A spectre is haunting the RUG
Marx, so sexy right now
In the decade after the global economic crisis, young people worldwide are rediscovering Marx’s prescient analysis of life under capitalism. Even legacy media outlets are wondering whether Marx wasn’t so bad: in the months surrounding his 200th birthday – and the lionizing biographical film – we heard The New York Times, The Guardian, The Nation, The Atlantic, and The Independent sing his praises. By the time Marx landed a feature story in Teen Vogue, there was no denying it: Marx is cool again.
Even at the RUG, where students are generally ‘apathetic and apolitical’, Marx has a growing following, according to self-proclaimed Marxist student Maximilian Pogrzeba. The signs are everywhere, if you’re looking for them.
In the library, a sticker of Marx’s face adorns a student laptop. From under iconic brows he peers unblinkingly into the bleak, inevitable future. ‘A little Marx goes a long way’, haloes his head. Is that supposed to be ironic? ‘No’, the student says, earnestly. ‘This is completely serious.’
What makes Marx so sexy right now?
The crisis of capitalism
‘Before the financial crisis of 2008, everyone thought Marxism was dead, that communism had failed’, says Pogrzeba. But he says students now see the failures of capitalism more clearly: systemic inequality, environmental destruction, social alienation, unchecked corporate greed, chronic underemployment, crushing debt, and an almost cartoonish disparity between the rich and the poor.
‘I have met a lot of people who are toying with the idea of Marxism,’ Pogrzeba says. ‘There is a general interest at the moment.’
People see that their future is going to be a lot more fucked up than life was for their parents
Students who identify as Marxists disagree over nearly every point of Marx’s ideology, but they all agree on one thing: society is screwed up. ‘People see that their future is going to be a lot more fucked up than life was for their parents. They are looking for alternatives’, says Senna Turksema, a dual History and European Languages and Cultures student, and member of youth socialist party ROOD. ‘Marxism is the only real alternative.’
Philosophy student Remco van der Meer knows it might be hard for people to understand the appeal. ‘They say: Marx was a scary guy, no one should follow him – everything that followed from his work went wrong. But now everyone thinks he is cool again; what is going on?’
For most students, internet memes are the gateway drug to Marxism. ‘Memes are the new propaganda’, says Turksema. Pogrzeba agrees. ‘They are really important. They create strong impressions that affect the way you see the world.’
Assistant professor of humanities Ryan Wittingslow jokes that if Marx was writing his manifesto today, he would do it on Twitter. Memes are ‘the pure distillation of an ethos’, he says. ‘Their effect is powerful: “I don’t really know what this means, but it speaks to my despair and I’m sure it’s true.”’
This is not the first time Marxism has been re-invigorated by bite-sized propaganda. The iconic posters from the 1968 student riots are essentially proto-memes. They captivate the imagination without ever making an argument.
Slider: memes in 1968 and 2018
But Master’s student Manuel Reyes thinks the absurdity of modern political life warrants an equally absurd response. Sassy Socialist Memes do this nicely; clever and ridiculous, they go down easy while making radical ideas mainstream. ‘I don’t think it really matters one way or another if people are serious about it. People might ride the wave and help us get somewhere.’
But many students are more earnest than cynical. Wittingslow calls them ‘Marxians’. Their intellectual inheritance is actually from later Marxists ‘who used critical theory to assess institutions and their power over certain populations. So these students are not actually Marxists, they are Marxians.’
Reyes doesn’t disagree. The late Marxians convinced him that capital isn’t just economic: ‘There is also social capital, cultural capital, political capital’, he says. Merely political revolutions always fail because they ignore this fact: ‘Even after you overthrow a governing body, you are still socialized into a system that values some people more than others.’
Tanner Crunelle, an exchange student from Charleston, South Carolina, says his own ‘Marxianism’ is mostly a political gesture. ‘It expresses a larger dissatisfaction with how certain interests have asserted dominance in our society.’ He uses Marx as a springboard for social justice.
