This is the second essay in the Meaning of Marxism series. The first can be found here.
Marxism is the most intensely discredited theoretical problematic in contemporary intellectual culture. Unlike other discredited theoretical problematics, like classical philosophy for being racist and misogynistic and evolutionary psychology for drifting towards social darwinism and eugenics, most critiques of Marxism are made in bad faith. Critics of Marxism, as a theoretical problematic, are not based on readings of Marxists. More often than not, critiques of Marxism are lazily repackaged vulgarizations inherited from the Cold War era State Department, which in the ideological struggle with the USSR took any means necessary to discredit Marxism and communism. Most critics of Marxism have never actually read anything Marx wrote, nevermind contributions to the problematic by Lenin, Luxemburg, Gramsci, Mao, Rodney, and hundreds of others. As I touched on in the Introduction to this series, the reason for this is that Marxism is a revolutionary method that, if understood and applied correctly, can guide revolutionary political practice towards the overthrow of the capitalist system and the beginnings of socialist transition.
I also want to note that not every critique of Marxism is inherently made in bad faith. To dismiss any and all critique is also a form of bad faith, and Marxists should promote and encourage critical thought and critique, even if it is at our expense. Furthermore, without critical thought and critique, there would be no progress within the Marxist problematic. If every Marxist dogmatically accepted every position of Marxists before them, we would be unable to produce any new knowledge.1 The point I am making here is that the common critiques of Marxism usually come from outside, and these attacks are usually made in bad faith. Any critique that is based on a serious and engaged reading of Marxist theory, and doesn’t lazily resort to old tropes, ought to be engaged with in good faith.
There are, in my experience, four common vulgarizations of Marxism that are commonly peddled throughout bourgeois society:
- Reducing Marxism to the thought of Karl Marx alone.
- Reducing Marxism to an inherent economic/class reductionism.
- Reducing Marxism to a general belief in unionization and better conditions for workers.
- Reducing Marxism to the prediction of global revolution followed by communism. Or in other words, reducing Marxism to the results of its analysis.
One could make the argument that both 2 and 4 are the results of the first vulgarization. If one thinks that Marxism is just the thought of Karl Marx, then it makes sense that they’d think that Marxism is necessarily economic reductionist, and that Marxism is a teleology of history where global proletarian revolution is preordained. However, even though these critiques overlap with each other, they do not all depend on each other. For example, one person might understand that Marxism is not simply the thought of Karl Marx alone, but still criticizes it for being economic reductionist. It is for this reason that I have separated each vulgarization.
The purpose of this essay is inspired by the Cartesian method of developing a philosophy. Before Descartes developed his new philosophical system, he argued that it was necessary to investigate the foundations of his thought and subject everything to a ruthless criticism.2 Before anything is built, one has to destroy what already exists. In my case, before developing or reasserting a conception of Marxism that retains its revolutionary core, it is necessary to deconstruct the different ways Marxism has been misused or vulgarized.
V1. Marxism as Karl Marx Thought (KMT)
This vulgarization reduces the term ‘Marxism’ to the thought of Karl Marx alone. Or in other words, Marxism = Karl Marx thought. Nathan J. Robinson, a figure in the contemporary democratic socialist milieu, tweeted, “I have great respect for Karl Marx as a sociologist, economist, and philosopher. Any honest person admits he excelled in each field. The problem is not Marx but Marxism, ie treating a single person’s ideas as excessively important.” Robinson clearly does not understand what Marxism is, since Marxism is not the thought of a single individual. Rather, Marxism is a methodology used to study history and social formations, which is built on some key premises/concepts (which I will expand on elsewhere). Anyone who adopts this methodology and applies it can be considered a Marxist.
This vulgarization appears most often when people criticize Marx or Engels for Eurocentric, reactionary, or chauvinistic statements. By ‘exposing’ Marx and Engels reactionary statements, they believe they are discrediting Marxism in general. The same logic is used when people point out that Engels was actually a factory owner, which meant he was a part of the bourgeoisie. By exposing Engels as a capitalist fraud, the entire project of Marxism is thereby discredited, according to this logic. If you’re looking for evidence of this phenomenon, a simple google search will provide you with plenty of examples. Just type in “Karl Marx racist,” and browse through the resulting articles. One article, written by black economist Robert E. Williams, is titled, “Did you know that Karl Marx was a racist and an anti-Semite?”3 The entire premise of Williams’ argument can be boiled down into this paragraph:
“Marx is a hero to many labor union leaders and civil rights organizations, including leftist groups like Black Lives Matter, antifa and some Democratic Party leaders. It is easy to be a Marxist if you know little of his life. Marx’s predictions about capitalism and the “withering away of the state” turned out to be grossly wrong. What most people do not know is that Marx was a racist and an anti-Semite.”4
Williams proceeds to list examples of Marx and Engels making reactionary statements. He also then proceeds to resort to the old anti-communist tropes, where the communists are personally responsible for a gazillion deaths. His conclusion is, “These people who topple statues and destroy public and private property care about minorities as much as their racist predecessors. Their goal is the acquisition and concentration of power and Americans have fallen hook, line and sinker for their phony virtue signaling.”5 The entire article is intended to be some sort of “gotcha!” You know your hero, Karl Marx? Well turns out he was actually a racist and anti-semite! Ha!
