How to Become a "Marxist Intellectual" and Still Own a Pied-à-Terre

How do you make it "from Novelist to Marxist Public Intellectual"? David Wallace-Wells' profile of Benjamin Kunkel in New York magazine shares several secrets for this epic journey, and reveals several things about this contemporary mode of "Marxist Public Intellectual." Let's read closely, and see what we can learn about achieving that particular moniker.

First, a fact-check on the headline gloss: Technically, Kunkel became a novelist after he became a Marxist. As Wallace Wells reports,

Kunkel's been a Marxist since at least Deep Springs, the single-sex cowboys-and-classics California ranch college.

So how did Benjamin Kunkel go from Marxist to Marxist Novelist to Marxist Public Intellectual? In part by providing a "lifeline" to "the intellectual left through the Bush years," in the form of "radical literary platform" n+1:

When n+1 appeared ten years ago this fall, it was in a vacuum of dissent, just a couple of years since the collapse of a whole string of Gen-X magazines that were the closest the neoliberal '90s got to an intellectual counterculture: The Baffler, Hermenaut, Lingua Franca. "It had been this pipe dream on the order of, 'So we'll move upstate and found a commune,' " Kunkel says, remembering "our first very ugly issue. We wanted it to be like revolutionary red and it ended up being, like, Harvard crimson and I was like, Fuck. That's the most telling production error that ever occurred. It looked like some in-house Harvard magazine and very ugly. Kind of heroically ugly."

In keeping with that heroic tradition, Kunkel and most of his n+1 peers ended up with establishment book deals. To Kunkel's great credit, he evinces some embarassment about the rapturous reception Indecision received. And also, consequent claustrophobia about the strictures "New York" was putting on his desire to write honestly and fully:

New York, by contrast, has "always seemed like a bit too much," he tells me. "The primary thing I think is just time and space—it's almost just a mathematical thing. There were too many people in New York and it required too much money and took too much time to do things that weren't writing."

Kunkel moved to Argentina, but did not, of course, abandon New York altogether:

We're sitting at the bar of a dingy, garden-level Spanish restaurant he says is the only place in the neighborhood of his Union Square–ish pied-à-terre here in New York he can still stand, just a few hours before kickoff.

Ah yes. The Marxist Union Square pied-à-terre, a long tradition in the movement, which property records show he purchased and paid off the mortgage on in 2006. With what money, who knows. Perhaps it's just the proceeds from Indecision's success.

Look: of course the main way in which Kunkel embodies the contemporary "Marxist public intellectual" is that he leads what some churlish blogger (hello!) could call an ethically compromised, or even just somewhat confusing and inconsistent, existence. Which makes him a human being and not a monster. Even just within leftist tradition there are plenty of people whose lives were structured such that they automatically compromised the politics those same people espoused in tracts, leftist journal articles, and dinner parties. Engels was the son of a rich factory owner. Sometimes life is complicated like that.

Although there are counter-examples too: the founders of the Partisan Review, on which n+1 sometimes seemed to want to model itself, were much less comfortably set up in life than someone like Kunkel is described as being in this article.

Not that Kunkel thinks material change is part of his remit. "I don't know how we're supposed to go about acquiring the power to do these things," he tells Wallace-Wells. "I see my role as more of being one of the people suggesting what it is we should try and do."

[Photo via MoMA/PS1.]