November 27, 2013
This is an article of mine published on The North Star.
There is a certain depressing circularity about certain arguments on the left. Those having to do with what is often termed ‘identity politics’, more particularly when expressed in the language of privilege (or lack thereof), tend to divide into two mutually hostile camps. For the one, privilege is the bread and butter of critical analysis, and what could be called traditional Marxism has been replaced, or at least complemented, by a perspective based in the body of critical theory on identity, discourse, and the concept of privilege. These arose out of a certain meeting between attempts to theorize the intersectionality of oppression – initially mainly race and gender, but later extended to many other subjects – on the one hand, and on the other the political critique of discourse and discourse analysis of French poststructuralism. Here, privilege often becomes the key concept binding together the experience of individuals and the discourses and structural forces that determine these experiences. Building on some feminist critiques of Marxism, this ‘privilegetalk’ could be read as an attempt to overcome the dichotomy between exploitation and oppression in the traditional Marxist approach and to integrate this with the tools and mentality of ‘critical theory’ and discourse analysis (including those of largely anti-Marxist thinkers such as Foucault and Derrida).
In the other camp are those for whom the above is anathema, and who insist on the clear separation between class and all other identities, or even reject reading class as an identity at all. Here, exploitation and oppression are either systematically distinguished – as in more classic Marxist views – or are seen as varieties of working class experience. In the latter case, the class relationship is nonetheless still seen as central. What distinguishes this camp is its dislike of any talk of identity, privilege, or similar terms at all. Where the first decry the economism of the second, the latter fire back with equal vehemence against the idealism or liberal individualism of their opponents. For the former, identities; for the latter, the working class – this is how the distinction is often presented by the partisans of this view. And never the twain shall meet.
Of course, this is a crude caricature, and in reality there are a great number of diverse positions on both sides, making the camps as I have portrayed them more akin to a family resemblance or ideal type than a true description. Nonetheless, the crude arguments it produces are sadly all too frequent. One problem here is a sense of essentialism pervasive to both: either essentializing identity and experience into tokenism and purely psychological struggle, or essentializing the ‘true working class’ as an undifferentiated agent whose exploitation is more ‘real’ than any mere oppressions of the marginal could ever be. To my mind this is completely unnecessary, given that both views can perhaps be bypassed by creative application of the insights of the Marxist feminism associated with the ‘social reproduction perspective’. But perhaps at least as importantly it seems fruitless because the relevant insights both of the Marxist theory of exploitation and of its ‘critical critics’ should be carefully unpacked, not lumped together in these great opposing forces that they have increasingly become. As I have argued in other contexts, to distinguish analysis and strategy is essential here. Within what is crudely called ‘identity politics’, there are many different views and positions, and so there are within the actual social groups in question, whether within the working class or among certain genders or races or what have you. It is exactly the unwillingness to engage the arguments in their own right, rather than the mutual fight against straw opponents, that is so annoying about this whole discussion.
Entering the Vampires’ Castle
It is here that I want to focus on a critical reading of Mark Fisher’s article in The North Star entitled “Exiting the Vampire Castle“. Though written in a UK context – where those who criticized celebrity comedian Russell Brand for his sexism after he called for revolution in a political interview with Jeremy Paxman drew Fisher’s ire – it is clearly intended for more general consumption. The argument of the article is depressingly familiar: Fisher illustrates all the errors of the second camp, which is precisely why it is worth examining. Though it is too long for a complete close reading, some important elements stand out. Firstly, Fisher accuses the British left, especially on Twitter, of a certain miserablism: “an atmosphere of snarky resentment”, in which the calling out of individuals is more important than establishing some popularity for left-wing ideas. Here, he calls on the frequent left criticisms of Owen Jones, as well as the tendency for the radical left (outside Counterfire c.s. at least) to dismiss the People’s Assemblies as yet another top-down adventure in entryism from a Trot sect. Then, Fisher goes on to defend Russell Brand, whom he insists is precisely so worth defending because he defended leftism on public television while being working class in background, and moreover did so with humor and verve, something the left profoundly lacks. This all forms the leadin: the main section of the article is to describe the two “libidinal-discursive configurations which have brought this situation about”. Those are, in order, the Vampires’ Castle (plural this time) and the anarchist tendencies of the UK left.
The latter is easily described: for Brand this is simply the rejection of united or popular fronts, those shibboleths of Trotskyist organizing, and the equal rejection of Labour Party support or attempts at ‘reclaiming Labour’ through one or another form of entryism (we can put Jones in this category). For Fisher, “there’s a strange implicit rule here: it’s OK to protest against what parliament has done, but it’s not alright to enter into parliament or the mass media to attempt to engineer change from there.” This he decries as an anarchism that will render the left irrelevant. But more important is the analogy of the Vampires’ Castle. This occult phenomenon is his favored phrase for a series of sweeping generalizations about what is clearly identifiable as the first camp of the polarization of the left described above. The Vampires’ Castle, Fisher tells us, “individualize and privatize everything”. They make humour impossible, seek to create guilt everywhere, and most of all essentialize the enemy, which is to say their opponents on the left. And here’s the kicker: they do all this as a strategy to pass themselves of as left-wing, when they are in reality liberals, and of an “invariably wealthy, privileged or bourgeois-assimilationist background” at that. Sounds terrible, no? Time someone went in with a stake!
Des Pudels Kern
Unfortunately, not a single one of these arguments is persuasive, and quite a few are downright unfair or absurd. Let us therefore enter Fisher’s Vampire Castle, stake and garlic in hand, and see what monsters we encounter there. Some may be oddly familiar to us – especially those who look at the castle from the viewpoint of the introduction above. In the entrance hall, things are still going well. It is certainly true that – both online and offline – the radical left has long been characterized by a venomous atmosphere, in particular a refusal of any charity of reading or interpretation to those deemed oppositional or those that have previously caused offense, and good faith efforts are not much rewarded and therefore rarely in evidence. Sometimes, this leads to incredibly vindictive, personalized, and emotional disputation that does little good to solving any problems or advancing any cause, but does cause much more hurt and isolation than was already present at the start.
