In this week’s issue of The Nation, Timothy Shenk discusses the revival of Marxism since the financial collapse of 2008. For many who achieved political consciousness and intellectual maturity only after the heralded “end of history” in 1989, Marxism is often seen as offering an important analysis of the causes and consequences of the unprecedented upward redistribution of wealth and power, in this country and throughout the world, which began several decades ago and, despite the crash, continues apace today. Unburdened by the intellectual psychodramas of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union, disappointed by President Obama, and galvanized by Occupy Wall Street’s scathing moral critique of inequality, millennials, Shenk writes, comprise “an audience primed for lectures on the contradictions of capitalism.”
Shenk’s essay is a review of the socialist quarterly Jacobin, Thomas Piketty’s magisterial bestseller Capital in the Twenty-First Century and new books by editors of n+1, but it begins with a sweeping history of capitalism and socialism since the early days of what eventually became known as the Industrial Revolution. Another way to map the rises and falls in the popularity and promise of revolutionary socialism is to take a tour of The Nation’s writings on Marx and Marxism, the substance and tone of which tended to shift with the larger political, cultural and economic tides.
Our first reference to Karl Marx was in a series of special dispatches published in August 1878. Friedrich Kapp, a German jurist and journalist who emigrated to the United States in 1850, was a frequent contributor to The Nation on German politics beginning in 1865, the year of our founding. In his three-part 1878 series, “Socialism in Germany,” Kapp expressed admiration for Marx’s intellectual gravitas: “Remarkable by his indefatigable industry and the thoroughness of his studies as well as by the wide range of his researches and the philosophical and critical turn of his mind, he ranks among the first scholars of the time.”
For Marx’s collaborator, Friedrich Engels, Kapp had more ambiguous praise.
His work distinguished itself as well by the fullness of its details and the boldness of its reasoning as by its bitter attacks on the manufacturing classes, and made a deep impression in Germany. The brilliant qualities of this man, however, are overshadowed by a reckless, domineering spirit, an insatiable ambition, and an intolerant character which blackens, vilifies, and, if possible, destroys everything and everybody in its way.
With many conservative commentators then and since, Kapp believed he saw the seeds of totalitarianism in the bud of the communist ideal.
He who does not believe implicitly in Marx, or who dares to have an opinion of his own, is doomed, driven out of the church, and denounced to the Philistines as a “bourgeois,” as a spy, as an “agent-provocateur”…Like all founders of new creeds, Marx knows only obedient tools and blind admirers, and has but few friends.
Kapp then summarizes for Nation readers “the gist of the first volume of Marx’s work”:
The enormous power of accumulated capital cannot be done away with, the world cannot return to a patriarchal state of things; but, nevertheless, the misery of the working-classes can no longer continue. Marx proposes as a remedy that all means and tools of production, ground and soil as well as raw materials, should be handed over to society at large, that all trades and professions should be carried on by it for the benefit of all—or, in others words, that private property be abolished.