The Continuing Charm of Marx, Part 1

Materialised Alienation

[This 2007 essay of mine was first published online at State of Nature Summer 2007. Perhaps because I’ve here divided up the essay into two parts, unfortunately the endnotes have disappeared while copying into WordPress.]

The Continuing Charm of Marx

The Historical Context

One of the redeeming features of critical Marxism is the possibility of applying its own tenets to itself. It would thus be thoroughly ‘un-Marxist’ not to attempt to briefly historically contextualise any discussion of the possible continuing relevance of Marx in the 21st century.

Following Marx himself (‘je ne suis pas Marxiste’), it is first necessary to distinguish between Marx and ‘Marxism’. The latter, as an ‘ideology’ in the Marxian sense (cf. below ‘Ideology’), is well nigh dead. One seeming reason is of course the obvious fact of the global victory of privately organised capitalism since the peaceful collapse of the defunct state capitalism of the Soviet empire in 1989-91. However, Marxism was dead long before that collapse and for very good and deserved reasons.

The legacy of both Marx and Marxism (and indeed of socialism) had for too long been monopolised by ‘orthodox Marxism’ in its various irksome guises. From a strictly Marxist perspective, the latter was the ideology of a new parvenu or ‘proletarian’ ruling class in industrialising catch-up countries (especially Germany and Russia) that lacked a politically powerful bourgeoisie, the ‘classic’ agent of capitalist industrialisation. (This ideology was of course also shared by the various sympathisers with this new Soviet ruling class in other countries).

From such a rigorous Marxist perspective, ‘orthodox Marxism’ was thus essentially a primitive bourgeois ideology that historically expressed and legitimised the material interests of a new ruling class of ‘proletarian’ administrators and managers in pursuing industrial ‘primary accumulation’ – i.e. capital development via the disappropriation and proletarianisation of the peasant and small artisan classes – and the accompanying totalitarian terror while at the same time legitimising itself as a form of ‘socialism’. Finally codified by Stalin under the notorious heading of ‘Marxism-Leninism’, this ideology was initially developed by Lenin out of the orthodox Marxism of the 2nd Internationale (late Engels, Kautsky, Plekhanov). Being an ideology of a neo-bourgeois ruling class, all of its main characteristics were thus also those of the bourgeois 19th century: a pseudo-religious scientistic dogmatism, a crudely materialist positivism, a bourgeois economism and a Jacobinist statism with its emphasis on merely political revolution.

In what may, for want of a better term, be called ‘Western Marxism’ in the widest sense of the phrase, there then ensued a form of radical dissent from this orthodox Marxism of both social democratic and Bolshevik persuasion. In contrast to the latter, this revolutionary current of thought expressed the socio-cultural situation in the more advanced industrialised countries, the brief revolutionary upswing in Western Europe after 1918 (Germany, Hungary, Italy) and the wholesale defeat of the working class movements thereafter. The key representatives of this (self-)critical, revolutionary and dissenting form of Marxism were the early George Lukács, Karl Korsch and fellow council socialists like Anton Pannekoek, Otto Rühle and Paul Mattick, Frankfurt School members Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, T.W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, as well as Ernst Bloch, and, continuing in the tradition much later, the Situationist Guy Debord. Philosophically, this Western Marxism was to a large extent based on the early ‘philosophical’ Marx, on the Hegelian legacy, on the commodity fetishism chapter of Das Kapital, on the subversive implications of literary and artistic modernism and, in the case of Marcuse and Adorno, on the important contributions of Freudian psychoanalysis. Much of the following is indebted to this critical and dissenting tradition.

The Ambivalence of Marx

There is no straight developmental line from Marx to either orthodox or Western Marxism. Both orthodox and Western Marxism deviated from and were already contained in Marx himself. Like most phenomena in the known universe, Marx was ambivalent, both as a personality and within his theoretical work. His theoretical ambivalences of course also express, from a Marxian perspective, the real ambivalences of Marx’ own historical period at the industrial transition point between pre-modernity and modernity. (In a parallel way, our own theoretical and practical ambivalences may perhaps express our historical transition point between industrial modernity and post-industrial ‘post-modernity’…).

