I'm about to begin teaching Karl Marx in my 19th C. philosophy class this week. Although students usually get some (very elementary) introduction to Marx in most of my other classes as well, this is the course in which they get the most extensive and systematic exposure to his writings. I always anticipate the Marx section with an admixture of joy and apprehension, excited about delving into Marx's ideas again, but dreading the resistance with which they are always met.
I have often asked myself: Why is Marx so difficult to teach to students? Marx certainly isn't the "hardest" thinker I cover in my courses-- his texts aren't as dense as Hegel's, or as complicated as Kant's, or as polyvalent as Plato's, or as idiosyncratic as Derrida's. But unlike those other thinkers (with the possible exception of Derrida), students come to class already with a host of prejudices and presuppositions about Marx that are very hard to overcome. A few years ago, I experimented with the practice of beginning the Marx section of my course by simply asking students what they "knew" of Marx already, in the hopes that getting the "scrambled" Marx out there and visible right on the front end would be helpful. (It wasn't helpful.) NYU Professor Bertell Ollman once noted, in book called Social and Sexual Revolution, that "the major hurdle in presenting Marxism to American students is their bourgeois ideology, the systematic biases and blind spots, which even the most radical bring with them." There is nothing in bourgeois idelogy, Ollman notes, that doesn't have a "scrambling effect" on students' reception of Marxian ideas. He describes this bourgeois ideology in two levels, the first harder to overcome than the second. Ollman writes:
In my experience, the most troublesome notions have been students' egotistical and ahistorical conception of human nature; their conception of society as the sum of separate individuals, and with this the tendency to reduce social problems to problems of individual psychology; their identification of Marxism with Soviet and Chinese practice; and of course the ultimate rationale that radical change is impossible in any case. Much less destructive and also easier to dislodge are the intrinsically feeble notions that we are all middle class, that there is a harmony of interests under capitalism, that the government belongs to and represents everybody equally, and that history is the product of the interaction of great people and ideas.
Check. I've encountered all of these in my classes. (The most consistently frustrating to me being the "ultimate rationale that radical change is impossible in any case.") But if there's one thing that we ought to have learned from Marx, it is that bourgeois ideology tends to be totalizing and, hence, none of us are entirely free of its distorting effects. And so, even as I attempt to chip away at and unscramble some of the bourgeois misconceptions above, I must also remain attentive to my own bourgeois blind spots. Yet, taking this kind of piecemeal approach can be frustrating and time-consuming, and it evidences its own kind of misunderstanding of how ideological frameworks work. If only there were a way to do the unscrambling work at the meta-level instead of at the level of details.
Here, Ollman is helpful, I think. After describing the elements of students' bourgeois resistance to Marx above, he wrties:
Underpinning and providing a framework for all these views—whether in the form of conclusions or assumptions, and whether held consciously or unconsciously—is an undialectical, factorial mode of thinking that separates events from their conditions, people from their real alternatives and human potential, social problems from one another, and the present from the past and the future. The organizing and predisposing power of this mode of thought is such that any attempt to teach Marxism, or indeed to present a Marxist analysis of any event, is doomed to distortion and failure unless accompanied by an equally strenuous effort to impart the dialectical mode of reasoning.
We've just completed 5 weeks on Hegel's Phenomenology in my class, so I hope that my students are well-prepped for an extra emphasis on the dialectical mode of reasoning. I plan to try this strategy this time around. If nothing else, I hope it can help assuage my frustration with the fatalistic, "radical change is impossible" mindset that so often impedes our study of Marx. One of the things that I hope my students learned from Hegel's Phenomenology is that no matter how frustrated consciousness got at the apparent irrationality of its world, and no matter how convicted it was in its despairing claims that nothing could be done, it eventually learned that the tools it needed to reconcile itself with the world were already immanent to it.