What is Wrong With Marxism Today? A Polemic

“The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” – Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852)

In this post, I will attempt to identify a number of in my view underappreciated or insufficiently recognized problems in the main modes of inquiry of Marxism today – in particular in the Marxism common in Western countries, where it is dominated by the activities of academics and small party formations, sectlike or otherwise. These points cannot be but generalizations, and as the Dutch saying goes, ‘whoever fits the shoe should put it on’. Nonetheless, I hope that in discussing these issues it will open up some room for more critical reflection not just on our present conditions on the left, which is perhaps weaker than it has been at any point since the early 20th century, but also on the methods used in the process of transforming a Marxist understanding of the world into politically applicable ideas and praxis. In order to keep these as clear as possible as conceptually distinguishing closely related issues will allow, I will simply present them as a series of points.

Historiography. Marxism of course has an excellent tradition in history-writing, and Marxists have contributed immeasurably to the study of all fields of history, beginning with Marx himself. Not just economic history, but virtually all fields of historical research have been fundamentally transformed by the power of insights and approaches in one way or another derived from those introduced by Marx and Engels and their most significant students. Nonetheless, there are some serious problems in the way that a lot of Marxists deal with historical analysis, especially those who are members or exponents of particular Marxist parties and sects and thereby represent a particular ‘line’ or historical interpretation that is seen as foundational to them, one that distinguishes them from all the rest. All too often in these cases, the historical work undertaken by such Marxists may well be highly informed in terms of the breadth of reading, and may indeed be brilliant in its ability to present historical narratives in a coherent way, but fail nonetheless to live up to essential historiographical criteria.

The most common problem here is the habit of too many Marxists to use history essentially to prove political and strategic arguments that they are already committed to. Their use of history is essentially interventionist and mobilizing, rather than scientific. The purpose is not to analyse a historical problem or a question of empirical fact in order to make a scientific determination from which a political conclusion can subsequently be drawn, but rather to use historical cases to ‘prove’ the strategic line. The historical analysis itself may be very thorough, but is nonetheless vitiated by being essentially mere illustration of the preconceived strategic and political conceptions of the author, which are often not themselves justified or defended in the work. Effectively, how historical figures and their political activities are to be judged politically is confused with how these figures and their activities are to be judged historically, thereby not giving historiography its proper scientific due. History, like any scientific endeavour, has its own rules of procedure and evidence, its own agreed upon disciplinary standards which make communication and comparison of evidence and argument possible. One does not need to be a realist in the sense of philosophy of science, or believe in the hoary notion of ‘value-free scientific inquiry’, to recognize that a historical work that does not relate to its subject according to the rules of historiography is not really a historical work at all – it is a work of political polemic.

This is not to say that such political polemics and arguments cannot be useful and important. But they must be clearly presented as such, with or without the marshalling of the relevant historical cases. A historical study, too, can of course have a political purpose, for example to prove or disprove some historical question which is seen as important in an ongoing political debate or some kind of ‘war of position’. But one must be very careful here. The political purpose, such as it is, must only ever follow one step removed from the actual process of history-writing itself, or else one will, through human weakness, inevitably commit the fallacy of assuming the thing that one sets out to prove. Similarly, merely citing sources or having footnotes referring to past events and figures does not make a work a historical work. One must approach a subject with the purpose of scientific analysis first, and according to its rules. Only then, after the case is scientifically established, can one point out (or leave implicit) the political consequences that follow.

All of this may seem trivial and rather hectoring, but this principle of the right sequence – first the science as science, then the politics – is very often and very consistently violated by a great number of Marxists of past and present, most commonly in the everyday works of ‘party people’ seeking to defend their particular ‘tendency’ or ‘tradition’. In fact, this same problem occurs not just in history-writing, but to a lesser extent in other fields as well, such as in economics; it is however most prominent and most problematic, in my view, with regard to history. In all these cases, the author proceeds from the conclusions to the evidence, rather than the reverse, which is a legitimate endeavour in political argument, but not in scientific writing. This is more than a mere pedantic quibble. This has serious consequences, because if the political conclusions cannot clearly be shown to be derived from ongoing scientific inquiry, it is not clear where else they come from, and they lose their significance as examples of scientific socialism. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that for Marx and Engels, the whole purpose of their historical, economic, natural science and other scientific undertakings was precisely to allow their form of socialism to be distinguished from all the other political ideologies and currents – precisely in the idea that their politics was to be based on the real movement of events, on the actual nature of the social and natural systems in which they and we live, rather than being simply counterposed to them (which they decried as ‘utopian’).