Nonetheless, this observation is somewhat covered in cobwebs, like an old suit of mail opposite the central staircase. It must be treated with charity in its own right. The internet, which combines a very direct and personal means of communication with a very limited possibility of nuance, body language, and context, contributes much to this problem. But even offline, the often hostile atmosphere is at least in part caused by the very importance of the politics themselves to those involved in them. One of the classic arguments of the privilege-talkers is precisely that it is much harder to abstract or disengage from arguments when your wellbeing, your sense of dignity, or your very life may be at stake in the outcome of a particular political dispute. Under such conditions, it is very difficult (though not impossible) to not take it personally. Here, the personal is indeed political. If this attitude is to be criticized, it can’t be for stating this obvious reality – at most that it sometimes overlooks that if the personal is political, that is not necessarily a good thing, and making the political as personal as possible is not necessarily the right response.
When we press onward, however, we soon start running into the occult obstacles Fisher’s castle presents to us. The hagiographical treatment of the likes of Owen Jones and Russell Brand looms at us, like the remarkably large shadow cast over the balustrade by a remarkably small cat. Why should we think that Jones is “most responsible for raising class consciousness in the UK in the last few years”? I am not as hostile to him as some of the UK radical left perhaps is, but I doubt even Owen himself would recognize himself in this description. Class consciousness is, after all, by definition a collective and a political process of self-awareness and self-mobilization – not something brought about by a well-meaning individual with a column in the Independent. Indeed, Owen may have helped some to raise morale, by making the hegemony of neoliberal ideas seem less complete, but that is not the same thing as the political becoming of a class.
The same can be said for Russell Brand. Perhaps his interview with Paxman was an unusually left-wing discourse for the staid political television of Britain. But there is no reason why this should mean his gratuitous sexism should be accepted, nor does the working class of the UK really need Russell Brand to tell them that they exist, or to provide them with left-Labour banalities that inequality is too large or that revolution would be a nice idea, in the abstract. If Fisher thinks that this is both necessary and sufficient for class consciousness, so “fragile and fleeting” it needs comedians on Jeremy Paxman’s show to sustain it, he has a much lower idea of the working class’ intellectual capacities than do his vampiric opponents. (The People’s Assembly I won’t even bother dealing with – it is in our terms like the papier-mâché skeleton made by a primary schooler menacing in the wardrobe: irrelevant, incapable of frightening anyone, and easily disposed of.)
Let us ignore such small scares and proceed into the very inner chambers, where Fisher’s ‘laws of the Vampires’ Castle’ await us. Fisher’s first claim is that the politics of privilege, which is clearly the vampires’ life-blood (or unlife-blood?), is not a legitimate expression of the struggles of the oppressed, but a bourgeois-liberal perversion of them. Indeed, the theme of perversion can never be far off where vampires are present, and if this is so, then the Twitter left appears as a veritable Boris Karloff of repressed gothic sensuality. The argument nonetheless follows some lines as ancient as the castle itself: “rather than seeking a world in which everyone achieves freedom from identitarian classification, the Vampires’ Castle seeks to corral people back into identi-camps, where they are forever defined in the terms set by dominant power, crippled by self-consciousness and isolated by a logic of solipsism which insists that we cannot understand one another unless we belong to the same identity group.” Now here I think Fisher does have one point: I have long been skeptical of the assumption of some (not all) writers on privilege that it is impossible to relate to others unless one shares their same identity and experiences. If this were true, then indeed nobody would be able to ‘speak to’ the issues of anyone else at all, to use this jargon; the reality would be that, due to the irreducability of human diversity, all political solidarity and indeed all communication would be impossible. This is perhaps a reductio ad absurdum, but some of the stronger versions of this argument are not far off, and I share with Fisher a hostility both to the implicit misanthropy and the political implications of this argument.
Some of Fisher’s points are not uninteresting, and could lead to some more exciting directions: less explored wings of the building. One thing he points to is the conflation on the part of some privilege-talkers of the act of (say) homophobia and being a homophobe. Now this is a double-edged sword, to remain in the sphere of the gothic, as it is often used as an excuse by those who both are and do to avoid the consequences of their attitude. But among radical activists it has also been remarked that this conflation can be quite unhelpful, precisely because it is an example of a false essentialism that the politics of identity was – at least in some versions – intended to undermine. If you call someone a homophobe, they are in a sense forever branded, and yet no alternative is concretely offered. Whereas calling an act or a statement homophobic allows for correction and change, and it is therefore at the least more strategically constructive in those cases where there is no need to move from the one to the other. Indeed, some would abuse the charity and good faith offered to them in this case, and there are many who lack the self-reflection to merit it. But it is a good policy, in my opinion, to err towards giving someone you criticize a way to correct themselves. The cultural repertoire of shame, dignity, and standing can so effectively be mobilized positively, rather than – as is now often the case – being a one-way street in a direction against the oppressed. This is something that calls for a case-by-case examination, and people’s character and circumstances will differ sufficiently that attempting any general rule would be unwise. At most, here one could invoke once more the benefits as well as moral discipline of charity of interpretation, and to give people a certain leeway (but hardly an unlimited one) in phrasing things the way they see it.
But that is not to say that the argument as Fisher poses it is much better. It is simply not true that the ‘identitarians’ try to keep people in their identities. There is always a risk of essentializing, and indeed tokenism is not unusual, strongly reinforced by this notion that you can only talk on topic X if previously approved by the representatives of topic X, those who share a politically mobilized identity on that basis. But even in such cases the purpose is to overcome oppression, not to maintain it, and the voicing through identity and the policing of its boundaries comes from a need to protect the humans that are ‘carriers’ of these identities in the post-structuralist sense. However flawed in individual cases the strategy and assumptions about human communication may be (and more on those below), protect the humans from oppression is not at all the same intent as to protect the identities themselves from emancipation or change, and Fisher’s conflation of the two does a great injustice to – and is in fact very uncharitable towards – those he aims his barbs at.
