Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture at 25: Theories for the New Millennium: Cary Nelson’s Opening Remarks

Monday, February 18, 2013


[On February 08, 2013 the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory hosted “Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture at 25: Theories for the New Millennium,” a symposium. Cary Nelson, co-editor of the original volume and founding director of the Unit, opened the symposium. His remarks are below.]

Marxism Now

It should hardly be surprising that peoples’ willingness to embrace Marxist terminology and insights is often dependent on their level of comfort with the patterns and consequences of late capitalism. The 21st century has seen both increasing evidence of planet-wide environmental degradation from unchecked industrialization pursued for profit without concern for consequences and worldwide economic collapse based on commodification of the most illusory sort. When the bundled high-risk derivatives lost all their constructed value in 2008 it was clear there really was nothing solid there to melt into air, to adapt the famous phrase from the Communist Manifesto. They merely had their inherent emptiness revealed, but at a huge social cost.

And yet the last half-decade has seen much that we thought solid melt into air, as occupations have disappeared, communities have been financially or environmentally devastated, and industries like ours once thought secure have been utterly transformed—and not to the good. We are in a period—and it seems definitive—of accelerated change and social devastation driven by business interests. If it is true that most people will no longer have lifetime occupations, that certainly suggests more rapid economic change than we have seen for decades. The economist Joseph Schumpeter argued that capitalism propels a “perennial gale of creative destruction,” but except for rapid technological development and the creation of disproportionate centers of wealth, it’s hard to see evidence of the creative innovation part.

When we launched “Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture”--a six-week series of summer courses, followed by the conference that was the basis of the book—-we had in mind disseminating the work of those who believed that Marxist economic and political analysis was universally applicable to every cultural domain. The developments of the last decade now seem to have offered belated evidence for that claim, even if some core Marxist insights now circulate in a decontextualized form. Occupy Wall Street is the most obvious example. Marxist for some, merely anti-capitalist out of humanist conviction for others, its opposition to the American class system and its inventive forms of exploitation, commercialization, and proletarianization are not in dispute.

The Marxism conference was conceived in the midst of the poststructuralist revolution in theory and thus was preoccupied with defining what Stuart Hall called a “Marxism without guarantees,” a tension that still haunts efforts to integrate radical irresolution with a discourse with a significant teleological component. We also knew that a viable contemporary Marxism would have to engage directly with new social movements, abandoning the rigid base/superstructure model and crediting cultural work with meaningful political agency. As a result, we were already engaged with a certain decoupling of some of Marxism’s key concepts, though Perry Anderson and Fred Jameson, among others, insisted on Marxism’s teleological truths. Others, certainly including the organizers, had no faith in the capacity for any theory to make confident long-term historical predictions. With poststructuralism long integrated into my DNA, it is only with a mix of incredulity and nostalgia that I can recall this as a positional struggle, but there it is. Some participants I should add, notably Gaijo Petrovic, sought to suture the problem by integrating Marxist humanism with poststructuralist theory.

I had a certain fondness for Gaijo, in part because of his personal history. He was in the Yugoslavian resistance in WW II and was captured and tortured by the Nazis. When a group of feminist participants protested his failure to address their concerns in his course, I called them into my office and asked them to grant him some quarter. Gaijo came to me the next day and said, rather to the point, “I’ll take care of myself. If I told the Nazis nothing under torture, do you think I cannot handle some American students?”

The Modern Language Association’s guide to graduate study called Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture “an epoch-creating book,” and within a few years the American edition issued by the University of Illinois Press sold over 30,000 copies. Macmillan published a separate British edition, but without the luminous red dust jacket and paperback cover, based on a special ink that had abalone shell mixed in it. It’s a nightmare to apply, because it’s sticky and the paper tends to lift up and stick to the print roller. But the book’s design also won an award.

The 30,000 plus copy sale was less dramatic than the outcome predicted by one of our speakers, who insisted that none of us would make it through the final conference weekend alive. The CIA, she repeatedly announced, would kill us all with sniper fire. I got her to risk appearing on stage only after that session’s moderator, my partner Paula Treichler, agreed to scan the audience for snipers nonstop. The only real local protest came when the janitors refused to clean the restrooms for a bunch of communists. I was reminded that this was, after all, the Midwest, and that this was not the most self-evident venue for the subject matter. I was reminded again when Henri Lefebvre remarked in what has remained my favorite line of the conference: “I cannot believe what cheap wine these American Marxists drink.”

