Marx for a Post-Communist Era: On Poverty, Corruption, and Banality. 2002
Sullivan, Stefan. New York: Routeledge. paperback, 208 pgs. ISBN: 0415201934.
Everyone, it seems, has an opinion on Marxism, and Stefan Sullivan is more than willing to add his voice to the fray. Even more to the point, his book Marx for a Post-Communist Era is also remarkably clear, lucid, and honest without sounding revisionist, apologetic, or sniveling. While writing Marx for a Post-Communist Era, Sullivan was subjected to "countless sermons by taxi-drivers, academics, journalists, and particularly East Europeans who, as schoolchildren, had digested a dumbed-down Marxist-Leninist catechism," yet he seems to have taken to heart the very real criticism behind the distrust (and hate) of Marx and Marxism. After all, why Marx and why now? Why another book on Marxism when it would seem that for all intents and purposes Marxism has failed and capitalism has won? As Sullivan writes, "Regardless of the fact that Marx's ideas were often contradictory, vague, and vulnerable to oversimplification, the very extent of his influence on not only the intellectual community, but also twentieth-century history, lends support to the notion that he is the most socially-relevant philosopher that ever lived" (20).
Marx had his inconsistencies, his theories were not always refined, his forecasts did not always come true. He may have predicted world revolution, but this prediction was, like any economic forecast, based on the events of the time. Nor does the failure to predict a specific event undermine the theoretical base. The basic truth of Marxism still stands today and Sullivan lays it out plainly: "We express who we are through what we create. We see ourselves through our work. That is our lasting testament" (6).
Sullivan's clear and lucid retelling of the cultural origins and history of Marxism and economic theory is unparalleled. From Lenin to Castro to Gueverra, the author succinctly delineates the problematics of each supposedly Marxist application. From liberal reinterpretation to outright misapplication, Marxism has been misunderstood, misread, and received an unbelievable amount of bad press stretching over more than a century. However, Sullivan does not simply defend Marx and Marxism, but rather parts the veil of "catechism, catch-phrases, and chants for the masses" which Marxism has apparently become and thus avoids falling into the crude Marxist mode or neo-Marxist obfuscation which has become so common these days.
Marx for a Post-Communist Era is one of those hard to read books because the failures of our society are all too glaringly true, and most of us just don't want to hear it. But it is past the time for tough love. Most of the world's populations live in abysmal poverty, our governments are corrupt, and we lead meaningless lives of banality. In ghettoes across the globe the pattern is the same: "Because of social failure and the lack of hope for the future, the poor seek out deluded forms of self-fulfillment, mainly by men making babies and women having them" (62). Worse, yet, corporations who set up shop in third world countries have absolutely nothing to gain and everything to lose by improving the living conditions and economy of the area. Little wonder, then, that the World Bank, the supposed "great leveler of societies in a capitalist world," has proved little more than a deeply dug money-pit; their mission statement "our dream is a world free of poverty" a thin cover for the very free-market policies which foster poverty. It is not difficult to identify with Marx when we realize that "where Marx distinguishes himself is in his skepticism about the ability of capitalism to reform itself" (93), nor are the middle and upper classes going to push the governments to redistribute their wealth equitably.
"Why," Sullivan asks, "do we have democratic states grounded in principles of 'life, liberty, and justice for all,' that provide little if any means for the poor to better their lives?" (95). Sullivan makes clear that Marxism is the in-road to the tough social questions and the method for finding the reasons why poverty, corruption run rampant and the great majority of us live empty lives of quiet desperation. Most disappointing is the fact that our own liberals have betrayed us: "While paying lip-service to the ideals of equality and justice, the liberal democratic ideologues fail to acknowledge that democracy has become but a capitalist veiling strategy for the embrace of its outer sensuous form, the liberty of autonomous agents to pursue their own self-interest. Working with only a narrow conception of freedom, they have abandoned the broader conception, the egalitarian ideals that lie at democracy's core" (96).
And of course there is the middle class, that refuse heap of consumerism and banality. How disappointing to examine the lives most of us lead. Sullivan draws a hard picture: "In preparation for their adult life, they studied hard, got the right degrees, yet ultimately ended up with a soulless life full of a kind of routinized hectic energy -- commuting, petty chores, interspersed with rigidly scheduled 'quality time' -- in order to sustain the relationship." (137)
Marx for a Post-Communist Era creates the context for an ongoing discussion of one of the most influential philosophers to contemporary human endeavor. Where Marx, in his early writings at least, called for revolution, Sullivan calls for thought, and that is a call we all should answer.
C. Jason Smith