I am teaching the foundations course in our graduate program this year: “Classical Sociological Theory.” It’s a challenge. The last time I taught such a class was thirty years ago. Yet, it’s a challenge worth taking. Aside from the matters of departmental needs and resources, this is something that I believe will be particularly interesting for me, and also for my students. Over those thirty years, I have actively thought about the events of the day, and about my research, using foundational thinkers (though some more than others), “standing on the shoulders of giants.” It is exciting to revisit old friends, including, among others, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Georg Simmel and George Herbert Mead, and spend some time, introducing them to students at the beginning of their professional training.
The first theorist was easy, Alexis de Tocqueville. I have taught an undergraduate class on his masterpiece, Democracy in America, frequently. My new book, Reinventing Political Culture: The Power of Culture versus the Culture of Power, is not only informed by Tocqueville’s approach to culture and democracy. It is in a sense in dialogue with Tocqueville. And as the readers of Deliberately Considered know when I look at current events, I often interpret them using the insights of Tocqueville from understanding the nature of the American party system and for contemporary political debate, such as the struggle over workers’ rights in Wisconsin.
Karl Marx, the second theorist we examined in our class, is another matter. Like many intellectuals since his time, I have a history with Marx. As I told the class in an introduction to our discussions last week, when I was young and especially critical, I thought that to be critical required one to read, know and act through Marx. I remember having a course in high school which I found particularly upsetting, “The Problems of Communism.” The author of the class text was J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the F.B. I. Talk about the state ideological apparatus, as the orthodox French Marxist, Louis Althusser, would have put it. In reaction against this nonsense, I found The Communist Manifesto in my local public library, and started my long relationship with Marx and Marxism.
I am not now, nor have I ever been, a Marxist, to paraphrase the terms of the anti-Communist witch hunt of the 50s and early 60s. But I was a Marxist wannabe. In high school, I found the propaganda I was fed so infuriating that I thought the enemy of my enemy must be my friend. But I didn’t have the knowledge or capacity to understand whether this friendship was genuine.
As a college student, I developed my skills and expanded my knowledge. I became particularly enchanted with the Frankfurt School, especially Herbert Marcuse and his One Dimensional Man, as did many student radicals of the time. Indeed, I still find this neo-Marxist, heterodox school of thought quite enlightening, as my class will discover when we discuss Max Weber in a few weeks. Theirs is a cultural critique of capitalism, which has its problems, but also carries important insights. I think of the position as left-wing Weberian thought, informed by Weber’s understanding of the relationship between the economy, the state and various cultural endeavors. But when it came to Marx’s focus on productive forces and the centrality of class, I tried, even pretended to be convinced, but I never was.
My failure as a Marxist was consummated when I did research in Poland. I saw that environmental degradation wasn’t controlled under socialism, that, in fact, it was worse. Sexual and gender equality were more distant ideals under communism than they were under capitalism. Bourgeois democracy was real, while people’s democracy wasn’t, or, at least, democracies of the U.S. and Western Europe were much closer to democratic ideals than were the people’s democracies of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. I came to think that these shortcomings were not unrelated to Marxist analysis and politics.
I didn’t talk about these political issues in class. I just maintained that despite my history with Marx, I think of him as a great 19th century social thinker, along with others, and that our task was to try to understand his position as it might inform ours today. Our task was to learn Marx, not to bury him (as was the goal of my high school communism text).
In the class, I want to let the important works of early sociology speak for themselves, without imposing my specific and often idiosyncratic interpretations. With Marx I thought the way to do this was to ironically tell the class a little about my “personal relationship” with him. I’m pretty sure the session was successful, but I do have a regret.
When I explained that I had been a Marxist wannabe, I didn’t adequately explain why my project failed. I have concluded that Marx’s central notion that man is the producing animal is too thin, and that the sociological implication he draws from this notion, i.e. that the history hitherto is the history of class struggles, is reductive. He presents important insights using this frame, but too many important issues are best understood outside the frame, including the sorts of issues I have focused on.
Yet, and this yet is important, Marx demonstrated that class matters and how it matters. From the sociological point of view, this was his great accomplishment, one that is important for scholarship and has great political importance today. Class is not an illusion, as many on the American political scene maintain. Class analysis, informed by Marx, provides a way to systematically study inequality. Such study in an America where the rich are getting rich, and the poor are getting poorer, is of the foremost importance.