The following article was commissioned by Democratic Modernity Magazine, in Turkey, for an issue with the overall focus “Theoretical Obstructions of Marxism and Solution Seeking.”
Crisis engulfs. We react. Out comes Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, and whoever else.
We quote, quote, quote icons. We shove our own words down the hopper of history so we can echo the Ultimate Angel. Elderly left scholars just keep muttering, Marx said it, Marx knew it, see Volume Three.
Marxologists seem to not care that normal people avoid regurgitated unexplained jargon that lacks clarity and timelyness. The listener’s anticipation of obscure, impersonal, irrelevance cripples communication.
Yet even as I say not to do it, I will now quote the big man, the optimistic oracle, the grandest grand daddy, the international flag bearer, or whatever so many leftists think this guy is.
Marx wrote, “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” The non Marxologist might be forgiven for thinking that Marx is referring to reactionaries wishing to revisit the past – but Marx continues, “And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before…” (revealing that he is talking about revolutionaries) “…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.”
Some will say I and Marx exaggerate the problem. If so, few pundits will need to forego conjuring spirits of the past. Great. However, I think the problem is pretty widespread, and is even increasing – exactly in accord with Marx’s prescient prediction.
I was once asked, what if I think I operate in the tradition of some great thinker? Should I flaunt it? Should I hide it?
My answer was, first, you may be wrong. You may be updating so much that you have transcended the tradition, not just refined it. But, in any event, whether the claimed lineage is accurate or not there is no need to display much less trumpet it. Make clear what you believe. Show why you believe it. Do it in your words of today. Do not quote other’s words like scripture. It does not provide argument or evidence.
A person quoting Marx (or whichever other long gone icon) to make a point about contemporary relations – not about intellectual history – is too often more concerned about getting his or her audience to genuflect to Marx, or about demonstrating his or her own allegiance to Marx, than about getting anyone to thoughtfully consider and then hopefully agree about and act on some observation based on actual evidence and reasoning. And, in turn, seeking to elevate Marx or to be identified as a supporter of Marx often has more to do with trying to ratify one’s own identity than it has to do with trying to accomplish something more worldly. The down side is that conjuring the past typically induces communicative poverty, limits substance to what the past emphasized, and often risks a slip slide toward sectarianism.
So why not take Marx’s advice? Let the “dead generations” rest in peace. Awake from “nightmarish” mimicry. Make your own case. Use your own words. Use your own examples. Stop “borrowing.” Create.
So that is reason one for going beyond Marxism.
Marxism Is Flawed
I often argue that an economy that elevates about 20% of the population to ruling class status is the goal of struggle in every Marxist text that offers a serious economic vision.
Many Marxists reply that that is utterly false. For Marx and for every genuine Marxist who followed him, they say, the goal is a society characterized by mass working-class participation, democracy, and freedom.
Well, I think that is true about Marxist rhetoric and personal intent, and I don’t say that Marxists never trumpet working class participation and control. Or that as individuals they never seriously desire it. I say only that they don’t offer a vision that yields that result, or that is even consistent with that result.
I say that every serious Marxist formulation of what an economy ought to include as its defining institutions, as well as what Marxists have done in practice, is what I would call “coordinatorist.” Its institutions yield class rule by empowered economic actors (who I call the coordinator class) who dominate disempowered economic actors (who I call the working class).
Wait. That exaggerates a bit. Some Marxists, most particularly the “council communists” such as Rudolf Rocker and Anton Pannekoek, have tried to describe a truly classless vision. But while their intentions were admirable as were many insights they offered, they didn’t get far into the institutions of a new vision, though others might feel that is too dismissive. But the main point is that however far they got, these council communists are the exception that proves the rule. They ought to be extolled as the best Marxism has had to offer. Instead, they are literally ignored by Marxist parties the world round.
Put every Marxist text about economics in a pile. I bet that to the extent they provide a serious institutional explanation of preferred allocation mechanisms, incentives, distribution of income, and producer and consumer decision making, they advocate overwhelmingly and perhaps even exclusively, markets and or central planning, a corporate division of labor, remuneration for output, and authoritative decision making, all of which breed coordinator class rule.
This problem isn’t about bad people or even bad Marxists. Yes, Stalin was a bad guy, to put it mildly. But the real and lasting problem was the institutions that selected and elevated a thug like Stalin and the concepts that elevated those institutions.
