In the course of an undergraduate education here at the University of Michigan, there are just some things one is bound to encounter at some point or another. The Big House, the Shapiro Undergraduate Library, the block ‘M’; not to mention Zingerman’s, Hatcher Graduate Library and Angell Hall; these are the perennial names, spaces and places that make the U-experience what it is today.
If we look a little closer, however, there is another figure that tends to receive a considerable amount of attention here as well: His name is Karl Marx.
Marx was one of the most influential thinkers of the 19th century and one of the most important critics of the economic system of capitalism. At the center of the Marxian critique is the inverse relationship between the accumulation of capital and the misery of the working class, a critique that seems to have no less credence today than it did in Marx’s time. However, to reduce his impact to this particular effort would be a mistake. More than an ideological founder of communism, Marx’s writings touched practically every corner of social life.
During the University’s fall 2020 semester alone, courses in fields as diverse as cultural anthropology, classical civilization, French, German, political science, sociology, women and gender studies, and philosophy mention Marx in the description of advanced junior and senior-level courses. Any student majoring in these fields, as well as someone taking a course in these fields to meet requirements or for persona; curiosity, would be hard-pressed to avoid Marx or exploring Marxist thought in an academic setting.
In one sense, being exposed to radical new ideas, such as those presented by Marx, is just part of a “liberal” education; one in which, while studying a given subject, students also acquire critical thinking skills they can apply in a broad range of situations. Michigan students, so says the mission of the University, are expected to “challenge the present and enrich the future.” The LSA website propounds a similar belief about the task of thinking: “thinking doesn’t have to be elegant — it can be messy, it can shake up the status quo and it can set minds in motion. Evolution, after all, is rarely neat.”
Both the materialist notion of setting minds in motion and the call for students to “challenge” or “shake up” the preconceived ideas of their time express a commitment to social change of which Marx would have approved. I can only wonder whether the author of these words had next to them a copy of Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach,” originally written in the spring of 1845. In the “Theses,” Marx expressed his own frustrations with academic pursuits that lacked practical application, writing that “philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”
Let me not overstate my point, however. Marx is a controversial figure, and there is not a general acceptance of Marxist thought or practice in any academic institution. What is undeniable is the scope of his impact on the minds of the world in general, and the minds at the University in particular.
So, what is the impact of Marxism on the University? As with any ideology or body of intellectual contributions, the tangible effects are difficult to measure.
Nevertheless, there seems to be a conservative hypothesis that neo-Marxism runs rampant on college campuses across the United States, with harmful consequences. For example, a Fox News article laments the “lopsidedness of the social sciences,” referring to the high proportion of faculty who self-identify as Marxists, leftists, or simply, Democrats compared with conservatives. Similar articles repeat the refrain that now-defunct 20th century economic Marxism mutated into the cultural and literary theories of postmodernism, which they argue, are too often obsessed with identity politics and privilege. Riffing off a New York Times article on the mainstreaming of Marxist ideology, the Foundation for Economic Education accused Marxist ideas of fleeing to “English departments and other more abstract disciplines,” while still exercising a detrimental effect on the good sense of university graduates.
I think these and other accusations of Marxist indoctrination fundamentally miss the mark. Liberal arts colleges are not like churches; they do not preach a singular, unified gospel that worshippers are then expected to spread far and wide. While it is true that universities in the U.S. lean left, in my experience, professors have no interest in indoctrinating their students. Particularly in the humanities, it is hard to survive if you never question the intellectual authorities.
For example, in my phone conversation with Rackham student Deven Philbrick, he explained how his teaching was political in nature, but not in the normal sense of the word.
“In terms of who people vote for, what governments are in power, who is in those governments, things like that … nothing that I have in my teaching is very interested in those problems,” Philbrick said. “Although, certainly, I do teach sort of critical thinking skills that could then be applied to such problems, but that's not what I'm asking students to do in my classes.”
What, then, is expected of students in Philbrick’s courses? Part of the answer lies in the intellectual legacy of Marxism. When I asked Philbrick if he had drawn any particular ideas from his reading of Marx, he explained that the most important idea Marx instilled in his subsequent attitude was the need to “engage in ruthless criticism of all that exists.”
“In my teaching, I try to show my students that one of our tasks is to criticize in this academic sense of picking something apart, but that we want to do that to everything,” Philbrick said. “That is, to think radically, in the strict technical sense of radical; to get to the root of the things that we're talking about.”
The idea of “ruthless criticism of all that exists” comes from Marx’s 1843 letter to the German philosopher Arnold Ruge, in which he commends his countryman for leaving the stifling atmosphere of Germany for the relative freedom of Paris. In the letter, he argues that any improvement in the condition of mankind requires an inquiry of critical understanding into the prevailing conditions, an inquiry that the government in Germany allegedly suppressed. He writes that, in contrast, “we do not dogmatically anticipate the world, but only want to find the new world through criticism of the old one.”
