Watch what you say around the world's remaining Marxists. They
don't think communism has necessarily been tossed on the ash heap
Take George, a ponytailed Australian staked out at the
Conference of Socialist Scholars held in April at the Borough of
Manhattan Community College in New York. When someone mentions the
word "boss" during a lively debate, he knits his brows earnestly.
"It's interesting that you used the word 'boss,' " says George, a
class-conscious member of the Revolutionary Party, a tiny group
that advocates armed insurrection. "There's some exploitation
Marxism, the basis of communism expounded by 19th-century
philosopher Karl Marx, was supposed to have become an intellectual
Edsel. The Soviet Union and its empire are five years gone, and red
China flows with the green of capitalist money. Only tiny North
Korea and Cuba have not embraced Adam Smith, Marx's 18th-century
But even though few Marxists today are as extreme as George (who
refused to give his last name), they all insist that Marx's ideas
on the inevitability of "struggle" between different classes of
people remain relevant.
Marxism marches on
On May 1, once celebrated in dozens of leftist or communist
nations as International Workers Day, Marxists count their impact
not by the numbers of workers on parade but by the pervasiveness of
"It is charmingly naive" to think that because the Soviet Union
is gone "we are somehow done with it all," says Richard Wolff, an
economics professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst,
which has one of the highest concentrations of Marxist professors
on any American campus. "There is not a country on the face of the
earth that does not have Marxist movements."
Like every Marxist, Professor Wolff is quick to distance Marx
from his popular reputation. In the Communist Manifesto of 1848,
Marx urged workers to unite against the wealthy and create a utopia
of shared ownership. For that, he has won lasting fame as the
intellectual progenitor of communism, which dictators from Lenin to
Mao used to take and hold power.
But Marx's modern admirers argue that he can't be judged by his
errant apostles. Marx's chief worth lies in his economic analysis,
they say, which identifies critical tensions between the poor and
rich and offers an alternative to lean-and-mean capitalism.
The United States is the Western nation least receptive to Marx,
but parts of his 150-year-old theories resonate in mainstream
politics even here. Many Marxists find a forlorn kind of
vindication in the popularity of conservative Republican
presidential candidate Pat Buchanan as he wins blue-collar votes by
attacking corporate America.
"It's sad. People like me ... have been talking about class
struggle for years. But people listened to him because he was right
wing," says Bertel Ollman, a professor of politics at New York
University. Mr. Ollman has written "The Left Academy: Marxist
Scholars on American Campuses" and developed a board game called
Class Struggle. In condemning the excesses of corporate leaders,
"Buchanan was just recognizing the nose on everyone's face," he
Marx's way of thinking about conflicting forces in society has
spread to many academic disciplines. It would be difficult to find
a university where his ideas were not addressed in departments of
history, philosophy, literature, and political science.
"It's part of a more holistic analysis," says Alison Bernstein,
director of education and cultural programs at the Ford Foundation.
While she sees few grant proposals that cite Marx specifically,
scholars are still asking the questions that Marx popularized, she
Yet few people who admire Marx invoke his name today, partly
because they don't want to be pigeonholed by conservatives. Also,
their interests have become more varied - as witnessed by the
diversity at the Conference of Socialist Scholars. …