Marx@200 shows Marx’s transcending relevance over the years

Credit: Aisha Han/Visual Editor Credit: Aisha Han/Visual Editor Credit: Aisha Han/Visual Editor Credit: Aisha Han/Visual Editor

Karl Marx has a legacy and influence that has dramatically changed everyday political and social life. The Prussian-born political and economic theorist is best known for the Manifesto of the Communist Party (colloquially known as The Communist Manifesto), which he co-authored with colleague Friedrich Engels, and Capital, a seminal text in politics, economics, and philosophy. The influential political philosopher, born on May 5, 1818, is now more relevant than ever due to increasing income inequality, the aftermath of the global financial crash in 2008, and a new skepticism of capitalism among the post-Cold War generation.

Dietrich College faculty members Kathy M. Newman and David Shumway have created a year-long series of celebratory events that will culminate on Marx’s 200th birthday this spring. This series of events — Marx@200 — is one of the nation’s only year-long programs devoted to Marx and his favorite themes.

On Thursday, Sept. 14, Marx@200 kicked off with Newman and Shumway’s lecture, “Why Marx Now: 200 Years Later.” Richard Scheines, Dean of Dietrich College, was first to speak and provided welcoming remarks as well his personal experience with Marx growing up. For most of Scheines’ early years, Karl Marx was known as the “author of Communism,” and as a child raised in the aftermath of McCarthyism, Scheines was unsurprisingly a product of anti-communist propaganda, where none of his high school education “even probed slightly beneath the surface” of Marxism. What struck him in this experience is the importance of institutions like Carnegie Mellon to support the freedom of thinking beyond the propaganda every citizen experiences from birth. Individuals must take seriously the role of incorporating all political perspectives, and they “can’t be unwilling to celebrate Marx,” or be dismissive of any thought that might compromise conventional thought. The series of scholarly events to celebrate Karl Marx supports this notion.

Kathy Newman, an associate professor in the department of English, studies and writes about the relationship between the masses and mass culture, specifically the relationship between television, film, and media, and the socio-political world our culture reflects and creates. The theme of her talk incorporated artists like Wang Yuyand, Claire Fontaine, Jorge Mendez Blake, and Christin Lahr, with Marx being their common denominator. Some like Fontaine delve deeply into Marx’s philosophy, using art as modern tongue-in-cheek commentary, while others like Wang Yuyand take the literal substance and translate it into data, combinations of 1s and 0s, to create morphed and distorted sculptures.

The modern resurgence of Marxism surpasses art, said Newman as she described the international phenomenon of Marx’s popularity. East Germans are especially affected, “rooted in nostalgia for socialism.” A Guardian survey found that 52 percent of their citizens believed the free market was unsuitable, and 43 percent said they want socialism back. As the single most cited scholar in the humanities by a factor of 22, Marx has become steadily more popular around the globe and Newman moves on to speculate why.

Newman’s first hypothesis for the growing popularity of Marxism was the global financial collapse of 2008, which “made Marx’s critique of capitalism look fresher than ever.” Marx predicted cycles of collapse and consolidation and his analysis explains how inequality deepens during times of capitalist crisis. Moreover, the post-Cold War generation view socialism and communism more favorably than during anytime since the 1940s. Newman referenced a scholar at Tufts University who claimed that millennials are more skeptical towards capitalism than their parents, especially because many of them graduated into the worst job market since the Great Depression. Millennials also see Scandinavian countries as models of democratic socialism, rather than current or former communist countries like Russia and China. This is not so much for a utopian inspiration, but instead they are seeking to understand all the ways capitalism is failing ordinary people. They’re bringing us a Marx whose contemporary value is in explanation and critique.

David Shumway, professor of English, mirrored Newman’s arguments through a different lens, as noted by the title for his part of the talk, “How Marx Now,” instead of “Why Marx now.” The ability to reexamine Marx can transform the understanding of Marxism, and this reexamination is the foundation of Shumway’s lecture.

Shumway’s arguments were that Marx is best understood as a liberal and not an opponent of liberalism, and that historically, Marx has made a significant impact on politics that is seldom recognized, which is that his ideas are the basis for the many changes in liberal democracies associated with the welfare state. From the translation of Marxist ideas into new policies, Shumway contends that Marx’s influence, despite the fact that a literal interpretation of his views at the time which would be against social democratic reforms, gave way to the right and inevitable rise of the political system. Shumway uses text from Capital to enhance his arguments. He emphasizes the value of freedom on both ends, for the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. It is just that the dictatorship of the proletariat will be more liberal than the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

In the wake of extreme political and economic unrest before the 1950s, many western countries turned into welfare states, where national governments take at least some responsibility for the welfare of their citizens. The fear of a communist revolution led the bourgeoisie to concede some economic authority to the public. Thus, fear of the extreme left allowed a more moderate left to rise. Marx was accidentally the founder of social democracy, formed out of the dregs of bourgeois fear.

Both lectures sufficiently summed up the relevance and importance of Marx in the modern age. As we look ahead to the rest of the year and the uncertainty of our current economic and socio-political landscape, we know that for whatever large-scale issue that will be thrown at us, Marxism can offer a theory of its underlying causes. The next Marx@200 event will take place on Thursday, Oct. 19 at 4:30 p.m. in Porter Hall 100 entitled “Robotics, Pittsburgh, and the End of Work.”