Monday, May 7, 2018

Karl Marx 200 years later

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Marx statue in Trier
by Alex Steiner

On May 5th the world celebrated the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx in the German city of Trier.  It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the ideas of no one person of the past two centuries has had a larger influence on the course of history than Marx.  It is also just as true to say that no one since Jesus has had his ideas so bastardized and misused as Marx.  Marx's philosophy of emancipation was turned into an apology for state repression and social inequality at the hands of the Stalinists. Hundreds of millions of people had their impressions of Marx and his thought colored by that upside-down caricature. It is impossible to make an objective assessment of Marx and his work without that consideration.


As with all anniversaries of prominent figures, one can expect a litany of Op Ed pieces and academic forums.  Marx’s 200th birthday is no exception.  It has dawned on the powers that be in his native country, Germany, that Marx can be commodified and turned into a tourist attraction. The most publicized of these rituals took place in the city of Marx’s birth, Trier, where a 15-foot-tall statue of Marx, presented to the city by the government of China, was unveiled on May 5.  The BBC reported that on the day prior to the unveiling,

President Xi Jinping on Friday gave a high-profile speech praising Marx as the greatest thinker of modern times.
He urged China's ruling Communist Party to go back to the roots of Marxism, and said the party would forever remain the "guardians and practitioners" of its theories.
Students and most civil servants in China must complete mandatory courses in Marxism.
The irony of this was not lost on the BBC reporter, who commented,
Despite this, China's capitalist system is home to hundreds of billionaires and a widening gap between rich and poor. [1]
Yet another news source not know for its radicalism, CBS, was also moved to comment on this strange event,
Promoting Marx is seen in part as a way for the Chinese president to strengthen ideological control and counter critics within the ruling Communist Party unhappy with his move in March to eliminate presidential term limits. Xi is also general secretary of the ruling Communist Party, an official that is also not term-limited. [2]

