Autobiography of Red

Utopia or Bust: A Guide to the Present Crisis (Jacobin) BY Benjamin Kunkel. Verso. Paperback, 160 pages. $14.
The cover of Utopia or Bust: A Guide to the Present Crisis (Jacobin)

Benjamin Kunkel reflects on what led him to his preoccupation with Marxist—or "Marxish"—political economy, in this excerpt from Utopia or Bust: A Guide to the Present Crisis, his new collection of essays.

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. Making matters worse, the relevant public has been a small one consisting of readers of the two publications, the London Review of Books and n+1, where all but one of the essays in Utopia or Bust first appeared, and my self-appointed role has likewise been modest. The essays attempt no original contribution to Marxist, or what you might call Marxish, thought. They simply offer basic introductions, with some critical comments, to a handful of contemporary thinkers on the left: three Marxists at work in their respective fields of geography, history, and cultural criticism; an anthropologist of anarchist convictions; and two philosophers who might be called neo-communists. These are meanwhile only a few of the present-day figures most attractive or interesting to me, and even if my discussion of their work does something to clarify the economic and cultural features of the ongoing capitalist crisis, several of the book’s deficiencies will be more readily apparent than this achievement. The essays no more than allude to the ecological and political dimensions of the crisis that burst into view in 2008, and they ignore altogether its uneven impact on different countries, genders, generations, “races.”

The purpose of this modest explanatory volume is nevertheless immodest. The idea is to contribute something in the way of intellectual orientation to the project of replacing a capitalism bent on social polarization, the hollowing out of democracy, and ecological ruin with another, better order. This would be one adapted to collective survival and well-being, and marked by public ownership of important economic and financial institutions, by real as well as formal democratic capacities, and by social equality—all of which together would promise a renewal of culture in both the narrowly aesthetic and the broadly anthropological meanings of the term.

Theory, and writing about theorists, brings no victories by itself. Nor is there any need for everyone on the left or moving leftwards to converge on the same understanding of “late” capitalism, in the sense of recent or in decline, before anything can be done to make it “late” as in recently departed. Imperfect understanding is the lot of all political actors. Still, for at least a generation now, not only the broad public but many radicals themselves have felt uncertain that the left possessed a basic analysis of contemporary capitalism, let alone a program for its replacement. This intellectual disorientation has thinned our ranks and abetted our organizational disarray. Over the same period the comparative ideological coherence of our neoliberal opponents gave them an invaluable advantage in securing public assent to their policies or, failing that, resignation. Gaining a clearer idea of the present system should help us to challenge and one day overcome it. The essays in ­my short book, about a number of other books, several of them long and dense, are collected there for whatever they can add to the effort. Social injustice and economic insecurity—bland terms for the calamities they name—would make overcoming capitalism urgent enough even if the system could boast a stable ecological footing; obviously, it cannot.

The odds of political success may not look particularly good at the moment. But the defects of global capitalism have become so plain to the eye—if still, for many minds, too mysterious in their causes and too inevitable in their effects—that the odds appear better than a few years ago. The crisis has not only sharpened anxieties but introduced new hopes, most spectacularly in 2011, year of the Arab Spring, of huge indignant crowds in European plazas, and of Occupy Wall Street. Today as I write in the summer of 2013, kindred movements have emerged, massively and spontaneously, in the streets of Turkey and Brazil. Over recent years my own political excitement, anxious and optimistic at once, has led to me to spend as much time thinking about global capitalism and its theorists as about the fictional characters in whose company I’d expected, as a novelist, to spend more of my time. That is one explanation for the existence of this book.

“So are you an autodidactic political economist now?” a friend asked the other day. I’m no economist at all, but the question catches something of what’s happened. In 2005, with the publication of my first novel, I suddenly became a “successful” young writer: enthusiastic reviews; a brief life on the best-seller lists; translation into a dozen languages; and an option deal from a Hollywood producer with deep pockets. These very welcome developments coincided with the worst depressive episode of my adult life. I can’t say what caused it, but I remember thinking of the poet Philip Larkin’s line about bursting “into fulfillment’s desolate attic.”

