In the mid-19th century, Marx and Engels observed, in the Communist Manifesto, that a specter was haunting Europe, the specter of Communism. A century and a half later, it is Marxism itself that continues to haunt the Left, while capitalism remains.
What does it mean that Marx and Marxism still appeal, while political movements for socialism are weak or non- existent? What were Marxism's original points of departure for considering radical possibilities for freedom that might still speak to the present?
How does Marxism still matter? A teach-in led by Jacob Cayia on September 25th, 2012, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Platypus Review 42 | December 2011 – January 2012
THE FIRST EVER REACTION by the Victorian ruling class to “Marxism” is found in a London Times leader of September 2, 1851 on “Literature For The Poor,” “only now and then when some startling fact is bought before us do we entertain even the suspicion that there is a society close to our own, and with which we are in the habits of daily intercourse, of which we are as completely ignorant as if it dwelt in another land, of another language in which we never conversed, which in fact we never saw.”
The “startling fact” in question was the “evil teachings” contained in the Chartist weekly, The Red Republican, founded in 1850 by George Julian Harney. The Times chose not to name the paper—“we are not anxious to give it circulation by naming its writers or the works to which it is composed”—but did extract some of Helen Macfarlane’s translation of the Communist Manifesto, serialized by the Red Republican. The selection included this passage:
Your Middle-class gentry are not satisfied with having the wives and daughters of their Wages-slaves at their disposal—not to mention the innumerable public prostitutes—but they take a particular pleasure in seducing each other’s wives. Middle-class marriage is in reality a community of wives.
The perceived threat was overestimated. With Chartism in terminal decline, Harney’s semi-legal press was on its last legs, and he himself was about to emigrate to the United States. Also soon to disappear from British shores was Macfarlane, Harney’s most talented contributor and the first English commentator on Hegel to translate any of his writings (in Harney’s monthly Democratic Review). The publication of the Manifesto, which Harney presented as “the most revolutionary document ever given to the world,” was the last great act of Chartism. The first was the founding of the National Convention of 1839. Actually called the General Convention of the Industrious Classes, so as not to scare off the moderates, the bourgeois press, who wanted to portray the Chartists as the harbingers of French-style Revolutionary terror, called it the “National Convention.” The Chartist radicals, like Harney, favored that name anyhow, so it stuck.
In France the bourgeoisie had to fight a revolutionary war to extirpate the old order, but in England the Civil War and “Glorious Revolution” of the 17th century made possible what came to seem a compromise. The Whigs’ Reform Act of 1832 extended the electoral franchise to a good section of the middle class, but the working class, who supported the Whigs’ Reform agitation, remained excluded from the franchise. Throughout the 1830s the radical press was persecuted, trade unionists transported, Ireland subjected to paramilitary police terror, and the hated workhouse system established by the New Poor Law.
Bronterre O’Brien, editor of The Poor Man’s Guardian, saw Owenite socialism and Thomas Spence’s program for land nationalization as giving the working classes the aspiration that they should “be at the top instead of at the bottom of society—or, rather that there should be no bottom at all.” Babeuf’s Conspiracy for Equality, which O’Brien translated and published, showed that because the American and French Revolutions had left the “institutions of property” intact as “germs of social evil to ripen in the womb of time,” the great democratic gains had been subverted by counter-revolution from “within and without.” The next revolution, therefore, had to be social as well as political.
In 1838 the five-point People's Charter was drawn up by the London Working Men’s Association and the Birmingham Political Union. It was essentially a program for universal male suffrage. Delegates to the National Convention were elected at mass meetings promoted by Feargus O’Connor’s mass-circulation weekly, the Northern Star. On February 4, 1839, a permanently sitting Convention assembled in London with fifty-five delegates. By the spring, huge demonstrations were taking place; muskets and pikes were being procured in large numbers. Even though the male leadership of the movement had decided that a demand for the female franchise would impede the enfranchisement of men, female Chartist associations were being formed.
