A recent Jacobin article about how Karl Marx first got radicalized included these two sentences: “Today, many young people are marching leftward in [Marx’s] footsteps from a passion for freedom to a critique of capitalism. But unlike Marx, they have the whole tradition of Marxism to guide them.”
Will taking the “whole tradition of Marxism” as their guide reveal to “young people marching leftward” the critical, essential elements of their circumstances they will need to navigate to best win a better society? Police violence. Abortion denial. Accelerating inequality. Climate collapse. War. Fascism. And more. To react effectively, should we immerse ourselves in Marxist texts?
Weeks, months, years, and decades come and go. Left “scholars” periodically proclaim “Marx said it. Marx knew it. Marx taught it. To win a better world, we should channel Marx’s Collected Works. We should be guided by the whole Marxist tradition.” But is it true that if we don’t seriously study Marx to learn his old answers to our current questions—and if we don’t seriously study Lenin and Trotsky too to learn their answers as well—then our knowledge, preparation, and thinking will not successfully advance our needs and desires?
The bearded big man, the optimistic oracle, the grandest grand teacher, the most famous flag bearer himself wrote “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”
Non-Marxologists might think Marx must have been referring to the effect of the tradition of dead generations on reactionaries who wish to return to the past. It turns out, however, that reading further we find that reactionaries weren’t Marx’s target: “And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time honored disguise and borrowed language.”
So it was revolutionaries, not reactionaries, that Marx was eloquently castigating for borrowing “names, battle slogans, and costumes” from the past in order to present the present in “honored disguise and borrowed language” until we find that over and over, today is costumed as if it was yesterday, and this is done, ironically, by those claiming to seek tomorrow.
Some will say I exaggerate the problem. Perhaps, but then did Marx exaggerate it too? Suppose you think you operate in the tradition of some dead thinker. Should you proclaim it? Should you footnote it? Should you urge your preferred old texts on others? What is a committed comrade to do?
When asked that question, my first observation is that there is no need to display your lineage, much less to trumpet it even if your claimed lineage is brilliant. What matters instead is to make clear what you yourself believe and to show why you believe it using your own words of today. Can’t we agree that here is rarely need to quote dead men’s words and most especially that there is never reason to treat dead men’s words like scripture, as if simply quoting such words provides an argument or evidence. Instead, to convey our own passion on behalf of our own aims while we also attend to the expectations, fears, and experiences of those we address, why not present relevant experiences and logical connections in our own contemporary words as evidenced in our own contemporary times?
Consider a person, probably a guy, who repeatedly quotes Marx and advises reading Marx (or some other long gone icon) to make some point about contemporary relations much less about contemporary means or aims. Imagine hearing or watching him. Doesn’t he too often seem more concerned to get his audience to genuflect to Marx or more concerned to demonstrate his own allegiance to Marx than he is concerned to help larger, undecided audiences consider for themselves current observations based on current evidence and reasoning? In short, doesn’t to quote from the past often mask contemporary communicative poverty? Doesn’t it sometimes appeal to some dead author’s authority, which in turn risks a slip-slide toward sectarian conformity?
Why not instead take Marx’s own advice and let “dead generations” rest in peace? Why not avoid “nightmarish” mimicry? Why not stop “borrowing” and instead create?
Please note, so far I haven’t offered a word of critique of Marxism itself. Not a word. Instead the above observations are about how to communicate substance, not about the merits of the substance to be communicated. But to now assess Marxism’s substance, consider the harsh claim that the goal of struggle in every Marxist text that offers a serious economic or societal vision is an economy that elevates about twenty percent of its population to ruling class status and that also retains patriarchy, racism, and political authoritarianism, not to mention continuing to excessively spew pollution. Is that claim true? Consider that when Marxist movements have actually guided revolutions, those revolutions have delivered societies with just those horribly flawed features. Does this aspect of Marxist tradition matter? Do these outcomes exist consistently with and not despite Marxism’s concepts?
