You are here

Please, Hammer, Don't Hurt Me: Why I Don't Read Marx

I have never read a word of Marx that I took pleasure in, or understood. While ignorance may not be bliss, the writing of Angela Davis, Mike Davis, or Che Guevara is.
Aaron Shuman

Issue #45, October 1999

I have never read a word of Marx that I took pleasure in, or understood. While ignorance may not be bliss, the writing of Angela Davis, Mike Davis, or Che Guevara is, in comparison to those sentences of Marx which teeter under the weight of their construction, and in my mind at least, sink into uncomprehension. I made it through college in spite of this, and have moved on to a series of adventures on the organized Left, where one is more likely to meet people who express surprise at my unfamiliarity with Marx or insist that this is a fault requiring study and rectification. On occasion this attitude even creeps into Bad Subjects, as in a recent review of The Coup, which concludes with the suggestion: "give your extra copy of Das Kapital to the kid down the street who likes hip-hop; you'll both be better for it."

Increasingly, I feel better for never having made the Man's acquaintance. To say this is to assume responsibility for clarifying my relationship to Marx. Marxism has been criticized by reactionary know-nothings for its "intellectualism" and by liberal anti-communists for its "excess." I am neither and would claim neither. But I've found that to assail the necessity of reading Marx is to risk both characterizations, perhaps understandably so.

Fearing Marx

In high school, I read Herbert Lottman's biography of Albert Camus, which set my horizon for what writers and their politics could be. In Lottman's story, Camus moves a nation and brings down the Nazis with his underground newspaper, then scores a loyal wife who appears only to squire away the children while Albert screws the national opera star, agonizes over word choice and which petition to affix his signature to, crafts a position on violence so enlightened, so refined, as to abet the terrorism of the French state, and goes out in grand James Dean style, bisected in a car crash. In the end one can almost hear the bodice ripping to afford Camus close contact with the national bosom, à la Kenny's ascent to a chesty heaven inSouth Park: The Movie. Best of all, though, are the café spats of near-chapter length, in which Camus meets Sartre on the streets of Paris and bests the loathsome Stalinist, with DeBeauvoir along to coo and keep score, to stop the boys when they play too rough, and to make them kiss and make up in the end.

This story, in which the agony of writing means something, in which writers gain power and pussy mystically, through their Jedi-like mastery of the Word, was as compelling as the Cure song "Killing an Arab" that led me to Camus's Stranger. While the disappearance of every woman to make the scene made me realize the story wasn't literally true, I didn't then question the wish-fulfillment of the tale, nor the simplification of Camus's life into a very straight narrative of rebellion, sex, and death. Only as I sat down to write this did it occur to me that there might be something more to Sartre and his politics: that his depiction as a toady for the Politburo and Camus's as a freewheeling American individual in his taste for fiction might say more about Lottman's agenda than it does about either man.

I don't know enough about Sartre to judge. Although Lottman didn't turn me off entirely, his biography did have a major impact on my approach to Sartre: he never existed as a political figure to me; I never sought out his writing, except in relation to Camus, and I certainly never struggled to figure out what he was on about. The notion of a hand-me-down politics -- of the communist parrot, of the stooge who knows not what he says and the apparatchnik who does not care -- is a powerful one: it silenced Sartre. How different my reading might have been if I had first encountered Edward Said's surprisingly tender tribute to him, as a man of commitment and "a fallible human being, not a dreary moralistic preacher" in Representations of the Intellectual. An intellectual edifice is built on such blocks, on what one dismisses, consciously or otherwise, as well as what one accepts, and this is a fault in my construction.

In seeking to correct this fault more recently, I've found guidance in (more or less) popular histories, such as Barbara Foley's Radical Representations, a valuable survey of Depression-era working-class fiction. Foley's goal is to rehabilitate the reputation of this movement by showing there was much more to it than the earnest, turgid melodramas for which it is known today. She expands its canon, both by including the work of disaffected fellow travelers and Communist Party emigrés (John Dos Passos, Richard Wright, Chester Himes), and by recovering a number of texts from the out-of-print lists and remainder bins of history (experimental texts in the "compound narrative" line of Dos Passos's USA trilogy and texts by women such as Tillie Olsen). What one gains from her efforts is much more than a longer, more diverse reading list; it is the sense of a human movement, vital in its polyphony and dissonance.

