(The following article originally appeared in New Politics, 1989 – an oldie but goodie)
A strange anomaly dominates the current social, political and cultural climate. World capitalism has for over fifteen years been sinking into its worst systemic crisis since the 1930’s, and one which in its biospheric dimensions is much worse than the 1930’s. At the same time, the social stratum which calls itself the left in Europe and the U.S. is in full retreat. In many advanced capitalist countries, and particularly in the U.S., that stratum increasingly suspects the world outlook of Karl Marx, which postulates that capitalism brings such crises as storm clouds bring the rain, of being a “white male” mode of thought. Stranger still is the fact that the relative eclipse of Marx has been carried out largely in the name of a “race/gender/class” ideology that can sound, to the uninitiated, both radical and vaguely Marxian. What this “discourse” (to use its own word) has done, however, is to strip the idea of class of exactly that element which, for Marx, made it radical: its status as a universal oppression whose emancipation required (and was also the key to) the abolition of all oppression.
This question of the status of universality, whether attacked by its opponents as “white male”, or “Eurocentric”, or a “master discourse”, is today at the center of the current ideological debate, as one major manifestation of the broader world crisis of the waning 20th century.
The writings of Marx and Engels include assertions that the quality of relations between men and women is the surest expression of the humanity of a given society, that the communal forms of association of peoples such as the North American Iroquois were anticipations of communism, and that the suppression of matriarchal by patriarchal forms of kinship in ancient Greece was simultaneous with the generalization of commodity production, that is, with proto-capitalism. Marx also wrote, against the Enlightenment’s simple-minded linear view of progress that, short of the establishment of communism, all historical progress was accompanied by simultaneous retrogressions. But most of this is fairly well known; this is not what bothers contemporaries. What bothers them is that the concept of universality of Marx and Engels was ultimately grounded neither in cultural constructs nor even in relations of “power”, which is the currency in which today’s fashion trades.
The universalism of Marx rests on a notion of humanity as a species distinct from other species by its capacity to periodically revolutionize its means of extracting wealth from nature, and therefore as free from the relatively fixed laws of population which nature imposes on other species. “Animals reproduce only their own nature”, Marx wrote in the 1844 Manuscripts, “but humanity reproduces all of nature”. Nearly 150 years later, the understanding of ecology contained in that line remains in advance of most of the contemporary movements known by that name. Human beings, in contrast to other species, are not fixed in their relations with the environment by biology, but rather possess an infinite capacity to create new environments and new selves in the process. Human history, in this view, is the history of these repeated revolutions in nature and thus in “human nature”.
What bothers contemporary leftist opinion about Marx is that the latter presents a formidable (and, in my opinion, unanswerable) challenge to the currently dominant culturalism, which is so pervasive that it does not even know its own name.
Today, the idea that there is any meaningful universality based on human beings as a species is under a cloud, even if the opponents of such a view rarely state their case in so many words (or are even aware that this is the issue). For them, such an idea, like the idea that Western Europe from the Renaissance onward was a revolutionary social formation unique in history, that there is any meaning to the idea of progress, or that there exist criteria from which one can judge the humanity or inhumanity of different “cultures”, are “white male” “Eurocentric” constructs designed to deny to women, peoples of color, gays or ecologists the “difference” of their “identity”.