20.12.2017

On the Use and Abuse of Marxism

We are witnessing an unparalleled Marx renaissance: from the culture pages of bourgeois newspapers to left-wing academics and intellectuals. It includes even the Chinese Communist Party. Should this surprise us?

Photo: Getty Images News / CC-BY 2.0

For many years the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels have exerted a dominant influence on the interpretation of socialism in Germany as well as many other European countries, with the exception of Scandinavia and (initially) Great Britain, as well as on the so-called Third World. That influence has persisted, albeit in a milder form, up until the present day. In crisis situations, mobilized leftist milieus regularly breathe new life into it.

An irreducible core of humanism in Marx’s thought allows us to draw a clear distinction between its use and abuse for political ends.

At present we are witnessing an unparalleled Marx renaissance that runs the gamut from the culture pages of bourgeois newspapers to left-wing academics and intellectuals, and even includes the Chinese Communist Party, in which the Marxist legacy seemed long since to have been jettisoned. This amazing breadth of interest should not surprise us, since it was imprinted on the history of Marxism almost from its beginning and persisted for well over a century. The unprecedented bandwidth of the "applications" of this doctrine, extending from social democracy’s emancipatory reformism all the way to the interest in legitimation evinced by dictatorial “Marxism-Leninism,” is by no means purely serendipitous; it is grounded in the corpus of Marx’s work. However, there is an irreducible core of humanism in his thought that allows us to draw a clear distinction between its use and abuse for political ends.

In appropriating Marxian theory, the democratic labour movement always put the “democratic” Marx first, along with contributions by Engels.

At any rate, the widespread notion—one that likewise is primarily designed to serve political ends—that Marx’s work "contains" Leninism is not consistent with either the history of the democratic labour movement or the findings of intellectual history. In appropriating Marxian theory, the democratic labour movement always put the "democratic" Marx first, along with contributions by Engels. The centrepiece of this “history of influences” was the idea propounded in the Communist Manifesto (1848) that the socialist workers’ movement needed first to win the struggle for democracy and only then, within this framework, gradually establish “social” control over private property in the means of production. Engels insisted that history should be understood as a process that obeyed laws similar to those found in the natural sciences. However, in the socialism practiced by social democratic parties, his claim was seen as little more than a scientific confirmation of their conviction that they and their cause were propelled forward by the "tailwinds of history."

Marx and Engels had bequeathed to posterity a radical critique of capitalism as well as the supposedly "scientific" certainty that the history of class struggle would not end until "production was organized and run by and for society." But they never explained how a socialist mode of production such as this could be organized so that—to follow its own inherent imperative—it would bestow powers of self-determination on the producers in their work while simultaneously making possible the rational macroeconomic regulation of production.

The expression "dictatorship of the proletariat," was intended to establish that a democratically elected "workers’ government" would not respect the fundamental "bourgeois" right to private property in the major means of production; the dictatorship of the proletariat was supposed to make possible a government by and for the “immense majority."

As history was to show, this lacuna in the theory of socialist economic organization left the list of political options wide open. And indeed, the blank spaces were destined to be filled in through a highly diverse array of practical actions. The expression "dictatorship of the proletariat," which was only mentioned rarely and in passing by Marx and Engels, had a narrow and exclusive focus. It was intended to establish that a democratically elected "workers’ government" would not respect the fundamental "bourgeois" right to private property in the major means of production, a right that of course was dear to the hearts of the propertied classes. The dictatorship of the proletariat actually was supposed to make possible a government by and for the "immense majority."

Accordingly, social democratic parties and numerous grass-roots leftist milieus operating outside of them, especially in the labour unions, justified their democratic programs in terms of Marx’s theory. They relied on Marx totally until the demise of the Weimar Republic and partially even after that, right down to this very day. The statement of the German Social Democratic Party’s basic program, which is still in force and consistent with its 150-year-long history, holds that Marxism is one of the roots of social democracy. By contrast, the "Marxism-Leninism" (as it later came to be called) developed by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and his successors after World War I on the basis of their experiences in autocratically ruled Russia represented a definitive break with the originally democratic impulses of Marxism, even though it cherry-picked selected elements of Marx’s writings.

"The acrimonious struggle between Leninist communists and democratic socialists that split the labour movement, especially in Western Europe between 1917 and 1921, […] played out between a fundamentalist and a democratic, open-ended interpretation of Marx’s theory."

