U.S. Politics & Society

Marxism and Little Magazines: Gathering in the Newest Left

When I entered graduate school in English literature in 2007, like many others I did so under the impression that anything could pass as “studying literature,” and that I was secretly training to be an intellectual. To study literature in the 2000s obviously meant different things at different universities. But there is no doubt that the reputation of English departments, in places like the New York Times, invariably meant that they were hothouses of what is called “Theory,” a politicized blend of philosophy from German and French (mostly left-wing) thinkers of the 1960s and 1970s. Like others, I loved to apply these works—poorly understood—to the classics of European and American literature in order to add to my own writing a bit of social and philosophical pixie dust. It was important that these essays were largely non-Marxist, or—to the extent that they were—they were so far from the Marxist emphasis on working-class agency and political economy that they were unrecognizable as Marxist texts. For example, many students were strongly indoctrinated into the work of Walter Benjamin, a literary critic associated with the Marxist Frankfurt School for Social Research. But much of what we were taught to admire about him were his departures from Marxism—into Jewish mysticism, or analyses of allegory in German theater. In these discussions, labor, work, and the economy went unmentioned. Marxism of this stripe was merely something to get past, to be dismissed airily (“Unlike what some Marxists have argued, culture is not reducible to the market, and is in fact an autonomous system of ethical relations. . . ” was an assertion running through many of my college essays).

That era of intellectual effort seems so strange to me now because I self-identify as a Marxist, and work in a sphere of little magazines (the name of my own is n+1, a journal of culture and politics) where many editors would be happy to identify similarly. There is no question that between 2000 and the present day, there has been a revival, however modest, of Marxism, and even in academic circles—especially the humanities and the social sciences (not including economics), where it was once fashionable to repudiate Marxism, it now feels ridiculous to avoid it altogether. It would suffice to name relevant figures in a few fields: in geography and urban studies, David Harvey; in American social history, Eric Foner; in literary criticism, Franco Moretti; in art history, T.J. Clark; in economic sociology, Saskia Sassen. Even where these are not the dominant figures in their field, or even when they are not “strict” Marxists, they are thinkers who follow in the tradition of Marxism and are thinkers one has to contend with. And together with the resurgence of Marxism in the academy, a world of new left-wing magazines—n+1, The New Inquiry, and Jacobin, along with a revived Dissent, are perhaps the foremost—enjoys commerce with the Marxist academy and feels at home transmitting ideas between it and an extra-academic public.

How did all this happen? How did Marxism come to fall into disrepute, and why did little magazines die out with it? And why does the resurgence of Marxism coincide with the rise of little magazines? I dwell on the personal side of this history for the moment because I feel in my own trajectory—from theory-addled college student to card-carrying socialist and committed Marxist—in the years leading up to the great financial crisis of 2007/8, something of what appears to have happened to others. By that point, Marxism no longer felt like something one had to avoid; it rather came to feel like an unavoidable necessity—in the opening words of Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason, “the inescapable horizon of all thought.” Though it might be tempting to say the financial crisis revived Marxism, it is only partly responsible, and this only partly explains the path that Marxism has taken toward its renewed prominence in intellectual life.

The Recovered Tradition

If I were to trace my own arrival at this conjuncture, certain moments would stand out. For one thing, I had to abandon my absolute faith in “Theory” as a kind of salvation. It was not that the insights of Theory, or the causes for its emergence, were wholly mistaken or misguided—on the contrary—so much as that they had obscured (for me and no doubt others) a wider tradition that I became eager to know. I remember the vivid experience of reading Alain Badiou’s hand grenade of a book, Ethics, where he dismantled the entire idea of the “Other,” and lamented the rise of human rights discourse:

We are supposed to assume the existence of a universally recognizable human subject possessing “rights” that are in some sense natural: the right to live, to avoid abusive treatment, to enjoy “fundamental” liberties (of opinion, of expression, of democratic choice in the election of governments, etc.). These rights are held to be self-evident, and the result of a wide consensus. “Ethics” is a matter of busying ourselves with these rights, of making sure that they are respected.

