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Christianity and Marxism on Wealth

September 11, 2009
What would Marx do?

What would Marx do?

A friend of mine who identifies as Christian said to me something like this the other day:

You know, there’s a professor here that openly identifies as a Marxist, but she owns a lake cottage and has a maid. That seems weird to me. As a Christian, I tend to see lavish wealth as a bad thing. But then I realized that Marxists, unlike Christians, are not in principle opposed to wealth—just inequality or exploited labor.

This conversation reminded me of an anecdote I heard about Fredric Jameson, the famous Marxist at Duke, who apparently drives a really expensive European sports car. Apparently someone “called him out,” so to speak, at a party, and asked how he could drive such a car and still identify as a Marxist. According to the story, his reply was:

I’m a Marxist, not a Christian, dammit!

I’d have to agree with the spirit of this: it seems to me that there’s no need for Marxists to be opposed to wealth in principle. Wealth needs to be denounced only when it is acquired in an exploitative manner.

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18 Comments leave one →
  1. September 11, 2009 8:56 am

    Wealth needs to be denounced only when it is acquired in an exploitative manner.

    And Jameson’s isn’t?

    Bloody hypocrite. He lives in the so-called First World. The so-called Developed World. That makes him, and most of us living there, bloody-handed hypocrites, when we pretend our wealth isn’t acquired in largely exploitative ways.

    One might hope that someone like Jameson would be more honest about his own life, but sadly, alas.

    What Would Jesus Drive?

  2. September 11, 2009 9:01 am

    I thought the issue more that under a system of labour relations such as exist the accumulation of wealth is (generally) inherently exploitative if you trace it back, but that precisely because marxism is about changing “the system” and not individual morality, individual marxists can happily “make a million on the stockmarket on monday and spend it on the revolution on tuesday”? (Or however it goes…)

  3. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    September 11, 2009 9:15 am

    Macon, that’s why I said I agree with the “spirit” of the idea; I too have reservations about wealthy Marxists …

  4. September 11, 2009 5:36 pm

    (1) You also got Terry Eagleton, the British Jameson, who is supposed to own half a dozen or so houses. Like a dude rumoured to be bankrolling Socialist Alternative in Australia from the rent he receives on the houses he owned.

    (2) Marxism as a system of bon mot ethics for the ‘first’ world haute bourgeoisie could be seen as the logical outcome of ‘Western’ Marxism detaching itself from political struggle.

    (3) It’s a good thing for Fred that exploitation is about as alien to Dook University as rowdy frat boys.

    (4) There’s an essay of Tom Wolfe’s where he calls these guys ‘Rococo Marxists’, except he names Stanley Fish as one of ’em.

    (5) I reckon, to keep the relationship with religion, we oughta call these guys Borgia Bolsheviks.

    (6) Did you mean what you said the other day about Mellancamp over Springsteen?

  5. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    September 12, 2009 9:10 am

    “Marxism as a system of bon mot ethics for the ‘first’ world haute bourgeoisie could be seen as the logical outcome of ‘Western’ Marxism detaching itself from political struggle.”

    Brilliant. Unfortunately, that may be me in 20 years. Must. fight. it.

    And yes, I did mean what I said about Springsteen and Mellencamp. Little Pink Houses, dude. Little Pink Houses.

  6. John permalink
    September 12, 2009 6:33 pm

    What, then, is an acceptable lifestyle for a Marxist? I’m only being a little tongue-in-cheek.

  7. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    September 12, 2009 7:08 pm

    John: I have NO idea. I grew up bourgeois, and I live a more or less bourgeois lifestyle, although I try to minimize my consumerism and bargain shopping. I intentionally avoid the obviously generic, cheapest products, because I more or less assume that those are almost by necessity made using exploited labor. I hope that buying more expensive products means my money is going toward unionized labor. I hope that purchasing microbrews ends up supporting small businesses rather than big companies like Coors …

  8. September 12, 2009 8:04 pm

    Your parents owned enough capital to make an income from capital alone?

  9. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    September 12, 2009 8:50 pm

    No; we were petite bourgeois …

  10. September 13, 2009 5:13 am

    Yeah, Marxists somewhat overestimating their class position is as common as Marxists understimating their class position. You get this a lot amongst student activists and so-called second semester socialists. Either they’ll walk around in replica 1930s peaked caps looking like a Yorkshire coalminer, or they’ll revel in the fact that daddy and mummy have money, since their radical credibility in directly related to how much they’re giving up. Usually by the time the trust kicks in at 21 they’re past all this, mind.