Marx as a person was apparently a heady mixture of authoritarian Robespierre and libertarian Bakunin, of poetically expansive Whitman, moral Moses and systemic absolutist Hegel. The conflicts within, and eventual demise of, the 1st Internationale predominantly centred on Marx’ undoubtedly authoritarian political style and thought. Anarchists like Proudhon and Bakunin accurately and presciently warned of the authoritarian, state socialist or ‘Prussian’ dangers contained in Marx and his political thought. Such analyses were later developed more thoroughly by representatives of the anti-authoritarian left like Rudolf Rocker and Karl Korsch who both succinctly analysed these bourgeois absolutist and Jacobin statist legacies in the thought of Marx. We remember that Marx and Engels were also apologists for British imperialist repression and exploitation in India which their linear evolutionary determinism viewed as ‘inevitable progress’ in the Hegelian vein. The brutalising, authoritarian and hierarchical factory system was also seen as a magic educational system of social cooperation and solidarity. In later texts a certain dreary (and bourgeois) economism would seem to often win out over the revolutionary and ‘romantic’ humanism of Marx’ early work. In all such less than admirable features it is possible to see the latent orthodox Marxism or ‘Marxism-Leninism’ in Marx himself.

However, Marx is not reducible to any one side of his ambivalence. The mature Marx also wrote The Civil War in France that viewed the libertarian Parisian Commune of 1871 as the new direct-democratic model for a future socialism and, looking at some of his dour adherents, noted that he himself was definitely not a ‘Marxist’. To restrict oneself to a focus on the obsolete and authoritarian elements in Marx would be to fall into the (psychologically ‘adolescent’) error of throwing out the baby of Marx himself with the bathwater of orthodox Marxism. Rather it would seem that a (‘mature’) sifting out of the obsolete and the still useful is called for, i.e. a dialectical integration of Marx into contemporary radical thought ‘on a higher level’. There would seem to be many core elements in Marx that are of great continuing relevance.

The Continuing Relevance of Marx

Despite all the well known lacunae of Marxism that cannot concern us here, I would argue that a range of at least five key Marxian notions are still of great heuristic usefulness today to anyone concerned with radical (systemic) social change: his revolutionary humanism and notion of ‘alienation’, the centrality of class, his analysis of ‘commodity fetishism’, his concept of ‘ideology’, and his systemic dialectics and historicism.

(1) Revolutionary Humanism and ‘Alienation’

From its highpoint in the 1950s and 60s, the notion of ‘alienation’ has to a large extent fallen into disuse. This may be no coincidence. The more total alienation is actually becoming in late capitalism, the less concepts seem available to understand, and thus potentially change, this fact. A revival of Marx’ concept of alienation and its revolutionary overcoming would thus still seem to be of great relevance for understanding and overcoming the ubiquitous mystifications and more complex oppressions of late capitalism.

The concept of alienation was central to the whole Marxian project of human liberation. Marx was a ‘humanist’ in the sense of a kind of thinker who puts humanity and its ongoing socio-cultural self-creation throughout history at the centre of his/her philosophy of history rather than any metaphysical beings or dimensions. Marx’ thought lies thoroughly within this secular Renaissance and Enlightenment tradition of humanism. Although it subtly defines all his works, his explicit humanism may be more clearly seen in his earlier (pre-1848) texts, especially the famous Paris Manuscripts of 1844, first published only in 1932. Strongly influenced by both the dialectical idealist Hegel and the contemporary materialist Feuerbach, Marx’ thought here revolves around his core notion of ‘human alienation’ (Entfremdung).

In the Paris Manuscripts, man is a being alienated from himself, others, nature and his true (‘species’) being (Gattungswesen). This is a result not of any ‘original sin’ or any posited anthropological and immutable ‘human condition’ (as in, for example, Heidegger’s existential ‘thrown-ess’: Geworfenheit), but is rather the result of specific historical processes, namely the wage labour and the alienated working conditions introduced by capitalism. The economic means of human material reproduction have now been inverted into ends. People no longer work to live but live to work. Dead labour (Capital) now rules over living labour and sucks it dry in order to grow vampire-like at the worker’s expense. ‘The economy’ rules society. As later further developed in Das Kapital, human social and productive relations have been separated from any natural and cultural embedding and taken on the form of things like the commodity, money and capital. Emerson well expressed this Marxian notion of socio-economic alienation and reification (Verdinglichung) in his famous dictum ‘Things are in the saddle and ride mankind’. The tail is now wagging the dog. The worker has become a powerless appendage of the factory machine, the inhuman, brutalising forms and rhythms of which are exclusively dictated not by human needs but by the inherent need of Capital to make profits and self-accumulate.