The problem with Marxism and even more so Marxism Leninism isn’t that everybody in Marxist Leninist parties wants to trample workers on the road to ruling them. That is false. The problem is that those parties and their core concepts, however well meaning most members advocating them may be, lead to trampled, ruled workers.
Become a police officer or a prison guard in a capitalist society, even with the best motives, which many do have at the outset, and the odds are you aren’t going to serve people with sympathy and respect. Moreover, some who take the route will become grotesque agents of repression.
Become a lawyer or surgeon in a capitalist society, even with the best motives, which many do have, and the odds are you aren’t going to be a paragon of justice or health but an elitist coordinatorist person, even against your best inclinations.
Become a Marxist revolutionary, with the very best of motives — the very very best — and the odds are you aren’t going to make a revolution in our modern world at all, I think, for want of diverse focus and especially for want of true working class appeal and a capacity to communicate with people today, but if you do transcend those problems and you do help make a revolution, the odds are your achievement will, even against your hopes, elevate coordinators to economic rule, and not workers.
Some Marxists find this claim personally insulting. I don’t think it should be. It isn’t a comment about particular people. It is a comment about concepts, methods, and institutional allegiances and their predictable impact on groups of people.
Simply put, none of us are immune to the pressures of our circumstances. On average, the Marxist concepts that organize Marxist thoughts and the Leninist views and strategies Marxists (most often) abide, even in the hands of wonderful people, even as those people sincerely proclaim their contrary desires, lead to results that all people of good will, including themselves, would at the outset say they reject.
When Richard Wright, the celebrated black American novelist and commentator, said his goodbyes to Communism he wrote:
“An hour’s listening disclosed the fanatical intolerance of minds sealed against new ideas, new facts, new feelings, new attitudes, new hints at ways to live. They denounced books they had never read, people they had never known, ideas they could never understand, and doctrines whose names they could not pronounce. Communism, instead of making them leap forward with fire in their hearts to become masters of ideas and life, had frozen them at an even lower level of ignorance than had been theirs before they met Communism.”
Talking about Marxism most broadly, I must admit that there is a sense in which Wright’s anguished comment encapsulates much of my experience as well – not of every Marxist, of course, but of Marxism a perspective as it plays out on average for organized movements and particularly for Leninist parties. But let’s focus on two substantive issues where criticism may facilitate gains.
Marxism’s concepts over emphasize the defining influences arising from economics, and under emphasize the defining influences arising from gender/kinship, community/culture, and polity.
This doesn’t mean that all (or even any) Marxists will ignore everything other than economics, nor even that all (or even any) Marxists won’t care greatly about other matters.
It means, instead, that when Marxists address the sex life of teenagers, marriage, the nuclear family, religion, racial identity, religion, cultural commitments, sexual preferences, political organization, police behavior, war and peace, and ecology, they tend to highlight causes arising from class struggle and implications for class struggle and to deemphasize concerns rooted in the specific features of race, gender, power, and nature.
This criticism predicts, that is, that Marxist movements will respect innovations coming from other viewpoints when movements force them to do so, but that Marxists will not generate many original and useful insights themselves regarding analysis and aims for polity, culture, and kinship.
It predicts, as well, that Marxism’s concepts will not sufficiently offset tendencies imposed by current society, by the circumstances of current struggle, or by tactical choices that generate authoritarian, racist, or sexist trends – even against the best moral and social inclinations of most Marxists.
And it therefore also predicts that we will see some pretty horrible results regarding race, gender, culture, ecology, and political organization from Marxist movements in struggle and especially from Marxist movements in power, which we most certainly have.
In other words, these claims about Marxism’s “economism” do not predict monomania about economics or even a universal and inviolable pattern of over adherence to economics and under adherence to everything else, but, instead, they predict a harmful pattern of imbalance that arises and persists on average and of the way attention is given to extra economic phenomena.
The solution to the above observation would be for Marxists to agree that feminism and anarchism and anti racism have their own insights and that just as advocates of each need to take account of class focused understanding, so people seeking classlessness need to take account of these other sources of insight and areas of needed change.
Marxism is Coordinatorist
A second area of concern is that Marxism’s concepts fail to highlight a (coordinator) class between labor and capital. Marxists prioritization of ownership relations misses the roots of this class relation in the division of labor. This has many implications.
