I am grateful to Matt Bruenig for having written this so that I don’t have to. I don’t really know where to begin with the claim that Marx and Engels were not wonks; part of what makes the ascendency of communism as the preeminent opponent to capitalism in the 20th century so remarkable is that Marxism was written by a pack of nerds who were obsessed with tedious details. Very important tedious details, as it happens, but still. You know how people make fun of “facts and logic” guys? Marx and Engels were classic facts and logic guys. Lenin and Trotsky were brave revolutionaries, but first they were wonks. I’m sorry if this upsets the broad cultural associations you would like to maintain for your preferred ideology.
I am, however, not surprised by such basic misconceptions about Marxism; it’s a very old dynamic that has taken on new valences recently. I have apparently ascended to the state of crabby old Marxist, as was foretold by prophecy. But rather than go through the most stale routine in the 170ish-year old history of the philosophy and be an old Marxist complaining that The Kids These Days don’t really “get” Marxism, I want to offer an alternative: it’s OK to want to be left of liberal and to not be a Marxist. It’s OK to favor revolutionary social change and to not be a Marxist. It’s OK to envision a more humane, more progressive, more nurturing economy and society and to not be a Marxist. It’s OK to demand an end to capitalism and imperialism and to not be a Marxist. It is OK to be the left wing of the left wing and to not be a Marxist. It’s OK. The left pursues the new, and if the new is moral and uncompromising and wise, that will be enough. There simply is no advantage to propping up a fake movement, playing Weekend at Bernie’s with Stalin avatars and broad waves at a corpus of reading that the people waving have never read. It’s a sideshow, a sad one, and I want it to end.
It’s something of a quirk of history that communism (the political program of Marxism, which is a philosophical theory of history and economics) became the preeminent socialist philosophy and the great counterpart to capitalism in the 20th century. There were many competitors, after all. One thing I would love to impress on the young lefties of the world is that, in the 1800s, Marxism was but one example of a teeming bestiary of socialisms, and for a time not the most influential or popular among them. I think Marxism is true, but true things have never found any greater purchase in the world than false, and there was no transcendent reason why so many people would carry the hammer and sickle. Now, the world is primed to reject the tradition, and the left fights a rearguard action while it calls itself a vanguard. The lower classes that would be the first for us to organize are not buying what we’re selling. So everyone who professes Marxist beliefs today should ask themselves: do I have a very good reason to hold those beliefs? I’m afraid most people don’t. Their communism is a vestigial tail, phantom limb pain, a photocopy of a photocopy.
This will not come as a surprise to anyone, but it bears articulating plainly: what “Marxism” means to a majority of the people who now invoke it positively, particularly the young and online, is a vague and formless embrace of a politics that is rhetorically left of liberalism and angry at liberals for failing to advance a meaningful alternative to free market capitalism, but which nevertheless holds no positions fundamentally antagonistic to those of liberal capitalists. Marxism is a complex form of epistemology and a theory of history that leads in turn to an economic model which imagines a necessary next stage of human affairs and which has inspired political and military movements to speed the world along to that next stage. “Marxism” is a symbolic language for the animal spirits of American leftists who have never lived in a world where an alternative to capitalism was remotely possible, a dead language embraced with the same zeal as a lonely high school student learning Latin in search of the broader hopes of a forgotten world. Do you look at one of the 21st century’s various boutique Marxian celebrities like “Vaush” and see serious people, people who think they’re invoking a vital, living political tradition? No. No, you don’t.
I am a Marxist and everything I’ve ever written has flowed from that Marxism. Whether others would deign to allow me that self-identification is not my concern. I still believe that no political or philosophical tradition better describes our world or its economy, and I still believe in the human potential for an economy that is free from the exploitation inherent to the concept of profit and wages. But I ask that, since we’re all adults here, we accept two obvious realities:
Communism is a dead political movement. The communist movement, in 2021, does not exist.
A significant majority of those who profess support for Marxism have no particular attachment to the specific philosophical and economic beliefs it contains but rather embrace only the concept of revolutionary socialism in its most inchoate form and, more, the spirit of resistance to capitalism, a resistance that now exists primarily in graveyards and memory.
That’s where we are. Honesty insists that we face it.
OK let’s do the litany of things that many people, including many self-described Marxists, do not grasp about Marxism.
Marxism is a form of radical scientific rationalism. The fundamental proposition of Marxism, above and beyond any other, is the emancipatory potential of reason. To be a Marxist is to believe that a sufficiently advanced understanding of the world can describe a fundamental relationship between workers, the means of production, and the owners of the means of production which implies the inevitable triumph of the producing class over the rentier class as the internal contradictions of capitalism assert themselves. All manner of revolutionary ideals and fashion have coalesced around Marxism, but at its core is its rigid materialism, its belief in an ordered and investigable universe, precisely the kind of “scientism” derided by so many among the contemporary western left. Deriding rationality and empiricism are habits of postmodernism, and postmodernism has nothing to do with Marxism.
