LAWRENCE — Ari Linden recalls that when he was a graduate student, there was much resistance among his undergraduates to the economic and social critiques of Karl Marx when they were discussed in his German studies first-year seminars. But times have changed.
“Students would say, ‘Marx doesn't understand human nature; communism has failed’ and things like that. And I've found a lot more positive reception,” said the University of Kansas associate professor of German studies. “I'm not saying everyone needs to become a card-carrying Marxist, but Marx offers a way to understand and analyze various contemporary crises in their interrelatedness to one another — an economic crisis that's also connected to an upsurge in right-wing populism that's also connected to an intensified climate crisis.”
Linden has continued studying Marx’s writings, including in his new paper titled “Vogelfrei: Marx and the Worker in Exile” in The Germanic Review: Literature, Culture, Theory. It’s a deep dive into Marx’s conception of capitalism’s original sin, the disenfranchisement of workers from agrarian land (specifically in Tudor England, 16th century).
“Vogelfrei” is German for “free bird,” and it was a term used to describe both newly freed serfs but also outlaws, and Linden writes that exile is a useful interpretation of this term and of Marx’s critique of the newly urbanized worker’s supposed freedom.
Linden argues that Marx views this “primitive” or “original accumulation” of wealth as the fountainhead of capitalism and the resultant “major migration from the country into the city not as voluntary but essentially as the first kind of forced migration ... they're forced to become the first proletariat.”
“He is saying that right at the origins of this system is an expulsion. ... They are certainly being cut off. And Marx is very insistent on using different forms of the word separation, not only from the land and ‘soil,’ but also from the society they essentially help create. ... This is what I'm calling exile.”
Nor, in Linden’s view, is this exile a one-time phenomenon. It’s more like the first episode of a recurring post-traumatic stress syndrome.
“They're disenfranchised members of that society,” Linden said. “So they're deeply integrated, but they're not incorporated in the way that would truly recognize their contribution. This is among the fundamental contradictions that Marx sees in capitalism – that you have this increasingly large underclass with more and more misery and no way of ever solving that problem within the system itself.”
And yet, Linden said, Marx neither romanticizes the serfdom of the past, nor does he think it’s possible to return to some state of natural grace.
“Sometimes this fantasy ends up expressing itself as a kind of reactionary politics,” Linden said. “This idea of returning to the glory days when things were natural and men and women knew their place, etc.
“Marx is not necessarily sympathetic to these kinds of views, but he understands how they emerge: ‘Well, these people have been screwed. Of course this fantasy is going to develop – it’s function of ideology.’ Antisemitic violence, racism — the Marxist explanation would be that people are airing their grievances in all sorts of ways, partially because they haven’t given thought to the larger conditions that put them into this position in the first place. Doing so might actually make them Marxists rather than fascists.”
Image: Detail from poster with wording "The poor people of the world gather together!" published by the Karl Marx Government Publishing House, Azerbaijan Press Center in Baku, 1920. Via Wikimedia Commons Credit: Unknown artist