Author John Garvey

From Catholicism and the working class to communism and Marx

This is, in its earliest moments, a Brooklyn story—more precisely a story of growing up Catholic in a working-class Brooklyn neighborhood in the 1950s. I grew up in Sunset Park, a neighborhood made somewhat famous by Hubert Selby’s novel Last Exit to Brooklyn. It is also a story of education—in high school and college, still grounded in thoroughly Catholic environments but ones that were less homogeneous and had many more cross currents of interpretations (perhaps in large measure due to the continuing impact of the Vatican ii Council initiated by Pope John xxiii). At the end, in and just after 1968, it becomes a story of my efforts to work through four realities:

  1. my continued involvement in liberal political projects;
  2. my growing awareness of, and peripheral involvement in, erupting radical movements against the Vietnam war and other aspects of American society;
  3. my readings of provocative critical theoretical texts and, finally,
  4. my encounter with and eventual response to an emerging and quite dominant politics that I’d describe as a combination of the Popular Front and “soft Stalinism” and other forms of what might be considered traditional Marxism at the time.

Marx and Marxism were episodically present in the later periods but my engagement with them was not nearly as deep as it needed to be. Although I had the benefit of seriously reading Marx’s early writings and the work of Herbert Marcuse, the Marx and Marxism that were on offer in the world of political practice were, more often than not, caricatures. What was needed in 1968 and beyond was not simply more Marx but a different Marx. At the end, I’ll sketch out some ideas of what a different Marx might have been and what difference it might have made.

Sunset Park in the 1950s was so Catholic that, for all practical purposes, the local Catholic grammar schools were the public schools. When I attended Saint Michael’s School, its total enrollment exceeded 2,000 and individual class sizes approached sixty. The parish defined much of my existence by marking important milestones such as First Communion and Confirmation—both preceded by somewhat intense instruction in the Baltimore Catechism, consisting of codified questions and answers that provided what was considered to be age-appropriate instruction in the fundamentals of the Catholic faith. Prior to the sacramental celebrations, we were subject to an examination by a priest who asked one or more of the questions. We were expected to provide the verbatim answer from the Catechism. As I recall, I don’t think that anyone ever failed.

I became an altar boy and was credibly proficient in the responses required in the pre-Vatican ii era of Latin masses and was quite accomplished at performing the various tasks assigned to the altar boys as assistants to the priest in the celebration of the Eucharistic sacrament—the transubstantiation of bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood. As an altar boy, I also had grandiose pretensions about the priesthood to come and saw my performances on the altar and in the larger church as rehearsals of a sort.

Separate and apart from its place as the center of religious activity, the parish was also a formidable institution. It had a large physical plant, including a magnificent church that was pristinely maintained. The parish’s operation required a good deal of money—especially, since throughout my grammar school years (until eighth grade), enrollment in the school was tuition-free. The parish was engaged in nonstop money raising—including two or three collections during Sunday masses, weekly Bingo games, and an annual ten-day bazaar—effectively taxes from the parishioners. The entire operation was ruled over by a very imposing Monsignor, named Nolan—someone who I never recall being able to speak to. Truth be told, the parish had many of the characteristics of a small state and there was virtually no room for heresy or treason.

Sunset Park was a neighborhood of small tenement apartment buildings and a good number of two or three family homes. It lay side by side with one of the ends of the long stretch of the city’s industrial belt that stretched along the harbor and East River from Sunset Park through Red Hook, Fort Greene, Williamsburg, Greenpoint and on into Long Island City in Queens. Of course, I didn’t know that then. I knew that there were a lot of factories nearby—but knew almost nothing about what happened inside them. I knew a bit about the jobs that people, mostly but not only men, in the neighborhood had.

My father worked as a mechanic for the subways at the Coney Island shops and a good number of his relatives and friends also worked for the Transit Authority. Another man in our eight-family building worked for the telephone company; the father of one friend worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard (a workplace whose closing was significant enough that it registered on my childhood brain as an important event). At the end of each day, I saw people trudge out of the block-away subway station, with tabloid newspapers rolled up into a small packet size, and light up their cigarettes.

What I knew a lot about was school, playing and reading. Doing really good at school was my mother’s prime directive for her children and she worked at it. The best illustration that I remember happened in sixth grade. In Geography, we had to learn the products of the different American states. We were handed out mimeographed sheets, saturated with what smelled like glue, which listed the products state-by-state. For my mother, it was not enough that we knew all of the products of each state but we had to be able to name them in the order they were listed on the sheets. It worked; we did. I also had the great good fortune of living on a block with dozens of kids—kids who were out on the streets all of the time. In the summer, it was possible to play from nine in the morning until after nine at night—and I did. Most of the games were segregated by sex, but not all and “ringolevio” (which could go on for hours into the night) was open to all comers. And reading—talk about luck! I grew up across the street from a Carnegie library—part of the Brooklyn Public Library. I read all the time—mostly not such great stuff but it got me hooked. I can still remember my mother losing her patience after I had ignored numerous calls for me to come. She refused to believe that I hadn’t heard her but she was wrong—I was lost in a different world.

I also came early to work. In addition to his subway job and his all but permanent second jobs in places as varied as office buildings, banks and bakeries, my father was the super of our apartment building and earned $25 a month that was deducted from the rent. Starting at the age of ten or eleven, my job was to sweep and wash the floors in the hallways and stairs once a week. I also helped in shoveling the coal into the furnace’s core and shoveling out the ashes from the bottom of the furnace and depositing them in steel ashcans. When the furnace was roaring, the heat was intense and you had to shovel fast. Once the ash cans were full, they had to be hauled out of the basement to the front of the building to be picked up by the garbage collectors. I don’t think that I was ever strong enough to carry them even up the few steps from the cellar to the street level. I should mention that the cellar was something to behold—it was mostly a place where you didn’t want to go. When the coal company made a delivery, it seemed like a mountain of coal had been deposited and it was impressive in its way. The delivery also made it easier to reach for the coal to shovel into the furnace because there was so much close to hand. As the supply dwindled, the distance to get to the coal increased and the harder the work became.

