Jan 222018
 

Today is the birthday (1891) of Antonio Francesco Gramsci, Sardinian-born, Italian social theorist best remembered for his concept of cultural hegemony. He is sometimes characterized as a Marxist, sometimes a neo-Marxist, because he accepted the historical reality of class struggle, and a need for a revolution for equality by the working class. But he did not accept Marx’s view of the inevitability of proletarian revolution, nor of Marx’s theory of economic determinism. He was arrested and imprisoned by Mussolini as a dangerous intellectual, and during his imprisonment he wrote more than 30 notebooks (over 3,000 pages), of history and social analysis. His Prison Notebooks are considered a major contribution to 20th century economic, social, and political theory.

Gramsci was born in Ales, on the island of Sardinia, the fourth of seven sons of Francesco Gramsci (1860–1937). Francesco was a low-level government official of Albanian descent who was always in financial difficulty, and was eventually imprisoned for embezzlement. Gramsci had to abandon schooling and work at various casual jobs until his father’s release in 1904. As a boy, Gramsci suffered from health problems, particularly a malformation of the spine that stunted his growth (his adult height was less than 5 feet) and left him seriously hunchbacked. Gramsci was also plagued by various internal disorders throughout his life.

Gramsci completed secondary school in Cagliari, where he lodged with his elder brother Gennaro, a former soldier whose time on the mainland had made him a militant socialist. However, Gramsci’s sympathies then did not lie with socialism, but rather with the grievances of impoverished Sardinian peasants and miners. They perceived their neglect as a result of privileges enjoyed by the rapidly industrializing North, and they tended to turn to a growing Sardinian nationalism which was brutally repressed by troops from the Italian mainland. In 1911, Gramsci won a scholarship to study at the University of Turin. He studied literature and took a keen interest in linguistics, which he studied under Matteo Bartoli. Gramsci was in Turin as it was going through industrialization, with the Fiat and Lancia factories recruiting workers from poorer regions. Trade unions became established, and the first industrial social conflicts started to emerge. Gramsci frequented socialist circles as well as associating with Sardinian emigrants on the Italian mainland. Gramsci joined the Italian Socialist Party in late 1913, where he later occupied a key position.

Although showing talent for his studies, Gramsci had financial problems and poor health. Together with his growing political commitment, these led to his abandoning his education in early 1915. From 1914 onward, Gramsci’s writings for socialist newspapers such as Il Grido del Popolo earned him a reputation as a notable journalist. In 1916, he became co-editor of the Piedmont edition of Avanti!, the Socialist Party official organ. An articulate and prolific writer of political theory, Gramsci proved a formidable commentator, writing on all aspects of Turin’s social and political life. Gramsci was, at this time, also involved in the education and organization of Turin workers; he spoke in public for the first time in 1916 and gave talks on topics such as Romain Rolland, the French Revolution, the Paris Commune, and the emancipation of women. In the wake of the arrest of Socialist Party leaders that followed the revolutionary riots of August 1917, Gramsci became one of Turin’s leading socialists when he was both elected to the party’s Provisional Committee and made editor of Il Grido del Popolo.

In April 1919, with Togliatti, Angelo Tasca and Umberto Terracini, Gramsci set up the weekly newspaper L’Ordine Nuovo. In October the same year, despite being divided into various hostile factions, the Socialist Party moved by a large majority to join the Third International. The L’Ordine Nuovo group was seen by Vladimir Lenin as closest in orientation to the Bolsheviks, and it received his backing against the anti-parliamentary programme of the communist Amadeo Bordiga.

Among tactical debates within the party, Gramsci’s group was mainly distinguished by its advocacy of workers’ councils, which had come into existence in Turin spontaneously during the large strikes of 1919 and 1920. For Gramsci, these councils were the proper means of enabling workers to take control of the task of organizing production. The failure of the workers’ councils to develop into a national movement convinced Gramsci that a Communist Party in the Leninist sense was needed. The group around L’Ordine Nuovo declaimed incessantly against the Italian Socialist Party’s centrist leadership and ultimately allied with Bordiga’s far larger “abstentionist” faction. On 21 January 1921, in the town of Livorno, the Communist Party of Italy (Partito Comunista d’Italia – PCI) was founded. Gramsci supported against Bordiga the Arditi del Popolo, a militant anti-fascist group which opposed Mussolini’s Blackshirts. Gramsci was a leader of the party from its inception but was subordinate to Bordiga, whose emphasis on discipline, centralism and purity of principles dominated the party’s program until he lost the leadership in 1924

