Hard Workers

I’ll be posting a new piece by me in the morning, but I thought people might be interested in reading a review of a Revolutionary Ideas of Marx conference I spoke at the end of October in NYC, written by a Columbia University student who attended.

By Devin Briski, reposted from the Columbia Spectator

Students walking up the steps of Hamilton have most likely noted flyers for conferences hung by the International Socialist Organization (ISO), full of emotionally-charged rhetoric laden with references to Karl Marx. These conferences reflect a certain irony surrounding modern socialist activism. On the one hand, why hold a separate conference about a thinker that’s already read widely at Columbia? On the other, why have a conference about such a politically unfeasible idea?

It is, after all, the 21st century. The fall of the Soviet Union and triumph of America has effectively “disproven” communism in the minds of most Americans, and Marx’s prediction of a proletariat revolution has noticeably fallen flat. All the same, Marxist texts constitute the foundational theory for many academic disciplines, including sociology, anthropology, philosophy, and economics. But even the professors teaching his texts don’t see Marxist rhetoric moving to the mainstream political sphere anytime soon, despite its call-to-action messages. Sociology professor Gil Eyal, who teaches a sociology major requirement class called Social Theory where Marx claims the first one and a half months of the syllabus says that for the most part, academics (including himself) think of Marx as useful in a theoretical sense, but not in a practical one. But this tension between theoretical importance and perceived on-the-ground irrelevance, where Marx’s ideas are relegated entirely to the ivory tower, is what some students are here to change. 

The Columbia-Barnard branch of the ISO recently publicized a day-long event called “Conference on the Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx,” put on by the New York City branch of the ISO. The event was advertised as a “day school” on Marxist philosophy and held at NYU’s Kimmel Hall on Oct. 30. Matt Swagler, a graduate student in the School of Arts and Sciences and member of the ISO who helped organize the conference, describes how the day school was organized such that morning talks addressed Marx’s actual theory, and afternoon and evening talks dealt with its applicability to our current world, ending with a practical “call to action” message. Indeed, this was not the Marx of academia, it was the Marx that Marx meant to be.

I attended a talk led by Marxist blogger Sherry Wolf at the day school, and the contrast between Wolf’s talk and the typical fanfare of a Columbia class was immediately apparent. Wolf reframed many of the current political issues in America through a Marxist lens, constantly alluding to specific parts of Marx’s philosophy and reading textual quotations.

She discussed extensively the way race relations and debates on immigration and queer rights can all be illuminated by Marx’s materialist logic and attribution of class conflict as the root of oppression. Her central thesis was that these false divisions based on identity—race, sexuality, gender, immigration status—and the stereotypes and bigotry that result from them keep the working class from realizing its own class consciousness and power. White workers would have to work past racial divisions and realize their similarities with black workers and Latino immigrants in order to improve the standard of living for all workers. “Being a bigot does not put food on the plate,” Wolf cried.

She also discussed how a materialist conception of history can aid our understanding of race relations and help us get to the core problem. She said slavery “never had to do with the color of the laborer but the cheapness of the labor,” and described how all the other stereotypes and social constructions that have been used to oppress black slaves were simply justifications for material gain. America’s tendency to frame current discussions about oppression in terms of identity politics (the African community defines its experience in its own terms, and the queer community does so differently) and as more of a psychological experience rather than a material one. When we view oppression as an individualized experience or set of experiences, rather than rooted in economic reality, Wolf asserts that, “resistance [against the experience of oppression], in and of itself, becomes the end.”

Swagler echoes Wolf’s thoughts about identity politics in a later interview. “As an organizing principle, we don’t organize along the lines of identity politics,” he says. “A Latino immigrant in Harlem and a black resident of Harlem have much more in common in the terms of kind of issues that they want to see changed in this world than a black woman in Harlem and Condi Rice or Oprah Winfrey. … By bringing people together around the issues that face working class people, we can address that and fight specific fights against oppression.”

Despite the clear application of Marx’s ideas to present issues in America, according to Eyal, socialism hasn’t been considered a viable political reality in the US the way it has in other countries. “It’s not a part of the mainstream labor movement, and it never has been in America,” he says.

Rather, Marx’s influence in the US has almost always been limited to intellectuals, and even that influence is relatively new. Eyal says that only since the late 1960s and the rise of the New Left have sociologists turned to Marx to “make sense of the obvious economic crisis, social turmoil, and emerging global division of labor.” Could it be that the recent economic crisis may bring about a new generation of Marxists?

Eyal doesn’t think so. “I don’t think anybody returns to Marx because of a financial crisis. If you’re predisposed to Marx, you use him to make sense of the crisis,” he says.

But Swagler disagrees. “We have definitely found that more and more people are reading Marx in class, and then coming to our meetings,” he describes. “Given how bad the economic crisis has been in the past few years, there’s a way it’s resonating with people… People are definitely reading it differently.”

The political context of our generation may be an exacerbating factor. The class of 2011 at Columbia is the first graduating class born after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Gone are the days of McCarthyism and blacklisting and fear that the Russians are coming.

“Not growing up with an image of ‘socialist’ that’s tied to this Stalinized, rigid, oppressive Soviet state has opened up a discussion about the genuine Marxist tradition,” Swagler says. But as long as calling a liberal American politician a “socialist” is considered slander rather than a simple mischaracterization, Marxist economic and social ideas will remain unfeasible, at least in the political sphere.

And this is something student socialists have to address. After Wolf’s talk, the attendees—many of whom were young Columbia and NYU ISO members—had a questions-and-comments session based on her talk. Rather than critiquing Marxist thought the way students might in a classroom, most of the attendees discussed the challenges of bringing socialist thought into the public sphere.

One student activist asked, “How do we utilize marketing techniques to get across a very complex and nuanced message?” Another asked, “How do we tell people they’re workers? … It’s hard for people to be for the working class movement if they don’t see a working class movement.” And then there was the question of capitalism: “The perception of capitalism is all-consuming,” one person commented. “The potential for change appears to be very low.”

Swagler also notes that the Columbia-Barnard ISO must get its message across differently than, say, the College Democrats or Republicans, given the lack of socialist candidates in office. But this doesn’t quell the spirit of socialism, he maintains. Rather, the ISO is politically active on a local level, with an approach Swagler calls “a combination of education, public discussion, and activism.”

“Elections are not the most important part of making political change,” Swagler says. “For us it’s about helping to start grassroots organizations that can continue organizing on a day-to-day basis.” And this method of bringing about change isn’t just a function of the lack of socialist candidates in the political sphere: “We think it has less to do with who is elected and more to do with how strong social movements and union movements are.”

As for the ivory tower, just because many professors discuss Marx in a purely theoretical context doesn’t mean they, too, can’t see an on-the-ground application to his work. According to Eyal, there are individuals who may not be socialists but are inspired by Marx to “act on a local level” and those who “maintain an ethical commitment to listen to those on the bottom.” And who’s to say that’s not revolutionary?

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