Marx, Marxism, the Wilds of History

27 06 2012

Marxism played an important role in my intellectual and spiritual life. It was through Marx and Marxists that I acquired a clear sense of the interdependence of thought and matter, concept and habit, politics and economy. It was through that tradition, supplemented with the thinking of Simone Weil, that I came to grasp the value, spiritually and economically, of labor. Nonetheless, I feel little sense of affinity with most people who identify themselves as Marxist, or with the political project that Marx endorsed as a consequence of his philosophic values.

My reasons for this range from the superficial to the thoughtful. Born into the last quarter of the twentieth-century U.S., it was surely difficult to identify myself with the standard bearers of political Marxism like the USSR. Having read widely if not always deeply into the history of the nineteenth and twentieth century, I am unable to conceive of a world movement with a genuine common purpose. Labor concerns are real and often transnational, but they form one concern among many, and many of the concerns that preoccupy people most are local and can’t be reduced to labor issues. It didn’t hurt, either, that most Marxist visions of the future struck me as dreamily romantic, utopianism of either the agrarian or technocratic sort.

Most damning, though, is the simple fact that Marx was wrong about the course of history and he was wrongbecause he wrote about the trajectory of history. That ‘because’ is a bit tricky, so let me explain. Marx predicted a certain path of growth and collapse to the capitalist system that proved inaccurate because people who read Marx made use of his thought in order to bring about that collapse. If there had not been Marxists, Marx’s predictions might or might not have been wrong. Because there were Marxists, though, his predictions were made wrong ahead of the time required to test them.

That seems to be nonsense at face value, but it isn’t. Marx took stock of the capitalist system as it currently operated within his lifetime and saw clearly how much it could yet grow and how it could become a genuinely global system. Operating as a global system, too, he saw in it properties that would make it unstable and likely to collapse along certain well-defined lines, namely the growing disconnection between labor and capital. He speculated that, since labor was the foundation of the process, that it would collapse toward labor, with members of the labor class rising up against the increasing abuse heaped upon them by the capitalists seeking yet more capital from labor.

His estimation of why the system would fail seems about right, though I still remain dubious as to whether labor interests could have formed the basis for a world proletariat. I could see alliances of common cause across national boundaries or parallel movements in disparate places rooted in common capitalist tensions, but a genuine world movement seems just naive. Regardless of that, though, in postulating this system, he provided concepts for would-be revolutionaries as to how they might execute a revolutionary program. These revolutionaries then used his ideas to derive an ideology for a revolution in which their interests would dovetail with the interests of labor.

The result was a wave of Marx-inspired violence that utterly transformed the world system Marx used as the basis for his predictions. His theories inspired actions that so transformed the world that his predictions about it were no longer applicable. Since the basis for his theories was that the material, economic, structures determined politics and thought rather than vice versa, the achievement of Marxist revolutionaries forms the strongest rejection of Marx’s thought that I can imagine. If Marx were correct, Marxist revolutionaries would have been unable to significantly alter the global system because theirs was a politics based on idea rather than on material circumstance.

Marxist revolution is a vivid and terrible reminder of the power of the idea, of how we may forcefully exert ourselves against the circumstances in which we find ourselves. It also reveals how badly this can fail, because our economic circumstances depend upon material circumstances that we cannot entirely control. The world, nature and other people, do not change simply the idea demands it. Instead, divorced from the reality facing it, the idea may mutilate the world. Such mutilations are likely to produce the short-term appearance of success, but having damaged the life that sustains appearance, the appearance is likely to give way to visible failure.

This leaves me in a position where what I can philosophically endorse is at odds with what Marx endorsed. While I accept that material and economic circumstance have a profound and inescapable impact on the way in which we come to understand and experience the world, I cannot accept that the one determines the other. Once those bonds of determination dissolve, much of the force of Marxist politics goes with it. I can still endorse the importance of labor concerns, but I can’t endorse the collapsing of politics itself upon them. They are an occasion for alliance at best or conflict at worst, but not the sole occasion for either.

What I can endorse is a kind of critical position, in which we attempt to see clearly the influence our economic circumstances have on our thought so that we can think more clearly about how to engage or disengage with it. That also helps drive home the point that we can’t just *think* all of this, that we need to explore new ways of living. That exploration isn’t likely to be revolutionary at all, because ways of living have to be built up instead of carved out. They are a process of accretion and testing carried out over decades and centuries, not a conquest carried out all at once.

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