12/28/2012 01:21 am ET Updated Feb 26, 2013

Teaching Marx at Harvard: An Interview With Steven Jungkeit


Steve Jungkeit is a lecturer on ethics at Harvard Divinity School. He holds a Ph.D. in modern Christian thought from Yale, and he is the author of Spaces of Modern Theology: Geography and Power in Schleiermacher's World. Jungkeit is also an ordained Presbyterian minister and a father of three.

This semester, Jungkeit is teaching the only course at Harvard dedicated to the Marxist tradition. (Full disclosure: I am a student in the class.)

MATT BIEBER: Marx, Marxism, socialism -- these are dirty words in America. Was that always true? Or was there a time -- perhaps around the time of Marx's original publications -- when you could self-describe as a Marxist in the United States and not get shouted out of the mainstream?

STEVE JUNGKEIT: I don't know about the time of Marx's original publications, but I'd like to believe that in the 1890s perhaps, 1920s, when there was a strong labor movement going on in the country, a lot of civil unrest, my sense of things is that it was possible to describe oneself as a Marxist, to use Marxist ideas, to appropriate Marxist categories and language, to use the ideas of socialism in a fairly overt and mainstream way for the purpose of social organization.

In the past, it was possible to do that. I think maybe in the 1960s as well. That may be one of the last moments where it seemed that Marxist categories were out in the open somewhere, maybe even just in a pocket of intellectuals or activists working for civil rights or women's rights or whatever. But there have been these moments in American culture and American history when it seems like it's manifested itself, it seems like it's been allowed to come to the forefront. But not lately. I think you're right to say lately it does seem like almost anathema to talk about these categories. And it's been that way since the middle-'70s or so.

I think that's beginning to change. More and more I'm picking up the chatter out there in the airwaves; I think people are open to reading Marx, thinking about Marx. Especially after [the economic crisis of] 2008, but even before that. I don't know where it's leading or whether we're leading into a new moment like the '60s or the 1920s or maybe the 1890s. I don't know.

MB: You're teaching a course on "Marx and His Readers." Obviously, that covers a lot of ground. Which aspects of the Marxist tradition do you see as most urgent, useful, or applicable to our contemporary situation?

SJ: What I'm not interested in doing is gaining converts or getting people to join a party or something like that. I don't even know where to go to join a party. What I am interested in is getting people to think about class consciousness. I think more and more we need to be thinking through that stuff. Again, after 2008, after Occupy Wall Street, more and more I think that conversation is probably happening, but I think we need to keep having that conversation and keep thinking about it. In order to have that conversation, it makes all the sense in the world to turn to Marx and the Marxist tradition, to see what one of the finest thinkers on class consciousness has to say about this stuff.

Thinking through, for example, how capital works and how it creates this labor pool and underclass that capitalism depends upon in order to function. I think it's a really helpful thing to witness as Marx makes these grand assertions in Capital. So working that through in Marx, but then working it through in Lenin, working it through in Lukacs and Althusser and seeing the ways others have run with this idea too.

Here's the other thing I think we need to figure out, the big public conversation that needs to happen: how do you organize? If you're worried about these issues, how do you organize resistance? How do you organize counterpunches? I mean, it's one thing to sit and read these texts in a seminar, but how do you organize something?

I remember sitting through a seminar that David Harvey led at Yale at one point, and he took us through this project he was working on -- I don't know, in 2007 or 2008 -- about the history of neoliberalism. He was walking us through how neoliberalism started to arise, how it gained its power, its force, and he concluded this whole grand sweeping history of the last 30 years by saying, "Look, for the last 30 years, neoliberalism has been waging a kind of class warfare. It's incredibly potent, it's incredibly organized." He ended the whole talk by saying, "We need to wage class warfare back."

So the first question is: What do you mean by "we"? Who's "we"? And the next question is: How do you do that? How do you wage class warfare? What would that look like?

I think in a way, that's started to happen, as people are starting to talk about tax codes. People are starting to talk about income inequality. People are starting to talk about wages that corporate executives make, tax rates that executives pay versus the tax rates that middle class and lower-income people pay.

So two of the major things that we're drawing from these texts: 1) How do we become increasingly class-conscious? -- because I think it's everywhere around us and we just need to take off the blinkers to see it -- and 2) How do you get organized to do that?

Marx does a great job with the class-consciousness business, not so great on organization. Lenin is good on class consciousness but he's great on organization. I think there needs to be more contemporary analysis. I don't have any illusions about duplicating or replicating their projects-I wouldn't want to.

Note: the full interview is available at The Wheat and Chaff.