In 1922, Gramsci traveled to Russia as a representative of the new party. Here, he met Julia Schucht, a young violinist whom he married in 1923 and by whom he had two sons, Delio (born 1924) and Giuliano (born 1926). Gramsci never saw his second son. The Russian mission coincided with the advent of fascism in Italy, and Gramsci returned with instructions to foster, against the wishes of the PCI leadership, a united front of leftist parties against fascism. Such a front would ideally have had the PCI at its center, through which Moscow would have controlled all the leftist forces, but others disputed this potential supremacy: socialists did have a certain tradition in Italy, too, while the Communist Party seemed relatively young and too radical. Many believed that an eventual coalition led by communists would have functioned too remotely from political debate, and thus would have run the risk of isolation.

In late 1922 and early 1923, Benito Mussolini’s government embarked on a campaign of repression against the opposition parties, arresting most of the PCI leadership, including Bordiga. At the end of 1923, Gramsci travelled from Moscow to Vienna, where he tried to revive a party torn by factional strife. In 1924 Gramsci, now recognized as head of the PCI, gained election as a deputy for the Veneto. He started organizing the launch of the official newspaper of the party, called L’Unità, living in Rome while his family stayed in Moscow. At its Lyon Congress in January 1926, Gramsci’s theses calling for a united front to restore democracy to Italy were adopted by the party.

On 9th November 1926, the Fascist government enacted a new wave of emergency laws, taking as a pretext an alleged attempt on Mussolini’s life several days earlier. The fascist police arrested Gramsci, despite his parliamentary immunity, and brought him to the Roman prison Regina Coeli. At his trial, Gramsci’s prosecutor stated, “For twenty years we must stop this brain from functioning.” He received an immediate sentence of five years in confinement on the island of Ustica and the following year he received a sentence of 20 years’ imprisonment in Turi, near Bari. Over 11 years in prison, his health deteriorated. His teeth fell out, his digestive system collapsed so that he could not eat solid food. He had convulsions when he vomited blood, and suffered headaches so violent that he beat his head against the walls of his cell.

In 1933 he was moved from the prison at Turi to a clinic at Formia, but was still being denied adequate medical attention. Two years later he was moved to the Quisisana clinic in Rome. He was due for release on 21 April 1937 and planned to retire to Sardinia for convalescence, but a combination of arteriosclerosis, pulmonary tuberculosis, high blood pressure, angina, gout and acute gastric disorders meant that he was too ill to move. Gramsci died on 27 April 1937, at the age of 46. His ashes are buried in the Cimitero Acattolico in Rome.

Gramsci is best known for his theory of cultural hegemony, which describes how the state and ruling capitalist class – the bourgeoisie – use cultural institutions to maintain power in capitalist societies. The bourgeoisie in Gramsci’s view develops a hegemonic culture using ideology over and above violence, economic force, or coercion. Hegemonic culture propagates its own values and norms so that they become the “common sense” values of all and thus maintain the status quo. Hegemonic power is therefore used to maintain consent to the capitalist order, rather than coercive power using force to maintain order. This cultural hegemony is produced and reproduced by the dominant class through the institutions that form the superstructure.

Gramsci’s key point, as far as I am concerned, is that Marx’s conviction that the revolution of the working class against capitalism was an inevitable result of the forces of economic determinism, was in error. He believed that an intellectual revolution was an important precursor of social/economic revolution. To counter the notion that bourgeois values represented “natural” or “normal” values for society, the working class needed to develop a culture of its own. Lenin held that culture was “ancillary” to political objectives, but for Gramsci it was fundamental to the attainment of power that cultural hegemony be achieved first. In Gramsci’s view, a class cannot dominate in modern conditions by merely advancing its own narrow economic interests; neither can it dominate purely through force and coercion. Rather, it must exert intellectual and moral leadership.

In my oh-so-humble opinion, Gramsci hit the nail squarely on the head, especially in light of affairs in the West these days. Without too much provocation I could launch into a long rant. I’ll try to keep it short. Right now, moneyed interests control the media which means that they control the discourse. Media do not just include news outlets, but also entertainment. All these outlets reinforce the “normal” values of society, which at present include a distrust of intellectuals, and a distrust of education. Consequently, information that benefits moneyed interests – including misinformation and disinformation – can be disseminated with little or no critical reception by the general public.

