To Be or Not To Be A Marxist

(Note: this blog posting is being republished here from its original post to Symptomatic Redness, which will be deleted in the near future.)

The Trouble With Marxism

Though I am profoundly influenced by Marx & Marxists, I also have serious reservations about calling myself a Marxist. I also wish to address a wider public which often finds Marxism itself too horrible to ever consider embracing. Therefore, I have to address that horror first of all.

Like nearly every Marxist I have had the pleasure to know, I reject Stalin’s rule of the Soviet Union as an almost wholesale catastrophe. I do have a few friends who have a more positive view of the Stalin period. There are probably important things to learn from Stalinism, and of course Western capitalism has been a disaster for the vast majority of humanity. To state it simply, let me just say that I would never support a one-party state or state censorship, ever. Democracy demands no less.

Then there is Lenin, of course. Lenin’s Bolshevik revolution may have had some admirable features, but without giving too much cumbersome detail, I’ve come to view whatever advances Lenin’s government introduced in Russia as very quickly eclipsed by a dangerous anti-democratic politics. Even allowing for the unique conditions of 1917 Russia, there is very little in the Bolshevik Revolution that can be applied directly to our political situation in the US today.

So, what about Marx himself? Marx actually found the idea of “Marxism” troubling and stated at one point, “I am no Marxist!” Similarly, one can say that Jesus was not a Christian. Perhaps more relevant, scientists who study evolution regard it is axiomatic that they not be bound by some “Darwinian ” theory.

If we are committed to the goal of overcoming capitalism to bring about socialism, an egalitarian democratic order of economic and political justice, then we cannot be bound by one man’s philosophy. Marx considered his socialist theory to be scientific, and that means it must be open to evidence and new knowledge. While I agree that much of Marx’s work is critically important, even necessarily part of a socialist politics, I still doubt that this use of Marx’s work is best called “Marxism.”

One might consider the example of scientific physics. The first complete physical theory was created by Isaac Newton and is still called “Newtonian.” However, Albert Einstein demonstrated that Newton’s theory failed to adequately model and explain important physical phenomena. His proposed reconstruction of scientific physics has been called “Einsteinian” by some, but more commonly General Relativity. Today’s theories have even more abstract names like “loop quantum gravity” or “M-theory.” If hard sciences have largely abandoned the practice of naming their theories after individuals, how much more so should a contemporary socialist politics do without such a limiting practice?

That said, I do not want to deny any of my good friends the freedom to call themselves Marxists. I may even do so on occasions when it will not cause confusion. However, a contemporary socialist politics has to move beyond the failures of Marxist movements since the 1800s when socialism was founded. One symbolic step to take is to reconsider what message we are giving the wider public by using a term like “Marxism.”

The Necessity of Marxist Analysis

Beyond the symbolic distancing from Marxism, I next want to praise the contributions of Karl Marx to socialism. No socialist politics today is complete if it does not draw on his work. Just as Darwin blazed the evolutionary trails followed by so many of his scientific descendants, so Marx forged radically new and revolutionary understandings of our modern world, its economics, and politics.

Parenthetically, if one were to give Marx’s own body of work a single label, I suspect Marx himself would call it “communist.” Why name his first mature statement “The Communist Manifesto” in 1848? In 1875, almost 3 decades later, Marx’s “Critique of the Gotha Programme” repeatedly uses the term “communist” to describe the post-capitalist social order.

In this fairly limited essay, I can’t possibly pull out and describe every important aspect of Marx’s work. However to illustrate in a broad way what I see as Marx’s overall contribution, I will quote from his long-time collaborator and popularizer, Friedrich Engels:

The materialist conception of history starts from the proposition that the production of the means to support human life and, next to production, the exchange of things produced, is the basis of all social structure; that in every society that has appeared in history, the manner in which wealth is distributed and society divided into classes or orders is dependent upon what is produced, how it is produced, and how the products are exchanged. From this point of view, the final causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in men’s brains, not in men’s better insights into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the modes of production and exchange. They are to be sought, not in the philosophy, but in the economics of each particular epoch. The growing perception that existing social institutions are unreasonable and unjust, that reason has become unreason, and right wrong, is only proof that in the modes of production and exchange changes have silently taken place with which the social order, adapted to earlier economic conditions, is no longer in keeping. From this it also follows that the means of getting rid of the incongruities that have been brought to light must also be present, in a more or less developed condition, within the changed modes of production themselves. These means are not to be invented by deduction from fundamental principles, but are to be discovered in the stubborn facts of the existing system of production. Socialism: Utopian and Scientific

This quote details with masterful concision many of the elements that were summarized in the Communist Manifesto‘s classic phrase, “All hitherto existing history is the history of class struggle.”  While Marx was more than generous in giving credit for Socialist and Communist ideas to many of his forerunners, his singular passion in much of his early work was elaborating the utter dependence of any true socialist success on a widespread class struggle. A social movement can imagine all sorts of variations on an ideal economy, but such ideas have no real power if they are not embraced and carried into reality by a potent, mass-based revolution.

However, Marx’s mature theory was not merely a theory of class struggle, but of fetishized commodity production. Class struggle does occur, but to understand that struggle as in itself constituting the struggle for socialism is mistaken. Class struggle in itself is not the means for overcoming capitalism, as the working class actually has regressive tendencies within itself, and, perhaps most un-Marxist to state, the capitalist class actually has some progressive tendencies. Marx did recognize this latter fact in the Manifesto, “when the class struggle nears the decisive hour…a portion of the bourgeoisie goes over to the proletariat.”

However, I would go beyond this assertion of Marx and argue that significant sectors of the bourgeoisie have common interests with workers. In fact, class structure appears to me far more complex than many Marxists have recognized. Rather than the Manifesto’s simplification of social classes into two opposing united forces, the ruling classes have exercised their power in such a way as to perpetually fragment and subdivide the workers through differential wages, educational opportunities, more or less leisure, and many other practices.

As capitalism has evolved, some privileged sectors become disenfranchised, others are elevated into new status, all in the name of enhancing the profitability and efficiency of capitalism. This has meant historic sequences of reversals and renewals in class-struggle alliances.

In short, I do not view class-struggle as a fixed, di-polar affair with a simple bourgeois vs. proletariat antagonism. The situation is dynamic, ever-changing. The key commitment of a socialist politics is not to an uncritical subordination to the immediate politics of the working class. Rather, socialists are committed to an egalitarian transformation of society against the power of the ruling class and the systems of racism, capitalism, sexism, and domination.

Beyond Marxism to A Revolutionary Ecology

Labor is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labor, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power. Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program

Readers of my blog at will have seen my thematic title, “towards an integrative revolutionary social ecology.” My approach to the question of social and economic revolution is to situate the social dynamics within the science of ecology. A major motivating factor in this decision are the looming global environmental crises, which decisively delimit economic systems.

Just as in Marx’s day it was the science of economics that formed the pivotal frame for grasping massive social forces, in our day, ecology on a global scale reveals that economics (and all social and human sciences) subsist within a planetary system of natural forces. An integrative ecology is committed to the conviction that we live in an interconnected world and that understanding it requires integrating vastly divergent domains of knowledge.


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