Pop the Left #7: Breaking Marx

by Douglass Lain on July 12, 2013

This month’s Pop the Left features a conversation about C. Derick Varn’s feelings and thoughts on and against what he calls “political Marxism.” The conversation wanders in a process that is a bit like free association and then again nothing like it.

You’ll hear clips from my daughter’s favorite authorJohn Green on the question of the Renaissance, clips from Philip K. Dick and Big Time TV on the Black Iron Prison, and a discussion of the repetition compulsion and psychoanalysis.

I want to thank listeners who have supported my Kickstarter campaign for the Think the Impossible tour. As most of you know, I’m Douglas Lain and I’m the co-host of Pop the Left and the host of a podcast called Diet Soap. I’m also a novelist and my book for MacMillan called Billy Moon tells the story of Christopher Robin Milne’s entirely fictional involvement with the student/worker strikes of May 1968. When I go on the Think the Impossible Tour, I will take both my novel and my podcast to San Francisco, Chicago, and New York.

In the last week there were seven backers and I want to thank: Chris L, Shauna R, Tom W, Charlotte K, Claire M, Damian K, and the cyberpunk author Rudy Rucker.

If you like Pop the Left, backing Think the Impossible is a great way to show it.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Marq Dyeth July 12, 2013 at 3:22 pm

Mr. Varn, Mr. Lain,

This is all very interesting, and you both seem to be very smart, even though I think your perspective on kinship is pretty darn conservative. But i’m curious about something. If all the history and philosophy you’ve studied has proved to be one disappointment after another, what then is to be done?

And if we don’t know the answer to that question, how can we go about trying to answer it? Traditionally in leftist movements the approach has not been ‘to think it through’ but rather to engage in real struggles in the real world, and to evaluate those struggles with people you trust in a systematic way. From practice to theory and back again. Towards the end of solving problems in peoples lives, including your own.

If you don’t know what the question even is, let me suggest that you will not advance further than you have on the basis of study alone. There are many movements who are engaged in hard-fought struggles who at this moment would welcome the participation of educated and articulate individuals such as yourselves. Any relationships of trust that might emerge would be mutually beneficial.

You know, Thesis 11, what Luxemburg said about struggle as a school, and, well… hic Rhodus, hic salta. Otherwise, what is this all about?


Derick Varn July 14, 2013 at 3:21 am

It is about establishing orders of understanding to enable “struggle” instead of merely reinforcing strategies that have no worked. It is not to debunk everything by any means: in fact, the next episode we’re already talk about something strategic.


Douglas Lain July 16, 2013 at 10:37 pm

Marq: I’m curious what you find conservative about our views on kinship? Also, when it comes to engaging in real struggles in the real world, I’d like to do that very much, but I’m also deluded enough to want my struggle to contribute to revolutionary change. Which movements do you think we should join?


Marq Dyeth July 16, 2013 at 11:36 pm

Douglas: The gist is that I felt like, listening to your conversation, that you view kinship as being prior to and basal to society and extra-kin relationships. So that, when liberalism fails to get a good foundation, or when state socialism is overthrown, the preexisting kinship structures are all people have to fall back on. So you get atavism, irrationality, barbarism.

But I think this underemphasizes how much work it takes to upkeep and maintain notions of kinship, and how they do not come ‘before’ or exist ‘below’ society (just meaning gesellschaft, here) but are mutually constitutive of it and by it. The forms of kinship that you outline in the Liberian or Yugoslav civil wars are not cultural survivals. They are modern: all too modern. It’s an old saw at this point to observe that nationalism is modern. What is maybe less obvious (because we are till living through it) is that what you identify as ‘tribalism’ is late-modern, or post-modern, or whatever you call the world since 1972.

The reason I see your position as conservative is because it sets up an implicit evolutionism in the categorization of human organization where kinship is an early form, civil society is more developed, and the universal community of humanity is the highest and most developed ideal. From my perspective these forms do indeed exist, but in a relationship of tension with one another, not as a series where each supersedes the next (progress) or fall back into its antecedent (decay/decadence.) The Zetas and everything that is happening to Mexico is not a reversion to an earlier cultural form. It’s what’s now.

Also, to say that nothing good has come out of the 20th century struggles for national liberation is a textbook conservative thing to say. Ask the question to veterans of national liberation struggles in Central America, Africa, Palestine. Or heck, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Greece. I think the comrades there would have a more complicated opinion. Partial victories and tragic betrayals is not the same thing as nothing good.

I hope that I am not distorting your views too much. Let me know if this is not accurate.

Now, the question about wanting to engage in political work, but also, not unreasonably, wanting to contribute to revolutionary change. Well, yeah. That’s the tricky part, isn’t it? And it looks pretty bleak out there, as far as what you have to choose from. I agree with you.

The only thing I can say about that is something a mentor told me once, which was that I had to look inside myself and inside my group and determine what would have to be different about America for me to feel whole. And that if I did that I would find common cause with the poor.

Schools should educate kids to develop and exercise their full potential as humans, police should protect and serve the community, politicians should represent the interests of the governed. Even by the minimal bourgeois standards of these institutions they are failures. And no-one even pretends otherwise except on tv. So what would need to be different about them for them to do what they say they are supposed to do? And what would be necessary to do in order to change them?


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