However, being historical and social in nature, this alienation can thus also be overcome by conscious historical and collective social action, i.e. by a process of social revolution that overturns the disempowerment and de-humanisation occasioned by capitalism. This is the essence of Marx’ concept of revolution, radically distinguishing it from the bourgeois (and Marxist-Leninist) concept of a merely political revolution. The revolutionary ‘expropriation of the expropriators’ becomes the inversion of the original capitalist inversion that was based on the wholesale disappropriation of the common people of their alternative means of livelihood (land and tools). Inverting the rule of the economy (Capital) over society, social revolution is thus the liberating process in which society finally gains control of the run-away economy. If, in Emerson’s dictum, things are in the saddle and ride mankind, social revolution in the Marxian sense is the process of putting mankind back into the saddle and making the economy subservient to human needs.

Marx’ original concept of revolution is thus not a power-hungry, merely political change in the state and at the top (as in bourgeois political revolutions and their continuation in social democratic Marxism, Leninism, Trotskyism and Maoism), but a deep social and empowering change in the relations of production and, flowing from there, in the human relationship to self, others, nature and polity. The goal of this social revolution is human liberation from capitalist alienation and domination in an ‘association of free producers’ democratically producing for human needs. At least for the young Marx (as for Adorno, Marcuse and Bloch), this social utopia of ‘socialism’ or ‘communism’ would also be an ecological one: it would end human alienation from nature, finally realising a true reconciliation with nature, conceived not as some primitive neo-tribalist regression but as the civilisational ‘humanisation of nature’ and ‘naturalisation of humanity’.

These notions are of great and obvious relevance in an age of run-away capital growth, the totalisation of markets and commodification, climate chaos and capital-driven ecocide.

(2) The Centrality of Class

For both good and bad reasons, the concept of class has moved away from its central place in much dissenting and radical thought. The good reasons are that traditional Marxist notions of class and class struggle seem at best antiquated and at worst simplistic, wrong or obfuscating. Many or most concrete social phenomena and problems seem to slip through the simple broad meshes of ‘class analysis’. To broadly ascribe certain forms of consciousness to specific individuals based on their supposed class is to commit a fatal ‘category error’ (that of simply identifying the two very different categories of ‘individual’ and ‘class’). To continue to make the diminishing class of manual industrial workers into the prime or one-and-only so-called ‘revolutionary subject’ of deep social change seems regressively nostalgic at best, self-debilitating and laughable at worst. In addition, both globally and within industrialised societies, class compositions, relationships and struggles have of course also very much changed and differentiated since Marx’ times. Marx’ simple base duality or binary of ‘bourgeoisie’/ruling class and the ‘proletariat’/working class would have to undergo both considerable differentiation and expansion to survive as useful tools for deep social change.

On the other hand, any radical theory that completely gives up on the notion of ruling and subservient classes, however modified, does so at its own peril. Contrary to various still prevalent ‘end of ideology’ ideologies, classes and class struggle did not suddenly and magically end around 1945-50. Never, one could in fact well argue, has there been such a clear socio-economic polarisation on such a global scale. Given the present immense concentrations and centralisations of wealth in the hands of a global ruling class and the generalisation of wage labour (i.e. ‘proletarianisation’) among billions of people, perhaps there are now really only ‘200 pharaohs and five billion slaves’ (Adrian Peacock ). Consider merely the staggering 1998 statistics of the United Nations: the three richest people in the world had assets that exceeded the combined wealth of the 48 least developed countries; the world’s richest 225 people had a combined wealth of more than $1.7 trillion which was equal to the annual income of the poorest 2.5 billion people or 47% of the world population; Microsoft owner Bill Gates, who possessed more than the combined wealth of USA’s poorest 100 million people ($ 84.7 billion), could alone afford the mere $68 billion needed to achieve and maintain universal access to basic education and health care, safe water and basic sanitation.

From a Marxian perspective, such UN figures are in fact not only stating a key facet of the general ethical indecency of the capitalist system that motivates left-wing activism but also that ‘communism’ is now, at least objectively, possible. As predicted and lauded in the Communist Manifesto (1848), capitalism has now accumulated so much incredible wealth that the fulfilment of basic material needs for all the world’s people is now possible without the necessity of wage labour (i.e. ‘communism’). A Guaranteed Minimum Income not tied to work could now be provided for all, for example. Without the structural coercion of ‘work or starve’, without the material need for wage labour, capitalism could not function as before and a key material pre-requisite for the dissolution of classes would be given.