When I was a bit older (my guess is at the beginning of high school), I went with my father on Friday nights or Saturday mornings (when I didn’t have homework) to help out on his second jobs. I remember cleaning an enormous office in an industrial-style building on 34th Street on the west side of Manhattan and a bank in the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn. For me, the cleaning consisted mostly of emptying and cleaning trashcans and cigarette trays (this, after all, was way before smoking was prohibited in workplaces), taking junk off the desks and collecting a supply of pads and pencils to share with my sisters.

I also remember going into a neighborhood bakery (it was called Cushman’s), where my father worked as a counterman, very early on dark Saturday mornings and taking newly baked pastries from delivery trays and putting them into display cases before the store opened. These opportunities to “help” my father are among the most treasured experiences of my life. Many years later, I tried to explain all that to my father but I don’t think that I succeeded very well.

In the evenings during the summer months, I sold late night/early morning editions of the Daily News and Daily Mirror, mostly a racing sheet, to patrons of the numerous bars around the neighborhood after buying them at wholesale prices from the guy driving the delivery truck. The money came mostly from the tips because the cover price of the paper was still in pennies. The trick was to get to a bar before any of the other kids selling papers so that that you would be greeted by grateful, friendly and not quite sober drinkers. It was worth it for me.

I also delivered copies of the diocesan weekly newspaper (more about that below); sold soda to people at the above-mentioned Bingo games on Sunday nights; and, when I was a bit older, climbed ladders to paint roof cornices and window frames on houses around the neighborhood for a small-time contractor.

Looking back, it seems clear that my childhood and adolescent understandings of class had little directly to do with opposition to another class but instead were grounded in complex bonds among people who found themselves more or less in the same place—geographically, economically and socially. Most of the values were implicit ones—acquired through the experiences of everyday life.

I wound up not going to the diocesan high school that prepared students for entry into the priesthood—as I recall, mostly because my father thought that it was too early for me to make that kind of commitment. The decision was a disappointing one for my mother who, like many of her friends in the neighborhood, wished for few things more fondly than an ordained son. Her hopes in that regard were grounded in a religious faith that suffused every aspect of her life. Since I was the only boy in the family of four children, her dreams were not to be. Thinking back on it now, I realize that such aspirations were only those of a handful since, even in the days when vocations to the priesthood were plentiful, only a small minority of Catholic families shared them. My hunch now is that most mothers didn’t want their sons to be priests but that perhaps those who wanted priests got them one way or another. It’s kind of weird to imagine that becoming a communist was the fulfillment of a vocation but it may well be true.

Opposition to Communism was taken for granted (as it probably should have been). Patrick Scanlan, the editor of the diocesan newspaper, the Tablet, consistently embraced very conservative and traditional views. He was a supporter of the Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco. In October 1951, the government of Spain presented him with the Cross of Isabella the Catholic. In the early 1960s, Operation Abolition, a documentary film produced by the House Un-American Activities Committee, was shown to a large crowd in the school’s auditorium—I was part of the crowd. The film focused on an incident in May of 1960 when the committee convened in San Francisco’s City Hall. College students protested inside and outside the building. After clashes with the police, a few dozen students were arrested. The filmmakers used local tv news footage to charge that the protesters were Communists or instigated by Communist agents. The students had been “duped” by groups whose ultimate goal was to destroy the committee. In just a few years, millions of people had seen the movie and presumably were convinced. Unfortunately, I can’t remember my reaction.

The high school I attended was called Saint Augustine’s—operated under the authority of the Christian Brothers. Although admission to the school was by exam, the admission policy ensured that boys from a wide range of different parishes around Brooklyn got to go. I was a diligent student and earned good grades. At the beginning of 11th grade (1963), a new teacher, Jim Gallagher, joined the faculty and I had him for English. After he entered the classroom for the first time, he put down his books, asked us to stand, made the sign of the cross and asked us to pray for the four little girls who had been murdered in the Birmingham church bombing. I had never heard anything like it. I and a handful of others became close to him and were introduced into what I at first thought was a daring radicalism but, in retrospect, was a bit of a daring liberalism—in the context of a deep-seated conservatism in church and school. In any case, the friendship helped me a great deal. In the spring of 1965, I published my first essay in the school’s literary journal, for which Jim was the faculty advisor. It was a review essay on James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.

When I was deciding where to go to college, my mother told me that I couldn’t go to Brooklyn College (part of the City University of New York) because I’d become a Communist. (I am certain that she could not have imagined any difference between the word with a “C” or a “c.”) She didn’t have cause and effect right but her predictive abilities were remarkable. I went to Manhattan College, another Christian Brothers’ institution, in the Bronx, and became a small “c” communist.

Another important episode needs to be inserted here. I’ve spoken above about my father working multiple jobs on top of his regular work with the city’s Transit Authority. He needed to do so because his earnings as a transit worker were simply not enough to keep our bodies and souls together. In 1966, that began to change. On New Year’s Day, Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union greeted the new mayor, John Lindsay, with a strike that shut down the city’s subways and buses. Millions of people had to dream up fantastic alternatives to getting to work or staying there. Mike Quill, the President of Local 100, scandalized all of the city’s rulers and editorial writers by refusing to be cowed. He went to jail. He told a judge to drop dead. Quill died two weeks after the strike ended. So far as I know, Quill was not in the Communist Party in 1966; hell, almost no one was in the Communist Party in 1966. But his political views still reflected the very powerful pull of cp sensibilities. Read, for example, an “editorial” by Quill first published in the TWU Express and then re-published in the March 1966 issue of Ramparts. I assume that my father knew and understood some of what all this meant but he never spoke about it.

The strike lasted almost two weeks. And, lo and behold, in the next few years, transit workers started making a good deal more money and my father could stop working extra jobs. In later years, my parents got to travel to Ireland, Rome, and visited the friends in California who had introduced them to each other in 1946.

