Marxism and the Modern World

In her essay “Reflections on the Communist Manifesto”, political activist Lindsey German asserts that “The Communist Manifesto was invaluable in providing a unique introduction to Marxist politics and to the theory of revolution. It remains one of the great political texts which still inspires new generations of socialists and it can still serve as a guide to action.” In these words, German recognizes that, because of its connections with the development of communism, Marxist thought has long been seen with considerable suspicion in the modern world. Yet no matter what one thinks about communism or socialism as political doctrines, the undeniable fact is that Marxist ideas have had a MAJOR impact on the development of the modern world. Therefore, it is important to take a careful look at the subtleties and realities of central Marxist thought in order to fully appreciate its doctrines (for good or ill). In that spirit, for this Blog I want you to pick a major power-related theme or social concept that Marx and his fellows bring to the page in their wide-ranging analysis, whether it be an issue related to education, politics, banking, agriculture, militarism, labor, and so on. Your post should be two in-depth paragraphs long, and your task is to try and explain what, exactly, the forefathers of Marxism have to say about your chosen issue.  To do so, you must directly engage with the actual words and ideas of Marx, Engels, and/or Weber. What is their view of your chosen issue, and what is their rationale for that view? Finally, I’d like you to connect today’s assignment with the politics of the modern world by offering a contemporary example or application of this premise. In other words, how might this “Marxist” notion bring rise to understanding and exploring a modern-day problem or challenge? And what do YOU think about the matter? I will be very curious to hear your thoughts in this Blog response!

On Alexie’s “Absolutely True” Account of Power in Today’s Society

Early in ‘The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian’, by Sherman Alexie, the narrator Junior comments that “I know my mother and father had their dreams when they were kids. They dreamed about being something other than poor, but they never got the chance to be anything because nobody paid attention to their dreams.” Shortly thereafter, he adds that “we reservation Indians don’t get to realize our dreams. We don’t get those chances. Or choices. We’re just poor. That’s all we are.”  Junior has an interesting story to tell, and his life has been deeply impacted by the difficult realities of life on the reservation. For those of you in my ‘Power and Society’ class Junior’s experiences speak in interesting ways to issues of power, such as the authority of the state, class and hierarchy, poverty, the politics of parenting, and the role of schools in adolescent lives.  Bearing in mind such issues, in this Blog post I want you to carefully respond to the common reading for Stockton freshman.  Your response may do one of two things (or both!), and should be at least two paragraphs long:  1)  Offer some commentary in the wake of the illustrator’s lecture at the Freshman Convocation (on Thursday the 29th ).  Tell us, what did Ellen Forney say that really touched a nerve with you?  What did you find interesting about her lecture, and what was invigorating about the entire Freshman Convocation event?  Why?  I’ll be curious to hear your thoughts about this talk!  2)  If you aren’t able to attend the lecture or would simply rather discuss the book, then I’d like you to do just that.  So, choose a particular moment in (or idea from) the novel and make some insightful connections between Alexie’s story and our course themes, or assigned readings.  To make these connections, you might quote from the book itself, and then discuss what Alexie seems to be saying and doing in your selected moment (relative to power and inequality), and why?  Also, what thoughts do YOU have about the subject – how do YOU respond to the power issue(s) raised in the novel based on your own knowledge or experience?

Plato on Power & Justice

At the start of our ‘Power & Society’ class, we have spent a considerable amount of time examining Plato’s Republic – a monument of Greek philosophy and world literature.  In this extensive dialogue, Plato (through the voice of his teacher Socrates) addresses the topic of Justice.  So, what IS justice, in Plato’s vision?  The answer is multifaceted and complicated, a fact that highlights that justice itself is also varied and complex.  To explore the theme of justice in the Republic, I would like you to do two things (in two separate paragraphs).  First, I’d like you to select a single passage from the Republic that you find to be interesting, provocative, or somehow problematic as it relates to the topic of justice.  Then, you should analyze the passage itself and try to place it within its historical context.  How does this statement fit within Plato’s broader discussion of justice and power, and how does it fit within the political and intellectual climate of ancient Athens?  Secondly, what do you think about the viewpoint at hand, and why?  To answer this question, you might consider Plato’s reasoning, and then provide a modern-day example as a test-case.  What does your example show us about justice (or lack thereof) in the face of social controversy, and how does it illustrate your own view of justice?  What might Plato have to say about your example?

