Sunday, February 23, 2014

Marx as Public Intellectual

A recent flurry of opinion pieces and blog entries, some accompanied by the State of the Union, spent significant amounts of time lamenting the declining role of the public intellectual this past month. Accusations of uselessness floated around popular discourse with greater intensity. Kristof in a recent New York Times op-ed piece accused
A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away. (Kristof, 2014)
While I think there are a number of assertion made by Kristof that bare a good academic shredding, I am loathe to admit a modicum of truth in his analysis. That is to say, as he continues with his polemic he notes how academics associated with universities are  often not credited for appeals and writings to the masses. Marxist analysis of why this is the case have already been posted on this blog. As much as Marx’s content is illustrative and gives tools for criticism, I think his form also sheds light on the role and function of a public intellectual.  Marx’s role as a public intellectual is due in large part to his ability and willingness to translate and communicate through both writings and speeches. My blog entry intends to highlight some other stylistic differences between Marx’s appeal to the wider masses with his more abstract ruminations in Capital Vol. I.
Consider an appeal by Marx to the wider public where he explains among other things his reflections on wages and currency.  Seeking to educate the audience about the changeability of prices, Marx notes , “There is nothing necessary in it. It may be changed by the will of the capitalist, and may, therefore, be changed against his will,” (Marx, 1865).  Where Capital Vol. I seeks an immanent critique of political economists and theoreticians. In his appeal to the the wider public, Marx shifts gears  and chooses a critic (Weston) closer in proximity for his intended audience.  In this case, it is not a simple dumbing down of either his method or content. Instead, Marx engages similar ideas and content only recasting as opponent. A necessary concession considering familiarity empowers  critiques of this nature.
Marx’s use of metaphor in his Value, Price, and Profit speech similarly helps convey complicated ideas and concepts.  Consider the following,
Citizen Weston, on his part, has forgotten that the bowl from which the workmen eat is filled with the whole produce of national labour, and that what prevents them from fetching more out of it neither the narrowness of the bowl nor the scantiness of its contents, but only the smallness of their spoons. (Marx, 1865)
Within this metaphor of the workman and his spoon, Marx enfolded a critique  Weston, asserted the changeability of the status quo, and potential agency of the working men.  Certainly, Capital Volume I  is not void of metaphors. However, it speaks to Marx’s credit as a rhetor that complicated material is communicated in a way that his audience may internalize. Throughout the rest of the speech, Marx takes care in his history lesson and the ledge style of writing common in Capital Volume I is not lost.  We might say instead, the severity  of such long passages  are whittled down in this specific appeal.
In his La Liberté Speech(1872), Marx employees a powerful rhetorical device, the assimilationist ‘we.’ It is not that Marx avoids the word completely in Capital Vol. 1, but the increase in frequency and incorporation of the audience with himself into a single unit is more obvious and unique in the public speeches. Careers have been made discussing the rhetorical and persuasive import of the assimilationist ‘we.’ For now, it is enough to contrast this with Marx’s other more erudite elaborations.
In the end, the material conditions and realities of most academics to their schools prevents such ardent solidarity with more radical forces.  For those who labor in ivory towers with only a promise of tenure questions of radicalism are always relevant. Marx himself suffered conditions of poverty. Public intellectualism is a risky game. But, for those brave enough to pursue such a path, Marx’s stylistic variation provides some guidance.


Marx, ‘Value, Price, and Profit’ (1865)

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