Greatest Marxists Poll

Chris Bertram has used my entries for Josh Cherniss’s Five Greatest Marxists poll to start a discussion over at Crooked Timber.

Habermas is the choice that has raised the biggest eyebrows: I go for Habermas, as my favourite Habermas book is Legitimation Crisis, which I’m happy to describe as a piece of Marxist theory, and an elegant and imaginative one at that. (I’m not sure that it gets it right, but in my world that’s not the chief importance of good theory: good theory raises good questions to talk about, and presents old problems in new and interesting ways, and Legitimation Crisis does that in abundance.) Yes, Habermas has become something of a bourgeois liberal over the subsequent quarter-century, and I wouldn’t characterise his recent work as Marxist, but I wouldn’t want to use that as a criterion for striking someone from the lists (as it were) of a competition like this one: G. A. Cohen (who has also navigated a passage from analytical Marxism to left-liberalism of a sort) would also fall victim, in that case, as would, no doubt, many other interesting scholars and activists. So Habermas still fits inside my Big Tent Marxism.

(I never worry too much about the precise boundaries of “Marxism”, but that may be because while I’ve been interested in and often strongly sympathetic to Marxist writings since I was 14 or so, I’ve never belonged to a Marxist political organisation or identified as Marxist — though I think quite a few of the people I know identify me as a Marxist, and I don’t really mind if they do.)

Chris suggested that a verdict of greatness should be passed in favour of those “who most creatively developed and applied Marx�s own methods of social analysis” (rather than “literary scribblers and misplaced German romantics”), but I’d say that that’s just what Adorno did, with his writings on music in particular. (And I will confess here to being a something of a sucker for tragic romance, which may partly explain the inclusions of Gramsci and Benjamin: not for nothing is Verdi my favourite composer.) I’m not going to say that this kind of cultural criticism was a vital component of building mass struggle, etc., nor that I think Marx would have approved of his use of Freudian jargon, but I do think it’s an important development of Marxist theory, and not to be discounted on that score.

Chris also said that a judgment of greatness shouldn’t imply an endorsement of the politics. I’m not sure that that’s wholly possible in the case of judging the Greatness of Marxists, but it’s true that I was compiling a list of writers whose politics I quite liked as well as whose writings I admired, and it’s certainly true that I do find it easier to admire the Marxists who never came close to directing state power, which says something about the squeamish liberal centre which lurks between my (infrequently militant) socialist exterior.

On a related note, Norm asked me the other day whether I had to approve of a Dead Socialist in order to include her or him in the Dead Socialist Watch, and I basically replied, No but it helps. You’ll find Mao and others whom I don’t much like in the DSW, because one of the points of the exercise is to draw attention to the great diversity of Dead Socialists in the tradition, and a simple Does Chris [Brooke, not Bertram] Approve? test would be, in that context, misplaced. On the other hand, I don’t go out of my way to track down the death-dates of Pol Pot, Vyshinsky and other socialist mass murderers in order to canonise them on this site. (On the other, other hand, I certainly don’t think that the propensity of self-proclaimed socialists to kill large numbers of their fellow-citizens when they take and hold power is something that can be shrugged off with a claim about how they weren’t really socialists after all: the phenomenon is a bit too pervasive for that to be an acceptable get-out.)

Thinking about favourites brings to mind one of my favourite short poems by Wendy Cope, which is both apposite and a good place to stop.

When they ask me, “Who’s your favourite poet?”,
I’d better not mention you.
But you certainly are my favourite poet
And I like your poems too.

I think this one’s from her second published volume, Serious Concerns.

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