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Marxism Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

Michael Albert

Crises proliferate and intensify. Out comes Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, and whoever else. We read and we quote. Elderly left scholars mutter Marx said it, Marx knew it, see Volume whatever. We rummage the hopper of history. We echo dead men’s words. But Marx wrote, 

“The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time honored disguise and borrowed language.”

Some will say I and Marx exaggerate, but I think this problem is again surfacing exactly in accord with Marx’s prescient prediction.

Quoting Marx (or whichever other long gone icon) to make a point about contemporary relations may get an audience to genuflect to Marx. It may demonstrate one’s own allegiance to Marx. But does it get anyone to thoughtfully consider and hopefully act on some observation based on actual evidence and argument? To highlight past words often limits substance to what the past emphasized. Why not use our own words? Why not let “dead generations” rest in peace?

There are deeper issues with Marxism yesterday, today, and tomorrow as well. I often argue that the goal of struggle in every Marxist text that offers a serious economic vision is an economy that elevates about 20% of the population to ruling status. Many Marxists reply that that is utterly false. They say every genuine Marxist’s goal is mass working-class participation, democracy, and freedom. I agree. But I add that despite their personal desires, Marxists don’t offer a vision consistent with mass working-class participation, democracy, and freedom.

Put every Marxist text about economics in a pile. To the very limited extent that anything in that pile provides serious institutional vision, the vision offered includes markets and or central planning, a corporate division of labor, remuneration for output, and authoritative decision making, all of which elevate the above-mentioned 20%.

This problem isn’t about bad people. Yes, of course Stalin was a bad guy, to put it mildly. But the real and lasting problem was the movement dynamics that elevated a thug like Stalin and, one step back, the concepts that elevated those dynamics. The problem isn’t that everybody in Marxist Leninist parties wants to trample workers on the road to ruling them. The problem is that those parties and some of their core concepts, however well meaning most members are, lead to trampled, ruled workers.

Become a Marxist revolutionary, with the very best of motives—the very very best—and the odds are you aren’t going to make a revolution in our modern world at all for lack of diverse focus and especially for lack of true working class appeal. But if you do transcend those problems and help make an economic revolution, odds are your achievement will elevate coordinators to economic rule, not workers.

Some Marxists find this claim personally insulting. I don’t think it should be. It isn’t about particular people or motives. It is about concepts, methods, and institutional allegiances which, even in the hands of wonderful people, lead to results that those people would at the outset reject.

But let’s focus on two substantive issues. First, Marxism’s core concepts overemphasize economics and underemphasize gender/kinship, community/culture, and polity.

This doesn’t mean that all (or even any) Marxists ignore everything other than economics. Nor does it mean that all (or even any) Marxists don’t care greatly about other matters. It means, instead, that when yesterday’s Marxists have addressed the sex life of teenagers, marriage, the nuclear family, religion, racial identity, religion, cultural commitments, sexual preferences, political organization, police behavior, war and peace, and ecology, they have tended to highlight dynamics arising from class struggle and implications for class struggle and to deemphasize concerns rooted in the specific features of race, gender, power, and nature.

This criticism predicts that yesterday’s Marxism’s concepts do not sufficiently counter tendencies imposed by current society, by the circumstances of current struggle, or by tactical choices that generate authoritarian, racist, or sexist trends—even against the best moral and social inclinations of most Marxists.

In other words, these claims about yesterday’s Marxism’s “economism” do not predict monomania about economics or even a universal and inviolable pattern of over attention to economics and under attention to everything else, but, instead, they predict a harmful pattern of narrowness that arises and persists in the way attention is given to extra economic phenomena. 

The solution to the above observation would be for Marxists to agree that feminism and anarchism and anti racism have their own insights and that just as advocates of each of those perspectives need to take account of class-focused understanding, so people seeking classlessness need to take account of those other sources of insight and areas of needed change.