Why should it have felt desolate? I’d always wanted to write novels and was now in a good position to go on doing that. Part of the trouble seems to have been that your own fulfillment is no one else’s, and therefore not even quite your own. Surely another part was that even the so-called systems-novelists I especially admired when I was younger alluded to the principal system, the economic one, more than they described or explained it: a trait of their work that had become less satisfying to me, without my knowing how to do things differently in my own. For now let it be enough to confess that I would like to live in a more fulfilling society or civilization than a self-destructive capitalist one (where, as it happens, the leading cause of death for middle-aged men in the richest country of the world is now suicide) and that these essays have been, among other things, a way of saying so. If they’ve been assembled between covers in hopes of contributing to left politics, their origin probably lies in a wish to find, outside of art, some of the artistic satisfaction that comes of expressing such deep concerns that you cannot name their source.

There are other reasons why a guy with a literary background has ended up producing work like this. For one thing, as I’ve become more confident that nonspecialists can make sense of so vast a thing as capitalism, my deference to orthodox opinion has correspondingly eroded. I’ve been some kind of leftist for as long as I’ve been an adult, but not always one with complete courage of his convictions. For years I felt inhibited by the air of immense casual authority that united the mainstream press, professional economists, and prosperous male relatives when it came to the unsurpassable virtues of capitalism—a personal difficulty that might not be worth mentioning if I didn’t suspect that in my timidity I had plenty of company. The 1990s weren’t an ideal decade for discovering you were a socialist.

Already in the unpropitious year of 1993, with the Soviet Union freshly dissolved and amid proclamations of the liberal capitalist end of history, I’d announced to my parents, who were visiting me at college after my first year, that I was a socialist. I added that I was a democratic socialist who wouldn’t send them to reeducation camps. They took the news with bemused indulgence. My mother has always wanted me to be happy, through socialism if necessary, while my father just asked me define the word reification; besides, he is an open-minded man who not long ago told me he was enjoying the free edition of Bakunin’s God, Man and State that I’d downloaded to a Kindle account we share. My parents in any case couldn’t reproach their nineteen-year-old son with the obvious parental comeback to undergraduate avowals of socialism in a country where higher ed. costs are exorbitant: “It’s our ill-gotten gains, you know, that pay for you to sit around reading about reification.” This was because I’d gone to Deep Springs College, in California, which charges no tuition or room and board: a small lesson, perhaps, in conditions favorable to intellectual freedom.

Still, for many years the national atmosphere of ideological consensus deprived me of some belief in my beliefs. Neoliberal principles were ardently proclaimed by some people I knew and shruggingly accepted by most of the rest. Where economic prosperity was lacking, excessive government deserved the blame. Maximum liberation of the market would secure the best social outcomes not only in terms of aggregate wealth but its concentration in deserving hands. Socialism of any kind was a recipe for political oppression and shoddy goods, whereas free markets could be counted on to foster democracy and other forms of consumer choice.

My respect for neoliberal doctrine, always resentful and incomplete, was a reflex all the same. It could be triggered by the flushed faces of politicians on TV or the hearty dispositions of businessmen or finance guys met in real life; it could be activated by the smooth invisible inferences drawn by newspaper journalists whenever a wave of growth swept another country adopting economic “reform,” in the neutral-sounding promotional term for deregulating capital and labor markets. I armed myself against these forces with facts and counterarguments, and occasionally shouted sarcastic invective at uncles over dinner. But for years I didn’t write directly about politics or economics, or imagine that I would.

The best reason for this was my desire to write fiction instead. At the age of twenty I might have considered (as I still do today) the capitalist culture industry an enemy of the sort of things I liked to read and hoped to write, but the judgment drew its strength from an even stronger desire to deal with life in the free, full way of the novelist. So when I left Deep Springs for a “real” college (its reality attested by the sums it charged), I enrolled as an English major. Besides, people at Harvard said that the economics department, headed at the time by a former advisor to the Reagan administration, had been purged of Marxists in the ’70s, while in the America of the ’90s it seemed that literature departments, at least, could still harbor them. (I was already a somewhat perplexed enthusiast of Fredric Jameson, a literature professor at Duke and the subject of the second essay here.) Then, too, a writer like Thoreau offered a deeper if more oblique articulation of my issues with capitalism than weekly numbers of the Nation. The first chapter of Walden—about, essentially, how to spend the windfall of your days alive—is after all called “Economy,” and proposes a vision of life very different, in its spiritual pointedness and material modesty, from that of an endless series of forty-plus-hour work weeks devoted, in the end, to increasing someone else’s capital. A living hero of mine like Don DeLillo could chart the underground rivers of dread and waste flowing beneath the bright clean surfaces of capitalist prosperity, and I wanted to write novels that did something like that.