Towards the end of his employment with the ta (at the end of the ’70s), my father used his seniority to get a job working with the South Brooklyn Railway that ran through the streets of the industrial section of Sunset Park. The railway had been taken over by the city in a desperate attempt to keep the handful of plants still operating in town. His job, such as it was, consisted of measuring cars to make sure that they were not too tall to pass through one of the overpasses. He usually only had to do it once a day but he had an assistant. So he spent his time reading the newspapers and watching tv news and talk shows in a small hut next to the tracks. He was able to walk home most days to have lunch with my mother. It was his retirement before retirement—not so bad a change for someone who had worked sixty hours a week for almost thirty years.

At Manhattan, I was enrolled in a “great books” course of study. I took four or five required courses (in history, philosophy, literature, theology and art) every semester for four years.1 We began with the “cradle of civilization” in the Middle East (and read Gordon Childe—although I didn’t know that he was a Marxist or better probably didn’t know what difference it made), read through ancient Greece rather thoroughly and Rome less so, spent a good deal of time in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, raced through the modern era (although we did read Kant, Hegel and Marx) and barely got to the contemporary finish line—at least as that was imagined fifty years ago. Eventually, I became an English major. At the time, “English” literature did not include Americans so I only studied works written by English and Irish authors. It was the heyday of the “new criticism” and I learned how to read literary texts closely and carefully but not contextually. In spite of its shortcomings, it provided me with tools that I could use for other larger purposes when it came to reading other kinds of texts. For ten years after college, I don’t believe that I read a single work of literature; instead, I read history, economics, philosophy and political theory, and the newspapers.

Not surprisingly, since we read his works in a philosophy course, the Marx we read was mostly texts from the early philosophic manuscripts. We relied on the Loyd Easton and Kurt Guddat edited collection titled Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society. That was very fortunate for me—my subsequent recollections of Marx were always of him as a great humanist. I remember being fascinated by his argument that private property was the consequence of the division of labor into manual and intellectual—in other words, private property was not some eternal reality within which human beings had to live life as best they could but was, instead, a result of human activity and, therefore, might be subject to change. As far as Marx’s economic writings, I think the readings we did resulted in us having little more than an assortment of catchphrases—“the labor theory of value” interpreted by one of my friends as meaning the same thing as “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work”—and vulgar versions of Marx’s presumed argument that socialism was inevitable.

I became a radical, in thought at least, once I read Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man and felt that he had read my mind in formation. No one else I had read before had captured the ways in which personal dissatisfactions were grounded in deep social structures. By the time I got to Marcuse, I was ready intellectually and emotionally—prepared by all of the accumulated experiences of Catholicism, class and about-to-be communism. I should mention that Bill McCormick, the Marxist professor with whom I read Marcuse, closed the course (on critical social thought) by saying, “I still think I prefer the old man”—meaning Marx. I had not read enough of Marx to know what I thought. But, at a more substantial level, I became “political” because of the swirl of events in which my life was enveloped—even when I didn’t understand all that much of those events.

My political activity lagged behind my thinking. I was active in “liberal” politics from the mid-60s almost to the end of them. I campaigned for John Lindsay for Mayor in 1965 (the same mayor that Quill would challenge with his strike in 1966) when he ran against the Democratic machine and distributed leaflets in support of his proposed Police Civilian Review Board later on in 1966. I participated in anti-war protests on campus and elsewhere, and went to hear Martin Luther King, Jr., when he spoke out against the war for the first time in April 1967 at Riverside Church. In the spring of 1967, I was elected as a delegate to the National Student Association (nsa) and attended its national conference in College Park, Maryland, later that year in the midst of shocking revelations that the organization had cooperated with and received funding from the cia. The agenda for the conference as well as the organization of the main contending forces seemed to be securely in the hands of student leaders from elite state universities and my presence mattered not at all. Subsequently, I became a bit involved in the National Federation of Catholic College Students—an organization inspired by the early currents of liberation theology—even though I was no longer Catholic in any meaningful way. What I retained from years of instruction and intensive participation in the sacraments was an instinctive impulse towards universal brotherhood.

In late 1967 or early 1968, I led a small campus teach-in on the topic of Tom Hayden’s Rebellion in Newark and argued that what many insisted was simply lawless rioting was instead justifiable rebellion. In February of 1968, I traveled to New Hampshire to campaign for Eugene McCarthy and then, when Robert Kennedy entered the presidential race after Lyndon Johnson’s sudden withdrawal, switched to support him. I believe there are some college newspaper columns I wrote in the college’s archives that can document the reasons for my conversion. In any case, they’re not very important fifty years later. In the fall, I attended a talk by Michael Harrington who would argue, not so surprisingly, that the left should/must support Hubert Humphrey and not “waste” its votes for the illusory Peace and Freedom Party. I was torn.

I also supported the movement for community control of schools in New York City that had emerged after the city government and the school system’s leadership failed to respond to a series of mass protests and school walkouts in the mid-60s that had demanded an end to segregation. The beginning implementation of a community control plan was met by strikes called by the United Federation of Teachers (uft) in the fall of 1968 that, in turn, led to organized strike-breaking by community control supporters. I was still in college and could not teach but I did organize events on campus in support.

While Manhattan had a small number of self-identified radicals, it never had an sds chapter. Campus-level activity was often focused on the removal of long-standing practices of censorship of the student newspaper and regulation of student behavior in the dorms. Our radicalism was mostly quite removed from events on the national level. As a result, I was spared the experiences of having to deal with Progressive Labor or the various revolutionary youth movements. But I missed things that I should have known about. For example, I honestly don’t know what I remember from 1968 about the May events in France. I do know that I read first-hand accounts several years later and was transfixed. All that’s to say is that we’re not always at the train station when the train we should be on arrives and we probably wouldn’t know that we missed it.

