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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/You don’t need a revolution for that: An interview with Louis Menand

You don’t need a revolution for that: An interview with Louis Menand

C. Philip Mills

Platypus Review 154 | March 2023

On September 15, 2020, Platypus Affiliated Society Member C. Philip Mills interviewed Louis Menand, professor of English at Harvard University and author of The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (2001), an intellectual history of American pragmatism. An edited transcript follows.

C. Philip Mills: You wrote a moving foreword in the 2003 edition of Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History (1940).[1] We read excerpts from that introduction in Platypus reading groups. What drew you to that author and work?

Louis Menand: I read the book around 1975, and I really liked it. It made a big impression on me. About twenty years later, I was writing my own book on 19th century thought, and though I had not reread it, I had Wilson’s book as a model, as an ideal in my head. I thought I’d like to write a book like his. In 2003 when the New York Review of Books republished his book, they asked if I would write the introduction.

CPM: Near the end, you describe history as the “courtesan of every ideology.” Would you elaborate what you meant?

LM: Marxists think there’s a right side and a wrong side of history. If you’re on the wrong side, you’re in the dustbin. That’s how Marxists — at least Soviet Marxists — thought, and that leads to authoritarianism. Anyone thinking, “I know the right way and other people don’t because they’re victims of false consciousness, so I have to tell them how to get there, and possibly even force them a little bit” — that’s dangerous. Where do you come off knowing you’re on the right side of history? History is higgledy-piggledy. It’s not like there’s only one way.

CPM: You talk about Edmund Wilson as someone who spins history as narrative, because he necessarily must narrate to be a good historian. Speaking as a writer today, what do you think the general value is of creating history as narrative with a certain arc?

LM: That’s how you write history. It’s artificial, but it gives some shape to the past. You can’t just write down everything that happened. You must see significance in a certain chain of events and connect the dots. But there are many other dots out there.

CPM: There is a postmodern trend today of digging through archives to string new narratives together. It uses the phraseology of “a hidden history,” or “archaeology in literature,” Foucauldian such-and-such. Do you view value in that as well?

LM: Yes, it has value as an alternative narrative. There’s a dominant narrative, or several dominant narratives, but there’s always a suppressed narrative, a different narrative, an alternative narrative, a counter-narrative. It’s good to find those too. They tell you different things than the dominant narrative tells you.

CPM: Switching to Marxism, you make a point — I’m not sure if it’s your own point or Edmund Wilson’s — that the labor theory of value (LTV) is the main flaw of Marx’s Capital (1867), and by extension Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776). Do you still hold that view, or do you want to extrapolate what you mean by that?

LM: The labor theory of value as they understood it in the 19th century was that the price of a commodity reflects the amount of labor needed to create it. That’s just obviously not true. No economist thinks that anymore. But that’s how Marx got the notion of surplus value. This whole theory of the contradiction of capitalism is built on this notion of surplus value, which is built on this LTV. It just doesn’t make sense. If I have a rare commodity, then it’s valuable. The amount of labor that was required to create it doesn't have anything to do with how much money I could pay for it. Is there something wrong about that? I don’t think so. We try to get scarce things. But we don’t say to ourselves, “I’m paying a lot for this even though the person didn’t do any work.” I’ll give you an example. I’m publishing a book, and to publish the book I have some photographs that I want to reproduce. I have to write to these various companies that own the copyright to these photographs. You can’t reprint them without paying them a fee. There’s zero labor. They’re not doing any work. But they get hundreds of dollars every time I want to reprint their photograph. Do I complain about that? I complain about it, but is it unfair? No.

CPM: You write that “Marx was a great hater, and Wilson identified with this.” Would you elaborate?

LM: Wilson didn’t suffer fools. He didn’t like to be put upon. He was an independent-minded character like a lot of journalists are. And as he became famous for rebuffing advances on his time. That’s not the same as Marx, but he identified with that irascibility. Marx wasn’t like that as a person, but as a writer and political thinker, certainly. Wilson is very critical of Marx. His discussion of Capital is really good, apart from the dialectic part.

CPM: You very bluntly state that Wilson didn’t understand Hegelianism or the dialectic.

LM: He admitted it. He wrote to his college teacher and said, “I can’t do German philosophy.” He’s a journalist. He didn’t think like a philosopher.

CPM: Part of your introduction we read in Platypus is the passage where you write, “Marxism gave meaning to modernity,” that Marxism showed the potential for a “second Enlightenment.” Do you think that a second Enlightenment would be of value in modernity?

LM: Did I say something about a second Enlightenment?

CPM: The line goes, “[Wilson] believed, when he started his book, that Marx and Engels were the philosophes of a second Enlightenment.”

