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Political Lives

Thoroughly Modern Marxism

A Marxist upbringing, graduating into a recession, and a lineage of missed opportunities make a brutal combination.

Ezra Stoller, CBS Columbia Records, 1953. © Ezra Stoller, Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York.

The only compliment my mother ever pays my father is that he looks like Karl Marx. The resemblance is indeed striking, or at least it used to be: Both men once had great tufts of hair that encircled their faces from high forehead to chin, rounded cheeks, prominent noses, thick eyebrows, and an expression that seemed to convey both smug satisfaction and discontent.

The resemblance between Marx and Michael, as we all call my father—the titles of “mom” and “dad” were eradicated on egalitarian grounds in our family a generation ago—is only a compliment because I was raised by Marxists, and because my father, like Marx, is an economic historian. His expertise is in the decline of the British coal industry between the wars, and although it is easy to wonder how someone from suburban Philadelphia came to be obsessed with coalminers in England, the answer is obvious to me: It is almost always people with comfortable lives who take an anthropological interest in those without.

 

Over the years following my parents’ divorce when I’m four, my mother’s radical politics stay intact. Protests remain her natural habitat; her anti-marriage convictions leave so little room for argument that my brother is afraid to announce his engagement. My father becomes a libertarian, the customary path for Marxists who get tenure. My own stances depend largely on who I am talking to, contrarianism being the only value that both my parents agree should be instilled in their three children.

When my father gives up Marxism, he takes up exercise, and his face becomes so narrow and sharp it can no longer accommodate an expression of dual meaning; his features settle into one of discontent, and lose their sense of smug satisfaction. I forget my mother’s remarks about the resemblance until I live for a year in Russia across the street from a statue of Marx. It’s made of iron so dark with age that you can barely make out his expression, but the hair, same as my father’s, is there, and the nose, too.

I am, however, not in newly capitalist Russia because I’ve always been able to say “Marxism-Leninism” fast like a nursery rhyme, but rather because I love the Russian language. I insist that my parents’ politics are irrelevant to my being here, and yet my decision to attach myself to this country and culture may turn out to be the most political one I ever make. I’ve taken my REI backpack, dictionaries, and mid-’00s American optimism into the belly of the ideological, anti-capitalist beast, a place my own ideological, anti-capitalist parents have never been.

This hesitation to marry, even with children in the picture, is the kind of arrangement only admired as principled in the sort of people who have PhDs, sophisticated or at least convincing rhetoric, and loud voices with an argumentative timbre.

I’m 20, the age my father was when he met my mother, although they didn’t get married until their first child was born seven years later, with great political reluctance and only to make it easier to live abroad together. This hesitation to marry, even with children in the picture, is the kind of arrangement only admired as principled in the sort of people who have PhDs, sophisticated or at least convincing rhetoric, and loud voices with an argumentative timbre. People without those powers are never, in any realm, afforded the same non-judgment or respect.

While my parents have made sure I am aware of that injustice—this is central to their politics—they have never suggested that I should forfeit the voice that is supposed to be my heritage as much as the hair, cheeks, and nose that I share with my father and Marx. This is to say that I have learned to see inequity everywhere, but have never been told exactly what to do about it. I’ve been aware, from the time I could say the words, that the abolition of capitalism is a desirable outcome, but the path to achieving that, and many other things in life, has always been unclear.

 

Maybe it was hard for my parents to clearly conceive of a future when their conception of our past was so tenuous, because our family is one largely without lore: “Nostalgia is counterrevolutionary,” my mom, who dresses only in clothes I’ve discarded, likes to say. But if we have one at all, it’s a lore of missed chances, a lore of what could have been rather than of what really was. Ours are stories told in the conditional, and when I begin to study Russian as a teenager, the language’s frequent use of that construction feels familiar. It’s a language that favors the passive and is hinged on the hypothetical, the vaguely possible, and it is the same vernacular my family uses to speak of itself.

When my grandmother was 20, the same age at which my own parents would meet, she dropped out of college, took a job in politics, and promptly fell in love with a co-worker. Their engagement was announced in the New York Times, unfortunately on the same day my grandmother decided she would rather marry a different man. My grandmother calls her ex-fiancé Fritz but his real name was Walter, Walter Mondale, and a few decades later he became vice president. “Just imagine,” a girlfriend of my brother’s once said to me after she heard this story, with what I felt was unnecessary wistfulness, “If she’d married Mondale, she’d have been famous and none of you would exist.”