There is historical precedent for a revolutionary movement being transformed into a doctrine rationalizing oppression.  It should not be forgotten that Christianity, beginning as a messianic movement of slaves revolting against their oppressors, was in the next three centuries transformed into the state religion of the Roman Empire.
One of the consequences of the bastardization of Marx at the hands of Stalinism has been the reaction against Marx from the rebellious generation of the 60’s who were disgusted by Stalinist scholasticism and conflated that with the ideas of Marx.  The New Left embodied these contradictions between a revolutionary impulse and theoretical confusion. But the New Left’s adoption of what it considered a left alternative to Marx ran aground on the wreck of the protest movements of the 1960s.  Nevertheless, those impulses from the 1960’s, while theoretically misplaced, at least had an emancipatory goal, a new world free of exploitation.  The same cannot be said for some of the mutations of 1960’s era radicalism that we see today.  These take the form of an identity politics hostile to the working class, a revival of ethnic nationalism and an overarching conviction that nothing fundamental can be done about capitalism. 
Many of these retrograde tendencies were on display at a celebration of Marx’s 200th Birthday at the Goethe Institute in New York.  The Goethe Institute is sponsored by the German government and is the organization tasked with publicizing German culture internationally.  While it is a positive development that Marx is no longer ignored by official German cultural institutions, he cannot be so easily assimilated.
Unlike other icons of German culture such as Goethe and Schiller, Marx was a revolutionary whose heritage cannot be reconciled with the agencies of a bourgeois state. It is hardly surprising therefore that none of the speakers at the Goethe Institute panel on Marx had anything to say that would have been remotely recognizable by Marx had he dropped in. One panelist, a retired law professor claimed that the best examples of the socialist experiment in recent years could be found in the “Global South”. She mentioned in that connection Allende’s tenure in Chile before he was murdered by a CIA inspired coup, as well as certain attempts to institute “African socialism” by some of the nationalist leaders of Africa such as Julius Nyerere. This panelist did not seem very curious about why these experiments failed, while at the same time being dismissive of the far larger and longer experiment in socialism, the Russian Revolution, which she considered something primarily of interest to “white people”.  Another panelist, a graduate student in feminist studies, barely concealed her hostility to Marx and Marxism as she went into a long diatribe on ‘gendered economics’.  To his credit another member of the panel, the Marxist economist Anwar Shaikh, tried to gently correct the muddle introduced by the feminist student that we must start with gender as a primary category in all theorizing about society. He pointed out that you cannot start with gender until you have determined where gender lives. In other words, gender has a historical context and you cannot conceive of the emancipation of women without theorizing what an emancipated society looks like. But this was a minor note in a largely confused symposium in which the ideas of Marx were for the most part either ignored or conflated in an eclectic manner with all sorts of other notions that Marx would not have recognized as his own. Nevertheless, the fact that the Goethe Institute staged a celebration of Marx’s 200th birthday does indicate a recognition that Marx can no longer be ignored or dismissed as an alien presence.
It has not always been the case. The fortunes of Marx’s legacy in his native country has waxed and waned depending on the political climate.  In the latter years of the 19th century when the Social Democratic Party of Germany was the largest socialist party in the world and commanded millions of devoted followers, it was a common practice for workers who passed away to be buried with a copy of the Communist Manifesto in their coffin.  And during the years of the Weimar Republic Berlin boasted of a street named after Marx. On the other hand, during the Nazi era, Marx’s connection to German culture was completely eviscerated.  He became a prototypical “dirty Jew” in Nazi propaganda and therefore an alien presence in the German soil seeking to destroy its greatness. A tract of Nazi propaganda published in 1944 for the Hitler Youth stated,
Remember how Karl Marx falsified the German conception of socialism as a natural order of life, based deeply in German blood, and turned into the phantom of the dictatorship of the proletariat. This doctrine so deeply mirrored the nature of its Jewish inventor that the world knew only to connect it to his name: “Marxism.” [3]
In the post-war years Marx was lionized in East Germany, particularly in films. (Until the release of Raoul Peck’s ‘The Young Marx’ earlier this year, practically the only films that dealt with Marx or his ideas were produced in East Germany.) This served the interests of the Stalinist regime in the East who tried to legitimize their rule at the same time as they suppressed any dissent to their repressive regime. On the other hand, in West Germany during the Cold War years, Marx was ignored and marginalized.  This only began to change with the rise of the student movement in Germany in the 1960’s. [4]
The Goethe Institute forum, while indicating an attempt to come to terms with Marx, could not escape the broad intellectual climate of our time, which is still largely deaf to that great thinker.  In academia, Marx's scientific work, laying bare the mechanism of the capitalist mode of production, was all but ignored and rarely been taken seriously, even by left economists. For example, the Marxist geographer David Harvey wrote recently,
It is widely believed that Marx adapted the labour theory of value from Ricardo as a founding concept for his studies of capital accumulation.  Since the labour theory of value has been generally discredited, it is then often authoritatively stated that Marx s theories are worthless. But nowhere, in fact, did Marx declare his allegiance to the labour theory of value. [5]
While it may be surprising for an economist who considers himself a Marxist to dismiss one of the pillars of Marx’s understanding of capitalism, the labour theory of value, almost in passing, it is not unusual.  He is joined by many other economists and social scientists claiming to be Marxist or “post-Marxist”.
On the question of the whether the labour theory of value has been discredited, Paul Cockshott wrote a good response,
Harvey claims that the labour theory of value is generally discredited. But in what sense?
It is correct to say that the theory is not viewed with favour in economics departments, but that is for political reasons – the labour theory of value came, since Gray and Marx, came to be associated with socialism. Since academic economists, in general, did not want to be tainted with the socialist label they were at pains to distance themselves from the theory.
But none of them ever adduced any empirical evidence to refute it. It was socially discredited but not empirically refuted. [6]
Harvey has also objected to Marx's theory of the falling rate of profit. He wrote in 2014,
"...those who attribute the difficulties of contemporary capitalism to the tendency of the profit rate to fall are, judging by this evidence of labour participation, seriously mistaken. The conditions point to a vast increase and not a constriction in surplus value production and extraction."
Harvey was answered by Andrew Kliman writing in the blog New Left Project, 

Harvey’s chief complaint is that the LTFRP [the law of the tendency for the rate of profit to fall] and the theory of crisis based on it are mono-causal: it ignores other causes of crisis as well as counteracting factors, and its current proponents typically present it in a way that ‘exclude[s] consideration of other possibilities’. I will argue that this is just a strawman. 
The real issue is not that anyone has advocated a mono-causal theory, but that Harvey is campaigning for what we might call an apousa-causal theory, one in which the LTFRP plays no role at all (apousa is Greek for ‘absent’). He is the one who is trying to exclude something from consideration. In light of his emphasis on capitalism’s ‘maelstrom of conflicting forces’ and its ‘multiple contradictions and crisis tendencies’, one might expect that he would urge us to consider all potential causes of crisis, excluding nothing. However, Harvey is not merely suggesting that other potential causes of crisis be considered alongside the LTFRP. He seems determined to consign it and the theory of crisis based on it to the dustbin of history. [7]

I select Harvey as an example not because I think he is a particularly bad interpreter of Marx, but because he is one of the most widely recognized Marxist economic theorists working today. He is in fact one of the few people who take the study of Marx’s Capital seriously and has made important academic contributions to its dissemination.  But he is typical of many of his colleagues in dismissing the theoretical heart of Capital.
Marx's theories were also vulgarized by many of his admirers who turned it into a doctrine of inevitable collapse.  This remains a popular, though completely misunderstood explanation of Marxism today.  

