividing themselves into dozens of nations which periodically changed their names, political systems and economies into something completely different into a general survey lasting a dozen-and-a-half weeks--if maybe you have one of those sleep-learning beds you always see in science fiction stories where people go to sleep and wake up the next morning with their brains stuffed.

No, I don't have a better idea. That's actually not true. My better idea is that everybody should major in History like we did instead of studying stupid, useless stuff like medicine and how to build bridges that don't collapse in a heavy wind, etc.

Okay, so I don't actually have a better idea. It's just one of those things I kvetch about. :D

Unknown said...

Please translate the Russian comment! Or accept my apologies if you did and I missed it, where is it?
I object to Marxism or communism being labelled as socialist. Of course I'm talking about current French politics.
Send your students to my blog for a real-life example of what socialized medicine gets you. Yes, there are problems with the system. Yes, bosses are taxed heavily. Yet France is still the fourth largest exporter and spends LESS per capita on health care.

David said...

Bea - I did translate the comment (or, rather Google Translate did - see my first response, above).

And don't even get me started on the health care debacle that is the American system. That's an hour of your life you'll never get back.

Unknown said...

Oops, sorry.
Yup, there is a big difference between a country and its government. The French said about Bush junior "how could you elect him" and now they have Sarko. I think we're turning into media-cracies and that's quite frightening.