Walter Laqueur: The Many Faces of Neo-Marxism

tags: Walter Laqueur, neo-Marxism, Marxisim, The National Interest

Walter Laqueur is a historian and political commentator. His most recent book is After the Fall: The End of the European Dream and the Decline of a Continent.

Marx -- one of the most influential thinkers of the nineteenth century, if not the single most important one -- is enjoying a kind of renaissance. This is attributed by some to the great economic crisis that began in 2008 and destroyed considerable wealth around the world. Given that this crisis is seen widely as a crisis of capitalism, it is natural that many people would think of Marx, who was of course the greatest critic of capitalism in history.

Yet it is a strange renaissance, if indeed it is any kind of renaissance at all. In recent years, there have been many Marxism conferences and countless workshops in places such as Chicago, Boston and Berlin. In London, one Marx “festival” lasted five days under a slogan that cried, “Revolution is in the air.” The invitation read:

Crisis and austerity have exposed the insanity of our global system. Billions have been given to the banks, while billions across the planet face hunger, poverty, climate catastrophes and war. We used to be told capitalism meant prosperity and democracy. Not any more. Now it means austerity for the 99% and rule by the markets.

But is revolution really in the air? France got a socialist government, but it is already in trouble. Britain may follow, but would it fare any better? It seems only natural that, at a time of crisis, public opinion would turn against the party in power. Given the severity of the crisis and the slowness of the recovery, it is not surprising that some people would turn to Marxism. But the fact that the political reaction has been so mild is more astonishing.

And, while some of the conferences and festivals lauding the anticapitalist crusader seem to be motivated by genuine neo-Marxist sentiments, others appear to be using the man as a kind of bandwagon for separate trendy causes and impulses. Consider the agenda at a recent such meeting at the University of Washington. One has to doubt whether these followers of Marx are on the right track when the papers under discussion contain titles such as “Reconsidering Impossible Totalities: Marxist Deployments of the Sublime,” “A Few Thoughts on the Academic Poet as Hobo-Tourist,” “Reading Hip-Hop at the Intersection of Culture and Capitalism,” “Annals of Sexual States” and “The Political Economy of Stranger Intimacy.”

One wonders what Marx’s reaction would be if he sat at his desk in the British Museum’s Reading Room and contemplated such discussions at a gathering dedicated to rethinking his ideas. Would he be impressed, amused or speechless? Perhaps it would remind him of the carnival celebrations each February in his native Trier: wine, funny masks and customs, and pranks—all followed by a hangover of five or six days....

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