When my mother’s brother was a teenager, a prodigious guitarist, he sent in an audition tape to the Talking Heads. The band was impressed and invited him to come play for them, but when he showed up, they were preparing to tour with an all-black band, and passed on hiring him. This has the smell of fiction about it, but my uncle believes it. And the facts are never as important as the underlying truths such stories are supposed to reveal, in this case that he was good enough to almost tour with a famous band.

Another uncle’s gallery was almost successful; my mother could have been at the top of her academic field, but then she left it. Our stories are ones of almost making it, but the tone in which they’re told is not sad or regretful, because as far as these things go, we’ve been extraordinarily lucky—and because we’ve come close enough to success that we can imagine we might make it next time, that possibilities are feasibly within our family’s grasp. The luck in our past allows us to have faith that it isn’t elusive, that one day it might return.

My great-grandfather’s great stroke of luck was the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, which allowed him to break the record for the most autopsies ever performed in New York.

My family’s story begins with my great-grandfather, the child of immigrant Russian Jews who lived in Lower East Side tenements, although the Jewish descriptor often goes unmentioned because my parents share Marx’s ambivalence about the utility of religion, prioritizing our political heritage over our religious one. That great-grandfather enrolled at Columbia when he was 15 and made his way through college and medical school with startling expedience. His great stroke of luck was the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, which allowed him to break the record for the most autopsies ever performed in New York. This almost certainly contributed to his quick ascent at Bellevue Hospital, to the money earned there that he fortuitously invested in early IBM stock, and to the apartment he had on Park Avenue, the two daughters sent to fancy women’s colleges, grandchildren granted haircuts at the salon the Kennedys favored.

The money my great-grandfather made did not last. His children did not excel at managing it, and his grandchildren mostly lost their shares to drug addictions and mishandled mental illness. The disappearance of this money is the other important part of our origin story, and it is in some ways preferable to the one of my great-grandfather’s ascent. We knew all along our luck was so undeserved that we obligingly, if unintentionally, gave it up; we were almost rich.

Almost is a form of evasion, just as luck is. For a long time I thought I’d never be happy with an almost, that I would be the Morris to make it over the hump of missed chances. But this was back before having a definition of “making it” seemed strictly necessary, when I could project onto my future any number of possible advantageous endings. I might become a well-compensated au pair in Belgium, or a famous civil rights lawyer, or a respected music critic. I still thought I could make or buy—I, for one, wouldn’t have to depend on luck—the story that I wanted for myself.

 

All this changes when I graduate from liberal arts school in 2009, directly into a recession. My college’s credo is, “We teach you how to think,” and although I admire this in principle, I am starting to sense that principles may not be a particularly valuable commodity outside the confines of my campus or parents’ homes. I am 21 and, without the job in politics my grandmother had by this age, or the Marxist partner my mother did, I’m pretty sure I am fucked. I’m also learning through the kinds of friends who have money managers that people who feel entitled to jobs never seem to have trouble finding them, but I don’t believe I’m owed anything. And, unlike my friends whose families bootstrapped themselves out of immigrant scarcity or rural poverty, I don’t believe that hard work, as much as I pride myself on it, necessarily pays off. Instead, coming from my culture of haphazard hope—the vaguely possible, the conditional, the almost—I just have to wish something comes my way.

The first job I’m able to find is transcribing for a cult, or as I like to put it, indirectly for a cult. This is a formula I’ll later use to say I work indirectly for the Russian government and indirectly for a retail operation whose previous owner was indicted for bootlegging. This proximity to the underbelly of capitalism make me feel better about my work, for I have not followed in my mother’s nonprofit footsteps, or gone to law school like I’d once planned. “I think it’d be a waste of your talents,” was how my mother reacted when I’d announced this dream as a teenager, so in defiance I made it my mission to focus on subjects for which I had little talent, namely Russian; this seemed nobler to me, a subversion of an earlier desire to excel, although in reality it is no more than an extreme version of it.

I am starting to sense that principles may not be a particularly valuable commodity outside the confines of my campus or parents’ homes.