Marx and Engel’s Eurocentric, misogynist, reactionary, or wrong statements ought to be, and have been, criticized. However, their personal instances of chauvinism are irrelevant to the credibility of Marxism as a whole. As Huey Newton says in Revolutionary Intercommunalism, “If you are a dialectical materialist, Marx’s racism does not matter. You do not believe in the conclusions of one person but in a mode of thought… Whether or not Marx was a racist is irrelevant and immaterial to whether or not the system of thinking he helped develop delivers truths about processes in the material world.”6 What defines a problematic is not the individuals that have contributed to it, but its concepts, methods, and practices. Marx and Engels personal views on the concrete matters of their time do not discredit a theoretical problematic that has existed for 150 years. In the same sense, Charles Darwin having some chauvinistic views does not discredit the theory of evolution as a whole.
The tactic of reducing Marxism to the thought of Karl Marx allows critics to isolate and cherry pick anything that Marx, or Engels, said that was either Eurocentric, reactionary, or proven wrong by the course of history. It also makes Marxism white and male, since it erases the contributions of women, black people, and colonized people to the Marxist problematic. Thinkers like Mao Tse-Tsung, Ho Chi Min, Angela Davis, Huey Newton, Walter Rodney, and hundreds of others are all erased by this reduction. Marxism is not the thought of Karl Marx alone.
V2. Marxism as Economic Reductionism
The biggest critique of Marxism, historically, is the charge of economic reductionism. This critique states that Marxism is flawed because it explains all phenomena as being the product of economic conditions. According to Marxism, philosophical and religious ideas, cultural beliefs, social relations, and anything else that is deemed ideological or cultural, is determined by the economy. At its simplest level, this means that ideological and cultural beliefs reflect the mode of production.7 Using a Marxist approach, one could explain that the philosophy of Aristotle reflects the economy of Ancient Greek society (the justification of slavery), the philosophy of Descartes reflects the time of mercantile capitalism (Federici’s argument that Cartesian philosophy was part of the bourgeois ideological struggle to transform perception of humans as machinery8), and modern philosophers reflect capitalism (the emphasis on individualism). The critique of Marxism as economic reductionism comes from many different angles. There is the idealist critique, which believes that history is primarily driven by ideas and great individuals, and is therefore offended when confronted with the Marxist thesis that history is driven by structural conditions within a mode of production. This critique usually manifests in the fields of history and sociology in the bourgeois academy, where Marx is criticized for not understanding “the importance of culture.” Rudolf Carnap, interestingly enough, says,
“resistance is always exerted against any thesis when an Idol is being dethroned by it… As a result of Copernicus’s work, man lost the distinction of a central position within the universe… as a result of Marx’s, the factors by means of which history can be causally explained were degraded from the realm of ideas to that of material events.”9
In other words, this critique of Marxism is the natural response when common sense is dethroned by scientific knowledge. Scientific knowledge undermines religious, mythological, or idealist views of the cosmological importance of humans. In this case, Marxism significantly challenges the liberal worldview, where the blame for extreme and violent events like genocides and world wars are pinned on ‘evil’ individuals, and where human progress is attributed to great individuals. The liberal conception of history lays the groundwork for the liberal conception of politics, where we ought to rely on great individuals, like Lincoln or FDR, to drive us forward, and to push back against evil individuals like Donald Trump in order to preserve our ‘democracy’.
