My Students and Karl Marx showed me that the 19th Century Still Lives!

Posted: July 24, 2013 in Uncategorized
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By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Evidently I am on both a biography, and a leftist revolutionary kick.  Immediately after finishing Service’s Lenin biography, I picked up Jonathon Sperber’s new biography of Karl Marx. Was this just a natural evolutionary 20130707_inq_bk1marx07-areading choice; finished with Leninism, now go for Marxism? Perhaps. Or, perhaps I decided to look into Marx for another, more convoluted reason.

Jump back to last Thursday. It was the second day of my American History course, and I offered up a quick and easy classroom assignment to get my students thinking about important cultural and ideological trends in American life. I asked the class to get into groups, and think about words and phrases that come to mind when they hear the word ‘America’.  After a couple minutes, I had them shout out to me what words they thought of, and as they did, I made a list of their responses on the board.  The words were predictably recognizable, with both negative and positive connotations, which was exactly what I wanted and expected.   On the negative side, students provided such terms as “oppressive”, “arrogant”, “greedy” and “lazy.”  On the positive side, they came up with words like “opportunity”, “industrious”, “freedom” and “equality”.  These descriptors led to classroom discussion about the complexity of American history, culture, ideology, etc.

But, this Thursday I had one quite surprising response from an unknown student.  As I wrote down the terms, I heard from the back of the classroom a descriptor that I had never gotten before doing this exercise: ‘Socialist’.  I was a little taken aback, but, I said “okay” and wrote it on the board. I had my back turned to the class, so I didn’t catch who said it, and hence, I didn’t look for clarification, and instead, I just kept writing as the other terms were shouted at me. Once we started to investigate some of the responses, I focused upon the words and ideas that have been central to American History from our national origins, and still form most of our idealistic portraits of America: Liberty, equality, opportunity, merit, hard work, immigration, etc.  Then, we also examined words that pointed to the negativity and hypocrisy of the American past: Racism, nativism, prejudice, injustice, etc.  I really didn’t even ask about the ‘socialism’ comment because it seemed so out of place.

As the class ended, and I started to clear the board, I paused at the scribbled word ‘socialism’.  It made me ponder.  After giving it some thought, I came to the assumption that the student who yelled out the word meant it as a ‘negative’ and not a ‘positive’ aspect of America, simply because today the term socialism is generally utilized by the right-wing as a political attack.  A socialist would not say America is socialist.   Those on the left generally see the nation and the economic story of America as the antithesis of socialism, and unfortunately so.  If anything, an outspoken socialist would say the problem with America is that we have never had enough socialism, not that America is analogical to socialism. In our political situation, when someone shouts that America is socialistic he/she means that the country has moved away from it’s roots; it’s true essence.  Hence, the far right wing, and the Tea Party especially, attacks President Obama by calling him a socialist; or a Marxist; or a communist. Such language is intended to smear him as an outsider; as not a true American.

socialist-leagueUsing ‘socialist’ as attack rhetoric seemed to have a rebirth during the 2008 presidential election. At that point, it struck me as odd and outdated.  Calling someone a socialist was a political slur of the 195o’s or 1980’s, not the early 21st century.  But, after starting Sperber’s Marx biography, and with the help of this nameless student’s usage of the term ‘socialist’ , I had a realization.  We are stuck in a social and political lexicographic timewarp that we can’t, or don’t want to escape.  We live in the 21st century, but we think in 19th century parameters.  After all, ‘socialist’ actually isn’t a 1950’s term; it is an 1850’s term. Sperber’s biography makes this clear.  He points out in his introduction that he wants to study Marx as a nineteenth-century man, with nineteenth-century ideas, in contrast to how later hagiographers and smear artists depicted him as a man who foresaw and intentionally created the tragic 20th century Soviet and Maoist future.  Sperber hopes we are far enough removed from such dark 20th century history to appreciate the 19th century Karl Marx.  Unfortunately, after erasing that board, I don’t think that is the case.  Just look at the list below, and you can see that  19th century social and political concepts still control our discourse, and hence, much of our thought.

  • Socialism: First used as a term in 1832.
  • Capitalism: First used as a term in 1854.
  • Communism: First used as a term in 1843.
  • Liberalism: First used as a term in 1819.
  • Nationalism: First used as a term in 1844.
  • Race: A bit earlier in 1780, but becomes biologically based in the 1870s or 80s.
  • Democrat and Republican: Obviously these are older terms, but in American political parlance, both major parties were formed in the mid-1800s.
  • Liberal: First used as a political identifying term in 1820
  • Conservative and Conservatism: First used as a term in the 1830s.
  • Progressive:  First used as a term sometime between 1840 to 1880.
  • Radical (political sense): First used as a term in 1802.

Our political world is still carrying the weight of 19th century mentalities.  Our political identity, and our political attacks are often 150 or 200 years old. I wonder what our politics would look like if we were just a little more original?


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