The sect form in Marxism is not caused by this mistake, but it is much strengthened in its self-delusion precisely by the ability to sustain its particular political points d’honneur through mining world history to buttress these preconceived notions. This makes not just for poor history, but it makes for poor Marxists as well: people who know they are Marxist and that their particular ‘tendency’ of Marxism must be the right one, but do not know why. They do not know why because they do not know how the evidence for this particular tendency over and against all the others relates to the scientific knowledge of and debate about that particular subject. They must take the authority of their party leaders or their ‘ancestors’ for the correctness of their politics, and their inquiries into the evidence are in turn based on these political conclusions, leading to a circular reasoning of self-affirmation so common to the official works of the various party people. All this is totally contrary to the spirit of scientific socialism, which can only ever sustain as much socialist politics as its scientific understanding itself can, and not a iota more. Educated guesses are allowed, but we’re not in the business of church apologetics, nor of exegesis towards that end. How much stronger Marxism would be if the clear distinction between scientific analysis and political strategy were rigidly enforced! The occasion of the death of Martin Bernal, whose “Black Athena” thesis sought to prop up opposition to Eurocentrism through the strategic mobilization of the history of antiquity and its reception, provides us with the best imaginable case in point. Often, the intent is just as good as Bernal’s was. But as Marx said in a similar case: “Ignorance has never helped anybody yet!”

Analysis and strategy. This is the closely related confusion that produces problems time and again for the practical political activity of Marxists as well as for their scientific work. Too often, a confusion occurs between analysis and strategy, either by conflating them in practice or forgetting their right order. Analysis, the work of attempting to understand past and present in terms of a Marxist framework, justifies itself insofar as it allows us to grasp and formulate theories in a way that non-Marxist inquiry cannot. It is a very different beast to the everyday work of formulating political strategy. This seems obvious, but one often finds that, as described above, particular historical or empirical analysis is justified because it supports a particular political strategy or a particular political line. Similarly it is extremely common, especially within party politics, for arguments over political strategy to be fought out in historical, economic, or other scientific terms, as it were by proxy – such ‘interventions’ are often hailed as positive and strong evidence of the intellectual prowess behind a given side in the debate! Such manoeuvres are fundamentally unacceptable.

The fundamental purpose of any analysis is to understand how things actually are or were, to grasp and present them in a way that coheres with as much as possible of everything else we as humanity pretend to know about our world and express in our language with a minimum of contradiction and a maximum of practical salience. It therefore has nothing whatever to do with what we want the situation to be, or what politics at macro or micro level we consider to be the right one in a given situation. The banality of the ethical philosophers, that one cannot get an ought from an is, is trivial precisely because of its essential role in our concept of truth. Politics often makes us forget this, but to forget it is a dreadful mistake. After all, many a revolution has been lost and many a good revolutionary killed because of the inability to separate an analysis of the situation with the strategy that is to be derived from that analysis; in other words, because of the inability to understand that what we think we should do or be is not the same as what we think is actually happening or has happened. Again, the analysis in any given case must be treated as a moment of praxis in its own right, with its own rules of inquiry and its own purpose, and any political line or strategy is to be suspended until the analysis is sufficient to permit some conclusions and until the degree of probability (or plausibility) attached to those conclusions is sufficiently clear.

The latter is important, since any Marxist will claim in principle that the practical work of politics will test the correctness of their party or sect’s particular ‘line’. However, almost never is the relative substantiation, the integral connection between the different elements of that ‘line’ and the relative probability that the evidence forces that conclusion in any way made clear or even discussed as a relevant issue. Of Marxist party intellectuals one can say that, whatever they may consider themselves philosophically, in practice they tend to operate as remarkably naive realists of an empiricist bent. There is no sense that the likelihood of each element of a systematic political theory needs to be taken into account and that the plausibility of one has consequences for the plausibility of another. One will see Trotskyists assert the theoretical superiority of ‘combined and uneven development’ as a framework over ‘socialism in one country’, which they impute to their opponents, but how often does one see a discussion of exactly what evidence would sustain the theory of ‘combined and uneven development’, and how one would be able to know that it applies or does not apply in a given case?

There are infinite different sect positions on the nature of the USSR, as Marcel van der Linden has exhaustively catalogued, but nobody discusses how one would derive one or another position from the evidence before discussing the evidence itself – rather, they attempt to marshal one or another set of statistics, narratives and so forth in order to support this or that interpretation they already had from the outset. How can political practice test the theory of ‘state capitalism’ or the ‘deformed workers’ state’? The more naively realist the attitude towards them, the less the particular ‘tendency’ as a whole is able to respond to changing conditions or even convince anyone who is not already convinced of its particular dogmas. This is, again, ultimately substituting bare assertion and an astounding lack of theoretical skepticism for the mentality of scientific socialism.