The videos I transcribe are all the same: Ostensibly they show “sessions” from “conferences,” but a quick Google search tells me that anxious people pay thousands of dollars to attend them, to hear a charismatic man with a deep tan and a white suit give them booming-voiced guidance. It is, if not a cult, at least creepy, this cross-section of desperation and commerce. I find the hours I spend with these tapes profoundly, maybe even unfairly, sad. I know conceptually that people pay a premium for guidance—I’m in therapy myself—but to see it play out daily in slow motion on my screen makes these days long and dark in a way I’ve only experienced once before, when I pored over accounts of 19th-century Russian prostitutes for my undergraduate thesis. These two projects, it seems to me, represent different sides of the same transaction: people buying the consolation they need, and people selling it. I’m not certain what kind of intermediary this makes me, a meticulous record-keeper of troubling exchanges. I suspect that it’s not so dissimilar from my father’s work on the British mines, as a compensated analyzer of problematic pasts. I worry this is not so far removed from participating, or maybe even perpetrating, but I am pressed for money. Plus, I try to assure myself, isn’t the product the tan man sells just an ideology, no better or worse than the ones to which my parents or I subscribe?

Later, I find a job translating for a retail company. To be a translator is also to be an intermediary, but at least I can explain my work to people at parties with less embarrassment, and the pride I feel in the title makes it easy to let it come to define me. In my introductions, I gloss over the part about my company being a chain of stores, but secretly I don’t mind the crassness of the commerce that passes across my computer screen. The reason I’m translating descriptions of toys, books, and tchotchkes is utterly transparent; there’s just the cold, hard specs and the price.

I have spoken and thought so extensively about the time I worked as a translator that it has taken on a kind of dreamlike unreality. I remember the stories I told, but not the events that prompted them. In this way, that job, like all the others I’ve had, has become a product, too, a story to sell, a piece of me I’ll give to anyone who will listen, which is to say anyone who will buy it.

 

I take the subway to my translation job, just as I used public transportation to get to every job I have, because none of the women in my family drive. Our legacy includes two flipped vans and one crashed car—all during the learning stages, before we even attempted to pass the test. I take driver’s ed for an entire year when I’m 16, before I hit parked car, so slowly and serenely it almost seems intentional, and I don’t get behind the wheel again after that. I entertain the idea of learning again, but it’s more for the principle than practicality, as I have never lived somewhere that requires me to drive. Driving is really about avoiding dependence, which for a long time is the other legacy of the Morris women, and particularly of the matriarch of the family, my almost-vice-president’s-wife grandmother.

Her relationship to money is so abstract that when my grandfather died, she was surprised to find she was deep in debt, although even I, at 12, might have told her that the fact that her credit cards were often rejected and cut up on the spot when we went shopping was a bad sign. My grandmother raised three children and is good at many things, but she did not earn her own money for the majority of her life, and although this is common enough for a woman of her class and generation, it still surprises me, the extent to which she seems to have no knowledge of the working world.

My own mother insists on working 80 or 90 hours a week, her most serious form of rebellion. That my mother works, and works as hard as she does, only comes to seem impressive to me once I meet people whose mothers don’t. I boast to my college friends about the time at a salary negotiation when my mother was asked what she wanted to be paid and responded with, “I would like to be paid what a man in my position would be.” I so admire this remark that it’s a long time before I can see that it’s only one a person with job security could make, and a long time, too, before I can see my mother’s working life as less a principle than a sort of pathology, a way to devote as little time as possible to the other matters over which she has no control. Though I can’t help but admire her work ethic, I do sometimes try to press her on how a Marxist can be so devoted to work for which she is under- and unfairly paid, but she demurs, and I understand in those moments that it is not politics but the personal that dictates how and how much she works.

My early industriousness is an homage to my mother’s example. Working and making money, which throughout my early twenties still seem like one and the same to me, are so essential that even later on, when I want to abandon my obsessive, single-minded quest for financial or career success, I find it nearly impossible to take stock of myself other than through my labor. My relationships, the expanding scope of my knowledge, my health, and general joy are never yardsticks in the way of hours put in, deadlines met, money made. Despite my best efforts, and also my oft-voiced politics, this remains the secret, fundamental truth at my center: Who I am is what I sell.