Marx's signature on a slip from the Reading Room of the British Museum where he worked on Capital.
I should add that the Marxian dialectic remains an enigma to even the devoted few who will defend Marx's economic theories. This is a topic about which I have written extensively. [8] Nor has there ever been an honest coming to terms by Marx's followers about the need to extend critical and dialectical thinking into areas that Marx barely touched. They forget that Marx’s original project called for 6 volumes and he was only able to complete the first volume of Capital.  And that was just Capital. Had he lived long enough he undoubtedly would have had something to say about other areas of life. But the fact that Marx never did develop his ideas on psychology or art in any systematic fashion has led some of his followers to proclaim that these topics are either unimportant or irrelevant. 
There is also the question of whether Marx’s early “humanist” writings can be reconciled with his “mature” scientific work.  I have always considered that debate something of an intellectual fraud. There is no question that as Marx matured his understanding deepened and he even reversed his ideas on a number of questions. But I think it is just as wrong to speak of some break between the early Marx and the later mature Marx, as if Marx stopped being a humanist in his mature years or that his scientific work was irreconcilable with his theory of alienation. That dichotomy was introduced by the work of the French ‘structuralist-Marxist’ Louis Althusser, who defended a “scientific” Marx shorn of the Hegelian dialectic. Althusser had his counterpart in the school of Marxist humanists, many of whom prospered in Yugoslavia, Poland and other Eastern European countries in the 1960’s. This group was looking for a source of opposition to Stalinist Scholasticism in the early writings of Marx. Unfortunately, they tended to identify the later writings of Marx with their Stalinist bastardization. These thinkers championed the early Marx’s writings on alienation which they viewed as completely divorced from his later “scientific” work and his theory of revolution.  Many of these defenders of Marxist humanism later embraced nationalism and anti-communism.
The topic was introduced tangentially at the Goethe Institute forum when one of the panelists proclaimed her allegiance to the “humanist” Marx and rejected the interpretation of Marx as “scientific”.  Had I had the opportunity I would have corrected her by pointing out that there is nothing inconsistent between humanism and science. The issue however is complicated by the common misconception that what Marx meant by ‘science’ was something like the positivist notion of science. [9]
Finally, the Marxian political project is resting on hard times.  The only mass political movements willing to identify with Marx are Stalinist parties representing the interests of tiny cliques of oligarchs.  The Soviet Union is gone as are all the deformed workers states of Eastern Europe and the Balkans.  Political movements that try to carry out the project envisioned by Marx are practically without exception tiny grouplets cut off from any mass movement.  And these groups tend to veer off into increasing bouts of sectarianism while others dissolve their Marxist principles into opportunist cheering of militancy.    
Nevertheless, Marx remains key to understanding the 21st century. [10] Of course, Marx did not and could not have anticipated the complex paths and detours taken by history in the 135 years since his death.  Nor was Marx some kind of biblical prophet whose every prediction turned out be true. To be scientific is not the same as being infallible. It is necessary to supplement Marx with the work of other theoreticians, Lenin and Trotsky to be sure, but others as well, if one is to make sense of phenomena such as imperialism, the Soviet Union, fascism, the colonial revolution and the age of neo-liberal austerity. 
In the final analysis, it is impossible to understand our world today without resting on the shoulders of Marx.  That is the basic ground for any theory of political and social emancipation. 
 
May Day 2018 in Bangladesh. This worker is depicting the status of the working class still in chains.


[5] David Harvey. Marx’s refusal of the labour theory of value, 2018.

