Monday, March 1, 2010

The enjoyable Karl Marx - a classroom success

I do not believe I have ever written a post about my teaching.  In the classroom, the Amateur Reader becomes a Professional Reader.  Not a reader of anything that might show up on Wuthering Expectations - there's the difference.

This semester, though, I have been able to briefly force a merger, during a two week unit on Karl Marx.*  My real coup was forcing John Ruskin on the unsuspecting young'uns.  As with many coups, a counter-revolution drove the rebels from the palace.  They were lucky to escape with their lives.  What a disaster.

Marx, though, I cannot believe how well the students responded to Marx.  We used The Portable Karl Marx, edited by Eugene Kamenka, reading The Communist Manifesto and selections from The German Ideology, Grundrisse, and Capital.  Light stuff, as Marx goes.

I had a copy of the book from college, and read or reread the whole thing.  I read an unhealthy chunk in Morocco, or on the plane home.  When I was an undergraduate, twenty years ago, I read Karl Marx, substantial chunks of Karl Marx, in courses in:  History, Economcs, Political Science, and Sociology.  Plus, everyone graduating with a BA was assigned The Communist Manifesto in Western Civ.  So that's five subjects.  That's a lotta Marx.

Of my sixteen students, four had read the Manifesto.  One of these had read Capital as well.  What, the first volume, I asked?  No, all of it, all of it.  Two thousand pages, more.  I thought it would be discouraging to ask why, so, to answer your question, I don't know.  No, I know.  Why do I read (some) of what I read?  To do it, to see what's there.  Good for him.

I do not believe I had any actual Marxists in my class, although a student did wear a Marxite novelty t-shirt on the final day (Lenin in a pointy hat, Mao with a noise-maker, all at the Communist Party, ho ho), and another said he had meant to.  The positive response, then, was not to the ideas of Marx, as such - hostility was more openly expressed, at least - but to Marx as a sort of intellectual puzzle.  We take a definition of surplus value from this reading, combine it with offhand comments about what capitalists produce from that one (short answer: nothing but trouble),  mix in some colonialism here and some peppery rhetoric there.  Combine enough pieces and a picture begins to emerge.  The students seemed to enjoy it, and seemed to understand that agreeing with any or all of it was entirely beside the point, an activity for elsewhere.

If they actually remember a single Marxian idea, I hope it is the concept of the worker's alienation from his labor.  I'm training students to be well-paid bureaucrats.  I accept that.  Best to be aware of the truth.

*  I will allow readers to guess at the class.  Standard class in my field.


  1. As with many coups, a counter-revolution drove the rebels from the palace. They were lucky to escape with their lives. What a disaster.

    You should have sent in Carlyle first, to weaken their defenses. They might have welcomed Ruskin as a saviour.

  2. What a nice coincidence. Just today I gave a lecture on the crises of modernity, and my once sentence devoted to Marx concerned his notion that the modern worker is alienated from his work. After writing that furiously on the board, I turned to my class and asked them if they understood what Marx meant by that. Many nodded their heads, and one even piped up, "assembly line shoe-making; I'm no longer a shoe-maker, I'm just a lacer." Well said, young man.

  3. To the extent that you are willing to do so, please say more about your teaching: subject(s); level(s); etc.

    As a teacher myself, I am always wandering about what others are up to in their classrooms.

  4. CORRECTION: "wondering" rather than "wandering."

  5. Interesting to hear the reaction of college students to Marx-many years ago I read the Manifesto -a lot of people do not focus in on Frederick Engels as coauthor of the Manifesto-Engels was a great scholar of the life of the working classes in England and elsewhere (while living the life of a hedonistic well of son of a rich German factory owner)-he said he learned more about life from reading Balzac than all the political texts in the British Library-

  6. AR, this post brought back memories of a course I took in college, Marxist Political Philosophy, I think it was... the professor began just about every class by saying "Today we will discuss alienation." I often think of him when I read about assembly line jobs.

  7. Interestingly, in my college career at a similarly large public university, I never read any Marx. Maybe I'll correct that someday.

  8. For months, I was going to assign Carlyle, but as the syllabus-writing moment approached, I panicked. Thinking of Carlyle as heavy artillery is about right.

    Lizok - alienation every day? That ought to be plenty. Glad to hear that the concept is alive and well. I love that the student knew that the cause of his alienation was the division of labor.

    mel - the editor of The Portable Karl Marx doesn't focus on Engels, either - sort of dismisses his claim to authorship of The Communist Manifesto, in fact. That line about Balzac is a great reminder of what Romantics these guys were.

    SpSq - aside from Western Civ, all of the Marx was in upper level social science classes. That perhaps explains the difference. The Communist Manifesto is worth reading as a historical document, and as a piece of rhetoric. Non-neurotic readers can skip Part III.

    RT - it's an upper level social science class at a school I bet not much different than yours, a branch of the state system. Lots of commuters and community college transferees. The class is not in my specialization. I'm teaching it in part because no one else wants to. I also have an Intro class this semester, which takes approximately one-tenth of the time to prepare.

  9. Marxist are a bit embarrassed by the life style of Frederick Engels-wealthy man given to hedonistic pursuits with money his family earned from factories they owned-to some extent Engels can be seen as a patron of Marx as well as collaborator-

  10. Marxist are a bit embarrassed by the life style of Frederick Engels

    Eugene Kamenka wasn't a Marxist. Kamenka (The Portable Karl Marx, p. 198) says that Engels wrote a draft in question-and-answer form, and that Marx only kept a few passages: "the final version of the Communist Manifesto was written by Marx." And that's as much as I know about it.

    I'm not a Marxist, either - quite the contrary - so I find Engel's lifestyle not embarassing but hilarious. But none of that has anything to do with his ideas, so it wasn't part of my class.

  11. Yes I find Marx's life style funny also-he would have made a good friend for Boswell-maybe Engels was just included by Marx as coauthor as he needed his financial help

  12. Great post!