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Introduction: Marx Without Monsters

The disintegration of socialist states has inspired a strange nostalgia in the supposedly triumphant West.
Charlie Bertsch and Joe Lockard, Issue Editors

Issue #45, October 1999

The Indian state of Kerala has received a lot of attention in the wake of communism's worldwide collapse. A left-wing stronghold within the world's largest democracy, Kerala intrigues first-world cynics who long ago abandoned any hope of constructing an alternative to capitalism. Despite problems that would overwhelm the leadership of most developed nations, the Keralan government has managed to put leftist principles into practice without impoverishing its people or pushing them down the road to totalitarianism. It has even made concrete improvements in its citizens' lives, something that few governments can truthfully claim. But now, predictably, this alternative to the rule of the free market is in danger of disappearing. The tide of globalization is proving difficult to withstand. It's a familiar tale, but with a twist. In this case, the diversity being driven out of the world is one, not of language or culture, but ideology.

As we finish putting together this issue on the legacy of Marx, what interests us is not the story of Kerala itself -- though it is surely worth a closer look -- so much as the impetus to tell it. For better or worse, the disintegration of socialist states has inspired a strange nostalgia in the supposedly triumphant West. From the revolutionary rhetoric of pundits in Wired magazine to the wildly successful repackaging of The Communist Manifesto as a pricy fetish item for the upwardly mobile, Marxism is making its presence felt as a structuring absence. Or at least this is how it must seem to the capitalists who thought that they had finally laid Marxism to rest when the statues started toppling in Eastern Europe. Marx is the villain in their mental horror movie. And he refuses to stay dead. There's no other way to explain conservatives' recycling of anti-communist rhetoric. Their celebration of the free market is shadowed by the fear of a sequel -- Marxism III: Nightmare on Wall Street.

The legacy of Marxism looks different to those of us on the left. We fear a sequel too. But what worries us is not the idea of a meaningful alternative to capitalism, but the realization that the formula will have to change if leftists are to avoid the missteps of statist Marxism. We don't want a sequel -- in which the same plot devices are used over and over -- but a radical remake that turns the original inside out, like one of Bertolt Brecht's plays that retell a well-known tale but tell it slant. The essays in this issue attest to that desire, refusing to tell the story of Marx's legacy according to a capitalist or communist script. Some of the writers have concrete experience of life under a Marxist regime. Others have spent time working within the structures of Marxist political parties in the West. And some have come to Marxism through a roundabout path that spared them the frustration of seeing Marxist theory contradicted by Marxist practice. But all of them share an interest in Marxism's potential as a tool for understanding the world we live in, even as its usefulness for day-to-day political action is in doubt. There is a deep ambiguity that informs these essays, one that derives from a rejection of the anti-democratic and totalitarian purposes to which state socialism has all too frequently led. It is a history that cannot be ignored. Marxist thinking must be interrogated for its willingness to pursue or accept monopolistic political intolerance. If Marxism is to become something more than a monster which threatens the self-assuredness of pro-capitalist intellectuals, its proponents will have to spend the next century negotiating and resolving its dubious legacy in this one.

slugger The issue opens with an international flavor with essays by Viet Nguyen and Ewa Pagacz, who have both had their lives shaped by communism in their countries of origin, Vietnam and Poland. Nguyen describes his family experiences and antagonisms to Marxism, together with his developing appreciation of its power as social critique. Pagacz addresses the situation of post-communist Poland, where a resurgent Catholic Church has replaced the older hegemony of the Communist Party. Frederick Aldama provides a different take on internationalism with his application of Marxian thought to "border theory," specifically as it relates to the divide between the U.S. and Mexico.

The "postmodern" terrain covered by Aldama receives a different examination in the essay by Bill Freind, which takes Marx's The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte as a starting point for a discussion of contemporary culture. JC Myers reports from South Africa with a "rematch" of the marquee fight between Karl Marx and Max Weber, finding that the received wisdom of Cold War intellectuals in the West -- Marx was wrong! -- no longer looks so wise. Rethinking Marxism co-founder Rick Wolff (see the announcement about the journal's big year 2000 conference in his bio) also calls received wisdom into question in his explanation of how state Marxism, particularly in the USSR, misunderstood Marx's analysis of class. Jonathan Sterne considers Marxian contributions to media theory, pointing out their continued relevance to our turn-of-the-millennium circumstances. And Joe Lockard offers a more metaphoric look at the problem of borders, analyzing Leslie Marmon Silko's novel Almanac of the Dead in terms of its love-hate relationship with European Marxism.

William Stephenson, Tim Hardin, and Jillian Sandell demonstrate innovative ways of applying Marxian theory to contemporary cultural practice. Stephenson discusses the popular computer game Civilization II, showing both its pro-imperialist ideological underpinnings and the potential for players to rebel against them as "bad subjects." Hardin explores the push for "standards" in the U.S. school system, arguing that the obsession with achievement that can be measured in numbers is reducing our education to vocational training. And Sandell uses Marx's theory of commodity fetishism in a surprising new way to critique the emphasis on "turning points" in contemporary autobiography. Joel Schalit and Aaron Shuman provide autobiographical musings of their own in order to contextualize their relationship to Marxian discourse. Schalit reflects on why he "reads" communism into everything while Shuman makes an appeal for a leftist activism more interested in the practical legacy of Marxist political action than in the reinterpretation of Marx's own words. Finally, Mike Mosher rounds off the issue with his drawing on the back page, "Marxist Valuable Players." The figures he has chosen exemplify the sort of Marxism Bad Subjects wishes to promote, one characterized by a delight in humanity and passion against the misuse of fellow humans.

1999 by Charlie Bertsch and Joe Lockard. Drawing © Mike Mosher 1999.