By Greg Godels
May 21, 2023
The history of Marxism has a parallel history of counter-Marxism– intellectual currents that posture as the true Marxism.
Even before Marxism came into being as a coherent ideology, Marx and Engels devoted an often-neglected section of their 1848 Communist Manifesto to debunking the existing contenders for true socialism.
As the workers’ movement painfully sought a system of beliefs to animate its response to capitalism, the ideas of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels gradually won over workers, peasants, and the oppressed. It was not an easy victory. Liberalism– the dominant ideology of the capitalist class– served workers and peasants in their fight against absolutist tyranny.
With capitalism and liberal institutions firmly established, anarchism –the ideology of the disgruntled petty-bourgeois — rivaled Marxism for the leadership of the workers’ movement. Contradictorily, embracing extreme individualism and utopian democracy distilled from capitalism, yet voicing a bitter hatred of capitalist institutions and economic arrangements, the anarchists failed to offer a viable escape from the crushing weight of capitalism.
Once Bolshevism seized power in 1917, the workers’ movement found an example of real-existing-socialism led by real-avowed-Marxists, a powerful beacon for the way forward in the struggle against capitalism. The victory of the Russian Revolution established Marxism as the most promising road for an exploited majority, with Leninism the only successful ideology for revolutionary change and socialism. To this day, Leninism has remained the only proven guide to socialism.
Immediately after the revolution, rival “Marxisms” sprang up.
The failure of subsequent European revolutions outside of Russia, especially Germany, sheared away numerous intellectuals, like Karl Korsch and György Lukács,who imagined a different, supposedly better, path to proletarian revolution. Buoyed by material support from benefactors, university appointments, and the many eager sponsors of class betrayal, critics and detractors of Leninism abounded.
Especially in the West — North America and Europe– where the working class was significant and growing dramatically, dissidence, class betrayal, and opportunism proved disruptive forces in the world Communist movement, forces that capitalist rulers were eager to support. Young people, inexperienced workers, aspiring intellectuals, and the déclassé, were especially vulnerable to the appeal of independence, purity, idealism, and liberal values. Money, career opportunities, and celebrity were readily available to those who were willing to sell these ideas.
Indeed, not every critic of Marxism-Leninism — revolutionary Communism — was or is insincere or without merit, but honesty demands recognition that no real advocate for overthrowing capitalism could achieve prominence, celebrity, or a mainstream soap box in the capitalist West. He or she could be a curiosity or a token for the sake of appearances — a stooge.
Conversely, any intellectual or political figure who does achieve wide-spread prominence or influence cannot represent a serious, existential challenge to capitalism when the road to prominence and influence is patrolled by the guardians of capitalism.
Nonetheless, the workers’ movement has been plagued by divisive ideological trends or fads spawned by independent voices who, wittingly or not, are exploited by and render service to the capitalist class.
In the West, it is almost impossible to be a young radical and not be tempted by a veritable ideological marketplace of putative anti-capitalist or socialist theories, vying with one another for allegiance. Since the demise of unvarnished, real-existing socialism in the Soviet Union and the disorientation of many Communist and Workers’ parties, the competition of ideas has created even more confusion.
Clearly, the working-class movement, the revolutionary socialist movement, needs guidance to avoid distractions, bogus theories, and corrupted ideas. The march of political neophytes through the arcade of specious, fantastic ideas is a great tragedy, especially regarding those ideas posing as Marxist.
Happily, a new generation of Marxist thinkers are challenging the allure of Marxist pretenders, more specifically, those associated with what has come to be called “Western Marxism.” A sympathetic Wikipedia article offers about as accurate a definition of the words as one might want: “The term denotes a loose collection of theorists who advanced an interpretation of Marxism distinct from both classical and Orthodox Marxism and the Marxism-Leninism of the Soviet Union.” It couldn’t be made clearer: Western Marxism is anything but the Marxism-Leninism that has buttressed worker-engaged revolutionary parties since the time of the Bolshevik revolution!