Foley attributes the decline of proletarian fiction to its being summarized as the naturalism of a few great men -- Upton Sinclair, Theodore Dreiser, John Steinbeck -- and its current poor reputation today to the communist witchhunts of the 50s. To back this up, she traces the disses of current critics to earlier apostates, while tracking the history of the Party to disprove the notion that it dictated an aesthetic or political line to American writers or limited their innovation. More importantly, she traces the rise of New Criticism -- the evaluation of a work strictly on aesthetic grounds -- to anti-communism, suggesting that the bias against proletarian fiction is built into our contemporary critical framework. Radical Representations is strong testimony, both to the way in which one generation's political battles become abstracted into the next generation's received wisdom and to the silence that engulfs this process.

Until there's revolt, Gerald Horne says in his history of the Watts uprising, The Fire This Time. Here anti-communism occupies a role even greater than in Foley's book: the story of how the Red Scare (fear of Communism) became the Black Scare (fear of Black nationalism) is the narrative around which the rest of the book develops. Horne reveals a Los Angeles that will be unfamiliar even to devoted readers of Mike Davis: a rural Watts, a city connected by public transit, a Hollywood that really was that Red. Horne recovers a number of groups disappeared, reminds us that to take "a position akin to Communists" was to be "Red," and explains that the rise of the Nation of Islam, the "middle-class nationalism" of many '60s Africanists, and the "black flight" of those who could afford to leave Watts were possible only with the destruction of working-class organization and Left alternatives. If liberalism is now the province of a disconnected middle-class, Horne argues, this can be attributed to the destruction of groups which once rooted the liberal agenda. Put another way, anti-Communism was the Big Bang from which subsequent decades of urban history have been shot into space.

Foley and Horne's books return the Left to the center of its own story and, in revealing its absence from mainstream accounts, suggest the great effect it could have had. While I knew there was a Senator Joe McCarthy, a House Un-American Activities Committee, and a purge of Reds from every aspect of American society, until I encountered these books I did not understand these events as having had a direct effect upon my life. I was more taken with the collapse of the New Left at the end of the 60s, as I suspect most people of my generation are. The sublimation of anti-Communism into our national framework is what makes histories like Foley's and Horne's important, not only for learning exactly how "things aren't what they used to be" but also for gaining a sense of potential from the power that existed in the past and the avenues that remain unexplored.

One thing I feel many on the Left underestimate is the paralyzing fear of Communism -- as overliterate sophistication (Lottman's Sartre), as check-your-head conformity (Foley's demon), as the white man's philosophy (Horne's demon), or as ethnicized Other (the Red Chinese) -- and the power this fear has to undermine organizing today. To understand this, you need only find yourself in a union campaign, as I have, in which unionbusters celebrate the holy union of labor and management and the need to resolve problems within the family, while spurning the stranger who comes, with bells on his feet and silver in his pocket, to woo the workforce and raid the collective kitty. This narrative of family and inclusion, posited against the hordes at the door, exerted its power on precisely those people who had never received so tender an embrace from management. Knowing that good vibes, like good weed, disappear as often as they motivate change, management's story ended with each person facing his or her own personal HUAC, whether in the study groups the workforce broke into to discuss "the union menace" or the "audit" company lawyers conducted with managers to conduct background information on each worker's age, race, marital status, personality work performance, disciplinary history, politics, and likely position on the union.

Or you need only speak to your parents, as I learned when my mother called recently. She wanted to know if I really wanted to include in the biography for my high-school alumni paper my work with a socialist group. She made it clear that it wasn't good to put things like that in writing because you can lose your home, your job, your friends. Interestingly, this came in the form not of a history lesson but of a living fear which four decades after HUAC remains vibrant for my benignly liberal mother. Irrational as fears of this sort may appear, tainted as they are by every form of prejudice that still infects the Republic, they are nonetheless real entities that anyone organizing on the Left must confront and overcome. Those who depend on their ability to quote Marx, as if the revolution were a debating society, don't succeed; in fact, they step into their own shadows, from which it is difficult to emerge.