The same thing is true when we encounter the first vampiric lackeys of the master vampire, the lord of the castle. This lord, it turns out halfway our adventure, is in reality academia and the bourgeoisie in general. Fisher suggests his privilege-talking opponents are either wilfully accumulating ‘academic capital’, or are simply deluded by those that are doing so. But here he reveals one major mistake in his thought, when he writes: “The VC, as dupe-servants of the ruling class, does the opposite: it pays lip service to ‘solidarity’ and ‘collectivity’, while always acting as if the individualist categories imposed by power really hold.” But this is precisely the fundamental insight that the first camp has and the second camp lacks – namely that however much one may wish it otherwise, these individualist categories imposed by power do really hold. If Fisher at all understood the subject he was talking about, he would realize that those identities are not like a cloak that one dons at will, but like the very skin branded black or white, male or female, gay or straight and so forth.
This is why, ad nauseam, so much of the writing of poststructural and feminist theory has been about the body, its sufferings, and its agencies: because the adscription of identity is as much something one undergoes as it is something one does to oneself. Fisher in fact has already implicitly acknowledged this when he points out he is prone to forgetting he is male and white as ‘identities’: it is precisely this forgetting that the oppressed identities can never do, and that is what makes these identities salient in a political sense. If indeed the discourse of identity is the lackey of the bourgeoisie, it is not because of its self-awareness, but rather because it is simply a consequence of the reality of capitalist society. Its self-awareness, even when wrongly expressed, is a potent weapon against the invisibility of some forms of the reproduction and rule of this society – and thereby a weapon, however blunt at times, against the true lord of the castle.
The Vampire Is In Another Castle
What remains so curious about Fisher’s whole gothic structure is nonetheless how inadequate it is to its subject. He accuses his opponents, without otherwise naming or identifying them, of being bourgeois, academic, posh, and privileged – yet he is by his own acknowledgement a white male academic and a commissioning editor at a left-wing vanity press. If he therefore does not recognize himself in this image, it must be because, like the vampire, he has no reflection… Similarly, his chatter about ‘witch-hunts’ maintains his sense of victimhood. But aside from being a rather inappropriate historical analogy, given the witch-hunts were systematic cases of the reassertion of patriarchy and religious order and mostly against women, it is difficult to sustain this reasoning when Fisher can’t give any real examples of the power of his opponents or of his own suffering at their hands. It seems he certainly has major disagreements with their interpretation of social structure and discourse, and also with the political strategies some on the left draw out of these. This is legitimate, and should remain legitimate: nothing is free from criticism, and that includes the language and politics of privilege.
But sadly, while an interesting argument could be had about these (and has been had many times before, not least among the ‘identitarians’), Fisher does not engage in this. Rather, he throws the whole of M.R. James at his opponents in an attempt to depict them as terrors of the night. The effect is akin to the puppeteer holding the bogeyman doll in front of us. It assumes we are children, both in thinking we cannot see that he is really moving the bogeyman about, and in assuming we would be scared of it. This is a shame, because it is perhaps overdue that the various camps of the left talk to each other seriously and productively about the problems of communication that must be overcome if solidarity is to work practically between its various sections.
Finally, before we exit the castle in despondence at the lack of action – the villagers so promised us we would find monsters! – something must be said about the gothic imagery itself. It is striking how badly Fisher’s vampiric metaphor fails. But what is interesting is not that it does so, but how it does so. Fisher’s image of the Vampires’ Castle fails in two ways. Firstly, because he wishes to ascribe laws to this castle. But laws of a castle are laws that hold within the castle, or insofar as the inhabitants of the castle can enforce them beyond the walls. Fisher has no desire to go into the castle, that much he makes clear, but he does not tell us what powers of enforcement it has, beyond criticizing celebrities and creating a bad atmosphere on Twitter. Now I say this not quite jokingly – I have personally witnessed various occasions in which both online and offline the use of privilege-talk played a major role in causing enormous personalized conflicts between participants and activists who had otherwise (and also afterwards) been able to communicate productively even where disagreement could be considerable. This question of atmosphere is a practical one, not just a matter of whining about how mean it is to say bad things to a university professor. But if the exact dynamics cannot be clarified, and if it cannot be explained what in talking about oppression in a particular way causes unnecessary strife – as opposed to justified oppositions to bigotry – then the problem is not addressed. Fisher’s blanket dismissals and empty workerism do not solve this problem at all, as a rudimentary knowledge of social reproduction theory or writing on intersectionality could have made obvious.
This is compounded by the second way Fisher’s metaphor fails: namely, in the vampiric. Vampires presuppose that vampirism is going on, in other words, that one feeds off another’s life-blood in some way. But Fisher’s vampires are posh, they accumulate academic capital, they are lackeys, they produce guilt, they do all sorts of things; but suck blood they do not. And this is not a simple flawed analogy. What it reveals is that underlying Fisher’s argument is a deeper sense in which he implies that there exists a kind of hidden establishment that leeches off the real or legitimate left by ‘perverting’ or perhaps diverting its processes of class activism and class consciousness. Precisely by ascribing to his opponents all sorts of bad identities, he engages in identity politics in his own right – such as calling them posh, or their views alternately bourgeois and petty-bourgeois. His workerism, too, is essentially identitarian. So the talk of identity itself cannot be the problem. Rather, it is this sense of a hidden parasitic establishment that pervades his writing, and gives it its creepy atmosphere. Fisher refuses to tell us who They are, rather producing his gothic imagery as a way of cloaking the They in a convenient manner. But this is both dishonest and sinister. If one were as inclined to guilt by association as Fisher, one need but look at the similarities between this style of caricature and those of the ‘neo-reactionaries’ and their Cathedral, or the mysterious all-swallowing dark Other in the racial/orientalist tropes of Conrad or Lovecraft – both of which in turn owe much to simple anti-semitism.