Many Marxists reply that such implications are nonsense. They say every genuine Marxist’s goal is mass working-class participation, democracy, and freedom. And I agree that that is what Marx and most Marxists desire. But then I add that despite those undeniable personal desires, in practice most Marxists don’t pursue institutions consistent with mass working-class participation, democracy, and freedom or with ending patriarchy, racism, and authoritarianism. Again, is that claim about institutional aims false, or is it true?
To decide, suppose we could put every Marxist text about economics and/or society in a pile. To the very limited extent that anything in that pile provides serious institutional vision, won’t it most often be only economic and include authoritative decision making, a corporate division of labor, remuneration for output or bargaining power, and markets or central planning, each of which institutions elevate the earlier-mentioned twenty percent. And then if we look at actual Marxist-inspired revolutions, putting them in a pile, so to speak, don’t we see just those institutional aims achieved?
Perhaps the cause of Marxism not delivering what most of its advocates have wanted hasn’t been bad leaders. Yes, of course Stalin was a bad leader, to put it mildly. But perhaps the real, deeper, and lasting problem has been Marxist movement dynamics that have elevated a thug like Stalin and, going still one step further, perhaps the problem has been the concepts that have elevated or at any rate that did not prevent those Stalin-elevating movement dynamics.
The problem wasn’t that everybody in Marxist Leninist parties explicitly wanted to trample workers on the road to ruling them. That is overwhelmingly false. That is nonsense. The problem was that however well meaning their members may have been, some of the core concepts of Marxist parties have inexorably led those parties, when they succeeded, to trample workers. Behind and pushing the leaders, structures. Behind and elevating the structures, concepts.
Become a Marxist revolutionary. Even with the very best motives—the very very best motives—the odds are that you aren’t going to make a revolution in our modern world because you won’t have sufficiently broad focus and especially, ironically, because you will lack sufficient working class support. But if you do transcend those problems and you do help make a revolution, the odds are your achievement will elevate what I call the coordinator class to economic rule over the working class, and will leave patriarchy, racism, and authoritarianism modified but intact or even intensified.
Some Marxists find this claim personally insulting. I don’t think it should be. It isn’t about particular people or motives. It isn’t about people’s personalities much less people’s genetics. It is instead about concepts, methods, and institutional allegiances which, even in the hands of wonderful people foster results that those people never wanted. The target of my comments is nightmarish tradition that weighs down good people. Or, as my bard, who is still living, sang, “I mean no harm nor put fault on anyone who lives in a vault, it’s alright ma, if I can’t please him.”
So let’s focus on two substantive issues. Consider first that Marxism’s core concepts and associated practices overemphasize economics and underemphasize gender/kinship, community/culture, polity, and ecology.
This claim doesn’t imply that all (or even any) Marxists ignore everything other than economics. Nor does it imply that all (or even any) Marxists don’t care greatly about other matters. It implies, instead, that when yesterday’s Marxists addressed the sex life of teenagers, marriage, the nuclear family, religion, racial identity, cultural commitments, sexual preferences, political organization, police behavior, war, and ecology, they tended to highlight dynamics arising from their understanding of class struggle or that demonstrated implications for class struggle and tended to miss concerns rooted in the specific features of race, gender, power, and nature. They most often even claimed that this limited accounting was a virtue.
This criticism doesn’t say yesterday’s Marxism has said nothing useful about race, gender, sex, and power or at least about the economics of each. But this criticism does say that yesterday’s Marxist concepts did not sufficiently counter tendencies imposed by then current society, or by then current struggle, or by then current tactical choices that generated racist, sexist, and authoritarian outcomes even against the best moral and social inclinations of most Marxists. Yesterday’s Marxism left out too much that matters greatly for it to guide us to tomorrow.
