I have for some time been looking forward to reading Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. Not just because I know both well enough to expect insightful commentary from them, but also because their recent political writing has been an important component in the trend to re-evaluate leftist strategies (back) towards consciously future-oriented, optimistic, technology-friendly and generally ‘modernist’ approach. In these respects, this book did not disappoint. The work consists essentially of two parts. The first few chapters are devoted to a critique of existing strategies and ways of thinking as identified by Srnicek and Williams, approaches they deem to be harmful to the prospects of the left and in need of overcoming. The second part is concerned with developing an alternative proposal for the (radical) left’s political orientation, buttressed by more empirical discussions of political economy and technological change. Although in that sense the book is multi-layered and ambitious in scope, it is throughout an easy read: Srnicek and Williams have found, I think, the right tone for popular political writing that seeks to deal with abstract problems without relying on tedious jargon. If at times it seems a little dry, a bit lacking in the spark one expects of a directly political tract, it makes up for it in combining a light touch of vocabulary with analytical seriousness.
In this post, I intend to do something perhaps unpopular among the contemporary left: that is, to provide a conditional defense of Theory, with a capital T, and by implication the academy from the point of view of the radical left and its critiques. While the first part of this reflection will focus on the latter, this sets the stage for my discussion of the former; it is the need to defend theory for its own sake, the virtues of abstraction, and the recognition of the nature of knowledge and what this means for a radical view that animates my thoughts.
Much has been written about the ‘academic turn’ within Marxism – and radical thought more widely – as a corollary of the decline of a radical workers’ movement. Everyone is familiar with the way in which Marxism besides moved increasingly within the domain of professional theorizing from its previous points of emphasis: economic history, economic theory and political theory are less and less Marxist, whereas (at least in the Anglosphere) many Marxist academics have either abandoned it altogether or sought refuge in the ‘safer’ domains of literary criticism, cultural studies and so forth. This is, however, in a certain sense a battle within the academy, and takes its institutional framework for granted. While I believe that this shift is a major part of the defeat of Marxism in the 20th century, both as cause and effect, this is not the view in many parts of the contemporary left. Rather, it is often questioned whether academia itself is a worthwhile thing for Marxists to pursue and to engage with, and more strongly, whether Marxism today does not suffer from an excess of theory compared to a paucity of practice. The academic left is easily blamed for this perceived state of affairs; not just individually as Marxists, but especially as those responsible for perpetuating Marxism’s academic turn in the first place. Everyone is probably familiar with the exasperated activist’s complaint that all these supposed Marxists are just writing abstract stuff in the ivory tower and that they should come down to join the streets for a picket or a placard instead. Continue reading “Theory and the Left: A Nighttime Reflection”
Maria Mies’ classic work Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labor is an unduly neglected classic of radical feminist history-writing. Although written in 1986, and using materials mostly from the late 1970s and early 1980s, her lucid and polemical argumentation has lost neither its relevance nor its potency. As current debates in socialist politics and economics are reviving once more the question of feminism as a central concern of radical activism, it is encouraging to hear that Zed Books are intending to republish this work before long. (The edition used for this review was the reprint edition of 2001). Mies’ book came out of a particular strand of radical feminist writing, which although deeply influenced by Marxism sought to go beyond it and formulate a critique of patriarchal relations and of the use of technology within a patriarchal structure as a historical and political-economic foundation of exploitation deeper still than the class relations analyzed within (most) Marxist thought. This writing was especially prominent in the 1970s and 1980s in Germany, with the ‘Bielefeld school’ of Mies, Claudia von Werlhof, and Veronica Bennholdt-Thomsen, and in Italy, as in the work of Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Silvia Federici.(1) In both cases, it was the product of the struggle of women’s autonomous organizations, who developed in their struggle both an autonomist style Marxism and a conception of capitalist exploitation as a subset, a special case, of a more general kind of exploitation inherently involved with patriarchal society.
What makes Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale such a powerful classic of this movement is not just the steely clarity and force with which its theses are expounded, but also Mies’ thoroughgoing materialism and her critical attitude to Marxism and its standard assumptions and historiography. The book is written in continuous critical dialogue with the Marxism of her day, especially the traditional Leninist approaches but not limited to those alone. This dialogue is more often implicit than explicit, certainly in terms of works referenced, but it is clear that the argument can be read as one of the most systematic radical critiques of the Marxist understanding of history and political economy ever to come out of the so-called ‘social movements’. For that reason alone, it should be read with seriousness and attention by Marxists, and not just those concerned with ‘women’s issues’ as a kind of cultural or political side project. Mies’ critical engagement with Marxism is not at the level of the fundamentals, at the level of the Marxist understanding of class, exploitation, agency, and power.
