I was startled to read David Futrelle’s bitter attack on Karl Marx, Marxism in general and the International Socialist Organization (ISO) in particular in your September 15 issue. Not because David was critical of the ISO–he hasn’t agreed with our political analysis for some years. But I was surprised by David’s use of dime-store psychoanalysis to dismiss one of the more influential philosophers in world history, not to mention his insistence on making up stuff–about Marx for one, but even about his former self as a member of the ISO.
David couched his tirade as a review of A Requiem for Karl Marx by Frank Manuel, a historian with a boundless talent for reducing the motivations of every historical figure he encounters to glib Freudian cliches.
Now I doubt whether anyone could take seriously the implication that Marx “philosophized” about money because he didn’t have much of it himself–that would make major thinkers out of most of us. But neither David nor Manuel stop at one piece of psychobabble when a dozen more will do. We learn, in the course of David’s review, that Marx was guilty of “narcissism,” “narcissism” (again), “ambivalences, insecurities, and inchoate angers,” “narcissistic anger and self-hatred,” “[desperation] for recognition,” “grandiose fantasies” and “grandiose illusions, anger, and self-hatred.”
Manuel at least allows that Marx might have believed “in the worth of the guiding principle: from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs,” but David is after bigger game. He figures that since “revolutionism for Marx was as much a psychological as a political necessity, it comes as no surprise that he inspired generations of similarly narcissistic revolutionaries.”
To emphasize the point, David refers to Forrest Colburn’s The Vogue of Revolution in Poor Countries, a strikingly unoriginal book that rehashes the old platitude that revolutions against dictatorship and poverty only make matters worse.
No surprise then that Colburn has at least one other admirer aside from David: Francis Fukuyama praised Colburn’s book in Foreign Affairs. For those who don’t follow the antics of the flavor-of-the-month “intellectuals,” Fukuyama emerged six years ago from somewhere within the cavernous depths of the Bush administration State Department to announce that, with the fall of the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe, the world had reached the “end of history”–and that the high point of human civilization was his boss’s “New World Order.”
David is, of course, entitled to his opinion. But it’s strange to find any “sort of socialist” agreeing with Fukuyama about anything.
Of course, the “generations of similarly narcissistic revolutionaries” live on in our very midst, and David is ready to name names. Why, he himself was a member of the ISO, if only for a very short time.
David now remembers “[tagging] along at dozens of demonstrations, some of them smaller than dinner parties I’ve attended.” If memory serves, David joined the ISO about four and a half years ago, right after the 1991 Gulf War. Along with many other people, the ISO was part of a movement to oppose the U.S. war on Iraq. As David no doubt remembers, the demonstrations the ISO helped to organize numbered in the thousands–especially in the opening days of the air war, when, for instance, 10,000 people took over the streets of Chicago’s downtown.
Then and now, these demonstrations seemed very important–to take a stand against a horrible war that eventually left 200,000 Iraqis dead, most of them civilians.
The anti-Gulf War movement didn’t grow quickly enough to stop the slaughter, but even the smallest antiwar demonstrations were more interesting than David’s dinner parties.
At the time, David told us that he wanted to join the ISO because the Gulf War had convinced him to be politically active again and that he was impressed with our role in the antiwar effort. Having thought about the matter for more than four years, David now knows why he really joined the ISO–because he was “feeling rather guilty about having stayed on the sidelines for so long. . . . I also suffered from exceedingly poor self-esteem at the time.”
Time certainly does heal all wounds.
We didn’t know that David was suffering from “poor self-esteem.” Truth be told, he seemed to regard himself in very high esteem. What we did know was that David said he agreed with our aims. We tried to discourage him from speaking in an academic language that no one would understand and set him to work arguing for the socialist alternative. He did a fine job.
About six months later, and without much warning, David announced that he would have to quit the ISO. “None of them ever bothered to try to figure out why I’d quit,” he says today. This just isn’t true. In fact, we organized a special meeting for David to air his complaints about the ISO–strange behavior for a group that David now accuses of being “baffled that anyone would think to question this or that tenet.”
David spoke at some length–and then we discussed his objections. It is true that no one at the meeting was moved by David’s reasoning, but this might have something to do with the quality of his arguments and not because every member of the ISO had been brainwashed.
David told us he thought that being a member of the ISO would get in the way of his efforts to write for publications like the Reader. We tried to assure him that ISO members had written articles for all sorts of publications, even the Reader–and that any socialist with the courage of his or her convictions ought to accept the responsibilities of being a member of a socialist organization. But David would have none of it–he insisted that he could best serve the movement for social change by devoting all his energies to his journalism career.
Four years later, he confesses that he is “some sort of socialist” who alternates between “periods of intense and mildly idealistic political activism” and “periods when I recoil from politics in disgust.” He has a handful of book reviews in the Reader to his credit, the latest of which heaps contempt on Marx, Marxism, anyone who ever considered themselves a Marxist and even his former Marxist self.
Well, David certainly has arrived, hasn’t he?
In the end, David gets so wrapped up in his own cleverness that he effectively writes off most struggles for social justice in the last 150 years–since Marxists were a key part of them–from the German exiles of the 1850s, who joined the abolitionist movement against slavery; to the turn-of-the-century socialists, who fought for the eight-hour day; to the Communists of the 1930s, who helped organize the labor struggles that won the social safety net now under attack by the Newt Republicans; to the revolutionaries of the 1960s, who organized against the Vietnam War, against racism, for women’s liberation and for gay and lesbian liberation.
David would reduce them all to “narcissists.”
That judgment says much more about his evolution as a petty dilettante than it does about the millions of people who have considered themselves Marxists.
International Socialist Organization
David Futrelle replies:
Alan’s letter makes at least one thing clear: the ISO is still as baffled by my “objections” today as it was at the time. I do not now, I did not then, agree with many of the central tenets of the ISO ideology, and once I realized that the group would not long tolerate serious disagreement, I quit. (As have, incidentally, perhaps half of those who attended the very meeting Alan describes.) It still seems a sensible enough choice to me: had I not resigned it’s clear I would have been thrown out. Alan still apparently believes (as some members insisted to me at the time) that if I had stayed in the group, I surely would have come around to the correct way of thinking. (How giving up my convictions would demonstrate “the courage of my convictions” I am not exactly clear.) He has no explanation for any of my current activities other than as an “unprincipled” quest for money and fame. Yes, I do make money off my writing for the Reader and perhaps a dozen other publications; that’s what I do for a living. No, that’s not why I have the opinions I do.