Marxist historian and journalist, Vijay Prashad, gave a seminar at the Marx Memorial Library on November 21, 2022, in which he excoriated the Western Marxism of the 1980s:
There was a sustained attack on Marxism in this period, led by New Left Books, now Verso Books, in London, which published Hegemony and Socialist Strategy by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe in 1985. The book mischievously utilised the work of Antonio Gramsci to make an attack at Marxism, to in fact champion something they called “post-Marxism.” Post-structuralism, post-Marxism, post-colonialism: this became the flavour of academic literature coming out of Western countries from the 1980s… Particularly after the collapse of the Soviet Union there was a great weakness in our ability to fight back against this denigration of Marxism in the name of post-Marxism… When they [Laclau and Mouffe] talk about “agency” and “the subject” and so on, they have basically walked away from the structuring impact of political economy and returned to a pre-Marxist time; they have in fact not gone beyond Marxism but back to a time before Marxism. (Viewing Decolonization through a Marxist Lens, published in Communist Review, Winter 2022/2023)
Prashad places the influential works of Hardt and Negri and Deleuze and Guattari in the same post-Marxist mix.
He regrets the multiculturalism turn because it ”basically took the guts out of the anticolonial, anti-racist critique, at the global level you had the arrival of ‘postcolonial’ thought, and also ‘decoloniality’ – in other words, let’s look at power, let’s look at culture, but let’s not look at the political economy that structures everyday life and behavior and reproduces the colonial mentality; that has to be off the table… So, we entered into a kind of academic morass, where Marxism was not, in a sense, permitted to enter.”
Prashad might well have added the intrusion of rational-choice theory into Marxism in the 1980s, an uninvited analysis of Marxist theory through the lens of methodological individualism and liberal egalitarianism. One leading exponent of what came to be called “analytical Marxism” eviscerated the robust Marxist concept of exploitation by proving that if we have inequality as an initial condition, we will quite logically reproduce inequality — a trivial derivation with little relevance to understanding the historically evolved concept of labor exploitation..
Prashad might have noted the continuing influence of postmodern relativism upon Marxist theory in the 1980s and beyond, a denigration of any claim that Marxism is the science of society. For the postmodernist, Marxism can only be, at best, one of several competing interpretations of society, coherent within Marxist circles, but forbidden from making any greater claim for universality. Moreover, the postmodernist denies that there can ever be any valid overarching theory of capitalism, any “metanarrative” that plots a socio-economic system’s trajectory. While its flaws can not be addressed here, the late Marxist historian Ellen Meiksins Wood exposed the academic trend with great clarity.
Another excellent, contemporary critique of Western Marxism can be found in the writings of Marxist author Gabriel Rockhill. Rockhill skillfully and thoroughly discredits the Frankfurt School of neo-Marxism, especially its most celebrated thinkers, Horkheimer, Habermas, Adorno, and Marcuse, exposing their fealty to various sponsors. Those who paid the bills enjoyed sympathetic ideas, an outcome often found with the practitioners of Western Marxism.
Rockhill also does a scathing exposé of today’s most prominent Marxist poseur, Slavoj Žižek. I was happy to heap praise on Rockhill’s deflation of Žižek’s unmatched ego in an earlier post. Both Rockhill’s unmasking of the Frankfurt School and his destruction of the Žižek cult are essential reading in contesting Western Marxism.
Most recently, philosopher Carlos L. Garrido ambitiously tackles Western Marxism in his book The Purity Fetish and the Crisis of Western Marxism (Midwestern Marx Publishing Press, 2023). Central to Garrido’s argument is the notion of a “purity fetish” that is at the core of the Western Marxists’ attack on Marxism-Leninism. This insightful and original thesis indeed captures a feature common to the leading lights of left-wing Western anti-Communism; from Frederich Ebert to Slavoj Žižek, “Marxists” have hypocritically insisted that revolutionaries be held to a higher standard of democratic governance, judicial perfection, non-violence, and policy perfection beyond anything experienced in bourgeois society or to be reasonably expected of a revolutionary society outside of sheer fantasy.
Western Marxists can conveniently overlook capitalism’s history of genocidal, undemocratic, and exploitative sins while excoriating the Fidelistas for settling accounts with a few hundred Batista torturers. They deplore the sweeping changes that Soviet and Chinese Communists implemented in agriculture to overcome the frequent famines that devastated their countries when the changes unfortunately coincided with severe famines, as though great change for the better could evade natural events and tragedy anywhere but in their imagination.
They turn a blind eye to the human costs imposed on humanity by ruling elites’ resistance to great change, while denouncing revolutionaries for seeking that change and risking a better future. Western Marxism diminishes the great accomplishments of real existing socialism, while relentlessly denouncing the errors incurred in socialist construction. Garrido effectively underscores the necessary pains and errors in realizing a new world, in escaping the clutches of ruthless capitalism.