Marxism is not anti-Enlightenment. (Even less anti-“West,” whatever that could mean.) Indeed, Marxism is the culmination of the Enlightenment, the most sincere and fully-realized embrace of the Enlightenment. That Enlightenment values become subsumed into Marxism does not invalidate the Enlightenment any more than the theory of relativity invalidated Newton’s classical mechanics.
Marxism does not demand an end to personal private property. This one is like a CIA op or something, honestly. The means of production are socialized. No one ever said you have to share your pants.
Marxism is not anti-capitalist, but post-capitalist. And the distinction matters. Marx was obsessed with capitalism and found its productive potential extraordinary. He was amazed at how Victorian England was transformed in the span of a few decades by the engine of capitalist production. Baked into the Marxist vision of a communist future is the assumption that capitalism is a necessary stage of history, where the incredible developmental muscle of the market will bring society to a state of abundance which can then be liberated from the systems of exploitation. This, among other reasons, is why “communism has never been attempted,” because Russia and China were among the least developed and poorest countries on earth at the time of their revolutions. It was the incredible development of mid-19th century London, and the immensity of its attendant human misery, that inspired Marx, not the marginally more wealthy kulaks of a starving Russia or the cruelty of sugar plantation owners in Batista’s Cuba. Emancipatory possibility is created through the proximity of abundance to need. Capitalism is necessary for communism and it always has been.
Marxism has nothing to do with equality. Equality is not and never has been a priority of Marxism. This is unsurprising since, as I’ve pointed out in this space before, both Marx and Engels independently argued that equality is a nonsensical political goal, largely because human beings will always differ in some domains and attributes and any such difference can be expressed as an inequality. This leads to a conclusion that many fans of Marx find deeply offensive: there will be plenty of substantive inequality in a fully communist society. Some people will still be smarter than others in a communist society, and some will still be more charismatic, and some will still be more attractive, and so on. It’s impossible that this inequality in human capital, which is intrinsic to our species, won’t result in some form of material inequality. But, again, ending inequality is not the purpose of communism. The purpose of communism is to end the fundamentally exploitative relationship between workers and capital as described in the theory of surplus value. That does not imply, and was never meant to imply, a utopian society of perfect material equality. Inequality is a part of our biological reality. But exploitation and poverty are something we choose, and we could choose something else.
Marxism is not antagonistic to civil liberties. Which, again, should not be surprising, given that Marx and Engels were ardent civil libertarians. Leninism, Maoism, “Marxism-Leninism”/Stalinism tend to include readings of Marx that are antagonistic towards civil liberties, generally unconvincing readings. But there is nothing in Marxism proper that implies a rejection of typical rights regarding free speech, assembly, or dissent against the government. (Or “government.”)
Marxism is not pessimism. Today's socialist left, at least in the States, is relentlessly pessimistic, to the point of nihilism. The world is broken, everything sucks, why try. But this is entirely contrary to the spirit of Marxism, which does not merely insist on the superiority of emancipation from wage slavery, but on its inevitability, the certain promise of worldwide revolution.
Marxism is not statism. Contrary to the conservative caricature of an ever-growing communist bureaucracy, Marx’s work acknowledges the inherently counterrevolutionary tendencies of the state and suggests (albeit incompletely) a future of semi-autonomous communities ruled by participatory democracy, operating under the principles of shared work and shared abundance. (The worker councils of the USSR - the soviets - were founded based on these principles.) I would not call Marxism an anti-statist philosophy either, in any manner similar to that espoused under anarchism. But then, after the transformations a true Marxist revolution would entail the very concept of a state loses some of its coherence.
To say that Marxism is an economic philosophy is “no shit” territory. And yet I feel compelled to say that here, as there is precious little economics to be found in contemporary dialogue about Marxism.
In his post, Bruenig reproduces a little of Marx’s writings, to underscore the point that Marx was fundamentally a weird loner who was obsessed with some of the stranger dynamics that were hidden in the emergent economic order of a changing world. There’s an awful lot of math in the Marxist tradition. And this stuff is inherent and existential to Marxism; you can’t simply wave it away and still claim to be operating in the Marxist tradition. Like I said above, there have been many, many forms of socialism in the world, and what makes Marxism unique is not its revolutionary character, its deep history, or its tendency to inspire armed conflict. All of those have been seen in other socialist traditions. What defines Marx and Engels’s project is particular observations about technical details of how capitalism operates. Do you think the people who put hammer and sickle graphics on their Twitch feeds are at all interested in those details? But if not, why the pretense towards Marxism at all? For what purpose? Just embrace revolutionary socialism as such. I don’t get it.
To call yourself a Marxist while not having an informed opinion on the tendency of the rate of profit to fall is like calling yourself pro-choice without any particular opinion on abortion. Signing on to Marxism without a strong commitment to the labor theory of value is like converting to Islam without being particularly invested in the Quran. It doesn’t make me mad; it makes me confused. What’s the point?