In July 1839, after Parliament debated and rejected the Chartist petition bearing 1.2 million signatures, massive rioting broke out in Birmingham and Newcastle. By this time, the “moral force” delegates of the Convention had resigned and many of the “physical force” delegates had been arrested. The Convention voted for a general strike, but there was little agreement on how to make it effective. In September, the Convention, having lost all credibility, voted to dissolve itself. But in its last days, resolutions arrived from the miners of South Wales calling for armed struggle as well as the strike. A “Secret Council” was formed by Convention delegates favoring revolutionary action, which the Welsh were to initiate as a signal for other areas to follow. But on November 4th the Newport Uprising, led by the “reluctant revolutionary,” John Frost, was met by the armed force of the state: Twenty-four Chartists were shot dead and fifty more were wounded. The follow-up rebellions in England were hastily called off. Hundreds of Chartists were imprisoned, transported to Van Dieman’s Land, or driven into exile.
Plans for a Chartist land settlement named after Feargus O’Connor, 1847. From the British Library
When Seymour Tremenheere, a government agent, was sent to South Wales in the aftermath of the Rising of November 1839 to investigate its causes, he was beset by a rumor that he had been sent to “take account of the number of children, and that the government intended to have one in ten put out the way.” Tremenheere seemed to be unaware of the provenance of this “theory.” The year before the rising, a mischievous Swiftian pamphlet entitled On the Possibilities of Limiting Populousness, written by “Marcus,” drove the arguments of Thomas Malthus’s political economy to what he saw as their logical conclusion: a “rational” argument for mass extermination. When Marcus put out a follow-up along the same lines in 1839, entitled The Book of Murder, many of those who had only heard of the pamphlet were prepared to regard it as proof of a nefarious government agenda. In 1839 the Female Chartist Association of Ashton, Lancashire called on women “to do all that in you lies, to prevent the wholesale murder of your new born babies, by the Malthusian method of painless extinction.”
In fact, questions of political economy exercised Chartists’ opinions from the beginning. The London Working Men’s Association had been founded by William Lovett as “a political school of self instruction… to examine great social and political principles.” An important ally of Lovett was Francis Place, who acted as a parliamentary lobbyist for trade unions. Place, having made the transition from Jacobinism in the 1790s to moderate radicalism in the 1820s, was of a generation of artisans who were self-educated in the political economy of Adam Smith and David Ricardo. Indeed, some of the radical liberals in the parliamentary Whig Party had supported the New Poor Law of 1834 on Ricardian “principles”; in the project of securing “just” rewards for labor, workhouses and representative democracy were not necessarily incompatible. Place accepted the Malthusian argument that pauperism was simply a product of population growth, but differed on the remedy. Malthus wanted to impose sexual abstinence by separating husbands from wives in the workhouses, whereas Place advocated sex education and contraception. William Lovett, for his part, had less faith than Place in the laws of the market, according to Malthus, and believed that “surplus labour is at the mercy of surplus wealth.” Others, such as Harney and O’Connor, were suspicious of Lovett’s associations with Place and his friends in Parliament, whom they despised as “Whig-Malthusians.” These Chartist radicals were equally hostile to the Ricardian free-traders, for whom the main obstacle to Parliamentary reform was the landlord class, whose political dominance could only be broken by the repeal of the protectionist Corn Laws.
Official report into the Peterloo Massacre, 1820. From the British Library
Shortly after the failed General Strike of 1842, Friedrich Engels met the Chartists in England and found a lifelong friend in George Julian Harney. In embracing the proletarian cause Engels began to criticize the bourgeois ideology expressed in political economy. His 1843 article, “Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy,” bowled over a young Karl Marx and set him on the path to writing Capital. In it, Engels wrote, “Political economy came into being as a natural result of the expansion of trade, and with its appearance elementary, unscientific huckstering was replaced by a developed system of licensed fraud, an entire science of enrichment.” And, “The nearer the economists come to the present time, the further they depart from honesty...This is why Ricardo, for instance, is more guilty than Adam Smith, and McCulloch and Mill more guilty than Ricardo.” Just as inconsistency in theology forced it to “either regress to blind faith or progress towards free philosophy,” so inconsistency in the economy of free trade would produce regression to mercantilist-monopolism on the one hand and socialism on the other. The English Socialists, Engels believed, had long since proved the case, both practically and theoretically, for the abolition of private property, and were “in a position to settle economic questions more correctly even from an economic point of view.” In a socialist economy, “The community will have to calculate what it can produce with the means at its disposal; and in accordance with the relationship of this productive power to the mass of consumers it will determine how far it has to raise or lower production, how far it has to give way to, or curtail, luxury.”