For example, Marxism inadequately understands the post capitalist mode of production it positively calls “socialist” or critically calls “state capitalist.” It fails to see that this type economy elevates neither capitalists nor workers to ruling economic status, but instead elevates a coordinator class of planners, managers, and other empowered actors in the economy.
Likewise, blind to their class implications, Marxism typically favors markets or central planning for allocation, public or state ownership for control of assets, remuneration for output or for power (and sometimes, for need) to determine distribution of income, and corporate divisions of labor to define workplace organization. Regardless of hopes, these commitments propel coordinator outcomes.
Notice, this doesn’t say that most (or arguably even any) individual Marxists are self-consciously trying to advance the interests of managers and other empowered actors over and above workers. This says, instead, that the concepts within Marxism do little to prevent this elevation of the coordinator class and even propel it in various ways, so that we can expect to see coordinator economic dominance emerging from successful Marxist movements regardless of the sentiments of the movement’s rank and file and the slogans of its leadership – precisely as we have seen historically every time.
Marxism’s focus on property relations and non attention to other possible causes of class division obscures the importance of the distribution of empowering tasks among economic actors. This conceptual absence removes from view a phenomenon of profound importance, the rule exerted by a coordinator class – or about 20% of the population – over the remaining 80%, the working class.
Marx himself, as compared to Marxism, often advised his readers that when judging some intellectual framework the key task was to discount what it says about itself, and, instead, notice what it highlights and obscures. A theory that was created or becomes a tool of a ruling class will obscure that class’s behavior. It will hide that class’s roots in social relations. It will even hide that class’s existence. What happens if we apply Marx’s own norms of judgement to what is labelled Marxism? We look to see what it obscures and highlights. We arrive at the surprising realization that Marxism and certainly Marxism Leninism elevates the coordinator class to rule even as it simultaneously hides their role and even their very existence. Interesting thought: Would not Marx now call Marxism the ideology of the coordinator class? More important, shouldn’t we call it that?
A Better Marxism?
How might one correct the two highlighted problems? Regarding economism, our problem is a conceptual framework that starts from economics and only then examines into other realms and only with the primary intention of seeing economic implications. The obvious solution is that we ought to instead begin with concepts that simultaneously highlight economics, polity, kinship, and culture. We ought to use concepts that first prioritize understanding each of these sphere’s own logic and dynamics, and that second prioritize seeing how each sphere influences and even limits and defines the others. In facilitating these two steps our new conceptual framework should posit no a priori hierarchy of importance to these spheres of life, but should instead see how they work out in practice.
As a possible correction to economism within the broad rubric of Marxism, a person could say, “I am Marxist but I am also feminist, multi-culturalist, 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 critical to social change, but I realize it is not alone critical. Gender, race, religious, ethnic, sexual, and anti-authoritarian struggles are also critical. I realize that just as we need to understand non-class phenomena in their relation to class struggle, we also have to understand economic phenomena in their relation to gender, race, and political struggle.”
But, if this new Marxist, and there are very many like this, renounces ideas of economic base and extra-economic superstructure, rejects historical materialism as typically understood to impact history overwhelmingly only from modes of production, and transcends seeing class struggle as the alone dominant conceptual framework for identifying strategic issues – will calling him or herself “Marxist” connote what this multi-focus activist intends his or her self description to connote? I don’t think so, but I can at least imagine overcoming this communicative problem.
In contrast to the above, the class-definition difficulty of Marxism seems to me less tractable. The basic problem is straightforward. Capitalists are capitalist by virtue of their private ownership of the means of production. To no longer have capitalists above workers requires, therefore that we eliminate private ownership. So far, so good. But there is another class above workers. It is located between labor and capital. We can call it the coordinator class.
Coordinators are made coordinators by virtue of market or centrally planned allocation and corporate divisions of labor that allot to them a virtual monopoly on empowering tasks as well as on the levers and requisites of daily decision making. To no longer have coordinators above workers requires, therefore, that we eliminate those features. Yet Marxist visions advocate either markets or central planning and especially hierarchical divisions of labor.
Marxists sometimes refer to a class between labor and capital – but they do so in political terms. They assert that its roots derive from bureaucracy in the polity. They rarely see a third class between labor and capital that derives from the economic division of labor and from economic modes of allocation (not from ownership or from politics). They do not see that markets, central planning, and corporate divisions of labor produce a ruling class other than capitalists above labor, even when private ownership is eliminated, and even when the state remains or becomes democratic.