As Garrido notes:
This is the sort of ‘Marxism’ that imperialism appreciates, the type which CIA agent Thomas Braden called “the compatible left.” This is the ‘Marxism’ which functions as the vanguard of controlled counter-hegemony.
He eloquently summarizes:
Socialism for the Western Marxists is, in the words of Marx, a purely scholastic question. They are not interested in real struggle, in changing the world, but in continuously purifying an idea, one that is debated amongst other ivory-tower Marxists and which is used to measure against the real world. The label of ‘socialist’ or ‘Marxist’ is sustained merely as a counter-cultural and edgy identity which exists in the fringes of quotidian society. That is what Marxism is reduced to in the West– a personal identity.
I might add that it is also a commonplace for Western Marxists to invest heavily in other-people’s-socialism. Rather than engaging their own working classes, Western Marxists fight surrogate struggles for socialism through the solidarity movement, picking and choosing the “purest” struggles and debating the merits of various socialisms vicariously.
Garrido elaborates on socialism-as-an-investment-in-identity:
In the context of the hyper-individualist West’s treatment of socialism as a personal identity, the worst thing that may happen for these ‘socialists’ is for socialism to be achieved. That would mean the total destruction of their counter-cultural fringe identity. Their utter estrangement from the working masses of the country may in part be read as an attempt to make socialist ideas fringe enough to never convince working people, and hence, never conquer political power.
The success of socialism would entail a loss of selfhood, a destruction of the socialist-within-capitalism identity. The socialism of the West is grounded on an identity which hates the existing order but hates even more the loss of identity which transcending it would entail.
Garrido’s objectives are not completed with his masterful dissection of Western Marxism. In addition, he devotes great attention to Western Marxism’s critique of the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC) in a section entitled China and the Purity Fetish of Western Marxism. Of course, he is correct to deplore Western Marxism’s unprincipled collaboration with bourgeois ideologues in attacking every policy or act of Peoples’ China since its revolution in 1949. As with the USSR, any honest, deeply considered estimation of the trajectory of the PRC must– warts and all– see it as a positive in humanity’s necessary transcendence of capitalism.
As anti-imperialists, we must defend the PRC’s right (and other countries’ rights) to choose its own course.
As Marxists, we must defend the Chinese Communist Party’s right to find its own road to socialism.
But Garrido goes further, by mounting an impassioned, but one-sided defense of Chinese socialism. As a militant advocate of the dialectical method, this is an odd departure. As esteemed Marxist R. Palme Dutt argued in the 1960s, the pregnant question for a dialectical materialist is Whither China? not: Does the PRC measure up to some pure Platonic form of socialism?
A more balanced view of the PRC road would reference the significance of the Communist Party’s overwhelmingly peasant class base in its foundation, its engagement with Chinese nationalism, and the strong voluntarist tendency in Mao Zedong Thought. It would consider the 1960s’ break with the world Communist movement and the rapprochement with the most reactionary elements in US ruling circles in the 1970s, capped by the shameful material support for US and South African surrogates in the liberation wars of Southern Africa. PRC was funding Jonas Savimbi and UNITA while Cuban internationalists were dying fighting them and their apartheid allies. Which suggests the question: Could Peoples’ China do more to help Cuba overcome the US blockade, as did the Soviet Union?
A fair account would address the PRC invasion of Vietnam in 1979 and Peoples’ China’s unwavering defense of the Khmer Rouge. Surely, all these factors play a role in assessing the PRC’s road to socialism.
These uncomfortable facts make it hard to agree with Garrido that the PRC has been “a beacon in the anti-imperialist struggle.”
Of course, today is another matter. My own view is that the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party is “riding the tiger” of a substantial capitalist sector, to use imagery reminiscent of high Maoism. How well they are riding it is in question, but they are indeed riding it. There are many promising developments, but also some that are worrisome.
In any case, the comrades who are critical or skeptical of the Chinese road should not be summarily swept into the dustbin with Western Marxism.
Garrido brings his purity fetish home when he discusses US socialist organizing. He casts a critical eye on the class character of most of the US left, rooting it in the petty-bourgeoisie and the influence of petty-bourgeois ideas. He locates the conveyor for these ideas in academia, the media, and NGOs. Additional material support for petty-bourgeois ideology comes from non-profit corporations and, of course, the Democratic Party.