The more nominalist and instrumental these terms are taken to be, however, the more they allow for modification both at the point of analysis and at the point of strategy, thereby maximizing not just the internal coherence between the two, but also a party or ‘tradition”s ability to change either of them as new scientific work is done or the political situation changes. For most parties, however, analysis is wholly conflated with strategy, and they hop back and forth from the one to the other to ‘prove’ the correctness of their approach without even considering the category mistakes involved. One may surmise that much here is the fault of the ‘interventionist’ style of theoretical argument used by the great Marxist thinkers of the 20th century, especially Lenin – one can take the entirety of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism as a classic example of what not to do in this regard. Much the same can be said in turn of the many interpretations of Lenin’s life and works, mobilized for the purposes of strategy.

One can contrast this with the approach of Marx in writing Capital: the work not only involved an extremely close and thorough reading of virtually all his predecessors in political economy, but it also contains not a single statement of political application or strategy as necessarily deriving from his theory, nor was his work an argument by proxy about what the socialist movement of his day should do, or which organization was right, or any such thing. Whereas since then, constantly strategic-political interventions masquerade as historical or scientific study, thereby conflating the two and rendering both useless. The claims to ‘testing in practice’ then become completely delusional because nobody considers how such a test could, well, test: the theories and strategies of a party are ultimately treated as identical, and therefore no event or discovery can be assessed for how it might affect the probability of either. The Marxism of these people proceeds as if the scientific concept of uncertainty is mere liberal vacillation, and theory an immediate representation of reality, without further ado. No time to theorize! We have demonstrations to go to!

Canon. This leads to the third interrelated issue: the practice of canon-mongering, again especially among the sects and ‘tendencies’ of contemporary Marxism. Most young people become Marxists in some meaningful sense of self-conception in and through joining a particular party or organization. Since it is by far the most common for them to have been leftwing in background or intuition, and to have become interested in Marxism only in order to further their understanding of what that might imply, they are usually in need of a considerable amount of theoretical learning. (Learning, in case I need to emphasize this, is of course a good thing.) This process is however generally mediated by their party or organization. Now what is very curious is that such parties and organizations almost uniformly will turn out to have a canon, a list of books or articles suitable to present to novices on any given major topic they might want to learn ‘the Marxist view’ on, and this canon is infallibly what the eager student is presented with. Each tendency, of course, has its own canon, sometimes considerably divergent ones, and it is this canon and only this canon that decides what a student will learn as the Marxist perspective on any given subject under the sun – at least any student who is not stubborn or independent enough to simply bypass their gatekeeper-mentors altogether. The various major figures in Marxist history are all incorporated or excluded from the canon according to the lights of a given tendency, and any reading or positive engagement with noncanonical sources is generally frowned upon. (I will here be accused of exaggerating – I am not exaggerating. I have seen this in many different parties with my own eyes, and honest reflection would suit better than indignant howling to remedy this.)

Of course, this is a totally ridiculous, unscientific, and besides highly manipulative approach to informing and stimulating young people interested in Marxism. The whole canonical approach serves mainly to keep information in the hands of party leaders; to limit the ‘Marxist knowledge’ on any topic to precisely those facts and views deemed suitable for the party members, and no other; to prevent difficult questions that might challenge the points d’honneur of the given party or tendency; and to provide the party members with a kind of quasi-certainty that will keep them confident of their right choice in joining this party rather than another, or none at all. It is very easy to provide examples of what I mean. In almost all parties, if one wants to know something about the history of the Soviet Union, one will be provided with the relevant canonical literature on that topic – usually something written by a present or former party leader, perhaps some primary texts by Lenin, and secondary literature about Lenin and (if they’re very intellectual in the org) something about the canonical position on what kind of society the Soviet Union was according to ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ Marxism. The same thing goes if one wants to know about China, or about race questions, about feminism, about ecology, or whatever you want, unless it’s something the party has no canon about, in which case it’s likely to be dismissed as politically a red herring anyway. This is so common a practice that in my experience it does not occur even to experienced and well-intentioned Marxists (often themselves academics or teachers) that there might be something the matter with this.