What’s frustrating is that there’s a very obvious alternative: just be a socialist. Socialism is capacious and general where Marxism is narrow and specific. With apologies to Robert Brenner, Marxism was written long ago. Socialism can be written right now. Look, people are animated by a profound feeling that everything is wrong, by a passionate demand for a better world, and by the churning desire for revenge against the privileged and their greed. Those are excellent feelings to be animated by. But they turn to Marxism in that light, in great majorities, not because they believe that Marxism is true but out of cultural habit, because of the rapidly-diminishing sense that communism still frightens the powerful. For what earthly reason would you embrace an intellectual tradition towards which you have no intellectual attachment? Only for fashion. But those feelings I just described are within you, and they are sacred. So let them power your socialism, which can be just as righteous, just as uncompromising. And most essential of all, it can be new.
The other thing, to put it bluntly, is that Marxism simply isn’t very relevant anymore. There are a handful of revolutionary Marxist movements in the world that are in some sense alive. (Shining Path, I guess.) Russia has a lot of nominally communist activity, but it’s hopelessly confounded with various forms of brute nationalism, often of the blood-and-soil variety, and much of it seems to be driven more by nostalgia for Russia’s status as a superpower rather than any authentic commitment to the Marxist ideals that initially inspired the Bolshevik revolution. There are ostensibly communist governments, but precious little about them resembles even an authentic developmental stage of such a government. (China? Really?) I will leave the MLs to their defenses of “actually existing socialism.” The reality is that in the democratic world there is almost no genuine mass support for communism at all.
Look. If you, like me, are an aging leftist who has spent his entire political life trying to articulate the superiority of communism and the continued valence of Marxist thought in contemporary life, it may be hard not to just preach the Gospel. I was born a Marxist and will die one. But if you should meet some inspired young leftie, as I sometimes do, say a 20 year old burning with the righteous desire for powerful change, I ask you - would pushing them towards Marxism do them or the world any favors? Whether we’re right is not the question. The question is, is there any profit in pushing young people towards an esoteric political religion that has more baggage than adherents, that has inspired more bad habits and bad faith than I can imagine, that much of the world feels immediate revulsion towards? For what? Tell them to embrace the spirit of emancipation; tell them to remember always the limitlessness of possibility; tell them to speak plainly about a better world centered on shared sacrifice where, one day, the people themselves might own the productive apparatus of society and turn that apparatus to the common good of all. Tell them to be brave and to tell the truth. But if you value their desires and the spirit of the movement for which you speak, I cannot see why you would push them to this weird, reviled, antique religion.
If you want to be anticapitalist, you can be. If you want to be revolutionary, you can be. If you want to hate liberals and capitalists alike, you can. If you want to be the far far far left, you can be. You can be left of Marx. None of this is ordained from above. Make it your own. Make it your own.
If you are a true believer, though, if you are intent on doing this, I’m glad to have you. I need my fellow deadenders. But you must understand that for us it’s silence, exile, cunning. We have only those tools that we carve out of our drab little spaces, these days. And if you’re real about this, it’s about reading. A lot of reading. (I’m sorry, but you can’t learn this stuff from YouTube.) You have to accept that you can contribute to progress and you can see positive change and you can put your queer shoulder to the wheel of change, but you can’t actualize a movement on your own. Fervor does not make it real. Trust me, I’ve tried. And, please - no armed insurrection is coming. Not in your lifetime. You will never crouch in the bush with Che, and playacting revolutionary only makes you a sad spectacle. Find your own means to embody you values, and when progress comes you’ll find that you won’t care what they call you.
Besides, if by some miracle something like a Marxist revolution should emerge it will not come from an army of disaffected liberals arts grads, and it won’t stop to listen while I read it the proper definitions out of a textbook. Bodhidharma may have come from the west, but the post-capitalist future will not. If it comes, it will emerge in a form yet unknown, and whether it’s Marxist or not will be a question only for the old men to debate in our libraries and cafes. After it comes you may call it what you please. Let the dead poets make way for the others.
I was for a long time a center-left social democrat and was goaded into more radical, or at least radical seeming. I've read a good bit of Marx, probably more than a lot of people who'd wear the label, but can't on good faith call myself a Marxist anymore. I think he did an excellent job at highlighting how capitalist exploitation functions and that in a general sense the materialist conception of history is mostly accurate. I just have too many issues with the labor theory of value and this quasi religious faith in crisis coming in to save the day. We're 150 years on and still supposedly waiting. The bitter truth is that capitalism is capable of managing its own crises and always has been. Marx's understanding of money was primitive, and this lead to very large flaws in his perspective. Without leg of the ultimate crisis to hold up the table of the inevitability of communism, the whole thing falls over.
I have an aversion to arguing about what is and isn't Marxism in general. It starts to feel like arguing about the Gospel at a Bible study after a while, the very antithesis of supposedly scientific rationalism. I'm also wary of really existing socialism arguments, even if technically correct it all starts to sound like "no true Scotsman" arguments.
What even counts as the "means of production" in 2021? That is not a facetious question. Is it possible to collectively own a 12-year-old's influence on 400,000 Tiktok followers? Or are we just talking about factories?