What We Are Not Embarrassed by

Here is a good debate proposition: It ought to be less embarrassing to have been influenced by Ayn Rand than by Karl Marx.

The most powerful way to argue the affirmative is to compare the number of human beings murdered by the devotees of each. That line of attack ought to be decisive, but I'm afraid it won't get you far with the multitude of highly-self-regarded thinkers influenced by Karl Marx. Fact is, commitment to some kind of socialism and fluency in the jargon of Marxism used to be mandatory for serious intellectuals. And there's something glamorous in the very idea of the intellectual. Even for those of us who came of age after 1989, Marxism, like cigarettes, remains linked by association to the idea of the intellectual, and so, like cigarettes, shares in the intellectual's glamour. I don't know if cigarettes or Marxism have killed more people, but it's pretty clear cigarettes are more actively stigmatized. Marxists, neo-Marxists, crypto-Marxists, post-Marxists, etc. have an enduring influence on intellectual fashion. So it is not only possible proudly to confess Marx's influence on one's thought, but it remains possible in some quarters to impress by doing so. It ought to be embarrassing, but it isn't. Being a bit of a Marxist is like having a closet full of pirate blouses but never having to worry.

Why am I thinking about this? Because I ran across this N+1 blog post by Benjamin Kunkel about a recently departed Marxist historian named Giovanni Arrighi. I had never heard of Giovanni Arrighi. Should I be embarrassed about this? I'm not, though I'm willing to be convinced. Kunkel seems impressed with himself for being impressed with Arrighi. I wonder whether this should be a source of embarrassment for Kunkel. Knowing nothing about Arrighi I can't be sure, but I can suspect. Here is something Kunkel says:

Not the least way that Marxism is opposed to capitalism is in its relationship to time. Capitalist culture approaches a pure instantaneousness: no future, no past. Marxism, by contrast, is a discipline of deep memory and long anticipation. It situates the effervescent eternity of our current way of life in the long sequence of the modes of production, from hunter-gathering, to early agriculture, through slave society, feudalism, the notorious “Oriental despotism,” and our own capitalism as, over four centuries, it has swamped the globe.

Do you understand the point of contrasting actually-existing economic culture to a doctrine? Neither do I. Standard, non-Marxist economic history is not only better history, but equally sweeping. Should we therefore say that the New Institutionalist school of economic history, for example, “is opposed to capitalism in its relationship to time”? Not if we don't want to sound silly.

Here's another thing Kunkel says:

People in the rich countries live longer today than ever before, even as the lifespans of our ideas, our feelings, our commitments, our fashions, our jobs, and the objects with which we surround ourselves shrink and shrink. One lives one's long life in a cloud of mayflies.

Perhaps the fear of marrying a mayfly, of being a mayfly, explains Kunkel's enthusiasm for intellectual vintage. Whatever else Marxism may be (“a discipline of deep memory and long anticipation”!), it's not a mayfly. Like other time-tested creeds, Marxism is safer than having perishable ideas of one's own. Unlike most other time-tested creeds, it's not embarrassing in Brooklyn, whether or not it should be.