And the good news is that I think the majority of today’s Marxists agree with that. A lingering difficulty, however, is that the core intellectual framework, in times of crisis, still tends to hinder the accomplishment. 

A second area of concern is that Marxism’s concepts fail to highlight a (coordinator) class between labor and capital. Yesterday’s and today’s Marxism’s focus on only ownership relations. They miss the roots of a third class in the division of labor. This has many implications.

For example, Marxism still fails to see that the economy it positively calls “socialist” or critically calls “state capitalist” or “deformed socialist, elevates neither capitalists nor workers to ruling economic status, but instead elevates a coordinator class of planners, managers, and other empowered actors.

Marxism still typically favors markets or more often central planning for allocation, public or state ownership for control of assets, remuneration for output, power, and sometimes need for distribution of income, and corporate divisions of labor for workplace organization, and these conceptual commitments propel coordinator rule. But this doesn’t say that most (or arguably even any) individual Marxists self-consciously try to advance the interests of managers and other empowered actors over and above workers. It says, instead, that the concepts within Marxism do little to prevent this elevation of the coordinator class and even propel it, so that coordinator economic dominance emerges from successful Marxist movements regardless of the sentiments of the movement’s rank and file.

Marx advised that when judging some intellectual framework one should discount what it says about itself, and, instead, notice what it highlights and obscures. A theory that becomes a tool of a ruling class will obscure that class’s behavior. It will hide that class’s roots in social relations. It will even hide that class’s existence. What happens if we apply this observation to assessing today’s Marxism? 

We would look at what it obscures, what it highlights, and what it seeks. We would see that Marxism’s focus on property relations and non attention to other possible economic causes of class division obscures the importance of the distribution of empowering tasks among economic actors. It removes from view the rule exerted by a coordinator class, or about 20% of the population, over the remaining 80%, the working class. We would see that Marxism and certainly Marxism Leninism elevates the coordinator class to rule even as it simultaneously hides their role and even their very existence. Would not Marx call today’s Marxism and especially Marxism Leninism the ideology of the coordinator class?

That doesn’t imply that somehow all Marxists are enemies of classlessness. But it does imply that though marxists overwhelmingly desire classlessness, their institutional allegiances obstruct their desires.

How might Marxists seeking a Marxism for tomorrow correct the two highlighted problems? 

Regarding economism, the problem is a conceptual framework that starts from economics and only then examines other realms with the primary intention of seeing their economic implications. The obvious solution is that we ought to instead begin with concepts that simultaneously highlight economics, polity, kinship, and culture. We ought to use concepts that first prioritize understanding each of these four sphere’s own logic and dynamics, and that next prioritize seeing how each sphere influences and even limits and defines the others. As a possible correction to economism within the broad rubric of Marxism, tomorrow’s Marxist might say,

“I am Marxist but I am also feminist, intercommunalist, anarchist, and green. I recognize that dynamics arising from spheres of life other than the economy are critically important and can even define economic possibilities, just as the reverse can occur. Of course, I still think class struggle is important, but I realize gender, race, religious, ethnic, sexual, and anti-authoritarian struggles are also important. I realize that just as we need to understand non-class phenomena in their relation to class struggle, we also have to understand economic phenomena in their relation to gender, race, and political struggle.”

Suppose tomorrow’s Marxist renounces ideas of economic base and extra-economic superstructure, denies that societies arise and transform only due to modes of production, and transcends seeing class struggle as the alone dominant conceptual framework for identifying strategic issues. Will the label “Marxist” still connote what he or she believes? I am not sure, but maybe.

In contrast to the above, however, the class-definition difficulty of yesterday’s and today’s Marxism seems to me less tractable. Capitalists are capitalist by virtue of their private ownership of the means of production. To no longer have capitalists above workers requires, therefore that we eliminate private ownership. So far, so good. 