In other words, these claims about Marxism’s overemphasis on economy and insufficient emphasis on other sides of life do not predict mono-mania about economics or even a universal and inviolable pattern of over attention to economics and under attention to everything else. No, instead they predict a harmful pattern of narrowness in how attention is given to extra economic phenomena. Doesn’t Marxism instruct us to study such phenomena and to correct ills associated with such phenomena, but to do so with our eyes primarily on what Marxism says are the paramount change-relevant causes and effects, which Marxism says are the economic ones? Doesn’t Marxism provide valuable and even essential insights about the economic dimensions of other than economic sides of life, but not so much about their less economic dimensions? By analogy imagine a feminist, anti-racist, or anarchist who says we should pay attention to economic phenomena and seek to correct ills associated with them, but we should do so always with our eyes primarily on what feminism, anti-racism, or anarchism would call the paramount change-relevant causes and effects, which they would say are the intrinsically gender, racial, or political ones. Wouldn’t Marxists rightly reply that those other approaches need economic enhancement? But isn’t it just as valid for those other approaches to say that the Marxist approach needs gender, racial, and political enhancement?
If so, then doesn’t it follow that the fix for Marxism’s “economism” would be for Marxists to agree that feminism, anarchism, and anti racism have their own core insights and that just as advocates of each of those perspectives need to take account of class-focused understanding, so too people seeking classlessness should take account of those other source’s insights about those other focussed areas of needed change? Won’t prioritizing only a one-way causation, whether economics to the rest or some other favored focus to the rest, miss phenomena of crucial importance, especially given the racial, gender, authority, ecology, and class biases and habits that are imbued so prevalently in current societies? But doesn’t that make clear that we therefore need concepts that counter and certainly not concepts that accentuate such biases?
The good news is that I think the majority of today’s Marxists agree with the need to transcend economism. The bad news is that I think the majority of today’s Marxists haven’t yet adopted new concepts that equally prioritize those other areas of needed change. Instead the concepts and words of the dead generations that inhabit Marxism’s tradition tend to crowd out or sometimes even stamp out such broader insights as soon as momentum for fundamental change builds. So while the majority of today’s Marxists see the need to escape economism and while they sincerely seek to do so (often by embracing another perspective so we get socialist feminism, marxist anti racism, anarcho-marxism, and eco-marxism), nonetheless, isn’t a lingering obstacle to their success that in times of crisis their allegiance to their whole tradition’s core intellectual framework tends to overcome their good intentions? As movement urgency rises, that is, don’t desires for enlarged breadth of focus tend to get washed away? That is what we might call Marxism’s economism problem.
A second area of concern less noticed and less confronted than its economism, is ironically that regarding Marxism’s primarily focused side of life, the economy, Marxism’s concepts fall profoundly short. Most Marxist might say, “come on. Whatever limitations or even failings Marxism may have, surely its economics is powerful.” Well, yes, Marxism rightly argues the intense importance of class conflict and that is excellent. But then Marxism near universally fails to highlight a class that exists between labor and capital. Yesterday’s and also today’s Marxists tend to apriori deny the roots of a third class in how the economy defines and apportions work. Yesterday’s and also today’s Marxist’s teach, instead, that classes owe their existence only to ownership relations. But isn’t it blindingly evident that this is why Marxism fails to see that the economies that Marxists have either positively called “socialist” or critically called “state capitalist” have elevated neither capitalists nor workers to ruling economic status? Instead, in this system, aren’t capitalists gone but workers still subordinate? Indeed, hasn’t what the Marxist tradition has sought and won beyond capitalism in every case elevated to ruling economic status not workers but instead a coordinator class of planners, managers, and other empowered employees? Hasn’t it been out with the capitalist boss, in with the coordinator boss?
But why does that happen? Is it a revolution hijacked? Or is it that victorious Marxism has most often sought and won public or state ownership of assets, top down decision making, corporate divisions of labor, remuneration for output or power, and markets or central planning for allocation. And hasn’t this all happened, remarkably, even while Marxists simultaneously urged the need for workers control. Yet when Marxists have implemented the former institutions they have not attained the latter goals. Isn’t that because some key Marxist conceptual and institutional commitments have not only permitted but propelled coordinator rule even while they have denied that the coordinator class exists? Perhaps the reason why Marxism isn’t all that popular among working class audiences isn’t solely that those audiences have been misled.
