note on schools of Marxism

Writing a beginner's guide to Marx allows me the freedom to pretty much not discuss schools of Marxism. Since nothing reminds me so much of Swift’s Tale of the Tub as the disputes between different schools of Marxism, I suppose I should be grateful for this small favor.

I have – as the reader can see – a pretty firm view of what is important in Marx. The ideal, for me, in reading Marx, is to combine Nicole Pepperell’s amazingly wise and sophisticated reading of the first book of Capital at Rough Theory with the kind of materialist history that Benjamin believed he was doing in writing about Baudelaire.

Unfortunately, one does have to deal sooner or later with schools of Marxism – they do influence us as readers. I am not sure how to do that yet. I do, however, have an idea about where the schools go wrong, which is mainly by following one of two courses. One way is this: they take some thesis about Marx – say Althusser’s thesis that Marx dropped his ideas about alienation in order to make an epistemological break in Capital – without inquiring about the larger picture, our very motive for reading Marx. So, even if Althusser was correct, is alienation still a viable concept in the social sciences? While the Althusserians and the Thompson-ites were slugging it out in England, I think Arlie Hochschild showed that, yes, alienation can be revived to explain a very important feature of our social life as workers, emotional labor. Myself, I don’t think there was an epistemological break in Marx, but rather an increasingly complexity within the outlines of what he wrote in the forties. I’m anything but an Althusserian. But if Althusser was right, tant pis for Marx – alienation is still an important heuristic in understanding capitalism.

The second way is to put Marx in dialogue solely with a very narrow group of academics. Hence, the interminable study of Marx and Hegel. This seriously mischaracterizes Marx. Even at the height of his financial misery in the 50s, Marx never – to my knowledge – thought about teaching. He departed from academia quite early in his twenties. Just as Baudelaire’s poems came from the poet’s experience of the city as much as from Poe or Saint-Beuve, Marx’s method and ideas, I think, clearly came from reading newspapers, meeting disgruntled tailors in smoky tavern rooms, and his larger awareness of the science and technology around him that he used, or observed. As a man who edited one paper and founded another, and as an agitator who used the railroads quite a bit, Marx was well aware of the changes wrought by communication and transportation technology. In the German Ideology, although there is a certain underdevelopment of the notion of communication, Marx’s model of manufacture – pressed onto the ‘spontaneity’ of ideas – comes as much from seeing how, in front of a piece of paper that you have to fill up to make a deadline, “ideas” come obediently forward, like parts of the pin in the pin factory, as it does from correcting the mistakes of the critical critics. There is a side of Marx that very much resembles Jules Verne or H.G. Wells.

On Rough Theory, a couple of days ago, NP referenced Paul Lafargue’s obituary of his father in law, Marx. I had not read it. I loved these two paragraphs:

Karl Marx was one of the rare men who could be leaders in science and public life at the same time: these two aspects were so closely united in him that one can understand him only by taking into account both the scholar and the socialist fighter.
Marx held the view that science must be pursued for itself, irrespective of the eventual results of research, but at the same time that a scientist could only debase himself by giving up active participation in public life or shutting himself up in his study or laboratory like a maggot in cheese and holding aloof from the life and political struggle of his contemporaries.