Since the 1970s, Left historians have debated whether Chartism was a forerunner of working-class socialism or merely the tail end of the bourgeois popular radicalism espoused by Thomas Paine and William Cobbett. Gareth Stedman Jones, in arguing the latter position, sees the former as taking the same ground as the “progressivist” Whig theory of history. Stedman Jones correctly says that, “as a coherent political language and a believable political vision,” Chartism really disintegrated in the early 1840s, not the early 1850s. But Stedman Jones’ Althusserian, post-structuralist method rules out any analysis of the birth of Chartism as an expression of the capitalist crisis that Ricardian political economists feared would bring social development to a standstill, or the 20-year history of Chartism (1838-1858) as the history of its failure as a conscious attempt to resolve the problems of capitalism by breaking forever the power of “Old Corruption.” Stedman Jones reduces the entire history of Chartism to an ideology of “popular radicalism,” held together from the 1770s to the 1860s by the grievance that too much power lay in too few hands.
Contra Stedman Jones’s position, Chris Ford and I argue in our new book, 1839: The Year of Chartist Insurrection, that what existed in 1839—and ceased to be thereafter—was a mass working-class, democratic movement with revolutionary and socialist tendencies, of which its political language was an expression. After 1839, the industrialized working class, in a huge swathe of territory stretching from South Wales to North East England, would never again be as united and armed in the cause of democracy as it was that year; and never again would the ruling class, its army, and its police be so unprepared for revolution. In 1839 the revolutionary bourgeois ideas of Thomas Paine, William Godwin, Adam Smith, and David Ricardo stood in dialogue with the socialist thinking of Spence, Owen, and Babeuf. After the defeat of the General Strike of 1842, Chartism became a fractious coalition of interest groups: Teetotal Chartism, Free Trade Chartism, Co-operative Chartism, Land Scheme Chartism, and Christian Chartism.
Prior to his piece on political economy, Engels had reported from England to the Rheinische Zeitung in 1842 that, whereas on the Continent the revolution was talked about as almost inevitable, in England popular wisdom held that, “even the lowest class of the nation is well aware that it only stands to lose by a revolution, since every disturbance of the public order can only result in a slow-down in business and hence general unemployment and starvation.” This “national English standpoint of the most immediate practice, of material interests” also stood in contrast to German Hegelian philosophy, which sought the “motivating idea” behind political phenomena and held that, “the so-called material interests can never operate in history as independent, guiding aims, but always, consciously or unconsciously, serve a principle which controls the threads of historical progress.” Engels concluded that, although he thought revolution was “inevitable” for England, he was convinced that “as in everything that happens there, it will be interests and not principles that will begin and carry through the revolution; principles can develop only from interests, that is to say, the revolution will be social, not political.”
Certainly the Chartist radicals of 1839 believed that “immediate practice and material interests” made revolution rational and necessary rather than foolish and impossible. They told their supporters that the Charter would be won in a very short space of time, and the practical issues immediately addressed. But as Marx would later argue, in modernity the threads of historical progress were underpinned by a dialectic of labor and capital which, in the absence of an immediately practical alternative and a revolutionary subject to implement it, had its own “principle” of development—as it still has.
British historians writing on Marx, Engels, and the 1848 Revolution have tended to concentrate on their concerns with the events taking place in Continental Europe rather than in England. However, according to a seminal study by historian John Foster, the various stages of class consciousness outlined in the Communist Manifesto do reflect the history of the Lancashire workers movement from the 1790s to the 1840s. The Manifesto states, “This proletarian class passes through many phases of development, but its struggle with the middle-class dates from its birth.” In the nineteenth-century, the struggle passes from individual workplaces to “those of an entire trade in a locality against the individuals of the middle-class who directly use them up.” In the “Luddite” phase, the workers “attack not only the middle-class system of production; they destroy machinery and foreign commodities which compete with their products; they burn down factories and try to re-attain the position occupied by the producers of the middle ages.” In opposition to Old Corruption and the Corn Laws, the bourgeoisie encourage the workers to form “a more compact union,” but do so for “their own political ends.” At this stage, “the proletarians do not fight their own enemies but their enemies’ enemies.” But the alliance of worker and factory owner is constantly eroded by the class struggle at the point of production. In due course, “the incessant improvements in machinery make the position of the proletarians more and more uncertain,” and collisions “assume more and more the character of collisions between two classes.” The trade unions organize strikes and “here and there the struggle takes the form of riots.” Eventually, the Manifesto contends, with the spread of railways, steamship lines, and other new means of communication, the working-class unites, nationally and internationally, as a political party. Clearly, the Communist Manifesto could never have been written if its authors had not been engaged with English Chartists and following their fortunes very closely.