Gramsci’s native Sardinia has a cuisine that overlaps that of mainland Italy, but with a few idiosyncrasies. One of these is a distinctive pasta called fregola or fregula. Fregola are semolina dough that has been rolled into balls 2–3 mm in diameter and toasted in an oven. Fregola with clams is a common dish in Sardinia. It is usually served with pane carasau, a thin and crisp flatbread.

Fregola con Vongole

Ingredients

4 dozen littleneck clams, rinsed and scrubbed
⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 cups tomato, diced (either canned or fresh plum tomatoes)
hot red pepper flakes
salt and pepper
1 cup white wine
coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley
4 cups chicken broth
2 cups fregola

Instructions

Heat the olive oil in a large heavy pot.  Add the minced garlic and cook over moderately high heat for approximately 30 seconds.  Add the chopped tomatoes, plus hot pepper flakes and pepper to taste.  Cook for 3 or 4 minutes.  Add the wine and parsley and simmer for 5 for minutes.

Place the clams, in a single layer, on top of the mixture and cover tightly. Cook over moderately high heat until the clams open, probably about 5 mins.  Discard any clams that do not open.  As they open, scoop out the clams into a large bowl.  Repeat with a second batch, if required.

When all the clams are cooked, add 4 cups of chicken broth to the tomatoes and bring to a boil.  Add the fregola pasta.  Bring back to a boil, then cover and simmer over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, until al dente (about 15 minutes).

Taste, and adjust seasonings. Usually extra salt is not necessary. Return the clams to reheat for a minute or two, then serve garnished with chopped parsley. If you can find it, serve with Sardinian flatbread.

May 032015
 

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Today is the birthday (1919) of Peter “Pete” Seeger. I’ll be quite up front about it: I dislike his music; I greatly admire his activism. He was also a really decent and friendly guy, despite all the fame. I’m going to focus here on his activism rather than his music even though they are entwined. In my mid-teens (1960’s) I was a genuine fan of the “folk scene;” all part of my nascent hippiedom. But it did not last long. My musical tastes drifted a good bit sideways to Tuvan throat singing and whatnot (still planning my first trip to Tuva when I can drum up the wherewithall to trek across Mongolia by yak). For now I content myself with old Chinese musicians playing ethereal melodies on one-string fiddles in the park on Sundays. My activist sentiments have not changed.

In 1936, at the age of 17, Pete Seeger joined the Young Communist League (YCL), then at the height of its popularity and influence. In 1942 he became a member of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) itself, but left in 1949.

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In the spring of 1941, the twenty-one-year-old Seeger performed as a member of the Almanac Singers along with Millard Lampell, Cisco Houston, Woody Guthrie, Butch and Bess Lomax Hawes, and Lee Hays. Seeger and the Almanacs cut several albums of 78s on Keynote and other labels, Songs for John Doe (recorded in late February or March and released in May 1941), the Talking Union, and an album each of sea shanties and pioneer songs. Written by Millard Lampell, Songs for John Doe was performed by Lampell, Seeger, and Hays, joined by Josh White and Sam Gary. It contained lines such as, “It wouldn’t be much thrill to die for Du Pont in Brazil,” that were sharply critical of Roosevelt’s unprecedented peacetime draft (enacted in September 1940). This anti-war/anti-draft tone reflected the Communist Party line after the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which maintained the war was “phony” and a mere pretext for big American corporations to get Hitler to attack Soviet Russia. Seeger has said he believed this line of argument at the time—as did many fellow members of the Young Communist League. Though nominally members of the Popular Front, which was allied with Roosevelt and more moderate liberals, the YCL’s members still smarted from Roosevelt and Churchill’s arms embargo to Loyalist Spain (which Roosevelt later called a mistake), and the alliance frayed in the confusing welter of events.

At that point, the U.S. had not yet entered the war but was energetically re-arming. African Americans were barred from working in defense plants, a situation that greatly angered both African Americans and white progressives. Civil rights leader A. J. Muste and black union leaders A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin began planning a huge march on Washington to protest racial discrimination in war industries and to urge desegregation of the armed forces. The march, which many regard as the first manifestation of the Civil Rights Movement, was canceled after President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 (The Fair Employment Act) of June 25, 1941, barring discrimination in hiring by companies holding federal contracts for defense work. This Presidential act defused black anger considerably, although the United States Army still refused to desegregate, declining to participate in what it considered social experimentation.

