This piece by Michelle Goldberg is the first I’ve seen to notice the Marxist renaissance among young intellectuals, and does a great job telling the story without an overly skeptical frame. I think the renaissance was already under way before 2008, but the combination of the crash and the failure of Obama was, as Goldberg and her subjects argue, crucial to the radicalization of a generation.

The thing that struck me most came at the end, in this quote from Benjamin Kunkel (co-founder of n+1 and now self-described “Marxist public intellectual”):

It might seem grandiose, but it also suggests a cultural optimism that’s otherwise in short supply these days. “It was easy to feel in the nineties that everyone knew what was going to happen,” says Kunkel. “Many people thought it already has happened, and now we just wait for McDonalds franchises and liberalized capital markets to spread across the globe.” Now, looking at the Marxist resurgence among young people, he says, “It’s very exciting to me. In a strange way, it also makes me want to live a long time, knock on wood, because I’d like to see what’s going to happen.”

Whitehouse Down Trailer 2

It’s good to hear someone else express the optimism, however dark, that I feel. I think a lot of people feel this way: there’s a sense that the inability of a twice-resoundingly-elected liberal president to fix even the smallest of our structural problems has to mark some kind of end of the fantasy of liberal reformism. Radicals have always accused liberalism of never being able to deliver on its promises of reform—of always insisting we accept the pain without ever delivering the payoff. The Obama years have excruciatingly illustrated that critique for a new generation of politically-engaged young people. It’s always compromise, capitulation, and cuts. When the president finally digs in and refuses to accept more cuts, the entire government comes to a screeching halt. The fact that the “safe,” establishment-endorsed political positions are delivering nothing but chaos and catastrophe means we all have less and less to lose to by embracing more radical ones.

Though the establishment political world goes on as usual following the play-by-play from the Hill, you can feel the futility seeping into even the best liberals. Ezra Klein on this Slate podcast is a great example: he hammers home the fact that there is no solution to this crisis—that none of the usual strategies from the liberal playbook will be able to fix it. His tone is heavy; he truly has no idea what to say about the future of this system, how to talk about it like it even has a future. True, maybe people like Klein and Chris Hayes just think a few structural fixes to American democracy would fix the chronic dysfunction, but neither one of them has any delusions that those structural fixes are possible. The pessimism about what liberalism is capable of has to be at its lowest point in my lifetime—despite, incredibly, two consecutive elections of the most liberal president the U.S. has had since Kennedy. The problem is obviously not just a few crazy right-wingers who put together a movement and took the perfectly-fine American system hostage; it’s something that’s always been there, pushed to its breaking point.

If there were any lessons the new radicals learned from 2008, it was that there will have to be a breaking point—that staging the break is a crucial part of any acceptable solution. It’s obvious in this crisis, as in previous ones, that some sort of traditional give-and-take deal to keep the status quo afloat would be almost as bad as a default, in much the same way that a solution like TARP papered over the abyss and saved the banks from any real reckoning. We’re at a point where government is in such a state of meltdown that crisis is the only way action happens—the only portal to a different future. There isn’t going to be any incremental fix here; it will either be barbarism or something else. The “something” that happens could always be worse, but there’s also the significant possibility it could be better.

That’s what I think Kunkel is getting at, and why I also feel optimistic. Of course, there is the possibility—even the likelihood—that temporary status-quo deals will keep the state hobbling along, the way the rest of us are hobbling along under catastrophic unemployment and wage stagnation. That’s what Klein and other liberals clearly feel—that crisis and misery are the “new normal.” But the ongoing discreditation of liberal governance is good news for socialism. If severe, intense pain is what it takes to finally wipe out all the accumulated platitudes of the Cold War and the Reagan years—well, we’re all increasingly aware that severe, intense pain is what we’re going to get anyway. And thanks to the crisis, a new generation of young intellectuals will be ready to meet the chaos with bigger ideas than have been allowed in American discourse in a long time. How can we not at least hope that something better will be on the other side?