LM: The essence of Enlightenment thought is transparency and rationality. Transparency means that I have an objective understanding of my social condition. If you don’t have that, you’re a prisoner of somebody else’s idea of you. The goal of Enlightenment thought is to allow you to understand where you are without illusions. That was Marx’s goal too. He thought that what was happening in Europe in the middle of the 19th century was that conditions would be created where the working class could see their real position in the social formation. Being able to see your real position allows you to take action to change it. But if you’re living in the myth of the naturalness of the social arrangement that you’re in, you feel powerless to change it. In that sense, Marx was an Enlightenment thinker. People used to look at nature because they thought nature gives us the model for what it means to be alive, to be. Marx looked to history. History is what gives your life meaning because you’re playing a role in a historical drama that most people don’t understand. But you can understand it, because I’ll explain it to you, and you’ll have a knowledge of what your real role is in society. The fact that there’s a historical drama that’s coherent as a telos — communism — gives meaning to your life. That’s why he gives meaning to modernity, and for a hundred years that was a very powerful idea in Western countries in Europe.

CPM: It seems like with the dissolution of Marxism as a political project, there is a negative space for meaning in people’s lives. It seems we’re still living in modernity, but without the meaning Marxism gave to it. Would Marxism, if resurrected today, give a meaning to the present? Is a new political project necessary for this?

LM: Yes, you can resurrect 19th century thought today. Marx understood globalization. He would understand what we call neoliberalism. But he didn’t understand a lot of things, and that could have a huge effect on people’s self-understanding. You would need to have a supplement to that kind of thought.

CPM: Are there elements of Marxism that you think warrant recovery?

LM: This idea of enabling people to see their real social position without obfuscation or mystification. Marx isn’t the only person who thought that was important. It is also worth remembering, as Marx says in the Communist Manifesto (1848), that the globalization of capitalism produced enormous benefits for many people and was a superior mode of production to feudalism. But it reached a point where it had created this class division that was inhumane and needed to be overcome. We’re looking at that now. Wealth gaps are a global problem. Is it going to bite us in the ass before we do something about it? Marx was not alone in thinking that, but it’s one of the things that he thought a lot about. Why do people suffer where there is affluence? It’s hard to explain, and it shouldn’t be that way, but it is. Is it that way endemically? Is it the way the economic system that we have must function, and is it something that can be fixed without just blowing everything up? A lot of people in the world think we have to blow it all up right now. They are not progressive people — they are reactionaries.

CPM: What do you think is required to make people conscious of their position in society?

LM: We’re talking about it, and people will listen to us. One thing we lack is leadership on the progressive side. There are figures out there, but they’re not transcendent leaders. You know when transcendent leaders come along. They’re not just doing it by themselves, and they articulate their position in a way that doesn’t sound partisan. People believe it: “yes, this is the way we should go.” Then you get votes, which gets you control of the legislative branch, and you can pass laws. We’re not passing any laws right now. We’re in the hands of the executive branch and the courts. That’s not very democratic. It is hard to just say, “get enlightened by your politics,” because most people don’t think about politics in the way that you and I do, who are basically ideologues. Most people respond to other things, and you want to give them a reason to feel they have a stake in a certain kind of social change so they’ll support it. But if they feel that the changes you’re proposing are going to benefit somebody who is not like them, which is currently what a lot of voters think, you’re not going to get very far. No white evangelical gun-owner thinks Elizabeth Warren is going to be on his or her side, and they’re not wrong. You need somebody who persuades you, saying, “what I’m gonna do is gonna be good for you, and it’s not gonna hurt.” Right now, the Democratic Party doesn’t have people like that. Neither does the Republican Party. That’s why it’s so divisive.

CPM: There’s a point in your foreword where you’re quoting Wilson quoting Trotsky, where Trotsky is denouncing the Mensheviks, that they’ve been “thrown in the trash bin of history,” but Wilson says that sometimes things must be retrieved from this trash bin. Would you say from the standpoint of 2020 that Marxism is something worth pulling from the trash bin of history?

LM: Yes, definitely. But the idea that Marx and all these socialist thinkers had in the 19th century was that they understood the law of history. That assumption is not worth salvaging. There is no law of history. That is just a dream they had. But if you read the Communist Manifesto now, it is incredibly relevant today. It’s all about the division between the rich and the poor, about the crisis of neoliberal capitalism. Much of what Marx saw is what we still see in the economic world that we live in. The whole idea about the dialectic, and the inevitable coming of the classless society—that is not worth resurrecting.

CPM: What do you think would be necessary for Marxism to be successful in a revolutionary context today?

LM: I don’t see how you could possibly have a classless society, so if that’s a goal, then I don’t know. We could get a more equitable society — we should get a more equitable society. But you’re not going to get communism, the abolition of private property, an end to the division of labor. I don’t see that. But that shouldn’t be the issue right now. The issue should be equity in the distribution of wealth. You don’t need a revolution for that. You just need congress.

CPM: Is there work to be done beyond just creating equity in society? Mere “equity in society” seems to be something that the bourgeois revolutions and the first Enlightenment promised. If equity is the goal, then what is the relevance of Marxism today?