Of course, to do such a tightly argued series of essay-style arguments justice is not an easy task. But I shall attempt to sum up what I see as the main points of the book, the most fundamental theses of this particular school of radical feminism. The first and most important is the rejection of feminism, the significance and theory of women’s liberation, as a primarily cultural or political affair. That is to say, the oppression of women is for Mies not a question of purely ideological conservatism or political division of the working class. The roots of patriarchy are not superstructural, but foundational: in that unhappy metaphor, a part of the ‘base’. Mies systematically critiques the ‘cultural’ interpretations of feminism, the role of structuralism and functionalist theories of ‘roles’, and the traditional Marxist viewpoint of women’s oppression as arising out of the relegation of women to the ‘non-productive’ sphere.
In contrast to this, for Mies patriarchy is to be found in the social relations of production themselves, and is perhaps the single most important shaper of these relations. It is therefore not ‘just’ a form of oppression, but in the full sense a form of exploitation: exploitation of women’s labor and exploitation of women’s bodies. It is also, and this is the second thesis (in some sense a corollary of the first), not the product of capitalism nor a holdover fated to disappear under capitalism. Throughout the book, Mies mobilizes a fair amount of case studies in political economy – especially in India, in Andhra Pradesh, where she worked for a while – as well as in anthropology and economic history to support these theses. As she endeavours to show, women’s labor has always been a productive form of labor. To simplify her narrative of economic anthropology somewhat, the fundamental basis of patriarchal exploitation is the sexual division of labor, and this division of labor arises out of what she calls the ‘Man-the-Hunter’ model.
Human beings, from the outset, produce their lives. This is done in the earliest societies by means of gathering and hunting, before the origins of agriculture. For Mies, the gathering stage fundamentally precedes the hunting stage and agriculture. In this gathering stage, the center of society is the woman, who as mother is the precondition for the reproduction of the species. This involves a subject-relation to nature, in which the production of life is central, seen as a kind of relationship of give-and-take. Men are necessary for procreation, but do not have their whole bodies as sources for the production of life in the way women do; for them, the relationship to nature is an object-relation, one not fundamental to the reproduction of life itself. Where hunting coexisted with gathering, the hunting was generally the task of men, but as a supplement to the staple food procurement of women, not as the central economic metabolism reproducing society. Therefore, women’s reproductive labor has been the basis of society from the start.
However, with hunting men’s object-relation to nature developed and allowed them to turn their tools of violence onto other humans, including on the women providing the food and the new humans that allowed society to continue to exist. The hunting technology, purely parasitical on life and unable to produce new life, then became the basis of the ability of men to subjugate women, and thereby to exploit the productive labor of women to their own benefit. Both agriculture and pastoralism then sustained and systematized these relationships; in pastoralism, men could reproduce life via cattle, making women an accessory to their property in cattle, and in agriculture, the settled surplus could be appropriated by men and become the basis of their claims to property. This, in essence, is how exploitation entered the world from the man-the-hunter model, according to Mies.
While much of the work contains suggestive historical and political insights that I cannot explain here in any detail, in essence it extends this conception of exploitation of women’s labor in society to the economic history of capitalism and its origins. As with Federici’s work, feudalism, colonialism, and the witch hunts play a major role in the story, as examples of the further colonization of the life-world (a Frankfurter Schule conception implicitly prest in the work) by patriarchy. The witch hunts, on this reading, were a prerequisite of capitalism in destroying the knowledge and autonomy of women regarding their own bodies that ancient and feudal relations had to some extent maintained, and to destroy the ability of women of property, midwives, herb doctors and so forth to continue a public existence economically independent of men.