Daguerreotype of the Chartist meeting at Kennington Common, 10th April 1848. From The British Library
In 1848 the news boards at London’s Charing Cross Station announcing the February Revolution in France sent Harney running through Soho “like a bedlamite” to tell his friends in the German Communist League and the other exile groups. As the revolutionaries returned to their homelands to put their ideas to the test, Harney led a Chartist delegation to Paris as guests of the revolutionary government at the Tuileries. Harney playfully sat on the emptied throne of Louis Philippe, and looked forward to performing a similar ceremony at Buckingham Palace. In April 1848 the Chartists assembled en masse at London’s Kennington Common, with the intention of marching on Parliament to present the third Chartist petition. But this mobilization, which has been mythologized by “Labour Historians” as “historic,” was met by a huge government deployment of police and special constables, and dispersed by a rainstorm. Thirty years after the event, Harney recalled that, compared with the great days of the Chartist Convention of 1839, when the masses were energized and insurrection was “in the air,” the English 1848 was a “fiasco.” |P
. “Literature for the Poor,” London Times, February 9, 1851.
. The Red Republican, December 19, 1850. Quoted in A. R. Schoyen, The Chartist Challenge: A Portrait of George Julian Harney (London: Heinemann, 1958), 204.
. Quoted in E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (London: Victor Gallancz,1963), 903.
. Jutta Schwarzkopf, Women in the Chartist Movement (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1991), 93.
. Joel Wiener, William Lovett (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989), 40–47.
. Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, 1843. <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/df-jahrbucher/outlines.htm>
. Gareth Stedman Jones, "The Language of Chartism," in The Chartist Experience, eds. Epstein and Thompson (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1982), 3–57; "The Poverty of Empiricism," in Ideology and Social Science, ed. R. Blackburn (London: Fontana, 1972), 96–115; "Utopian Socialism Reconsidered," in People’s History and Socialist Theory, ed. Raphael Samuel (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981), 138–145.
. Rheinische Zeitung nos. 343 and 344, December 9-10 1842. MECW vol. 2[]
. John Foster, Class Struggle and Industrial Revolution: Early Industrial Capitalism in Three English Towns (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1974).
. Manifesto of the Communist Party of Germany (Macfarlane translation), published as an appendix to David Black, Helen Macfarlane: a Feminist, Revolutionary Journalist and Philosopher in Mid-Nineteenth Century England (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2004).
. G. J. Harney, “The Tremendous Uprising, in Three Parts,” Newcastle Weekly Chronicle, December 27–January 30, 1889.
A panel discussion organized by the Platypus Affiliated Society, held on March 20, 2011 at Left Forum, Pace University.
Marx and Engels were not the preeminent socialists but rather socialism's greatest critics, distinguishing their "communism" from "reactionary," "bourgeois" and "democratic" socialism. Lately, Marx is taken for his theoretical analysis of capitalism more than his and Engels's revolutionary politics, discredited after the 20th century's spectacular failures of "Marxism." So what is Marx and Engels's political legacy? What Marx wrote after the failed "social-democratic" revolutions of 1848 still resonates: "Every demand of the simplest bourgeois financial reform, of the most ordinary liberalism, of the most formal republicanism, of the most insipid democracy, is simultaneously castigated as an 'attempt on society' and stigmatized as 'socialism'." How does Marx and Engels's politics of "communism," that is, socialism aware of its historical vocation, task us today?
