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Lowering the Brow: Tony Judt on Main Currents of Marxism and Beyond

Here's my problem with Tony Judt in a sentence: Kolakowski's response, "My Correct Views on Everything," may be the most perfectly executed intellectual demolition in the history of political argument: no one who reads it will ever take E.P. Thompson … Read More

By / September 6, 2006

Here's my problem with Tony Judt in a sentence:

Kolakowski's response, "My Correct Views on Everything," may be the most perfectly executed intellectual demolition in the history of political argument: no one who reads it will ever take E.P. Thompson seriously again.

Thus conveniently snatching the scepter of self-satisfaction from an old Red don's hand. Really? The Making of the English Working-Class wiped clean just like that, you don't say.

This comes to us courtesy of an otherwise insightful essay in The New York Review of Books on Leszek Kolakowski's monumental (physically, too: it's 1,200 pages) work on the theoretical lineaments of Marxism. Judt is excellent on the history of ideas, except where he isn't. So, after due homage is paid to a great Polish dissident and apostate from even the Reform movement of modernity's "secular religion," we get what matters now about Marx in the form of lame "Chavisme" and Western anti-globalization chatter. Not that Judt is comfortable with either, mind you. But as every great prophet of a coming political cataclysm does, he pops briefly into a dark future, drawing few conclusions but thus giving his prediction that certain gloom-and-doom something:

In short, the world appears to be entering upon a new cycle, one with which our nineteenth-century forebears were familiar but of which we in the West have no recent experience. In the coming years, as visible disparities of wealth increase and struggles over the terms of trade, the location of employment, and the control of scarce natural resources all become more acute, we are likely to hear more, not less, about inequality, injustice, unfairness, and exploitation—at home but especially abroad. And thus, as we lose sight of communism (already in Eastern Europe you have to be thirty-five years old to have any adult memory of a Communist regime), the moral appeal of some refurbished version of Marxism is likely to grow.

If that sounds crazy, remember this: the attraction of one or another version of Marxism to intellectuals and radical politicians in Latin America, for example, or in the Middle East, never really faded; as a plausible account of local experience Marxism in such places retains much of its appeal, just as it does to contemporary anti-globalizers everywhere. The latter see in the tensions and shortcomings of today's international capitalist economy precisely the same injustices and opportunities that led observers of the first economic "globalization" of the 1890s to apply Marx's critique of capitalism to new theories of "imperialism."

"Refurbished version of Marxism" is just too cute.

One of the nice ironies facing democratic socialists is that their Marxism is now being wielded most effectively against it by the isolationist right. This is why Geoffrey Wheatcroft says that, "Oh, you signers of the Euston Manifesto are secretly okay with the Iraq war because Marx was openly okay with the conquest of India. Just come out of the closet on this and declare yourselves the intellectual paymasters of Bush and Blair." Wheatcroft may have a point, but it comes not at Euston's expense. (What is pharisaical to any Marxist in arguing that Saddam Hussein, apart from being a genocidal monster, was also a dangerous anachronism of feudal tyranny hording valuable capital resources?) Rather, it's the Naomi Klein crowd — who speak as if technology and industrial innovation were demonaical concepts — that have the most explaining to do since they think they've inherited the responsibilities of economic radicalism. (No Logo is the "refurbished version" of Capital? Maybe to Thom Yorke it is.)

Islamism and the statist alms' house nature of the present "Bolivarian revolution" are not preferable to even laissez-faire capitalism. Any real Marxist could mutter that in his sleep.

It would indeed be nice if historical materialism had an update for the 21st century. But don't hold your breath waiting for the guys Judt fingers to be the ones to endeavor it. They're the reigning improv troupe of a fashionable, canting leftism.

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