The pivotal move in this misappropriation was Lenin’s fundamentalist conversion of the Marxian theory of history into an unassailable dogma. As such it bestowed upon the professional revolutionaries who had been initiated into its mysteries a superior justification from which to act in the name of history and ride roughshod over democratic norms and fundamental rights whenever the latter got in the way of the enactment of the “truths” of this dogma. Thus, the acrimonious struggle between Leninist communists and democratic socialists that split the labour movement, especially in Western Europe between 1917 and 1921, was never really about accepting or rejecting "Marxism." Rather, the controversy centred on whether the democratic or the Leninist interpretation was truer to Marx’s legacy. The struggle played out between a fundamentalist and a democratic, open-ended interpretation of Marx’s theory.

Ways of reading Marx as expressions of political interests

Marx’s work itself is thus marked by an unusual diversity of themes and a wide variation between his work on theoretical principles and the current political positions that supposedly can be taken on the basis of those principles. But it is also shaped by the long interval—over four decades—during which it assumed its mature form, a time full of tensions, divergences, and undeniable contradictions. Consequently, even the direct access to the texts that we enjoy today does not enable us to find quick and unambiguous answers or prescriptions for the unresolved issues of the present age. And for that very reason it continues to offer points of contact that allow us to understand the current situation better—or perhaps criticize it unflinchingly.

"[The] variants of "Marxism" bore the stamp of the peculiar interpretive schemes of their time as well as of the politically situated interests and perspectives of those responsible for the interpretive paradigms in question."

For those reasons, it may prove useful here to recall a few of the principal ways of interpreting Marxism and the problems they have bequeathed to us. As a preamble, it must be noted that, except in the very early years when Marx himself was still alive, his oeuvre and ideas always found entrée into the organizations of the workers’ movement or leftist intellectual circles in highly specific versions purveyed by other political interpreters, i.e., as "Marxism." These variants of “Marxism” bore the stamp of the peculiar interpretive schemes of their time as well as of the politically situated interests and perspectives of those responsible for the interpretive paradigms in question. Within certain limits, this sort of appropriation of a theoretical legacy under the aegis of the issues and perspectives of the day is a common occurrence.

The Marxism that shaped Western European social democracy in the years before the First World War was considerably influenced by the world view of Friedrich Engels, who drew heavily on models offered by natural science, and by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Far more than in the work of Marx himself, history in the light of these thinkers’ approaches rather resembles the evolutionary processes of nature. That is to say, deliberate human action seems essentially incapable of shaping broad historical trends over long stretches of time. Perhaps it can influence historical episodes in the short term, but only to a limited extent. Consequently, Marxism’s function as a motivating and legitimating world view dominated its reception at the cost of its role—which was constantly being weakened—as a source of reflection about what concrete, practical steps should be taken next.

In the Western European strand of the social democratic tradition there was a characteristic dichotomy between the "theory" laid down in the party program and the measures for action.

The analyses, schemes, and concrete programs that were needed for purposive, active engagement were thus consistently underdeveloped in the democratic wing of the "Marxist" workers’ movement. And Marx’s own writings were of little help, because he offered only general suggestions, not fully developed theories of action. In this strand of the social democratic tradition there was a characteristic dichotomy between the “theory” laid down in the general section of the party program (in which everyone professed to believe) and the measures called for in the section on action.

"Lenin sought in Marxism an instruction manual for making a revolution in a predominantly agrarian country, one in which the working class was a small minority of society and the peasantry was denied education"

Lenin’s interpretation of Marxism—not Marxism itself—sealed the split of the international workers’ movement and turned Marxism-Leninism into an authoritative world view and theory of legitimation for the communist parties of the 20th century. Because Lenin sought in Marxism an instruction manual for making a revolution in a predominantly agrarian country, one in which the working class was a small minority of society and the peasantry was denied education, he exaggerated certain elements of Marx’s theory to make it fit those circumstances. This also included the reinterpretation of Marxism as a quasi-naturalistic account of historical laws that offered legitimation for the actions of professional revolutionaries, the dogmatic treatment of the stages of historical development, and the transfer of control over the means of production from the society (as demanded by Marx) to the state. These are also some of the key points of contact between the Leninist version of Marxian theory and the liberation movements of the Third World, to the extent that they still invoke "Marxism" as their inspiration. In addition to their attraction to the Leninist notion of a revolutionary avant-garde, they also gave to the term "working class" a new, far more elastic meaning, so that it now covered even the peasantry in an agrarian society. The latter could now inherit the emancipatory role that Marx had reserved for the "proletariat."

"Western Marxism"

Of the three main currents of Marxism, the so-called “Western” strain has had a significant influence in Europe from the 1920s until the present despite the wide spectrum of approaches developed by its chief theorists (from Georg Lukács and Antonio Gramsci to Karl Korsch and the Frankfurt School).