In the year after college, I attended some talks at the Alternate University on the west side of Manhattan and went to one of the first Socialist Scholars’ Conferences at Town Hall.

All in all, I’d say that my politics were a bit of a mess. I had been affected by the sway of anti-imperialism—for some quite understandable reasons: the ongoing murderous assault against the peoples of South East Asia reported every night on the evening news.

It was not so far a leap to a kind of soft-Stalinism—advanced by people like if Stone, with his revisionist history of the Korean War, and David Horowitz, the author of Free World Colossus (which enjoyed a kind of instant classic status). He is now a prominent conservative scold. Horowitz also authored a series of essays on Marxism, ostensibly from a Trotskyist perspective forged in years of working with Isaac Deutscher, Trotsky’s biographer, that are included in The Fate of Mida$ and Other Essays. I’d describe his views as scrambled-egg Marxism with the eggshells included. Here’s an excerpt from an essay titled “Marxism and its Place in Economic Science”:

The starting point of an answer to these questions [referring to questions about the relevance of Marxism to global revolutionaries and the irrelevance of modern economics to them] lies in the recognition that Marxism and orthodox economics represent two complementary scientific paradigms. The Marxist paradigm is expressly constructed to analyze a system based on private capital and wage-labor. It is macroeconomic and dynamic in character. It advances the notion that the central pivot of the present system is a relationship that is at the same time social and economic: namely, the institution of private property in the means of production. The orthodox paradigm, on the other hand, is basically static and oriented toward micro-economics. Above all, it abstracts from the specific differentializing characteristics of capitalism to universalize its concepts and applications.

The orthodox model is extremely useful as a framework for dealing with certain technical problems, such as the problem of optimalization and the analysis of market behavior both at the micro-economic and macro-economic levels.

Lord, please save us from Marxism like this! Unfortunately, the Lord was not responding in the late ’60s or early ’70s.

Soft-Stalinism emphasized how the Russians were supporting the Vietnamese; how much the Russians had suffered in wwii; how the battle of Stalingrad against the Nazis was the last line of the defense of civilization, how the primary responsibility for the Cold War lay with the United States, and how a planned economy had allowed the Soviet Union to avoid the effects of the Great Depression. And then you add a bit about how heroic the members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade were in the fight against fascism in Spain (leaving out all mention of the ways in which the Soviet Union murdered the Spanish Revolution) and an assumption that the Rosenbergs had been framed.2

Accompanying this new defense of Stalinism was a discovery of the grand progressive character of the New Deal and the Communist Party’s role during the Popular Front. The Wagner Act and Social Security came to be seen as grand victories of a working class on the move. Since probably no one in the new left had ever thought about the Wagner Act or Social Security before, the new interest in matters related to working-class well-being might have had its place. But the understandings were all one-sided. By way of example, there was no understanding of the role of New Deal housing policies in promoting redlining; no appreciation for the similarities between New Deal and fascist state planning. All things considered, the renewed appreciation for the New Deal and the Popular Front led to a more or less taken-for-granted notion that socialism was a reformed capitalism—a society more equal and more solicitous of human needs but not fundamentally a different kind of human community. At the same time, this notion was accompanied by a growing conviction that any explicit articulations of radical views would not be met favorably by ordinary workers, especially ordinary white workers—which, in turn, led to a hesitation in confronting workplace practices that advantaged white workers.

What you wind up with is a politics grounded in a sympathetic understanding of Communist Popular Front politics as depicted in the 1973 Robert Redford–Barbara Streisand movie The Way We Were.

This assemblage of notions, combined with appreciation for the folk songs of people like Pete Seeger and the “progressive” politics of the handful of unions still led by cp-influenced folks, produced a new left (no pun intended) common sense that saturated the emerging left scene outside the campuses in New York City. My understanding of Marx was simply not good enough to enable me to move beyond a somewhat ill-defined sense that something was fundamentally not Marxist about it.

At one point in what I believe to have been my very brief interest in soft-Stalinism, I said something to my father about Russia that he understandably enough interpreted as an apology for tyranny. He responded: “How come, if it’s so bad here and so good over there, no one here wants to go there and just about everyone there wants to come here?” Good question with no good answer!

In 1970, I started driving a taxi. I did so because I needed a job and a friend had already started doing so. Six months later, I found myself in the midst of a strike called by perhaps the most incompetent trade union in America, Local 3036 of the Taxi Drivers and Allied Workers Union. At the end of the strike, taxi drivers found themselves the recipients of an enormous increase in taxi fares (which drove riders away) and a reduction in starting pay for new drivers and a new tax on all rides to cover benefits. At a general union meeting a few months later, all hell broke loose and the union leaders were driven from the meeting hall. Out of the crash of thrown chairs, an insurgent group was born—the Taxi Rank & File Coalition. I joined soon afterwards. Some of the members of the coalition, myself included, have established a website that collects many of its printed materials and some reflections.

The website provides a pretty good picture of what we tried to do but there is one aspect of our experiences that bears directly on the topic at hand that deserves emphasis. Over the course of six or seven years, a parade of members of various vanguardist and sectarian groups made attempts to influence what we were doing. They included the Communist Party (one of whose members famously described us as “taxi rank and infantile”), the Workers’ League (an obscure Trotskyist sect), the Labor Committee (before its descent into monomaniacal madness), Progressive Labor, the Revolutionary Union and the International Socialists (is). I left the is for last because its members played a very different kind of role within the coalition. They were cooperative in executing tasks even when they had disagreed with the decisions that led to them. One of the characteristics of the coalition that endured for most of the years of its existence was a willingness to sustain a multi-tendency group that, nonetheless, encouraged vigorous discussion and debate—within a commitment to common group action. Early on, members of the is reached out to me and encouraged me to attend various workshops where they presented their overall political perspectives in the hope that I might consider joining—they were always reasonable but they were never quite convincing enough for me to join—even enlightened Trotskyism was still Trotskyism.

