Karl Marx Did Not Go Far Enough


I think we're way beyond 19th century arguments both in favor of capitalism and against it.  They're both seriously outdated.

In this essay, I will briefly sketch some of my most major disagreements with Karl Marx.  This list is not exhaustive.  But I want make it clear from the outset that I am not attacking Marx from a right wing, anti-communist position that supports capitalism.  On the contrary, I am trying to show that Marx was insufficiently radical, in the sense that in his analysis of political economy, he failed to go all the way "to the root."  I am trying to perform an immanent criticism of Marx - that is, instead of criticizing Marx from an external perspective, I am trying to point out how Marx failed from the perspective of the constitutive structure of his own project.  This is, of course, what Marx himself did in his own life, vis a vis the other leftist thinkers of his time - he ruthlessly criticized these socialists, not from an anti-socialist perspective, but from the perspective of socialism itself.  Indeed, often he was arguing against positions that, until recently, he himself had at least tacitly taken.  And he felt, rightly, that this was his primary responsibility as a theorist of proletarian struggle.

When we look at things this way, Marx failed in several different kinds of ways.  Many of them - most of them, I would say - are ways in which Marx did not go far enough.  In a few other ways, some of which I will also discuss towards the end of this essay, it's not so much a matter of him not going far enough - we have to acknowledge that Marx was simply dead wrong.  

So, let's start with the ways in which Marx did not go far enough.  When I suggest that Marx did not go far enough, does this simply mean that I am positioning myself as more violent, or more autocratic than Marx?  Not at all.  After all, Marx fought for democracy and freedom of the press and other freedoms against the authoritarian governments of in his own time, and I applaud him for that.

What it means is that it is not enough merely to criticize the "actually existing" communism of the 20th century as having departed from Marx - though depart, of course, they did.  The attempts to "return" to Marx, the pure Marx, the ideal Marx, unsullied by messy history, are doomed to be reactionary and they are doomed to fail.  Rather, it is imperative to recognize the ways in which Marx himself fell short, to recognize his failures, his blind spots, the incompleteness of his theoretical project.

Looking through Karl Marx's writings, one thing comes clear - that Marx spent a lot of time, energy, and ink criticizing his colleagues on the left, including socialists, communists, and anarchists, as well as liberals and democrats.  In fact, Marx easily spent as much time and effort critiquing socialists and the left in general as he did attacking capitalism and the right - perhaps much more so.  And Marx was right to do so.  The left would listen to Marx's often quite sharp, pointed critique in a way that the right never would.  In fact, Marx did not go far enough in his critique of the left, and it is necessary for us to continue and sharpen this critique - understanding the word "critique" in its classical sense, not as rejection or as repudiation, but as a thorough, radical investigation and analysis of the foundations of the movement, not to destroy it, but to refound it on a much stronger footing, so that it will become more powerful and effective.  And for Marx, the foundation of the communist movement had to be materialist.

Marx may well have been the first to use the word "utopian" as a pejorative - most famously, in the Communist Manifesto, published in 1848, co-written with Friedrich Engels, where he critiques "utopian socialism".  (Sir Thomas More of course coined the word in his book "Utopia," and it was used here and there before Marx's time, but I haven't found an example before Marx of someone using the word as an insult.  I have heard that Louis-August Blanqui considered Marx and Engels to be utopian socialists, but I haven't found a reliable citation for this, and I suspect that if this is true, he would have said so sometime after Marx started using the word this way, because I find it extremely doubtful that Blanqui would have even heard of Marx before he went to prison.  Even more likely, it was not Blanqui himself, but one of his many followers who dismissed Marx and Engels as utopian in their insistence that the emancipation of the working class be the task of the workers themselves, as a whole, rather than a secret plot of a small cadre of well-connected militants.  But I'll admit that it's possible that "utopian" as an insult originated with someone in this milieu.)  Ever since, it has been a quintessential part of the Marxist project to attack one's colleagues as utopian dreamers.  And rightly so.