This return to the old doctrine of the natural rights of man is obviously linked to the collapse of revolutionary Marxism, and of all the forms of progressive engagement it inspired.

I came across the then-not-so-old issue of New Left Review in which Perry Anderson lamented the names that had disappeared from the canon of critical thinking, and what they had been replaced by:

Virtually the entire horizon of reference in which the generation of the sixties grew up has been wiped away—the landmarks of reformist and revolutionary socialism in equal measure. For most students, the roster of Bebel, Bernstein, Luxemburg, Kautsky, Jaurès, Lukács, Lenin, Trotsky, Gramsci have become names as remote as a list of Arian bishops.

Most of the corpus of Western Marxism has also gone out of general circulation—Korsch, the Lukács of History and Class Consciousness, most of Sartre and Althusser, the Della Volpean school, Marcuse. What has survived best is least directly political: essentially, postwar Frankfurt theory and selected Benjamin. Domestically, Raymond Williams has been put out of court, much as Wright Mills in America twenty years ago; Deutscher has disappeared; the name Miliband speaks of another time.

The reason any of this seemed attractive, or newly attractive, had to do with the economic feelings and cultural mood. Though in the early 2000s, the United States appeared to have recovered from the bursting of the internet bubble, it in fact was failing to produce jobs at a pace consistent with the population, and middle-class wages notably remained stagnant. One felt this among groups of friends, who entered the world laden with supposedly sterling credentials, and found they were judged by the job market as tin. Conservative retrenchment was fighting back many of the gains of previous generations of social movements: abortion rights diminished in state after state; antipoverty and housing policies eviscerated. And most importantly of all—most immediately palpable to people like myself—the state of journalism and the state of academia were equally in shambles. In the first camp, people were giving away products for free, on the not-thought-through idea that newspapers and magazines might thereby save themselves; in the other, the adjunctification of the professoriate accumulated speed, and more and more graduate students began to recognize themselves as “workers,” in need of unionization, rather than apprentices in need of tutelage.

The only figures who seemed to be doing well—who indeed were bestriding the world like colossi—were the hordes of young men and women entering the shadow banking sector, its operations more confusing to the average person than they had ever been. It remained to figure out precisely what these bankers were doing—and here Marxism proved useful again. Friends of mine circulated amongst ourselves a lucid explanatory article from New Left Review by Robin Blackburn on the growing importance of financial services for a capitalist system very much on the brink, hedge funds and private equity firms providing ever more innovative and risky vehicles for turning bad markets into good bets, and failing firms into successful, barely taxed commissions. So that’s what all our classmates who went into banking were doing! And why, after all, were we earning so little while they earned so much? Why did even our bosses earn so much drastically more than we did? How did gross domestic product grow without creating many more new jobs?

In 2015 these (at the time) private-feeling thoughts are much more public—thanks not only to Occupy Wall Street, but also to a remarkably combative and more vigorous Marxist public sphere that arose before and alongside it. A host of new journals regularly and unembarrassedly make recourse to Marxist language and arguments. Trend pieces marking the rise of a “new Marxism” or “millennial Marxism” have proliferated and are themselves sure to be the subject of a trend piece. The US having been a society, as the novelist and critic (and co-founder of my magazine) Benjamin Kunkel has written, “in which Marxism can be advocated only a little more respectably than pederasty,” it has now become comparatively normal to see Marxist arguments even in the mainstream press—such that Thomas Piketty has had to distance himself from Marxism, while the title of his own book lays claim to the most famous work of Marxian political economy. Marxism feels to be once again a current discourse on the left, and it enjoys its revival in no small part thanks to the commerce between the academy and a host of “little” magazines outside it.

Why Did Marxism Fall Into Disrepute?

