Some words about the attacks upon "Marxism."

For some reason there's this great outcry among "intellectuals" about "Marxism." Jordan Peterson doesn't like "cultural Marxism," people think Black Lives Matter is Marxist, and so on. Since I don't read their stuff, I pick it up through articles in Jacobin which show up on my Facebook feed. People will cling to any sort of fancy word in an era of universal ignorance and distraction. So what if wildfires are devouring the West, hurricanes are about to sock it to the East, and everyone in government is one species or another of climate change denier (because what are they doing about it)? Omigod Marxism y'know.

There is a "Marxism" separate from anything Marx said or did. It's granted some space in Sven-Eric Liedman's biography of Karl Marx titled "A World to Win." After Marx died there was an effort to create a civic religion around Marx. Karl Kautsky and Georgi Plekhanov told us that Karl Marx had all the answers to all our questions about society. Also Lenin (aka Vladimir Ilych Ulyanov) told the world that Marx had all the answers to all our questions about society, and that was important because Lenin arranged a "revolution" (actually a coup d'etat) in Russia. And from Lenin came the Soviet Union, which became cannon fodder for the voices which today attack (for instance) Black Lives Matter as "Marxist."

This idea of Marx as having all the answers wasn't going to work forever, though; people would eventually read Marx and find out that of course Marx did not have all of the answers, and if he had had all of the answers, he wouldn't have died before publishing volumes 2 and 3 of Capital, not to mention a whole lot of the rest of his written work which never saw the light of day until decades later. So relax people. Marx was a thinker. He lived long ago, from the years 1818 to 1883. He had ideas. Whaddaya want? A god? Satan?

The article in Jacobin critiques the Yoram Hazony piece "The Challenge of Marxism," published at a libertarian-leaning Australian online magazine website called Quillette, pretty well. But at least Hazony is willing to say something about what "Marxism" is about. What he says is basically nonsense, as Matt McManus points out, because he can't do anything more than touch upon what Marx was about in a rather tangential way. There are a fair number of authors who can discuss Marx tangentially -- class struggle or something like that. The rest of them appear to think that when we discuss Marx with any degree of seriousness we're all trying to bring the Soviet Union back, and the broader the brush with which we can all be tarred, the better. Or they don't like Marxism because Marx didn't believe in God or something like that. Some of the critics of "Marxism" appear not to have read a word of Marx.

If you really want to know about Marx in larger context, read Kees van der Pijl's introductory text. I personally don't see how I could say anything about what Marx was about that van der Pijl said better in his textbook. What I'd like to suggest, though, is that this case is hard to make because American politics is an intellectual vacuum. That's how all the nonsense about "Russia" was devoured by so many people, and it's how all of Trump's nonsense became so credible in the eyes of many. Most importantly, it's how Americans are continually duped by their politicians. Once again, the bedrock truth of George Carlin:

... Good honest hard working people continue, these are people of modest means, continue to elect these rich cocksuckers who don’t give a fuck about them. They don’t give a fuck about you. They don’t give a fuck about…give a fuck about you! They don’t care about you at all, at all, at all.

"Marxism," for what it's worth, is an intrusion into this intellectual vacuum. It suggests that, once upon a time, there were people who really thought, and thought hard, about the social affairs of their day, rather than wasting their time with the sort of nonsense the mass media put out about such topics. One of those people was Karl Marx, who lived from 1818 to 1883. Marx grew up in Germany, and later moved around a bit, eventually settling in London England. Marx was a voluminous author -- the Marx-Engels Collected Works runs to fifty volumes, all at least an inch thick, some thicker. There were a lot of voluminous authors in the 19th century -- do any of you, dear readers, know anyone who has read all of the novels of Charles Dickens (1812-1870), or of Anthony Trollope (1815-1882), Marx's contemporaries? Yeah I didn't think so. People wrote a lot back then.

My own suspicion is that much of this objection to Marx is an objection to the idea that you have to think hard about social affairs before having something of importance to say about them. It's the babbling of the ignorant. Now, there are of course informed critiques of Marx and Marxism out there. Such people do not qualify for my above criticisms. Their voices, though, are not being heard or critiqued (and critique is important, otherwise we'd all be followers of Paul Johnson, and wouldn't that suck?) either.

As a writer, Marx had two key technical flaws:

1) He was a perfectionist -- nothing went out until Marx thought it was ready.