About The Author

David Sessions

David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol, and is currently a doctoral student in modern European history at Boston College. His writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Jacobin, Slate and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.

  • http://www.westernjournalism.com/author/ac/ AJ Castellitto

    So it’s kiss the Constitution goodbye, I guess….. we’ve been ignoring it for some time now, anyhow.

    • http://www.thedailybeast.com/contributors/david-sessions.html David Sessions

      Revising constitutions is a normal part of democracy. What’s unusual is treating a constitution like it’s an immutable sacred text.

  • http://sexmahoney.com Sex Mahoney

    Jack Straw should never negotiate with King Richard.

  • Patrick Sawyer

    David,

    With respect, the idealism of Marxism works (on paper anyway) at trendy coffee shops and graduate school seminars at the hippest and best liberal arts colleges and universities. But that’s about it. In the real world, human nature gets in the way, and the pregnancy of Marxist idealism produces the baby of totalitarianism every time.

    Do you think I’m cynical (or perhaps ignorant)? Can you show me any active government or any government in history where you feel your hopes and perspectives have been legitimately approximated? Thanks.

    • David Sessions

      I think a couple of things: a) While I don’t think you’re doing so in bad faith, you’re speaking in such sweeping terms (Marxism! Totalitarianism!) that I don’t think your objection can amount to anything more than a slogan or a prejudice. b) I think you’re looking for the wrong thing. I don’t endorse “Marxism” (as if it that were some univocal doctrine) as a specific program for the repetition of some past effort. The future we institute might not be “Marxist” (whatever that means), and it certainly won’t be a repetition of some previous communist project. The Marxist critique is a diagnosis, a way to start thinking about what the future might be, but it’s far from a doctrinal prescription of what that future will or must be.

      There doesn’t have to be a practical example of what my “hopes and perspectives” will be; my “hopes and perspectives” are not a political theory, and if they were there almost certainly wouldn’t be a historical example of them brought to fruition. My political goal is to achieve something better than what we have, and it’s obvious that can’t be accomplished by simply reforming what we have. So that’s where we start, and the rest remains to be thought. That’s why I’m glad there’s a growing number of people out there doing that kind of thinking.

      • Patrick Sawyer

        David,

        Your post highlights and finds encouraging the “Marxist renaissance among young intellectuals”. I routinely intersect with naïve and ignorant (not being pejorative) undergrads, relatively sharp graduate students, and seasoned and weathered professors who are of this stripe.

        While there can be nice, even slightly compelling, discussion around what amounts to a utopian theoretical hope for the future that sees a resurgence of certain Marxist ideals, when it comes to real world application of these ideals the discussion often breaks down and comes to a halt. Things get messy and less certain when it comes to the nuts and bolts of how these ideals would effectively be instituted, implemented and enforced in society.

        For me, the reality of our sinful natures within us as human beings will insure that the type of world that some of my Marxist friends hope for will never come about. Another pathway must be chosen.

        In your response to me you said,”The Marxist critique is a diagnosis, a way to start thinking about what the future might be, but it’s far from a doctrinal prescription of what that future will or must be” Fair enough. I’m not sure I came away with that in your original post, but fair enough.

        Thanks for the engagement.

  • http://www.westernjournalism.com/author/ac/ AJ Castellitto

    No work disincentives, personal responsibility, remain faithful to your family….

    Close the loop holes & flat tax – problems solved

    Socialism & Elitism will never work

  • http://www.westernjournalism.com/author/ac/ AJ Castellitto

    …. and small fed gov but probably way too late for any of this :(

  • Hammond Sessions

    I may be a little on the pessimistic side, but I fear that we will reinstate the ignorance of the past. I fear a possible civil war between opposing sides for and against the constitution we now have in place. If so, it will appear as though those who love the freedoms of the constitution and what it has stood for will be construed as radical right wingers who only care about their guns.
    I wish I could be an optimist about this. But I feel strongly that it is coming, and it will soon if the current regime keeps pushing these corrupt and flailing policies on us as a people.
    Reagan was in most liberals eyes, a failure. If that is the case, we need to make up a new term for failure, and it’s target would be this present administration. Reagan loved this people. I do not and will not believe this present President cares one bit for any of us. And its a sad day in my eyes that I would have to state that fact.