After graduation I kept writing fiction and started writing book reviews, mainly for left publications like In These Times and Dissent. My chief pastimes may have been chasing romantic love and artistic glory, with no lasting results in either department, but I took the time to harangue friends and girlfriends about entities like the Federal Reserve and the IMF and, more rarely, to join large crowds protesting a neoliberal economic summit or imperial war. Whatever motivated these actions, it wasn’t hope. I believed, but uncertainly, in a better kind of economy and society, and my desire for it to come about wasn’t easy to tell from despair.

In a memory from 1998 I’m sitting with a friend in a borrowed car, one Sunday evening in late spring, on a side street in lower Manhattan. A phalanx of corporate office towers stands over us as twilight drains from the air. My friend Jon Cook and I have been attending the Socialist Scholars Conference, the annual conclave later renamed the Left Forum, and are talking, naturally, about global capitalism. The mood of the memory, tinted blue by the hour, is one of mild but distinct hopelessness. One of us has just referred to the financial district around us, including the twin towers of the World Trade Center, as the belly of the beast, and it seems to us that from our position in the belly there isn’t anything we can do to provoke the least indigestion in the beast.

At the same conference, I’d met the anarchist and scholar David Graeber (whose book Debt: The First 5,000 Years furnishes the subject of another essay here). Graeber struck me then, and on the half-dozen later occasions when we hung out, as a brilliant mind and fascinating talker, but by no means as the sort of person ever likely to be profiled by a major business magazine—as he was in 2011, when Bloomberg Business Week described his connection to a meteoric social movement called Occupy Wall Street. Throughout the ’90s and deep into the past decade, the tide of events appeared to be running in a direction opposite to what I couldn’t even call my hopes, as the center-left parties of wealthy countries, the electorates of the former Soviet bloc, and the central committee of the Chinese Communist Party all ratified their commitment to capitalism.

This was the ideological setting in which the narrator of my novel Indecision, in a drunken speech at his high school reunion, declared himself a democratic socialist. The gesture seemed both a ridiculous and necessary one for Dwight Wilmerding. His foolishness or naiveté was meant, I think, to allow him to look at the world—which could only be that of neoliberal globalization—with relatively fresh eyes, yet the book couldn’t help but imply that my (anti)hero had found a politics most available, among privileged Americans during the Bush years, to the immature, clownish, and/or stoned (as well as to academics, like Dwight’s sister Alice). Fiction is a form hospitable to ambiguity, and my novel must have emerged in part from my uncertainty about whether or not we American leftists were on a fool’s errand, and whether the class origins of many of us didn’t compromise our commitments in advance.

Even when any prospect of political deliverance seemed like a joke, capitalism at least kept me interested, and in early 2008 the novelist Chad Harbach and I formed what we called the Red/Green Reading Group. The two-man RGRG, pledged to the economic and ecological analysis of capitalism, discussed its findings every other week over beers. The first big book we tackled was The Limits to Capital (1981) by the Marxist geographer David Harvey (whose more recent work occasioned another of the essays). We were somewhere in the middle of Harvey’s closely argued pages, which pay special attention to the role of property markets in capitalist crises, when the investment bank Bear Stearns collapsed from misbegotten investments in mortgage-backed securities. I can’t say the complete financial panic that broke out six months later didn’t surprise Chad and me, but we were less taken aback than, for example, Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, who admitted before a congressional hearing to being “shocked” to discover a “flaw in the model that I perceived as the critical functioning structure of how the world works.” The five years since 2008 have confirmed the bafflement of many other economists in the face of a crisis more successfully anticipated by a number of Marxists outside the discipline than by all but a few of its credentialed members.

Not long before Greenspan’s testimony, I’d left New York City for Buenos Aires, where I wound up living for four years. Expatriation wasn’t political; I’d simply fallen for Buenos Aires on a first visit a few years earlier, maybe through some special susceptibility to the mixture of beauty and dilapidation, romanticism and cynicism, remoteness and cosmopolitanism that many visitors have tried to describe. Life in New York had in any case made too many claims on my time and money, while in Argentina at first I knew hardly a soul to tempt me away from my desk and prices were still low enough that I could live on the proceeds of my novel much more cheaply than in New York. I was thereby relieved of the need to produce another “successful” novel in short order, and could write whatever I wanted. This turned out to be an allegorical one-act play about global warming, put up at a small theater in Buenos Aires in 2011, which seems to me the best thing I’ve done and which no one in the States has shown an interest in producing; a long half-finished novel currently set aside in favor of an autodidactic political treatise; some poetry best shielded from the light of day; and a number of essays for n+1 and the LRB.