"Utopian socialism" is often contrasted with "scientific socialism".  In some ways, it might be fair to say that Engels went further than Marx in this regard, Engels being a bit more of an empiricist than Marx ever was.  (Engels had his own problems, but that is a subject for another time.)  In 1878, Engels wrote and published a book entitled "Herr Eugen Dühring's Revolution in Science," usually simply known as "Anti-Dühring."  His publisher convinced him to excerpt one section of that book as a shorter work, which was released in 1880 as "Socialism: Utopian and Scientific."  It became a surprise runaway bestseller, especially right after Marx's death in 1883, far eclipsing the Manifesto and Capital, neither of which were particularly well-read when they first appeared.  For its time - the "illegal period," of Bismarck's Anti-Socialist Laws (1878-1888), and immediately following this the formation of the Second International in 1889 - it was probably the defining text of socialism.

The primary sense in which Marx didn't go far enough is that this project of analyzing utopian socialism and transforming it into something more scientific was woefully incomplete, both during Marx's lifetime and for a long time after. Despite Marx's best efforts to root them out, there was much - and, frankly, is much - in the Marxist movement that remained and remains utopian.  Though Marx tried valiantly to exorcise utopianism, there is still to this day a great deal of utopianism among Marxists: for instance, that stupid phrase "From each according to his abilities, to each, according to his need," a phrase that was originally religious in inspiration, and used by utopian socialists like Morelly, Becker, and Blanc long before Marx. The slogan is so vague and involves such immeasurable quantities as to be meaningless and at best a distraction from concrete goals.  Marx attempted, in the Critique of the Gotha Program, to mock those who sought immediately to institute this unworkable program, whom he associated with Lassalleanism, but to no avail.  And there are people who, to this day, call themselves Marxists and yet proclaim this utopian slogan.  

But even in its analysis of utopianism, Marxism falls a little short.  In attacking all of the forms of socialism besides Marxism itself, Marxists tend to paint with a very broad brush.  In reality, what are now referred to as utopian socialist movements were a very wide variety of movements that had little to do with each other and often opposed each other in diverse ways.  In fact, "utopianism" in the Marxist lexicon includes so many things that are so different from each other that the category has become so loose as to be essentially meaningless.  Simply ask yourself this: is there any form of socialism, other than Marxism, that a Marxist would not consider utopian?  

Actually, Marx himself was a bit more sophisticated than Engels in this regard - while Engels makes a simplistic binary opposition between "utopian" and "scientific" socialism, Marx had a more nuanced and complex system of somewhat overlapping categories in the Manifesto: "feudal socialism," "aristocratic socialism," "clerical socialism," "Christian socialism," "reactionary socialism," "bourgeois socialism," "petty bourgeois socialism," "French socialism or communism," "German or 'True' Socialism," "conservative socialism," "utopian socialism," "critical-utopian socialism," and so on.  Yet, frustratingly, he declines to make it entirely clear to which category each movement belongs, and when he does bother to mention concrete individuals and parties of his time, he does little more than name-check them.  I'm not suggesting that these movement should be rehabilitated, but insofar as categorizing them as utopian is nothing more than name-calling, it does not substitute for a rigorous, historical, material analysis, grounded in the facts of their particularities.  Instead of saying that Marxism is too utopian, which is an inexact phrase, perhaps we should simply say that Marxism is not scientific enough, since that has much more of a precise meaning.

There is a certain strain of opinion, which may or may not be associated with that nearly meaningless term, "postmodernism," which would have it that the aspiration within Marxism towards scientific rigor is in some way related to "dogmatism" or "totalitarianism" or "authoritarianism" or to the violence of historical states such as the U.S.S.R..  This has become a bit of a meme: "the immortal science of Marxism-Leninism."  Marxism and especially its Leninist interpretation have, at least in the minds of certain people, come to be negatively associated with science, the connection I suppose being that both are seen as advocating an absolutism, an excessive belief in absolute reality, which is seen as somehow arrogant - the implication being that a certain polysemy, a literary quality that allows a text to be interpreted and reinterpreted again and again - and thus deconstructed - would avoid this pitfall, promoting an openness and somehow making "war against totality."