‘I don’t think the revolution is, like, a violent uprising of the proletariat’, he says. ‘I hate violence.’ For Crunelle, ‘revolution’ simply means deconstructing power structures that do harm. He points to the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements as an example.
Professor Wittingslow agrees. ‘BLM and #MeToo are almost certainly functions of the general Marxian trend’, he says. ‘They are a response to all this pent-up rage and fury. Marxism makes a comeback when everyone is dissatisfied.’
But ‘real’ Marxist students reject merely social or cultural revolution. ‘It’s just liberalism with a Marx sticker on it’, says Pogrzeba.
‘Anything goes for the revolution nowadays’, Turksema agrees. ‘It’s become very vague. Even in governments at the RUG, people call everything a revolution. You want a radical response to things you don’t like? Call it a revolution.’
It’s just fucking rainbows and the joy of laboring together
But Turksema says Marx has nothing to do with identity politics or arguing about who is most oppressed in society. ‘People use Marx to support these claims, but Marx doesn’t actually support them at all.’
What Marx does support is historical materialism, he says: the theory that our behaviour, thoughts, and beliefs are determined by the economic structure of our society. It’s no use trying to change the culture. Under capitalism, exploitation and oppression are the culture. Only communist revolution can usher in a perfect, just society.
As Wittingslow wryly puts it, ‘once pure Marxism finally hits the scene, time stops. It’s just fucking rainbows and the joy of laboring together.’
Homme Wedman is a retired RUG lecturer and a retired radical Marxist. In the 1960s he joined a radical socialist youth movement in Groningen that didn’t play around. He still knows how to handle Molotov cocktails and build bombs. But Wedman eventually decided the Marxist cause wasn’t worth the violence inherent to the ideology.
I like his interpretation of history as a class struggle, but it’s false
Wedman understands better than anyone that ‘revolution’ holds powerful appeal. ‘The problem is that revolutionaries think of themselves as morally incorruptible. The new generation will always think they have the right analysis, and that matters more than anything else. That’s the illusion of belonging to a perfect revolutionary Avant Garde.’
He sighs. ‘I was the same, and I still have to correct myself. It’s so tempting to be on the good side.’
‘It doesn’t work’
But in the end, Wedman says, Marx simply wasn’t right. ‘I have kept my sympathy for Marx’s analysis of capitalism. I like his interpretation of history as a class struggle, but it’s false’, he shakes his head. ‘As a meme, it’s very successful: there are good and bad, exploited and exploiters. But in most cases where Marxism succeeded, the exploited became the exploiters. Angola, Mozambique, Cambodia, Russia: there, the communist elite became the new oligarchs.’
Marxist students argue that in those cases, the circumstances required for functioning communism were never present to begin with. So things went wrong; sometimes, very wrong. ‘It’s not like I’m uncritical of the USSR’, says Pogrzeba.
But that raises the obvious question: if your ideology requires pristine global political conditions in order to function, can it ever work?
FEB economist Robbert Maseland doubts we could ever ‘get it right’. ‘If you are fundamentally opposed to the kind of human rights abuses that occurred during the Soviet Union, then you can’t dismiss them as simply an accident of history’, he says.
Put a sticker on it
Communism is not just economics; it’s a plan about social relations. ‘If you think of communism as a plan, you’re going to have to coerce people. Plans need to be imposed; impositions need constraints.’ Maseland thinks those constraints will probably always run counter to basic human rights.
All the same, neither Maseland nor Wedman want RUG students to abandon Marx completely. The kids are right: the world they’ve inherited is screwed up. And Marx tells a really compelling story about how we got here.
But Wedman’s advice is measured: ‘Don’t think you can turn the whole world over. Be active in fields where there are opportunities for popular action. Don’t hoard your personal capital: make your academic training useful for other people and not just for yourself.’
In short: just be a liberal – and buy yourself a Marx sticker.