A two-week celebration of a philosopher sounds like some highfalutin arts festival. But surprisingly, this celebration is actually a down-to-earth festivity, as the Skirball Center for Performing Arts holds its “On Your Marx” festival observing the life and philosophy of Karl Marx. While getting students to consider political philosophy is a welcomed initiative, it is regrettable that Skirball was unable to present anything other than a celebration of the 200th birthday of the man whose philosophy was attached to many of the 20th century’s worst atrocities.
As a right-leaning student at one of the most liberal universities in the country, I am aware of the dangers of clamping down on viewpoints one finds distasteful, but the celebration of Marx within Skirball seems slightly beyond the pale. There is a world of difference between a student club using its own money to bring a speaker to campus and a governing body within the university holding a “two-week commemoration,” of a man whose ideas are hardly without their detractors. Skirball is not a student-run organization, meaning that NYU devoted money to put on this program. Indeed, in an interview with this paper, Jay Wegman, the director of Skirball, seemed to express that he had been eager to do an event focusing on Marx from the moment he became director.
This lauding of Marx does not seem to reflect a grassroots effort by students to hear neglected viewpoints. Instead, it appears as an over-enthusiastic attempt by the school to market a set of values to the student body.
The Victims of Communism Foundation puts the death tolls one can attribute to communist regimes at around 100 million. Defenders of Marx like to deflect these numbers by discounting communist regimes as not truly Marxist, yet it is undeniable that the founders of some of the most tyrannous regimes of the last century were devotees of Marx and influenced by his and Friedrich Engels’ “The Communist Manifesto.”
It is still necessary to remember the vital nature of free speech on campus. Without freedom of speech on campus, students are deprived of the ability to interact with opposing viewpoints and strengthen their understanding of what motivates political difference. While the ideas of Marx are somewhat outside my political leanings, I greatly appreciate that their presence on campus goes unsuppressed. The particular issue with this specific Skirball event is that, because it has been designed as a birthday celebration, it feels more akin to a cult of personality than an exploration of ideas. It seems likely that the student body would find a two-week celebration of Adam Smith’s birthday, complete with performative dances embodying the dynamic nature of the free market, slightly ridiculous. Likewise, it is troublesome that Skirball has chosen to look at Marx in this adoring way.
There are figures that do, indeed, deserve praise and commemoration following their death — take legendary abolitionist, writer and activist Frederick Douglass, who also celebrates his 200th birthday this year. But when considering more controversial figures, it would seem that a calmer tone from the university is in order.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Oct. 22 print edition.
Email Finlay McIntosh at [email protected]