In Buenos Aires I lived in a long drafty apartment with thrillingly tall ceilings that I shared for a year with the writer and critic Emily Cooke, as well as with two, then three cats. (The third we adopted when she was a few ounces of flea-ridden black fur yowling at the elements during one of those Buenos Aires downpours when the skies just hemorrhage.) Then Emily went back to New York, and I discovered that to be a man living alone with three cats in an exceptionally far-away foreign country, among piles of economic tracts and drifts of printed-out articles, is to invite suspicions of craziness—though my porteño friends showed me the tolerance for apparent craziness which, according to them, life in their city requires.

Another result of living in Buenos Aires was to place me at a certain sharp angle to the neoliberalism that had already come to grief there. This isn’t the place to rehearse recent Argentine history (which my essay “Argentinidad,” published in n+1, discusses in the context of the country’s 2010 bicentennial), except to say that during the ’90s Argentina undertook textbook neoliberalizing measures which failed gradually and then, in the southern summer of 2001–02, all at once, when the country suffered perhaps the worst collapse of any sizeable economy after the Depression. Since then, Argentina has set itself apart from fellow members of the G-20 by the anti-neoliberal character of the government’s rhetoric and, to a lesser extent, policies; by a rate of economic growth that was for many years the highest in Latin America; and by the emergence of a radical protest culture long before Occupy or the indignados. To live in Buenos Aires when I did seems to have slightly enlarged my sense of historical possibility—and that may inflect the essays.

The oldest of them I drafted over a few hot summer days of December 2009. I, too, wondered what I was doing writing a long essay called “Full Employment.” But in the English-language newspapers and magazines I was reading online, story after story cited the alarming unemployment figures in the US and elsewhere without placing them in what seemed to me their obvious historical context, namely the chronic failure of the rich countries to achieve full employment since the 1970s. I wrote “Full Employment,” in other words, because the qualified people wouldn’t. Economic journalists were too engrossed by the data of the moment, while academic economists were too technical in approach and arid in language to address a general audience, not to mention too bewildered, many of them, by the implosion of their ideology. The essay also gave me a chance to discuss the Marxist historian Robert Brenner, whose Economics of Global Turbulence (2006) concludes anticipating the financial crisis that would break out two years after the book was published.

Earlier in 2009, GQ magazine had asked me to profile the economist Nouriel Roubini, famous for having more clearly foreseen the crisis than any of his academic colleagues. Roubini is a man of real intelligence and learning, and there weren’t many questions about macroeconomics I could pose that he hadn’t already considered. An exception came when I asked his opinion of Brenner’s theory of the “long downturn” since the early ’70s. Since Roubini wasn’t familiar with it, I explained the argument that chronic overcapacity in manufacturing has discouraged investment in expanded industrial production, tempting available capital into financial speculation instead, with an escalating series of speculative crises as one result. Roubini didn’t have much to say at the time, but a day or two later he wrote asking to be reminded of the author and title of the book I’d mentioned—a sign both of his personal broadmindedness and the closed character of his discipline.

My career as a marxisant reporter for a high-end men’s lifestyle magazine didn’t last. For my next and, it turned out, final assignment, GQ flew me from Buenos Aires to Dubai, to report on the plummeting real estate market. Many journalists had already described (as I did too) the proliferation of cheesily sumptuous luxury hotels and condominium towers, in stories that less often dwelled on the immigrant guest-workers, forbidden by law to unionize, who built the structures. I thought it might be worthwhile visiting one of the Dubai’s labor camps, and therefore loitered around a shopping mall parking lot in the drab slum of Al Quoz asking guest-workers with minimal English for a glimpse of their living quarters, and mainly eliciting the sort of brisk refusal due a sex-tourist who has wandered off the beaten path. At last a friendly Nepali guy of twenty-six named Kaushi, in Dubai as a security guard, was willing to show me the room he shared with three other employees of the same firm. His roommate Karma, an ancient-looking man of thirty, was slipping on his flip-flops when I entered a room just wide enough for a person to stand between the metal bunk beds pressed to either wall. The place contained four gym lockers, a cubby for shoes, some synthetic fleece blankets, a bath towel, and a Nepali newsmagazine. It was hard not to be struck by the fact that workers who slept four to a windowless room spent their waking hours guarding vast glass-enclosed luxury apartments most of which were going uninhabited, either for want of a buyer or because they hadn’t purchased to house people in the first place, only people.

