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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Motion and History

What I Learning from Marx

I have a book coming that is, significantly about McCarthyism and while I wait for my editor’s comments, I thought I ought to refresh my own memory about Communism — since my readers will know little about it, and care even less. I needed to bring it back into intellectual and emotional focus for me, so I could give my readers a way to care — to admire or condemn its ideas. Reading Marx suddenly made a few things very clear to me — especially the low state History has fallen into. What Marx offers is a dynmic, a kind of engineering model, of how change happens to human societies — much the way Edison understood the flow of current, Darwin the arc of evolution, or Freud the pathways of desire. Before Marx (speaking very broadly) change in human affairs was seen as resulting from God and his laws. Marx makes history vivid and understandable because he shows how one stage inevitably leads to either. Reading Capital is like watching a fast-paced movie — as property relations change, societies change, bringing about new conditions, and the seeds of their own destruction — history is a set of principles set in motion, and evolving before our eyes.
       The problem is, of course, that thrilling, brilliant, and revealing as Marx’s schematic is, it is more useful as a broad framework than as an explanation of any real period, or of any actual humans. And since 1989, that has become more and more evident even in the academy. But if we no longer use God to explain history, and cannot in good faith rely on Marx — how do we see history unfolding? What are the currents, the tides, that sweep through from the past to the present to the future. The anti-Communists of the 20th Century  upheld a vision of progress — the necessary rise of Democracy, Capitalism, Christianity — which, while still supported, has lost some of its clear luster after the upheavals of the 1960s followed by the crash of the 21st century and the rise of Communist China.
    So think of our poor kids — they have to study more and more history: world history must include China, India, Africa, the Islamic world and pre-Columbian America as well as the traditional Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Europe. So they have to "cover" more — but without any current, any argument, any engineering model of how one civilization flowed into the next. They are responsible for more information with less reason to know how the parts fit together. We need a new logic, a new roadmap, a new framework for world history — so kids can understand the flow — not just appreciate all of the cultural parts. The small problem is we simply don’t have that framework to offer.  We can instill the techniques of historical investigation, we can broaden the focus of historical study. But for the moment, we have only skill to offer, not an underlying dynamic. — well that is something to hope for in the new year — a way to see the currents and tides of the past and not just its individual crests.


  1. Vicky Alvear Shecter says:

    Yes, a framework would be something–and it would be something if people could ever agree on the same one.

  2. unlikely to ever get agreement, but even having a working model to debate would be a start

  3. unlikely to ever get agreement, but even having a working model to debate would be a start

  4. A thought to share —
    I took advantage of a very liberal administration in the private school in which I teach and used Howard Zinn’s People’s History as my reference. My white, upper middle class students looked at me as if I were a little dim witted and said ” What’s the big deal ?
    We all KNOW it sucks to be poor ”
    When I taught at an alternative school in a big city ( kids on probation , parole , and those who had been expelled for various reasons from the district )
    they were absolutely shocked by Professor Zinn’s working model. Nobody told on me for referring to this book – they didn’t want me to get in trouble.
    But attendance improved and they listened like psychoanalysts to every word I said. The greatest irony was that neither principal had any idea of who Howard Zinn is , much less read his books. As long as the kids behaved well and didn’t carry on, no one much cared what I said in class

  5. I kept thinking of Zinn as I read Marx — for both good and bad reasons. Like Marx, Zinn is an advocate of The People, but, like Marx, I find him less attuned to individual human beings — they both understand the suffering of the mass better than the varieties of human experience. As my older son said, you almost have to agree with the mass argument when you are poor, it is all you have.

  6. So many of our kids have only one framework – the canonized political narrrative – that is is important for them to gain exposure to other narratives: social, economic, cultural, etc. A few of them are exposed to a religious narrative of their own tradition which often has serious flaws.We do them a great service to open their eyes to another way of looking at life. I will look forward to your book on Marx.