[8] For instance, see my ‘Case study of the neglect of dialectics’,
Unfortunately, most of what I have written in this area is in the form of a polemic against one sectarian group and their abandonment of dialectics.  Nevertheless, I think there are some general lessons to be learned from those polemics for those with the patience to go through them.
[9]  See my essay Alienation and Revolution: A Defense of Marx’s Theory of Alienation,
I have also written on this topic as part of an ongoing polemic against David North. See my defense of Marx’s theory of alienation in Chapter 6 of ‘Downward Spiral’, pages 155-159;
[10] Bhaskar Sunkara, the editor of Jacobin, someone with whom I have profound political differences, nevertheless  nicely  expressed the views of a new generation when he wrote in an essay titled, ‘Why the ideas of Karl Marx are relevant to the 21st century’,
For many in my generation, the ideological underpinnings of capitalism have been undermined. That a higher percentage of Americans between the ages of 18 and 30 have a more favorable opinion of socialism than capitalism at least signals that the cold war era conflation of socialism with Stalinism no longer holds sway.

7 comments:

Kristina said...

Steiner writes, "It is necessary to supplement Marx with the work of other theoreticians, Lenin and Trotsky to be sure, but others as well, if one is to make sense of phenomena such as imperialism, the Soviet Union, fascism, the colonial revolution and the age of neo-liberal austerity."

Which other figures are needed? I'd like to read what they have to say.

Steiner initiated his criticism of the ICFI by claiming it had abandoned the heritage of Trotskyism. Today, I think it's clear it's he who has done so. Sure, invite state capitalists, SWP folks onto the blog. He can also finally stop pretending he is writing in continuity of the heritage of Trotskyism.

Alex Steiner said...

The so-called ICFI has nothing to do with the heritage of Trotsky other than appropriating the name. They have abandoned the transitional program, a key part of that heritage. They have abandoned any concern with dialectics, something that was a priority in Trotsky's last great polemic against the Shachtman-Burnham minority in the SWP in 1939-1940. They have done no theoretical work whatsoever on such major issues as the nature of Russia and China. Contrast that with Trotsky's study of the Soviet Union in 'Revolution Betrayed'. They align themselves with the worst of the right wing in calling for the break up of unions. Their "perspective" on world politics has degenerated to the point where they serve up little more than conspiracy theories about every event in the news. Stuff like that you can find on the 'global research' conspiracy web site. I suppose that is why 'global research' likes to reprint stuff from the WSWS. They have completely abandoned any effort to defend the rights of women, something that was always a hallmark of the socialist movement. They continue in many ways the worst traditions of Gerry Healy with their crisis mongering. They use the tactics of the gutter against their political opponents. Rather than engaging in debate that relies on logic and evidence to prove their point they rely on character assassination and slander. They publish "theoretical" articles that are laughable for the lack of meaningful content as opposed to vituperation. Their internal life has much of the character of a cult. Membership is restricted to only a tiny select few who pass their litmus test of loyalty to the leader of the organization. They tolerate no dissent in their ranks. They are proud of passing all their resolutions "unanimously". They practice a form of shunning against former members or supporters who dared to challenge the wisdom of David North. They are the worst kind of sectarians, refusing to participate in any joint activities with other organizations or even to organize their own panels at major conferences of the left. They rewrite their own history in order to present the appearance of having a "spotless" record in defending the interests of the working class. Their bizarre claim that everyone on the left except themselves are really a "pseudo-left" just reinforces the quasi-religious belief of their members that they are the only ones on the planet who own some kind of franchise to speak in the name of Trotsky. In truth, they turned their back on those traditions decades ago to become the sterile sect they are today.

Anonymous said...

In my own country, Karl Marx used to be one of the banned terms in public life until as late as the late 1990s.
Indeed there were scholars mentioning or studying his ideas, especially in such fields as economics, sociology, and literary theory, but they seemed to be confined to a few college campuses or institutes, paled in comparison with the academic mainstream atmosphere.
This was mainly influenced by anti-communism kindled continuously by the long periods of military dictatorship, when powerful elites readily took advantage of public fear of possible threats associated with the Cold War.
Ironically, in what seemed to me a kind of reaction, Marx, along with his offspring, descendants, distant relatives from Lenin to Althusser to Che Guevara, was enthusiastically embraced by very many college students and laborers from radical unions.
They were far from satisfied with the status quo, longed for the great transformation, and wanted at least the start of an upheaval. It was only Marx who seemed to them to propose a solution for a society of no inequality, exploitation, or conflicts.
In retrospect, that was a quasi-religion, regardless of the validity of Marxism. Why?
Especially among students, in all kinds of subjects from post-election perspective to dating violence to film review, sayings from Marx and his kin were cited. Everything was summoned to the Marxian court, where sectarian legalists contended by pointing to this or that section of the poorly translated Holy Marx Books. By the way, until when? Exactly the year 1991, the collapse of the Soviet Union. After being dumbstruck or baffled for a while, they all fled and disappeared. (Of course, a very very few of them returned with Deleuze, Negri, Badiou and Zizek.)
As for me, I am in no way hostile to the ideas of Marx. Rather, I think his ideas are more relevant now than at any other time. However, I always feel stuffed how the ideas are transformed to meaningful and productive practices on a permanent basis. Steiner/Brenner seems to me to try to solve this puzzle, sometimes walking across the beaten path and other times looking outside the box. For this reason, some people may have suspicion, but I consider their stance to be more sound for the same reason.
I was at first drawn to Trotsky for his texts on culture and literature. I have had little time to attend to details of his philosophy(dialectics) or politics(transitional program). That’s why I enjoy visiting this blog.
Thank you again for this great article that kindly outlines today's Marxism.

