Karl Marx and America

If one were sympathetic to Marxism and believed in the majesty of his writings, would that constitute anti-Americanism or a radical perspective? Should that trigger, to be a little sardonic, a National Security Agency warrantless wiretap to insure non-involvement in planned operations against the U. S.? I do not believe it should unless one has a vastly different view of America than it claims for itself. Three brief examples:

1) Marx was an advocate of proletarian revolution. The labour component of society would develop a class consciousness at the appropriate dialectical moment and sweep the bourgeoisie from power. For sure this is not going to be embraced by those in power but the revolutionary ideal certainly was advanced by Jefferson, Madison, Henry, Sam Adams and other founders. In fact much of British social contract theory is predicated on the revolutionary option as a response to arbitrary and ineffectual government. While no one is attempting to conjoin John Locke with Dr Marx, nevertheless the revolutionary underpinnings of American democracy are there and in a sense are somewhat compatible with Marx. For sure Marx was skeptical of government and even considered it marginal to the sweeping economic forces that drive history but American and Marxian founding ideologies are not resistant to the idea of changing regimes that exhibit cruel and repressive characteristics. I recognize the American revolution was not proleterian but upper class inspired as one elite wished to replace the economic constraints imposed by another elite (British). Personally, I prefer an irenic alternative to revolution unless, like some in the aftermath of the Berlin Wall, could be effectuated without violence and harm to others. Revolutions may topple states without mass violence.

2) Marx was obsessed with working class squalor and poverty. He frankly devoted his life to this issue. One cannot dismiss the “liberal” component of his views that emphasise the need for class equality, distributive justice and the equalisation of conditions. In fact many unions, many politicians, including President Lyndon Johnson, who would never claim a Marxian thread in their ideological tapestry, bemoaned the lack of justice in which an underclass of poverty prevailed. Call it socialism, call it democratic socialism, call it left liberalism but I think Marx’s affinity to working class justice is hardly anathema to the so-called American motto of “equal justice under law,” and the notion of equal opportunity, a social security safety net and affirmative action for minorities and women.

3) Karl Marx was one of the first investigative journalists. He wrote about peasant work conditions; he wrote about those impoverished who were arrested for trying to gather wood for heating fuel. Friedrich Engels, his great friend and compatriot, wrote a pioneer sociological inquiry into the working class in England. One should celebrate those who use their scholarship to explore, analyse and critique “the under class.” This I think is hardly incompatible with democracy or with what many journalism students are invited to pursue.

Make no mistake. Marx was opposed to capitalism; opposed to private ownership of the means of production; opposed to wage labour; opposed to religion which he saw as a means of class rule; opposed to government, at least ultimately, and envisioned in a somewhat vague manner a withering away of the state. Marx was radical and the greatest critic of contemporary western societies but my point is to avoid making rash generalisations that the writings of Marx are without exception ideologically opposed to all principles and manifestations of the American ethos. David Brooks wrote a rather surprisingly complimentary op-ed piece in the New York Times on Marx last year.

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