    But then I got in the most surprising argument with an Oxford PhD student in Belgium the other week. He threatened to “destroy” me if I persisted with my complaints that class position can’t be accurately measured by income. Turns out his father was raised in a borstal or something and the guy takes the notion of his intimate knowledge of the working class real personal. I mean, really, who even threatens to “destroy” someone in this day and age? And did I mention that this was a charming Antwerp bar, not a slovenly boozer in some Southampton housing estate. There are standards, you know.

  11. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    September 13, 2009 8:44 am

    Hey ibs, I fixed it! I missed your suggestion before because I had skimmed the comments …

    So, “destroy,” eh? Kind of like you will “destroy” me if I don’t admit the superiority of Springsteen?

  12. September 13, 2009 11:07 am

    I shall simply sit back and enjoy the slow cultural suicide of a man who does not know what is good for him. That’s all.

  13. roland permalink
    September 14, 2009 4:12 pm

    OK, I’m late into this, but there’s a pretty good rumour mill doing the rounds about Jameson. Like he has black servants, lives in a country estate, drives an expensive sports car etc etc. I’ve been to his place plenty of times and it a tumbling-down T-house, with about 50 stray cats and dogs, a herd of goats and hundreds of chickens (Susan likes all those). Fred’s got an old VW that he drives around. As for Eagletin, he is a Christian AND a Marxist – just see how he’s recovered his roots in the Catholic Left.

  14. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    September 14, 2009 4:25 pm

    Hey Roland, thanks for correcting me! I had wondered if that story might have been a bit mythical, but I never suspected it was 100% wrong …

  15. September 15, 2009 12:09 pm

    Personally I wouldn’t follow a Marxist who employed other people in a for-profit business. I don’t generally trust academics either, because they are removed from the class struggle. I’m not saying that Eagleton and Jameson etc are not members of teaching unions etc, but when’s the last time either of them struggled to get a book they needed for their research? When’s the last time any of them spoke on the need for a revolution in universities, to throw open the doors of such institutions to radicals of all types, that we may better engage in the praxis both they and others advocate?

    I have the advantage of having had an expensive education – I went to Oxford, and a grammar school for that matter. I couldn’t have had that without some help from my mother, but most of it was debt-funded. Does this make me any less of a Marxist? I obviously don’t think so, because I don’t cry myself to sleep every night bemoaning my own hypocrisy. That said, I’m not wealthy. I’m unemployed. I survive on the basis of my wage labour. It is a struggle for me to get the rudiments of theoretical investigation and research.

    Which element should be regarded as the dominant? There are men like Alex Callinicos who tie research into political activism – and Slavoj Zizek is somewhat similar, though his activism like his writing is somewhat eclectic. But both are well paid members of universities. They are a contradiction – and I’m sure if we investigated Eagleton and Jameson and all the rest, we would find contradiction also – but is contradiction itself a motive force?

    In all Marxists, therefore, isn’t contradiction what we should expect to find?

  16. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    September 15, 2009 4:57 pm

    I expect contradiction pretty much in everyone.

    It seems that you’re sort of directing this conversation in a different direction. I originally wrote about whether or not wealth is in principle a bad thing for Marxists, but it seems like you’re talking about who speaks for Marxism.

    Eh, I guess these concerns are inevitably somewhat intertwined …

  17. September 16, 2009 3:35 am

    I’d say a little more than somewhat. Surely the purpose of your friend’s story was to highlight the contradiction in, if not outright hypocrisy of, the Marxist professor who had a lake cottage and a servant.

    Flowing from that are questions over whether or not it really is a contradiction, and what response should such a contradiction evoke from the rest of us when it comes to what such a person might say in defence of their ideology.

    My point was to outline that internalized contradictions between external circumstances is probably necessary in order to properly accede to such a radical political ideology as Marxism – though that doesn’t speak to how consistently we can or should keep to that ideology in the present.

    I don’t think that wealth is inherently ‘bad’, anymore than the individuals who own wealth are inherently ‘bad’ – but I think that being wealthy and thereby being insulated from class struggle and the battles of other workers could impinge upon how someone ‘speaks for Marxism’ as you put it.

    And really, since the significance of such professors is only that they speak for their chosen ideology, that is all the extent to which we should be interested.

  18. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    September 16, 2009 5:57 pm

    Dave, I think I agree with much of what you’re saying, except I might quibble with the last bit. I personally reach out to economically underprivileged students at my school, and I probably extend support to them that I wouldn’t give to other students. In doing so, I think I’m doing more than merely serving as a spokesperson for an ideology.

    However, you are right that as a professor I am largely divorced from class struggle—except insofar as, like almost all colleges, my college exploits adjunct labor.

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