In reality nothing could be further from the truth.  The U.S.S.R. was anything but scientific, as the Lysenko affair made abundantly clear.  And there is no better cure for dogmatism and authoritarianism than science.  After all, what is science?  We can sum up all of science in a single phrase: not pretending to know more than you know.  The scientific method begins with the criticism of the argument from authority.  It is precisely science that opens socialism up, while poetry totalizes.  (I think, interestingly enough, Slavoj Zizek agrees with me about this: he has written and spoken more than once about the "poetic-military complex" and how it is the work of poets that has historically often led to atrocity.)  And by the way, many self-styled Marxists have come from literary backgrounds, while many anarchists have come from scientific backgrounds.  Marx often used what I call "the poetry dodge."  People will forever be debating exactly what he meant when he said that "Europe will leap from its seat and exclaim, 'Well grubbed, old mole!'" or that "The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot take its poetry from the past but only from its future."  It was Engels who first compared Marx's writings to the Bible, and it's true - just as with the Bible, bitter political antagonists with opposite views can each find a quote from Marx and claim that it proves their own point.  The poetry dodge can actually be quite useful in building a political movement, but it is extremely counterproductive in building a science.

Examples of Marx's poetic style of writing abound - so much so, that I cannot possibly even begin to get into this in the space of this article - this could easily be the topic of another essay, or book of essays.  For now, let it suffice to point out the... extended metaphor?... that Marx employs in capital, in which capital is treated as a subject, with its own thoughts, emotions, and desires.  There are many fascinating and rich literary passages here, and there's no doubt that Marx has made an important contribution to the world's literature, but what this can mean in a materialist, scientific sense, and how it can be used in praxis is anybody's guess - and conflicts over how to interpret this have dogged the Marxist movement and kept it divided and confused for far too long.  

The lack of scientific rigor in Marxism begins with the vagueness of its terms.  I have already mentioned the nebulous and inconsistent way that the term "utopian" is used, but that's far from the only example.  Marx is constantly using terms that he never bothers to define - even fundamental categories, such as "class".  What is a class?  How many classes are there?  How can one tell who belongs to which class?  These questions are left unanswered, with enough hints for people to interpret and reinterpret endlessly, and over which to battle endlessly, with no small amount of real political consequences.  And we needn't rehearse, here, the relentless arguments over the meaning of "value."

Making socialism scientific would mean isolating all of its propositions and transforming them into testable hypotheses, and then thoroughly and rigorously testing them in the real world, preferably in a double-blind experiment, to the extent that this is possible (and not totally unethical).  Any proposition that cannot withstand this kind of strict scrutiny may be discarded.

Making socialism scientific also means bracketing moralism.  This is not to say that we should become amoral or immoral - which would be a self-defeating prohibition (what could it mean to say that we "should" be amoral?).  It merely means that moralistic presuppositions are not a part of a materialist analysis of political economy, any more than a chemist worries about whether or not it is morally right for saltpeter, when analyzed, to decompose into ammonium nitrate and potassium hydroxide. For the most part, Marx steers clear of moralistic posturing, and this sole fact makes him a far superior theorist compared with many others on the left.  For instance, contrary to popular belief, Marx never demands equality or fairness, and rightly so.  But it must be admitted that now and then he slips up, such as when he speaks of the "greed" for surplus labor in Section 2 of Chapter 10 of Capital Volume 1.  Greed is, of course, not a well-defined scientific term - and if it were, it would belong to the field of personal psychology, rather than macroeconomics.  He even goes so far, in Chapter 2, to invoke the verses in Revelation about the "mark of the beast."  Sections like this are perhaps best read as ironic remarks, or as literary flourishes, merely meant to spice up dry discussions of economics, which, even when it is hopeful, can be dismally dull.  Still, we must go beyond them, ridding ourselves of the last vestiges of moralistic self-delusion and accepting the results of materialist analysis with dispassionate clarity.

Moralists tend to see political conflict in terms of "good guys" and "bad guys."  Even when moralism is more sophisticated than this, it tends to view politics in terms of individuals, and their choices.  When confronted with a problem, it asks: Who is to blame?  The result is that a particular person is scapegoated for what is often a systemic or structural problem.  For the most part, Marx's analysis was structural rather than individualistic, but he did, now and then, slip into another mode of writing, for instance when he claims, in Capital Volume 1 writes of the capitalist that "As capitalist, he is only capital personified.  His soul is the soul of capital."  Again, it's not clear how, and how literally, we should take this.  Perhaps he simply meant that, for the purposes of his argument, a capitalist was only capital personified.  But there are other examples of Marx writing about (and often attacking) individuals as individuals, rather than as valences of a larger socioeconomic structure, making room for the possibility of an analysis that is more systemic than Marx's ever was.