Colonialism simultaneously extended the patriarchal-exploitative model onto the non-European world, rendering the colonized subject in much the same way as women were rendered subject and dependent on men, and often using the same tropes to justify this exploitation. Borrowing from Carolyn Merchant’s pioneering work, the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century appears as the ideological and practical systematization of patriarchal relations, as an instrumentalizing of technology to the ends of the complete subjugation of nature, which inherently means the subjugation of women as ‘natural’ by the men of ‘culture’ or ‘science’ – as seen in the notoriously misogynist formulations of the new scientific outlook in Francis Bacon.(2)
Capitalism is in a sense the fulfilment of these ‘promises’. Not only does it reinforce and strengthen the immediate forms of violent economic coercion, but, for Mies, it can only exist on the basis of these more fundamental exploitations. While the relentless drive to subjugate every life for the sake of accumulation is peculiar to capitalism, this does not destroy but rather modifies and strengthens the underlying foundation. The basis of the exploitation of wage labor, on this reading, is not just the one-off ‘primitive accumulation’ of the early modern period, but the persistence and indeed necessity of the exploitation of labor deemed not ‘productive’ for capitalism itself.
In other words, exploitation of ‘productive’ labor is only possible because of the exploitation of ‘unproductive’ labor, and this is precisely what Mies holds most against the Marxist interpretations of capitalism and patriarchy alike. Marxists, Mies argues, have always seen the integration of women into the working class as the prerequisite for the emancipation of women. While feminism has been a part of socialism from the start, independent feminist action has often been denounced as bourgeois and divisive because of its nonclass nature. Simultaneously, working class feminists were told that the oppression of women was either an ideological holdover from feudalism, to be eradicated by political and cultural struggle, or that it was the result of the exclusion of women from productive labor, which could be solved by unified class-based activism for employment, unionization, etc. (Often both arguments at once.) Maria Mies’ critique of this standpoint is as relevant now as ever, with leftwing organizations – especially self-proclaimed Leninist ones – still often using argumentation along these lines. For Mies, what this viewpoint ignores is a vast amount of the actual economic exploitation under capitalism, namely the exploitation of labor productive of life. Not just housework and care for children, but vast amounts of women’s labor even in the direct production or maintenance of commodities is ignored in this perspective.
It is absurd, she argues, to claim that women should be reintegrated into the workforce as a precondition of emancipation when women have always been the majority of the workforce – just not counted as such because work undertaken by women is systematically downgraded or ignored into ‘informal sector work’, ‘unproductive work’, or even seen as leisure time. Especially in the Third World, but not infrequently even in the First (and Second), women were and are systematically excluded from the ‘productive’ sectors of the economy (heavy industry and higher administrative work etc) and pushed out into less paid, higher-intensity and more irregular work in ‘informal’ sectors, in putting-out systems, handicraft production from home, and so forth. In agriculture in poor countries, it is overwhelmingly women who bear the burden of the heavy labor in addition to the housework, healthcare work, childcare and so forth that revolves on them.
Such systematic exploitation is only possible because of the violent imposition of such roles onto women by men. An illustrative example here is the various leftwing national liberation struggles, which supported women’s equality and sought to integrate them into factory work and even frontline fighting, out of the exigencies of the war – but as soon as the war in e.g. Vietnam was over, the women were relegated once more systematically to informal and housework, poorly recognized and remunerated, working longer hours, and generally excluded from political participation. And this is hard to deny: virtually no Leninist Politburo or National Liberation type government has ever had a woman in it, and none have been led by women. (In fact, one could add to this the similar pattern of expansion and retrenchment of women’s positions following their equally ’emergency’ participation in the ‘productive’ workforce in the West during WWI and WWII.)(3)
The ‘wages for housework’ campaign of the Italian wing of this radical feminist school should probably be seen in this light. It involves a critique of the concepts of productive and unproductive labor of not just capital itself, but also of the Marxist interpretations of capital. It is in that sense both descriptive and normative, as is Mies’ theory. Although the latter does not specially emphasize this campaign, rather arguing in favor of women’s autonomous organizing and a rejection of the dismissal of ‘middle class feminism’ in favor of an encouragement of all women’s activism at the point of consumption.
What then is the upshot of all this? Here, the theory and the political conclusions must, as always, be analytically distinguished. The main point of the book is the powerfully argued case that rather than seeing women’s issues as one of many ‘side problems’, oppressions to be distinguished from and considered less fundamental than class exploitation under capitalism, in fact capitalism itself is merely a special case of patriarchal society. In this sense, Mies reverses the usual Marxist conception of the relationship between women’s oppression and capitalist relations. This also means that women’s oppression and violence against them should not be seen as a feudal holdover, something that will go away on the basis of a workerist politics, but are rather ongoing ‘primitive accumulation’ – something akin to what David Harvey has since theorized as ‘accumulation by dispossession’. It is the exploitation of women’s labor, the majority of all labor performed in the world in Mies’ broader definition of this concept, that is fundamental to all patriarchal societies since the dawn of pastoralism and agriculture. The Marxist politics of equality through integration are therefore totally inadequate to accommodating this fact, as is any Marxist political economy that fails to comprehend the really productive nature of the supposed ‘unproductive’ production of life.