For me, observing this phenomenon alone has been sufficient to keep me out of any party whatever. This kind of manipulative gatekeeping is flagrantly in contradiction with the demands of intellectual honesty, let alone any kind of political honesty about the influence and power senior party figures can have over students and other newcomers in an organization. A scientific and honest attitude to this would be like something as follows: if a newcomer wanted to know about what ‘the Marxist view’ on the USSR is, one would answer that there isn’t one, but that there are very many such views. One could add that the majority of the party has so far drawn the conclusion that (whatever the party’s view is), and for these and these reasons, but that one shouldn’t just take their word for it. If the person in question wants to know more, one should not refer them to Lenin’s State and Revolution, or to Isaac Deutscher, or to the works of Stalin, or Tony Cliff, or to Al Szymanski’s defense of the USSR, or any such canonical work. Instead, one does the one scientific and honest thing: one refers the person in question to a few accessible and clear overviews, representing the best in (mainstream) contemporary scientific interpretations of the subject, and perhaps suggest they discuss these with others or give them ways to find more sources. Then and only then can the person judge to what extent Lenin’s arguments were correct in their own time, what evidence is and is not well-presented in Szymanski or Ticktin or Cliff, whether Stalin was a hero or a falsifier or maybe both, and what any of these things might mean for our understanding of the history of Marxism and the political consequences thereof.

The contrary approach, presenting an official canon on the subject, is doubly manipulative. First, because a newcomer has no way to judge whether the canonical secondary literature is at all honest or correct in its presentation of the subject at hand, or even whether new information has come to light since it was written, and so forth. (Often, these canons remain virtually unchanged decades at a time – itself a sign of an abjectly uncritical and unserious attitude towards the scientific demands of Marxist theorizing.) This puts them at a severe disadvantage which often translates into either further confusion or a kind of gullibility. I have often had debates with people on, say, the history of modern China, and then younger party members ‘know’ all sorts of things about China that are simply assertions or wildly misrepresent the available historical discussions and data – to which observation they reply with indignation and confusion: had they not read in the Tony Cliff book that…?

The second way it is manipulative is because of its lack of scientific seriousness. As at least the historians among the party intellectuals responsible for these canons ought to know, one cannot simply compile a list that is a mishmash of primary literature, political commentaries and polemics, interpretations for political strategy, mainstream scientific overviews, amateur histories by party members, private correspondences and so forth and then treat all of these as categorically equal and similarly valued sources for a more or less thorough understanding of the topic. They ought to know that authors, especially politicians, are rarely the best sources on their own actions and intent; that political commentaries and interpretations fall in the realm of strategy, not analysis (see above); that canonical lists that leave out any contemporary scientific discussions from outside Marxism, let alone this particular current of Marxism, are unlikely to contain sufficiently up to date empirical information and relevant research problems to understand the problematic at all; and that it is still the case that the best way to learn about any subject covered by academic work at all is to read up to date popular works or textbooks on the topic, not party polemics from the 1970s. The intellectual laziness that permits such canons to persist is unforgivable in the face of the inadequacy of these parties to their task and the inability of the contemporary left to strengthen its abysmally weak position. The canon-building could perhaps be forgiven for the 2nd or 3rd internationals, which had at least the confidence of numbers and of victories; but these canons are to us now as the proud proclamations on the statue of Ozymandias, staring over a bleak desert of political nothingness.

Package-deal Marxism. The final related point of polemic concerns what I tend to call ‘package-deal Marxism’. In a certain sense, this is the summary or result of the above three phenomena, and it pervades contemporary Marxism to an unsettling degree. What I mean by this term is the habit of treating theoretical or political issues in Marxism as if they are a matter of fandom, like the fans of different sports teams arguing against each other. At the root of each of these tendencies and currents and so forth is a particular set of theoretical positions, terminology, historical interpretation and political judgement, party building strategies, canonical literature, a catalogue of saints and sinners in the history of Marxism, and so forth. This is what defines them against the others. Now this is perhaps of itself inevitable, given how general and vague Marxist theory often is and how varied and contingent the vagaries of political and economic history. But what makes it into a serious vice is that these particular constellations of ideas are treated as package-deals: if one takes one, one must accept all the others with it.

This is of course never explicitly presented as such, and individuals in practice will always breach this rule in one subject or another. But it comes strongly to the fore in the way people operate in debates and interventions not as individuals but as representatives of their party or tendency, and in the ‘teaching’ of newly politicized people, as described above. What this means in practice is that the elements of the set are treated as if they imply each other, and a theoretical or political attack on one element is therefore treated as a theoretical or political attack on the whole set. This, in turn, leads to the kind of proxy arguments discussed earlier, in which people have historical arguments about the Spanish Civil War or agriculture in early modern England when they really intend to argue politically about the merits of anarchist strategy or the virtues and vices of the ‘Popular Front’. This can only lead to manipulative and dishonest arguments between partisans, because ceding one or another historical point then becomes ceding one or another political point, which in turn threatens to undermine the differentia specifica of the particular tendency.