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Seeger served in the U.S. Army in the Pacific. He was trained as an airplane mechanic, but was reassigned to entertain the American troops with music. Later, when people asked him what he did in the war, he always answered “I strummed my banjo.” After returning from service, Seeger and others established People’s Songs, conceived as a nationwide organization with branches on both coasts and designed to “Create, promote and distribute songs of labor and the American People.” With Pete Seeger as its director, People’s Songs worked for the 1948 presidential campaign of Roosevelt’s former Secretary of Agriculture and Vice President, Henry A. Wallace, who ran as a third-party candidate on the Progressive Party ticket. Despite having attracted enormous crowds nationwide, however, Wallace won only in New York City, and, in the red-baiting frenzy that followed, he was excoriated (as Roosevelt had not been) for accepting the help in his campaign of Communists and fellow travelers such as Seeger and singer Paul Robeson.

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As a self-described “split tenor” (between an alto and a tenor), Pete Seeger was a founding member of two highly influential folk groups: The Almanac Singers and the Weavers. The Almanac Singers, which Seeger co-founded in 1941 with Millard Lampell and Arkansas singer and activist Lee Hays, was a topical group, designed to function as a singing newspaper promoting the industrial unionization movement, racial and religious inclusion, and other progressive causes. Its personnel included, at various times: Woody Guthrie, Bess Lomax Hawes, Sis Cunningham, Josh White, and Sam Gary. As a controversial Almanac singer, the 21-year-old Seeger performed under the stage name “Pete Bowers” to avoid compromising his father’s government career.

In the 1950s and, indeed, consistently throughout his life, Seeger continued his support of civil and labor rights, racial equality, international understanding, and anti-militarism (all of which had characterized the Wallace campaign) and he continued to believe that songs could help people achieve these goals. With the ever-growing revelations of Joseph Stalin’s atrocities and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, however, he became increasingly disillusioned with Soviet Communism. He left the CPUSA in 1949 but remained friends with some who did not leave it, though he argued with them about it.

Pete Seeger at the House Un-American Activites committee

On August 18, 1955, Seeger was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Alone among the many witnesses after the 1950 conviction and imprisonment of the Hollywood Ten for contempt of Congress, Seeger refused to plead the Fifth Amendment (which would have asserted that his testimony might be self incriminating) and instead, as the Hollywood Ten had done, refused to name personal and political associations on the grounds that this would violate his First Amendment rights: “I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.” Seeger’s refusal to answer questions that violated his fundamental Constitutional rights led to a March 26, 1957, indictment for contempt of Congress; for some years, he had to keep the federal government apprised of where he was going any time he left the Southern District of New York. He was convicted in a jury trial of contempt of Congress in March 1961, and sentenced to ten 1-year terms in jail (to be served simultaneously), but in May 1962 an appeals court ruled the indictment to be flawed and overturned his conviction.

A longstanding opponent of the arms race and of the Vietnam War, Seeger satirically attacked then-President Lyndon Johnson with his 1966 recording, on the album Dangerous Songs!?, of Len Chandler’s children’s song, “Beans in My Ears”. Beyond Chandler’s lyrics, Seeger said that “Mrs. Jay’s little son Alby” had “beans in his ears,” which, as the lyrics imply, ensures that a person does not hear what is said to them. To those opposed to continuing the Vietnam War, the phrase implied that “Alby Jay”, a loose pronunciation of Johnson’s nickname “LBJ,” did not listen to anti-war protests as he too had “beans in his ears”.

During 1966 Seeger and Malvina Reynolds took part in environmental activism. The album God Bless the Grass was released on January of that year and became the first album in history wholly dedicated to songs about environmental issues. Their politics were informed by the same ideologies of nationalism, populism, and criticism of big business.

Seeger attracted wider attention starting in 1967 with his song “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”, about a captain—referred to in the lyrics as “the big fool”—who drowned while leading a platoon on maneuvers in Louisiana during World War II. With its lyrics about a platoon being led into danger by an ignorant captain, the song’s anti-war message was obvious- the line “the big fool said to push on” is repeated several times. In the face of arguments with the management of CBS about whether the song’s political weight was in keeping with the usually light-hearted entertainment of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, the final lines were “Every time I read the paper/those old feelings come on/We are waist deep in the Big Muddy and the big fool says to push on.”