    • http://www.westernjournalism.com/author/ac/ AJ Castellitto

      Hello Hammond, it’s as bad if not worse then you say – what we know & what we don’t know about this man & those who put him where he is reveals it to be so – I believe David has compassion for humanity despite my dispute his denial of certain realities – this guy running the show has no heart, soul or conscience

      • http://www.westernjournalism.com/author/ac/ AJ Castellitto

        I meant to write ‘despite his denial of certain realities’

        TheGOP is not much better.

        The American people who voted for him & his healthcare believed in good faith that he meant what he promised.

        We have no voice outside a few tea party/Ron Paul types

  • JM

    Obama got through a health plan that’s basically what liberals have wanted since the 1940s and just hasn’t kicked in yet. Not sure how that’s not a huge change even if he gets nothing else done for the rest of his presidency.

    Also your previous posts on the flaws of Communism:Nazism analogies, while I agree in general, don’t really work when you try to cast the former as having no intrinsically violent/suppressive component. False consciousness provides all the intellectual justification for that.

  • George Waite

    A religious website is about the most useless place for this discussion; religion is a complete waste of time, energy and money.
    Whatever does come, I hope it takes away all tax privileges and housing allowances from religion.

    • http://www.westernjournalism.com/author/ac/ AJ Castellitto

      ‘Whatever does come, I hope it takes away all tax privileges and housing allowances from religion.’

      That seems to be the ‘radical’ direction we’re headed. However, this is not merely a religious problem but a humanity problem – I have to thanks today’s lawless & Godless Democratic Party/Admin for vividly remind us of this truth

    • JM

      and build Temples of Reason duude

      • http://www.westernjournalism.com/author/ac/ AJ Castellitto

        Click name & keep scrolling to find reason, wisdom & skepticism

  • http://www.westernjournalism.com/author/ac/ AJ Castellitto

    Whether ones claims themselves to be liberal, Marxist, progressive, or radical I just ask they not pretend to be not close-minded, biased, and intolerant as they deem others to be – that is merely laziness, arrogance & ignorance – you can’t claim the moral high-ground if your not even doing your homework and merely consume what you are spoon-fed & tickles your fancy. At least us ‘teabaggers’ believe we follow the inspired instruction of an almighty & infallible Deity – God Bless,

    http://www.westernjournalism.com/yale-study-tea-partiers-rank-highest-scientific-knowledge/

    • JM

      so is the Tea Party the religious right, the Ron Paul ultralibertarian right, or an odd mix of both? I get confused

      • http://www.westernjournalism.com/author/ac/ AJ Castellitto

        Lovers of individual rights, faith & free thought grounded in personal responsibility & time tested traditional values

        Liberals – not so much.

        • http://www.westernjournalism.com/author/ac/ AJ Castellitto

          The Constitution – faith, family & freedom – progress is good but not if you need to sacrifice any of these

  • http://www.westernjournalism.com/author/ac/ AJ Castellitto

    David seems like ‘Manifesto’ & ‘Rules for Rads’ is ‘progressing’ quite nicely. Your silence reveals either ignorance or complicity …..

    Look at these tea party radicals trying to pin the blame on the POTUS & imply the shutdown was a pre-planned political move to manipulate at the expense of the people – an ex-Newsweek writer/NY Post no less – these people have no shame….
    http://nypost.com/2013/10/15/obama-adviser-orchestrated-shutdown-showdown-author/

  • http://www.westernjournalism.com/author/ac/ AJ Castellitto

    Next ploy, use immigration reform to paint Tea Party Repubs as racist radicals & take Congress in 2014 – will you take the bait?

    • David Sessions

      AJ – pardon my rudeness, but shut up. Comment on the topic of the post a reasonable number of times (ie, way less than usual) and then shut the hell up.

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