 

I’m in a particularly enthusiastic and especially misguided phase of radicalism when I ask my college boyfriend if he considers his mother a prostitute. After all, his father has supported her for 30 years in exchange for duties that presumably include sex. Although he, like most of my boyfriends, is interested in me for my “mind,” which I take to be my primary form of capital, he does not appreciate this particular thought. I can’t yet see that judging people by their labor is not much better than judging them by their bodies, wages just as arbitrary and unfair a measure of worth as looks.

Despite my obnoxious questions about his mother, my boyfriend eventually invites me to move in with him, and because I am young and I admire his kindness and he seems like a person who might compensate for my own meanness, I assent. The arrangement at my boyfriend’s house in Brooklyn means neither of us has to pay rent. The house is a family property stuck in legal limbo, so technically we are temporary caretakers, not tenants. This is my justification of the arrangement; it explains that I am not the kind of dependent woman his mother is. I need this excuse, for otherwise it would mean I am my grandmother, instead of my mother. It would mean my success is qualified by an almost—and, worst of all, an almost in the form of a man—and not of the full, veritable kind I desire.

Working, in so far as it means helping other people get rich, is not particularly valued and perhaps even shunned in our household.

Although we’ve been together for years, it takes only 10 months after I move in for the relationship to end. I move to a basement three-bedroom in Crown Heights, a neighborhood that “everyone is just starting to move to,” as I tell people. What I mean is that it’s where white, college-educated people, the people I talk about real estate to, are moving.

I take the room in Crown Heights not because of the neighborhood, however, but mainly because it comes with furniture and free groceries. The food comes from a roommate who is trying to abstain from capitalism by squatting and dumpster diving instead of working; in practice this means we let him sleep on the couch for free in exchange for keeping the kitchen stocked. I think of this a profoundly radical arrangement; we are reclaiming all that waste born of bourgeois excess, never mind that the total education costs of everyone in our apartment amounts to nearly $1 million, but really I like it because two-thirds of my income goes to rent, and I can’t otherwise afford the Trader Joe’s olive oil or the Greek yogurt from Gristedes that dumpster diving provides.

I eat that yogurt daily on the way to work, on an empty train inching its way toward my office at the end of the borough. At that office, where I am the only American-born employee, I spend my days with people who’ve exchanged a nation long predicated on ideology for this one of commerce, and if they were to find out the cheese in my lunch comes from the garbage, they would react as they had when they learned my clothes came from thrift stores: with distaste. These are people who lived on principle for long enough. They no longer believe that your identity is predicated on your beliefs; it’s really based on what you can buy or what you can sell.

Our dumpster-diving squatter asks me one day why I don’t write much anymore, like I did back in college, and the only answer I have is that I am busy working. Since working, in so far as it means helping other people get rich, is not particularly valued and perhaps even shunned in our household, he dismisses this as an excuse. Not long after, I do start writing again, but I don’t try to sell anything I write, which turns out to be my best decision during a time when I otherwise, out of some nearly political defiance, am making exclusively bad choices.

That I don’t feel the need to “succeed” at writing in any conventional, monetary way is not a latent assertion of my parents’ Marxism, it is just self-interest: I’ve finally found a realm in which I will never make money, and so I can happily believe that there are no chances to miss. I might be the Morris to make it over the hump by circumventing it entirely.

 

My parents’ romance—they would have called it a partnership—began to flourish when they decided to drop out of Princeton together, which was maybe their way of trying to escape the hump, too, opting out of something as a way of preventing failure from being inflicted from above. They were one year into their doctorates but felt the university, the department, and the town itself were conservative and unfeminist—“an old boys’ club,” my mom said with distaste—and so they left and moved to England. That people with the luck of seven funded years of schooling could reject what they’d been given seems to me perverse, as is the idea that a place called the United Kingdom might be some sort of radical haven.

But then again, it’s always and only people with luck who have the opportunity to reject it. And maybe it is for the same reason, and not because we were taught that property was theft from birth onward, that two of my parents’ three children spend considerable portions of their young adulthoods in countries with socialist histories. My brother spends half his twenties in Beijing, and for 10 years I orbit in and around Russia. When people ask how we ended up in these places, I joke that they’re two nations where being casually contrary with waiters, clerks, strangers, and friends is normal, where the argumentative timbre that’s been cultivated in our voices since childhood can finally have free rein.

