Useful Intellectuals: Framing Marx for the Next Generation


In a recent Tablet Magazine article, Michelle Goldberg wrote of a revived interest in Marx among the newest generation of intellectuals: “For those too young to remember the Cold War but old enough to be trapped by the Great Recession, Marxism holds new appeal.” Goldberg’s thesis revels in progressive shibboleths about evil, greedy capitalists and “privileged young people” disappointed that their leftist president couldn’t even score them a job. The interesting angle she brings to the discussion highlights the discussions regarding Marxism in intellectual circles. This is not a new relationship by far; Marxism has been the plaything of the intellectual elite since its inception, lending much-needed credit to an otherwise incredible notion that morphed into the guiding force behind the 20th century’s most murderous regimes.

What Goldberg chronicles, “Meanwhile, the end of the Cold War has freed people—especially those too young to remember it—to revisit Marxist ideas without worrying that they’re justifying existing repressive regimes,” isn’t anything the Economist didn’t observe of Western Marxist thinkers back in 2002:

“People in the West, their judgment not impaired by having lived in the system Marx inspired, mostly came to a more dispassionate view. Marx had been misunderstood, they tended to feel. The communism of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union was a perversion of his thought. What happened in those benighted lands would have appalled Marx as much as it appalls us. It has no bearing on the validity of his ideas.”

Only the intelligentsia would have the cojones to rewrite history to suit their own needs. These Marxists learned well from their master.

In the Journal of the History of Ideas, Shlomo Avineri concisely details Marx’s definition and position of intellectuals within the otherwise proletarian revolution:

“It is the task of the revolutionary intellectuals to furnish critical and analytical faculties, understanding of the historical process, comprehension of the actual economic and social conditions, so as to have a better chance of timing the ultimate coup de grace correctly with precision and finality.”


Why the need for intellectuals to lead a working-class movement?  Quite frankly, both Marx and Engels believed the proletariat to be too stupid to realize the necessity of a revolution, and forget about leading one on their own:

“Marx’s and Engels’ theoretical awareness of the limitations of proletarian revolutions and their need for intellectual guidance was coupled with disdain, if not outright contempt, for those leaders of the movement who were themselves of working-class origin… The Marx-Engels correspondence abounds in numerous allusions to the workers’ intellectual limitations, stupidity, and narrow-mindedness. Sometimes they are dismissed in such derogatory terms as ‘asses’…”

George Novack embraced Marx’s “Third Way” proposal of a proletarian revolution led by intellectuals in a 1935 write up on Marxism and Intellectuals in The New International. Not only does he cite the gross numbers of intellectuals (including Marx, Engels and Lenin) leading the Marxist movement, he also credits Marxism “the science of the proletarian revolution” as being “the supreme creation of middle-class intellectuals.”

Interestingly, Novack’s Depression-era commentary included remarks eerily similar to those of Goldberg’s regarding the impact of the economic depression on intellectuals, especially recent college grads:

“The impact of the crisis [The Depression], however, has hurled crowds of helpless intellectuals and professionals into space, like so many disassociated atoms. …”There is no great unbridgeable gulf between the illiterate masses and the educated classes as in the days when the learned constituted a closed caste; nor could there be, in such a country as the United States, where college graduates are dumped unceremoniously almost overnight into the ranks of the proletariat and the permanently unemployed.”

Avineri notes that, for Marx, “socialist intellectuals” played a key role in facilitating the proletarian movement, especially in “western, civilized societies.” The average middle class reader may quickly dismiss the young intellectual’s love affair with Marx as the stuff of post-graduate fantasy. As Goldberg notes, the new intellectual Marxist fetish does, in part, have a motivation akin to grasping at straws: “For intellectuals, this has always been a consolation of crisis: It frees one… making ideas feel urgent and important.” The Intellectuals’ Marx fetish should not, however, be dismissed so lightly. As we shall see in the next part of this series, the intellectual framing of Marxist leaders morphed murderers into pop culture icons, paving the way for socialism to become an acceptable, even preferred notion among today’s young voters.