If one may use one gothic novel against another, where Fisher thinks he is writing Dracula, he is actually writing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The Dr. Jekyll of our story is Mark Fisher who wants to protect the left from the anarcho-bourgeois individualism, misanthropy, and strategic self-destruction. I have many disagreements with him, and some minor points of agreement. More generally, there is an argument there that is worth engaging with, although it needs serious reformulation on the basis of a more serious inquiry into the theory underlying the narratives of privilege and identity, something that far too many critics (again, rather uncharitably) neglect to do. However, there is also a Mr. Hyde in this story. This Fisher is a disturbing figure, one who inhabits a castle of his own and sallies forth against all who rebel by branding them vampires and traitors – indeed shades of witch-hunting, but with himself as the knight inquisitor. As in Stevenson’s story, this is probably not how Jekyll-Fisher intends it; it is rather that the Mr. Hydes both inside and outside the left find this more amenable – being able to depict all those who talk about identity, privilege and so forth as merely bourgeois saboteurs attempting to divide the left, when quite the opposite is the case. Here, Jekyll-Fisher should restrain the Hyde within him.
What I would recommend Fisher is to do some reading. Firstly, to read some of the writings on intersectionality, privilege, social reproduction Marxism, and so forth, much of which rightly or wrongly serves as the main inspirations for those people he so stridently dismisses, and of whose arguments he understands little. Secondly, he should read David McNally’s excellent Monsters of the Market. From that, he can learn how a gothic Marxism is properly employed, free from the crypto-fascist undertones of his current moral imagination. The vampire, he will learn from McNally, are not the ‘identitarians’, but it is capital itself, and if the working class has a gothic referent, it is in the figure of the zombie, labouring without will or direction at the behest of others. The zombie, which must be brought back to a state of real life or be destroyed, confronts us with the real choices involved in class consciousness: much as I dislike that phrase, the consciousness of a class always already constituted by race, gender, sexuality, and so forth. Without this awareness, any cure for the problems Fisher poses will be worse than the disease.
And the same applies not just to Fisher, but to many who would criticize without the burden of due care to understand their opponents. Indeed, it is telling that neither of the two camps involved can grant the other understanding or charity in the least, while both are always ready to demand it for themselves. I suspect this is the result of both positing a false universality: either a negative universality, a rejection of the universal based on irreconcilable difference of lived discourse and identity, or a false positive universality based on the super-emergence of the subjectivity of the working class above all forms of life. I will not elaborate further on that here, as that requires its own treatment. But if we are to overcome the hostilities and the circular firing squads of the left, online or offline, a good starting point is in our common desire to acquire a real knowledge of the other – where this desire exists, misanthropy cannot. That is the first law of gothic politics. De te fabula narratur!
October 31, 2013
Fortunes of Feminism is in first instance primarily a collection of powerful essays in critical theory by the feminist thinker Nancy Fraser – currently professor of Political and Social Science and also of Philosophy at The New School in New York. However, there is more to it than merely a collection of the usual kind, often titled something like ‘philosophical papers’, that simply intends to gather a philosopher’s most influential or representative articles over the course of a lifetime’s work. Rather, both the topic of the essays and their organization are themselves reflective. On the one hand, as we move from the earliest essays – written in the mid-1980s – to the more contemporary ones, we follow the development of Nancy Fraser’s own thought. This ranges from early feminist engagements with the thought and legacy of the Frankfurt School to the debates with, and incorporation of, the work of some of the major ‘poststructuralist’ thinkers such as Michel Foucault and Judith Butler. This culminates in an attempt to overcome their aporias through a move towards the mobilization of economic theory for new considerations of ‘the social’ and its defense. Read the rest of this entry »
October 2, 2013
The tradition of the dead generations
What is the real Marxist tradition? This is one of the seemingly big questions that causes endless argument among Marxists, usually creating more heat than light. Especially certain ‘tendencies’ or ‘traditions’ of Marxism, often ones who identify themselves in those terms and are associated with particular sect-parties, are keen to separate their own Marxism from all the others by a process akin to product differentiation. If one were cynical, one might venture that the main purpose of such activity is to stake a claim to a particular territory of ideas within Marxism, preferably one that sounds impeccably orthodox while not yet claimed by others, and in so doing to capture the few students and union members that, at least in Western countries, wander into such a wilderness every now and then. But one could also read it more charitably: no doubt for many of the intellectuals engaged in such questions on behalf of this or that micro-party it is a real question of the life or death of the organization whether their programmes and organizational rules accord with their view of the real Marxist tradition, whether or not this might require some ‘retcon’ operations to make it so.
I’ve written plenty previously about my objections to the sect form and the sects’ obsessions with organization, as well as their failure to analytically separate strategy and theory. That is not what I will do here. What I will do instead is focus more on one specific way the sects mobilize theory in dishonest and self-serving ways. One of the most important, or at least pervasive, of these is the talk of real and false Marxist ‘traditions’, and indeed to think of Marxism in terms of a ‘tradition’ or set of traditions. This is the stock in trade of many of the sects and a major intellectual component of the institutional and strategic conservatism of virtually all of them. With traditions, inevitably, comes traditionalism: the notion that the main task of the revolutionary organization is to separate the real tradition from the heretics, the pedlars of false prophecies, that will lead the sheep astray, and to defend this tradition and ‘win the argument’ (or worse, the ‘line struggle’) for this tradition against all comers.
Of course, one could argue that this is a necessary evil in a certain sense. Does not everyone seek to defend as orthodoxy that which they think is true? It is no more inherently invalid to defend something seen as orthodox than to defend something because it is heterodox, and indeed it is no worse to defend whole, coherent theories (‘world outlooks’) than piecemeal, ad hoc propositions about the world. I want to emphasize this: grand narratives are no more inherently invalid than petty narratives, certainly not for being ambitious, and equally it is not wrong to insist on theoretical coherence and precision and to reject ‘eclecticism’. In fact, the latter is often more intellectually honest if done in a spirit of constant self-improvement. But equally, it can sustain one indefinitely in stale orthodoxy that is defended for the sake of being orthodox, and this is what the talk of traditions in Marxism more often than not leads to (and no doubt, in other political schools as well – as demonstrated by a Lewis or a Chesterton).