Connecting ‘1984’ to 2014

During our first day studying the masterful novel ‘1984’ I gave you all a handout featuring an article that states, simply, that “We live in a world that George Orwell predicted” many years ago because his ideas “about a tightly controlled totalitarian future ruled by the ubiquitous Big Brother” are indeed “quite apt.”  America in the age of terror is, in many ways, a surveillance state wherein freedoms are often restricted and the government has vast amounts of legal and political power.  The Blog posts last time went well, and the general mode we adopted then is equally useful for a consideration of ‘1984’. So, for our final Blog of the semester, I want to work in a similar manner. This time around, I want you to:  1) Outline and explain a key idea or issue from Orwell’s novel. This could relate to politics, education, the media, or whatever you find interesting and important. Illustrate your chosen issue by quoting directly from the novel, and then offer some words about just what, exactly, Orwell is trying to say and why (especially as it relates to the post-World War II world in which he was living).  2) Detail a specific modern-day example or situation that the novel seems to suggest, or a problem it appears to bring to light. In other words, try to draw a connection between 2014 and the “future” Orwell was projecting in his imaginary ‘1984’, and highlight some important way in which he was, in fact, interestingly predicting the future. Then (and most importantly), please tell us a little bit about what YOU think about this particular issue. In what ways does your topic suggest we are – or are not—being watched by “Big Brother” and/or are less free than our Constitution might suggest?

Exemplifying Power-Politics of the Modern World

In class on Monday, we did some work trying to tie particular texts and ideas into contemporary issues. That was interesting and productive, I thought, so I want to do more of the same for this Blog post. In this case, I would much prefer that you use/discuss one of the readings assigned for Wednesday, Nov. 12. If, however, you feel strongly that you want to go back and re-consider one of the texts assigned for the 10th, I would allow it. That said, I want you to follow a similar process as we did in class, with a few tweaks. Here, I’d like you to: 1) Outline and explain a key idea from your chosen author/text. Quote from the text and discuss just what, exactly, your selected author is trying to say, and why. 2) Offer up a specific political example or historical scenario that might be used to explore and critique the argument of your chosen author. 3) Negotiating the scenario and situation you’ve provided as your test case, explain and support YOUR view of the issue at hand. What do YOU think, and why?! This Blog is a little more wide open than we’ve done so far in class, but I think that’s a good thing and I’ll be curious to see what kinds of issues and ideas you come up with.

Contemporary Applications of Marxist Thought

In a text offering “Reflections on the ‘Communist Manifesto’ ” (published in the journal International Socialism), writer Lindsey German proclaimed that “the groundwork provided by ‘The Communist Manifesto’ was invaluable in providing a unique introduction to Marxist politics and to the theory of revolution. It remains one of the great political texts which still inspires new generations of socialists and it can still serve as a guide to action.” This writer recognizes that, because of its connections with the development of communism, Marxist thought – as espoused by Max Weber, Friedrich Engels, and especially Karl Marx himself – has long been seen with considerable ambivalence in the modern world. But, no matter what you think about communism or socialism as political doctrines, the simple fact is that Marxist ideas have had a MAJOR impact on the development of the modern world. Therefore, it is important to take a long and close look at the subtleties and realities of central Marxist thought in order to fully appreciate its doctrines (for good or ill). In that spirit, for this Blog I want you to pick a major theme or social concept that Marx and his fellows somehow bring to the fore in their wide-ranging analysis, whether it be an issue related to education, politics, banking, agriculture, militarism, labor, and so on. Try to explain what, exactly, Marxism has to say about that issue, and do so by directly engaging with the words of Marx/Engels/Weber. What is their view of your chosen issue, and what is their basis for that view? Finally, come up with a contemporary example or application of this premise. In other words, how might this “Marxist” premise bring rise to understanding and exploring a modern-day problem or challenge? And what do YOU think about the matter? I will be very curious to hear your thoughts in this Blog response!

