Reviewed by Mirko Hall
Gregor Gysi is the most famous and influential politician of the Left in contemporary Germany. He is also known as a charismatic and quick-witted public intellectual, who is passionately devoted to the cause of social justice. In Marx und wir, he provides readers with an engaging and sympathetic portrayal of Karl Marx’s revolutionary project on the bicentennial of his birth. Gysi explores how Marx and Friedrich Engels’ capitalist critique may be mobilized in the ‘service of a reliably emancipatory Left’ (21) that will foster both individual and collective freedom. The book consists of two major threads: an often amusing history of his intellectual engagement with the historical legacy of Marx – as a citizen of first a socialist, then a liberal-democratic German republic – and a spirited defense of the thinker’s continued actuality in our dark times of ascendant nationalism and turbocapitalism. These discussions are interspersed with a mosaic of Marxian reflections and documents, including a fictional interview with Marx, whose responses are all citations from his oeuvre; a collection of his pithy quotes on daily life and revolutionary praxis; and a short biographical sketch.
Gysi stresses that he is writing not as a scholar or biographer, but rather as someone, who has interacted with the practical concerns of Marx in ‘everyday political life’ (21). He is a long-time member and past leader of The Left (Die Linke), the democratic socialist party in the federal parliament. He was also recently elected as the president of the Party of the European Left. Gysi first gained prominence as a lawyer in East Germany, where he defended a number of leading political dissidents. As the last secretary general of the country’s ruling Socialist Unity Party, he played a pivotal role – as a Gorbachev-style reformer – in ending communist rule. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, he was instrumental in democratizing this party, which eventually transformed itself into today’s The Left. On the occasion of his 70th birthday last year, his autobiography, which chronicles this far-reaching political career, became an instant bestseller and prompted sold-out book tours across the country.
In the first part of the book, Gysi reflects on his personal experiences with the officially sanctioned ideology of Marx and Engels as a student and lawyer in East Germany. He shares two particularly salient examples – or rather contradictions – that arose from the regime’s valorization of these two revolutionaries. In one instance, he recounts how the party leadership had victimized the nation’s long-haired youths as deadbeats during the era of Beatlemania. This situation placed the administration of his secondary school on the defensive, however, when two students identified the very same hairstyles on the ever-present portraits of Marx and Engels. In another instance, Gysi describes how the regime selectively quoted and misquoted Marx in order to build an internally coherent system of revolutionary thought that would bolster state socialism. Here, the East German secondary literature on communism declared that Marx and Engels had somehow proclaimed the following maxim: in a fully emancipated society, the freedom of all is the necessary condition for the freedom of each. He recalls the shock that he and others felt, when they later discovered that these men had written the exact opposite at the end of section two in The Communist Manifesto. For Gysi, this deliberate reversal had apparently provided the East German government with a perverse rationale for restricting the individual freedoms of its citizens, because the proletarians of all countries were not yet free.
These recollections serve to highlight Gysi’s conviction that the entire apparatus of state socialism had not only exploited people and institutions, but also Marx himself. He argues, and rightfully, for a more nuanced understanding of Marx’s radical critique that moves beyond intentional misreadings and institutionalized misinterpretations. It is an understanding that critically adapts Marx’s promise of happiness for a new age, while acknowledging his methodological and theoretical errors (as Marx himself so often did). This view neatly summarizes Gysi’s own efforts to re-evaluate Marx’s political reception since reunification. He longs for a ‘different political culture’ (16), in which Germany may come to realize that Marx was indeed ‘one of [its] greatest historians and economists’ (back cover), whose critical analyses can still project viable alternatives to the total administration of human life under capitalism. Here, Gysi belongs to a cohort of Marxian thinkers, who believe that the fall of the Berlin Wall provided social democrats with the unique opportunity to reclaim Marx’s intellectual oeuvre from the abuses of dogmatism.
In the second part of the book, Gysi gives a standard interpretive reading of Marx’s critique of the capitalist mode of production in his magnum opus, Capital. He focuses on the system’s tendency to monopolize all competition as it creates a succession of never-ending crises that progressively destroy the very foundations of human existence. While Gysi recognizes the importance of unmasking the machinations of totalitarian capitalism, his underlying motive in this book – as magnified through the constant allusions to Marx’s concept of alienation – is to fight for a new ‘political community, in which all members can contribute in equal and free ways’ (60). In other words, Marx’s insights must be re-activated for the revolutionary promise of human equality, dignity, and freedom. In lieu of today’s capitalism, Gysi calls for the creation of a ‘social market economy’ (126). It is an economy that harnesses capitalism’s productive efficiencies, scientific advances, and technological innovations, while re-orienting its insatiable drive for destructive expansion toward environmental sustainability, income equality, and social justice. In his view, such an act would result in a newly re-organized European Union that is grounded in democracy and not bureaucracy. It would also engender a new global framework, which is united by an international solidarity that is devoid of nationalistic egoism.
Gysi insists – and emphatically so – that any future transvaluation of capitalism must originate through concrete democratic actions and institutions. This process must guarantee discursive spaces, where everyday people are able to articulate new ideas, interests, and projects (however contradictory) in the service of social equality. Gysi is not naïve here; he realizes that any emancipatory future state of affairs – even when based on the principles of democratic socialism – will not be free of conflicts, tensions, and disappointments. Only the open exchange of ideas can keep a revolutionary consciousness, which relentlessly strives toward human freedom, alive and attuned to the contingencies of history. This perspective is much more utopian than, for example, his fellow contemporary, German sociologist Wolfgang Streeck, who sees capitalism’s terminal decline as not necessarily being replaced by something better.
Marx und wir is a lovingly written book for an audience that a good number of bicentennial publications have forgotten: general readers, who are inquisitive and politically conscious. While the book does repeat many common refrains about Marx’s life and work, its greatest strength lies in its ability to tackle – in very accessible and witty language – the real-life concerns of economic suffering and social exclusion that deeply trouble these readers. Amidst today’s dysfunctional political discourse, Gysi reminds us of capitalism’s failures and Marx’s relevance without the ‘[small talk] of left-radical arrogance’ (61) that many detractors might expect. Through fact-based evidence, bold speech, and the right amount of rhetorical cheekiness, he persuasively argues for the need to rekindle the (now dormant) forces of equality, justice, and solidarity for a more inclusive present and future.
2 August 2018