Reading Marx

Dick Walker talks like he knew Karl Marx personally.  “Man, Marx just couldn’t figure out what was going on with all this finance shit.  You can tell he just fucking hated it”, he tells us, as we are puzzling over our weekly assignment for his Das Kapital reading group.  He offers a bit of comfort for the confused: “Don’t worry, I had to read the whole thing through three or four times before I really understood it.”  Three or four times?  Marx’s magnum opus is painfully dense and, although it was only half finished, comes in at about 3,000 pages.  But there’s no doubt that Dick Walker has read it a bunch of times: his copy—an old edition, printed in the Soviet Union—is badly tattered, but contains years of annotations; a sign of a truly loved tome.

I started going to Dick Walker’s Capital Reading Group in the Geography Department this fall because, well, I was a grad student at Berkeley, and what could be more “Berkeley” than reading Marx?  The group was almost a caricature of itself.  We met in the Geography lounge, with a Brazilian Landless Movement flag and guitar with the words “This Machine Kills Fetishism” scrawled on it (get it?) hanging on the walls.  Others in the class seemed to hang on every one of Marx’s words, even when the arguments and evidence were obviously obsolete.  I remember one conversation with a classmate who seemed to suggest that the only reason we weren’t already living in a socialist utopia stemmed from our own inability to understand Marx’s brilliance.  The notion that Marx may have actually been wrong about some very important things—or that reading thousands of pages about capitalism wasn’t going to make capitalism disappear–had apparently not crossed our minds.

Meanwhile, outside the academia, real things were happening.  People were actually protesting capital and critiquing capitalism, and they didn’t need a reading group to figure out how to do it.  In September, there was an early protest held in San Francisco in solidarity with some naïve fools in New York who thought they were going to “Occupy Wall Street” (whatever that meant!).  A few of us sociologists decided we were going to ditch and go to it; some of the geographers we invited said they couldn’t because it overlapped with our reading group.  The moment evoked Marx’s own words: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world…the point is to change it.”  With a disdain for armchair radicalism of which I was confident Marx himself would approve, I quit going to class and started going to protests.

If my last post doesn’t give any indication, the last six months have been transformative, and the Alex of September feels very naïve by the standards of the Alex of April.  A short list of things about which I’ve drastically changed my views include “the police”, “academia”, “anarchism”, and, also, the “value” (so to speak) of reading Marx.  I’m not entirely sure why I went back to class this semester, but I did.  This time, I’ve joined my classmates in hanging on Marx’s words, trying to wrap my head around his elaborate system of circulating values and commodities.  I am no more convinced that knowing Marx is “useful” to me, either as an academic or an activist.  It’s the work itself—as a cultural and historical product—that draws me in, the very idea that someone could sit down and try to write a book with the absurd ambition of explaining the entire economic system in one go.  The fact that communism never “worked” doesn’t make Marx’s attempts to envision an alternative any less brave or elegant.

It suppose, then, it’s not just about the books, but Marx himself.  In sociology, we celebrate Marx as one of the earliest public sociologists, a man who worked outside the academy and was actively engaged in political projects.  But, in truth, Capital is the product of decades spent in quiet contemplation, pouring over ledgers and data in the British library.  There’s something in that which resonates with practically any social scientist: the tension between wanting to simply understand the way forces beyond our control shape the world, and the simultaneous desire to push those forces along.  As someone who spent the morning working on a theory paper in Berkeley and the afternoon protesting against capitalism in downtown Oakland, Marx’s dilemma resonates.

A recent hit-piece-cum-“report” on declining standards in the UC system by a right-wing think tank makes twenty-five separate references to “Marx” or “Marxism”.  Noting the “proliferation” of courses on Marx at UC Santa Cruz, they opine: “Adolescent Marxist nostalgia still evidently reigns on campus and impedes a return to reality”.  They’d be relieved to know that Professor Walker is retiring this year.  His replacement will likely be at the forefront of geography as a discipline, meaning that he or she will do fancy stuff with maps and quantitative data and not spend much time trying to figure out the true meaning of 150-year-old books.  For our part, none of us taking the class are likely to read Marx “three or four times”—the new logic of the university does not afford us time to do things that don’t look good on grant applications or spin into publications—and so its hard to see another reading group like this at Berkeley in the future.  It took me a while to come around, but I’ve realized that’s a sad thing.