A young novelist goes left and gets serious
Western Marxism, like capitalism, operates on thirty-year business cycles. Ever since the First International, in 1864, approximately every third or fourth decade has seen a Marxist renaissance. At the turn of the twentieth century, in the turbulent 1930s, in the malaise-ridden 1970s, and now in the second decade of the 2000s, the specter of Marx has come back to haunt us. As Marx wrote of the reaction that put down the 1848 revolutions, the “ghost walks again.”
This is no coincidence. After all, Marx’s great subject was the underlying instability of capitalism; his theory of history was based on its elaborate pattern of crisis. For Marx, “all that is solid melts into air” was not only a description but also a call to arms: When markets stop making sense, when they stop working, Marxism starts to work, and to make sense—as a revolutionary movement, as a social and cultural lament, and as an economic explanation. But what’s perhaps most striking about the twined history of capitalism and Marxism is how every crisis—er, I mean, “correction”—seems to choose its own Marx. In the 1870s, it was Marx the political conspiracist and revolutionary; at the turn of the twentieth century, it was Marx the social scientist and movement organizer; in the 1930s, it was Marx the cultural critic and moral pessimist; and in the 1970s, it was Marx the social theorist.
Today’s Marx, like his predecessors, is not entirely new; he’s just an exaggeration of one feature of the original model. Instead of focusing on alienation and systems of exploitation, he is primarily concerned with the structural