The Power of Enlightenment

In his famous essay “What is Enlightenment?” Immanuel Kant explains this concept by saying directly that “Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage” (or, perhaps, “immaturity”).  He continues by decrying “man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! “Have courage to use your own reason!”- that is the motto of enlightenment.”  Our last two classes have addressed a series of thinkers whose ideas were, indeed, “enlightened” and whose arguments challenged and changed the world forever.  In this Blog post, therefore, I want to have you bring to light a particular “enlightened” premise that really intrigued you of late, whether from Luther, Copernicus, Galileo, Rousseau, Locke, Adam Smith, or Kant himself.  This time around, I’m particularly intrigued by what, exactly, you see as a truly “enlightened” idea.  So, outlining your chosen concept, what made it so revolutionary in its own day and age?  And why does this premise still have profound intellectual currency in our own era?  Finally, for this response, I’m really curious about your personal thoughts and opinions on the matter – why, exactly, are you so struck by this particular example of/from Enlightenment thought?  Why does it speak to you through the void of hundreds of years of time?

‘Leviathan’ and the (English) Prince

According to Mark Jendrysik, “The political theorists of seventeenth-century England saw struggles over political and religious organization as the central cause of revolutionary upheaval. Division on questions of political structures and religious belief resulted in civil strife and oppression. . . . John Milton saw a critical cleavage between those who freed themselves from the worship of kings and those who were still enthralled by the royal image. Oliver Cromwell believed faction, brought about by the desire of some men to rule over other men and force their beliefs into a specific pattern, caused the civil war. For Robert Filmer false beliefs about a specious and rebellious “liberty” destroyed natural order. For Thomas Hobbes the critical division in English politics was based in misunderstandings about the nature of sovereign power. Divided sovereignty, or the false belief that there was more than one source of religious and political authority in the world, became for Hobbes the central, overriding cause of disorder. The civil war represented the failure of English sovereigns to maintain necessary control over all aspects of political and religious life. The source of divided sovereignty lay in confusion about the source, nature and goals of political and religious power in the state.” As a result of his cold-hearted application of logical thought to the harsh realities of the English Civil War, Thomas Hobbes emerged as perhaps the quintessential political philosopher in the English-speaking world during the period commonly known as the Restoration era. One way of thinking about Hobbes is to see him as taking up the intellectual mantle of thought begun just over a century earlier by Niccolo Machiavelli (in ‘The Prince’). Like his Italian predecessor (though to a lesser degree), Hobbes has been seen as a kind of cynical commentator on politics and rule. Yet Hobbes DOES offer a different vision of political reality than Machiavelli for a different age, and in this response I’m interested in you bringing the ideas of these two intellectual behemoths into conversation. Specifically, I want you to do two things here: 1) Try and compare/contrast the political thought of Hobbes and Machiavelli. In what way are their approaches, theories, and conclusions similar, but also, in what crucial ways to they diverge? 2) Much like we did earlier with Machiavelli, I want you to pick out a particular quotation from Hobbes’ ‘Leviathan’, and discuss it – trying to address its significance and logic for its own time period and then, in turn, discussing how and why you think it logically applies (or not) to our own day and age.