2) He suffered from ailments a fair amount of his life, and so his writings often didn't reach the state of perfection he demanded of them.

Marx's grand plan was laid out in a work, scribbled in notebooks in the years 1857 and 1858 and never released until 1939, called the "Grundrisse." "Grundrisse" means "floorplan" in German, but is often translated in this instance as "foundation." A portion of Marx's floorplan (but by no means the whole thing) was made sharp enough to be fit for publication in volume 1 of Capital. This work has Marx's basic theory of capitalism, and fundamentally it is about why exchanges that the economic thinkers of his time assumed were "equal" were not equal at all. That's what it was about. Do you see that argument discussed at length in any present-day critique of "Marxism"?

People who can't argue the substance of what is in "Capital" don't really deserve your attention when they babble about Marx. (If you're looking for a guide, by the way, there's always David Harvey's guide.)

I want to conclude with some thoughts about the "Communist Manifesto." It was a work of hubris, a long pamphlet, written by Marx with his good friend Friedrich Engels, detailing their hopes for the revolutionaries of 1848. Of course such hopes were not fulfilled. My point is that Marx and Engels were themselves revolutionaries. That's what they did, foment revolution; that's what they were. It was the 19th century. Government was openly undemocratic; people felt they had to do something, especially in places and times like Germany in 1848. Maybe if you'd lived back then you'd think that way too?

My point is that the meat of the discussion about Marx, apart from all of the disingenuousness about "Marxism," starts with volume 1 of Capital -- the one volume of Capital that Marx himself thought wise to publish -- and if you want the greater context, read the van der Pijl textbook.

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RantingRooster's picture

For over 100 hundred years the US has been bashing Marx and socialism. Very few in this world actually use their "thinking cap". Thinking through problems, such as why does capitalism create poverty, is not as "easy" as people make it out to be. Capital, answered that question and can be summed up in two words Capitalism Sucks!

People can't seem to realize that when Trump talks about Biden's "America", he is describing what is happening in our streets today, on his watch, which he helped foster! And Dog Face Pony Soldier Joe, is talking about giving the police and military more money, yeah, more police and military is what we need during a deadly pandemic.

People can't even see the cruelty of making people pay or die for medical care, even during a deadly pandemic in a country that has the highest death toll.

People think wearing a mask during a deadly pandemic is "slavery", a gross violation of their "civil rights". It's absurd!

Government officials (Lt. Gov. Dan of Texas) telling us to let grand ma and grand pa die, because, ya know, we have to save the economy.

We have a media that wouldn't know the truth if you bashed them over the head with it.

A some point, either the working class rises up and we take this shit over, or we continue the slow march to death, which is actually accelerating due to the climate & ecological crisis facing humanity.

Drinks

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"Men who look upon themselves born to reign, and others to obey, soon grow insolent; selected from the rest of mankind their minds are early poisoned by importance;" - Thomas Paine, Common Sense

Thank you for the links. We had a copy of Das Kapital in German and in English in my college library,
I found both unreadable back then. Not the ideas, the style. Perhaps I should try again.

We had a paperback copy of the Communist Manifesto as a textbook in my High school Political Science class.
I took a lot of flak for saying it was an accurate portrayal of 19th Century Capitalism even though the solutions were fatally flawed. (as a prole myself, I knew that we held no moral superiority.)
That was in 1963. We seem to have returned to 19th Century capitalism which crashed and burned in 1929 but was resurrected in 1980.

Marx did not have all the answers, as you say, but neither did Adam Smith have all the answers as the "Chicago School" and neoliberals/neocons seem to think. I really should call them neolibs because they are neolibertarians. Take libertarian ideas, fold with racism, sexism, and ageism and you have today's Democratic Party. Take libertarian ideas, fold with racism (different master race from the Dems), sexism (different superior sex from Dems), and religion and you have today's Republican Party.

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We are so screwed.

@The Voice In the Wilderness

Marx did not have all the answers, as you say, but neither did Adam Smith have all the answers as the "Chicago School" and neoliberals/neocons seem to think.

Even Adam Smith was wise enough to put caveats into his belief in free markets/capitalism

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Bob In Portland's picture

"Gee, Clem, what is Marxism?"

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@Bob In Portland
They are not into politics.

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We are so screwed.