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In 1982, Seeger performed at a benefit concert for Poland’s Solidarity resistance movement. His biographer David Dunaway considers this the first public manifestation of Seeger’s decades-long personal dislike of communism in its Soviet form. In the late 1980s Seeger also expressed disapproval of violent revolutions, remarking to an interviewer that he was really in favor of incremental change and that “the most lasting revolutions are those that take place over a period of time.” In a 1995 interview he insisted, “I still call myself a communist, because communism is no more what Russia made of it than Christianity is what the churches make of it.”

Over the years he lent his fame to support numerous environmental organizations, including South Jersey’s Bayshore Center, the home of New Jersey’s tall ship, the oyster schooner A.J. Meerwald. Seeger’s benefit concerts helped raise funds for groups so they could continue to educate and spread environmental awareness.

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On May 3, 2009, at the Clearwater Concert, dozens of musicians gathered in New York at Madison Square Garden to celebrate Seeger’s 90th birthday (which was later televised on PBS during the summer), ranging from Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp, Billy Bragg, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Morello, Eric Weissberg, Ani DiFranco and Roger McGuinn to Joan Baez, Richie Havens, Joanne Shenandoah, R. Carlos Nakai, Bill Miller, Joseph Fire Crow, Margo Thunderbird, Tom Paxton, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Arlo Guthrie. Cuban singer-songwriter Silvio Rodríguez was also invited to appear but his visa was not approved in time by the United States government. Consistent with Seeger’s long-time advocacy for environmental concerns, the proceeds from the event benefited the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, a non-profit organization founded by Seeger in 1966, to defend and restore the Hudson River.

Seeger died at New York-Presbyterian Hospital,on January 27, 2014, at the age of 94. Response and reaction to Seeger’s death quickly poured in. President Barack Obama noted that Seeger had been called “America’s tuning fork” and that he believed in “the power of song” to bring social change, “Over the years, Pete used his voice and his hammer to strike blows for workers’ rights and civil rights; world peace and environmental conservation, and he always invited us to sing along. For reminding us where we come from and showing us where we need to go, we will always be grateful to Pete Seeger.” Folksinger Billy Bragg wrote that: “Pete believed that music could make a difference. Not change the world, he never claimed that – he once said that if music could change the world he’d only be making music – but he believed that while music didn’t have agency, it did have the power to make a difference.” Bruce Springsteen said of Seeger’s death, “I lost a great friend and a great hero last night, Pete Seeger”, before performing “We Shall Overcome” while on tour in South Africa.

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Seeger lived on the Hudson River in Beacon, NY for many years, and, of course the Hudson River valley was one of his favorite spots. I lived a little south of him and would stop by once in a while (courtesy of an odd family connexion between him and my late wife). One of my fondest memories of the region is the pick-your-own apple orchards. Yearly outings with my son were a special treat for him (“Dad, when can we go pick apples?”). So, I’d say do something with apples in honor of Pete even though it is the wrong season. My local orchard sold unpasteurized cider which fermented into a fizzy drink within days. Delicious. I can’t tell you how many ways I cooked those apples, my favorite being apple crumble (see http://www.bookofdaystales.com/samuel-johnson/).

When I used to roast a Christmas goose I always stuffed it with sliced apples tossed in powdered cinnamon, allspice and cloves (sage and onion “stuffing” I roasted on the side to avoid the excessive fat inside the goose). As a side dish I made red cabbage and apples. We were a small family for Christmas dinner; Boxing Day was the big blowout. In consequence I made only a little (plenty of other side dishes).

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© Red Cabbage and Apples.

Thinly slice ½ a red cabbage and toss it with thick slices of peeled apples. Let sit in a bowl covered in water acidulated with lemon juice. This stops the apples from browning and keeps the cabbage bright when cooking. After an hour or so, drain the apple-cabbage mixture and place in a stainless steel pan over medium heat. Add a knob of butter and a dusting of powdered cloves. Let cook gently for 10 to 15 minutes. You want the cabbage to retain some crunchiness. Serve in a heated bowl as a side dish for any fatty meat such as goose or pork.