As I look back at the post-’68 period, what seems evident is that the turn to the working class, by a good number of ex–student radicals, as the potential driver of revolution was not accompanied by an equally serious turn to the work needed to understand exactly what capitalism was, where it was heading and what a genuine alternative to it might be—more specifically, a turn to Marx. When the coalition initiated internal study groups, the readings of Marx were almost entirely limited to relatively short texts—in many ways, not so surprising since we were all working and often engaging in twenty plus hours of coalition activities every week. Nonetheless, it remains the case that the engagement with Marx was quite limited for many genuine radicals. On the other hand, and this is a really important “other hand,” those who chose years of day-to-day involvement in radical politics over only an engagement in abstruse theoretical speculations in this period deserve much more attention and credit than they have thus far received.

What was missing as the ’60s ended was a substantial and self-conscious trend that rejected Leninism-Stalinism-Trotskyism-Maoism as well as Social Democracy—opposed to all of the miseries of supposed socialism in the Soviet Union and its copycats in places like eastern Europe, China, North Korea and Cuba, and to supposed reformed capitalism in various European countries.

This raises an important point: it was not enough to reject vanguardism (the notion that the working class needed an external group to enable it to move beyond trade unionist consciousness or some variant of such a thing); it was also necessary to reject sectarianism as a principle of political organization. Most of the anti-vanguardists remained committed to a notion that they should say what they thought as precisely as possible and make every effort to distinguish themselves from others who had more or less different points of view. They seldom thought about the desirability/possibility of developing organizational forms that could allow individuals who agreed on a lot, but not all, to act together effectively. In that regard, they displayed little knowledge or understanding of the role that Marx had played in the First International—about which more below.

Keep in mind that, at the same time, the Monthly Review folks were quite hegemonic in advancing their Marxism for modern times and the Maoist Guardian newspaper was arguably the most influential voice of supposed revolutionary politics. But it was not completely dreary—this was also a time when Radical America, Liberation, New Left Review, Race and Class, the first New Politics, as well as perhaps hundreds of local radical newspapers, supported by a remarkable national news service (Liberation News Service), provided some balance and alternative interpretations. In the halls of the universities, there was a serious turn to Marx—a turn all but completely divorced from practical radical politics. The results of the serious engagement of scholars with Marx were profoundly limited by their reluctance to think or act on the basis of radical politics.3

By the end of my taxi-driving career (1978), I still did not have an adequate understanding of Marx and it would take me some years before I think that I acquired it. My best guess is that there was more available than I was aware of and that I “read” Marx in ways that proved to be inadequate to understanding. Perhaps the worst aspect of the dilemma was that reading Marx for me was, far too often, a solitary activity and not one that was embedded in active social relations. That changed quite a bit when I met members of the Sojourner Truth Organization.


I’ll conclude with a few thoughts about a different Marx reading. Let me make clear that I’m not at all interested in the frequently recurring fashionable idea that Marx needs to be improved on. Instead, I’m talking about the potential of a sustained engagement with the rich complexity of Marx’s writings and life’s work. I offer the following suggestions. I believe that all of them could have been undertaken in 1968 with the textual resources available at that time and, indeed, there were small currents within Marxism that were doing what I’m advocating—they were simply not the Marxists that mattered.

I am not suggesting that different readings of Marx would have allowed us to avoid the evaporation of the upsurges of 1968 but I do think that they would have allowed us to build a political project that would have been far better prepared to fight against the sustained capitalist offensive that was launched in the early 1970s and to avoid some of the worst political dead-ends that have dominated far too much of radical and revolutionary politics in the years since.

Marx as a critic of those revolutionaries who wished to seize state power on behalf of others; specifically, Marx as against Bolshevism and its heirs

The interpretive screens provided by the Bolsheviks and their various Bolshevik-inspired offshoots, even those who present themselves as critics of Stalinism and Maoism—the Trotskyists—only distorted Marx.4 The endless invocation of Marx as an authority for the justification of what were simply dreadful exercises in the brutal implementation of capitalist accumulation in different national contexts placed Marx’s contribution to human emancipation in mortal danger. It’s of course not possible to challenge them within their own terms of reference (in no small part, because they lied about matters small and large), but it is possible to challenge them by returning to Marx’s own writings. In “Critical Notes on the Article: ‘The King of Prussia and Social Reform. By a Prussian,’ ” published in 1844, Marx wrote about the difference between a political revolution and a social revolution:

But the community from which the workers are isolated is a community of quite different reality and scope than the political community. The community from which his own labor separates him is life itself, physical and spiritual life, human morality, human activity, human enjoyment, human nature. Human nature is the true community of men. Just as the disasterous [sic] isolation from this nature is disproportionately more far-reaching, unbearable, terrible and contradictory than the isolation from the political community, so too the transcending of this isolation and even a partial reaction, a rebellion against it, is so much greater, just as the man is greater than the citizen and human life than political life. Hence, however limited an industrial revolt may be, it contains within itself a universal soul: and however universal a political revolt may be, its colossal form conceals a narrow split.

The “Prussian” brings his essay to a close worthy of it with the following sentence:

A social revolution without a political soul (i.e., without a central insight organizing it from the point of view of the totality) is impossible.

We have seen: a social revolution possesses a total point of view because—even if it is confined to only one factory district—it represents a protest by man against a dehumanized life, because it proceeds from the point of view of the particular, real individual, because the community against whose separation from himself the individual is reacting, is the true community of man, human nature. In contrast, the political soul of revolution consists in the tendency of the classes with no political power to put an end to their isolation from the state and from power. Its point of view is that of the state, of an abstract totality which exists only through its separation from real life and which is unthinkable in the absence of an organized antithesis between the universal idea and the individual existence of man. In accordance with the limited and contradictory nature of the political soul a revolution inspired by it organizes a dominant group within society at the cost of society [emphasis added].

