The Spectre Haunting Capitalism Returns: A Celebration of Marx

In a small house made of cement

the cane cutter’s children

became men and women

who departed and when asked

“?Por que te vas?” avoided the eyes

They packed the small suitcases

that poverty supplied the contents for.

Suited up in their best

they boarded a Pan-Am flight

waking in los Nueva Yores

to the song of sewing

and the hum of machines

that made their dance faster

than the one farms and cane fields taught them.

They sent their images back to those who stayed

standing behind pedestals that declared “Te Quiero”

or on rooftops, cityscapes behind them

that said I am more

but did not acknowledge how little they had/

Upon receipt

the cane cutter would sit on his porch

open the air-mail envelope

and wish them back,

wanting children he could touch,

rather than the images

that reminded him of empty rooms.

In time empty rooms became an empty house

that did not mourn absence

but crumbled under the weight of vacancy.


Samuel Miranda declaimed the poem above on May 5, the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth as part of a celebration, organized by the Goethe Institut-Washington, at the multimedia extravaganza, Dictionary of Marx. Curated/facilitated by John Feffer, director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, the 4-hour program explored Marx’s multiple legacies.  The production, held at the Capital Fringe theatre in north east Washington DC, was co-sponsored by the Metro DC AFL-CIO Labor Council as part of its annual month long LaborFest.  Miranda’s poem exemplifies the overarching theme of the whole:  explicating the substance of Marx’ work by giving voice to the lost dreams of those dispossessed by the engine of capitalism’s progress.

In 1818, the year of Karl Marx’s birth, Europe – indeed much of the world -- was still in the early stages of recovering from the carnage of the Napoleonic Wars, wars which touched upon North America in the shape of the War of 1812 and in Latin America in the shape of Spain’s attempt to reassert  dominion over its rebellious colonies fighting for independence.  It was a recovery that showed itself in immense expansion of productivity and material wealth based on the stability of reaction – Britain secure in its empire, the monarchy restored in France, while Austria, Russia and a newly powerful Prussia stood guard against renewed revolutionary and democratic revolts.  Meanwhile, the working-class and peasantry paid the bill in Europe, while exploitation of Europe’s colonies grew fiercer under the lash of the market.  Beneath the surface, however, the world was changing even as those who sat atop tried to maintain their power in the old ways, tried to deny that society would ever be different than what it was.

But different is what it would be, notice first given in the revolutions of 1848 which broke open the seemingly secure world order established at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 – 1848 the year in which Marx and Engels, participants in revolutionary outbreaks within Germany, wrote the Communist Manifesto. Reaction followed, but working-class and socialist organization remained alive and slowly grew anew.  The first volume of Marx’s Capital appeared in 1867 and the steady growth of the International Working Men’s Association founded in 1864 provide a marker of the ideas and politics that embodied that change from below – as did the two revolutionary moments that bookended the First International’s life, the US Civil War and Reconstruction on one side of the Atlantic, the Paris Commune on the other.  Marx’s influence has waxed and waned in the years since but has been ever present both as a source of intellectual challenge to the dominant world view of ruling elites and as a source of ideas and concepts developed within organized labor and left-wing political movements.

Although the collapse of the Soviet Union, the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, the apparent unshakeable hegemony of neo-liberalism and market-based economics in the 1990s seemed to sound the death knell of Marxism as a vital force, the financial breakdown in 2008 and the revitalization of popular protest were reminders that the funeral notice was premature.  Like Finnegan risen from the dead when a bottle of whiskey crashed upon his head, the banking crash woke up countless people for the need to challenge existing structures, and with that came imaginings of a better world.  Challenge and change, in turn, made necessary a deeper look into what lies underneath the surface of society as presently constituted.  James Joyce reconceived the popular Irish ballad of Finnegan connecting the quotidian everyday with the wanderings of a highly abstract imagination.  Marx, complex and, at times, poetic, similarly wanders in many directions while attempting to understand the workings of a capitalist system that masks the nature of the exploitation inherent within it.  Given the wide terrain such a quest entails, Marxist thought and traditions cannot be reduced, catechism-like, to a few simple propositions.  Doing so fails to address the many facets of life Marx’s work touches upon and the connection in his own writing between the realities of everyday life and the possibility of creating a society more in harmony with human needs and wants, of possibilities attainable even though not yet realized.