But, please note, this doesn’t say that most (or arguably even any) individual Marxists self-consciously try to advance the interests of managers, lawyers, accountants, engineers, planers, and other empowered actors over and above workers. It says, instead, that certain concepts within Marxism do little to prevent this elevation of a coordinator class and indeed even propel it. It says that in Marxist practice, coordinator economic dominance tends to emerge even despite and against the sentiments of Marxism’s rank and file.
This may seem peculiar. After all, how could a movement most of whose members want one thing repeatedly wind up implementing something damningly and even diametrically opposite? But actually, this is not uncommon. Social outcomes often diverge from rank and file desires.
For example, sincere and eloquent advocates of workers control who favor privately-owned corporations, whether they do so for personal gain or due to a sincere belief that private ownership is essential for a well functioning economy, do not usher in workers control. Their institutional choice to retain private ownership trumps their worthy ethical desire for workers control. All Marxists understand that outcome because Marxism’s concepts highlight how private ownership precludes workers control.
Similarly, sincere and eloquent advocates of workers self management who favor markets or central planning and who favor the corporate division of labor, whether they do so for personal gain or due to a sincere belief that those choices are essential for a well functioning economy, will not usher in self management. Their institutional choices will trump their worthy ethical desires for self management. Marxists often fail to understand that. Their concepts don’t highlight and even obscure the dynamics at work.
Is it nasty to point out that Marxists ought to easily understand this possibility not least because Marx himself smartly advised that when judging some intellectual framework one should discount what it says about itself (“workers above all”) and instead notice what its concepts obscure (“coordinatorism above workers”)? Is it nasty to urge, like Marx, that an intellectual framework that becomes a tool of an aspiring ruling class will obscure that class’s behavior, hide that class’s roots in social relations, and even deny that class’s existence, all while furthering that class’s rise to dominance?
Look at the theory and ideology of mainstream capitalist economics to see exactly that dynamic. But don’t we also discover something quite similar if we apply the same evaluative method to assessing Marxism’s relation to the class between labor and capital? That is, when we look to see what the Marxist tradition highlights, obscures, and seeks, don’t we see that Marxism’s focus on property relations as the only basis for class conflict obscures the importance of the distribution of empowering tasks among economic actors for class conflict? Don’t we see that that’s why Marxism misses that with owners gone, coordinators can rise to rule workers? Don’t we see that Marxism removes from view the rule exerted by about twenty percent of the population (the coordinator class that monopolizes empowering work), over the remaining eighty percent of the population (the working class that does mainly disempowering work) in so-called “twentieth century socialism,” which system we really ought to call coordinatorism?
Don’t we see, in other words, that despite the sincere and oft-stated aims of so many of its adherents, in practice Marxism’s concepts overwhelmingly and predictably elevate the coordinator class to rule over workers even as Marxism’s concepts have hidden coordinator’s role and even their very existence?
Would Marx call today’s Marxism and especially today’s Marxism Leninism the ideology of the coordinator class, not the working class? Whether Marx would do so or not, isn’t it clear that to argue that we should do so doesn’t imply that we think that somehow all Marxists are enemies of classlessness? Isn’t it clear that it instead urges that even when Marxists overwhelmingly desire classlessness, their conceptual and institutional allegiances trample those desires?
A question arises. How might today’s Marxists seek a better Marxism for tomorrow? How might new Marxists augment, alter, or otherwise transcend faulty current concepts to avoid the two problems we and so many feminists, anti racists, anarchists, councilists, and others have highlighted?
Regarding “economism,” isn’t the problem that we need to transcend a conceptual framework that starts from economics and then even while revealing important economic dynamics, primarily examines other realms with the intention of seeing their economic implications but not their intrinsic extra-economic dynamics?