The revival of Marxism today—and particularly the Marxist attitude toward political economy and left-wing strategy—can’t be understood without understanding why it became such a negative word even in the supposedly safe precincts of the academy and little magazines. The major characteristic of a revived Marxism today is that it comes after many years of discredit, official and otherwise, and operates in lonely but distinguished solitude. Obviously to be a Marxist in an America that was wholly committed to the destruction of a “Marxist-Leninist” enemy was never an easy proposition. But the fact is that even among the left, Marxism fell into disrepute, well before the collapse of so many official Marxisms following 1989.

One of the debates that precipitated the crisis of Marxism in an intellectual sphere was the stalling of the labor movement in the 1970s. The distinguished and beloved late historian Eric Hobsbawm’s lecture “The Forward March of Labour Halted?” from 1978, documented the threats to the continued vibrancy of the British labour movement, and openly speculated that changes in the nature of work (for example, the increase in white-collar “service” professions) would cause a severe crisis in the strategy, and therefore the intellectual self-confidence, of many Marxists. Hobsbawm subsequently attempted in the pages of Marxism Today, the Communist Party of Great Britain’s official journal, to rescue the Labour party from its radical, socialist wing, in the figure of the late Tony Benn (and in the process lay the groundwork for the explicitly non-socialist New Labour).

In the US, a roughly analogous fight was taking place on the left. An insurgency in the Democratic Party was trying to get the party to shed its allegiance to labor unions (a group that came to be known as the “New Democrats,” associated with figures like Gary Hart, and later Bill Clinton). Meanwhile many labor unions, such as the Teamsters and Steelworkers, themselves were fighting off their own insurgency—one from the rank-and-file, with figures such as Eddie Sadlowski of the USW leading the charge—that had the potential to save them from a kind of complacency. Though not all of these were specifically Marxist fights, the overall faltering of the labor movement had significant consequences for Marxist thought. Though many Marxists were critical of the labor movement for being reformist, bureaucratic, or “economistic” (too focused on wages, and not focused enough on power and social change), they nonetheless applauded the growth of the labor movement and saw the conversion of the movement to socialism as a basic goal. And so the encroaching collapse of US labor was not something Marxists were inclined to view with equanimity.

Another difficulty—not unnoticed by many Marxists—was the fact that the bulk of the labor movement appeared to other social movements, such as the antiwar New Left, or black liberationists, to be too conservative. Many antiwar activists, for example, regarded blue-collar workers as irredeemable Vietnam war supporters. This turns out to have been a mistake and a source of longstanding tragic divisions, as books like Penny Lewis’s Hardhats, Hippies, and Hawks have shown: the role of trade unionists in the antiwar movement was essential. Nonetheless, the problem was that if one wanted to look for signs of dissent within American society in particular, it was felt that you would not look to the labor movement (despite the rank-and-file rebellion—another fact that appears more relevant in retrospect). Social movements such as the women’s liberation movement, for one, though it had labor-relevant currents—such as the secretarial revolt that led to waves of administrative organizing in universities in the 1970s and ‘80s—were nonetheless largely unaccounted for in the categories of Marxist thought.

Among intellectuals, much of the fight between social movements and socialists took the guise of a fight between “Theory” and supposedly orthodox Marxists. For where many theorists seemed to offer ways of thinking about the left in ways not so exclusively focused on labor—for example, Michel Foucault’s writings on the constructedness of sexual identities—Marxists were held to be dogmatic partisans of the proletariat as the sole agent of history. The signal work in this vein was a work by political theorists Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, called Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985), which sought out to establish the essential determinism of all Marxism, even the most creative. This work, though now probably obscure to many people, was the subject of intense debate at the time, and it seemed to offer a path out of the asphyxiating strictures of orthodox Marxism to something called “post-Marxism.” What Laclau and Mouffe argued was that, where Marxism, even at its most creative, held that the working class was the prime agent of history. Laclau and Mouffe argued that a truer, more honest vision of society would show that it was basically pluralistic, and there was no single class that was structurally positioned to overturn capitalism. This meant that any group, anywhere in the system, could offer “antagonism” to the established order. The working class as the agent of history was only an abstraction. The idea, however obscurely, was to make room for what were then being called the “new social movements”—feminism, environmentalism, queer liberation—in a world in which labor as a radical force was in decline.