Western Marxism differed from its counterparts in that it no longer maintained any direct connection to the workers’ movement and affiliated parties and thus lacked a practical context in which to situate its theories. Its leading thinkers were intellectual critics of capitalism and culture who hoped above all to find Marxist-inspired ways to explain questions such as: why the great revolution had failed to happen in the West, why the working class had not developed a Marxist-oriented class consciousness, and why the policies of the two estranged brothers of the labour movement—social democrats and communists—each in its own way had misrepresented the “true” theory of Marx. Accordingly, they shifted their focus to the cultural and, to a lesser extent, the individual sphere where society’s patterns of interpretation and the consciousness of the modern working class principally took shape.

This new shift of emphasis yielded some quite fruitful syntheses, for example between Marx and Freudian psychoanalysis (the Frankfurt School) and between Marx and existentialism (France). By contrast, a combination of Marx and Kantian ethics, known as Austromarxism, did play a crucial role for many years in laying the foundations for the Austrian labour movement.

Despite their sharp conflicts, the feuding parties of the workers’ movement did have one thing in common: Both understood "Marxism" as an all-embracing world view. That is, not only was Marxism expected to define the movement’s grand political and socioeconomic objectives; it was also supposed to provide answers to existential questions about the "meaning" of human history and the lives of individuals. Even “Western” Marxism, cut off as it was from the labour movement and primarily an affair of intellectuals, may have had a similar integral significance for the lives of some individuals well into the middle part of the 20th century. But by now the ethical and philosophical energies of both variants of Marxism have been fully depleted. It is hard to imagine that they ever could be revived. Attempts by the Chinese president to spark a Marx renaissance at the country’s universities and in the Communist Party will likely fail for this very reason.

Where do we go from here with Marx?

So now the question must be raised: If we want to learn from Marx today, where will we find the relevant points of contact?

The most recent Marx renaissance in the Western world actually has resulted from a deep sense of perplexity occasioned by the unanticipated financial crisis of 2008. This renaissance, which has extended even to the culture pages of “bourgeois” newspapers, has attempted to sidestep all three of the main lines of the Marxist tradition described above in hopes of finding direct access to the themes of Marx’s Critique of Political Economy. At an analytic level many of Marx’s insights concerning capitalistically organized economies seem to go to the heart of the matter even today—or perhaps especially today.

Of course, the whole history of capitalism has been shadowed by a principled critique arising from a variety of sources. Capitalism itself is no shrinking violet to be intimidated by a slight breeze emanating from the scholarly world or politics, let alone by words in the culture section of a newspaper. Quite the contrary: it was forged in the fire of bitter critiques during the late 18th century and has evoked massive resistance in both theory and practice at every stage of its development. What we often forget is that it survived all of these attacks and emerged from each phase of critique stronger than ever, partly because it cultivated the art of incorporating the criticisms into its own practices. Certainly, the profound transformation of capitalism since Marx’s time did not come about thanks to the merits of Marx’s Capital, but instead was due to social democratic policies that managed to establish links to Marx himself. The embedding of private property and markets in a comprehensive social-welfare state, the domestication of class conflicts via collective bargaining and co-determination, and the regulation of the economy have partially, though not irrevocably, civilized capitalism.

Marx […] sketched out the principles of a reform strategy for embedding private property and markets in political and social counter-structures to insure that social interests would prevail over the profit motive.

The social democratic compromise that brought us to that point is solidly grounded in Marx’s thought. In 1868 Marx made a crucial distinction that clarified his political ideas. Reflecting on the struggle for an eight-hour day, he declared that "the limitation of the working day [is] a prerequisite. Without it, all other efforts at improvement and emancipation must fail." What was at stake here was the need to dismantle the laws of the political "economy of capitalism" by democratic reforms and enact instead the “political economy of the working class,” the principle of which was not to be the untrammelled use of capital, but rather "insight into and foresight about society’s needs." Marx thus sketched out the principles of a reform strategy for embedding private property and markets in political and social counter-structures to insure that social interests would prevail over the profit motive.

It would not have surprised Marx a bit to learn that this strategy of transformation would involve a struggle that featured both advances and setbacks. Marx may have built a few elements of a holistic world view and a metaphysics of salvation into his doctrine (though Engels was far guiltier on this score), but those aspects of his doctrine are by now passé. The experiences of the 19th century put paid to the first element and those of the 20th, to the second. However, the core idea of social democracy even in the 21st century is that the market economy and private property can only be made acceptable in society when leavened by a policy of "insight into and foresight about society’s needs," to use Marx’s own words. If only for that reason, Marx does not deserve to be thrown onto the scrap heap of history. ###

Thomas Meyer is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Dortmund and Editor-in-Chief of the journal Neue Gesellschaft | FrankfurterHefte (the parent publication of the International Quarterly). thomas.meyer(at)fes.de

Translated from German and adapted for style, the text was first published by Neue Gesellschaft|FrankfurterHefte, parent publication of the International Quarterly.

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