As Marx and Marxism have disappeared, so too have the histories that disappeared them, into the ineffable logic of a purportedly post-class society, whose ruthless, brutal subjugation of the working class at century's end reminds me of its beginning. As capital rediscovers cities as "destination downtowns," and redevelops the working class right out of them, the image stuck in my mind is that of the ghost: only a few people see what I see, and everyone else thinks I'm crazy for seeing it. While I have not found Marxist theory sufficient to put flesh on these ghouls, Marxist history and leftist culture have been. Having come through the Valley of Death, join me on a few foundering steps towards the Light.

Karl Don't Surf

Given the purge of Marx and Marxists, there should be no surprise that the Marxism which remains is characterized by a certain "float:" on the Che-sporting chests of Rage against the Machine fans, in the proliferation of Marxian groups, and in the legacy of popular writing indebted to him. Paradoxically, as Marx retires, his cultural availability enables me to not seek him out. This Marx, who lives in the journalism and stories of those who have studied him, in the birth of bus riders unions and tenant unions and a renascent union activism, and as a symbol of engaged intellectualism, is the one I have encountered. He is tremendously compelling, even if his words have failed me.

My concern is that the study of his thought increasingly seems decoupled from the practice of organizing. As Marxist Studies has appeared, so the lower classes whose fate it presumably intends to address are disappearing, whether literally (into prison) or statistically (from welfare and public housing rolls). While I would not hold one responsible for the other, I wonder what, if any, relationship there is between them.

My suspicion is that the priority placed upon his thought -- as opposed to, say, the relationship between his thought and organizing in his name, or the thought and practice of more contemporary Marxists (as opposed to postmodernists) -- aestheticizes Marx. It makes the man, and his thought, more important than the movements responsible for his endurance and our interest in him today. Too, it values certain kinds of reading (theory over history) and certain kinds of learning (reading, as opposed to other forms of cultural participation). Perhaps it subjects Marx to the New Critical analysis Barbara Foley suggests is incapable of appreciating him, reducing social concerns to aesthetic ones. In any case, text is an inefficient place to moor a movement, because it always yields alternative readings, or it may not be read at all. Organizations create their own meanings, yet it is on the level of organization that the Left (and Marxism) is weak.

I suspect that when people insist on the need to read Marx or a particular reading of him, it is the float in Marx they are responding to. There is the fear that even Marx can be commodified, can become a simulacrum of himself. I am among those who wonder how many Rage against the Machine fans appreciate Che as anything more than the emblem of masculinist fury; who see Che in beatnik dreaminess on the cover of his Motorcycle Diaries and grow suspicious of its "Easy Rider meets Das Kapital" marketing; who remember the Clash's Mick Jones offering his vision of "a communism of Cadillacs" and wonder if the hammer and sickle meant anything more to him than the oppositional cool of the swastika Johnny Rotten took equal delight in wearing. As Red Army gear sells out in military surplus stores, I uneasily await a future in which KARL DON'T SURF and grim reproductions of Papa Marx replace all the visions of Charlie Manson in Berkeley T-shirt stores.

Against these multiplying cultural manifestations of Marx, it is reassuring to insist on the necessity and primacy of his text. But perhaps we might find the lessons we need in them. Whatever ironies may be found in corporate anti-corporate rock, there were none in the social power Rage against the Machine mobilized in their recent benefit for alleged cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal. Police pressured the Meadowlands to cancel the event and threatened to withhold security when the stadium refused. This contretemps occurred not behind closed doors but in the unusually public forum of press conferences, with the stadium authority, police, and band regularly crossing swords. The dispute was sufficiently loud to land Mumia, and the issues surrounding his case, in the New York Times , which heretofore had ignored them. To suggest that those who attended the show did not understand what they were attending, in such a charged environment, is untenable, as is the notion that Rage fans do not recognize the radicalism behind the fury. The proof is a growing movement to take on the "prison-industrial complex", marked as few things today are by a confluence of Lefts Old, New, and Newest. What Rage and its fans did in New York is both a reflection and extension of this movement.