In my judgement, there is much here that is instructive, interesting, and worth engaging with. Much of the argumentation with regard to the exploitation of women’s labor, past and present, can probably be sustained without too much difficulty. Indeed, that socialist politics and economic analysis have often not moved forward much on these points since the mid-1980s is a sign of the relative retrogression of the socialist movement generally since that period. Although indeed many feminist and socialist activists have worked with these ideas and continue to extend and apply them today, much of the ‘higher’ political economy and theory of Marxism has not really grappled with the fact of socially reproductive labor, the informal sector, and the centrality of women to both in an adequate way. (The foreword to the 2001 edition, written in 1998, barely registers any change.)
On the other hand, it is unclear how well Mies’ actual narrative of exploitation stands up to economic and historical scrutiny. Much rests on the anthropology of early societies and her sometimes rather philosophical claims about the respective relationships of men and women to them, and I am unable to judge to what extent those are confirmed by recent literature. While this perspective is a salient counterblast to the revival of patriarchal ‘realism’ in the form of Evo Psych, this does not mean it is any more correct, and the questions of nature and the natural in society (ancient and modern) remain hotly debated. (Mies does not, for what it’s worth, deny to men’s nature an ability to overcome patriarchy, nor does she regard them inherently oppressive or violent.) Similarly, the economic historical narrative is suggestive, but based on an extremely narrow set of sources largely within or allied to this particular school of theory, such as the work of Merchant, Von Werlhof, and others, plus some selective readings in the work of Claude Meillassoux and Immanuel Wallerstein.
It is imperative that an argument along these lines be developed or judged in light of a wider and more inclusive body of literature if it is to fully convince. Occasionally, after all, her interpretations lead her to some bizarre statements, such as the claim that rape does not occur in animals (p. 164), or her insistence that violence against women is constantly increasing in modern society, which she does not support with any evidence. This underlines the need to take the argument seriously, but not to take all the empirical claims for granted without further corroboration. Similarly, to what extent her views on productive and unproductive labor are or are not to be reconciled with Marxist value theory is a subject not explored in this book, but a potentially fruitful avenue of argument that could actually move Marxist political economy forward as well. That said, this criticism should not be overstated – for example that some of her empirical work has become outdated (such as the arguments based on the legality of rape within marriage in the West) is for an important part creditable to the activism of feminists thinkers and doers like herself.
What’s more worrying is the political section at the end of the book, in which she outlines a more or less programmatic view of anti-patriarchal politics. Just like with Von Werlhof’s intriguing works on capitalist technology, it is here that in my view she badly lets down the materialist and critical commitments that characterize most of the work. For Mies, the importance of the production of life as central to any radical politics opposed to capitalism and patriarchy leads her to oppose any view that involves the classic Marxist arguments for reducing necessary labor, freeing up the life-time of individuals, and applying technological capacities in the interests of all. These are for her just so many more attempts at technological utopias, dreamed up by working men to further free themselves from work at the expense of nature (ecology) and the colonized (women and the Third World).
Instead, her dream is essentially one of romantic reaction. In a rather remarkable piece of justification, she claims that it would be better for as many people as possible to return to agriculture, to work in the house and on the land, for the reproduction of life in an immediate way. Much of the argument is here indebted to the Frankfurter Schule critiques of Enlightenment instrumentalism, but she gives them a markedly backward-facing turn.(4) After all, she assures us, the poor Indian women of Andhra Pradesh she saw at work didn’t really mind working so much, they were happy and even sang songs, showing that this is the real relationship of the body to production. Autarkic production in all societies, with the burden of work as large as possible and shared among all as much as possible, is here the goal; to strive for an overcoming of work, or a use of modern technologies to free us from work, is merely “Man playing God”.
