Am I a Marxist?

 
 
 


My first instinct is to say, as Wittgenstein once did, "It is indifferent to me whether what I have thought  has already been thought before me by another."  Perhaps I mean something different by this than Wittgenstein did, but that's a matter of indifference to me, as well. 

But apparently it is not a matter of indifference to other people.  Undoubtedly this answer sounds evasive to some people, so, to my inquisitors, I'll say, I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of any communist party.  
 
Why isn't it a matter of indifference?  Well, of course, because people want to know whether someone is a Marxist so that they know whether or not to censor them and exclude them.  Flip on the television, or the radio, and turn to any news channel.  They will discuss today's events, and then they will say, "Here to talk with us about this is..." and they will introduce experts and analysts, either in a one-on-one interview, or in a panel discussion.  And I can guarantee, with almost 100% certainty, that not a single one of the people interviewing or being interviewed will be Marxists.  

If, as some conservatives maintain, our universities have been taken over by Marxists, then they should have churned out thousands of graduates, a huge pool of Marxist pundits for the media to choose from.  (Indeed, to hear some conservatives tell it, just about anyone with any education is to be viewed with suspicion - they might be kinda pinko.)  If so, then the total absence of Marxists on our talk shows represents one of the most successful campaigns of censorship and the suppression of thought the modern world has experienced.  In this context, calling yourself a Marxist is a risk, and I almost feel that it is irresponsible to distance myself from Marxists when they are so vilified.  As a champion of freedom of speech and freedom of thought, it seems incumbent upon me to be in solidarity with them.  And yet, to be honest, I have to admit that I'm not actually a Marxist.  The short answer is "no".  But let me begin to explain what I mean by that.

Let's get one thing straight, right off the bat: I'm not a Leninist.  But sometimes I think that the way that I see things is closer to the way Marx saw things than many of the people who call themselves "Marxists."  (I love that statement by the Situationist International: in response to the question "Are you Marxists?" they replay, "As much as Marx was, when he said, 'I am not a Marxist.'")
 
I do read Marx, among many other writers: Hegel, Hobbes, Adam Smith, Plato, Nietzsche, Bakunin, Stirner, Adams, Jefferson, etc., etc., etc..  And I enjoy reading Marx.  I think he's an extraordinarily gifted writer who has profound and important insights that remain relevant.  And I have found in his writings many profound insights and many useful tools of analysis.  In fact, I think that one's political education is incomplete unless one is willing to read Marx - and I emphasize, read Marx, not summaries of his ideas or writings of people who claim to be his followers.  (Of course, you can read that material as well, if you wish, but there is so much strained interpretation and downright distortion, that these things can never substitute for the original.)  
 
I read Marx carefully, attentively, thoroughly - and, most importantly, critically.  Marx once advocated "the relentless criticism of all that exists."  I agree, and I say, let's start by criticizing Marx's own work.  But I mean this in the classical definition of critique - not repudiation or ignoring a work, but investigating its foundations, disassembling it and rebuilding it, getting rid of all its weaknesses and making something stronger out of it.
 
My attitude towards Marx is a lot like my attitude towards Plato.  I read Plato with enormous enthusiasm, and I am continually astounded by Plato's brilliance.  Each time I read Plato I notice things I had never noticed before, and I appreciate Plato at deeper and higher levels than I did before.  The first time I read Plato I didn't particularly like it, and now I absolutely love his writings.  And I consider my own thought deeply enriched by reading Plato - without, at any time, considering myself a "Platonist."
 
I have already clarified my own political position: I support worker ownership and control of the means of production. 

Does that mean that I believe in the same political program that Marx did? You tell me.
 
If you ask me if I am a Marxist, I have to reply: What is Marxism?  Or perhaps we should avoid the question of "Marxism," since Marx famously wrote that "One thing alone is clear - that I am not a Marxist."  Very well, so what should we call this, if not "Marxism"?  "The Marxian critique of political economy"?  And yet that seems insufficient, because Marx's project was never simply one of detached analysis - as he famously put it, "Philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways.  The point, however, is to change it."  Well, change it how?  What is Marxism in a practical sense, in the sense of praxis?  What kind of positive political program does Marxism offer?