Marx as being open to the possibility of non-proletarian revolutionary forces emerging in, if not leading, the fight against capital

As has been noted often enough, the Civil Rights movement in the United States had given rise to and been an integral part of the large student and anti-war movements and, in turn, the emergence of women’s liberation and gay liberation movements. In other words, something quite significant had occurred because of the impulse of the black freedom movement. Few thought to theorize those developments from a Marxist perspective. An exception was Facing Reality, the clr James led group. In 1964, the group published an extraordinary pamphlet titled Negro Americans Take the Lead.5 The pamphlet puts forward any number of important claims. I will cite only three now. First, it argues that movements find the leaders they need:

The leadership of these struggles [referring to examples such as the voter registration drives in the Southern states, the 1963 March on Washington, and the 1964 Harlem rebellion] has been particularly American in character and may indicate the road that the masses of the world will follow in the pregnant period that is before us. Men have always been able to find leaders especially when united, disciplined, organized by some basic conception or social relations [emphasis added].

The highlighted words of course are an echo of the words that Marx used to describe the preparation of the proletariat for its future tasks by the process of production. Here, the Facing Reality folks extend the idea to suggest that preparation for future tasks can take place elsewhere throughout the totality of capitalist society.

Second, Marxism had thus far not been especially helpful. The pamphlet repeats what Facing Reality had first written in 1957:

Marxism has few triumphs and many unpardonable blunders to its account on the Negro question in the United States. This does not include the calculated deceptions of the Communist Party which have nothing to do with Marxism and everything to do with the Kremlin line. But altogether apart from this the record is one which should induce in the Marxist an attitude of respect for the Negro people and their political ideas, seasoned with a strong dose of humility. Great changes in American society, the greatest of which has been the organization of the C.I.O., have been the motive force creating new attitudes to race relations among whites and Negroes alike. But it is the Negroes who have broken all precedents in the way they have used the opportunities thus created.

Third, the Negro struggles point the way forward:

The American Negroes did not wait for the Vanguard Party to organize a corps of trained revolutionaries, including Negroes, to achieve their emancipation. They have gone their own way, and in intellectual matters (for example, the study of Negro History) as well as in practical, they have in the past twenty-five years created a body of political achievement, both in striking at discrimination and influencing American civilization as a whole, which makes them one of the authentic outposts of the new society [emphasis added] [also repeated from 1957].

I believe that this can be read as one of the starting points of autonomous Marxism.

Marx as a revolutionist opposed to sectarianism

In his introduction to the collection of documents from the First International, Workers Unite! The International 150 Years Later, Marcello Musto commented about Marx’s role in the organization as follows:

Contrary to later fantasies that pictured Marx as the founder of the International, he was not even among the organisers of that meeting at St. Martin’s Hall. He sat “in a non-speaking capacity on the platform,” he recalled in a letter to his friend Engels. Yet he immediately grasped the potential in the event and worked hard to ensure that the new organization successfully carried out its mission. Thanks to the prestige attached to his name, at least in restricted circles, he was appointed to the 34-member standing committee, where he soon gained sufficient trust to be given the task of writing the Inaugural Address and the Provisional Statutes of the International. In these fundamental texts, as in many others that followed, Marx drew on the best ideas of the various components of the International, while at the same time eliminating corporatist inclinations and sectarian tones. He firmly linked economic and political struggle to each other, and made international thinking and international action an irreversible choice [emphasis added].

One aspect of his effectiveness was his ability to draw upon the findings of his theoretical investigations to arrive at valuable political insights and to communicate them to others. In the version of Value, Price and Profit that Marx delivered in two speeches to the International’s General Council in June of 1865, he said:

These few hints will suffice to show that the very development of modern industry must progressively turn the scale in favour of the capitalist against the working man, and that consequently the general tendency of capitalistic production is not to raise, but to sink the average standard of wages, or to push the value of labour more or less to its minimum limit. Such being the tendency of things in this system, is this saying that the working class ought to renounce their resistance against the encroachments of capital, and abandon their attempts at making the best of the occasional chances for their temporary improvement? If they did, they would be degraded to one level mass of broken wretches past salvation [emphasis added]. I think I have shown that their struggles for the standard of wages are incidents inseparable from the whole wages system, that in 99 cases out of 100 their efforts at raising wages are only efforts at maintaining the given value of labour, and that the necessity of debating their price with the capitalist is inherent to their condition of having to sell themselves as commodities. By cowardly giving way in their everyday conflict with capital, they would certainly disqualify themselves for the initiating of any larger movement [emphasis added].

At the same time, and quite apart from the general servitude involved in the wages system, the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects; that they are retarding the downward movement, but not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady. They ought, therefore, not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerilla fights incessantly springing up from the never ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market [emphasis added]. They ought to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economical reconstruction of society. Instead of the conservative motto: “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!” they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword: “Abolition of the wages system!

Marx as a great writer and Capital as a great literary text

In 1968 and even now, Capital continues to be read “straight”—as if it were intended to be a social science textbook. Every claim that Marx puts forward is assumed to be a statement of what he thinks—even when, in footnotes or subsequent paragraphs, he makes clear to an attentive reader that he believes nothing of the sort. Some remarkable Marx readers have taught us to do otherwise—Nicole Pepperell, for example, has concluded that “they’ve got it all wrong” and Keston Sutherland has argued that “they missed the point.”

In numerous articles and in her unpublished dissertation, Pepperell has provided numerous insights into the ways in which Marx’s complex thinking becomes manifest in volume 1 of Capital. In a recent essay, “ ‘To Dream of a Wildness Distant from Ourselves’: Capitalism, Colonialism and the Robinsonade,” Pepperell provides a powerful overview of one of the plots of Capital:

Robinson Crusoe also features centrally in Karl Marx’s analysis of the fetish character of the commodity, in the opening chapter of the first volume of Capital (hereafter, just Capital). Marx suggests that he uses Crusoe chiefly due to his popularity amongst political economists. Still the example figures in Marx’s account—as it does in Rousseau’s—as a model of “simple and transparent” economic relations.