There is another critique of Marxism as economic reductionism that comes from figures like Cedric Robinson, who criticizes Marxism for reducing racism to economic conditions alone.10 Robinson argues that racism was not mechanically produced by capitalism, but rather that the development of capitalism itself was shaped by racialism and tribalism that already existed in European Feudal societies. This critique is mostly responding to the orthodox and chauvinistic interpreters of Marx (Western Marxism), although Robinson attributes some of these views to Marx and Engels themselves, who allegedly did not adapt their analysis of capitalism in the US to fit the conditions here. A Marxist analysis of the US would take into account the legacy of settler-colonialism and slavery, but many Marxists throughout US history have not and were thus corrupted by chauvinism and racism in their practice. This critique does not necessarily challenge the credibility of Marxism as a whole, only mis-applications of Marxism.
The critique of economic reductionism at large is not a vulgarization of Marxist theory, as Robinson’s critique shows, but it can be in certain contexts, specifically in the halls of US academic departments. The idealist critique in general explicitly states that Marx did not consider the role of culture and ideas in shaping history. However, Marx and Engels themselves anticipated and responded to this critique in their lifetimes. Engels, in a letter to J Bloch, said,
“if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure — political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas — also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form. There is an interaction of all these elements in which, amid all the endless host of accidents (that is, of things and events whose inner interconnection is so remote or so impossible of proof that we can regard it as non-existent, as negligible), the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary. Otherwise the application of the theory to any period of history would be easier than the solution of a simple equation of the first degree.”11
Engels here is arguing against the economic reductionist critique of Marxism, saying it’s a misinterpretation that derives from the fact that Marx and Engels had to emphasize the primacy of the economic aspect of historical development in their polemics. While the economic is determinant in the last instance, there are other levels of determination in a given historical period, which Marx’s political analysis in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte demonstrates. Whether or not you believe that Engel’s comments above adequately respond to the critique of economic reductionism is one question, but to say that Marx and Engels did not consider or value culture is blatantly wrong.
Marxism, like any other science, develops by encountering problems which expose its own limits. A key component of scientific practice is experimentation, which means that for Marxism, it must be able to test its theories. The only way that Marxism can test its theories, which are produced by historical or dialectical materialist analyses of a social formation, is through political practice. If it is through political practice that limitations within Marxism will be exposed, then it is through theoretical and political practice that these limitations can be solved. The problem of economic reductionism was exposed in the Second International, where ‘Marxists’ believed that economic exploitation alone would produce an organized revolutionary movement.12 This was obviously not the case, and it took Lenin and the Bolsheviks to theorize a solution to this limit. Lenin argued that revolution will not occur spontaneously, and that the revolutionary movement must be consciously harnessed and led in order to be successful. The Russian Revolution proved Lenin and the Bolsheviks right, and demonstrated how Marxism overcomes the critique of economic reductionism in politics through the concept of the vanguard party.
The Chinese Revolution, led by the Chinese Communist Party and Mao Tse-Tsung, had seen that the USSR was plagued after the revolution by the persistence of bourgeois ideology. Furthermore, the alienation of the party from the people in the USSR led to the development of revisionism within the party. By the 1930’s, the USSR was already declaring itself to have achieved socialism. The problem of economic reductionism re-emerges within this context. An economic reductionist, or vulgarized application of Marxism to the USSR in the period of socialist construction would entail the view that socialism would organically emerge following the seizure of state power. Or in other words, by defeating the bourgeoisie, socialism would organically emerge in the void produced by the revolution. However, the slide of the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union) into revisionism opened the door for bourgeois ideology.
The Chinese Communists saw that, if not consciously dealt with, the bourgeoisie re-emerges within the Communist Party itself, and this produced grave consequences. In the USSR, the major consequence of revisionism was the desire for peace with the US. If Marxism is defined by the centrality of class struggle and contradictions to politics, then the conflict between the US and the USSR represented the international struggle between socialism and capitalism, which is necessarily antagonistic. While I am sympathetic to the view that the USSR had to preserve its own existence in order to facilitate socialist construction, this does not justify pursuing peace with the US. This is equivalent to communists, pre-revolution, pursuing peace with the bourgeoisie. The contradiction between the working class and bourgeoisie, between communism and capitalism itself, is antagonistic; it cannot be peacefully resolved. The only solution is the destruction of one by the other. Anytime one seeks reconciliation from a position of weakness, as was the case with the USSR, you let your opponent win. And in the end, the USSR fell apart internally and the US won. The development of revisionism within the USSR led to the class collaboration with the US, and played a significant role in its demise.
The Chinese Communists realized that in order to prevent the development of revisionism, it is necessary to ensure that the party remains accountable to the masses through the mass line. It is also necessary to abolish the division between intellectual and physical labor, and by extension, the division between intellectuals and the masses. The attempt to abolish this division of labor culminated in the Cultural Revolution. Unfortunately, the Maoists realized the urgency of the Cultural Revolution too late, and the revisionists were already ascending into power. In the end, China met the same fate as the USSR: they sought collaboration with the US and opened their country to foreign investment.