Machiavellian Meanings

Few writers are so significant that they leave a literal mark on the language, to the degree that their name becomes synonymous with a particular idea or phenomenon. Nicolo Machiavelli, however, was just such a man, and his book The Prince has been central to the study of political thought since its initial publication in 1532. In the English-speaking world, the author is probably best known or recognized through the adjective based on his name: “Machiavellian”, which Webster’s Dictionary defines as “of or relating to Machiavelli” or, more to the point, “suggesting the principles of conduct laid down by Machiavelli; specifically:  marked by cunning, duplicity, or bad faith.” In other words, Machiavelli’s very name has come to designate an individual whose political behavior is manipulative, deceitful, deceptive, and/or dishonest. To a certain degree, this notion perfectly embodies Machiavelli’s political advice, yet in some ways this premise misses the point or, at the very least, fails to recognize the moral, literary, and political subtleties of Machiavelli’s Prince. For this response, I want you to navigate some of the subtleties brought to the page by Machiavelli, and to do so I want you to do three things. First, identify a particularly contentious idea from The Prince, a piece of advice that would seem, for lack of a better word, quintessentially “Machiavellian.” Quote it for the Blog and then I’d like you to critique that notion in several specific ways. On one hand, I’d like you to try to examine his logic, to try and understand WHY he offers the controversial piece of advice that he does. To help support and explain this statement, you should try to place his comment(s) within the historical context of his day and age (something that he himself does repeatedly in his book). On the other hand, I’d like to see how Machiavelli’s idea might be applicable to our own political moment. Is his particular suggestion for political behavior a wise one, a good way for a ruler to (justly) navigate the challenging political waters of the twenty-first century? Or would his premise be problematic in some way, shape, or form if taken up by a modern-day politician? The Prince is a very challenging and fascinating book of political advice, and it will be interesting to see what you are all able to do by way of examining that advice both as it relates to his own day and age, and also as an applicable premise for our current political realm.

Orphan Train Response

In the Prologue to ‘Orphan Train’, by Christina Baker Kline, the narrator’s very first words state that:  “I believe in ghosts, They’re the ones who haunt us, the ones who have left us behind. . . . Sometimes these spirits have been more real to me than people, more real than God.”  This passage might be spun in interesting ways and made to tie into both of the classes I am teaching this semester.  For my ‘Myth, Tragedy, and Politics’ class, the words of Vivian (the first-person narrator of the above lines) throughout the novel offer some potent ideas about personal history, memory, writing, the “legends” of the past, and the myth-making we all do to order and understand our lives.  For my ‘Power and Society’ class the harrowing story of the orphan Vivian (who endured her ride on the orphan train in 1929 and the harsh events that followed) and her modern-day counterpart Molly (who has a hard time navigating and tolerating the challenges of the U.S. Social Services) speaks to interesting issues of power, such as the authority of the state, the politics of parenting, the dire state of many orphanages and foster-parent arrangements, and the role of schools in adolescent lives.  Bearing in mind such issues, this Blog post is going to be a little different than what we have done so far this semester.  In this case, I want you to carefully respond to the common reading for Stockton freshman (that being ‘Orphan Train’).  Your response may do one of two things:  1)  Offer some commentary in the wake of the author’s lecture at the Freshman Convocation (on Thursday the 25th ).  Tell us, what did Christina Baker Kline say that really touched a nerve with you?  What did you find interesting about her lecture, and what was invigorating about the entire Freshman Convocation event?  Why?  I’ll be curious to hear your thoughts about this talk!  2)  If you aren’t able to attend the lecture or would rather discuss the book, then I’d like you to do just that.  So, choose a particular moment in the book that brings rise to a particular issue, and tell us how/why it ties in with the topics and themes of your Freshman Seminar.  You might quote from the book itself, and then discuss what the book seems to suggest in your chosen moment about the issue (relative to power, on the one hand, or myths/legends/heroes on the other) – what is Baker Kline saying and doing in your selected moment, and why?  Also, what thoughts do YOU have about the subject – how do YOU respond to the issue based on your own knowledge or experience?