Philbrick’s use of the word, “radical” reinforces the pedagogical goal of ruthless criticism. “Radical” comes from the latin radix, meaning “root.” To get to the root of something is certainly a laudable goal, an “end” in the sense that after that you can go no further after achieving the root. Today, however, there is a stigma attached in the U.S. to radicalism and radical political movements. The criticism emanates from the right and center of the political spectrum, seeking to ideologically separate the so-called radical from the mainstream. However, the poetic meaning of this word should give us pause; is it not the goal of any problem-solver to get to the root of their problem? And would society not be improved if more people thought critically, or “radically” in this way?
So, if there is a fundamental shared intellectual goal between Marxism and the University, it is to engage in “ruthless criticism of all that exists,” or, in the slightly watered-down version, to “challenge the present and enrich the future.”
However, in drawing a comparison between these two general practical commitments, it is not my intention to hide the more “hardcore” versions of Marxism that exist on our campus.
While the University as an institution does not explicitly endorse any political affiliations, there is no shortage of students, faculty or organizations that support the continued study of Marx and different aspects of Marxist thought.
In fact, a Michigan student who is curious about Marxism would probably do well to start asking their peers; some of them already hold a lot of knowledge on the subject.
I talked over the phone with LSA sophomore Garret Ashlock, who started reading Marx while in high school. He explained how Marx was the first thinker with whom he seriously engaged, opening his eyes to brand new ideas and ways of thinking.
“Especially for a period there, I tried to read all the Marx that I could,” Ashlock said. “That included, of course, ‘The Communist Manifesto,’ but also ‘Capital,’ the ‘Grundrisse,’ ‘The German Ideology,’ even a lot of his earlier texts I was very much interested in.”
Though the University consistently offers courses related to Marx, Ashlock has conducted much of this intellectual exploration outside of school. The sheer volume of Marx’s writings requires this level of self-study, especially if Marxist ideas constitute only part of the syllabus, as is the case in most courses. That being said, Ashlock also touted the social aspect of reading Marx along with an interested group of peers.
“I certainly have a lot of people that I talk to about Marxism,” Ashlock explained. “You know, certain circles or social groups where we’ll read secondary texts and share comments on them.”
Ashlock admitted that a lot of the contemporary conversation on Marx errs more on the side of literary and cultural theory, though he disputed the claim that Marx’s critique of capitalism had been vanquished with the fall of the Soviet Union. There are, he argued, some notable Marxist political economists out there today, and plenty of reasons to study Marxist economics in the 21st century.
To learn more about this, I spoke with Rackham student Alejo Stark, coordinator of the Marxisms collective at the University. The collective, composed mostly of graduate students and professors, was formed in 2011 in the wake of the 2007-08 financial crisis. With the collapse of the global economy due to intertwined speculative bubbles in housing and banking, many University students turned to Marx as an explicitly political and economic thinker.
“Especially after the 2008 crisis, there has been a return to Marx not out of mere nostalgia but because there's something about what Marx wrote — even in the late 19th century — that speaks to the ways in which capitalism still functions today and to its recurring crisis,” Stark argued.
Stark went on to explain how the reading group serves the need for a continued study of Marx’s writings. Over the summer, for instance, there was a group of students who read “Capital, Volume I,” and another who read “Capital, Volume II,” both of which are considerable achievements given the length and complexity of those works. Within the group, however, one should not expect to find the kind of oversimplified rift between cultural and economic Marxism proffered by the right, a distinction that Stark called a “caricature.”
“That’s just not a division we are really interested in,” Stark explained. “We think that Marx allows you to do both of those things, allows you to think about how the political, cultural and ideological elements are determined by the economic, and how the economic is also determined by the cultural.”
Stark also emphasized the local aspects of Marxism that make it a unique tradition of thought for Michiganders. Studying Marx here at the University, he argued, one benefits from a rich history of radical activism in Ann Arbor as well as Detroit.
“Detroit itself has a long history within the Marxist tradition,” Stark said. “Grace Lee Boggs, for example, was very important for this strain of Marxism; (C.L.R.) James, who wrote ‘The Black Jacobins,’ was in Detroit for a time, as was James Boggs, Grace Boggs’s partner, an auto worker and thinker who was crucial to the development of local Marxism.”
I had not heard of these names, but Stark certainly did impress upon me that the Marxist tradition had a strong foothold in the area. In addition, there are course offerings here that represent the global reach of Marxism. The Romance Languages and Literatures department, for example, regularly hosts courses in comparative Marxism, focusing on the diverse interpretations and permutations of Marxism from Latin America and Africa, as well as through the lenses of feminist and queer theory. We also have here one of the foremost professors of the history of the Soviet Union, Ronald G. Suny, teaching here at the University
So, contrary to the conservative thesis of academic mutation, it seems that Marxism’s staying power lies in the broad, synthetic reach of its core ideas and commitments. Stark implored me to further consider the international aspect of Marx and Marxism.
“Marxism isn't just the Western Marxism that the alt-right talks about,” Stark explained. “There is a rich tradition in Latin America, in Africa and in non-European countries that sometimes gets forgotten.”