The lesson from the Cultural Revolution is that, even after the seizure of state power, it is still imperative to consciously develop the conditions of socialism. These conditions are:
- Holding the Party accountable to the people via the implementation of the mass line and and the construction of mass organizations external to the party.
- Removing the division of labor between intellectuals and the masses. Developing intellectuals who are capable of ‘unskilled/manual labor’, and producing individuals from working class backgrounds who are capable of theoretical practice.
- Struggling against bourgeois ideology, and the individuals and institutions that realize it in their practices.
The lessons produced by the Russian and Chinese Revolutions are integral to Marxism, and these lessons dispel any notion of economic reductionism. Socialism, and communism, will not spontaneously emerge because of the laws of history. The development of socialism, through revolution, needs to be a consciously led process in order to unfold. So even if Marxism was once economic reductionist, and even if it can be used in a vulgarized way, revolutionary experiences, which have been guided by Marxism, dispel any notion of economic reductionism. The problems or contradictions of Marxism are solved internally through the process of revolutionary practice.
V3. Marxism as unionization and better conditions for workers
At the core of Marxism is the centrality of class struggle, so the belief that Marxism is defined by a general support for unionization and better conditions for workers is as revisionist a view that there is. This view now is primarily echoed throughout academia, and specifically in the humanities. I’ve heard this view in philosophy classes that touch upon Marx, in sociology, and in English classes. For my Intro to Literary Criticism course, our central text was Literary Theory and Criticism by Anne H. Stevens.13 In the first chapter, she says, “You might be surprised to discover that he [Marx] does not advocate censorship, gulags, and other evils associated with the former Soviet Union… much of Marx’s writing critiques the capitalist system, [and] advocates for controls upon unfettered capitalism such as protections for workers.”14 To translate, Marx would not have necessarily supported the USSR, which was evil, and he mostly criticizes uncontrolled capitalism and wanted better conditions for workers! See? Marx is not some evil communist, and he is compatible with much of liberalism! This is a perfect example of what Lenin describes as the vulgarization of Marxism. It extracts what is acceptable to liberal common sense, and blunts the revolutionary edge of Marxism which, through the revolutionary experience of the USSR, significantly challenged the capitalist world system and terrified the bourgeoisie to their core. The same interpretation was espoused in my Theories of Human Nature course, where my professor described Marx merely as a ‘critic of capitalism’. As if a man who devoted his entire life to overthrowing capitalism was just a ‘critic’ of it. She also focused on his early Feuerbachian view of human nature, where humans’ essence is defined by the labor process, which we are alienated from under capitalism. I would also argue that the fact most universities only teach the young Marx is more evidence in favor of Althusser’s epistemological break thesis, but that is another matter entirely.
This revisionist view of Marxism is even prevalent in some organizing circles. DSA is a good example of this view in practice, where even though a lot of members may believe in revolution in the abstract, the political practice of the organization revolves around electing ‘socialists’ into the repressive state apparatus and parliamentary system. The theory that, whether consciously or unconsciously, guides this practice is that collaboration between the classes is enough to move us towards socialism. If we nationalize healthcare, higher education, earn a higher minimum wage, and so on, this will help lay the conditions for socialism (if not achieve socialism itself). As I have argued elsewhere, the attainment of these policies will have to be won through intense class struggle on the part of the masses, and not through electing ‘socialists’. Regardless, the view that we can achieve socialism by collaborating with the bourgeoisie negates the core thesis of Marxism: that history is driven by class struggle, and if the proletariat will emerge victorious, it must destroy the bourgeoisie.
Of course, DSA is not alone in this view in the history of the socialist movement. As Western countries began to reap the fruits of imperialist extraction in the early 20th century, which meant that the bourgeoisie could distribute some of their stolen wealth to the working class, many socialist organizations began to espouse this revisionist view that class collaboration is possible. In the Preface to Evolutionary Socialism, Eduard Bernstein says, “In my judgment a greater security for lasting success lies in a steady advance than in the possibilities offered by a catastrophic crash.”15 Or in other words, since the working class is achieving better conditions and the bourgeoisie is being held to account by democratic governments, then a revolution is not necessary. For Bernstein, class collaboration is the best path to socialism. This a revision and a negation of the core of Marxism.