To be sure, Marx’s tone is strikingly different from Rousseau’s: needling and sarcastic, poking fun of Crusoe’s religious exertions, and drawing attention to the fact that—isolated though he may be—Crusoe has by no means removed himself from the influence of society. Instead, Crusoe carries over to his isolated island the social conventions of his nation—in Marx’s words: “having saved a watch, ledger, ink and pen from the shipwreck, he soon begins, like a good Englishman, to keep a set of books.” These social conventions, as Marx enumerates them, include a highly-developed set of categories for keeping track of objects of utility, processes of production, property rights, and average labour costs.

Marx suggests that such categories would not have arisen spontaneously on Crusoe’s island: they express, in some sense, Crusoe’s own distilled experience of British society. Yet in Crusoe’s ledger, as expressions of his own personal expenditure of labour and of the utility he personally gains from this expenditure, there is nothing mysterious about the categories as such. This clarity, however, does not arise from some essential, pre-social simplicity. Crusoe may be alone, but he is entirely socialised before he comes to be isolated. If his activities present a simplified and clear version of economic and social life, it is the economic and social life of a specific historical period, rather than economic or social life in general. It is this very social and historical specificity, indeed, that makes Crusoe useful for Marx’s critique of political economy.

Very briefly in these concluding comments, I want to suggest that Marx intends Capital as a sustained critique of the epistemologies of ignorance manifested in political economic theory. Capital opens in the space of the Robinsonade—and, as I noted above, the text even flags this as its starting point through an explicit early reference to Robinson Crusoe. In its opening chapters, Capital remains largely within the social contractarian space favoured by political economy—discussing free exchange of the products of labour by their autonomous producers, which Marx sarcastically describes as “a very Eden of the innate rights of man…the exclusive realm of Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham.” By the end, however, the text stands squarely in the realm of the oppressive application of the hard power of the state—levelled simultaneously through the regulation of marginal populations in the core and genocidal campaigns in the colonial periphery.

In between these depictions of capitalism lies Marx’s analysis of the vast epistemology of ignorance that informs and is perpetuated by political economy. For Marx, political economy actively produces and foregrounds knowledge of all dimensions of capitalism that can be readily identified with the realm of personal autonomy and with power legitimately wielded only through the informed consent of all social actors. At the same time, it aggressively manufactures and encourages the spread of a fundamental ignorance of the other, equally central, dimensions of capitalist production. Hard power dimensions of the reproduction of capital on a global scale are thus treated as unfortunate exceptions to the enlightened norm, pushed to the margins of political discourse, or simply denied outright.

By starting within the Robinsonade of political economy, Marx intends to explode political economy from within. Piling up counter-example after exception after contradiction, he aims to show the aggressive ignorance required to sustain the naïve vision of capitalism as a system fundamentally and essentially grounded on personal freedom. Along the way, he makes regular use of the imagery of Enlightenment—only to debase it with terms drawn from anthropological analyses of purportedly primitive and savage societies. It is not an accident that Marx’s own term of choice for political economy’s distinctive epistemology of ignorance is the “fetish”—an anthropological term for a material object onto which “primitive” religions arbitrarily confer mystical value.

At first, the suggestion of ignorance is only hinted from the margins of Marx’s text. Footnotes offer sarcastic and sceptical asides, or suggest counter-intuitive comparisons between European economic practices and the strange customs of purportedly uncivilized peoples. Before long, monstrous and phantasmagoric imagery begins to intrude into the main text—metaphoric and hallucinatory images drawn from folklore—vampires and werewolves and shape shifters of all sorts haunting the depiction of industrial production. By the end, this phantasmagoria gives way to a cold and sober portrayal of the concrete actions of capitalist industry, documented in plain text by the representatives of the capitalist state bureaucracy—no less monstrous for all that it now prosecutes its case in factual prose.

Relentlessly, Marx’s text progressively demonstrates how the major vector for the contemporary production of barbarism lies, not in some savage margin, but right in the heart of the industrial core.

And yet, the overall structure of Marx’s text remains poorly understood. The nature of its object—a system of knowledge that actively produces ignorance—has proven remarkably resilient in taming and redirecting the force of Marx’s work. The Robinsonade that is the object of Marx’s critique is also, and at the same time, one of our most familiar and widely-shared frameworks for making sense of our economic and social institutions. Thinking against this grain—escaping from this conceptual rut—is difficult, and the contradictory and often oppressive application of Marx’s work attests to the challenge of using even critical resources in the service of emancipation.


The problems posed by his text replicate those posed by the analysis of capitalist production itself—a process which contains something that could be described as “social metabolism,” a process for which the expenditure of specifically human labour-power is essential, and essential in ways that plausibly imply to social actors that this necessity is driven by nature, rather than by contingent social practices. In attempting to demonstrate the social validity of partial and one-sided analyses of capitalist production—analyses that fixate on only small portions of a complex social phenomenon—Marx generates a number of opportunities for readers to stumble across his re-presentations of the partial and one-sided views of political economy, mistaking those views for Marx’s own, rather than understanding them as perspectives specifically put forward to be criticised in the course of a more complex analysis of capitalist production and the wealth of capitalist societies [emphasis added].6

Sutherland has forcefully argued that that much of the difficulty involved in reading Capital springs from a conviction that it should be read as a work of pure theory and that the essential task is to get the theory right. He believes that such an approach fails to appreciate the distinctive literary purposes informing Marx’s writing. He cites Marx’s comment in the preface to the second German edition that, “No one can feel the literary shortcomings in Capital more strongly than I myself.” He insists that Marx’s concern with style was inseparable from his larger political goals—including a determination to not let the bourgeoisie or its apologizers off the hook. In his view, theory can always be made into something rather innocuous but vicious satire cannot. Sutherland makes an interesting argument about what might be considered a central moment of volume 1—the theory of commodity fetishism. He argues that it’s not especially a theory at all (although it certainly has theoretical merits). He begins by pointing out another translation error—the phrase should better be translated as the “fetishistic character of commodities” rather than the “fetishism of commodities.” The distinction is reinforced by Sutherland’s extended commentary on Marx’s use and abuse of the concept of fetishism. The first person to use the word was Charles deBrosses, an eighteenth-century aristocratic ethnographer who used it to celebrate European civilization in comparison to the benighted world of superstitious primitives all over the world. Marx, of course, wanted nothing to do with celebrating bourgeois civilization and took special delight in exposing the superstitious dimensions of political economy. For Sutherland, the theorists who miss the satire miss Marx: “Each time this theory is extracted, the impurities of style and satire are washed away with the ‘caustic’ of pure theoretical paraphrase.” In this sense, then, interpreting Marx may not be reading Marx.