Thus, the concept of Dictionary of Marx.  Twelve words central to Marx’s lexicon and subsequent movements that look to Marx – Alienation, History, Human Rights, Labor, Materialism, Private Property, Proletariat, Resistance, Revolution, Socialism, Utopia, and Workers – were defined in twelve 15-minute segments through dance, poetry, talks, skits, music and film, accompanied by screen projections of Marx’s words and other images relevant to each segment.  Miranda spoke his poems as a definition of Private Property.  Vincent Thomas, in an extraordinary work of choreography, explicated Human Rights in a manner that made visible the link between the beauty, solidity, and fragility of the human body, moving in a world rent apart by war, and the everyday violence that stems from the devaluation of human life.  Performing a scene from Howard Zinn’s Marx in Soho that touched on the promise of the Paris Commune, Mary Myers demonstrated Resistance.  Spoken word poet Regie Cabico defined Alienation, by exploring what it is to be gay and Filipino in a society that objectifies both and so respects neither.  In talks, Vanessa Wills spoke of History, Michael Kazin of Socialism, Tanya Paperny critically of misuse of Utopia; while in other multimedia performance pieces, Natalia Gelason-Nagy directed three actors to embody Materialism, and Edgar Endress developed (with Henry Mills and Silvana Straw) a piece to give a glimpse of Revolution.

The connection between the Goethe Institute and Metro DC Labor Council’s co-sponsorship lies not just in the object of Marx’s writing, but the subject as well – the working class – studied in three different segments.   In a clip from Erica Ginsberg and Leon Gerskovic’s film Creative Feds, Labor was depicted by showing federal workers on the job doing the mundane tasks so needed by society and showing them off the job demonstrating a personal creativity central to themselves as individuals that cannot be expressed while on the clock.  And Kiley Kraskouskas showed a segment of the film she co-directed, Dear Walmart, giving life to the word Workers by viewing the exploitation and resistance of those employed by the nation’s largest private employer in a documentary that also looks at the private joys and heartbreaks of life within which organizing struggles take place.

Music brings out connections between concepts. So, appropriately, Joe Uehlein, a longtime union activist and professional musician, performed Proletariat, with songs of labor struggles that depict the constant refusal of working people to suffer the limitations of life imposed by the rule of capital   Before, in the middle, and after these twelve definitions, musical performances were staged by three different groups – Elena & Los Fulanos, Magpie, and Mayas, singing of the lives and struggles of working people.  These musicians also noted and paid tribute to the coincidence of Marx’ birth falling on Cinco de Mayo, a holiday that celebrates Mexico’s defeat of the French colonial army in 1862.  Songs looking back to revolutionary traditions of class struggle and opposition to war in US labor’s past, songs giving lyrical representation to the journey of immigrant working people seeking a place to live, seeking to make a stand in our present, and traditional/contemporary music of the Andes all gave substance to different yet shared experience.

By its nature, music is fluid, so too, all twelve definitions as presented were fluid.  Miranda’s poems were as much about alienation, labor and resistance as they were about private property and the same could be said for all other segments of the program.  The Marxist project, the socialist project, is about the liberation of the whole human being from conditions of exploitation and oppression; having varying representations reflecting varying experiences and perspectives speaks to the contradictions and possibilities within that tradition looking both to the past and to the future.

A small measure of the revival of interest in Marx’s works today might be indicated in the packed house at the Capital Fringe Theatre as well as in the attendance at the Goethe Institute’s other programs about Marx, films that took him out of the museum house and back into contemporary debates.  These included short films on Marx from the old German Democratic Republic to an all-day marathon showing Alexander Kluge’s News from Ideological Antiquity, from the Austrian film, Free Lunch Society, advocating a universal basic income, to the multinational film Marx Reloaded which examines the thought of contemporary Marxist thinkers.  Meaningful too as a marker of this development is the co-sponsorship of those films by LaborFest.  It isn’t too long ago, that official labor in the US shunned association with Marx and socialism or was boxed into being circumspect in any association with such ideas or politics.

