Helen Razer, it is probably fair to say, is not your average Marxist. For starters, she’s much more entertaining than most of us.
Plenty of Marxists have pointed out that the old guy didn’t just criticise capitalism, but also recognised its revolutionary element. Razer is the first I’ve heard suggest that Marx “would have loved the shit out of factory robots”.
Quite a few Marxists (including me) saw Michelle Obama’s “America is already great” speech in July last year and said “Oh fuck, Trump is going to win”. Razer, as far as I know, is the only one whose response involved quoting Judge Judy: “don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining”.
Having followed Razer’s rambunctious and usually sharp-as-a-tack missives about the state of the world for a while, it was with some enthusiasm that I picked up her new book TOTAL PROPAGANDA: Basic Marxist Brainwashing for the Angry and the Young.
If you are looking for a calm, methodical exposition of Karl Marx’s critique of capitalism, this isn’t the thing for you. I’ve edited plenty of that kind of stuff, and none of it had chapter titles like “POOR PEOPLE IN HISTORY! WHO NEVER HAD ‘FLIP PHONES’! WOW! WERE THEY POOR BECAUSE THEY WERE THINKING NEGATIVE THOUGHTS?!”
Razer’s Marxism is of the raging, unvarnished, in your face variety – which is of course the best kind. On the opening page she describes Marx as “a white European bloke from the nineteenth century who drank too much and probably got the cleaning lady up the duff”. But, as she goes on to argue, and indeed the point of the whole book is to say, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that Marx’s life work – “the unpleasant labour of a sometimes unpleasant man” – was about working out what today he might offer as a TED talk titled “This Is How The World Got Into A State Of Total Shit”.
For Razer, getting to grips with Marx is not an interesting intellectual exercise – in fact it can be downright difficult, annoying, and time away from things you’d rather be doing. “Since reading Marx”, she says, “the popular phrase ‘bleeding heart leftie’ has perplexed me. If there’s a haemorrhage taking place after an afternoon with Capital it’s not in my heart but my brain.”
But we have to do it. Why? Because the world is going to hell in a handbasket and Marxism is the only way of understanding what is wrong and what we can do about it.
Razer’s exposition of Marxist concepts like historical materialism, ideology, and the contradictions of capitalism (its “barely visible button marked SELF DESTRUCT”) is interwoven with discussion of everything from Uber to Freud, and Machiavelli to masturbation.
That’s not to say it’s an eclectic book. Razer’s central themes, which she hammers home repeatedly, are some of the most important of our time: an insistence on understanding the material basis of the current disastrous state of the world – it’s not just that people have a bunch of stupid ideas – and, related, a savage critique of Clintonite liberalism and the politics of the “cultural left” which offer neither explanation nor solution to the world of Trump we currently inhabit.
“You may continue to despair and write hashtags and call out racism and Trumpism online”, she writes. “Punch a Nazi. Wear a safety pin. But do so knowing that changing the ideas of people is never going to be as effective as changing, or attempting to change, the material conditions of people.”
Razer manages to advocate powerfully for a “material left” without denying or minimising the role of ideas: to use the Marxist jargon she introduces readers to, she doesn’t just reduce the superstructure to the base. But her insistence on starting an explanation by looking at the underlying economic realities is precisely what is needed right now.
TOTAL PROPAGANDA is a ripping introduction to Marxism for people who are just for the first time hearing – thanks to Corbyn, Sanders, and others – about this thing called socialism. But it also has serious things to say to people who have identified as part of the left for years about the kind of politics we need, and the kind of left that we need.
“Aside from being a sneaky media entryist who seeks to end our coercion by capitalism”, Razer tells me, “all I ever wanted to do as a communicator, really, was take ideas with which large numbers of people may be unfamiliar and offer them in an accessible/cheeky way. Without reducing the complexity of these ideas, but indicating that there is more complexity, if you wanna go and find it”.
She has succeeded in that. If you have discontented young people on your Christmas present list this year and you’re not sure how to introduce them to the dark arts of Marxist revolution, get them this book. But get it for yourself as well.
TOTAL PROPAGANDA: Basic Marxist Brainwashing for the Angry and the Young, by Helen Razer, Allen & Unwin, 2017, is out now.