Appendix: What is Marxism?

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Blue, Yellow, and Red, 1927

This is the Appendix to, “What is Marxism?,” which was published in Negation Magazine. This article is also a part of the Meaning of Marxism series, which can be found here.

I articulated my general arguments on Marxism in Negation a few months ago. To summarize:

  1. Marxism is only meaningful if it is articulated as a tool that is used by communists to facilitate interventions into class struggle. 
  2. Marxism is a tool for analyzing social formations, and is based on a set of core concepts which include the mode of production, relations of production, social formation, and generally speaking, superstructure. Marxism posits laws of development, mainly the law of contradiction and class struggle, which explain how a social formation develops over time. 
  3. When Marxism is applied through an analysis of a concrete situation, new concepts are produced, such as imperialism, the exploitation of surplus value, primitive accumulation, the labor aristocracy, and so on. Marxism is also applied through political practice, and new concepts can be produced there too, such as the dictatorship of the proletariat, the vanguard, and the mass line. 

The question of the relation between these two fields of concepts, the theoretical and the political, is something that requires more elaboration. On the one hand, I believe the theoretical concepts produced are scientific in the sense that they adequately describe historical/social processes in the same way that the concept of gravity describes a ‘natural’ process where all phenomena that possess mass or energy are brought toward one another. On the other hand, the political concepts produced by Marxism are scientific in a very different way. While the theoretical concepts are concepts that explain historical/social processes, the political concepts are designed to intervene and transform reality in the sense that Marx described the ideal purpose of philosophy in his eleventh thesis on Feuerbach. 

So how can one method produce two different types of concepts? Maybe this is the novelty of Marxism. However, maybe the distinction between the two types of concepts is built on a false premise, which would be that the political concepts are normative rather than descriptive. The theoretical concepts I listed are all descriptive, while the political ones are mostly normative in the sense that revolutionaries ought to build the vanguard using the mass line. But, anyone who argues that Leninism or Maoism as a politics are scientific would do so because those methods achieved revolutionary gains in a way that no other form of socialist politics has. So the argument is that concepts like the DoTP and the vanguard are scientific because any revolution that succeeds utilizes those methods in some form, and this makes these concepts descriptive. The reason I am hesitant to call them scientific is because it is unclear whether or not the Russian or Chinese revolution succeeded entirely because of their methods. This becomes a question of causality. Did these revolutions succeed primarily because of the methods of the revolutionary agents? Was it because of structural conditions within the social formation? Was it because of the weakness of their respective opponents? Or was it an overdetermination of causes as outlined by Althusser?1

A good example of this problem is France in May 68. Some argue that the insurrection and general strike could have succeeded if the movement was led by a revolutionary communist party, and not by a reformist one that neutralized the movement. Assuming this hypothetical where the Communist Party actually attempted to seize state power through the general strike, would they have been able to resist counter-revolution from the US, which at the time was desperate to neutralize any movement against them? Maybe. What about counter-revolutionary forces within France itself: the Gaullists, conservatives, fascists, and even the liberals? How many revolutions have failed because the odds were too stacked against them, regardless of how revolutionary the party was? Moufawad-Paul would respond that every revolution fails, but what matters is the degree of failure. We can look to China and Russia as examples because they pushed the paradigm further than any other movement. Russia was the first to conquer state power, and China was the first to have a communist revolution within a ‘socialist’ social formation. Moufawad-Paul argues that each failed for a variety of reasons, but mainly the failure to prevent the bourgeoisie from reconstituting itself within the party, leading to degeneration. The goal for communists today is to push that paradigm a step further before we end up failing in a new way. 

Sylvain Lazaurs presents a different reason for the failure of these revolutions, which is that the party-form is necessarily a neutralizing force, as evidenced by each of these revolutions. The party-form is why the Russian and Chinese revolutions degenerated, and it wasn’t because revisionism became dominant within the party, but because the structure of the revolution itself opened the path for these processes. The problem is that after a socialist revolution, the hierarchy between those who make decisions and those who do not, is retained by the party-form. But, isn’t the whole point of communism to implement ‘proletarian democracy’, where those who do the work ought to be the decision makers? Moufawad-Paul argues that a Maoist thesis is that the classes from the previous mode of production persist into socialism. Just because the bourgeoisie loses state power, this doesn’t mean that the classes become entirely extinct. But what does it mean to say that classes persist into socialism? I think rather than this occurring on the ideological level, it occurs in the economic and political structures. What is the relationship of party members to the means of production? They administrate production, even if they don’t own it in the sense that they profit individually from production. They become a sort of petty-bourgeois, managerial class. So this would be the meaning of the statement that classes persist into socialism — not merely ideologically, but in the economic structure of the social formation. So we can advance two theses: 1) The party, as the state, controls and administrates production and distribution. 2) The party’s role is necessary to prevent counterrevolution, amongst other things. These two theses form a contradiction which is intrinsic to socialist construction. Is this contradiction necessary? Can there be a revolution that doesn’t experience this problem?

Returning to the question of Marxism and whether it can be a science of politics, it seems like the descriptive approach is inconclusive. We cannot argue that concepts like the DoTP, the vanguard, and so on were verified by the Russian and Chinese revolutions. Especially since the vanguard and the party-form arguably neutralized the revolutions at a later point. And I have already established that there cannot be a normative definition of politics as a science within Marxism, since a normative definition of science is impossible. My argument remains that Marxism provides a scientific approach to politics.

Asad Haider shared a tweet that reads: “No direction to history, revolutionary conditions not predictable by historical laws: Althusser. No basis in existing social categories for emancipatory politics: Lazarus. Revolutionary subject constituted by revolutionary event: Badiou.” This directly relates to the project of defining Marxism that I have taken on here. All three theses are antithetical to classical Marxism. Althusser’s thesis, or the one subscribed to him by Haider, is articulated in For Marx, and Althusser argues against the economic determinist view of the inevitability of revolution and historical progress in Marxism. A correct thesis I believe. Lazarus’s thesis argues that emancipatory politics are not intrinsic to the class system. Or in other words, Marx believed that communist politics would necessarily emerge out of the class relationship between the bourgeoisie and proletariat. Lenin departs from this thesis by arguing that revolutionary consciousness cannot develop spontaneously, and this is the meaning of Lazarus’s thesis. Just because there are working class people, this does not mean that they will necessarily become revolutionary. Another true thesis I believe. And Badiou’s thesis means that we can only understand the revolutionary ‘subject’ through the revolutionary ‘event’. So for example, in May 68, the revolutionary subject was the younger students and workers who were leading the insurrection. This is a continuation from Lazarus’s thesis, and another correct one I believe. But, I do have one thing to add, which is that Marxism is correct that a revolution cannot unfold without the support of the class that is antagonistic to the dominant mode of production within the social formation. Regardless of how revolutionary the students were in May 68, they could not seize state power without the workers, since they were antagonistic to the mode of production while the students weren’t. So the problem remains: what is to be done?


  1. See For Marx, and specifically the essay ‘On Contradiction and Overdetermination’.

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