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How to Be a Marxist

Blending Kierkegaard with Hegel and Marx, Martin Hägglund’s This Life offers a new generation of socialists a guide to living a life of radical political commitment.

"Lisbon and the Tagus, Sunday" (1935), by Carlos Botelho

There is a paradox about the inroads socialism has made in American political discourse in the past five years, thanks to Senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential candidacies. Not in many lifetimes, and perhaps never, has socialism figured so prominently in American political rhetoric. But theories of what socialism really means are hard to come by — especially when its advocates claim the mantle of Karl Marx, the granddaddy of all socialist thinkers, as so many socialist intellectuals and movements did for a century and more.

The deaths in succession of Moishe Postone in March 2018 and Erik Olin Wright in January 2019 were symbolic in this sense. Of the generation of great intellectuals whose 1960s experiences led them to adopt a lifework of recovering and reimagining Marxism, next to nobody is left. The last of the Mohicans, perhaps, is Perry Anderson, industrious and loquacious as ever — but many years ago he moved on to writing country studies and intellectual profiles. The New Left Review that he founded proceeds in his spirit without the raucous theoretical disputation it once hosted in the 1970s. Jacobin, an extraordinary thing for all American socialists, millennial and not, tends to avoid descent into in-house argument about the deepest premises of its political agenda. Due to its work, and the dereliction of the world, many young Americans have lost trust in their elders who built a rotten society, and dream of its replacement. Even as practical ideas teem, however, the tradition of “Marxist theory” seems dead and buried.

Should it stay that way? After all, Karl Marx himself counseled, in the most memorable of his Theses on Feuerbach, that philosophers had only ever interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it. The insistent orientation toward policy and practical matters among today’s American socialists, for whom the Green New Deal is more important to fight about than the Grundrisse, is worthwhile. Yet for those who have studied in the history of socialism in general and Marxism in particular, this orientation is likely to reach limits, especially when big choices beckon. What does one mean when one says one is a socialist? If you are a Marxist, what kind? What is capitalism, and what is the socialist alternative?

There are going to be many answers to those questions in the coming years, and rediscoveries of old ones — not least to save the Left from going down various cul-de-sacs again. But my brilliant colleague Martin Hägglund’s new bookThis Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, is an excellent place to start for those who want to energize the theory of socialism, or even build their own theory of a Marxist variant of it. Especially since, like Postone, Hägglund insists on grounding his Marxism in a broader tradition, and because his version of it is so exciting.

Hägglund starts his book with an accessible and moving statement of an existentialist theory of human commitment. In doing so, he affiliates with a style of philosophy that, through twentieth-century existentialism, stretches back to the German idealist philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, and from there back into Christian traditions that have provided the secret premises of many self-styled secularisms. Whether Hägglund’s approach turns out to be “spilt religion” (as T. E. Hulme memorably called the Romantic movement) is less interesting than how powerfully it should feel to everyone living in our post-Christian age; so is the question whether Hägglund’s defense of “secular faith” is overly hostile to what religious believers consider the real thing (like Marx’s own notorious allergy to the opiate of the masses).

For Hägglund, human beings are defined by their finitude and mortality — the transience of our lives and the evanescence, sooner or later, of anything meaningful to us. These facts are impossible to overcome; indeed, those who try to do so illustrate both the inevitable struggle to find meaning in this world — a struggle that finite beings must embrace — and the religious lures besetting the path of anyone who hopes to accept the finite conditions of existence. Some of the most remarkable moments of This Life consist in Hägglund’s engagement with canonical religious thinkers, from St Augustine to Søren Kierkegaard, to build his approach. Hägglund even provocatively interprets Martin Luther King Jr as an advocate of his vision of secular life, in spite of the Christian trappings of the reverend’s own biography.

Yet Hägglund’s book is not merely a restatement of existentialism. No individual, he adds, is given her meaning by exercise of choice, even within the limits of mortal life. Far from all-powerful gods, human beings are condemned to live out their freedom within constraints. Indeed, freedom is embodied and situated — and thus our finitude, Hägglund insists, is essentially conditioned by our natural constitution and social interdependence. It is here that Karl Marx enters This Life, about halfway through, since Hägglund thinks he was the greatest theorist of both features of our existence.

Animals, like human beings, possess what Hägglund dubs “natural freedom” — they live out their days with lots of room for maneuver about what to eat, when to sleep, and how to maintain themselves. For Hägglund, however, this type of freedom involves the pursuit of necessary ends. And humans have spiritual freedom too: they can cook food as an art and not merely for the sake of required sustenance, sleep with someone they choose to love and not merely as a biological imperative, and maintain their bodies to keep themselves alive for optional ends by which they have defined themselves. Marx’s philosophy, Hägglund arrestingly contends, is about how our natural constitution and social interdependence under conditions of “capitalism” are far more coercive than necessary.

Many people have considered Marx a “materialist,” or a thinker about the natural “species-being” of humanity, without doing justice to his debts to Hegel and his ultimate interest in aiming for the conditions of maximum freedom for contingent and finite beings with a natural constitution who require social interdependence. Hägglund therefore starts with Postone — who revolutionized our understanding of Marx beyond any grim materialism — and does him one better. Drawing on Marx’s Grundrisse in his classic Time, Labor, and Social Domination (1993), Postone had insisted that the distinctive feature of capitalism is that it establishes use of our potentially free time through wage labor as the social measure of value. But where Postone proposed that Marxists give up a world in which there is a standard measure of value — a capitalist notion — Hägglund counters that humans leading spiritual lives can never get away from value and the ultimate questions anyone must ask: what work should I do? How should I spend my finite time?

