Marx in the theater of power


“… he himself was known as the Moor or Old Nick on account of his dark complexion and sinister appearance.” – Isaiah Berlin, Karl Marx, his life and environment.

The sinister appearance is, of course, Berlin’s own sly Cold War addition to the reasons given after Marx’s death, by Mehring and Liebknecht, for the nickname that had attached itself to Marx in his student days in Berlin – and one he was apparently fond of. In one of his last letters to Engels, he signs himself, “Old Mohr.” Mehring claimed that this was his nickname among his daughters and his wife. Jerrold Siegel, in Marx’s Fate, makes an intriguing argument that the nickname is overdetermined – referring as much to Karl Moor – the disenfranchised son in Schiller’s The Robbers, as to Marx’s skin color. Marx as the Moor and Marx as Karl Moor the robber – it is as if the spirit of Marx future passes over the face of Marx past and present, as the Mohr and the Moor keep signifying, the perpetual alien in the midst of the great transformation – that opponent on the edges to imperial power – and the more fairy tale like robber chief, out of the peasant’s mouth. 

Remember, Schiller was, as well, Dmitri Karamazov’s poet – as well as the critic Grigori’ev, on whom Dmitri was partly modeled, the theorist who divided Russia into predator and prey, the alien aristocracy and the authentic Russian people. The Old Mohr ‘s bent towards seeing politics in terms of theater was more than a favorite metaphor – or rather, one might well ask why it was a favorite metaphor. I have doggedly but intermittently pursued the notion of the adventurer – not a category resolvable into the division of labor, or of class, but one that traverses classes – as a ground form for the artist and the politician. Marx’s own sense of the theatricality of politicians – and his lack of a sense, at least until the 1870s, for politics as an institution distinct from class interest – is an important element in Marx’s political writings. Often, the enemy – Palmerston, for instance – is appreciated in literally theatrical terms:“In the last weeks, "Punch" has fallen into the habit of masking Lord Palmerston as the clown of a puppetplay. This clown is a well known disturber of the peace by profession, a lover of drunken beatings, a hatcher of scandalous misunderstandings, a virtuoso of brawls, only at home in the midst of general confusion, that he directs, in which he throws the wife, child and finally even the police officer out the window, in order in the end, after much ado about nothing, he slips out of the noose himself, more or less unscathed and with teasing ‘concern’ about the course of the scandal.” – Marx, 1855, "Neue Oder-Zeitung, my translation.

Where would Marx have seen this puppetplay? Hampstead Heath, to which he and Jenny and the daughters would repair on Sunday outings, according to Wilhelm Liebknecht (who also called him Mohr). Marx, after all, came from a generation of German intellectuals who read their Wilhelm Meister, and knew that all the old gods were behind the puppet play. In the fifties, Marx developed his greatest analysis of politics as theater in The fourteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. Here, and in his articles for the New York Tribune, Marx sets forth his idea that politics is the expression of class interest. His theatrical metaphors always point to the fact that politics lacks any structure of its own. There are the players, and there is the audience. Aesthetics and politics melt together: Men (Die Menschen) make their own history, but they don’t make it out of free pieces, nor under self chose circumstances, but rather under immediately found, given and inherited ones. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And when they seem busy overturning themselves and the things, in order to create what hasn’t yet been, even in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they fearfully conjure (beschwören) the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing their names, battle cries, costumes in order in these worthy garments and with these lent speeches to make new scenes of world history [neuen Weltgeschichtsszene] Thus, Luther donned the mask of Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in that of the Roman Republic and Empire, and the Revoluton of 1848 knew nothing better to do than here to parody 1789, there, the revolutionary tradition of 1793-1795. [My translation]

Similarly, when giving political advice, Marx does not think of parties – he thinks directly of worker’s associations. In his address to the Central committee of the Communist League [Bund] of 1850, Marx’s advice is given not in terms of parliamentary procedures, or in terms even of a party – though we might retrospectively suppose that the Bund was just that. Rather, this is the snare of the petty bourgeois democrats, who want to enroll the workers in “a party organization, in which general social-democratic phrases dominate, behind which their particular interests are hiding, and in which the specific demands of the proletariat for the sake of dear peace must not be brought forward. The outcome of such a union will be wholly to their benefit and wholly to the disadvantage of the proletariat.”And so it is through theater that the true interest of the workers, in the political sphere, are lost – although it is also through theater that the fearful revolutionaries, who have appeared in spite of themselves on the world historical stage, give themselves the courage to act. Certainly one could argue that Marx was right, in regard to the interests of the working class. But it is just on this point – the point of interest, the point of defining classes by their interest and politics as an instrument of interest – that we have a gap in the analysis. Why, exactly, is theater called for here? How is it possible, if politics is simply costume and masking, to ‘fool’ the audience? While Marx certainly has the fundamental elements in his hands in the 1850s, what he doesn’t have a comprehensive sense of interests yet. He has, instead, a strong, Machiavellian sense of politics as theater, and a growing sense of how the capitalistic economic system works. In order to gain an anthropological and sociological – rather than theatrical – sense of politics, he needs something more than the Enlightenment theory of mysterious superstitions, or the idea of religion as a palliative for pain – the opium of the people. He will have to root out from himself, in making his universal history, certain assumptions about interest – about benefits (Vorteile) and disadvantages (Nachteile). He will have to learn to measure on multiple scales.



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