Dead White Reds

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Matt Karp in Jacobin:

“The tradition of all the dead generations,” Marx wrote a 150 years ago, “weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” Today, with our politics trapped in capitalism’s endless fugue state, the nightmare that troubled Marx may seem to contemporary left-wingers like a pleasant dream of days gone by.

At least the dead generations took Marx seriously. At least they had a powerful labor movement and center-left parties that believed in the welfare state. And at least Ralph Miliband, the dead leftist whose son is the living leader of Britain’s Labour Party, would never have answered a question about capitalism with a grudging obeisance to the creative power of BlackBerry.

It’s easy to get nostalgic.

A longer glance back into the past should cure us of this sentimentalism. The British historian Eric Hobsbawm and the American critic Irving Howe, both eminent socialist members of Ralph Miliband’s dead generation, can help. Hobsbawm, born in the red year of 1917, remained a defiant communist all his life. Howe, arriving three years later, devoted his own career to defending the socialist idea against Stalin’s Soviet Union. But taken together, their memoirs — Howe’s A Margin of Hope, published in 1982, and Hobsbawm’sInteresting Times, in 2002 — form as poignant a record as exists of the courageous hopes and constant sorrows of the twentieth century Anglo-American left.

These memoirs remain valuable today — both as vivid portraits of a previous century’s problems, and as bracing reminders to the contemporary left that those problems are not our own. “The central experience of the twentieth century,” as Howe once quoted Theodore Draper, “was communism,” and this was as true for the left-wingers who resisted it as it was for those who succumbed to its chilly embrace.

The central experience of the twenty-first century, of course, cannot yet be reckoned. But whatever it is, we can be grateful that all our dreams and arguments about a just, egalitarian future will not be defined — or distracted, or divided, or destroyed — by the fate of a particular Russian dictatorship.

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