Back in the summer I got into a disagreement with a buddy over the concept and popular usage of the term “Marxism,” and it’s been gnawing at the back of my mind ever since. Why? Probably because I reacted so strongly, which isn’t the first time, yet continue to find it difficult to clearly articulate my aggravation in this realm. Going to briefly attempt to elaborate on that tonight since I’m back awake at 4am and need a distraction until heading back to bed.
Okay, my irritation here is two-fold: 1.) Karl Marx himself didn’t advocate for plenty of what’s been unfolding under his name; and 2.) The term “Marxist” itself has become a knee-jerk buzzword for those standing in opposition to Leftism that winds up watered down through loose usage to where its meaning is muddled and apparently poorly understood by many (like the term “socialism” as well), which then winds up obscuring more than it illuminates in discussions.
Let me stop there to acknowledge the many criticisms I’ve heard over the years about Karl Marx’s expressed views. He took an anti-capitalist stance that continues to rankle plenty of my fellow Americans, which is understandable. And while I am familiar with a good many excerpts of Marx’s writings, particularly those reported secondhand by other authors to expand upon their own arguments (whether supportive or critical of Marxist ideology), I haven’t cover-to-cover read up on his espoused philosophy firsthand in great depth. Probably because his philosophy doesn’t intrigue me that incredibly much. But, so too, the majority of people I wind up discussing these matters with aren’t much more familiar with Marx’s writings either, many of them having received their information relating to his and Engels’ philosophy primarily through secondhand sources as well. So, none in these routine discussions I personally encounter and participate in can claim to be scholars on this topic, myself obviously included.
Here’s where I get uncomfortable in such conversations. Some folks who are critical of the Political Left and all social theories associated with that end of the spectrum tend to fall into the same trap as Leftists do who critique, say, the Austrian school of economics which is associated with the Political Far Right. All winds up blamed on a handful of popular thinkers whose names have come to be figureheads for the movements/social theories being griped about, while those doing the griping aren’t actually all that familiar with what those particular individuals’ contributions really were. This might sound like a stupid quibble on my part, but I find it pretty aggravating to repeatedly have all Leftist attitudes (or that which is perceived to be) of today blamed on thinkers like Marx despite countless people since his death having taken his philosophy and expanded it to where it barely resembles what he initially put forth. Like the notion of “cultural Marxism,” which basically took his economic framework and altered it to declare the relevant strata to be about gender/sex and race rather than purely socioeconomic classifications. To me that’s a big jump away from the original intention of the social theory, basically creating a wholly separate and new social theory in its own right. Yet plenty don’t see it this way and attribute “cultural Marxism” to Karl Marx as though it were directly his brainchild. It was not. And this then leads to some folks getting pretty hostile about him and dismissing anything and everything he ever said, which to me seems to be going a bit too far. He’s not some wicked, horrible human from the past who intentionally sought to cause problems for generations to come — he was just one person sharing his ideas and thoughts. What others later do with those ideas is on them.
I guess I have a hard time understanding getting so bent over a dead economic philosopher/social theorist. His ideas were just that: ideas. Not dictates he was capable of enforcing, especially considering the man had little power in his own life. And it doesn’t make much sense to continually blame him for all that’s been done in his name over the last century. If Marx were alive today I’d be willing to bet that he too would be critical of the spin-off movements that adapted his philosophy to serve their own ideological interests since they seem so loosely associated with what he actually professed and was taking issue with in his day and age. But then again, life has dramatically and rapidly changed throughout the 20th century to such an extent that expressions of late-19th century anxiety over rising industrial powers can today look to us to be little more than Luddite worries in coping with technological developments. His philosophy was a product of the times he lived in and is understandable when examined in that context, regardless of whether we agree with him or not.
Yet sometimes when people talk on these matters they aim to vilify the man on a personal level. Like he was some horrible ogre introducing dangerous thoughts to societies and all that’s come to pass since is somehow ultimately his fault. This bothers me. We’re each responsible for our own selves and what we opt to do with information we choose to work with, regardless of original source. By extension, I also come up against a number of folks casting blame against the entire Frankfurt School due to its association with Marxist philosophy. One author I’ve read a great deal over the years, Erich Fromm, was a member of the Frankfurt School and yet his views expressed in his books could be quite critical of Marxist claims and most especially political ideologies in general. Hence why I appreciated Fromm’s writings. But then others learn of this and, despite never having explored his works themselves, accuse me of basically being some pinko commie-supporter. Ugh. I do tire of that.
We should be able to sit with any information without being chided for doing so. I aim not to discriminate on that level. The ideas themselves are deserving of being hashed out, the source unto itself not being the primary concern. I’m not afraid to play with ideas from various camps and schools of thought. I do not regard information itself to be dangerous — the potential for misuse exists for anything under the sun.
