Where Was Marx in 1968? An Invitation From the Editors of Insurgent Notes

This is a year of many milestone anniversaries associated with Karl Marx—the 200th anniversary of his birthday, the 160th anniversary of the publication of The Communist Manifesto and the revolts that shook Europe in that year, the 150th anniversary of the publication of volume 1 of Capital, the 100th anniversary of world-wide working-class revolts in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, and the 50th anniversary of the explosive rebellions of 1968—highlighted by the events of May in France.

Insurgent Notes will publish a symposium/roundtable discussion on the events and consequences of 1968 later this year. We are soliciting accounts of participant experiences (authored either by participants themselves or those who have researched them); reflections on realized and unrealized potentials, as well as critical analyses of what have, in retrospect, come to be seen as inadequate or flawed perspectives seen as valuable at the time—in light of what an adequate understanding of Marx might have made possible.

We have few illusions; we don’t imagine that the existence of coherent Marxist groups could have prevented many of the political defeats. But we do think that the existence and effective functioning of such groups could have made a significant difference in what happened next—rather than the tortured self-destruction and disappearance of a visible revolutionary movement, we could have had instead its rehabilitation and preparation for the challenges to come. In that context, we’d suggest that Marx’s theoretical work in the aftermath of the defeats of the 1848 revolutions lead not only to the writing of Capital but also his return to active political work in the years of the First International.

We begin from a preliminary observation that, especially here in the United States, Marx was not very much to be found at all in the swirl of rebellion. A standard survey of the year, by David Caute, titled The Year of the Barricades: A Journey Through 1968, doesn’t have an entry for Marx in its index. (We are less sure of the situations in other countries and look forward to receiving submissions from those who know more about what occurred there.)

To the extent that “Marxism” was present within radical movements in the United States, it consisted, more or less exclusively, of Stalinist (or their Maoist offshoots) and Trotskyist vanguards. Leaving aside the impoverishments or inadequacies of organizations within those tendencies, we would note that they seldom asked their members or prospects to actually engage with Marx’s own writings. The Communist Manifesto; Value, Price and Profit and selected quotes from odd manuscripts written by the “old man” were sufficient and then a steady diet of preferred classics from Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky or Mao. In almost no cases were people encouraged to “read” those texts in ways that might illuminate anything other than the “lessons” they presumably taught. Although the late anarchist Murray Bookchin had his own fair share of mistaken perspectives and expectations, there is good reason to appreciate some of the cutting criticisms incorporated in his Listen, Marxist! of 1969.

At the same time, there were other ways of reading and thinking Marx available in the mid-to-late ’60s. As examples, we’d cite William Appleman Williams’s The Great Evasion (which provided a powerful critique of the threats and miseries created by a society that refused, in many ways, to take itself very seriously) and Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society, a collection of Marx’s early writings edited by Lloyd Easton and Kurt Guddat—both volumes issued by mainstream publishers. We have not been able to uncover any evidence about the impact of either book and would be especially interested in hearing from those who do have such evidence.

Perhaps in a category not easily categorized, was Monthly Review, a self-described Marxist publication. Although most well known as the political home of Paul Baran’s and Paul Sweezy’s school of Monopoly Capital theory, the magazine and its affiliated press published articles and books by authors with quite different political positions. At the same time, it nonetheless appears that what was the most common take-away from the magazine’s project could be characterized as an “updated” Marx with all too many of his most critical insights obscured or denied. Perhaps we are wrong in that assessment.

Two very important German-born Marxist thinkers, Paul Mattick and Herbert Marcuse, occupied somewhat different places during the time. Mattick was deeply committed to the centrality of proletarian self-emancipation but remained obscure and much of his work dating back more than three decades was unread. On the other hand, Marcuse became rather well known within the student movement and identified himself as a strong supporter of the newer forms of activism. To many, Marcuse was seen less as a Marxist and more as the outstanding representative of the Frankfurt School’s theories of all but complete social domination. Both of these thinkers deserve to be reconsidered.

Finally, we’d take note of the two principal branches of what had been the Johnson-Forest Tendency—the Facing Reality group inspired by clr James and News and Letters around Raya Dunayevskaya. Both groups distinguished themselves by advancing clear Marxist analyses grounded in a reading of Marx as a deeply humanist thinker, and by taking seriously the need for actually learning from workers and others. A comprehensive analysis of their influence on the events we hope to explore would be especially helpful.

In the aftermath of the defeats inflicted on the black liberation movement (including the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., and the successful assaults against the Black Panther Party) and the implosion of the New Left (primarily sds) at the end of the ’60s, many activists subsequently pursued academic careers in a wide variety of fields (giving rise to a proliferation of radical/critical professional associations and journals) and a smaller number used their academic careers to engage in serious study of Marx’s work. For them, the publication of an English translation of Marx’s Grundrisse in 1973 opened the gate for a grand reconsideration of Marx’s complete writings.

Other young radicals turned their attention to opposing capitalism through activity (often enough inspired by a conviction that it lay at the heart of US imperialism) and, subsequently, to one or another set of political projects designed to respond to and engage with ordinary people outside the university and especially the working class. It appears that the turn was not a turn to Marx. Instead the guiding ideas were usually those advanced by other radical traditions (for example, Saul Alinsky) or various interpreters of Marx (mostly the above-mentioned or newly constituted vanguard groups—such as the Revolutionary Union or the October League or the individuals associated with the Guardian newspaper). We’d be interested in hearing from individuals who were involved in the projects of this turn against capitalism or who have studied them about the “place” of Marx in their efforts.

While the emergence of a women’s liberation movement created new opportunities for critical analyses of the existing social order, there were too few efforts at the time to explore the ways in which Marx had, either satisfactorily or not, addressed the matters of women’s oppression, alongside their exploitation within the factories. Indeed, we’re not convinced that the explorations since then are even yet adequate. We look forward to a vigorous discussion.

There are many ways of reading Marx, many more today than was the case in 1968. Even then, however, more might have been done with what was available and what was understood. Our hope is that this inquiry will result in all of us being better prepared to “think through Marx” as we attempt to contribute to and realize the kind of human emancipation that he was the first to see as a practical project.

Those interested in contributing are asked to submit a brief description of what they would like to write about to editors@insurgentnotes.com. The deadline for submission of articles is April 30, 2018.

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