Hägglund is nonetheless a Marxist (indeed the Grundrisse is also his central text) because he proposes that Marx rightly understood that we have created a form of dealing with natural constitution and erected a form of social interdependence that does not let people ask this question. Instead, value under capitalism is defined in terms of wage labor. A world beyond capitalism would abandon this definition so as to organize social interdependence around the value of spending our time on chosen activities.

Hägglund acknowledges that even today, within zones of commitment and control, some can opt out of capitalism to the extent that they can take steps to maximize their free time — buying a vacuum cleaner to avoid wasting labor rather than in order to increase their salaries. But no one, and certainly not the wretched of the earth, can simply opt out of a system that defines value in terms of wage labor and is oriented toward maximizing not each individual’s free time to spend as she pleases but rather to accumulating ever more capital.

While Hägglund’s grounding of Marxism in a much broader “secular” theory of the conditions of our finite lives was anticipated by prior Hegelian and existentialist Marxists over the years, This Life deserves to stimulate numerous controversies in the years to come. His book poses the essential question to all self-styled Marxists: what do you mean when you say you are one? Hägglund’s “Marxist” commitment to a theory of value, and its revaluation beyond capitalism, explicitly or implicitly leads him to reject the lion’s share of historical forms of Marxism. Indeed, it is remarkable how little of what most people have thought Marxist theory was about make it into Hägglund’s insightful attempt to restart it for our time.

Most notably, as Hägglund argues, those who believe that Marx advanced a “labor theory of value,” rather than a theory about the role of wage labor in the establishment of value in capitalist societies, have it wrong.

More broadly, against most interpretations of Marx (and the prevalent intellectual mood of our time), Hägglund is proposing a non-naturalist account of Marxist socialism. He refuses thinking about our purposes in terms that would reduce human beings to one more kind of animal. Following Hegel, Hägglund works with a dichotomy between nature and “spirit” that invests humanity with different (though, Hägglund insists, not higher) potential: precisely the possibility to live freely on the foundation of their finitude. It is perhaps here that Hägglund’s analysis turns out to be less secular than he might perceive, since his theory is yet another vision of man as divided between nature and spirit — homo duplex — which was originally a Christian theme before it became the basis for many this-worldly theories of emancipation.

Then there is the enormously popular view that Marxism is, most of all, a theory of history. For Hägglund, it is a theory of freedom in time, but not best understood as a predictive (let alone scientific) theory of how society evolves through stages. Hägglund acknowledges that “Marx has often been read as advocating … the overcoming of capitalism as historically inevitable.” And I would add that, through the haze of Friedrich Engels’s highly naturalistic reinterpretation of his friend’s work, it has quite understandably been difficult to perceive how Marx’s writings might serve another project (not least since the Grundrisse was not published until the middle of the twentieth century, even later than some other parts of Marx’s “humanist” writings).

Indeed, the sheer number of pages of Marx’s Capital fed the notion that capitalism would collapse as its contradictions accumulated. Still, if you read him carefully, Hägglund also takes a great deal from Marxism as a theory of capitalism understood as a integrated system of production, distribution, and exchange with its own imperatives and tendencies. The point is that none of it adds up to a predictive approach to the fate of that system that many have found in Capital and Marx’s other writings.

And finally, there is Hägglund’s proposal that Marxists can ditch communism — which in any event Marx described vaguely — in favor of democracy. It is not totally clear what Hägglund means by democracy, something which neither Marx himself nor many Marxists have chosen to pursue theoretically. Hägglund’s main goal, instead, is to define “democratic socialism” as a political goal.

No more than liberals like John Rawls, Hägglund insists, can such socialists limit themselves to calling for policies designed to achieve fair distribution of the good things in life. Setting minimums through universal basic incomes or maximums on wealth through aggressive taxation could only make sense as means to other ends. Socialists, Hägglund insists, must aim to revalue how we socially define value as the increase of free time.

Not that labor would ever end or that democracies could never impose labor on their citizens. But work would become mostly a matter of choice, and society would require unchosen work only for the sake of maximizing free time. It turns out that no amount of Green New Deal can save you the trouble of reading the Grundrisse — but the one could serve the program first discerned in the other.

Those discontented with the way things are going but not sure that any form of Marxism is likely to turn up answers — especially when understood as a theory of capitalism’s systemic dynamics rather than as about social value — will still welcome the conversation Hägglund is hoping to start.

After all, liberals otherwise interested in exploring the far reaches of their own tradition for the sake of emancipation have been morose ever since they lived through the apparent collapse of Marxism at the end of the Cold War — even when they had helped bring it about. “The idea of another society has become almost impossible to conceive,” the liberal historian François Furet opined in 1995 in his last book, somewhat mournfully. “No one in the world today is offering any advice on the subject or even trying to formulate a new concept. Here we are, condemned to live the world as it is.” Towards the end of his life, Furet’s friend Tony Judt also regretted the implosion of Marxist theory — not because he would ever have contributed to it, but because he recognized how generative it had been for so much modern self-orientation and rival philosophical ventures.

As for Marxist socialists, they have a lot to gain from taking up Hägglund’s invitation to think through their ultimate premises. “To renounce it,” French existentialist Maurice Merleau-Ponty remarked of his Marxism, “is to dig the grave of reason in history.”

It is still unclear whether Merleau-Ponty was right — especially since he went on to renounce it himself. But one of Hägglund’s most impressive achievements is to have brought to a new public agitating for an embrace of freedom in our lives a bold project of exhuming an identifiably Marxist intellectual enterprise. At stake are the beliefs we all must share that humanity is one, the social life it has created for itself is an affront to its destiny, and — theoretically as well as practically — it has a world to win.