Platypus presents: Lessons from the history of Marxism
Please join us for the following panel discussions:
The Bourgeois Revolution: from Marxâ€™s point of view
//Saturday, March 19 | 10:00 a.m. â€“ 11:50 a.m. | room W603A
Sponsored by the Platypus Review
James Vaughn - University of Texas at Austin, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Richard Rubin - The Platypus Affiliated Society
Spencer Leonard - University of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Jeremy Cohan (chair) - New York University, The Platypus Affiliated Society
//Saturday, March 19 | 12:00 p.m. â€“ 1:50 p.m. | room W607
Chris Cutrone - School of the Art Institute of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Paul Le Blanc - LaRoche College
Lars T. Lih - Independent researcher
Ian Morrison (chair) - University of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society
The Marxism of Rosa Luxemburg
//Saturday, March 19 | 12:00 p.m. â€“ 1:50 p.m. | room W606
Greg Gabrellas - University of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Stephen Eric Bronner - Rutgers University
Ben Shepard (chair) - The Platypus Affiliated Society
//Saturday, March 19 | 3:00 p.m. â€“ 4:50 p.m. | room W607
Jeremy Cohan - New York University, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Marco Torres - University of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Timothy Bewes - Brown University
Timothy Hall - University of East London, U.K.
Chris Cutrone (chair) - School of the Art Institute of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Aesthetics in Protests
//Saturday, March 19 | 3:00 p.m. â€“ 4:50 p.m. | room E330
Chris Mansour - Parsons School of Design, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Laurel Whitney - Yes Men
Marc Herbst - Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, Reclaim the Streets
Stephen Duncombe - New York University
Jamie Keesling (chair) - 491, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Debating Alain Badiouâ€™s â€œPolitics of Emancipationâ€
//Saturday, March 19 | 5:00 p.m. â€“ 6:50 p.m | room W615
Sponsored by the Demarcations
Bruno Bosteels - Cornell University
Chris Cutrone - The Platypus Affiliated Society, School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Nayi Duniya - Demarcations journal
Saul Thomas (chair) - University of Chicago
//Saturday, March 19 | 5:00 p.m. â€“ 6:50 p.m | room W607
Ian Morrison - University of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Jason Wright - International Bolshevik Tendency
Susan Williams - Freedom Socialist Party
Spencer Leonard (chair) - University of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Marx and Engelsâ€™s Marxism
//Sunday, March 20 | 10:00 a.m. â€“ 11:50 a.m. | room W603A
Sponsored by the Platypus Review
Benjamin Blumberg - University of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Nathan Smith - University of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Pam Nogales - New York University, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Richard Rubin - The Platypus Affiliated Society
Tana Forrester (chair) - University of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Platypus Review 7 | October 2008
The following is a talk given at the Marxist-Humanist Committee public forum on The Crisis in Marxist Thought, hosted by the Platypus Affiliated Society in Chicago on Friday, July 25, 2008.
I want to speak about the meaning of history for any purportedly Marxian Left.
We in Platypus focus on the history of the Left because we think that the narrative one tells about this history is in fact one’s theory of the present. Implicitly or explicitly, in one’s conception of the history of the Left, is an account of how the present came to be. By focusing on the history of the Left, or, by adopting a Left-centric view of history, we hypothesize that the most important determinations of the present are the result of what the Left has done or failed to do historically.
For the purposes of this talk, I will focus on the broadest possible framing for such questions and problems of capital in history, the broadest possible context within which I think one needs to understand the problems faced by the Left, specifically by a purportedly Marxian Left.
I will not, for example, be focusing so much on issues for Platypus in the history of the various phases and stages of capital itself, for instance our contention that the 1960s represented not any kind of advance, but a profound retrogression on the Left. I will not elucidate our account of how the present suffers from at least 3 generations of degeneration and regression on the Left: the first, in the 1930s, being tragic; the second in the 1960s being farcical; and the most recent, in the 1990s, being sterilizing.
But, suffice it to say, I will point out that, for Platypus, the recognition of regression and the attempt to understand its significance and causes is perhaps our most important point of departure. The topic of this talk is the most fundamental assumption informing our understanding of regression.
For purposes of brevity, I will not be citing explicitly, but I wish to indicate my indebtedness for the following treatment of a potential Marxian philosophy of history, beyond Marx and Engels themselves, and Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky, to Georg Lukács, Karl Korsch, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and, last but not least, the Marx scholar Moishe Postone. And, moreover, I will be in dialogue, through these writers, with Hegel, who distinguished philosophical history as the story of the development of freedom.—For Hegel, history is only meaningful the degree to which it is the story of freedom.