Alex Steiner said...

To Anonymous,

Thank you for your thoughtful comments. It is gratifying to read such an honest statement of one person's experience and to know that our work facilitated some reflection about Marx. Don't you find it interesting that 170 years after the Communist Manifesto, and 27 years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the spectre of Marx is still haunting not only Europe but the entire world?

E said...

I'm a young member of the SEP and I often come here to read the posts. I don't read your site because I agree with anything you post. To the contrary, I know I speak for a lot of younger and newer members of the party when I say that your website is an informative reference point for tracking the rightward trajectory of a satisfied layer of the upper middle class who broke with the socialist pretensions of their youth and are instead obsessed with the Frankfurt School and the politics of sex and identity (MeToo).

But now you claim that the SEP is a cult?

Your attempts to portray the party as anti-democratic, bureaucratic, and cult-like are anti-communist and totally outside of my own experience with the SEP. In fact, the party leadership encourages me to read your articles. When I get together with the other younger comrades in my area, your articles come up from time to time and are freely discussed (and demolished!).

What proof do you have that dissent is not tolerated? Do you have any idea of the internal discussions we have? You say were are a cult, that we shun former members, and that everything is a litmus test to the leadership (especially David North) and yet you present no proof. That's because you are lying.

I have been in countless discussions at the IYSSE, at branch meetings, where debate takes place and is approached as an opportunity to clarify the political issues. There is no climate of pressure to conform. In fact, I've had experience with other political tendencies and I can tell you that the climate is far more democratic within the SEP than anywhere else. In my view, that's a product of the fact that the SEP is fighting for historical truth and this requires a climate of intense internal debate and discussion over complex historical, theoretical, and contemporary political issues. The healthy and open climate is a product of its healthy political orientation. As for David North, he commands respect within the movement for the crucial role he has played over 45 years within the movement. What's wrong with that? My own interactions with him at meetings are so far off of how you make it seem in your comment that I can't help but wonder if you just have a weird personal grudge against him that clouds your vision.

How do you know anything about the internal culture of the movement? After all, I read that you were denied membership in 1999 and admitted you were a petty-bourgeois who made money, could afford to live in New York City and withdrew from politics. That is, you took care of yourself in a period of reaction that saw the explosion of social inequality and imperialist devastation worldwide. In contrast, the leadership of the SEP fought under difficult periods of the reactionary 1990s to establish the historical continuity of Trotskyism, including through the foundation of the WSWS. I have tremendous respect for that self-sacrifice.

Trotsky writes in "My Life" that "slander becomes a force only when it meets some historical demand. There must have been some shift...in social relations or in the political mood, if slander could find such an endless market." There is a market for your slanders among the Louis Proyect types who have grown far to the right in the past decades during which, as you admitted, your layer has made plenty of money and has benefited from rising housing prices and the stock market boom. But those of us who are coming into political consciousness loaded with student debt, tired of imperialist war, opposed to the pseudo-left and identity politics, and who want to bring an end to the capitalist system only see your slanders as a confirmation of the correctness of the need to fight for the continuity of Trotskyism.

Anonymous said...

David North has published another virulent attack upon Steiner's character at the WSWS: http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2018/05/17/liar-m17.html

It's the same sort of slander he's been launching against you for years. I tried to post a link to "Marxism Without its Head or Heart" in order for the readers to get two sides to the story between you two but my comment was censored by the moderator (probably North himself). The comment section itself is a spectacular display of the tribal mindset prevailing at the WSWS. Maybe one comment critical of North out of dozens.

Alex Steiner said...

To Anonymous
Thank you for the heads up. I am aware of North’s hit piece. I will be responding in due course.

To E

I have a very good idea of what goes on in the internal life of the SEP. We have the testimony of a number of people about that. BTW do you deny that SEP Conferences consistently adopt resolutions unanimously?

Alex Steiner