The petty-bourgeois bias of the US left reinforces its hyper-critical attitude toward movements attempting to actually secure a socialist future. Wherever socialists or socialist-oriented militants tackle the enormous obstacles before them, many on the left will insist that they adhere to courteous liberal standards, an unrealistic demand guaranteeing failure. Garrido mocks the insistence on revolutionary purity: “…the problem is that those things in the real world called socialism were never actually socialism; socialism is really this beautiful idea that exists in a pure form in my head….”
The purity fetish of the middle strata extends to radicals who scorn workers as “backward” or “deplorable.” Garrido counters this purity obsession with a wonderful quote from Lenin: one “can (and must) begin to build socialism, not with abstract human material, or with human material especially prepared by us, but with the human material bequeathed to us by capitalism.”
Regarding the Trump vote and the working class, Garrido scolds the US left:
…they don’t see that what is implicit in that vote is a desire for something new, something which only the socialist movement, not Trump or any bourgeois party, could provide. Instead, they see in this chunk of the working class a bunch of racists bringing forth a ‘fascist’ threat which can only be defeated by giving up on the class struggle and tailing the Democrats. Silly as it may sound, this policy dominates the contemporary communist movement in the U.S.
While not all of the left is guilty of this failure, the charge is not far off the mark.
Finally, Garrido faults much of the US left for its blanket dismissal of progressive trends and achievements in US history. Many leftists debase heroic struggles in US history by painting a portrait of a relentless trajectory of reaction, racism, and imperialism. Garrido correctly sees this as an instantiation of a negative purity fetish — denouncing every page of US history as fatally wanting and inauthentic: “…purity fetish Marxists add on to their futility in developing subjective conditions for revolution by completely disconnecting themselves from the traditions the American masses have come to accept.”
While this is true, it must be remembered that there is always the danger that US history would be celebrated so vigorously that the country’s legacy of cruelty and bloody massacre might be muted by patriotic zeal. During the Popular Front era, for example, Communist leader Earl Browder’s slogan that “Communism is twentieth century Americanism” invested too much social justice in Americanism and too little in Communism.
US history and tradition is contradictory and Marxists should always expose that contradiction– a legacy of both great, historic social change and ugly inhumanity. The country’s origin shares a tragic settler-colonial past with countries like Australia and South Africa in its genocidal treatment of indigenous people. Those same settlers established or tolerated the brutal exploitation of Africans forced into chattel slavery. While we could lay the blame at the doorstep of the US ruling class, it is US history as well.
At the same time, the US revolution was the most radical for its time and every generation produced a consequential movement to correct the failings of the legacy or advance the horizon of social progress. An emancipating civil war, the expansion of suffrage, workers’ gains against corporations, social welfare and insurance, and a host of other milestones mark the peoples’ history.
While writing and reflecting on the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution (Echoes of the Marsellaise), Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm couldn’t help but be struck by the lesser global influence of the earlier US revolution upon nineteenth-century social change. He thought that reformers and revolutionaries of the time could recognize their point of departure “more readily in the Ancien Régime of France than in the free colonists and slave-holders of North America.” Undoubtedly, the stain of the genocide of indigenous peoples and brutal slavery influenced that disposition.
Indeed, Hobsbawm’s observation underscores the contradictory character of the US past. It is not a “purity fetish” that explains this judgment, but the cold, harsh facts of US history.
Nonetheless, it is appropriate for Garrido to remind us of the many revolutionaries — Marx, Lenin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, William Z. Foster, Herbert Aptheker, Fidel, and more — who have both drawn inspiration and offered inspiration from the victories of the people as well as the fierce resistance to ruling-class oppression contained in US history. He effectively cites Communist leader Georgi Dimitrov who rejects the practice of national nihilism — the denigration of all expressions of national pride and accomplishment. Within every national identity is an identity to be celebrated in its resistance to oppression and its dedication to a better way of life. Workers must draw national humility from the failures of the past, while drawing national pride from the victories over injustice. A left that attends to only one and not both will fail the working class.
Western Marxism — Marxist scholasticism, disconnected from revolutionary practice — distracts far-too-many well-meaning, hungry-for-change potential allies on the arduous road to socialism. It is heartening to find voices rising to challenge the sterile, obscurantism of this distraction, while defending and promoting the tradition of Marxism-Leninism and Communism. We should encourage and support Marxists like Prashad, Rockhill, and Garrido in conducting this struggle.