And if we recognize the problem, shouldn’t we instead ground our overall perspective on concepts that highlight economics, but also equally highlight polity, kinship, culture, and ecology? Shouldn’t we prioritize understanding each of these life sphere’s own intrinsic logic and dynamics, and simultaneously prioritize seeing how in actual societies each of these life spheres influences and even limits and defines the others without presupposing that they line up according to some particular hierarchy of importance? For example, as a possible correction to today’s economism, tomorrow’s Marxist might say,
“I am Marxist but I am also feminist, inter communalist, anarchist, and green. I recognize that dynamics arising from spheres of life other than the economy are critically important and can even define economic possibilities, just as the reverse can occur. Of course, I still think class struggle is important, but I realize gender, race, religious, ethnic, sexual, and anti-authoritarian struggle are each also important. I realize that just as we need to understand non-class struggle in its relation to class struggle, we also have to understand class struggle in its relation to gender, race, political, and ecological struggle.”
So, okay, suppose tomorrow’s Marxist does renounce the idea of an economic base which affects an extra-economic superstructure which is in turn only affected. Suppose tomorrow’s Marxist denies that societies rise and transform only due to modes of production and instead sees how modes of kinship, culture, and polity are also crucial to how societies rise and transform? Suppose tomorrow’s Marxist still argues the importance of class struggle but no longer sees class struggle as the alone dominant conceptual touchstone for identifying strategic issues. Could the label “Marxist” come to connote what this new “Marxist” believes? I am not sure. Maybe it could, though the Marxist tradition would no doubt resist. Indeed, I think this battle is and has been under way for decades.
In contrast to the above possibility for overcoming Marxism’s economism problem, the class-definition problem of yesterday’s and also most often of today’s Marxism seems to more strongly resist correction. Capitalists are capitalist, Marxists rightly urge, and this is so by virtue of their private ownership of the means of production. To no longer have capitalists above workers requires, Marxists also rightly urge, that we therefore eliminate private ownership of means of production. So far, so good. So essential.
Marxists then say non-capitalists own only their ability to do work which they sell for a wage. Also good. But then Marxists say that all these wage earning employees, by virtue of having the same ownership situation as one another, also have the same class interests. They are all in one class, the working class. This is not good.
The point is, Marxists almost universally fail to recognize that the parts of wage earning employees can have crucially different class interests from other parts due to having different jobs in the corporate division of labor. Suppose in response to this criticism we hypothesize that perhaps there is a class between labor and capital. Is this hypothetical third class real? Is anyone actually in this hypothetical third class? Once we admit that it might exist and we thus admit that something other than ownership relations might generate class difference, if we then look can’t we easily see that some employees—managers, lawyers, accountants, engineers, and more are highly empowered by their economic position and in particular by corporate divisions of labor which allot to them a virtual monopoly on empowering tasks as well as on the levers and requisites of daily decision-making, while in contrast allotting to other employees disempowering tasks that leave them subordinate—so that the former coordinators decide and the latter workers obey?
Doesn’t it follow that to no longer have empowered coordinators above disempowered workers, and therefore to attain classlessness, we must replace the offending institutions—markets, central planning, and especially the corporate division of labor? But if so, then why do most Marxist and all Marxist Leninist visions explicitly advocate having a corporate division of labor?
More, doesn’t this advocacy explain why Marxists typically do not see that even when private ownership is eliminated, markets, central planning, and corporate divisions of labor will nonetheless elevate a ruling class of structurally empowered coordinators above a subordinate class of structurally disempowered workers?
Marxists often movingly and sincerely describe the justice, equity, and dignity that “socialism” should usher in. But, if we look at texts by Marxists for their proposed vision, don’t we find vague rhetoric that lacks institutional substance, or, when there is some institutional substance, don’t we find institutions that deny the justice, equity, and dignity that Marxists personally favor?
Similarly, when we look at Marxist practice, which is most often Marxist Leninist practice, don’t we find these same coordinatorist structures nearly universally implemented? Could a Marxist today transcend this problem by adopting a three class view that sees beyond only property relations as able to cause class rule, and yet reasonably continue to call him or herself a Marxist?
If a Marxist did follow that path, which indeed some Marxists have at times tried to do, (including myself when I co-authored a book with Robin Hahnel forty six years ago called Unorthodox Marxism) I think signs that it had occurred would be obvious. For example, wouldn’t such “new Marxists” critique what has been self-labeled “socialism” by its advocates in various countries around the world, and then not call it capitalism or state capitalism, or even deformed socialism, but instead call it a new mode of production that enshrines a coordinator class above workers?
