There are two groups of people convinced that Marxism is on the verge of a triumphant return to the political scene: Marxists and Glenn Beck devotees. The former claims the capitalist economy is in the final stages of its inexorable march towards collapse, riven by “internal contradictions” that will provoke the conditions necessary for the establishment of a new economic order. The latter, for reasons I don’t quite understand, seem to believe them.
In Europe, as Brussels and Berlin grasp at straws in their attempts to staunch the bleeding in Greece, youth unemployment in Spain edges towards 50 percent, and bankers are seemingly accused of fresh outrages every week, the indescribably silly idea that capitalism is in its terminal phase is again fashionable. So it was unsurprising to see that one of the most popular pieces on The Guardian’s Web site last week was a story by writer Stuart Jeffries, enticingly headlined, “Why Marxism is on the rise again.” That statement might have assuaged the nerves of many of the newspaper’s greying, radical constituents, but it’s also a touch overblown.
It’s an amusing piece — albeit unintentionally — with a familiar cast of characters, the usual cant about the crises in employment and deluded asides on how Marxism “has something to teach us . . . in its analysis of economic crisis.” That lesson would be, in a nutshell, that if the Marxism championed by Britain’s Socialist Workers’ Party were to replace the government at 10 Downing Street, the United Kingdom would soon look like Enver Hoxha’s Albania. Despite its consistent record of repression and terror, Jeffries believes such worries are greatly exaggerated: “Surely there is no straight line from The Communist Manifesto to the gulags.” Must just be one very big coincidence.
Either way, according to Jeffries, there is a new utopian vanguard that won’t repeat the mistakes of the past. When asked about communism’s checkered history, the wonderfully named activist Jaswinder Blackwell-Pal, a 22-year-old student in London, explains helpfully that her generation has forgotten history so they’re easier to deceive: “The point is that younger people weren’t around when Thatcher was in power or when Marxism was associated with the Soviet Union.” So that inconvenient “association” does’t count, provided the advocate isn’t old enough to have experienced them first hand. But perhaps the young have developed a new ideology, one that accounts for and attempts to correct Marxism’s manifold mistakes. Blackwell-Pal tells the Guardian that she will be preparing her fellow radicals for the new civilization with a lecture on “Che Guevara and the Cuban revolution at the [London] Marxism festival,” sponsored by the Socialist Workers’ Party.
So everything old is new again, and this latest generation of neo-Marxist philosophers, consisting of a small klatch of middle aged and elderly academics, like Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek and Terry Eagleton, is actually quite paleo. It was Zizek — a hyperactive Slovenian who, at first glance, appears to be a homeless person with a Hegel obsession — who once declared, paraphrasing Badiou, that “Better the worst Stalinist terror than the most liberal capitalist democracy." And despite this type of nonsense, Zizek is weirdly popular, praised as a “rock star” by the New York Times, subject of a fawning documentary, a much-anticipated speaker at Zuccotti Park during the Occupy protests and a “global distinguished professor” at NYU. Disturbing, sure, but none of this presages the return of Marx.
Some reading for those previously unfamiliar with the Zizek trend: For a further examination of Zizek’s extremism, read Adam Kirsch in the New Republic and John Grey’s evisceration of Badiou and Zizek in the most recent New York Review of Books. I discussed Zizek and his supporters in a chapter I contributed to this book.
A final comment and one further bit of self promotion: A Guardian piece on schisms and shifts on the radical left wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the dean of genteel communism, Eric Hobsbawm, the hugely influential British historian whose latest book, “How to Change the World: Reflections on Marx and Marxism,” was generously reviewed by many in his native England. My review, published in the Wall Street Journal, was less charitable — and can be read online.