A Generation of Intellectuals Shaped by 2008 Crash Rescues Marx From History’s Dustbin
For those too young to remember the Cold War but old enough to be trapped by the Great Recession, Marxism holds new appeal
Eight years ago Jay McInerney, poster boy for a certain kind of glossy 1980s literary chic, anointed Benjamin Kunkel as the voice of a new generation. Writing on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, he hailed Kunkel’s first novel, Indecision, for making “the whole flailing, postadolescent, prelife crisis feel fresh and funny again.” He wasn’t alone; many critics were impressed by Kunkel’s evocation of a privileged young man’s passivity and ennui. They were less sure of what to make of his narrator’s culminating conversion to radical politics in South America. “Explaining socialism to the postironic, ambivalent, hopeful, generous twentysomethings of 2005, I suppose, is what sequels are for,” Michael Agger wrote in Slate.
Next March, Kunkel will release his second book, Utopia or Bust. Though not a sequel to Indecision, it will in fact seek to explain, or at least explore, what socialism means now through a series of essays on contemporary leftist thinkers like Fredric Jameson and David Harvey. After the success of Indecision—a spot on the best-seller list, translations into a dozen languages, a Hollywood option—Kunkel didn’t milk his newfound literary stardom in the manner of, say, Jay McInerney. Instead, after falling into a deep depression, he followed the example of his own narrator, moving to Buenos Aires and immersing himself in anticapitalist political theory. In a draft of the introduction to his new book, he writes, “To the disappointment of friends who would prefer to read my fiction—as well as of my literary agent, who would prefer to sell it—I seem to have become a Marxist public intellectual.”
In a strange way, though, Kunkel hasn’t entirely escaped the zeitgeist business. His new book is emerging at a moment of newly fervent interest in Marx among young writers, activists, and scholars, who have begun, the wake of the financial crisis, to identify capitalism as a problem rather than an inevitability.
It’s too simple to say that Marxism is back, because it never truly went away. In the United States after the fall of the Berlin Wall, though, it was largely confined to university English departments, becoming the stuff of abstruse, inward-looking and jargon-choked cultural critique. Then came the economic crash, Occupy Wall Street, and the ongoing disaster of austerity in Europe. “Around the time of Occupy in particular, a lot of different kinds of lefties, working at mainstream or literary publications, sort of found each other, started talking to each other, and found out who was most interested in class politics,” says Sarah Leonard, the 25-year-old associate editor of Dissent, the social-democratic journal founded almost 60 years ago by Irving Howe. “We have essentially found an old politics that makes sense now.”
In the United States, of course, Marxism remains an intellectual current rather than a mass movement. Certainly, millennials are famously progressive; a much-discussed 2011 Pew poll found that 49 percent of people between 18 and 29 had a favorable view of socialism, while only 46 percent felt positively about capitalism. It’s hard to say exactly what this means—it’s not as if young people are sending Das Kapital racing up the best-seller lists or reconstituting communist cells. Still, it’s been decades since so many young thinkers have been so engaged in imagining a social order not governed by the imperatives of the market.
The reason why is obvious enough. “Now everything is falling apart,” says Doug Henwood, publisher of the Left Business Observer and mentor to several among the new Marxist thinkers. “Not even the most energetic apologists can say things are going well. The basic premises of American life, about upward mobility and all that, it all seems like a cruel joke now.”
Meanwhile, the end of the Cold War has freed people—especially those too young to remember it—to revisit Marxist ideas without worrying that they’re justifying existing repressive regimes. The Soviet Union always hovered over American intellectual life in the 20th century, especially those sectors of it dominated by Jewish City College graduates like Howe and his ideological counterweight Irving Kristol. There were those who condemned it but held fast to socialist ideals—a position epitomized by Dissent—and those, like Kristol, who came to see such ideals as inescapably entwined with tyranny, becoming neoconservatives. Now that communism is a marginal force in the world, these arguments feel very far away. “I suppose that what’s on our mind is not ’89,” says Leonard. “Our crisis is of a different nature. It’s a capitalist crisis, and we have a useful set of analytic tools.”
To cater to the new receptivity to left-wing thought, the radical publishing house Verso—which is co-publishing Kunkel’s new book—recently started issuing a series called Pocket Communism, short, elegantly designed volumes created with addled millennial attention spans in mind. Among them are Alain Badiou’s The Communist Hypothesis and Bruno Bosteel’s The Actuality of Communism. They’re being sold beyond the ordinary outlets—at art galleries, for example. Even when these neo-communists aren’t orthodox Marxists—Badiou is something of a Maoist—Marx necessarily looms large in their work. “People are no longer afraid to go back to the texts themselves and use words that were once taboo,” says Sebastian Budgen, a Verso senior editor. “There’s a mentally emancipatory effect of no longer having to justify using Marx.”
Nowhere is this more true than at Jacobin, the socialist magazine founded by 24-year-old Bhaskar Sunkara, which is co-publishing Utopia or Bust with Verso. A uniquely entrepreneurial Marxist, Sunkara was still an undergraduate when he used part of his student loan to publish the first issue of Jacobin in 2011. He now has about 5,000 subscribers, a small number in the grand scheme of things but an impressive one for a leftist journal, comparable to the reach of Dissent. It’s a readership that is disproportionately young, says Sunkara, and one that’s often new to left-wing publishing. “I think that a lot of our readership aren’t people who are choosing Jacobin over Dissent or The Monthly Review,” he says. “They’re more either disillusioned liberals or young people who weren’t that politicized.”
For its part, Dissent, which is edited by Michael Kazin, has been reinvigorated by young staffers like Leonard. Until recently, it had grown dour, known for its doleful struggle against the irresponsibility of other radicals. In 2002, for example, its former co-editor Michael Walzer criticized the progressive response to 9/11 in an essay titled “Can There Be a Decent Left?” Bemoaning the tendency of left intellectuals to “live in America like internal aliens, refusing to identify with their fellow citizens, regarding any hint of patriotic feeling as politically incorrect,” he seemed to be rehashing an ancient argument between the anti-communist left and the ‘60s counterculture.
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