The sustaining principle of capitalism is this: that people who have—my father, the squatter, Marx, and me—may study, analyze, commend, and write about people who are without, but they will never actually consent to becoming them. Marx himself wasn’t ever really able to. He was born into middle-class wealth and despite all the books, articles, and manifestos he wrote, he could never really reconcile himself with the thought of relinquishing what he loved: a baroness-born wife, dabbles in fiction writing, and jobs that, even when they left him impoverished, had never been anything other than white collar. This is the other way in which my father ended up resembling Marx, as he eventually returned from England to attend Columbia, where our whole family’s story had begun.

I used to think I would follow in my father’s professional footsteps, and I also assumed I would emulate my mother’s generalized devotion to work, but then I became determined to be unlike either of them. Instead, I have become much like them both. Luck is not my chosen method of absolving, though; explanation is—and maybe this is because our household has always operated according to the idea that the person with the loudest voice has the most power. This is a rather more capitalist idea than a Marxist one, but all politics aside, it has left me wanting so badly to be heard that I have more or less made it my job to be so.

 

Although Russia is the place where I am least heard—my American accent limits my rolled R’s, not to mention my second language shyness—I keep returning there, either despite or because of my irritation with it. It is the country’s mind-bogging inefficiency that always affirms my capitalism. It’s not necessarily out of choice—I still believe that property amounts to, if not theft, something close to it—but it’s there that I learn I can never strip myself of its mentality.

The torturously slow bureaucracy through which everything in Russia has to filter, and the utter lack of interest in anything approaching customer service, seem like obvious vestiges of seven decades of socialism. It feels like defiance on the part of the populace, the stubborn refusal of the women at the blini stand, the men who drive the marshrutka taxis, or the people who staff the railway station counters to deliver to their customers with ease the products it is their duty to sell. Their refusal to surrender to the jobs they’ve taken is admirable but also incomprehensible to me. Even while I resent it, I also admire their stubbornness, their outrageous rejection of the cult of efficiency, which despite all I’ve been taught at home, I still buy into myself. I cannot be cured of my association of work with identity, the link between the translations I complete and what I stand for, not even here in Russia, that old testing ground of all the values I’ve been raised to have.

One day in St. Petersburg not long ago, nowhere I go is accepting any payment other than exact change. “Don’t you even want to sell me something?” I ask in Russian when I make it to the grocery store, cranky from hunger and frustration, but I try to pitch my voice to make it sound amused, rather than angry. The cashier laughs. Why would she care if she makes the sale? She’ll get paid either way, and it’s not like she gets paid enough to care. I laugh, too, but a different kind of laugh, less amused than resigned. Despite the Marxism I’ve grown up to assume is as ordinary a belief as Christianity, despite my own erstwhile rejection of “bourgeois excess” or jobs that exist only to increase other people’s wealth, it has gone unquestioned in my mind that this clerk would want to sell me this bread, this yogurt, this head of lettuce.

When she visited me in Russia five years earlier, my mother showed a much greater patience for the slow-paced absurdity of every transaction. Maybe it requires more than politics to believe that socialism, or any other radical reform, is still possible despite its demonstrably bad history; maybe it is really about temperament. I am not the type to drop out of school, although I’ve always aspired to be someone who could make decisions based on principle alone. I am not someone who will regularly fetch groceries from dumpsters, because it seems wrong—not snobbishly, but morally—for someone with the luck and education I’ve had to resort to that.

When I quit my in-house translation job after a couple years to go freelance, I tell myself that, per the squatter’s philosophy, I’ll never work another job that makes other people rich. But there is, it turns out, barely any job in the world like that, or at least not a job that I can live on, or even maybe one that I’d like. It is easy to be a Marxist in principle, but in practice it’s work that feels more insurmountable than any labor I’ve been paid for.

It is a hot afternoon in St. Petersburg, I have a loaf of bread I want to buy, some yogurt for which I’ll count out the change. There’s a head of lettuce I’ll take home and eat for dinner in an apartment built as part of the world’s greatest failure at reform during the worst reign in socialist history, with my expensive American laptop balanced on my knees. There’s a story still to write before bed, yet another piece of me to sell.