From what I can tell, the right wingers who call people "cultural Marxists" reject class/economic analysis. The people who are called cultural Marxists seem to be heavily and solely invested in a racial and gender view of social and political structures.

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@MrWebster
No one that the right-wing accuses being the cultural marxist ever called themselves that.

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His most radical idea was to examine history through the lens of class struggle.
His economic theories come from this idea.

A couple books worth reading are The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte and The Civil War in France

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Azazello's picture

@gjohnsit
This, in my opinion, is the fatal flaw. The whole damn thing is based on a theory of history, cribbed from Hegel, that just isn't true. If it were, we would all be living in a Communist Utopia by now. History doesn't follow laws like physics, there are no Laws of History.

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It didn't have to be this way.

@Azazello
just visit "monkey island" at Brookfield zoo in Cook County Illinois.
Actually housing baboons, they exhibit all the human nature that can be expressed except for speech. Even that is sometimes apparent in loud angry screeching.

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We are so screwed.

@Azazello

If it were, we would all be living in a Communist Utopia by now.

This is where you don't do yourself any favors by not having read any Marx.
To say there is some historical time limit as a capitalist trope.

A good comparison is Kennedy's book the rise and fall of the great powers.
In the 80s he predicted that if America kept spending all of it's money on the military that eventually its empire would fall.
Conservatives say that since our empire has not fallen that Kennedy is wrong.
Obviously this is stupid.

To give you an idea of what socialists at the time actually thought try reading the Iron Heel by Jack London. The timeline in that book was north of six centuries.

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Azazello's picture

@gjohnsit
I've read the Manifesto, of course, and many other pamphlets and excerpts. I just said I hadn't read Volume 1 of Kapital.
And of course I've read The Iron Heel.
I've also read a bunch of Bolshevik history. Those guys spent the first half of the 1920s arguing about why the German proletariat had not yet risen up. After all Germany actually had a large industrial working class and a Communist vanguard party. They were perplexed. The book told them that it was due any day, the Laws of History were on their side.
Yes indeed, there haves and have-nots and there are class antagonisms in every society all throughout history. But I still maintain that there are no universal "laws" that govern human relations like the ones that govern the motions of the planets.
There are no Laws of History and to the extent that an economic ideology is based on the existence of such laws, it is flawed.

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It didn't have to be this way.

@Azazello

After all Germany actually had a large industrial working class and a Communist vanguard party. They were perplexed.

This much is true

The book told them that it was due any day

This on the other hand is not true.
Is not true in any of Marx's writings.
You may find hints of it in Lenin's writings (a communist vanguard was Lenin's thing, not Marx's). But even then there is no timeline

Yes indeed, there haves and have-nots and there are class antagonisms in every society all throughout history.

But before Marx no one tried to theorize that a main force in historical change was due to class antagonism

But I still maintain that there are no universal "laws" that govern human relations like the ones that govern the motions of the planets.

Okay I can agree with that. So would Marx

If you want to know something that Marx got wrong, something big.
It's the capitalists ability to be flexible in the face of their own demise.
In Marx's view capitalists will never bend to any demands by the workers.
Marx failed to anticipate the rise of labor union strength.
But the big one that Marx failed to predict was that capitalists would agree to share some of their wealth with the working class in response to the rise of communism in the early 20th century.
This was huge.
It gave rise to the myth that capitalism was sustainable and that the working class could get a fair deal in a capitalist society.

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@Azazello
It got crushed by the Weimar Republic when they finally got the funds together to send an army into Bavaria.

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We are so screwed.

Cassiodorus's picture

@Azazello It doesn't quite show up in that form in volume 3 of Capital. Of course, Marx had to die before volume 3 of Capital could be put out, and so what we have is this intermediate draft put together by Friedrich Engels from notes Marx left lying around.