But, in the context of the modern academy, nothing can be forgotten if it is never learned.
If anywhere, the places where I felt least encouraged to criticize authority were in economics courses at the University.
Part of the reason for this is because, when you start out, you first need to fine-tune your “economic intuition,” which ironically is not immediately intuitive for many students. Internalizing the theory and the mathematical models that undergird it is a matter of survival in these courses; the assumptions are meant to be applied and worked through to their logical conclusion, not questioned at their root.
Now, by itself, there is nothing wrong with familiarizing yourself with the main contributions of economics or its set of analytical tools. In fact, any criticism of the subject requires that you know it sufficiently well to critique it from a position of intellectual credibility. The result is a division of labor between the hard, technical economic sciences and the comparatively messy, but more reflective sociological fields.
In my view, it is fitting that the gargantuan Ross School of Business is mere steps away from Lorch Hall, home of the Department of Economics. Ross BBA students are required to take Econ 101 in their first year, a course in which some of the same theoretical assumptions on the role of self-interest and capitalistic competition that Marx critiqued in “Capital” have remained largely intact. Overall, the curricula are set up such that the prerequisites for admission to Ross as a University transfer and the prerequisites to declare an economics major in LSA are equivalent.
A short walk from these buildings is the LSA building, which houses the Department of Sociology. Sociologists, unlike most economists, would stress in their academic work that economic behavior is “socially embedded,” meaning that economic decisions about production, consumption, investment, etc., take place within society, and that social structures and norms influence these decisions in significant ways.
Despite their close geographic proximity, however, there is no expectation that students from the major corners of economic analysis will engage with each other at the undergraduate level. There is no economics requirement for sociology majors, nor a sociology requirement for econ majors. Especially within the Department of Economics at the University, heterodox perspectives, such as that of Marxian economics, do not figure into the curriculum. It is perfectly possible for students and faculty in these fields to stay within their chosen silos and never venture to the “other side.”
In my early years in college, I took introductory micro and macroeconomics, as well as the intermediate microeconomics course. Mathematics is the primary tool of economics past the introductory level whereupon economists build mathematical models based on fundamental assumptions about human behavior. The virtue of economics, in my view, is that it proceeds from some simple ideas about rational, self-interested agents to derive a set of elegant theoretical conclusions. Similarly, the field of economic statistics provides powerful tools to analyze empirical data; the modern economic system would collapse if we lost access to the body of knowledge in economics departments across the world.
Nevertheless, there is certainly a lot to be gained when the mathematically rigorous world of theoretical economics meets the complexities of the actually existing social world. In my Zoom conversation with Greta Krippner, a professor in the Department of Sociology who has written numerous studies on the subject of economic sociology, I asked her about the ideological tensions between her and her colleagues in the Sociology Department and their friends in Lorch Hall and the Business School. To my surprise, however, she informed me that she hosts students from the business school in her graduate course on sociological theory on a regular basis.
"At least in this business school, there are some students who are reading Marx,” Krippner wrote to me in an email after the interview. “I don't know if they are representative of the broader community, but I have been teaching this class at the graduate level for over 10 years and there has been a steady flow of students from the business school who are interested in Marx.”
In terms of her critical engagement with economic phenomena, Krippner and I discussed her examination of the historical roots and evolution of financial capitalism in the United States, recently set out in her book “Capitalizing on Crisis: The Political Origins of the Rise of Finance.” Though it is important to note that the work is not substantively Marxist in its methodology or conclusions, Krippner acknowledged and explained how Marxian political economy informed her perspective on the 2008 financial crisis and the contingent economic, social and political developments that brought it to fruition.
“The basic framework I'm laying out is, I suppose, a loosely Marxian one,” Krippner wrote. “It's not dogmatic, or orthodox Marxism by any means, but the notion that there are contradictions built into capitalism that ultimately make this system prone to recurrent crises is a kind of approach that would be broadly associated with Marxism (among other critical approaches).”
Krippner further emphasized her desire to be methodologically eclectic in her scholarly work, drawing from a wide range of theoretical and empirical approaches. Though not explicitly so, this attitude toward investigating social problems recalls Marx's imperative to eskew dogma and engage in a kind of critique that does not presuppose its conclusions. Some will find this ironic given other, more deterministic interpretations of Marxist thought, though it is enough here to note that there are scholars who value the Marxist spirit of inquiry, if not its conclusions.
For those who approach the study of society from this type of angle, the process of uncovering contradictions built into social and economic systems is the lifeblood of social critique. And while we need not agree with Marx that the internal tensions of capitalism as a historical stage will lead necessarily to the emergence of socialism, opponents of Marxism must contend with this fact: as long as capitalism remains the dominant structure of our economy, Marxists will be there to critique it.
Moreover, the many forms of Marxism will continue to have a home here at the University of Michigan. As one of the nation’s leading engines of intellectual inquiry and proving grounds for radical and leftist thought, Marx, Maize and Blue form a trinity which is likely to persist for years to come.
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