On the cover of the newsmagazine was a story about the Maoist rebellion in Nepal, which at the time had just ended with the restoration of democracy and the inclusion of former guerillas in the government, and in my best tones of journalistic neutrality I asked Kaushi and Karma whether they liked the Maoists or not.

“No, sir,” said Karma, the ancient-looking thirty-year-old.

Handsome and confident Kaushi, however, said, “Yes, I am Maoist.”

This inspired Karma to change his answer. “I am Maoist also.”

“So you guys support communism?” I asked them. “You want a workers’ revolution?”

“Yes, sir,” said Karma, bashfully.

Kaushi—who, I noticed, never called me sir—wasn’t shy at all about his enthusiasm for workers’ revolution, and asked me if I wanted one.

“I’m definitely thinking about it.” And that was how my article ended, which may or may not have influenced GQ’s editors to kill the piece and neglect to solicit future contributions from me.

Most of my youth went by during the end of history, which has itself now come to an end. If no serious alternative to liberal capitalism can yet be made out, surely it’s also become difficult for anyone paying attention to view the present system as viable. The more substantial book I intend to be my next will sketch a different possible order. The aim is not unique; several important postcapitalist visions marked by what might be called a tough-minded utopianism (notably, in the US, After Capitalism by David Schweickart, and What Then Must We Do? by Gar Alperovitz) have appeared in the past few years alone. Yet the two decades from 1989 to 2008 were notable for their dearth of revolutionary platforms or utopian imagery, which had perhaps never been so scarce since “the left” first acquired its name during the French Revolution (thanks to the Assemblée Nationale’s practice of assigning seats on the left side of its chamber to newer and often more radical delegates).

In the era of the end of history, mass political parties that might have advanced a transformative program were almost everywhere going over to neoliberalism, shedding adherents, or both. The very idea of revolutionary socialism seemed discredited by Communist terror from the Bolsheviks to the Khmer Rouge and the failure of centralized planning in the countries of the Warsaw Pact. The typical interpretation of Soviet disintegration was that Marxism stood disproved and capitalism vindicated. “Another World Is Possible,” said the placards at demonstrations, and to insist on that point may have been about as much as could be done at a time when so many denied it and the left had no platform, only a few stray planks.

Over the past five years or so, a different era has begun. For more and more people, global capitalism is losing or has already lost its air of careless munificence, strewing its blessings generously if unevenly across the world, as well as that claim to final historical inevitability that could always be made when other justifications failed. It’s in light of this change that the next-to-last essay here argues (against Žižek and others) that the left needs to supplement its anticapitalism with a basic conception of another order, a sort of minimum utopian program (no doubt to be continually elaborated and revised by societies in a position to enact it). Capitalism is after all not the worst conceivable form of economic organization; the point is to ask whether something better and less ecologically fatal may succeed it, and what that might be.

My book only hints at an answer. Its main burden is to introduce a half-dozen bodies of contemporary thought by writers who have been more concerned to diagnose the economic or cultural condition of capitalism than to imagine a successor. Their emphasis has not been misplaced. The past and present are available to study as the future can’t be; more than this, it was only natural for left intellectuals in recent decades to devote their energies not to political strategy, revolutionary programs, or utopian devisings, but to the analysis of this or that feature of capitalism. Marxism had first to survive before it could recover a more constructive role. (Anarchism, the fraternal rival accompanying revolutionary socialism through modern history, emerged from the past two decades in better political shape: less theoretically developed than Marxism and never used as a warrant for party dictatorships, it had, among other attractions, less explaining to do before it could move on to new tasks.)

The past few years have seen a revival of Marxist thought, which might loosely be defined as the collective effort to contemplate capitalism as a whole or, in the traditional idiom, a totality, from the standpoint of a politics of its transcendence. (One sign of this in the US has been the birth of Jacobin magazine, under whose imprimatur this collection appears: a publication addressed to a general audience most of whose contributors would probably accept the label “Marxist.”) The recovery of Marxism, still very new and incomplete, was already underway before 2008, as Cold War taboos faded and global capitalism manifested its dominance in many of the smallest as well as the largest features of contemporary life. Any regime on such a scale may be, for some of its subjects, so pervasive as to become invisible, but will compel others to dissent. Since 2008, generalized crisis has exposed to wider view the shortcomings of mainstream economics and other non-Marxist varieties of social thought, much as the historian Perry Anderson had foreseen in 1992. Pointing out that intellectual approaches to society once considered outmoded had recently acquired new life (in renovated forms of structuralism, evolutionism, functionalism, and existentialism), Anderson predicted that “the future of Marxism is unlikely to be different. Its most powerful intellectual challengers ... share a blind side whose importance is constantly increasing. They have little, if anything, to say about the dynamics of the capitalist economy that now rules without rival over the fate of the earth. Here the normative theory which has accompanied its triumph is equally—indeed avowedly—bereft: the Hayekian synthesis, for all its other strengths, disclaiming systematic explanations of the paths of long-term growth or structural crisis. The come-back of historical materialism will probably be on this terrain.”