‘All’ it would need to realise this old utopian dream of humanity would be the radical redistribution of this wealth for the common good, i.e. a power struggle by the overwhelming majority to dissolve the power of the minority over the means of production and in the process to dissolve class society, i.e. a social revolution. At this stage, however, the world’s majority ‘proletariat’ would seem far from such awareness.

One cogent argument against a facile or reductionist emphasis on class alone, however, has also been frequently made by the various adherents of ‘identity politics’. The importance of non-class factors like gender, ethnicity, culture and sexual orientation for understanding and changing socially oppressive structures has been a radical given since the 60s and 70s, and doubtless an over-focus on class can often obfuscate, distract from or gloss over such factors and their various forms of oppression. At times, such factors can undoubtedly override class factors.

However, for social change activists to throw the baby of class and class struggle out with the bathwater of dogmatic ‘workerism’ or simplistic ‘class analysis’ comes at the great price of likely delusion. Beyond all theoretical argument, the sheer empirical facts would now seem to confirm the social (and thus heuristic) ‘ultimate’ predominance of class over all other factors underpinning ‘identity politics’.

Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell and a plethora of black CEOs in the US may be taken as cases in point: neither being a female nor being black need now necessarily preclude one from becoming a member of the imperial ruling classes (nor, despite the froth of Christian fundamentalist backlash, would it any longer really matter if either of them were gay). Empirically, a black middle and upper class is no different in its material interests and prevailing aggregate consciousness to any other middle or upper class. A greater degree of civil rights for oppressed minorities as achieved in the US or South Africa will not change the class realities manifest in South Central LA or Soweto. A Nelson Mandela in power might well enable a new black bourgeoisie and middle class but will not touch the wealth and power base of the ruling classes and will symbolically bestow the highest national honours on a kleptocrat and genocidal dictator like Indonesia’s Suharto. Unlike many a white liberal, a white steel worker might in all likelihood not be surprised at any of this. He may also have a different, since openly class-based, view of collective shame or guilt about the historical legacy of black slavery:

I got no use for the black militant who’s gonna scream three hundred years of slavery to me while I’m busting my ass. You know what I mean? (Laughs.) I have one answer for that guy: go see Rockefeller. See Harriman. Don’t bother me. We’re in the same cotton field. So don’t just bug me. (Laughs.)

Similarly, mainstream feminism’s systemically naïve, class-neutral fixation on ‘gender equality’ within prevailing capitalist institutions has ‘succeeded’ to the extent that most corporate PR spokespeople are now women (perhaps because we somehow still tend to view women as more ‘sincere’) and the ubiquitous advertising image of a successful CEO now also tends to be that of a woman, preferably even of non-European background. The ‘feminism’ even within Chinese Stalinism has enabled China’s richest billionaire to be a woman, Zhang Yin, a paper recycling capitalist. Western feminism has also ‘succeeded’ to the extent that the torture and atrocities in US-occupied Iraq involved women in the immediate chain of command: from Rice at the top to Major General Barbara Fast (top intelligence officer responsible for reviewing detainee condition before release) to General Janis Karpinski (director of Abu Ghraib prison) down to the three women Lynndie England, Megan Ambuhl and Sabrina Harman of the seven soldiers actually made to carry the can and be charged with abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib. Thus, the defining criterion of ‘success’ within contemporary capitalism is not gender or race or sexual orientation but to achieve the ‘equality’ of thoroughly espousing ruling class values and mind sets.

Thus from a critical Marxist perspective, in the ‘post-modern’ age of intensified globalisation and cultural McDonaldisation, Capital has now manifestly become what it inherently always was: a powerful cosmopolitan levelling force that knows neither nation, gender nor race as a barrier to its drive to self-accumulate. As the Communist Manifesto so forcefully argued, Capital is an inherently revolutionary force that sweeps all before it, all non-monetary qualities, quirks, responses, institutions and identities are but grist for its all-levelling mill of expansion and accumulation.