It is here that Mies falls both into romantic reaction and into theoretical inconsistency. She rebuts these claims in her later foreword by stating that a return to an old state isn’t so bad, and besides, she offered an alternative political economy, which is an important part of socialist theoretical work. But it is not so simple. Mies’ materialism abandons her when she thinks that previous forms of society, such as feudal or older agricultural labor, are more ‘natural’ than any other merely because they involve producing food as the precondition of life. While this may be the precondition of all other organic development of society, it does not mean that we can or should replace a base-superstructure model of class vs all other social relations with one along the lines of agriculture vs all other production.
Moreover, she is inconsistent in what she will and will not allow the future society to contain. It is possible that the future society deconstructs the ancient patriarchal exploitation based on the sexual division of labor; that it overcomes the need for accumulation; and that it achieves ecologically sustainable autarky. But it is not possible that the free time of the future would be more meaningful than the ‘leisure’ of today, which she solely conceives of as a false category invented to ignore women’s housework. It is not possible that technology which today is applied against humanity can tomorrow serve it. It is possible for her ideal society to contain all forms of work which are sensuous and pleasurable; but it is not possible for the Marxists to argue that free time could be the basis for human development, as free time is just filled with “male leisure activities such as video films and computer games” anyway.
Her romantic vision of agriculture and its deadening, back-breaking work is not supported by any sense of either the reality of this work or what it would really mean for humanity to be doomed forever to be restricted within this narrow perspective of life. It may be so that it was good enough for many of our ancestors, but why should we care? Indeed, in the history of humanity as a species, agriculture is a comparatively recent invention, and it is just as instrumental and technological as any other technology. In this, Marx’s critique of what he called ‘feudal socialism’, the hankering for the imaginary peace of the settled past with its narrow horizons and its stable order, is as valid as ever. The choice is not really between either capitalist accumulation and a turning back of the anthropological clock; even if the latter were possible, which it is not, it is not desirable. Her vision here, paradoxically, reveals on her part a failure of the imagination, one common to much of the writing of this school: a failure to imagine technology and life-time as constituted differently than in the societies of the past, where both served the surplus rather than the surplus serving them. While I sympathize with much of the radical feminist interpretation and critique of patriarchy offered here, as well as with the critique of accumulation for its own sake, this does not imply to me that we must substitute Marx’s utopianism of free time for Mies’ reactionary utopianism of peasant authenticity. Mies should not crucify humanity upon a cross of mud.
1) Not to be confused with the Bielefeld School of social history, associated with Reinhart Koselleck and his colleagues.
2) E.g. the metaphors in his Novum Organum of putting nature on the rack, making Her reveal Her secrets, and so forth. There is a whole interesting feminist reading of the origins of modern science that this review cannot go into. See: Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (New York, NY 1983: HarperCollins).
3) For more on the subjugation of women to nationalist ideas of nature and productivity, see a previous guest article on Notes & Commentaries here.
4) While she does not credit them, there seems an implicit debt to Adorno & Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944).
In a 2011 article in Jacobin magazine, the Australian political economist Mike Beggs accuses the defenders of ‘orthodox’ Marxist economic theory of creating a ‘zombie Marx’. What matters, Beggs seems to suggest, is not really whether this or that economic theory is correct in its foundations, about which the neoclassical economists of today’s orthodoxy are just as dogmatic as the Marxists are about theirs. Rather, the significance of economic ideas rests in the practice. This practice consists of what he, citing David Harvey, calls “casual empiricism”: “for example, in analyzing the relationship between the US federal government’s deficit and long term interest rates.” The search for foundationalism, being able to found any given economic finding along such empirical or econometric lines on a well-defined and general theory, is the province of a rigid minority of neoclassical economists, and has little to do with the everyday practice of economics. Or so Beggs would have us believe.
He then goes on to conclude from this that it is the Marxists who have a problem, not the neoclassical economists. Unlike their mainstream neoclassical counterparts, Beggs suggests, the Marxist economists have a tendency to prefer ‘going back to the text’ to advancing economic knowledge, and this process has to do with the political commitments of Marxism outside the mainstream. Essentially, Beggs argues that Marxism as a rival school of thought in economics fails, and must fail, precisely because it is not mainstream and does not reconstruct itself along the lines of the methods of the mainstream: “The pursuit of a separate system of economics as something wholly other from mainstream economics isolates us from the political and ideological space where these things take place: better, instead, to fight from the inside, to make clear the social and political content of the categories.” Continue reading “Zombifying Marx”
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.