The response of academic Marxists to provocations of this kind was unusually fierce. One might recall, in this light, Jameson’s opening remarks in The Political Unconscious, which outline his enterprise in an unusually defensive manner:

My position here is that only Marxism offers a philosophically coherent and ideologically compelling resolution to the dilemma of historicism . . . . Only Marxism can give us an adequate account of the essential mystery of the cultural past, which, like Tiresias drinking the blood, is momentarily returned to life and warmth and allowed once more to speak, and to deliver its long-forgotten message in surroundings utterly alien to it. . . . These matters can recover their original urgency for us only if they are retold within the unity of a single great collective story; only if, in however disguised and symbolic a form, they are seen as sharing a single fundamental theme—for Marxism, the collective struggle to wrest a realm of Freedom from a realm of Necessity; only if they are grasped as vital episodes in a single vast unfinished plot.

This is Jameson at his most breathtaking—the slow, Proustian seadrift of the long sentence, freighted with clauses—as well as his most polemical: insisting on the epistemological priority of Marxism for interpretation and for historical thinking. An unusually blithe Perry Anderson would make similar claims for the vibrancy of Marxism in his Wellek lectures, In the Tracks of Historical Materialism: he cited the multitude of works of Anglo-American historiography that had appeared in the 1970s, claiming that the much-ballyhooed crisis of Marxism was really a crisis of “Latin Marxism” (i.e., limited chiefly to France and Italy); and he dismissed not only post-structuralism but some of the revolutionary implications of second-wave feminism.

Little magazines with any sort of political bent began to falter under the unusual pressures of that time. By the 1980s, the most famous American left-wing journal, Partisan Review, born in a youthful Trotskyism, had become a byword for old fogeyism. Under the editorship of William Phillips and Edith Kurzweil, it senesced into a predictable neoconservatism, and by the 1990s had taken to lambasting soft targets, like “political correctness.” The New York Review of Books, which had cautiously played host to various New Leftisms in the 1960s and 1970s, was by the 1980s an institutionalized, spent force. The New Republic that had been organized by a Communist-affiliated union under the Stalinist Malcolm Cowley in the 1930s was by the 1980s a voice for welfare reform and the covert overthrow of the Sandinistas.

Marxism Resumed

One would have expected that the capitalist triumphalism of the 1990s would seem to put the final nail in this coffin, rendering the politicized little magazines useless. It was certainly the case that the left-wing academy was largely no longer especially interested in questions of political economy (with some lonely exceptions like the late Neil Smith, a Marxist geographer and student of David Harvey), and left-wing historians were making their way out of the social history established by E.P. Thompson and Eric Hosbawm, toward less Marxist-inspired fields such as cultural history. “Theory”-inflected academic writing, while much of it (such as the work of the postcolonial theorist Edward Said, the philosopher Richard Rorty, or the literary critic D.A. Miller) innovative and thoughtful, was often a byword for obscurantism, with standards of writing that might leave earlier leftwing thinkers speechless.

But, in fact, the desire to speak plainly and well has benefited the world of little magazines, for whom obscurantism is a sure way to lose readers. And notwithstanding the recession of Marxism within the academy, the new journals owed much to the Marxism that had managed to survive there.