More broadly, we can sift away not only the vestiges of moralism that linger in Marxism but also all of the appeals to emotion rather than sober scientific analysis.  The leftist movements of the nineteenth century emerged from European Romanticism, and even though Marx criticized Romantic tendencies keenly, it's not hard to see that they still persisted.  If moralism and guilt are not a particularly powerful foundation for anti-capitalism, then neither are anger, envy, pity, or hate.  Recently, online, I saw someone post a quote from Henry Hazlitt: "The whole gospel of Karl Marx can be summed up in a single sentence: Hate the man who is better off than you are."  Of course, I expected, and was duly gratified to see, a large number of comments that pointed out that this was such an utter misrepresentation of Marx's ideas that it indicated that Hazlitt had never read Marx and had no idea what he was talking about.  But I was shocked to discover a small number of self-declared Marxists - even some reputable people, regarded as scholars - arguing that this was indeed an accurate representation of Marxism.  Similarly, Bertrand Russell once wrote, "My objections to Karl Marx are of two sorts: one, that he was muddleheaded; and the other, that his thinking was almost entirely inspired by hatred."  I think Russell was mostly wrong in his interpretation of Marxism, but I cannot prove that he was completely wrong.  (And in my personal observation, nearly all hate comes from moralism, from being morally judgemental.  As William S. Burroughs noted, "Apart from a certain type of human, dogs are the only self-righteous animal.  That's why their bites are so vicious.")

Let the liberals found their political movement on emotions.  It is far more effective for a movement to be based on facts. To move beyond Marxism, it is especially necessary to cleanse it of ressentiment, and particularly ressentiment's capacity for self-deception.  While we're at it, let's get rid of every vestige of apocalypticism that remains in Marxism, particularly every tendency to see global politics in terms of some kind of "final conflict," (as the song goes) after which we will all live happily ever after.

The insufficient scientific rigor of Marxism is not the only way that Marx did not go far enough, but nearly every other way that he did not go far enough is related to it in some way.  

One of the most important ways in which Marx did not go far enough is in planning for communism.  I've often said, the best way to get a Marxist to shut up is to ask them what they want.  

This, was, of course, not an accident.  In his 1873 Afterward to the Second German Edition of Capital Volume 1, Marx poetically denies that he is writing "recipes [...] for the cook-shops of the future."  Again, we can argue about exactly what he meant by that, but clearly he criticized capitalism - and all of the other leftist projects around him - without offering his own concrete alternative.  Arguably, in this sense one could argue that Marx was more utopian than the so-called utopian socialists, because in many cases, these movements not only abstractly theorized but actually did create existing communities to embody their ideals, whereas the kind of society Marx fought for at the time of the Manifesto existed literally "nowhere".  

The Marxian prohibition against "recipes for the cook-shops of the future" was perhaps understandable in the middle of the nineteenth century, but it is utterly inexcusable now.  The movement needs plans, desperately - concrete, comprehensive, specific plans.  Not one plan, but many: plans for a society of the future, to be sure, but more importantly plans on how to get from here to there.  The result of this glaring insufficiency of Marx's theory has been that any state can institute any policy and claim it in Marx's name, and there is virtually nothing to draw from in his writings to prove it, to disprove it, or even productively to discuss it. 

There are some people who claim to be Marxists who mock anyone trying to create specific plans, belittling planners with terms like "Lego Marxism" and "Tinkertoy Marxism," and claiming that it is necessary to build a mass workers movement before we can begin to put forward any plans.  What they don't realize is that coming up with specific policy proposals is precisely how you build a mass movement.  No rational person is going to agree to anything when they don't know what they're agreeing to.  So-called Marxists often say something like, "I don't have any answers.  I'm merely a bourgeois intellectual.  It's up to the workers themselves to come up with the plans to create a new system."  They may think this sounds like humility, but it is the height of arrogance, ordering the workers to do your intellectual labor for you.  Workers are not fools.  If you have a concrete proposal, put it forward.  The workers will evaluate it, alongside all the other proposals.  If you don't have any concrete proposal to make, then step aside.  Put up or shut up.  The fact that Marxists will read thousands of pages of Marxist theory that analyzes capitalism as it exists now without putting forward even one single idea on what to do about it makes Marxists look like childish members of an immature movement.  After all, the important thing is not to interpret capitalism, but to change it.