This is reminiscent of how Friedrich Nietzsche’s writings grew in popularity among Nazis, despite that being an emerging movement Nietzsche appeared cautious of and very likely had no desire in aiding. But once he went insane and later died, his work could be utilized by whomever to promote whatever cause, even those which he would have openly defied. Same is true for anybody else who ever lived and put pen to paper. Others can run with what’s put out there — that can’t be controlled for. Nor should it be.
I guess part of what bugs me here is feeling squeezed on all sides. For example, when I have read from Austrian authors like Friedrich Hayek, that’s taken as evidence by some Leftists that I’m some pro-corporatist, pro-1%, hyper-individualist asshole belonging on the Right. And the same winds up being true when I defend exploring social theories associated with the Left in conversations with more conservative folks. Look, not everybody is interested in being on a team. Both political extremes appear crazy to me. However, ideas, regardless of where they come from, are all on the table. I do not automatically discriminate against them due to their source and typically am able to find some granule of value in nearly anything I take time to examine. There’s no shame in that.
Maybe it’s how anti-academic these trends feel to be. People group up on either side of the aisle and then refuse to explore the materials the opposing “side” is working with. Both just wind up accusing one another of being haters, of being up to deliberate chicanery, and real dialogue breaks down as a result. I can’t talk to people on either side of the political divide without having to traverse their preferred buzzwords and terms and concepts, plenty of which can seem problematic to leave unchallenged. But challenge them and it’s as if you’ve branded yourself as the enemy in the eyes of the person you’re attempting to converse with. I don’t like that. Makes communication harder than need be, as if it’s not tricky as hell already.
So much feels like doublespeak these days. And so many are prone to parrot what others they associate with claim, even if at bottom it appears like a gross oversimplification. Marx isn’t a devil. Nor is Hayek. They were just men trying to make sense out of the world, working from their own unique perspectives. Take ’em or leave ’em. This trend toward demonization of that which makes us uncomfortable is getting out of hand, and that’s true on the Political Left as much as it’s true on the Political Right. What’s wrong with being a skeptical explorer of all sorts of ideas and claims and information? And what’s wrong with examining information and ideas with an open mind before leaping to conclusions? Nothing. In fact, that would seem to be the intelligent approach we’d wish to promote. And yet, it’s not so much. That kinda worries me.
Yeah, I do get riled sometimes when these topics come up. Mostly because they wear me the hell out over time. Hence why it’s October and I am just now finally getting around to elaborating on this subject after the disagreement in question occurred back in May or June. Couldn’t formulate my thoughts for a while there. Just wished to escape all such talk and focus elsewhere for a spell. The common jargon employed gets to feeling icky, like if I swallow that I’m sliding down into another rabbit hole that promises more brain-numbing absurdities. And that’s why I just can’t firmly get with any ideological movement or activist branch. Feels much freer to remain as far outside of all that as possible, and to critique all sides of it. Because I can’t figure out what exactly folks think it is we’re supposed to all be loyal to these days. A party? A pet cause? Maintaining a way of life? Opposing that which they deem to be “evil”? Bah. Seems the underlying principles themselves are what really deserve our careful scrutiny. But instead it devolves into “us vs. them” squabbles.
I don’t know. Ideologies blow my mind. I don’t hate Karl Marx or blame him for our modern social problems. I don’t hate the notion of socialism, nor capitalism. Not a fan of communism, admittedly, nor fascism. I’ve long been critical of the position taken by Milton Friedman, but I don’t hate him either. Am still willing to listen to recordings of him speaking and can find areas of agreement with him, despite viewing him and the rest of the Chicago School of Economics as promoters of corporatism (which, by its very nature, winds up undermining and dismantling free market capitalism — a topic for another day). I can simultaneously be critical of someone like Friedman and yet still appreciate the nuggets of valuable insight he did bring to the table. And the same is true of Karl Marx. Neither of them are worthy of hate nor pedestalization. In short, we’re not all divvied up on teams with these dudes serving as our mascots.
Obviously not all of this is directed toward my buddy or is relevant to the disagreement we had. Just trying to elaborate on these thoughts while the will to do so was present. Everyday I feel a bit torn in my response to how modern life is unfolding, on one hand wishing to speak out and share information, on the other preferring to remain secluded in my cave away from all the nonsense and political clashing. The latter has been winning out in recent months. Feels like being bombarded with information overload most days. Nearly any area you care to zone in on, especially while online, winds up leading to confronting ideological battles. I don’t typically mind confrontations, but after a while they wear a person down and shorten the temper. Usually not the fault of the person I wind up snipping at, just that they’re the latest in a long line of folks I’ve been struggling to effectively communicate with. I wish there were ways to address the social phenomena and behaviors in question without the use of buzzwords and limiting categorizations being bandied about. It gets to feeling stifling, and I can react with defensiveness at times, usually because it’s frustrating that so many attempts to meaningfully converse can turn into a hoop-jumping contest of some fashion. I suck at hoop-jumping, for the record.
That’s enough for now. Need a bit more sleep before heading to work.