The price of ignoring class and systems dominated by ruling classes can also be seen in the contradictions and weaknesses of much mainstream environmentalism. Most environmentalists, being mostly middle or upper class themselves, tend to ignore class realities. Given middle and upper class over-consumption of the planet, these might become a little embarrassing if fully acknowledged. Wealthy people’s ecological footprints are immeasurably heavier than those of the poor. Ignoring class, wealth and power, environmentalist ideology usually constructs capitalist eco-destruction not as the necessary workings of an inherently growth-oriented, unsustainable and class-based economic system but as a mere function of corporate lack of knowledge, weak state regulation, inadequate laws, a mysterious lack of ‘political will’ on the part of politicians, over-population (usually of the poor, not of the rich) or else of some nebulously anthropological or essentialist notion of ‘human greed’. Lacking any systemic and class perspective, it then becomes a mysterious puzzle (or subjectivist ‘betrayal’) as to why so-called ‘green’ politicians, even when they manage to achieve a measure of political power (like vice-president Al Gore or foreign minister Joseph Fischer in Germany), neither effect nor even seek to effect any real change whatsoever to the corporate momentum of systemic ecocide.

In this class-free ‘night in which all cows are black’ (Hegel), the agent of ecocide then usually becomes a mystically unified ‘we’. ‘We’ are destroying the planet. The powerless order-takers are suddenly as much responsible for global ecocide as are the wealthy order-givers. The unemployed mobile home dweller, factory worker or social welfare recipient is as much responsible for global destruction as is the CEO of Big Business and Big Finance. It then also becomes a puzzle as to why low-income people should seem to show such little environmental concern, eat at McDonalds, drive their proverbial old gas guzzlers and not vote Green. For the Al Gore type of environmentalist, the working poor might be advised to buy a ‘clean and green’ hybrid car or shares in a wind farm company, stick a few photovoltaic panels on the roof, buy expensive organic food and maybe take a ‘carbon neutral eco-holiday’ trekking in Nepal to view the glaciers while they are still there. Ignoring class is inevitably linked to the associated technocratic ideology of ‘technical fixes’ to socio-ecological problems. (Cf. below Ideology). Marx can provide a cogent conceptual antidote to all these short-sighted, single issue and naively non-systemic ‘green’ ideologies which provide a fashionable ‘greenwash’ for the ecocide of capitalist business-as-usual.


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on November 7, 2010.

8 Responses to “The Continuing Charm of Marx, Part 1”

  1. howdy memengineering , i comment your blog , that a nice blog and useful. Good for everyone. bulk and ideology content. i will visit to read and comment your site.

  2. Thats a really good analysis Peter. Especially the part about Marx`s concept of alienation. Nice critique on the Greens focus on green-consumerism, as well. I hope they won`t mess up in Australia like they did in Germany…

    viele liebe Grüße aus der `University of Sydney´

    • Many thanks for the commentary, much appreciated. The Australian Greens already have gone completely neoliberal like Die Gruenen did many years ago: e.g. they are the main pushers of market-based Carbon Trading schemes and ‘oekologische Modernisierung’ in Australia , together with the advanced factions of Big Business. Alles wie gehabt.

      Alles Gute an der Dresdener Uni. (Did my own Staatsexamen at Frankfurt a.M. in 1972, loved the Frankfurter Schule and was part of the ‘Spontiszene’). Peter

  3. hi I was luck to seek your theme in bing
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  4. Falling way behind here, but my question is: Is class position still determined by one’s relation to the means of production? Does owning stock or having credit change this relation and finally, what is a “middle” class? Mid-way between what and what?

    • Hi Dave. Hope you’re having a swell Montana summer (fishing guides?). Re class definitions: guess it depends on the context of who is asking, when where, why. Sociological seminar or activist engaged in participating/intervening in social struggles? For the latter purposes, I think Occupy’s ‘1%’ notion helped re-focus on essentials, despite its numerical questionability. Rather than the classical Marxist means of production criterion I’d stress the more anarchist ‘order-givers’ versus ‘order-takers’ (power) distinction as heuristically and combatitively useful, and thus the need for the ‘order-taker class’ to become autonomous, self-organize, self-manage without order-givers, especially with regard to basic economic decision-making. This is where we are always, usually vainly, trying to convince our liberal/progressive friends in the environmental etc movements to look at class and power and economic decision-making as the key system-drivers rather than politicians, parties and parliaments. Re ‘middle classes’: yep useful in terms of getting a handle on both the affluent/conservative (ex-)worker in advanced capitalism and on the ecologically important notion of the globally increasing consumer/middle classes consuming resources way beyond the earth’s carrying capacity and thus strongly co-responsible for ecocide even when they are often mostly order-takers at work.

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