And wouldn’t such new Marxists then offer a vision that would dispense with markets, central planning, and corporate divisions of labor, as well as dispense with modes of remuneration that reward property, power, or output, and of course dispense with private ownership of means of production?
And wouldn’t such new Marxists also propose new defining economic institutions to seek in place of those rejected options? The new institutions that I think might gain support from such new Marxists might be, for example, worker and consumer collectively self-managing councils, remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor, a new division of labor that has jobs balanced for empowerment effects, and participatory planning in place of markets and central planning?
Then, in accord with their altered economic vision, wouldn’t such new Marxists also advocate movement organization, methods, and programs that embody, propel, and actually arrive at their positive aims? Wouldn’t they understand that strategies for social change that embody organizational choices and methods such as employing centrist parties, top down decision-making, and corporate divisions of labor will not eliminate coordinator class rule but entrench it? Wouldn’t they understand that today’s Marxism’s flaws lead to coordinator class rule regardless of the sincere desires of many or even nearly all Marxists to end up someplace much nicer than coordinatorism?
What would be the relation of such “new Marxists” to the Marxist tradition that they previously celebrated? Well, I doubt such new Marxists would call themselves Leninist or Trotskyist, but even if they did, they would certainly disavow huge swaths of associated thought and action.
Instead of persistently quoting Lenin and Trotsky positively, for example, they would aggressively reject Lenin saying: “It is absolutely essential that all authority in the factories should be concentrated in the hands of management.”
And they would reject Lenin saying: “Any direct intervention by the trade unions in the management of enterprises must be regarded as positively harmful and impermissible.”
And they would reject Lenin saying: “Large scale machine industry which is the central productive source and foundation of socialism calls for absolute and strict unity of will… How can strict unity of will be ensured? By thousands subordinating their will to the will of one.”
And they would reject Lenin saying: “A producer’s congress! What precisely does that mean? It is difficult to find words to describe this folly. I keep asking myself can they be joking? Can one really take these people seriously? While production is always necessary, democracy is not. Democracy of production engenders a series of radically false ideas.”
And then they would reject Trotsky saying (about left communists): “They turn democratic principles into a fetish. They put the right of the workers to elect their own representatives above the Party, thus challenging the Party’s right to affirm its own dictatorship, even when this dictatorship comes into conflict with the evanescent mood of the worker’s democracy.”
And they would reject Trotsky saying, “We must bear in mind the historical mission of our Party. The Party is forced to maintain its dictatorship, without stopping for these vacillations, nor even the momentary falterings of the working class. This realization is the mortar which cements our unity. The dictatorship of the proletariat does not always have to conform to formal principles of democracy.”
And they would reject Trotsky saying: “It is a general rule that man will try to get out of work. Man is a lazy animal.”
And they would reject Trotsky saying (with pride): “I consider that if the Civil War had not plundered our economic organs of all that was strongest, most independent, most endowed with initiative, we should undoubtedly have entered the path of one-man management much sooner and much less painfully.”
More, wouldn’t such new Marxists not waste time blaming Lenin or Trotsky’s personal dispositions for the origins of such undeniably horrible utterances and outcomes, but instead look for underlying inadequate concepts they can now transcend?
But, honestly, isn’t all of the above in some sense the fare of “dead generations”? More important than arguing about the past, wouldn’t tomorrow’s “new Marxists” note that utilizing hierarchical structures in economic and/or political or social institutions risks ushering in coordinator rule as well as creating an environment uncongenial to widespread worker involvement, or kinship, racial, political, or ecological advances?
If tomorrow’s Marxists wanted to argue that in some difficult contexts such structures may have to be employed, wouldn’t they urge seeing the structures as temporarily imposed expedients and in all other respects try to pave the way for classless self-managing social relations, now and in the future?