But even at the level of pure analysis, pure "interpretation," Marx's work has proven inadequate.  It was a vast accomplishment for Marx, and for the human race, when he wrote and published Capital Volume 1, wrote most of Capital Volume 2, with notes toward Capital Volume 3 and Theories of Surplus Value.  But by the time this critique of political economy reached its audience, the economists that he was critiquing had already been surpassed by the work of the marginalist economists.  It is necessary for someone to write a new critique that analyzes and disproves the work of marginalist economics with the same patience and rigor that Marx applied to the pre-marginalist economists.  It is not enough to articulate a criticism of economic theories that were already obsolete when the criticism was published.  If it is to be taken seriously, Marxism must do more than beat a dead horse.

Incidentally, Karl Marx did at one point provide some constructive notes toward a real political program.  It's not particularly poetic, but if praxis is the measure, then the "Programme of the French Workers' Party (Parti Ouvrier)" is his most important work.  It's written in collaboration with others (Engels, Guesde, and Lafargue), and at only about a page and a half long, it raises more questions than it answers, but it's the closest thing to a standard by which any other Marxist programs should be judged.  Its very first demands are freedom of the press and freedom of association, by the way, and that's not the first time that Marx advocated hard for the freedom of the press, though perhaps here too he did not go far enough - perhaps he could have advocated even harder.  In general, we can say that Programme did not go far enough.  It is up to us to flesh out this bare-bones, sketchy, out of date set of proposals.

And by the way, the Marxist movement may abide by the prohibition on writing recipes for the cook-shops of the future, but its enemies are under no such self-imposed mental confinement.  Make no mistake: the capitalists are making plans.  When they come with their forecasts and analyses and concrete policy proposals, and you come utterly empty handed, your foolishness and lack of theoretical rigor is on display for everyone to see.  Unless and until Marxists come up with sophisticated, flexible plans for every possible contingency, they will be outsmarted by the forces of capitalism, which will outflank and co-opt every Marxist movement.  They will use a vast array of brilliant strategies to subvert worker ownership and control of the means of production, often by creating a counterfeit left that seems progressive and may even seem Marxist but which works in the interests of capital.

Which brings us to another way that Marx did not go far enough, and that was on the question of nationalism.  Here again, Marx was headed in the right direction, but did not go far enough.  He did not go far enough in his repudiation of nationalism and his adoption of a truly internationalist perspective.  

Marxism grew out of a nationalist milieu.   It is merely a legend that Friedrich List edited the Rheinische Zeitung before Marx took over as editor.  In reality, he was offered the post as editor, and apparently even accepted it, but never actually took the position due to ill health.  Still, it could be said that the Rheinische Zeitung held editorially to an essentially Listian point of view through his replacement, Gustav Höfken.  The newspaper began as an organ of  pro-government - that is to say, pro-Prussian - propaganda, in a time when many in the Rhineland chafed under the Prussian yoke.  List was probably the leading nationalist economist of his time, being the former ministerial under-secretary of Württemberg and the founder of what he called the "National System" of economics - based in part on the ideas of Alexander Hamilton (he had briefly lived in the United States) and in turn influencing Henry Clay.  He is also, in retrospect, regarded as one of the founders of the German Historical School of economics.  A more radical perspective gradually emerged as editorship of the Rheinische Zeitung passed over first to Moses Hess and then to Karl Marx, but even under Marx's brief stewardship (before the paper was censored and shut down) there were many essentially nationalist articles published in it.  And even when Marx started a new newspaper, the "Neue Rheinische Zeitung," in 1848, completely in his control, after publication of the Communist Manifesto, when Marx and Engels were more completely explicit in the leftist radicalism, Engels described the newspaper as follows:

"The political programme of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung consisted of two main points:

A single, indivisible, democratic German republic, and war with Russia, including the restoration of Poland."

In the Communist Manifesto itself, Marx and Engels are famous for declaring in its pages that "Working men have no nation," and more importantly that "The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only: 1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole."  

That sounds like a solidly internationalist message.  But then they undercut this internationalism with the brief and ambiguous statement that "The proletariat of each nation must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie."  What this means is anyone's guess, and it seems possible to interpret it in a manner consistent with internationalism, but other interpretations are possible, and in this way and many other ways Marx failed to distinguish his position clearly from that of the nationalists.