How to read Marx by reading Marx

We spent way too much time reading interpretations of Marx. None of us was well prepared to read Marx—he produced a body of work that defies categorization or simplification. But, most of us will have had some preparation, either through life experience or education, to do so. But we can only learn to read Marx by reading him—by working hard at it, although almost certainly not as hard as he worked at writing his texts. The more you read him, just like the more you read Shakespeare, the better you can get at it. You learn to wait for a sentence that undoes or undermines claims made in preceding sentences. By way of an oft-cited example:

Labour is, in the first place, a process in which both man and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material re-actions between himself and Nature. He opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of his body, in order to appropriate Nature’s productions in a form adapted to his own wants. By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature. He develops his slumbering powers and compels them to act in obedience to his sway. We are not now dealing with those primitive instinctive forms of labour that remind us of the mere animal. An immeasurable interval of time separates the state of things in which a man brings his labour-power to market for sale as a commodity, from that state in which human labour was still in its first instinctive stage. We presuppose labour in a form that stamps it as exclusively human. A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement. He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realises a purpose of his own that gives the law to his modus operandi, and to which he must subordinate his will. And this subordination is no mere momentary act. Besides the exertion of the bodily organs, the process demands that, during the whole operation, the workman’s will be steadily in consonance with his purpose. This means close attention. The less he is attracted by the nature of the work, and the mode in which it is carried on, and the less, therefore, he enjoys it as something which gives play to his bodily and mental powers, the more close his attention is forced to be [emphasis added].7

The later (italicized) sentences need to be seen as posing a sharp contrast to the earlier ones and they affect the overall meaning of the paragraph. Iring Fetscher argued that: “An architect in capitalist society, for instance, is—as Marx makes perfectly clear—not capable (or rarely capable) of producing according to his own plan because his plan is decisively conditioned by the people who pay him and by their necessity to conform to the economic system under which they live. The ‘subject’ that is acting ‘through’ him is ‘capital,’ the epitome of a given capitalist society.”8 Marx’s clarity is only available to those who are sufficiently attentive.

Marx, at his heart, as a fighter for human emancipation

In his earliest writings, Marx had shown his colors. The recently released movie, The Young Karl Marx, begins with scenes of German peasants gathering wood in a forest and being set upon by vicious enforcers of the rules of private property. The film quickly moves on to the debates within the circles of the Rheinische Zeitung regarding the rashness of Marx’s criticism of Prussian censorship. Rosa Luxemburg commented on the same events:

Mehring is quite right in saying that Marx was no longer prepared to adopt the Hegelian standpoint for the last article about the purely economic question of the division of peasant land he planned for the Rheinische Zeitung, but did not write. In fact he had already been let down by this standpoint in the practical questions he had addressed earlier. Certainly, it was the cutting weapon of the Hegelian dialectic that he deployed so brilliantly in his critical demolition of the proceedings of the Rheinland provincial assembly concerning the freedom of the press and for the pilfering of wood. But it was only the dialectics, the method of thought, that was of service to him; as for the viewpoint itself, it seems to us that Marx already here, as he stood up for the freedom of the press and the right of poor peasants to gather wood freely in the forest, rather imposed his own point of view on the Hegelian philosophy of law and the state, than derived his point of view from it. It was first and foremost, as Mehring himself said, the deep and true sympathy that Marx felt for the ‘politically and socially deprived masses,’ it was ‘the heart’ that drove him already in his idealist stage into the struggle and determined the side that he took in it [emphasis added].9

We didn’t need Marxist catechisms in 1968; we don’t need them now. They do not provide a way into Marx; they provide a way out.

  1. There is a quite accurate and perceptive account of the liberal arts curriculum at Manhattan at the time—albeit from quite different political perspective from mine.

  2. I didn’t read George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia until years later.

  3. At the risk of being charged with partisanship (because of my connections with the group), I’d highlight the example of the Sojourner Truth Organization as a real alternative to the various practical and theoretical dead-ends. See, for example, the Insurgent Notes Symposium on Truth and Revolution.

  4. See “Trotsky Reconsidered” in an earlier issue of Insurgent Notes.

  5. The pamphlet is available for purchase from Amazon. The core argument recapitulated the remarkably prescient views of clr James in his 1948 report, “The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem in the United States,” at the 13th convention of the Socialist Workers Party.

  6. Nicole Pepperell, “ ‘To Dream of a Wildness Distant from Ourselves’: Capitalism, Colonialism and the Robinsonade,” (2017). Unpublished draft. This excerpt has been edited to remove page references and footnotes from the original text.

  7. Capital, volume I, chapter 7, section 1.

  8. Iring Fetscher, “Karl Marx on Human Nature,” Social Research, vol. 40, no. 3 (Autumn 1973), pp. 443–467.

  9. As cited in Paul Zarembka, “Marxist Political Economy without Hegel: Contrasting Marx and Luxemburg to Plekhanov and Lenin,” draft for inclusion in In Legacy of Rosa Luxemburg, Oskar Lange and Michal Kalecki: Essays in Honour of Tadeusz Kowalik, Jan Toporowski, Ewa Karwowski and Ricardo Bellafiore, eds.