IT WAS KIERKEGAARD WHO SAID that life must be lived forward, though it can only be understood backward, but it just as well could have been — should have been — Marx, or one of his followers, because there has never been a thinker, or a tradition, more consumed with two paradoxical impulses: to interpret the past and to shape the future. Even in The Communist Manifesto, surely the most forward-looking of all Marxist texts, Marx and Engels pause in Section Three to settle old scores, dividing all other socialist movements into neat categories and ticking off their failures with shrewish glee. (Feudal socialism “picks up the golden apples dropped from the tree of industry”; petty-bourgeois socialism “ended in a miserable fit of the blues.”) It’s difficult to imagine what the average member of the Communist Party in the nineteenth century — who might have carried the Manifesto into battle, or hidden it in a shoe, at the risk of being hanged for possessing it — made of this section, other than to conclude that every great book has parts you can skip over. But for Marxist intellectuals, and artists, ever since, the problem that Section Three embodies has serious, even lethal, importance: how does one balance the luxury of a well-turned phrase, a precise assessment, with the imperative to act? “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it,” Marx blithely wrote in his eleventh thesis on Ludwig Feuberbach — as usual, making it sound easy.
It hasn’t been easy. In the West, at least since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, it has been all but impossible, except in certain rarefied circumstances, to be a Marxist, period. Not because the ideas or the iconography have disappeared — quite the opposite — but because Marxism has been marked, so decisively, as a failed project, a dead language, an object of study and nostalgia. “We are heirs of Marxism, even before wanting or refusing to be,” Jacques Derrida wrote in his epochal 1993 book Specters of Marx, “and like all inheritors, we are in mourning”:
That we are heirs does not mean that we have or that we receive this or that, some inheritance that enriches us one day with this or that, but that the being of what we are is first of all inheritance, whether we like it or know it or not. And that, as Hölderlin said so well, we can only bear witness to it.
Another way of putting this might be simply to say that many of us have spent the last decades living in a disappointed age, an age in which the entire notion of “revolution” became a joke, a meaningless euphemism. This applies even to those of us who are, in one way or another, repositories of revolutionary artifacts — documents, rhetoric, memories, images — passed down from our parents and grandparents, or, if we’re old enough, from our own past selves.
One could fill up a bookshelf with explanations fo...read more