Marxists often offer descriptions of the justice, equity, and dignity that “socialism” should usher in. Their words are often very eloquent and worthy of support. But, if we look at texts by Marxists to see descriptions of institutions that would be adopted to propel the proposed values, we find either vague rhetoric that lacks institutional substance, or, when there is institutional substance, we find institutions that are better labeled market coordinatorist and/or centrally planned coordinatorist, not socialist. And when we look at Marxist practice, we find these same coordinatorist structures universally implemented.
Could a Marxist transcend this problem and yet continue to see him or herself as a Marxist?
If a Marxist did follow that path, I think signs that it had occurred would be obvious. For example, such new Marxists would disavow what has been called socialism in countries around the world, not by calling it capitalism or even state capitalism and not by calling it deformed socialism, but by recognizing it as a third mode of production that enshrines a different class above workers.
More, such new Marxists would offer a new economic vision contrary to coordinatorism, and this new vision would very explicitly dispense with markets, central planning, and corporate divisions of labor, as well as dispense with modes of remuneration that reward property, power, or output.
Additionally, to transcend rhetoric and provide aims that can orient strategy, such new Marxists would not arrogantly present a full blueprint for the future, of course, but they would propose major defining institutions to seek in place of the rejected options. The new institutions I think might gain support from such updated Marxists would be worker and consumer councils, remuneration for duration and intensity of socially valued labor, balanced job complexes, collective self management, and participatory planning.
And finally, such updated Marxists would also advocate internal movement organization, methods, and programs that would embody, propel, and actually arrive at these positive aims. Not just vision, but also strategy is at stake. It is one thing to say that we can only reach a better future by acting from where we are in the present. Our efforts must arise from the grounds we occupy. That’s a truism, of course. Strategy certainly has to be rooted in the starting situation but it also has to aim for the sought destination otherwise it is very likely to lead somewhere other than where one hopes to wind up.
If strategies for social change embody organizational choices and methods that elevate the coordinator class to authority, such as employing centrist parties and advocating markets, central planning, and corporate divisions of labor, they will not eliminate coordinator class rule but will instead entrench it. Marxism’s flaws lead to this result regardless of the sincere desires of many Marxists to end up someplace much nicer than coordinatorism.
For Marxists to talk about workers liberating themselves is wonderful. However, proposing methods which will subordinate workers to a domineering (coordinator) class once the new economy is attained undoes the rhetorical virtues. What would be the relation of Marxists who seek to correct the error of ignoring coordinatorism to the heritage 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 thoughts and actions. Instead of always 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 him saying: “Any direct intervention by the trade unions in the management of enterprises must be regarded as positively harmful and impermissible.”
And 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 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 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. 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 him saying: “It is a general rule that man will try to get out of work. Man is a lazy animal.”
And him 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 positively, if the topic came up, such new Marxists would indicate how they would have done things differently than the Bolsheviks and than every Marxist party since the Bolsheviks.
For example, regarding the Bolsheviks, they might point out that unlike the Bolsheviks they would have seen local agents as the best locus of planning rather than preferring the state.
Instead of a hierarchical army these new Marxists might indicate that they would have favored using a militia based on the mass organizations, like the Revolutionary Army of the Ukraine.
These new Marxists would note that instead of invading Kronstadt in 1921 and crushing the Soviet there, they would have agreed to the Kronstadter’s demands for new elections to the Soviets, even if this meant that the Bolsheviks would have to go into opposition.
But, honestly, all the above is, well, the fare of dead generations. There is no need to dwell on that. More important, new Marxists getting beyond coordinators blind spots would note that hierarchical structures in economic and/or political institutions risk ushering in coordinator rule (as well as creating an environment uncongenial, in the modern era, to widespread worker involvement). If they wanted to argue that in some difficult contexts such structures had to be employed, they would urge seeing them as a temporarily imposed expedient, and would make that clear, and in all other respects would try to pave the way for non-hierarchical social relations, now and in the future.
And, finally, being attuned to the broader comprehension of class definition and working class liberation, these new anti coordinatorist Marxists would recognize that Marxism is a very incomplete framework that tends to lead people who adopt it to unworthy positions, even against their personal inclinations.
In short, they would be moving beyond, indeed well beyond, what is typically understood by the label Marxism.