Finally, despite some crucial flaws, is there also great wisdom in Marx and in many subsequent Marxist writers and activists that “tomorrow’s Marxists” would rightly retain? Of course there is. But wouldn’t new Marxists who rightly reject not only capitalist property relations but also markets, central planning, and a coordinatorist division of labor as well as patriarchy, racism, and authoritarianism also want to avoid fulfilling Marx’s own commentary that: “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”
That seems like a good back-to-the-beginning place for us to sign off, no?
Well, at the risk of belaboring, I don’t think so. To reject things we have been taught, things we have quoted, things we have taken our identities and battle slogans from, things that we have believed in, and that we have advocated all so that we can get beyond traditions of dead generations is no simple path to navigate, especially when many highly learned, compelling committed, courageous, and accomplished folks repeatedly tell us that to do that would leave us ignorantly ill-suited to winning change. So at the risk of running on, I want to give the issue just a little more attention.
The point of activists becoming familiar and facile with such long-lived frameworks as Marxism or Marxism Leninism (or any other long-lived framework) as they move leftward should of course be to find in such frameworks’ insights and methods that can usefully aid current and future practice.
To decide if to immerse oneself in Marxist (or any other) long-lived tradition is a wise choice, shouldn’t we ask, will that tradition’s proposed concepts and practices not hinder but instead help us to comprehend all main conditions we will encounter when we combat injustice? Shouldn’t they help us try to conceive and attain a desirable new world? If so, we should of course learn from that collection of proposed concepts, albeit using our own words. But if not, shouldn’t we develop better concepts and embark on better practice?
To that end, here are some additional very summary judgements about Marxist tradition to discuss, debate, explore, and hopefully get beyond:
1. Marxist “dialectics” is a substantively empty drain on creativity and range of perception. If you doubt it, okay, ask even a well read Marxist what dialectics means. And especially ask what dialectics helps activists understand which, if they hadn’t learned dialectics, they wouldn’t understand. Ask what makes dialectics other than useless and pointless rhetoric that only elevates its owners above those who fail to successfully borrow those same habits and slogans from dead generations.
2. “Historical Materialism’s” claims have some validity, but when real existing people utilize the concepts of historical materialism they typically tend to arrive at an economistic and mechanical view of society that systematically under-values and mis-understands social relations of gender, political, cultural, and ecological origin and impact.
3. Marxist “class theory” has obscured the importance of a class between labor and capital, has under-appreciated that class’s antagonisms in capitalist economies with the working class below and with capital above, has long obstructed class analysis of Soviet, Eastern European, and Third World post capitalist economies, and has especially obstructed understanding the failings of tactics and strategies that have consistently attained other than what most activists have wanted to attain.
4. The “Marxist Labor Theory of Value” misunderstands its own subject the determination of wages, prices, and profits in capitalist economies and more broadly turns activists’ thoughts away from a needed social-relations bargaining-power view of capitalist exchange. It also directs its advocates away from seeing that the dynamics of workplaces are largely functions of the differential empowerment effects of work, of bargaining power, and of forms of social control and not solely functions of ownership relations. It suggests all workers will wind up earning the minimum wage they need to reproduce themselves. But then one ought to wonder what the point of seeking higher wages is, and for that matter why wages for different wage earners differ so markedly.
5. Marxist “crisis theory,” in all its variants, often distorts understanding of capitalist economies and anti-capitalist prospects by seeing intrinsic cataclysmic collapse as inevitable and even imminent where no such prospect exists, and by in that way orienting activists away from the importance of their own sustained vision-guided organizing as a far more promising basis for desirable change.