This has been an especially costly mistake for the Marxist movement.  The capitalist class has taken every advantage of this mistake to manipulate the Marxists for their own suppression.  Everywhere around the world, nationalists have been the primary enemies of Marxism, yet they are often quite clever opponents who have used the outward trappings of socialism to lure workers to crush the possibility of worker control of the means of production.  (For instance, in the United States of America in the 1890s, "Nationalist Clubs" sprouted up everywhere, mostly under the influence of the Bellamy brothers, who were Christian Socialists.  These Nationalist Clubs recited Francis Bellamy's pledge of allegiance while raising the Roman salute, later used by the Nazis.)  Nationalism has functioned as a great tool in the suppression of socialism, as a double-edged sword: on the one hand, since it looks and feels in some ways like socialism, it often proves effective in luring workers away from real socialism - and on the other hand, when workers refuse nationalism and insist upon real socialism, which is always international in scope, they can easily be branded as traitors to the nation, rounded up, and suppressed.

Everywhere in the 20th century, there were essentially nationalist movements with a slightly Marxist flavor to the rhetoric of their justifications and rationalizations.  For instance, there was the notorious Austro-Marxist movement of people like Otto Bauer, Karl Renner, Viktor Adler, and others, which sought in Bauer's words to combine Marxism with nationalism.  There was also Jozef Pilsudski in Poland, who began supposedly as some kind of socialist, but drifted quickly into a kind of strongman nationalism.  Most notoriously in Germany, the SPD and the German section of the Second International drifted from (something like) a Marxist tradition to a brazenly nationalist one, particularly in the run-up to World War I, and it was precisely Karl Kautsky's obedience to Democratic Centralism and subsequently his failure to prevent his party from voting for war credits that led to the crisis of the Second International, and subsequently, the founding of the Third.  For this, Kautsky was regarded by people like Lenin and Trotsky as a "renegade" against his own Marxist principles, in favor of a nationalist chauvinism.  (In truth, Kautsky opposed war credits, but that's a story for another time.)  Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that German Social Democrats who suddenly became nationalists could point to many passages in Marx and Engels to justify their jingoism - like Marx and Engels, after all, they sought an "indivisible" Germany and "war with Russia."  Paul Mattick went even further in this analysis and saw the rise of fascism as fulfilling the promises of late 19th century German Social Democracy.  That may be an extreme interpretation, but Mattick witnessed some of these political developments firsthand.  Of course, nearly all the national sections of the Second International - not just the Germans - suddenly became nationalists (or revealed themselves always to have been nationalists) at the outbreak of World War I.  For that matter, Lenin's own regime can be seen as an outgrowth of German nationalism and imperialism, the German imperialists having exported him to Russia in the famous "sealed train" presumably because they believed his doctrine of "revolutionary defeatism" could be useful to them in their invasion of the Russian Empire in World War I.  Lenin would go on to articulate his theory of "national self-determination," and of course, Stalin would later impose his own "socialism in one nation" - all of which were used to suppress the real movement for worker ownership and control of the means of production.  And as a result these pseudo-Marxist, actually nationalist movements popped up everywhere, with differing degrees of success, eventually resulting in, for instance, the wars between Cambodia, Vietnam, and China that occasioned Benedict Anderson's brilliant book, Imagined Communities.  And we needn't stop there - it's not hard to point out the essentially nationalistic character of, for instance, the social democracies of the 1970s in Scandinavian countries, or even Bernie Sanders's complaints about international trade.  (For more on this, see here.)

Even today, it's possible, and even likely, that you will come across people who claim to be Marxists, or something like a Marxist, who are passionately pushing for "nationalizing" this or that industry.  One even sees people today making calls to "nationalize Amazon" and similarly to nationalize what are already completely multinational, if not global, institutions - a prospect as impractical as it is reactionary, which, if anything, would likely amount to a neo-imperialist system of segregation against the people of the global South.

There's nothing wrong with patriotism, per se.  If people find some kind of comfort or pride in their own ethnic background, and tell themselves some kind of story about their ethnic origin, or fall in love with their own language, we can tolerate this just as we tolerate religion - with which it has a great deal in common.  In some ways it is a religion.  Indeed, I think it's valuable and important to preserve traditions of poetry, of dance, of food, etc., etc., especially as a globalized culture threatens to make us forget these traditions.  We can enjoy these traditions and work to preserve them in just the same way that lovers of literature and film expend enormous energy to interpret and reinterpret the fiction to which they are devoted.  But when it comes to political questions, the materialist must recognize that the very idea of a nation is nothing but an ideological illusion, and one that is invariably used to entrench existing power relations against a real movement to change them.