May 052014
 

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Today is the birthday (1818) of Karl Heinrich Marx, German philosopher, economist, sociologist, historian, journalist, and revolutionary socialist. Marx’s work in economics laid the basis for the current understanding of labor and its relation to capital, and has influenced much of subsequent economic thought. He published numerous works during his lifetime, the most well known being The Communist Manifesto (with Friedrich Engels) and Das Kapital (Capital).

Marx was born into a wealthy middle-class family in Trier in the Prussian Rhineland and studied at the University of Bonn and the University of Berlin, where he became interested in the philosophical ideas of the Young Hegelians. After his studies, he wrote for a radical newspaper in Cologne, and began to work out his theory of dialectical materialism. He moved to Paris in 1843, where he began writing for other radical newspapers and met Friedrich Engels, who would become his lifelong friend and collaborator. In 1849 he was exiled, and moved to London together with his wife and children where he continued writing and formulating his theories about social and economic activity. He also campaigned for socialism and became a significant figure in the International Workingmen’s Association.

Marx's daughters

Marx’s daughters

Marx’s theories about society, economics and politics hold, famously, that human history is the history of class struggle: a conflict between an ownership class that controls production and a dispossessed laboring class that provides the labor for production. He called capitalism the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie,” believing it to be run by the wealthy classes for their own benefit; and he predicted that, like previous socioeconomic systems, capitalism produced internal tensions which would lead to its self-destruction and replacement by a new system: socialism. He argued that class antagonisms under capitalism between the bourgeoisie and proletariat would eventuate in the working class’s conquest of political power in the form of a “dictatorship of the proletariat” and eventually establish a classless society, socialism or communism, a society governed by a free association of producers. Along with believing in the inevitability of socialism and communism, Marx actively fought for their implementation, arguing that social theorists and underprivileged people alike should carry out organized revolutionary action to topple capitalism and bring about socio-economic change.

Following the death of his wife, Jenny, in December 1881, Marx developed a catarrh that kept him in ill health for the last 15 months of his life. It eventually brought on the bronchitis and pleurisy that killed him in London on 14 March 1883. He died a stateless person; family and friends in London buried his body in Highgate Cemetery in London, on 17 March 1883. There were between nine and eleven mourners at his funeral.

Several of his closest friends spoke at his funeral, including Wilhelm Liebknecht and Friedrich Engels. Engels’ speech included the passage:

On the 14th of March, at a quarter to three in the afternoon, the greatest living thinker ceased to think. He had been left alone for scarcely two minutes, and when we came back we found him in his armchair, peacefully gone to sleep – but forever.

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Marx is justifiably considered one of the most influential figures in human history. Revolutionary socialist governments espousing (their interpretation of) Marxist concepts, took power in a number of countries in the 20th century, leading to the formation of such socialist states as the Soviet Union in 1922 and the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Many labor unions and workers’ parties worldwide are influenced by Marxism, while various theoretical variants, such as Leninism, Stalinism, Trotskyism, Maoism, and Dengism were developed from them. Marx is typically cited, along with Émile Durkheim and Max Weber, as one of the three principal architects of modern social science.

Rather than attempting to summarize Marx’s theoretical work here, I am going to give a short personal appraisal based on my own reading and teaching of his work. For years I taught Marx both in general education classes for freshmen and in advanced social theory classes for sociology and anthropology majors. Here I am going to summarize a few of my major themes.

I will begin by saying that there is a wide gulf between Marx and Marxism, the latter coming in a kaleidoscope of colors. There is a wide gulf between all profound thinkers and their followers: Freud was not a Freudian, Darwin was not a Darwinian, and Jesus Christ was not a Christian. Marx himself is reported to have said that he was not a Marxist. The problem with all original thinkers is that their works are voluminous and complex, and their ideas can sprawl all over the place. Frequently earlier thoughts are revised, and sometimes even contradicted by later ones. What happens, though, is that disciples narrow down a dense and complicated body of work into bumper stickers. What is, in reality, a nuanced and detailed set of reflections becomes distilled into a set of “core principles” which become identified with the original thinkers as the totality of their philosophy, whereas such principles are always simplistic, and sometimes outright mistaken.