Capital is completely unprecedented in the history of humanity, hence, any struggle for emancipation beyond capital is also completely unprecedented. While there is a connection between the unprecedented nature of the emergence of capital in history and the struggle to get beyond it, this connection can also be highly misleading, leading to a false symmetry between the transition into and within different periods of the transformations of modern capital, and a potential transition beyond capital. The revolt of the Third Estate, which initiated a still on-going and never-to-be-exhausted modern history of bourgeois-democratic revolutions, is both the ground for, and, from a Marxian perspective, the now potentially historically obsolescent social form of politics from which proletarian socialist politics seeks to depart, to get beyond.
Hegel, as a philosopher of the time of the last of the great bourgeois-democratic revolutions marking the emergence of modern capital, the Great French Revolution of 1789, was for this reason a theorist of the revolt of the Third Estate. Marx, who came later, after the beginning of the Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century, faced problems Hegel did not.
It has often been stated, but not fully comprehended by Marxists that Marx recognized the historical mission of the class-conscious proletariat, to overcome capitalism and to thus do away with class society. Traditionally, this meant, however paradoxically, either the end of the pre-history or the beginning of the true history of humanity.—In a sense, this duality of the possibility of an end and a true beginning, was a response to a Right Hegelian notion of an end to history, what is assumed by apologists for capital as a best of all possible worlds.
Famously, in the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels stated that all history hitherto has been the history of class struggles; Engels added a clever footnote later that specified “all written history.” We might extrapolate from this that what Engels meant was the history of civilization; history as class struggle did not pertain, for instance, to human history or social life prior to the formation of classes, the time of the supposed “primitive communism.” Later, in 1942 (in “Reflections on Class Theory”), Adorno, following Benjamin (in the “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” 1940), wrote that such a conception by Marx and Engels of all of history as the history of class struggles was in fact a critique of all of history, a critique of history itself.
So in what way does the critique of history matter in the critique of capital? The problem with the commonplace view of capitalism as primarily a problem of exploitation is that it is in this dimension that capital fails to distinguish itself from other forms of civilization. What is new in capital is social domination, which must be distinguished both logically and historically, structurally and empirically, from exploitation, to which it is not reducible. Social domination means the domination of society by capital. This is what is new about capital in the history of civilization; prior forms of civilization knew overt domination of some social groups over others, but did not know as Marx recognized in capital a social dynamic to which all social groups—all aspects of society as a whole—are subject.
So we must first draw a demarcation approximately 10,000 years ago, with the origins of civilization and class society, when the great agricultural revolution of the Neolithic Age took place, and human beings went from being nomadic hunter-gatherers to becoming settled agriculturalists. The predominant mode of life for humanity went from the hunter-gatherer to the peasant, and was this for most of subsequent history.
Several hundred years ago, however, a similarly profound transformation began, in which the predominant mode of life has gone from agricultural peasant to urban worker: wage-earner, manufacturer, and industrial producer.
More proximally, with the Industrial Revolution in the late-18th to early-19th Centuries, certain aspects of this “bourgeois” epoch of civilization and society manifested themselves and threw this history of the emergence of modernity into a new light. Rather than an “end of history” as bourgeois thinkers up to that time had thought, modern social life entered into a severe crisis that fundamentally problematized the transition from peasant- to worker-based society.
With Marx in the 19th Century came the realization that bourgeois society, along with all its categories of subjectivity including its valorization of labor, might itself be transitional, that the end-goal of humanity might not be found in the productive individual of bourgeois theory and practice, but that this society might point beyond itself, towards a potential qualitative transformation at least as profound as that which separated the peasant way of life from the urban “proletarian” one, indeed a transition more on the order of profundity of the Neolithic Revolution in agriculture that ended hunter-gatherer society 10,000 years ago, more profound than that which separated modern from traditional society.
At the same time that this modern, bourgeois society ratcheted into high gear by the late-18th Century, it entered into crisis, and a new, unprecedented historical phenomenon was manifested in political life, the “Left.” —While earlier forms of politics certainly disputed values, this was not in terms of historical “progress,” which became the hallmark of the Left.