It is therefore not to violate Mao’s fifth stricture against liberalism, to seek a personal quarrel, that I pick on comrade John Molyneux in this article, but because I happened across his booklet and it serves as such an excellent example of the poverty of argument and above all of critical spirit towards one’s own position that characterizes the tradition-mongerers. One wonders when the word ‘tradition’, or its counterpart in opposing ‘revisionism’, became such a positive term in the history of an intellectual movement dedicated to the “ruthless critique of all that exists” and a political movement that “is the real movement that abolishes the present state of affairs”. Whatever it was, I suspect it was a mistake, and the occasional invocation of Engels’ argument that Marxism is not a dogma, but a guide to action is not sufficient to make it so – that has to be proven by the arguments used and the spirit of critical thought, not just asserted. Again, this is not because whatever the orthodox view is is necessarily wrong. On the contrary, I find myself often in agreement with precisely those ideas in Marxism or those Marxist thinkers long derided by the sophisticated as dogmatic and orthodox – insisting on the absolute necessity of Marx’s theory of value, for example, or seeing much merit in the historical ideas of G.V. Plekhanov. But they are no more right because they are orthodox than they are wrong because they are, and talk of traditions encourages such thought.
The other thing about the question of the ‘real Marxist tradition’ is the notion of separating the wheat from the chaff, the sheep from the goats. One of Marxism’s greatest strengths, it has always seemed to me, is that it is self-reflective. Unlike liberal or conservative thought in most cases, it can justify and explain its own existence as a historical phenomenon. For historical materialist thought and especially the Marxist kind, it is no surprise that Marxism came together out of its famous three components in the mid-19th century when it did: the rise of the industrial working class, the internationalism of the first great industrial globalization period, the intellectual legacy of left-Hegelianism and of the utopianism about the working class derived from Enlightenment critiques, the apogee of classical economic theory with its strengths and limitations in value theory, and so forth – it has taken many Kolakowskis worth of writing to explain it, but it clearly can be done in fully internally consistent terms. Whereas the Whig-liberal tradition, for example, has never been able to get quite beyond the notion that its concept of freedom was always a normative presence in history and for contingent reasons, whether to do with human frailty or with the pervasiveness of market failure, simply failed to emerge in most of history, and now has. It can only take an Archimedean point outside history and judge historical progress by this ahistorical standard.
Unfortunately, too much of Marxist writing coming out of the tradition-mongerers does just that and thereby weakens, to my mind, Marxism at an important strong point. It is understandable enough to want to place oneself in political opposition to this or that historical Marxist party, leader, or theorist and to explain why one disassociates oneself politically from them. Nothing wrong in such a move, and especially for the micro-parties it is essential because they need to undertake this kind of product differentiation to attract recruits. (Perhaps public choice theory should be let loose on the history of Trotskyism sometime? But I won’t tease too much.) Serious problems arise, however, when this becomes a wholesale operation to distinguish the true Marxism from all the pretender Marxists. Especially in popular Marxist writings, such as John Molyneux’s What is the Real Marxist Tradition?, this condemns one to one of two major errors. (1) Either one decides that all the false Marxisms were never part of the history of Marxism to begin with – but then how did they come about and why were they ever popular? Such an approach can always be followed in its arbitrary criteria of distinction until the only true Marxism, conveniently, is precisely that practiced by the micro-party the author is a member of (the British SWP, in Molyneux’s case).
The other possibility is to declare that they were false Marxisms, but popular due to their appeal for a certain class base or some other political foundation that doesn’t ‘count’ for true Marxism but was significant in its time – this is the more commonly chosen one, and the one Molyneux follows. But this requires no less an Archimedean point than the first one does. In both cases, one sets up the true Marxist tradition against the actual history of Marxism, which whether one likes it or not shows both a great diversity of theories and strategies and a clear refusal on the part of the majority of the world working class to actively line up with any of them (although some more than others). One separates the sheep from the goats from a standpoint outside history, one that allows you to know for past, present, and future what the correct position would have been or will be.
This begs the question: real or correct by what norm? Usually, the standard applied here is that of the ‘guide to action’: i.e., whatever brings about international proletarian revolution the fastest. But, needless to say, all Marxism whatever fails by this standard if used absolutely, for we are undeniably still stuck with capitalism. So it then becomes a question of applying it to what the author thinks the opportunities for revolution were and where and how they were missed – a highly speculative endeavour leaning heavily on counterfactual history. This is hardly a guide to action at all. What it entails is taking history, especially 20th century history, and exercising some preconceived set of normative judgements on it that, because of their counterfactual nature, can only be self-justifying. They are valid insofar as any such judgement is roughly as good as another, but that does not help us very much. At the least, one would then expect from the tradition-mongerers some degree of humility about which of these judgements is the ‘real’ and which the false Marxist one, but precisely the opposite is the case.
Comrade Molyneux’s Marxism and ours
Comrade Molyneux’s book is a perfect illustration of precisely all these errors committed by those whose Marxism in practice consists of separating the sheep from the goats. His What is the Real Marxist Tradition? was published by Bookmarks in 1985, after a 1983 publication of the same in International Socialism (2:20). This is, admittedly, a long time ago, but because it is so representative of these kind of sect-based popular works in Marxism, promoting true traditions against false ones (see also my essay on package-deal Marxism and canon-building), I will engage with it nonetheless. I believe that the practice of many Marxists has changed little, certainly in how Marxism is presented to the novice members of the micro-parties.