LM: Marx saw that capitalism produces a certain kind of class structure that it reifies as natural and inevitable. It's inevitable that there’ll be poor people and wealthy people. It’s inevitable that there’ll be property owners and people that sell their labor to the property owners. Marx says that is all an illusion; it’s just fake. We make it up and we believe in it, and we think we can’t change it. That’s the view of all radical thought: that you can change it. We could change the tax system right now if we had a willing congress to do it, but we can’t. But it’s not like it’s impossible to do. We don’t need to overthrow Donald Trump. We need to un-elect him, but we don’t need to put him on a guillotine or anything. But for 19th century people, like Marx and Engels, the model of historical change was the French Revolution, which was a bloody revolution. They thought revolutions just are violent: you must overthrow a whole class of people, killing a lot of them, seizing their possessions. We don’t think of revolution or change in that way anymore. It is not inevitable that change has to be violent.

CPM: Do you think that it could end up that way again?

LM: Could there be violence? Sure.

CPM: Do you think the current ideology is so reified that it makes change impossible and violence likely?

LM: That’s a complicated question. The ideology we’re talking about was more naturalized fifty years ago than it is now. If people asked, “can you change capitalism?” fifty years ago, most people would’ve said, “no that’s just the way things have to be.” That’s not true anymore. But nobody knows what things would look like if you replaced the status quo with something else. It’s just confusing right now. There’s no program of action. The Occupy Wall Street movement had no ideology. It represented some kind of protest, but it didn’t have a plan.

CPM: Wilson first encountered Marxism not through the press around 1917 and the Russian Revolution, but through its aftermath with Trotsky coming to America and visiting with the New York Trotskyists. Comparing Wilson’s originally very positive impression of Marxism with how you describe his 1972 introduction to his book where he shows disappointment, what was the impact of American Trotskyism on him?

LM: I don’t think Wilson was a Trotskyist, but his friends were, so he was in that circle. Trotsky was an alternative to Stalin, so what the New York Marxists wanted to believe was that Stalin had betrayed Marxism, and created this corrupted version of communism, which was what they called state capitalism. They also wanted to believe Trotsky was carrying the true flame of the Bolshevik Revolution in exile, that he was the prophet. There was a huge attraction to Trotsky as a totally doctrinaire Marxist thinker who was not associated with the crimes of Stalin. The American Left in the 30s was divided between Communists or fellow travelers, and Trotskyists. Trotsky, during the period he was in exile in Mexico, even before that but especially then, had a lot of American sympathy from intellectuals. Wilson doesn’t treat Trotsky well in his book, which is strange because Trotsky would’ve been a hero for most of these people. Then Trotsky gets assassinated, and World War II begins, and that whole world disappears.

CPM: You say Wilson never became an anti-communist though.

LM: No, he didn’t. He was anti-communist in the way most liberals were, but he didn’t become a neoconservative or militant anti-communist. He was an anti-interventionist.

CPM: Why do you think Wilson didn’t treat Trotsky himself well in the book?

LM: I don’t know. It’s a mystery to me. The arc of the story is that the principles of the French Revolution of 1789 were betrayed by Napoleon. This ushers in this long period in Europe of backlash and romanticism against the French Revolution. In this world in which there’s monarchical resurgence and suppression of political and democratic movements, socialist thought in hiding comes up with something that turns into Marxist theory. This catches on not in Germany, where Marx and Engels thought it would, but in Russia with Lenin. Then it becomes the basis of the Russian Revolution, but the end of Wilson’s book should therefore be that the principles of socialism were betrayed by Lenin. But it’s not. The end of the book is Lenin as the hero of the story, because he embodies the whole intellectual tradition of which he is the climax. Wilson didn’t make Trotsky the hero of the book. It’s a little odd because he makes Lenin the hero of the book, but Lenin is as bad as Stalin in many ways. In the 1972 introduction Wilson takes back a lot of the things he said about Lenin, which he should’ve known better than to say, even in 1940. Lenin used show trials, he tortured, he exterminated his enemies, he had concentration camps. Stalin was worse in certain respects, his record was longer, but Lenin was also a totalitarian dictator. The idea that Lenin embodied the true spirit of socialism and was running a classless society with state ownership of property is just false. He seized power. He may have thought, as Stalin probably thought too, that they were running the country until the country was ready for real communism. But I doubt it. He controlled the truth and defined Soviet society the way he wanted to. Stalin was a more brutal dictator and he had a longer record of atrocity, because he was dictator for much longer. The idea that Lenin was some kind of democratic hero is false. Wilson realized that later, and he probably knew that even when he was finishing the book, but he didn’t change the way he designed it. |P

Edited by Ethan Linehan

[1] Louis Menand, “Foreword: The Historical Romance,” in Edmund Wilson, To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History (New York: New York Review Books, 2003).