6. Regarding visions of desirable societies, the Marxist tradition has been particularly obstructive. First there has been Marxism’s general taboo against “utopian” speculation which taboo literally rejects trying to conceive a vision we wish to attain. Second, Marxist causal economism has presumed that if economic relations are made desirable then other social relations will fall into place, making vision for other than economy redundant. Third, Marxism is permanently confused about what constitutes an equitable distribution of income. “From each according to ability and to each according to need” is not a viable economic guide since for each of us to provide society according to our ability would mean we should each work as much as our ability allows which is typically way more than it makes sense for us to work. Likewise, for each of us to receive according to our need would either let us all have anything we say we need or, if not, it would require that someone or something else decides our needs for us. In neither case would it respect or reveal information that indicates how much people want or need any particular thing and not just that they do want/need that particular thing, and that would in turn prevent determining costs and benefits of different possible choices by workplaces. More, the norm that Marxists sometimes propose instead, “from each according to personal choice and to each according to contribution to the social product” is not even a morally worthy maxim since it rewards productivity, including genetic endowment, and not just effort and sacrifice. And fourth, Marxism approves hierarchical relations of production, a corporate division of labor for workplace organization, and approves command planning or even markets as a means of allocation because while Marxism recognizes the need to eliminate the causes of capitalist economic rule it does not even recognize the existence of much less seek to eliminate the causes of coordinator economic rule.
7. Taken cumulatively Marxism’s injunctions regarding economic goals amount to advocating what we call a coordinator mode of production that elevates administrators, planners, and all structurally empowered workers, called coordinators, to ruling class status. This Marxist economic goal then uses the label “socialist” to appeal to all other employees, workers, but it does not structurally implement socialist ideals (just as the political goal of bourgeois movements uses the label “democratic” to rally support from diverse sectors, but does not structurally implement full democratic ideals).
8. Finally, Leninism and Trotskyism are natural outgrowths of Marxism as it is employed by people in capitalist societies, and Marxism Leninism, far from being “theory and strategy for the working class,” is, instead, by its focus, concepts, values, methods, and goals, and despite most of its advocates’ desires, “theory and strategy for the coordinator class.”
So, to get personal about all this, and to add a crucial caveat, since I believe the above claims, albeit my reasons are only summarized here, I hoped the demise of the patriarchal, nationalist, authoritarian, ecologically suicidal Soviet model, would end allegiance to Marxism and Marxism Leninism taken as whole traditions, since those whole traditions aimed in their principles, concepts, thought, and vision (though not in the deepest aspirations of many of their advocates), at that Soviet model.
So, what’s the problem? Out with that model, out with the concepts and strategies that led to it. That makes sense, doesn’t it? Yes, but—and here comes the caveat—only to a point. When theories fail to sufficiently explain reality or to successfully guide sought practice, they certainly do need to be refined and corrected or sometimes even jettisoned and replaced. And, in the case of Marxism and Marxism Leninism, the faults briefly discussed here and often also critiqued by feminists, anti-racists, anarchists, councilists and even many Marxists are demonstrably intrinsic to certain Marxist core concepts so that correcting those concepts is not just modestly tinkering with the still intact intellectual framework.
That is, supposing we seriously refine or even dispense with major elements of dialectical materialism, historical materialism, the labor theory of value, Marxism’s constricted understanding of class, Leninist strategy, a coordinator elevating economic vision, and Marxism’s still insufficient attention to and aspirations for kin, gender, sex, race, ethnic, political, and ecological vision, won’t whatever emerges reject enough from the Marxist tradition to also have to find a new name? Maybe, maybe not. But I would suggest that it is time—actually that it is well past time—to get on with something new.
My caveat, however, is that it is also true that when theories fail to sufficiently explain reality or to guide practice, it does not follow that we must jettison every claim they made, every concept they offered, and every analysis they undertook. Quite the contrary, it is more likely that much will be still valid and should be retained (though perhaps recast) in any new and better intellectual framework.
So, in 2024, as crisis looms and momentum for change grows, learning from past traditions can certainly help us, but we should recognize that immersing ourselves in past traditions can also crowd out our need to explore and adopt essential new insights in place of flawed ones we have heretofore borrowed from traditions of dead generations.
This article is an edited and shortened transcript of the 265th episode of the podcast RevolutionZ titled, Marxism Revisited: Beacon Or Burden?
The author hopes to hear from those who agree and from those who disagree with the many controversial sentiments of this essay via the ZNet discord channel set up for the purpose.
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