For me, even though the ink has dried, the book retains a certain stickiness, its cultural arguments remaining entangled with what we used to call “actually existing socialism.” It was often necessary at the time to claim a decisive separation between Soviet communism and Marxist theory, despite the fact that the possibility of real world revolutionary change haunts even the most abstract application of Marxist theory. Jameson and Anderson would have asserted that a Marxism without totalizing historical convictions was not really Marxism at all, but all of us certainly felt the lesser need to imagine alternative futures and plot contemporary alliances that might facilitate fundamental change.

When the conference proposal was being reviewed by academic committees, I steadfastly refused any necessary relationship between Marxist theory and communism, but I was not above exploiting the connection when necessary. The National Endowment for the Humanities gave us a grant to cover tuition and expenses for faculty members from elsewhere attending the whole eight weeks. When a diminutive local administrator refused to sign off on the grant because NEH didn’t provide indirect costs, I lifted him up in the air and somewhat loudly declared: “We’ve invited some of the world’s most remorseless revolutionaries here. Do you realize what’s going to happen when I tell them you won’t let them get reimbursed for their costs?” I set him down, and he signed.

It’s a connection that remains a burden, in some ways a more difficult one now than then. In 1939, party members justified the Nazi-Soviet pact as a necessity to buy time to prepare for German aggression, but that requires largely bracketing the brutal Soviet takeover of half of Poland and Eastern Europe, with its widespread murder of intellectuals and political activists. The later numbers in the Gulag have in turn always been overshadowed by the Holocaust, in part because the Holocaust has for the last few decades been internalized less centrally in terms of numbers than by way a great many stories and human testimonies and in part because Gulag prisoners could survive. The Ukrainian famine of the 1930s, Stalin’s most ambitious mass murder project, remained largely decathected numbers for many on the left, at least until Timothy Snyder’s 2010 book Bloodlands, which documents the famine in gruesome detail, along with an excruciating account of the Soviet state’s Orwellian contemporary arguments justifying their actions. I had a conversation with Barbara Foley years ago in which she complained that claims Stalin murdered 30 million were horrendously and inexcusably inflated; she was sure he only killed 20 million. I find I can no longer treat comparisons between Hitler and Stalin as bankrupt remnants of McCarthyism.

I remain attracted to the romance of communism, to the artistic outpouring within the Soviet Union during the 1920s, to the utopian ambitions of American communists in the 1920s and 1930s, but I can no longer argue that the distortions and depravities of Stalinism are consequences of capitalist antagonism and aggression alone. That said, the communism in the heads of many American party members in the 1920s and 1930s was not the communism that all too soon took form under Stalin after 1927. Nor is the Marxism in the heads of late 20th century theorists, however haunted by history, fully congruent with the history that played out in Europe from the 1930s to the fall of the Soviet Union.

But both the Marxism conference and the Cultural Studies conference that followed it were not simply about abstract theoretical projects. If objections to mutually interrogating Marxist theory and communist party history are designed to insist that Marxism can be a decontextualized philosophical theory, perfectible in the abstract, then both books stand largely in opposition to that claim. Gayatri Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak,” certainly the most widely debated essay in the book, comes to a theorized real world conclusion that some found a betrayal of their utopian dreams about class identity. Whatever its teleology, Marxist theory needs not only to be tested against contemporary realities and necessities but also to be reformulated in the light of historical developments.

In the midst of the Great Depression it was altogether possible to believe capitalism was coming to an end, that its economic engine was broken and could not be fixed. It may be possible to believe that again, though capitalism’s death throes could outlive us. The most reliable short-term predictions would include a further concentration of wealth in the hands of a few and an increasing exploitation of working peoples. Vast population dislocations from environmental destruction loom in more apocalyptic versions than anything comparable nature has given us in the modern era. Yet the revolution is not at hand. Recognition of capitalism’s capacity to eviscerate daily life, however, may well increase. The legacy of the book thus survives; it’s methodologies remain useful, applicable, viable, timely.

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