The reverse also tends to operate, in that any positive conclusion, historical or political, past or present, is treated as implying any number of political and historical judgements supposedly corresponding to it. If one thinks the USSR is usefully described as state capitalist, one must also think that Stalin meant the betrayal of the revolution, and then also think that the Chinese revolution was really a peculiar kind of bourgeois revolution, and then also think that the ‘third camp’ position between Washington and Moscow was the right judgement in the Cold War. None of these positions are at all implications of each other, but this is how most Marxist debates operate. In reality, one can very well think the USSR state capitalist and also support it, or think the Chinese revolution was not based in the working class and yet a move towards socialism, or whatever. It is a fact worth repeating more often that one can, in principle, agree with every letter and word in Capital and yet be a social-democrat, or a liberal, or even a rather cynical Tory.

Conclusion: the conflation of all judgements with all the analyses that led to those judgements is not just a logical error, but just as pernicious as the conflation of analysis with strategy or the conflation of all different kinds of sources and texts into a single canon. Ultimately, all these category mistakes serve, wittingly or not, to move Marxism away from a theorizing of a possible scientific socialism. Instead, it transforms it into various collections of assertions by authorities, political polemics, arbitrary arrangements of historical research, political judgements, suggestions for contemporary strategy, sayings and quotations, secondary and tertiary exegeses of previous writings, mere sloganeering, rhetorical interventions from previous historical periods grandfathered in, ad hoc historical justifications of the twists and turns of party politics, and outright misrepresentations or lies by omission concerning historical or empirical evidence. In short, these package-deal Marxisms have about as much scientific and political status as the Dead Sea Scrolls, but lack their archaeological value.

What is needed is to think Marxism afresh. Marx himself suggested that we can “only in a revolution succeed in ridding [ourselves] of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew”. Marxism needs an intellectual revolution to this purpose, away from its traditions and tendencies, to renew the promise of scientific socialism. Scientific socialism, a term mocked and ridiculed by generations of liberal and conservative political and scientific critics, was for Marx and Engels the sine qua non of their activities. Rather than proclaim for the IWMA or any of their other political activities an indiscriminate body of political opinions and judgements that would guide them through the dark future to come, Marx and Engels sought to use the best science available in their time to understand the real movement of social and natural history and to fit their socialism to the course of events, independent of the theoretically worked out ideals of the utopian movements or the strategic concerns of the unions in this or that country. This is not to ignore the is-ought fallacy, nor their serious political commitments. Their ultimate aim was that of the last thesis on Feuerbach; but one can only change the world after the philosophers have interpreted it.

It is not a matter of teaching a canon. One must understand Marxism as a relationship between historical, economic, and political structures and changes in any class society, and therefore something that must every time be reassessed and redeveloped in the face of the unhappy generality of the social sciences and the uncertainty about the world our flesh is heir to. Marx and Engels put it best in what is perhaps still the best known text in the history of this intellectual movement: “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”


“the scientific concept of uncertainty’ So huge. A large portion of the traditions assumes ‘scientific’ means correct. Not obligated to the possibility of error and ready to change.

Yes, which in practice often means finding the struggles where they happen to turn up, instead of always waiting for them to appear where ideology tells you they should be (paraphrasing something someone wrote recently – can’t remember who).

I would strenuously disagree with the idea that “one can only change the world after the philosophers have interpreted it”, and I consider it a grievous distortion of the eleventh thesis. The philosophers belong to what Karl Rove called the “reality-based community” – the movement for communism, instead of interpreting history, will come to know itself by making it. Let the bourgeoisie interpret its own demise.

The lack of rigor you observe in really existing Marxism is a real problem, but every ill (excess) has its opposite. The opposite of package-deals and canon and sports fandom is individualist consumerism, where each Marxist tries to differentiate herself from every other with her nuanced and eclectic views. In an environment like that, you’ll see lots of people identified as Marxists but unaffiliated with any party, blogging instead of organizing. But views (no matter how nuanced) without collective action don’t change the world. Which is why the (liberal) condemnation of dogmatism needs to be tempered by, well, tolerance? Or at least an awareness that analytical rigor in itself is not a revolutionary force. If it were, the philosophers would have ushered in communism by now.

A lucid critique, and an important contribution to the effort to rethink Marxism. I just discovered your blog, and I plan to keep reading.

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