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Whatever Happened to Martin Nicolaus?

A little over a month ago, when I was perusing my ragged copy of the Grundrisse, I decided to google the translator/introducer of the official English edition, Martin Nicolaus.  After all, the Grundrisse had made something of an impact on me nearly a decade ago when I was starting my Masters degree as one of the texts that, by re-presenting Marx's project, brought me out of anarchism and into the marxist fold.  Therefore, when I was looking at it again (and laughing with some embarrassment at my younger self's marginalia), I was curious about the man responsible for its translation and thorough introduction.

The official edition of Grundrisse that was translated, edited, and introduced by Martin Nicolaus.

As it turns out, and much to my surprise, Nicolaus has re-invented himself as a self-help guru.  And no, this is not the website of another Martin Nicolaus; on the aforelinked site's blog, Nicolaus has written various entries about his work as the Grundrisse's translator and his time as a post-hippy marxist.  Am I the only person who finds this shift from an important translator/commenter of Marx, as well as an active marxist, to a liberal lawyer and writer of self-help "empowerment" books rather odd?  Although I am quite aware that marxist academics tend to sell-out, this is an extremely unique way of walking away from these politics.

Of course, any google search for Nicolaus will also trigger this document regarding his expulsion from the October League.  And though the October League was one of those US anti-revisionist organizations that ended up mired in another variant of revisionism (i.e. its uncritical endorsement of "three worlds theory" caused it to endorse some indefensible political lines, such as agitating for and openly supporting US involvement in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union), so much so that it was recognized by Hua Guofeng as the official US communist party, the document regarding Nicolaus' expulsion is tragically humorous.  Apparently Nicolaus, a paradigmatic "bourgeois intellectual", was incapable of self-criticism and refused to accept democratic centralism.  But I doubt that even the October League could have guessed at Nicolaus' future career as an anti-addiction self-help guru.

In August I discussed the always present possibility of abdication, the tragic probability that so many marxists can and will abandon their revolutionary politics for a variety of reasons.  I noted, as I have noted elsewhere, that this is a common problem for left-wing academics… I just really never thought that we would express our abdication in such a… well… creative manner.  I mean, when I first found Martin Nicolaus' current website I refused to believe it was the same person; his current vocation just seemed completely outside of the predictable activities of other "rehabilitated" leftists.  Hell, in my mind it was more believable that he had become another predictable liberal or even a reactionary who despised his communist past… not one of the founders of LifeRing.

Really, I'm not sure what to think about Nicolaus' unique abdication tendency.  In some ways I feel kind of sorry for this former marxist intellectual: perhaps his experience in the new communist movement turned him into an alcoholic and this LifeRing empowerment nonsense is an expression of his own struggles to stay sober.  Nor do I want to mock someone for embarking on a writing career that is possibly based (at least this is what I would assume) on their personal struggles with addiction.  It's just that I'm entirely bemused––and I doubt I'm alone in feeling like this––as to how someone who was responsible for one of the most important Marx translations in the twentieth century (for the translation of the Grundrisse into English was indeed momentous), which is still the official translation, is now cranking out decidedly non-marxist pop-psychology books.

All of this is to say: Nicolaus' current vocation makes me wonder what will happen if ever turn traitor and reject my politics.  What unique new post-communist vocations await my possible traitorous self in some tragic future world scenario?  Screenwriter for daytime soap operas?  Technical writer for IKEA assembly manuals?  Flaky instructor for the "School of Philosophy?"  At least Nicolaus has taught me that the possibilities of a post-leftist life are endless…


  1. Well, you can be a wage-laboror at IKEA or a TV company or a school, while at the same time being participating in radical universal politics. One can keep to his/her usually contingent vocation, say a la Paul, and still be ready to abandon it at any moment. Too much emphasize on a radical purified-of-all-bourgeois-occupations vocation would be either of a mystical nature or only possible in highly critical times when revolution is at hand.Radical politics cannot be one lifestyle among others.It is a rupture within each vocation. (I happen to be a Lukacs Farsi translator)

    1. Of course you can, and I wouldn't suggest otherwise. In fact, in multiple other posts I have attacked the notion that class is an essence and all of the crude "proletarianism" that affects some marxist tendencies. The last comments about technical manuals and soap operas were meant to be humorous and connected to the larger discussion of this post (which was not a post about the meaning of class, or anything of the sort), which was about how the hell did Martin Nicolaus end up as a self-help guru because that was bloody unexpected. The comment about "post-communist" career, then, was not meant to suggest that technical writers and soap opera writers cannot gravitate towards revolutionary politics.

    2. Not a Marxist scholar, but interested in sociology and out of curiosity picked up a collection of essays published in 1878. (Older academic books can be extraordinarily illuminating in the ways they reflect the concerns of their times rather than current concerns.) The book was Marx: Sociology, Social Change, Capitalism. To my mind, Nicolaus' chapter, titled Proleteriat and Middle Class in Marx: Hegelian Choreography and the Capitalist Dialectic, was,the most elegant piece of the entire collection. Tho it was written a nearly 40 years ago, I found it to be a moving exposition of potential ways of thought not travelled by most Marxists. I also felt that it spoke in quite powerful ways to the dilemma of highly educated young adults in the world economy, all trained up for work, and in so many instances, with nowhere to go.. Curious to find out more about his work, I hopped onto Google. Like JMP, was stunned to see the turn taken by this clearly brilliant academic. There must be a pretty interesting story behind this transformation.

    3. To be fair, maybe his work in the self-help arena is pretty good as well––perhaps it is even influenced by marxism. But, outside of the tongue-and-cheek tone of this piece and like you said, it is odd that someone who did some pretty important marxist scholarship just stopped so abruptly and then reemerged writing something so wildly different.

    4. I had heard that he had a difficult struggle with alcoholism. His latest book. "Empowering Your Sober Self" lends credence to this rumor. His website also indicates that he retains his anti-capitalist outlook. But a powerful theoretical voice was lost to us, without doubt. Nicolaus isn't alone as a major figure in Marxist groups who has ended in strange waters. Dick Roberts, the main economic writer/analyst of the US SWP is now a fundamentalist Christian minister-- he too succumbed to a mixture of demoralization and alcohol. Les Evans (again the SWP), a major writer from a Trotskyist view, has migrated to an odd assortment of paranormal beliefs, while remaining a pro-zionist social democrat. But he's into ghosts and such. There are many such depressing stories. What do they have in common? All three I've mentioned were radicalized in the 60's, from petit-bourgeois backgrounds, and became demoralized after the decline of the student movement in the 70s. Workers remain workers for life as a rule; the petit-bourgeois, by definition, are free to flip back into the social milieu from which they came-- and never really broke from.

    5. No, Dick Roberts is not a fundamentalist Christian minister! Unless you consider involvement in his local Episcopal Church to represent that! He is still active in progressive politics and continues to adhere to a Marxist outlook, particularly on economic issues.


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