It was not that the academy had totally abandoned Marxism. Looking back at the books of the period just before the era of Reaganism and the declarations all around of a post-Marxist age, one sees very distinct sparks of an intellectual breakthrough. Analytic Marxism received a monumental statement in G.A. Cohen’s Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defense. The debate over the “transformation problem” (the difficulty of translating “values,” in Marxian terms, into prices) was given new life by a rediscovery of the work of Piero Sraffa. David Harvey’s The Limits to Capital, a tremendous extension of Marxist political economy, came out in 1982—though, symptomatically, to very little notice: even New Left Review ignored it, and it only came to a wider audience with its republication in 2007. Through the early 1980s, avowedly Marxist accounts of urban transformation (Mike Davis’s City of Quartz)—Davis isn’t an academic which you might say is me being too academic (up to you)—and postmodern culture (Frederic Jameson’s Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism and Harvey’s own The Condition of Postmodernity) became widely known, even as the wider intellectual and political fortunes of Marxism continued their decline.

In some ways, aged though they are, these are still the monuments for contemporary little magazines. Little magazines in which Marxism (of a kind) found a home began to flourish in the 2000s. n+1 was followed in the late 2000s by The New Inquiry, which focuses primarily on culture, and Jacobin, an avowedly socialist political magazine, and subsequently the revived Baffler. The editors of these magazines—especially those born around 1989—came with no significant memories of any states called “Communist,” let alone the debates that swirled around them. If they came recently from college, they would, like me, find the roster of historical materialism alien, and for that very reason, attractively novel.

Accordingly, the more explicitly Marxist overtures in contemporary little magazines seem to revive questions last aired just before or during the 1970s-80s “crisis of Marxism.” In “On Your Marx,” the unsigned editorial that heads n+1’s eighth issue, Harvey’s Limits is invoked as offering an intellectual way out of the neo-Keynesian responses to the profound economic crisis then spreading through the capitalist system. Jacobin’s writers often return to a similar period, as with Gavin Mueller’s essay against the deskilling effects of automation, which relies almost exclusively on Harry Braverman’s masterpiece Labor and Monopoly Capital, published in 1974.

These essays bear the impress of thought partly acquired in, and subsequently liberated from, the university, without—for good and for ill—the peer-review pressure that a university brings to keep one’s thought “up-to-date” on more recent questions. Though it could be argued that the commerce between the leftwing academy and a wider audience extra cathedra is now as great as it’s been since the 1960s—with Harvey himself having become a significant online presence through his lectures on Marx’s Capital—it seems just as clear that Marxism as an intellectual concern is in a process of reconstruction, with activists and writers alike engaged in a lengthy and sometimes tedious process of reconstruction of old themes. So, too, has the rhetoric of contemporary Marxist journalism tended to recall older styles of argument, especially that of The Communist Manifesto and its descendants. Jacobin pieces regularly end with stirring, nearly apostrophic calls to the workers of the world. Jay Monaco’s piece, for example, about office company culture at a wholesale grocers, “Office of the Future,” follows an account of workers being led in a company cheer with the line, “It’s long past time workers responded with a rallying cry of our own.” And my own essay for n+1 on the history of the office ends with an egregious cheer of its own: “The entire office now is the space to claim; the world beyond it, which we have never known, is the one to win.”

The rallying cries seem to come out of a confusion—and perhaps a useful one—between the nature of politics on offer in a journal, and the journal’s own constituency. Such apodictic pronouncements are never actually directed at the actual subject (very often the working classes) who are addressed. Such problems of address and constituency have just as often affected the politics of the academy as well, and several generations of debate over the nature of intellectuals (universal versus organic versus specific) as well as laments over the disappearance of so-called public intellectuals reflect this ongoing difficulty of how to lift radical politics out of a limited medium (the classroom or a small journal). Ultimately, a journal is not a movement—though it can foster one, it can’t replace one—and to the extent that there are Marxist charges coursing through these magazines, they would need a movement to become a real source of light. But it is the fact that working in these journals—to speak for myself, but also, I don’t doubt, for my comrades at other magazines—feels like belonging to a movement, to the extent that one feels like current movements are driving the thinking that goes on in them. Marxism in little magazines derives a great deal of its content from academic debates of old—but its inspiration comes from the feeling that, even in a subterranean way, there is a movement to discern, and to think through, and to follow.