LaborFest’s participation was a piece of a larger program of films, music, museum tours, whiskey (union-made whiskey) tastings and other events that encompass a broad definition of culture.  Fittingly, LaborFest (and the Goethe Institute) began with a screening of Raul Peck’s The Young Karl Marx and ended with popular music – a concert of labor songs (ranging in style from choral performances to bluegrass) and as a final show, for the third year in a row, with the music so central to resistance and dreams of revolution in Washington DC, within the African-American community and more widely: jazz.  Museum tours enabled participants to see working people,

Usually unnoticed in classic works of art, tours of union buildings enabled others to see the history of organizations still representing and fighting for working people in our present.  Films shown told of the story of union and socialist leader Eugene Debs, of the participants in the Memphis sanitation workers strike that was the backdrop to King’s assassination, to the lives of still living and organizing leader/activists like Dolores Huerta and Heather Booth, to popular and independent films from the US and around the world that displayed different aspects of working-class life.  These, however, always hooked back up to programs about ongoing organizing in the United States for basic civic and civil rights, for the right to organize, for paid family leave, for social justice and greater democracy.

The same was true of the performance of The Dictionary of Marx, for the last of the twelve sets was the film clip about Walmart, fitting because it connected the talk, music and dance to the real lives of people in our society today who deserve the better life they are demanding.  Fitting too because Walmart’s growth reflects the way that a kind of progress within capitalism – the distribution of goods at lower cost and lower price to an expanding number of consumers -- comes at an enormous cost to communities, smaller retailers, the environment, and to workers here and abroad whose labor is exploited to make it all possible.  Collective action today, as in the past, can ameliorate the exploitation and dispossession that has enabled Walmart’s growth, just as the $15 minimum wage, paid sick leave, union representation, can be won so people can gain a measure of dignity and respect on the job and our threatened democratic rights defended and expanded.  Gains such as those, similar to advances in worker and social rights in the past, will, however, be fragile, the insecurity of existence that finds a home within capitalist society will make itself felt in the next turn of economic progress (however that term is defined).  To guarantee rights in a more far-reaching manner necessitates more fundamental change.

Realistic efforts to improve lives now within the existing capitalist system is the root of our ability to find space to improve our individual lives in the here and now, yet such struggles continually repeat themselves and will do so until they can develop within that activity into a movement to change and transform what exists.  That pathway, that dialectic if one will, was well expressed in a speech Marx gave to a worker’s assembly in London in 1856; the words below expressing something of the spirit of the evening’s performances:

In our days, everything seems pregnant with its contraries.  Machinery, gifted with the wonderful power of shortening and fructifying human labor, we behold starving and overworking it.  The newfangled sources of wealth, by some strange, weird spell, are turned into sources of want.  The victories of art seem bought by the loss of character.  At the same pace that mankind masters nature, man seems to become enslaved to other men or to his own infamy.  Even the pure life of science seems unable to shine but on the dark background of ignorance.  All our invention and progress seem to result in endowing material forces with intellectual life, and in stultifying human life into a material force.  This antagonism between modern industry and science, on the one hand, and modern misery and dissolution, on the other; this antagonism between the productive forces and the social relations of our epoch is a fact, palpable, overwhelming, and not to be controverted.  Some may wail over it; others may wish to get rid of modern arts, in order to get rid of modern conflicts.  Or they may imagine that so signal a progress in industry wants to be completed by as signal a regress in politics.  For our part, we do not mistake the shape of the shrewd spirit that continues to mark all contradictions.  We know that if the newfangled forces of society are to work satisfactorily, they need only be mastered by newfangled men – and such are the workingmen.  They are as much the invention of modern times as machinery itself.  In the signs that bewilder the middle class, the aristocracy, and the poor prophets of regression, we recognize our old friend Robin Goodfellow, the old mole that can work in the earth so fast, that worthy pioneer – the revolution.

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