Why does comrade Molyneux worry about the real Marxist tradition, and why should we? Well, he tells us, it is a fact that Marxists have often been found on different sides of the barricades, fighting each other not just with words but with weapons. Besides, did Marx not say that he was not a Marxist? (This favorite cliché of every liberal interpreter is considered by comrade Molyneux to be a “neat dialectical joke”. (2)) For these reasons, then, we should wish to know who the real Marxists are – already from the start Molyneux smuggles in the implication that because of past political struggles, we must discover for each of these struggles the correct ‘side’ to retroactively support, whatever that might do. He then goes on to strengthen the argument for this ‘practical’ enterprise by emphasizing its necessity for political action. “There are”, he says, “those who would reject the question altogether, denying that the search for a ‘true’ Marxism has any meaning and simply accepting as Marxist all those who claim the label. On the one hand this is a convenient response for the bourgeoisie and its cruder ideologists… On the other hand it also suits the academic Marxologists, enabling them to produce numerous profitable ‘guides to the Marxists’, offering cribs to every school of thought from the Austro-Marxists to the Althusserians. Such an approach is essentially contemplative… Political action requires decisiveness in theory as well as practice. Marxists who want to change the world, not just to make a living from interpreting it, have no choice but to face the problem and to draw a dividing line between the genuine and the false.” (p. 8)
There are so many astounding judgements in this small paragraph that it is necessary to unpack them, just to see how preposterous they are. Firstly, one wonders what comrade Molyneux imagines the profits of producing academic texts are for the academic – is he not aware that, the occasional bestselling popular history aside, virtually all profit such a book is likely to generate (and it is likely little) will be pocketed by the publishers? Secondly, he was and is a member of a party whose acknowledged political and intellectual leader is none other than Alex Callinicos, Professor of European Studies at King’s College, London. Does he not “make a living from interpreting” Marxism and much else beside? And what is so bad about a guide to the Marxists? If Marxism is indeed an intellectual tradition, true or false, is it not the common practice in the history of ideas to inclusively and objectively present all that falls under the ‘family resemblance’ of a particular ‘tradition’, such as Marxism, or liberalism, or analytical philosophy, or postmodernism? But this is sheer contemplation, comrade Molyneux objects! One should not just write guides to the Marxists, offering cribs on rival schools of thought. This is why he wrote What is the Real Marxist Tradition?, which instead… offers a guide to the real and false Marxists, offering cribs on rival schools of thought. That, indeed, makes one contemplate – the tremendous hypocrisy of the author. But perhaps this book is distinguished because it is “decisive in theory” as well as practice, whatever that means. So let us continue.
Molyneux discusses two other approaches for distinguishing true and false in Marxism. One is the possibility of judging it by “faithfulness to the word of the master”. This, he rightly objects, leads to scholasticism – although perhaps a better objection would be to say that it begs the question, as indeed the notion of a ‘true Marxism’ presupposes that this philological certainty can be achieved in the first place. Rather, he emphasizes once more, Marxism must be a guide to action, and circumstances change. The other option is that of Lukacs: defining Marxism by method, entirely independent of its substantive content. This, comrade Molyneux tells us, is impossible. His counterexample runs as follows: if capitalism had evolved “into a new form of world bureaucratic society without internal competition and contradictions, which precluded the possibility of either socialism or barbarism, then clearly Marxism would be refuted” (p. 9) and Burnham, Rizzi, and others proved right. It is a good Popperian practice to give some contraindications, to let skeptics know what it would require for the theory to be proven wrong – which indeed must be possible if it is to be scientific. However, Molyneux’s example is typically unhappily chosen. Marxism itself, it could well be argued, precludes the possibility of a society without contradictions, and the operative concepts – socialism, barbarism, contradiction, competition – have not yet been defined and indeed nowhere in the book are defined, so that as a thought experiment it is fully inert. This is not unique to Molyneux; it is not so easy to think what a disproof of much in social science would be. But it is absolutely destructive when making a scientific proposition about Marxism such as this to not clearly analytically separate what is descriptive, what is normative, what is political and what theoretical, and at what level of abstraction one is speaking at any given time. This lack of self-reflective rigour is characteristic of the potted histories provided by the party Marxists, and also of their package deals in Marxist theory.
What, then, is comrade Molyneux’s solution to the problem? Well, to state that Marxism is both: a method as well as “certain essential analyses and propositions”. Hard to argue with, and more sympathetic to my approach than the philosophizing of Lukacs. However, it begs the question as well. He appears to recognize this when he writes that here lurks the danger of sectarianism, simply reducing Marxism to “the correct line on everything”, so that any deviation from this correct line is not Marxist: “Luxemburg was not a Marxist when she disagreed with Lenin about the party, that Lenin was not a Marxist when he maintained the bourgeois nature of the Russian Revolution, and so on.” (p. 10) Rightly, Molyneux recognizes this would be a purely sectarian reading of history, the kind of history-as-proxy-for-politics that I have argued against before. But what then? Nothing remains than the old saw: Marxism as a totality, which he settles on as a solution, and which forms his approach to separating the real from the false.
In all the tradition-mongering, this appeal to the ‘totality’ is decisive: it allows on the one hand to create whole organic ‘traditions’ in Marxism, canons of the saints, irrespective of whether the authors and politicians in question agreed with each other much or responded to the same theoretical and political problems: in this way the Trotskyist canon, which Molyneux sets out in the next chapters, can neatly include such diverse figures as Luxemburg, Lenin, Gramsci, Lukacs, and Victor Serge (all of whom are explicitly included in the text), and yet exclude ‘the late Bukharin’, Stalin, Mao, and pretty much all of the Marxists outside the First World. Indeed, in Chapter 4, the concluding chapter, he even ranks the various figures in importance, with Lenin and Trotsky at the top, then a mid-tier including Serge, James Connolly, and John McLean, but also Clara Zetkin, with finally “hundreds of thousands of working class fighters” (p. 63). History as canon, and canon as league table! That is indeed one way of seeing Marxism as a totality.
It is telling that this concluding chapter talks virtually nonstop of tradition, where it is not establishing a Great Books canon. (Just to clarify: I do not inherently object to a canon in terms of texts, but do object to how it comes about, and how it is mobilized. Perhaps one should distinguish a canon from a reading list.) In just one and a half pages (65-66), Molyneux uses ‘tradition’ ten times. How does he then justify this tradition opposed to the others? Merely listing names ex post facto, as if one were a Mormon posthumously baptizing the dead in the ranks of the saints, is not really an answer to the question posed by the title. Sadly, the answer is as circular and weak as one would fear. We are told that this tradition “is our tradition”; that it is based on nothing less than the world working class; that it belongs to the SWP and its affiliates; and that it is not monolithic, but full of debate, yet cumulative, etc. etc. Lots of self-praise, in other words, but little historicism: precisely the Marxism without self-reflectivity that characterizes the sect mentality. Not one moment does comrade Molyneux have to worry what Alfred Rosmer, Antonio Gramsci, Victor Serge and Lenin would have thought of being thrown into one tradition, let alone if the size and pluralism of this tradition is then inversely proportional to the significance of the micro-parties that carry it, like the SWP with its 1000-2000 members at best. These grand incorporations combined with the puny nature of the ‘tradition’ in actual empirical terms, that test of practice that we are assured so often is the criterion of a ‘guide to action’, make one feel as if comrade Molyneux and similar writers are looking at the history of Marxism through a telescope held upside down.