I think its fair to say that Marx identified - perhaps even that he was the first to identify - the ideological character of nationalism.  But this did not stop him from using the tropes of nationalism in his writings.  In his journalism, especially, it is clear that he still thought in terms of nations.  During the Crimean War, for instance, Marx and Engels wrote several articles in a fairly jingoistic pro-English militaristic tone.  Obviously, if the primary distinction of Marxists is that they bring to the front the common interests of the proletariat as a whole, independently of all nationality, then the idea of socialism in one nation is an obscenity.  But nonetheless, as much as I'd like to absolve Marx of any nationalism, it remains stubbornly true that these kind of distorters of Marx's work can cherry-pick sentences, plucked here and there, out of context, to justify their asinine ideology - and there is a great deal for them to choose from.  Leninists, for instance, like to cite Marx and Engels' writings on Poland, on Ireland, and on the Magyars of Hungary.

Or, to sum up: the Communist Manifesto identifies many early forms of socialism that are ultimately the enemy of the movement that it manifests: "feudal socialism," "bourgeois socialism," "utopian socialism," "'true' socialism," etc., etc..  To this list, one more enemy must be added, and it is the worst enemy of all: national socialism.  Nationalism is the great enemy.  Any socialism worth supporting must be utterly and totally shorn of any nationalist characteristics.

In general, we can say that one of the biggest problems with Marx's work was his failure to produce a coherent and fully worked out theory of imperialism.  There are hints that he was building towards something like this, such as the final chapter of the first volume of Capital, only a few pages long.  But this is so brief and cursory that it raises more questions than it answers, and must be counted as yet another way in which Marx did not go far enough.  

I have already pointed out that Marx rarely focused on the future, rather concentrating on his past and present.  Indeed, although his economic ideas have rarely been taken up by serious economists in the west, it is primarily in history departments that he has had a lasting impact.  But even here, his focus was quite narrow, and Eurocentric.  He can be regarded as a great expert on the history of England, and to a much lesser extent the Netherlands, from around the 15th century to the middle of the 19th.  And indeed, many of his insights into this period are quite illuminating - indeed, I think some are crucial.  But outside of this specialty, his knowledge was quite shallow.  He displays no great understanding of the history of China, or Japan, or Korea, for instance, and his understanding of the history of India is quite superficial.  In order to analyze capitalism, it is necessary to maintain a truly internationalist view, and to analyze it as a world system.  Anything less will produce a warped and confused understanding, which will be easy for reactionaries to manipulate.

This in turn brings us to areas in which, rather than saying that Marx didn't go far enough, we have to admit that he was just flat-out wrong.  Front and center in this regard is Marx's flagrant racism.  Take, for example, his letter to Engels, dated July 30th, 1862, which is both anti-Black, constantly using the n-word, and anti-Semitic:

It is now quite plain to me — as the shape of his head and the way his hair grows also testify — that he is descended from the negroes who accompanied Moses’ flight from Egypt (unless his mother or paternal grandmother interbred with a [n-word]). Now, this blend of Jewishness and Germanness, on the one hand, and basic negroid stock, on the other, must inevitably give rise to a peculiar product. The fellow’s importunity is also [n-word]-like.

Beyond this, the most glaring and obvious insufficiency in Marx's work is his failure to produce a fully worked out theory of the state.  When he originally set out to write his great masterpiece, it was to consist of six books - the first on capital, the second on landed property, the third on wage labor, the fourth on the state, the fifth on foreign trade, and the sixth on the world market.  Sadly, he failed to produce this planned great work, and most crucially that fourth book on the state.  So all we have are brief snippets, such as his confusing and woefully incomplete thoughts on the state and its relation to civil society in his brief work "On the Jewish Question."  There is very little useful to build on here, and so any movement that moves forward will have to start completely anew.  (On the other hand, it's worthwhile to think about the two most important statements in Marx's writings.)

And we can point to many other things that Marx got wrong: although he made some surprisingly feminist statements for his time, one can find sexist remarks here and there, such as when he declared that that the quality he most admired in men was "strength" and in women "weakness".  Also, there are his well-known statements that have been attacked so many times, supportive (in a complex way) of the British Raj in India.  This list of personal and theoretical failings could go on and on and on.