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"Faith in philosophy means the refusal to permit fear to stunt in any way one's capacity to think." -- Max Horkheimer

Azazello's picture

I'm afraid to. It seems that once a person has forced themselves to wade through that dense prose, they form an emotional attachment to it in proportion with their self-induced suffering. They begin to believe in Marx the philosopher, Marx the economist, Marx the prophet. Some even regard Marx as a sort of Nostradamus who predicted all of our current problems and gave us the solutions.
It's there for all to see, if only we would read Volume 1.
My own view is similar to that of John Maynard Keynes:

My feelings about Das Kapital are the same as my feeling about the Koran. I know that it is historically important and I know that many people, not all of whom are idiots, find it a sort of Rock of Ages and containing inspiration. Yet when I look into it, it is to me inexplicable that it can have this effect. Its dreary, out-of-date, academic contraversialising seems so extraordinarily unsuitable as material for the purpose. But then, as I have said, I feel just the same about the Koran. How could either of these books carry fire and sword round half the world ? It beats me. Clearly there is some defect in my understanding … whatever the sociological value of [Marx’s Das Kapital], I am sure that its contemporary economic value (apart from occasional but inconstructive and discontinuous flashes of insight) is nil.

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It didn't have to be this way.

Cassiodorus's picture

@Azazello And, like I said, there are David Harvey's explanations, which I posted as a link in the diary.

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"Faith in philosophy means the refusal to permit fear to stunt in any way one's capacity to think." -- Max Horkheimer

@Azazello

I'm afraid to.

If you are afraid of being exposed to different ideas then that is your burden to bear.
Personally even though I lean toward Marx, I've read Adam Smith, Henry George, David Ricardo, and Keynes.
That Keynes finds no value in Das Kapital does not reflect well on him. A lot of capitalists economists still manage to find value in Marx's writings

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@Azazello

Made it through the first hundred pages or so of Volume I, myself - and while there is some there there... IMHO, you're right - life is too short, given the myriad alternatives.

Perhaps some Kropotkin? "Fields, Factories and Workshops" or "Mutual Aid"?

Thomas Paine? "Age of Reason", "Rights of Man"...?

or this.. "None Dare Call it Conspiracy" published the year I graduated HS - I seriously regret not having bothered to pick it up until more than forty years later - bonus points for identifying its connection to William Jefferson Clinton.

"People who talk incessantly about "change" are often dogmatically set in their ways. They want to change other people."

~ Thomas Sowell

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@Blue Republic

bonus points for identifying its connection to William Jefferson Clinton.
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We are so screwed.

@The Voice In the Wilderness

"China connection?"

Well, no - although the Clintons seem to have plenty of those.

What it is - and of course this *could* be be pure coincidence, is that Professor Carroll Quigley of Georgetown U. and his work gets considerable attention in None Dare for acknowledging that an elite secretive group has been involved in behind the scenes manipulation of global affairs, that Quigley had connections with the group and was given access to its confidential history and that he was supportive of the group's aims.

And, as it turns out:

Clinton was a student of Quigley's in 1965 or thereabouts and got high marks in what was a notoriously tough course - I've heard Quigley described as Clinton's mentor, but it's not clear the relationship was that close, Clinton has cited Quigley as an influence on multiple occasions, though - including in his 1992 DNC acceptance speech.

I'm guessing once Bill figured out there were wealthy powerful cabals covertly manipulating global affairs he determined to do whatever it took to join up, or at least be in their good graces...

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@Blue Republic

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We are so screwed.

if their leaders didn't openly proclaim themselves to *be* "trained Marxists"...

For some reason there's this great outcry among "intellectuals" about "Marxism." Jordan Peterson doesn't like "cultural Marxism," people think Black Lives Matter is Marxist, and so on.

Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors said in a newly surfaced video from 2015 that she and her fellow organizers are “trained Marxists” – making clear their movement’s ideological foundation, according to a report.

Cullors, 36, was the protégé of Eric Mann, former agitator of the Weather Underground domestic terror organization, and spent years absorbing the Marxist-Leninist ideology that shaped her worldview, Breitbart News reported.

“The first thing, I think, is that we actually do have an ideological frame. Myself and Alicia in particular are trained organizers,” she said, referring to BLM co-founder Alicia Garza.

“We are trained Marxists. We are super-versed on, sort of, ideological theories. And I think that what we really tried to do is build a movement that could be utilized by many, many black folk,” Cullors added in the interview with Jared Ball of The Real News Network.

source

"I'm so old that I can remember when most of the people promoting race hate were white."
~ Thomas Sowell

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Cassiodorus's picture

@Blue Republic The problem here lies with the audience for such remarks, who did not bother to find out what "Marxism" was.

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"Faith in philosophy means the refusal to permit fear to stunt in any way one's capacity to think." -- Max Horkheimer