As a social scientist myself, I’m given to believe that this distillation into “core principles” is inevitable. Anthropologists have written a great deal about the process of moving from the first generation (the original thinkers) to the second generation (the followers). The first generation is full of free flowing ideas that tumble out every which way; the second generation has to make sense of it all and put the ideas into practice. Quite commonly second generation thinkers are more rigid than the first generation, and do not always understand the message of the first generation. If you want to understand Marx, read what he wrote and not what Marxists have written.

The most damaging delusion concerning what Marx wrote is to equate his philosophy with the governing principles of communist states that emerged in the 20th century, such as the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. Marx most emphatically did NOT advocate totalitarian, repressive regimes as a replacement of capitalism. This is a hideous distortion of what he wanted from social revolution. When he talked about “the dictatorship of the proletariat” he was not suggesting that one form of tyranny, the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, should be replaced by another. He was suggesting just the opposite: his vision of communism was a state of affairs in which workers were free and happy. Because the word “communism” has taken on such a perverted meaning since the 20th century it might be better to find a different word to denote Marx’s vision of a new order.

My second summary point is that because most people do not read Marx, but think of him in terms of bumper stickers, they not only misunderstand what he wrote, but as often as not agree with him even though they think they don’t. When you feel as if you are oppressed by your job and that all you are doing is enriching others, you are thinking like Marx. When you decry the crass materialism of Christmas, you are thinking like Marx. When you lack a sense of self esteem because your worth as a person is dependent on your place in a system you do not control, you are thinking like Marx. What is more, the economic theories of the left AND the right use Marx in one way or another. A colleague of mine specializing in political economy once said “I don’t know of a Wall Street banker who is not a Marxist,” meaning not that Wall Street bankers believe in the redistribution of wealth, but that they use Marx’s principles – unknowingly – in their economic dealings.

I am not a Marxist (or any other kind of “-ist”), but there are many ideas he proposed or espoused that I am sympathetic to. Perhaps chief of these is his notion of “value,” more specifically the difference between “use value” and “exchange value.” The use value of an object is its value to YOU. A chef’s knife is a critical tool in the daily work of a professional chef; but may be an object that lies unused in the drawer of an indifferent home cook. Their use value is quite different to the two owners, but the two knives cost the same amount at the store. Their cost is their exchange value – or market value. Or take a different kind of example. You may own a piece of costume jewelry that means worlds to you because it was owned by your great grandmother, so its use value (emotional use) is extremely high, yet it is virtually worthless in the market place. A major social problem arises, according to Marx, when we confuse use value and exchange value – or, rather, when we believe that the ONLY value of an object is its exchange value. The deepest tragedy of all is when we come to believe that our personal worth is determined by what we can sell our labor for in the marketplace, and that what we can afford to buy is the measure of our worth as human beings.

I’m not in a position to teach you much about Marx in a few paragraphs. All I can hope to do is to motivate you to want to know more about his works. If you read Marx with a fresh eye, and not in the shadow of history, you will undoubtedly find words that inspire and engage you, words that make you think more deeply about the world in which we live, and about yourself.

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My researches revealed that Marx was partial to fish, but his favorite dish was pickled beets with hollandaise sauce. You have to be a little skeptical of such pronouncements, but I’ll work with what I have and suggest a dish of poached salmon with pickled beets in hollandaise as a side dish. My photo shows pejerrey (Argentine smelts) as the fish because salmon is rather pricey nowadays in Argentina. I gave a recipe for hollandaise two days ago (3 May 2014), so I do not need to repeat it, and poaching salmon (or other fish) should not raise any issues. So here is the basic method for pickling beets if you don’t want to buy them. If you happen to be close to a good kosher deli, I’d get them there.

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Pickled Beets

Ingredients:

1 large red onion, peeled, halved, and sliced
1 cup tarragon wine vinegar
1 ½ tsps kosher salt
½ cup sugar
1 cup water

For roasted beets:

6 medium beets
2 large shallots, peeled
2 sprigs rosemary
2 teaspoons olive oil

Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 350°F/175°C.

Scrub the beets well and cut the tops off. Mix them with the rest of the roasting ingredients so that they are lightly coated with oil, and then place them in a tightly sealed foil pack and roast for 40 minutes in the oven.

Let the beets cool slightly and peel them. The skins should just rub off. Then slice them.

Layer the beets and sliced onion alternately in mason jars.

Bring the vinegar, salt, sugar, and water to a boil. Pour the mixture over the beets and seal the jars.

They can be eaten after 3 days, but 7 is better; and they will keep for up to 1 month.