This is not an easy question to answer.  I have joked many times that the only way to get a Marxist to shut up is to ask them what they want.  In truth, I suspect they do not know what they want.

First, let's clear away some obvious misconceptions about socialism.  Socialism does not mean a redistribution of wealth.  It does not mean universal equality of outcome, or equality of results.  It especially does not mean a state redistributing goods and services to people.  The stupidest idea is "socialism is when the government does stuff, and the more stuff the government does, the socialister it is."  Whether or not a state should do such a thing, and how, is an interesting question, worthy of consideration, but it has nothing to do with socialism, because it focuses only on economics, and ignores politics.
 
What is crucial for socialism is the question of power.  The crucial question for socialism is not who gets how much of what.  The crucial question is: who gets to decide?  So long as the answer is anyone other than the workers themselves, you don't have socialism.  What matters is putting the workers in charge - and then they can decide to redistribute things, or not redistribute things, as they wish.

As for me, I have stated my position as clearly and succinctly as I could.  In my opinion, if socialism has any practical meaning at all, at the very least it means worker ownership and control of the means of production.  It may very well mean something more than this, and people have come up with all kinds of extreme, if half-baked, notions: the abolition of the value form, for instance, or an end to capitalist accumulation according to the general formula of capital, or perhaps the abolition of value itself.  I've even seen people advocating some kind of radical transformation of the measurement of time, or even the abolition of time...?  I suppose socialism and communism may, in some foggy, undreamt way, be construed to mean all kinds of far-flung things - most of the time, to be honest, I have no idea what these people are even talking about.  And moreover, I don't care.  To such notions I merely shrug my shoulders and say, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.  But what is clear is that at the very least, here and now, socialism means worker ownership and control of the means of production, which is the very first prerequisite toward achieving all these other supposed possibilities.  (Worker ownership and control of the means of production is what is meant by that ugly phrase, the "dictatorship of the proletariat," which is so confusing and misleading that we should stop using it.)
 
I emphasize both "ownership" and "control."  First, let's talk about "ownership."  There are some people who are against ownership in principle, but I am in favor of ownership - more ownership.  In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels distinguish between "private property" and "personal property" and say that they only wish to abolish "private property".  These terms are confusing, and it's not surprising that many people have been confused.  We should be very clear that we don't want to take away anyone's personal property - your house, and everything in it, for instance.  In fact, we want to increase your personal property.  And, more importantly, we want you to be a part-owner of the means of production - in other words, you should be a part-owner of the place where you work.  For instance, you should be able to vote for your boss.  And you should be able to be a part of the decision-making process of the whole shebang.  And then you can use that to get yourself more personal property.  

It's not socialism that wants to impoverish workers, and prevent them from owning things, up to and including the factory - that's capitalism.  It's capitalism that expropriates workers, and communism means, precisely, the movement that is fighting against capitalism.
 
But I also emphasize "control," because I say that there is no ownership without control, and no control without ownership.  If someone slaps the name "People's Bank" on a bank, and say that, in theory, the people own this bank, but the people have no actual control over the decision-making of the bank, then they do not own it in any real or meaningful sense.  Likewise for the "People's Republic."

Unlike the "socialism is when the government does stuff" definition, this definition really can be scaled: "Socialism is when the workers themselves are in control, and the more control the workers have, the more socialist it is."
 
It seems like Marxists would agree with all of this.  It seems that they would agree that what they are fighting for is worker ownership and control of the means of production.  Marx himself, of course, wrote about a putative "co-operative society based on common ownership of the means of production" [Critique of the Gotha Program].  In The Germany Ideology, as well, Marx and Engels write about the proletariat seizing "control" of the means of production.  And the preamble to the rules of the First Conference of the International, adopted at Geneva in 1864 and co-written by Marx and others proclaims that "the emancipation of the working classes must be the task of the workers themselves."  If there are any soi-disant Marxists out there who genuinely want to work toward worker's ownership and control of the means of production, welcome aboard.  We're grateful for your help.