The Industrial Revolution of the early 19th Century, the introduction of machine production, was accompanied by the optimistic and exhilarating socialist utopias suggested by these new developments, pointing to fantastical possibilities expressed in the imaginations of Fourier and Saint-Simon, among others.
Marx regarded the society of “bourgeois right” and “private property” as indeed already resting on the social constitution and mediation of labor, from which private property was derived, and asked the question of whether the trajectory of this society, from the revolt of the Third Estate and the manufacturing era in the 18th Century to the Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century, indicated the possibility of a further development.
In the midst of the dramatic social transformations of the 19th Century in which, as Marx put it in the Manifesto, “all that was solid melted into air,” as early as 1843, Marx prognosed and faced the future virtual proletarianization of society, and asked whether and how humanity in proletarian form might liberate itself from this condition, whether and how, and with what necessity the proletariat would “transcend” and “abolish itself.” As early as the 1844 Manuscripts, Marx recognized that socialism (of Proudhon et al.) was itself symptomatic of capital: proletarian labor was constitutive of capital, and thus its politics was symptomatic of how the society conditioned by capital might reveal itself as transitional, as pointing beyond itself.—This was Marx’s most fundamental point of departure, that proletarianization was a substantial social problem and not merely relative to the bourgeoisie, and that the proletarianization of society was not the overcoming of capital but its fullest realization, and that this—the proletarianized society of capital—pointed beyond itself.
Thus, with Marx, a philosophy of the history of the Left was born. For Marx was not a socialist or communist so much as a thinker who tasked himself with understanding the meaning of the emergence of proletarian socialism in history. Marx was not simply the best or most consistent or radical socialist, but rather the most historically, and hence critically, self-aware. By “scientific” socialism, Marx understood himself to be elaborating a form of knowledge aware of its own conditions of possibility.
For a Hegelian and Marxian clarification of the specificity of the modern problem of social freedom, however, it becomes clear that the Left must define itself not sociologically, whether in terms of socioeconomic class or a principle of collectivism over individualism, etc., but rather as a matter of consciousness, specifically historical consciousness.
For, starting with Marx, it is consciousness of history and historical potential and possibilities, however apparently utopian or obscure, that distinguishes the Left from the Right, not the struggle against oppression—which the modern Right also claims. The Right does not represent the past but rather the foreclosing of possibilities in the present.
For this reason, it is important for us to recognize the potential and fact of regression that the possibilities for the Left in theory and practice have suffered as a result of the abandonment of historical consciousness in favor of the immediacies of struggles against oppression.
Marx’s critique of symptomatic socialism, from Proudhon, Lassalle, Bakunin, et al., to his own followers in the new German Social-Democratic Party and their program at Gotha (as well as in Engels’s subsequent critique of the Erfurt Programme), was aimed at maintaining the Marxian vision corresponding to the horizon of possibility of post-capitalist and post-proletarian society.
Unfortunately, beginning in Marx’s own lifetime, the form of politics he sought to inspire began to fall well below the threshold of this critically important consciousness of history. And the vast majority of this regression has taken place precisely in the name of “Marxism.” Throughout the history of Marxism, from the disputes with the anarchists in the 1st International Workingmen’s Association, and disputes in the 2nd Socialist International, to the subsequent splits in the Marxist workers’ movement with the Bolshevik-led Third, Communist International and Trotskyist Fourth International, a sometimes heroic but, in retrospect, overwhelmingly tragic struggle to preserve or recover something of the initial Marxian point of departure for modern proletarian socialism took place.
In the latter half of the 20th Century, developments regressed so far behind the original Marxian self-consciousness that Marxism itself became an affirmative ideology of industrial society, and the threshold of post-capitalist society became obscured, finding expression only obtusely, in various recrudescent utopian ideologies, and, finally, in the most recent period, with the hegemony of “anarchist” ideologies and Romantic rejections of modernity.
But, beyond this crisis and passage into oblivion of a specifically Marxian approach, the “Left” itself, which emerged prior to Hegel and Marx’s attempts to philosophize its historical significance, has virtually disappeared. The present inability to distinguish conservative-reactionary from progressive-emancipatory responses to the problems of society conditioned by capital, is inseparable from the decline and disappearance of the social movement of proletarian socialism for which Marx had sought to provide a more adequate and provocative self-consciousness at the time of its emergence in the 19th Century.
