Friday Ephemera
Planetary Bling

Strange Omissions

I’ve previously noted the eagerness of some literary “theorists” to shoehorn Marxism into their first year reading lists with the expectation that students be “conversant with” Marx’s ideas and claims - if not those of his numerous critics - supposedly as an “exploration of theoretical issues in the study of literature.” Terry Eagleton, for instance, seems to believe that Hamlet, Heart of Darkness and Ariel are best read with Marx in mind, though the literary benefits aren’t immediately obvious to me. Nor is it obvious in literary terms why Eagleton would present students with a reading list that includes no fewer than six books about Marxism and its alleged merits: Tony Bennett’s Formalism and Marxism, Eagleton’s Marxism and Literary Criticism, Eagleton’s Ideology, Eagleton’s Criticism and Ideology: A Study in Marxist Literary Theory, Raymond Williams’ Marxism and Literature, and Leon Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution.

In their book One-Party Classroom David Horowitz and Jacob Laksin note a similar enthusiasm:

Consider, for instance, the “writing-intensive two-year course sequence” called “Intellectual Heritage” that [Temple University] requires all students to take. On the program’s web page professors post some thirty different sample exam and study questions under the title “Faculty Perspectives on Marx.” Every one, without exception, prompts students to explain what Marx said in the way one might explain the theories of Copernicus, whose theories have been confirmed by real world experiments. In contrast, all Marxist experiments in the real world have failed – in fact, they have caused the economic impoverishment of whole continents, man-made famines, and human suffering on an unprecedented scale – and yet not one of the professors contributing to the Intellectual Heritage guides bothers to note this historical fact.

In one sample guideline, a professor writes: “Marx presents an astute understanding and critique of capitalism. Is it convincing?” The question does not say, “Marx analyzed capitalism. Is his analysis convincing?” That would have been educational. Instead, the student is effectively told what to think: Marx wrote a wise critique of capitalism. Are you stupid enough to disagree with him? What if the student is not convinced and encounters that question on an exam? Since he has been forewarned that the professor thinks Marx is “astute,” will the student risk saying that Marx was catastrophically wrong, that his unfounded attacks on capitalism led to the creation of regimes that were among the most oppressive and destructive in human history, and that his professor is living in an intellectual Never-Never-Land? Or is he going to humor the professorial prejudice and maximize his chances of getting a decent grade? […]

The faculty guides to Marx on the Intellectual Heritage website fail in every respect to live up to the standards of basic academic enquiry. They offer no critical literature on Marx and Marxism, no writings by von Mises, Kolakowski, Sowell, Malia, Richard Pipes, or other scholarly critics of Marxism. Nor do they confront the connection between Marx’s ideas and the vastly destructive effect of Marxist societies, which murdered 100 million human beings and created unimaginable poverty on a continental scale.

Horowitz and Laksin’s book is well worth a read, if only to witness just how readily Marxist theorising has been grafted onto the study of comparative literature, rhetoric, communication studies, African-American studies, anthropology and journalism - very often by English graduates with no formal qualification in - or obvious grasp of - economics. Ploughing through these examples isn’t exactly an uplifting experience, in fact it’s quite depressing, not least because of the overtly question-begging nature of so many course outlines. The sense of gloom is made worse by the almost total indifference of administrators to systematic breaches of their own guidelines on bias and academic probity. Though many of the course descriptions and educators’ biographies do offer some amusement of the grimmest possible kind.

Related: A Cautionary Tale.