It is therefore all the more characteristic, if no less jarring, that the bulk of a rather small popular booklet is spent fulminating against the false Marxists, and that those should turn out to be in particular the ones with an empirically verifiable mass following of some sort. The Second International and its mass party building is dismissed in Chapter 1 as “Kautskyism” and is, we are assured, “a bourgeois position at bottom.” (p. 40) To see this movement, with its millions of working members, as a part of Marxism is to “mistake form for content” – did not Kautsky write in 1932 an obituary for old Eduard Bernstein, the archfather of reformism, in which he said they had agreed on all matters of importance?(3) Guilt by association is not beneath comrade Molyneux, is indeed so weighty an argument that one need not further examine any of Kautsky’s own works or that of any others in the Second International (exactly one text by Kautsky is actually cited) – working class support or no. So much for the practical test of Marxism! The Archimedean judgement prevails.
A similar process happens with “Stalinism”, which is a mirror image of Trotskyism in its historical-theoretical practice, so that each becomes a bogeyman of the other (the latter also includes “revisionism”). Stalinism gets the full treatment of the usual Trotskyist clichés about it: socialism in one country as central philosophy, “having formally inserted nationalism into Marxism”, and its class basis in the ‘bureaucracy’, whose nature and relationship to the social productive forces is nowhere explained. Again, judgements and denunciations do the work of explanation here as in so many texts (just as true for ‘Marxist-Leninists’ writing about Trotskyists in turn). Simultaneously, we are told that Stalinism is much closer to Kautsky than to Marx and even Lenin (p. 49), because of its theory of ‘socialism in one country’ – Molyneux of course going through no trouble to actually prove that there was such a theory or that it was central to a tradition called Stalinism and its influence worldwide. (Comrade Molyneux is honest enough to note that Stalin was “realistic” about the prospects of socialism in Russia and elsewhere and that for him, “the bureaucracy was not”, in fact, “a class”.) (p. 45, 47).
From the Archimedean point of view, socialism in one country and the parliamentary, cumulative buildup of power before revolution of Kautsky and the SPD are essentially the same thing – the convex lens has narrowed much more. The decisive thing, however Stalinism may appear empirically, is however this: “on the fundamental question, the international workers’ revolution, the self-emancipation of the world working class, they [the forms of Stalinism] are united in their opposition.” No need to demonstrate that the ‘Stalinists’ actually believed this – from the Archimedean point, comrade Molyneux has omniscient powers – like those of a novelist making his characters think this or that… Imagine, though, if one were to say the same thing about the ‘genuine Marxist tradition’, with its utter failure to draw any mass of workers at all! The outrage at such slander would reverberate throughout Professor Callinicos’ lecture rooms.
The final historical dismissal goes to the “Third World Nationalists”. Here, too, an ideal type is produced by reducing a ‘tradition’ once more to a single slogan, in this case “guerrilla war for national independence”, of which we are told China and Cuba are the purest examples (p. 56). This not only relieves comrade Molyneux of the need for historical and geographical specificity, but just as with ‘socialism in one country’ allows him to falsely represent responses to historical necessities – you know, those empirical tests as a guide to action, etc. etc. – as ideological points d’honneur in the same style as the list of theoretical ‘achievements’ of the real ‘tradition’ he treats us to.(4) These movements are then dismissed as idealist, for believing that the political line is more important than the economic circumstances, as evidenced by trying to make revolution in mostly peasant countries like China and Cuba; although this is of course not idealism when Lenin does the same thing in mostly peasant Russia (p. 57-58).
There is no attempt to read or explain any of the arguments for their actions used by such figures as Mao, Castro, Sankara, Cabral, or any list of other people one could point to (including theorists like, say, Fanon and Rodney). Rather, everything has to be read in such a way as to make them seem ridiculous, with no reference to context, and to misrepresent their intentions – just like the ‘Stalinists’ and Maoists etc. do with the Trotskyists in turn, all this to the despair of any intellectually honest person trying to learn about Marxism. For example, we are treated to Mao’s injunction on his forces not to mistreat the peasants, not to steal or force them to labor, and so forth. In comrade Molyneux’s hands, this is yet another sign of the misdeeds of Maoism: “What has to be grasped here is the power relationship between peasant and guerilla that makes these moral injunctions necessary because in reality it is a continual temptation to behave otherwise.” (p. 61) How much more honest the academic Marxist’s list of “Austro-Marxism to Althusserians” would be than this kind of ‘reading’ of history! Did Trotsky’s need to write Terrorism and Communism prove that in reality Communists are like terrorists, because of the strictures against it, because there is a continual temptation to behave otherwise? In this manner, comrade Molyneux manages to dismiss literally every Marxist movement, irrespective of success or flaws, that did not originate in the First World – yet , for all the talk of the problems of nationalism, not a word on Eurocentrism!
The use of sources throughout this book is also characteristic of the tradition-mongerers’ approach. A narrow and canon-building Marxism, one bent on ‘traditions’ and maintaining them, is going to use a narrow and canonical set of sources and has no intellectual ambitions beyond this, or even the honesty to state as much. It is the routine practice of such writings to cite overtly hostile contemporary or historical political sources as evidence of empirical or factual claims, despite every single rule of decent historiography absolutely forbidding such a practice. No serious historian nowadays would ever cite, say, Suetonius as proof that the decadence of the early emperors is historical fact – at least not without extensive discussion of source reliability, just like no-one would take Samuelson at his word that Marx was a “minor post-Ricardian” or claim on the basis of conquistador texts that the Aztecs and Incas were all brutal barbarians. Let alone that one would believe that the Russian Revolution was a coup by a small conspiracy of Bolshevik fanatics, because Kerensky said so!