The economic doctrine, inspired by Friedrich von Hayek, to which Anderson referred is today more often called neoliberalism, as is the accompanying politics. (Not by its practitioners, however: like a dog unaware of its name, a political regime answering to no designation can better elude control by its supposed master, the citizenry, than one which turns its head when called.) The present economic crisis is one that neoliberal economists cannot explain, and that even their Keynesian colleagues can account for only incompletely. It is also a crisis that neoliberal politicians—whether free-market boosters of the right, technocrats of the center, or muddlers-through of the former left—cannot credibly propose to resolve. Their delinquency in the face of history has had many dire effects; a rare auspicious one has been to tempt people who knew little about Marxism beyond its reputation as debunked economics and totalitarian politics to look into the matter for themselves.

More important than intellectual debates is a generational shift underway. Global capitalism or neoliberalism under US hegemony or just the way things are going: call it whatever you like, it has inflicted economic insecurity and ecological anxiety on the young in particular. They emerge today from their schooling onto job markets reluctant to accommodate them at all, let alone on stable or generous terms, and they will bear the consequences of planetary ecological disorder in proportion to the years lying ahead of them. In any genuine renaissance of Marxist thought and culture, it will probably be decisive that capitalism has forfeited the allegiance of many people who are today under thirty.

In the meantime Marxism surely remains a bogeyman or forbidding mystery to far more people than not. Whether this changes counts for more than whether the name Marxism is retained. The name pays homage to a brilliant, admirable, flawed man of the nineteenth century: an excellent and entertaining father, a devoted but not entirely faithful husband, a tremendously hard worker who was also a serious procrastinator, and a generous personality prone to a terrible anger that can mar his writing too. Is this well-merited homage, not only to Marx himself but to the best of his intellectual and political heirs, a price worth paying for the connotations Marxism acquired during the twentieth century? If so, let the word thrive along with the thing itself; if not, it can fall away.

Marxism under whatever name can only serve present needs as a set of questions, not a battery of ready answers. These include questions about the development of capitalism, from its genesis to the present day; about the role of class struggle in historical change; about the relationship between social classes and government; about how culture reflects—or can’t help reflecting—economic conditions; and about how a climate of opinion or “hegemony” achieves the consent of exploited people.

Other questions are more prospective in nature. How can the left build a hegemony of its own, to both prefigure and prepare a new society? What factors are likely to bring about the end, gradual or sudden, of capitalism? How should a postcapitalist society be run to ensure the dissolution of social classes as opposed to domination by any one class? How would ownership and control of productive resources be shared in the society we want? How far are markets compatible with such changes? What way of organizing social reproduction might be most satisfying to us both while we are working and while we are not? A list like this is far from exhaustive, nor do the questions themselves admit of final answers. Even so, better or worse answers can be given, and Marxists will usually have the best answers to questions that often they alone are willing to pose. None of which is to deny that historical materialism has paid too little attention to issues—of social scale and complexity, of relations between the sexes, of the logic of war or nationalism or ecology or technology—that ought to be fundamental to it. Far from having all the answers, it hasn’t even had all the questions. Still, the commitment of Marxism to contemplating capitalism in its entirety, in the light of earlier modes of production and those which may lie ahead, gives it a capacity to confront social matters in their interrelationship, including their ostensible disconnection, that no other way of thinking can claim.

“Communism is the riddle to history solved,” the young Marx wrote, a proposition he did not repeat. The same can’t be said of Marxism, which is better understood as an attempt to formulate the riddle of history with due fullness, complexity, and urgency. The stakes of this effort, as they appear to me, are summarized in the title to this otherwise modest and retrospective book: Utopia or Bust.

From Utopia or Bust: A Guide to the Present Crisis, published by Verso.