The best and most consequential aspect of Karl Marx's thought was his reframing of political economy on the basis of materialism - i.e., his famous "base / superstructure" model, in which the politics and the state state operate on superstructural level, and are, in the final analysis, determined by the economic base of society - the social organization of its means of production.  I still think that fruitful analytical insights can be gained by working this out.  But even here, Marx did not go far enough, because he thought that the economy was the base of society, when a more thoroughgoingly materialist investigator would have to conclude that ecology, not economy, is the base of society.  One can see that Marx was heading in this direction, particularly at the end of his life, in two ways.  First, in his analysis of commodity fetishism and his critique of political economy, one can see that it was beginning to occur to Marx that much of what is considered "economic" is superstructural and ideological.  Second, towards the end, he was becoming very interested in researching soil fertility and what he called "metabolic rift".  One can even find letters very late in his life where Engels is pushing Marx to finish writing Capital and Marx is begging for more time so that he can research these matters more.  But he never succeeded in establishing a comprehensive ecological analysis, which is a shame, because ecology is a far firmer and more reliable science than Marx's theories or indeed any economic theories, with a long history of verifiable experimental data and facts to back up its claims.  It would have made (and still can make) a far stronger foundation for radical theory than Marx's work.

I don't see Karl Marx as an evil mastermind or a poor foolish romantic ideologue, the way conservatives do.  Nor do I regard him as a prophet or an oracle, the way that some Marxists do, quoting his writings as if the fact that Marx said something makes it true.  For me, he was just a person.  I treat him as a historical figure: I contextualize him, and try to understand him, rather than focusing on judging him as a good guy or a bad guy.  And I see that he was one of many people - a wave, or several overlapping waves, of intellectuals: Schelling, Hegel, Schleiermacher, Adam Smith, James Anderson, David Ricardo, John Ramsay McCullough, William Thompson, Thomas Hodgskin, Charles Hall, Percy Ravenstone, John Gray, John Francis Bray, Francois-Noel Babeuf, J.C-L. Sismondi, Julian Harney, Auguste Comte, Robert Owen, Etienne Cabet, Charles Fourier, Albert Brisbane, Henri de Saint-Simon, Antoine Elisee Cherbulliez, David Strauss, Johann Karl Rodbertus, Friedrich List, Lorenz von Stein, Ludwig Feuerbach, Louis Blanc, Armand Barbes, August-Louis Blanqui, Eduard Gans, Pierre Joseph Proudhon, George Sand, Moses Hess, Edgar Bauer, Bruno Bauer, Heinrich Heine, Max Stirner, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Karl Grün, August Willich, Karl Schapper, Wilhelm Weitling, Georg Fein, Alexander Shimmelfennig, Joseph Weydemeyer, Hermann Kriege, Joseph Dietzgen, Mikhail Bakunin, James Guillaume, Horace Greeley, Victor Considerant, Edward Spencer Beesly, George Odger, Wilhelm Wolff, Luigi Wolff, Johann Eccarius, Ferdinand Lassalle, Philipp Mainländer, Henri Tolain, Wilhelm Liebknecht, August Bebel, César de Paepe, Victoria Woodhull, and too many more to possibly mention - a complex web of tangled influences, collaborations, rivalries, and breaks.  Really, it is a matter not of a specific list of individuals, but of a set of social movements shaped by structural forces, many of them economic.  I don't think the historical Karl Marx occupied a particularly special position in this list.  He was undoubtedly important, but not much moreso than any other of these figures.  All of them constitute a pre-scientific understanding of political economy. 

We can sum up all of this by saying that by the middle of the nineteenth century, the bourgeoisie had built up its own self-justifying mythology, complete with its own creation myths, its own paeans, its own cautionary tales, its own tradition of commentary, and so on - and it drilled these ideas into the heads of even many of the greatest scholars and teachers.  Anyone who wanted a job - and this of course included the intellectuals, writers, and so on - understood implicitly that they had to echo certain mandatory talking points, though they could be allowed a certain range of discourse within some very set margins.  Certain people of Marx's generation, including Karl Marx himself, miraculously managed, after massive arduous effort, to extricate themselves partially from this system of indoctrination, but their emancipation at the level of ideas remained at best partial - partly because they had not been emancipated in material reality.  Therefore one can still find, among them, plenty of unquestioned, reactionary ideas.  It's long past time to move beyond them.


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