On Knee-jerk Reactions, the Responsibility of Theorists, and Chinese "Anime"

I recently saw a discussion on social media about some film The Young Karl Marx. Seems to be some costume drama about Marx – not really something I would be interested in (I overdosed on Penny Dreadful a couple of years ago, so I would say I am done with the TV-19th century for a while) but interesting nevertheless as it’s been produced by people explicitly wanting to popularise what Marx was actually all about. The comments were about 10-15% about the film itself, the rest were ridiculously self-important and over-the-top vitriol against the titular character. The content itself was the usual – Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Ceaușescu, crimes, death, ad-hominem attacks etc. Stupid comments on social media are hardly worth anyone’s attention, but they do point to a larger issue we face when discussing left-theory anywhere.

Saying Marx is to blame for the crimes of Stalin and Mao is akin to saying Jesus is at fault for Jonestown. At a closer inspection of the argument, it simply does not follow. You could make a case for both, but you could not really argue for either in good faith. Reductio ad Stalinum is such a cheap device that it barely even counts as discourse anymore – it is more like a stop-thought slogan-mantra to be put among the others: there is no alternative, we live in the best of all possible worlds, fake it ‘till you make it, time is money, money makes the world go ‘round, etc.

Reminds one of something.


War Is Peace. Freedom Is Slavery. Ignorance Is Strength. I know, terribly cliche, but I really like this book.

That our first instinct is to repeat slogans we learned by rote whenever we are exposed to the mere mention of Marx or any other left-theorist is wonderfully Stalinist if you stop and think about it. Just imagine how some junior Soviet officials must have shouted their own slogans during Stalin’s time when someone misspoke in the merest direction of unorthodox thought – rhetoric as substitute for thought, in the most perversely ideological, Orwellian form.

It does seem we are living in a world of sophistry (which I am sure comes as a surprise to no one), and all too often rhetoric is all that is left. Thought, analysis and critique have been replaced by “debates” that have to be “won”. It is in practice viewed as a game – each opponent has certain rhetorical devices they can deploy against each other, subject to certain rules. In a public forum you cannot vulgarly insult (though in the post-2016 world, with the rise of grobian characters such as Trump or Johnson, or in my own country the infamous Șoșoacă, even this is no longer entirely the case), you cannot talk about certain topics, etc. The content matters only marginally – it is through form that points are scored, and the end goal is to entertain and sell.

It is about a generalised disrespect for what Zizek has at one point called the “autonomous logic of theory”. I am not saying this is simply the result of propaganda, although it does indeed play a part (in today’s fragmented online echo chambers the mechanism is different but the result is similar, if not even more dramatic). Today’s propaganda-media manufactures not consensus but a lack of any possible consensus – resulting in a total polarisation and atomisation, making any collective organisation or action impossible. It is as if we all lived in our own unique worlds, totally separate from each other. Some of us are convinced the virus is fake, vaccines are evil and dangerous, and that Trump has been swindled out of his win, and would fiercely argue these points with anyone willing to participate. But the debate would only be for show – neither participant would be willing to grant the slightest concession.

id text
<id removed> No mask mandate No mandatory vaccinations Disband the K - PhD Marxist indoctrination system - aka "public education". <link removed>

Tweet I have come accross during a project I am working on. What are they even trying to say with this one? K-PhD? Some kind of reference to the KPD? I doubt they know their 1920’s history that well. Or is it that all who get a PhD become Marxists? If only!

Many of these are people I know. The fact that we are literally thousands of miles and almost two years removed from the whole Trump thing, and the fact that in some places such as India the devastation due to the virus is not comparable to anything we have seen in generations, are unconvincing arguments, because in echo chambers on the ‘net the same points are repeated over and over, bypassing reason and accumulating in the same place where you store half-remembered song lyrics. It is a cynical exploitation of the human mind’s caching mechanism, for profit.

A propos about propaganda, and the biography of Karl Marx – a much more sincere attempt is the Chinese “anime” The Leader (2019). It is meant to dramatise the life of Marx but also briefly present his ideas and their evolution during the course of his life, put in relation to him having witnessed certain historical events. For what is quite explicitly meant as Chinese propaganda, the series is surprisingly… let’s say wholesome and does a decent job at humanising the character. It doesn’t bother to present a more thorough view of Marx’s thought and doesn’t aim to preach it to you – just to show you the life of the man so many hate without knowing why, yet so many others reach out to his work for guidance to understand a very, very complicated world that is never quite what it appears to be.

In fact, its worst sin in my eyes is the absolute farce that is the adaptation of the Marx-Bakunin debate, in which the latter is basically made out to be a buffoon unworthy of serious attention, attempting to abuse the First International to amass personal power (in fact, if I rememeber correctly, Bakunin was banned from or was a wanted man in most of Europe at the time, so he was not even present at the meeting depicted – and it could be argued that it was precisely Marx who split the First International, thus beginning the noble tradition of left disunity that has been so ceremoniously continued to the present day). There are a lot of technical problems such as poor animation that are indicative of the low budget, and it is about as subtle as you would expect propaganda to be (capitalists are depicted as either stereotypical Monopoly men or literal vampires, among many other ridiculous commonplaces), but overall it is an uplifting and disarmingly sincere attempt at showing you the sacrifices Marx made for the propagation of his ideas and also in his concrete support of the working people of the world. Perhaps it is beneficial to sometimes remind ourselves of what we have gained through struggle in the past, so as not to lose hope for the future. Plus you get a cool Chinese anime-rock-rap (?) version of the Internationale playing over the end credits. Who could ask for more?

I would truly be interested in how this was received in China where nominally Communism is upheld, even as it has, in fact, become the industrial engine of global capitalism. Makes one wonder just how many layers of ideology can the human subject take. That is truly a perspective I would love to learn.

The series can be watched for free on Youtube here.