If we follow the revisionist path of class collaboration, we will be crushed just like Bernstein and the revisionists in Germany were by the fascists. As Althusser demonstrates in Philosophy for Non-Philosophers16, the bourgeoisie only ever gives better conditions to the workers to neutralize revolutionary energy. The minute the threat of proletarian revolution is gone, the bourgeoisie and the State will destroy/undermine unions and worsen conditions for workers. We saw this exact process happen in the 80’s under Reagan. Reagan was only possible because socialist movements of the 60’s and 70’s fell apart in the face of state repression and social welfare policies designed to neuter revolutionary energy. In the face of the uprisings and rapidly intensifying social crises, revisionism and the negation of class struggle embodied by DSA will lead us to a crushing defeat.
V4. Reducing Marxism to the prediction of global revolution followed by communism
In many ways, this is an extension of the reduction of Marxism to economic reductionism. If Marxism posits that socialism will inevitably emerge out of the contradictions of capitalism, then it would follow that revolution is inevitable. However, this vulgarization can be categorized differently because it’s reducing Marxism to the results of its analyses, whereas the critique of economic reductionism takes issue with the core methodology and worldview of Marxism. This vulgarization is used as a way to discredit Marxism, since we’re obviously not living in a communist society right now, and the major communist revolutions have either been destroyed or regressed. Since global communist revolution hasn’t happened yet, Marxism is outdated and wrong.
At issue here is the question of historical time, and specifically, the question of the length of transition between capitalism and socialism. As I argued above, solutions to the limits of Marxism can only be resolved within the problematic. Likewise, many Marxists, like Althusser and Rodney in different forms, have advanced a conception of uneven development. Uneven development posits that no social formation ever possesses a unified totality of its many levels. The various superstructural levels of a social formation, the religious, artistic, cultural, and so on, do not fully correspond to the dominant mode of production. This is the logic behind the necessity of the cultural revolution, where just because the social formation is transitioning towards socialism, the various superstructural levels will not automatically become socialist. Or in other words, even if the dominant mode of production in a social formation is capitalism, the dominant ideology may lag behind.
Returning to the point, the question of the length of transition between capitalism and socialism is unknown. I believe that Marx and Engels thought the transition would be much quicker than it has been. However, just because we’re still living under capitalism, this doesn’t invalidate Marxism. Their prediction was based on a Marxist analysis of Europe in the late 19th century. The contradictions of capitalism in their time intensified and culminated in World War I and II. The capitalist powers were able to survive because of the fruits yielded by imperialism which they used to create a labor aristocracy, reforms granted to appease revolutionary movements, and violent repression of communists. The bourgeoisie outmaneuvered the communists. This is why Marxist theorists like Lenin, Gramsci, and Lazarus emphasize the importance of politics as an autonomous level of the social formation. Regardless, the contradictions in capitalism, the same contradictions that prompted Marx and Engels to predict global revolution, still exist and are rapidly intensifying. So even though it hasn’t happened yet, the conditions are still in place.
Regardless, it was the methodology of Marxism that led them to make their predictions. If someone is going to try to discredit Marxism, it has to be a critique of the premises of the methodology, and not the conclusions that are yielded through an application of the methodology. Of course, many will argue that Marx’s conclusion of global proletarian revolution resulting from the conditions of capitalism necessarily undermines the premises of Marxism. So what exactly are the premises of Marxism? I answer this question in, “What is Marxism?”
- See Althusser’s arguments in “Theory, Theoretical Practice, and Theoretical Formation,” where he argues that the suppression of critical thinking and critique under the Stalin period seriously harmed Marxist theory and the development of the USSR.
- I should note that Descartes ‘new’ philosophical system was not actually revolutionary in any way.
- Huey Newton, Revolutionary Intercommunalism, 27.
- I want to note that I don’t subscribe to the classical base/superstructure theory, but this is what most people associate with Marxism.
- Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch, (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2004), 148-152.
- Carnap, “Psychology in Physical Language,” http://web.stanford.edu/~paulsko/papers/Carn.pdf.
- Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism, (University of North Carolina Press, 2001).
- Friedrich Engels to J. Bloch, September 21, 1980, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1890/letters/90_09_21.htm.
- Whether or not these Marxists were actually Marxists is another question.
- Anne H. Stevens, Literary Theory and Criticism, (Broadview Press, 2015).
- Stevens, Literary Theory and Criticism, 40.
- Eduard Bernstein, Evolutionary Socialism, https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/bernstein/works/1899/evsoc/preface.htm.
- Louis Althusser, Philosophy for Non-Philosophers, (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017), 118.