But this basic rule of history-writing can be safely ignored if one is ensconced within the towers of the ‘tradition’. For controversial empirical statements such as “the Chinese Communist Party continually held back the spontaneous peasant struggle for land in order to maintain the national coalition in the war against Japan” (p. 61), we are given as a source none of the above, but rather… one text by Tony Cliff, founder of the SWP, and one by Nigel Harris, prominent member of the SWP! In the footnotes for the entire section on Maoism, Harris is cited as authority four times, Tony Cliff six times, and Molyneux even cites himself, besides various other Trotskyist sources. On the other hand, in the whole section on Maoism, nowhere is Mao directly cited in bibliographical terms. In fact, only one Maoist is ever cited at all, namely Bettelheim. No historical standard work or accepted mainstream text on Chinese history is cited. In a similar vein, for his analysis of ‘Kautskyism’ Molyneux relies strongly on the hostile political works of Lenin; for the Russian Revolution and Stalinism, mainly on Trotsky. The one more or less independent source is Massimo Salvadori’s book on Kautsky and his legacy – every single other source is either a political intervention or explicitly Trotskyist in origin. So much for a Marxism that is not a dogma, but a guide to action.
Do I say all this to mock comrade Molyneux individually? Not at all. No doubt hundreds of similar writings could have substituted for this example. Molyneux has just done what was expected of him in contributing to the canon-building of the sects; many have gone before him and probably many will follow. But it is in its brevity a compact and clear example of the combination of dogmatism, arrogance, narrow-mindedness, intellectual dishonesty, historical ineptitude and total lack of self-awareness that characterizes so much of this kind of party Marxism and tradition-mongering, and which to my mind is, within the realm of ideas at least, the main obstacle to a renewal and reinvigoration of Marxism as a serious and committed theory, one that desires a revolution in politics and a scientific analysis to make it possible. In this, I would use some of the ‘genuine Marxists’ against comrade Molyneux and all who write texts along these lines (not remotely limited to Trotskyists, I might add – they’re just admirably open about it).
The first is to say, with Lenin, “better fewer but better”: let’s not require every Marxist party politician to write another pseudo-book setting out once more the same ‘tradition’ on the basis of the same narrow set of sources and judging from the same ahistorical Archimedean point the actions of the past. This tradition-mongering is as futile as it is dogmatic and achieves no ‘guide to action’ whatsoever, as is evidenced by the very fact that it has not helped any of these people, whether in the SWP or in the CPGB (M-L), or their equivalents in any other country, come anywhere near making a revolution of any kind whatever. Indeed, this problem is remarkably handwaved away by comrade Molyneux towards the end. That this ‘tradition’ has been, in its rejection of most of the mass activity of the 20th century, “the tradition of a tiny minority”, we are told is “unfortunate but unavoidable”. Why? Because “the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class and the mass of workers reach revolutionary ideas only in revolutionary struggle”. In other words, the sects should be small, because if they were large, they would be bourgeois, except in times of revolutionary consciousness. When does this happen? Well, when revolutions happen. When do those happen? When the workers join the revolutionary party… Needless to say, such a reasoning can justify any sect, and leads us no further to understanding their contribution to this revolutionary struggle, other than as a cheerleader of their own ‘tradition’ in it.
Secondly, we must not be led into personal or sectarian fights with the members of this or that micro-party. It is not the fault of comrade Molyneux, or even of comrade Callinicos; no doubt they are as much “sincere workers who had joined their parties to overthrow capitalism” as the former charitably (?) describes the members of the CPs (p. 50). But it is clear that if Marxism is indeed to be a scientific socialism, that is to say not just a set of political demands but also an understanding of the empirical facts and trends of history read in such a way as to make the political demands possible from the current state of affairs, and to do so in a way that is intellectually honest and self-reflective with regards to its practice, then works of this kind simply will not do. If someone with limited historical qualifications like me can point to glaring holes in the methodology and to obvious fallacies, imagine how badly such a Marxism would survive the real (if limited) tests of socio-historical science.
Is this forgivable? Popularizing is important, and not every work has to be an academic text, to be sure. From the point of view of the micro-parties, it no doubt serves the purposes of limited recruitment. But the real criterion is not academicism, but whether it can stand on its own as a Marxism that critics could take seriously or that an honest observer could find convincing. After all, Marxism is exceedingly weak in our times, politically and even theoretically – precisely in the fields where its purpose is strongest, such as economics, political theory, history, and things like systems theory, we find Marxism pushed to the margins, while it blossoms only in cultural theory and literary criticism. I would therefore urge the tradition-mongerers and canon-builders to give up on these practices, for we can ill afford them, but not to give up on popularizing Marxism, which is all the more important. Here we must quote that genuine Marxist, Marx himself: “ignorance has never helped anybody yet!”
1) John Molyneux, What is the Real Marxist Tradition? (London 1985: Bookmarks). All page references are to this edition.
2) It was in fact no such thing. Marx used the phrase responding to a political tendency calling itself ‘Marxist’, perhaps the first one to do so, organized in France by Paul Lafargue. Marx was not too enamored, reports Engels, by some of the views and activities of this group and therefore distanced himself from them in these terms. There has never been any proof that it was intended to have meaning beyond that, aside from the fact it’s probably not a literal quote. See http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1882/letters/82_11_02.htm#356
3) As this published letter, located in the IISH archives, has not yet been digitized, we must take Massimo Salvadori’s word for this, who is the only source for this quote I could find.
4) These include, apparently, “the theory of deflected permanent revolution in the third world”, “the analysis of the arms economy boom and the new economic crisis” (long since deflated), and “the critique of the trade union bureaucracy” – hardly unique to this ‘tradition’, and besides nowhere in evidence in the practice of the SWP and such parties.