But in states that have called themselves Marxist, have workers had any more capacity for control and self-determination than in run-of-the-mill capitalism?  Not at all.  Let me borrow a phrase from Marx, which he used in a different context: in the place of exploitation veiled by religious and political illusions, the U.S.S.R. substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.  
 
In many ways, the U.S.S.R. was simply a capitalist country, employing "state capitalism."  That's not me saying that - Lenin himself said that.  And the U.S.S.R. developed industry very rapidly.  But though there may have been technical advances on the level of production, but in using forced labor, the U.S.S.R. pushed the development of the social relations of production backwards to a pre-capitalist level.  According to Marx's definition, the proletariat is, according to his famous phrase, "doubly free."
 
Putatively Marxist movements around the world - some of them explicitly critical of these states - have been remarkably incurious about investigating the political question of just why it is that so many supposedly "Marxist" states - and also "Marxist" movements, even here in the United States, wind up turning into autocracies.  So far as I know, no one has offered a serious materialist analysis of this question - or even tried.  So long as they don't, these movements cannot hope to be taken seriously.

In fact, when I point out these obvious things out to so-called Marxists, they accuse me of something called "trade union consciousness," whatever that means.  I am a proud member of a union, so... maybe they have a point?  But I don't think they even know what that point is.

I'd like to say that all of this is simply the fault of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, but such moralistic and individualistic interpretations of history are rarely the whole story.  We can put the question this way: why is that Marxism has failed to attain the level of a genuine science - that is, a scientific community that uses the scientific method?  When we ask the question that way, it immediately becomes clear that it is not enough to "return" to "true" Marxism, to any "orthodox" kind of Marxism before it was subsequently corrupted by Lenin&Co..  No, because doing so would amount to making Marx into a kind of infallible pope, or oracle, implying that straying from his dogma inherently constituted an error - which would perpetuate the unscientific character of Marxism that is the very problem we are addressing.  Any serious attempt to address this problem must at the very least begin by subjecting Marx's own work to the most rigorous criticism.

And it's not hard to find gaps in his work.  I find that Marx's specialty - to be generous - is the period from about the 16th century until the middle of the 19th in western Europe, especially in what then became the United Kingdom, applying his unique brand of Aristotelian-Epicurean-Hegelian analysis to that historical epoch.  Outside of that date range and geographical scope, Marx's expertise is questionable, if not laughable.  There is already an enormous literature that discusses the myriad problems with the theory of the "Asiatic mode of production" that Marx advocated in the 1850s, whose influence one can see in the somewhat different, yet related, reactionary idea of "Oriental despotism" of Karl August Wittfogel of the Frankfurt School (indeed, Marx had already used this very phrase).  Some claim that, by the end of Marx's life, he had largely abandoned the theory of the Asiatic mode of production, and that may very well be true, since he more or less stopped speaking about it, but he never explicitly rejected it, nor, more importantly, did he offer any better historical framework in its place.  For that matter, his description of the feudal mode of production is sketchy at best and makes little sense outside of the European context, and his references to the "ancient" mode of production (distinct from the Asiatic) and to slave states are downright confusing.  Even his description of the period that I consider his specialty is not without its imprecision and omissions.  In any case, Marx's critique of political economy cannot be considered an all-encompassing theory of history, and any serious attempt to use it that way will only end in the conclusion that attempting to break up the history of modes of production into a series of clearly distinct stages is overly schematic and simplistic, a set of theoretical "training wheels" so to speak, that one can discard as soon as one knows how to drive and navigate on one's own, and the more honest and sophisticated Marxists, such as Jairus Banaji, seem increasingly willing to admit this.

Even if Marxism did manage to transform itself into a genuinely scientific movement (and it will take a huge amount of work and struggle to transform it), I still probably wouldn't call myself a "Marxist."  That's just not how science works.  Scientists accept the discoveries of Newton and Einstein, and celebrate their enormous accomplishments, but they don't call themselves "Newtonists" or "Einsteinists."  The reference to an individual is a clear sign of a serious and unresolved problem.  As fascinating as these personalities may be, our loyalty should not be any one historical person, but to the evidence, and to the truth.

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