Paradoxically, as Lukács, following Luxemburg and Lenin, already pointed out, almost a century ago, while the apparent possibility of overcoming capital approaches in certain respects, in another sense it seems to retreat infinitely beyond the horizon of possibility. Can we follow Luxemburg’s early recognition of the opportunism that always threatens us, not as some kind of selling-out or falling from grace, but rather the manifestation of the very real fear that attends the dawning awareness of what grave risks are entailed in trying to fundamentally move the world beyond capital?
What’s worse—and, in the present, prior to any danger of “opportunism”—with the extreme coarsening if not utter disintegration of the ability to apprehend and transform capital through working-class politics, has come the coarsening of our ability to even recognize and apprehend, let alone adequately understand our social reality. We do not suffer simply from opportunism but from a rather more basic disorientation. Today we are faced with the problem not of changing the world but more fundamentally of understanding it.
On the other hand, approaching Marxian socialism, are we dealing with a “utopia?”—And, if so, what of this? What is the significance of our “utopian” sense of human potential beyond capital and proletarian labor? Is it a mere dream?
Marx began with utopian socialism and ended with the most influential if spectacularly failing modern political ideology, “scientific socialism.” At the same time, Marx gave us an acute and incisive critical framework for grasping the reasons why the last 200 years have been, by far, the most tumultuously transformative but also destructive epoch of human civilization, why this period has promised so much and yet disappointed so bitterly. The last 200 years have seen more, and more profound changes, than prior millennia have. Marx attempted to grasp the reasons for this. Others have failed to see the difference and have tried to re-assimilate modern history back into its antecedents (for instance, in postmodernist illusions of an endless medievalism: see Bruno Latour’s 1993 book We Have Never Been Modern).
What would it mean to treat the entire Marxian project as, first and foremost, a recognition of the history of modernity tout court as one of the pathology of transition, from the class society that emerged with the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago and the civilizations based on an essentially peasant way of life, through the emergence of the commodity form of social mediation, to the present global civilization dominated by capital, towards a form of humanity that might lie beyond this?
With Marx we are faced with a self-consciousness of an obscure and mysterious historical task, which can only be further clarified theoretically through transformative practice—the practice of proletarian socialism. But this task has been abandoned in favor of what are essentially capital-reconstituting struggles, attempting to cope with the vicissitudes of the dynamics of modern history. But this re-assimilation of Marxism back into ideology characteristic of the revolt of the Third Estate means the loss of the true horizon of possibility that motivated Marx and gave his project meaning and urgency.
Can we follow Marx and the best historically revolutionary Marxists who followed him in recognizing the forms of discontent in the pathological society we inhabit as being themselves symptomatic of and bound up with the very problem against which they rage? Can we avoid the premature post-capitalism and bad, reactionary utopianism that attends the present death of the Left in theory in practice, and preserve and fulfill the tasks given to us by history? Can we recognize the breadth and depth of the problem we seek to overcome without retreating into wishful thinking and ideological gracing of the accomplished fact, and apologizing for impulses that only seem directed against it, at the expense of what might lie beyond the traps of the suffering of the present?
We urgently need an acute awareness of our historical epoch as well as of our fleeting moment now, within it.—We must ask what it is about the present moment that might make the possibility of recovering a Marxian social and political consciousness viable, and how we can advance it by way of recovering it.
For the pathology of our modern society mediated by capital, of the proletarian form of social life and its self-objectifications, the new forms of humanity it makes possible, which are completely unprecedented in history, grows only worse the longer delayed is taking the possible and necessary steps to the next levels of the struggle for freedom.
The pathology grows worse, not merely in terms of the various forms of the destruction of humanity, which are daunting, but also, perhaps more importantly—and disturbingly—in the manifest worsening social conditions and capacities for practical politics on the Left, and our worsening theoretical awareness of them. If there has been a crisis and evacuation of Marxian thought, it has been because its most fundamental context and point of departure, its awareness of its greater historical moment, the possibility of an epochal transition, has been forgotten, while we have not ceased to share this moment, but only lost sight of its necessities and possibilities. Any future emancipatory politics must regain such awareness of the transitional nature of capitalist modernity and of the reasons why we pay such a steep price for failing to recognize this. |P