The Politics of Peace in the ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’

Thucydides is often labeled as the “father” of Greek historical writing due to his rigorous method of evidence collection and measured approach to the “facts”. He was also a noted (if disgraced) military general whose ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’ is commonly taught in military studies and/or political science courses.  Given his personal experiences during the Peloponnesian War, there is no doubt that Thucydides knew well the realities of battle, and that may help to explain the remarkable vividness of his writing.  Especially striking are the extensive dialogues and speeches found throughout his ‘History’, wherein the writer takes much creative license in reconstructing what was said (or, rather, should/might have been declared) in particular moments of battle or legal negotiation.  We have read two of the most famous of these reconstructions for class, namely the ‘Mytilenian Debate’ (found in Book Three, chapters 36-49) and the so-called ‘Melian Dialogue’ (found in Book Five, chapters 84-114).  In these well-known set-pieces, Thucydides provides a fascinating exploration of key issues and concerns related to war and peace, such as justice, mercy, authority, violence, hate, negotiation, and surrender (etc.).  In your response, I would like you to negotiate one specific aspect (or theme) of the debate, and do so by quoting and discussing particular statements made by speakers in these sections.  More to the point, pick a quotation or two from either the ‘Mytilenian Debate’ OR the ‘Melian Dialogue’ and then enter into dialogue with the speakers and their ideas.  You might particularly address the following:  What is the central issue of your chosen lines, and what is the logic of the speaker(s) and their argument?  In turn, what do YOU think about the situation and their rationale, and why?

Principles of Power in the Ancient World

In the opening passages of the Bhagavad-Gita, the “hero” (if you will) Arjuna is overcome by grief on the battlefield.  Not wanting to kill his kin, he puts down his weapons and, dejected, refuses to fight.  But Krishna, his counselor, famously urges him on by saying such things as “your business is with action alone,” that “there is nothing better for a Kshatriya than a righteous battle,” and arguing that if “Killed, you will obtain heaven; victorious, you will enjoy the earth. Therefore arise, O sun of Kunti, resolved to engage in battle!”  Krishna’s advice to Arjuna has been the subject of considerable controversy over the years and is, to say the very least, provocative and complex.  In addition to the Bhagavad-Gita our class has recently considered the challenging ideas of Aristotle’s Politics and Plato’s Republic, all of which are masterpieces of world literature and crucially important remnants of ancient political theory and belief.  For the second Blog post of the term, then, I want you to precisely and directly engage with the politics of one of these major works.  Specifically, I’d like you to select a single passage from one of these works, a passage that you deem provocative, interesting, or somehow problematic.  Then, you should examine the passage itself and try to place it within the broader context of your chosen work and its historical/political/intellectual context.  Finally, you might offer your own two cents’ worth on the passage:  what do you think about the topic and viewpoint at hand, and why?

Preliminary Ponderings About (Foucauldian) Power Structures

The very first assigned readings for ‘Power and Society’ are taken from the vast output of philosopher, cultural historian, and literary critic Michel Foucault.  Why Foucault?  The answer is a fairly simple one:  more than any post-modern thinker, it is arguably the work of Foucault that has most profoundly influenced scholarly discussions of the meaning, machinations, and implications of power over the last 30 years.  Foucault addressed power in a number of texts and a number of different ways, offering thoughts of the following kind:  he claimed that “in itself the exercise of power is not violence,” and emphasized that “power is exercised only over free subjects, and only insofar as they are free.”  More importantly for our initial purposes in this class, Foucault noted (in “The Subject and Power”) that “something called Power, with or without a capital letter.  . .  does not exist.  Power only exists when it is put into action.”  In his own unique way, Foucault is acknowledging the ambiguities and difficulties in even basically explaining and comprehending the mysterious forces of power in society.  And it is partially with this kind of idea in mind that I would like students in this class to contribute to the first Blog posting of the term, in which you may feel free to utilize and play with the ideas of Foucault or simply provide us with your own unique perspectives.  This time around, I want you to answer as best you see fit ONE of the following three questions, all of which variously engage with complexities of power as it presses upon us daily:  Can (or should) power be distributed equally, or is it somehow necessary (or inevitable) that certain parties will have more power than others?  How do individuals (or groups) gain power, and what are some of the most common ways they use that power?  Finally, how might certain varieties/structures of power distort individuals’ consciousness of their societal place, their subjective situation in the face of authority?