Sunday, August 27, 2006

Marx & me (& Norman Geras)

A postscript to my recent item on Francis Wheen's "Biography" of Marx's Das Kapital. I included some personal reflectionshalf disclaimer and half testimonialabout my own intellectual relationship with Marx.

My remarks (which are reproduced down below) generated a number of interesting responses, analytical and confessional (or both).

I'm gratified to see that Norman Geras, whose association with Marxas a long-time Marxist and prominent scholar of Marxgoes back further and has been more intimate than mine, picked up my reflections (on Normblog) and endorsed them quite graciously and generously.
Sounds good - indeed, give or take a qualification here and there, like a model attitude.
I'm pleased to hear Norm feels that way, and I appreciate his saying so. (In return, I will take the opportunity to recommend one brief statement of Norman Geras's own take on these matters, Marx out of 10.)

=>  My esteemed friend Brad DeLong, who read a lot of Marx & Marxism quite seriously in his youth on his way to becoming a social-democratic Democrat, prominent non-orthodox neo-classical economist of the Stiglitz/Krugman variety, broadly erudite intellectual, and influential left-of-center Alpha Blogger, had a different reaction. Immersing yourself in Marx at a young and impressionable age, Brad warns, means Introducing Serious, Permanent Bugs into Your Wetware. Why, he wonders, would anyone do that voluntarily?
Here we find Michael Fitzgerald, a man who has seriously misprogrammed substantial chunks of his frontal lobes by reading Karl Marx's Capital--something that, I am becoming convinced, should only be done by somebody with immunity to the mental virus--by a trained intellectual or social or economic historian, or by a trained neoclassical economist. [Etc., etc.]
Jeff Weintraub

Norman Geras (Normblog)
August 27, 2006
Marx and him

Jeff Weintraub on his relationship to the old boy:

Maybe it would be appropriate to add a personal note, half disclaimer and half testimonial. Unlike many people who went through the 1960s and 1970s as undergraduates and/or graduate students, I've never been a Marxist, have never felt tempted to identify myself as a Marxist, and never even went through a phase of being marxisant. Of the major 19th-century social and political theorists, Durkheim and Weber, and then increasingly Tocqueville, struck me from the start as more exciting and convincing (in their different ways). On many crucial points where they differed from Marx, I found them more right, more profound, and more likely to be pointing us in the right directions. I don't say this either to apologize or to compliment myself, just to explain something about the role that Marx did and didn't play in my intellectual development. For very many people over the past century and more, a temporary or permanent conversion to Marx and/or Marxism has been crucial to their theoretical education and their intellectual & political formation. It so happens that for me, it wasn't.

At the same time, of course, it was impossible not to recognize Marx as an enormously important and powerful thinker, with remarkable depth and scope, from whom I would like to believe I have learned a great deal about the world. In fact, my appreciation of Marx has only increased over the years - a process in no way diminished by my growing awareness of the limitations, errors, weaknesses, and even dangers of his thought and influence. I have to confess that, rightly or wrongly, I still find it genuinely hard to see how anyone who hasn't seriously wrestled with Marx at some point can consider himself or herself a fully educated person.

The major complication was that for decades Marx and his thought were surrounded by a cult. At every level from students to professors and in between there seemed to be hordes of academic Marxists, semi-Marxists, neo-Marxists, Marxologists and the like (as well as non-academic Marxist scholars and intellectuals [...]), most of whom tended to assume that Marxism of one form or another had an exclusive lock on reality, and that no idea could be taken seriously until it had first been 'translated', however clumsily or implausibly, into Marxist (or pseudo-Marxist) idiom. I must admit that I sometimes found all this a bit irritating and distracting - and occasionally comic. And out in the larger world, of course, Marxism remained a major world religion with millions of followers. But then, sometime in the early 1990s, these hordes of academic [and] intellectual Marxists suddenly became almost extinct. Unfortunately, to a considerable extent they have been replaced by (or turned into) new hordes of "post-modernists," anti-political neo-Kantian legalists, and atomistic-utilitarian "rational choice" ideologues - so that, frankly, I find myself missing all those Marxists more and more, given the alternatives.

Be that as it may, now that the trendy and and quasi-theological auras surrounding Marx have fallen away so sharply, I now find it easier and more necessary to say unequivocally about Marx what Marx himself said about Hegel in his Preface to the Second Edition of Capital:
I criticized the mystificatory side of the Hegelian dialectic [JW: in my case, the Marxist dialectic] nearly thirty years ago, at a time when it was still in fashion. But just when I was working at the first volume of Capital, the ill-humoured, arrogant and mediocre epigones who now talk large in educated German circles began to take pleasure in treating Hegel in the same way as the good Moses Mendelssohn treated Spinoza in Lessing's time, namely as a 'dead dog'. I therefore openly avowed myself the pupil of that mighty thinker...
And I, for my part, feel proud to acknowledge the same for Marx - as a teacher and in some ways an inspiration, though never as a guru or a totemic object.

Sounds good - indeed, give or take a qualification here and there, like a model attitude.

Posted by Norm at 12:08 PM |