The Che shirt and the Mumia benefit are really two different forms of artistry, just as the artistry that encourages me to pick up Che's Motorcycle Diaries is distinct from the artistry to be found within. I bought the Diaries recently, seeking a revolutionary booster shot. Written when he was three years younger than me, the Diaries reveal Che wrestling (as I am) with the notion of political responsibility: suspended between the noblesse oblige of the tourist, who secures housing from a Civil Guard that turns Indians away, and a political commitment that would lead him away from these roots. All the elements for which Che has been lauded and criticized are on display -- among them the fury at the illogic of oppression; the insistence on pushing one's limits; the tactician's eye for detail; the storyteller's penchant for "moments of truth;" the poeticization that could prompt racialisms of Wagnerian excess; the machismo; and, above all, a wry, understated humor -- but they have yet to coalesce into the dynamic personality by which he became known. Reading the Diaries is like reading a Socratic dialogue of one, and I was surprised (and delighted) to read parts of myself in it. Whatever negative effect the commercialization of Che has, it is more than outweighed by the value of having his works in print, and the lessons, positive and negative, that may be wrested from them.

A book should not be judged by its cover nor a band by the slickness of its sound nor a thinker by thoughts alone. It is the uses these things are put to that determines their value. Michael Denning's The Cultural Front is a book that appreciates this relationship. Among the many interesting stories Denning tells is that of the Federal Theatre's 1937 production of The Cradle Will Rock, a "proletarian opera about union organizing in Steeltown, U.S.A." Days before its premiere, in the wave of cuts in general relief, the government cancelled the production, deeming it too "dangerous" after a violent summer of labor struggles. On opening night, Orson Welles's cast and crew showed up anyway, as did the audience, and marched to another theatre to perform the opera with no staging. The Cradle Will Rock lived on in bowdlerized form until its return from a tour of Steeltowns for production on Broadway a year later.

To the extent that this opera remains known, it is as testament to Welles' artistic accomplishment, as if further testimony to his powers in that regard were needed. Yet the story Denning tells suggests the opera would neither have been written nor seen so that we know it today, without the movement that inspired, funded, and sustained it. Too, he suggests that the organizational ability of Welles & Co. and their audience was at least as great as the art on display. In this treatment of The Cradle Will Rock, Denning writes against its aestheticization, and the Lottman-ization of Welles, in which the fish-eye of biography distorts the role of its subject and misidentifies the source of its power.

Absorbing Stories

Recently, I was reminded of the consequences of aestheticized stories in a conversation with a reporter. I have been working with public housing residents who are being evicted. After a press conference, I was grousing to a friendly reporter about my struggles to get my writing together. She was shocked: she couldn't understand why I was giving this story to her, when I had the leads, the background. To me, the answer was obvious: I am the organizer. Without organizing by residents and myself, there would not be this story for her to report: because the residents would not have come together in any sort of collective action; because she would not be there to write it. I was shocked that an "advocacy journalist" did not see this.

There is a grave danger when leftists start to believe that stories tell themselves, art causes change, or social transformation proceeds from theoretical scripts. It is this danger which the authors I have mentioned (except Lottman) are writing against. People need stories in which they can see themselves; people need to see visions of change before they can work towards it. That's why I believe that if the Coup were to start dropping reading lists with lyric sheets, they would turn their fans on to the autobiographies of Malcolm X, Black Panthers, and other revolutionaries, or the theoretical writings of Frantz Fanon and bell hooks, before Das Kapital. It is not necessarily a racial issue: it is a matter of making connections first with what is most immediately relevant, accessible, and compelling.

This reading list has been mine, too. Marx is in me. I have absorbed him, though I would need others who know him better to tell me how much, or what exactly I have absorbed. I do not feel hampered by my inability to trace political beliefs back to primary sources, anymore than I feel my unfamiliarity with the Bible keeps me from understanding the consequences of the Christian Coalition, or my unfamiliarity with the Federalist Papers keeps me from navigating the thicket of laws that process and constrain the lives of the residents I am working with. The understanding they have of their situation -- that Jerry Brown, avatar of gentrification, wants black people out of Oakland, or that their world is being written out of existence as laws change beneath them -- is no weaker for their unfamiliarity with Marx. I doubt reading Das Kapital would improve it, but the involvement of former Black Panthers as organizers has. Ultimately, the viability of Marx will be determined both by the stories Marxists tell and the stories they create in the street.

Aaron Shuman has baseball fever, and the color and consistency of nacho cheese, from too many meals at the Oakland Coliseum. He can be found in the bleachers or contacted via

Copyright © 1999 by Aaron Shuman. All rights reserved.