But another class in capitalism resides between labor and capital. Suppose we call it the coordinator class. Coordinators are made and elevated by market or centrally planned allocation and corporate divisions of labor that allot to this third class a virtual monopoly on empowering tasks as well as on the levers and requisites of daily decision making. To no longer have coordinators above workers requires, therefore, that we eliminate those features. Yet Marxist visions advocate either markets or central planning as well as corporate divisions of labor.

Marxists do not see that even when private ownership is eliminated and even when the state remains or becomes democratic, markets, central planning, and corporate divisions of labor nonetheless elevate a new ruling class above labor.

Marxists movingly and sincerely describe the justice, equity, and dignity that “socialism” should usher in. But, if we look at texts by Marxists for their vision, we find vague rhetoric that lacks institutional substance, or, when there is institutional substance, we find institutions that deny the justice, equity, and dignity that Marxists personally favor. And when we look at Marxist practice, we find these same coordinatorist structures universally implemented. Could a Marxist today transcend this problem and yet continue to see him or herself as a Marxist tomorrow?

If a Marxist did follow that path, I think signs that it had occurred would be obvious. For example, such new Marxists would disavow what has been called socialism in countries around the world, not by calling it capitalism or state capitalism, and not by calling it deformed socialism, but by calling it a third mode of production that enshrines a different class above workers.

Such new Marxists would offer a vision that would dispense with markets, central planning, and corporate divisions of labor, as well as with modes of remuneration that reward property, power, or output.

Such new Marxists would propose major defining institutions to seek in place of rejected options. The new institutions that I think might gain support from such updated Marxists would be worker and consumer self managing councils, remuneration for duration and intensity of socially valued labor, jobs balanced for empowerment effects, collective self management, and participatory planning. 

In accord, such updated Marxists would also advocate movement organization, methods, and programs that would embody, propel, and actually arrive at these positive aims. If instead strategies for social change embody organizational choices and methods that elevate the coordinator class to authority, such as employing centrist parties and corporate divisions of labor, they will not eliminate coordinator class rule but will instead entrench it. Marxism’s flaws lead to this result regardless of the sincere desires of Marxists to end up someplace much nicer than coordinatorism.

What would be the relation of Marxists who seek to correct the error of ignoring coordinatorism to the heritage that they previously celebrated? Well, I doubt such new Marxists would call themselves Leninist or Trotskyist, but even if they did, they would certainly disavow huge swaths of associated thoughts and actions. 

Instead of always quoting Lenin and Trotsky positively, for example, they would aggressively reject Lenin saying: “It is absolutely essential that all authority in the factories should be concentrated in the hands of management.”

And they would reject Lenin saying: “Any direct intervention by the trade unions in the management of enterprises must be regarded as positively harmful and impermissible.”

And would reject Lenin saying: “Large scale machine industry which is the central productive source and foundation of socialism calls for absolute and strict unity of will… How can strict unity of will be ensured? By thousands subordinating their will to the will of one.”

And his saying: “A producer’s congress! What precisely does that mean? It is difficult to find words to describe this folly. I keep asking myself can they be joking? Can one really take these people seriously? While production is always necessary, democracy is not. Democracy of production engenders a series of radically false ideas.”

And they would reject Trotsky saying (about left communists): “They turn democratic principles into a fetish. They put the right of the workers to elect their own representatives above the Party, thus challenging the Party’s right to affirm its own dictatorship, even when this dictatorship comes into conflict with the evanescent mood of the worker’s democracy.”

And would reject Trotsky saying, “We must bear in mind the historical mission of our Party. The Party is forced to maintain its dictatorship, without stopping for these vacillations, nor even the momentary falterings of the working class. This realization is the mortar which cements our unity. The dictatorship of the proletariat does not always have to conform to formal principles of democracy.”

And reject Trotsky saying: “It is a general rule that man will try to get out of work. Man is a lazy animal.”

And reject him saying (with pride): “I consider that if the Civil War had not plundered our economic organs of all that was strongest, most independent, most endowed with initiative, we should undoubtedly have entered the path of one-man management much sooner and much less painfully.”

But, honestly, all of the above is the fare of “dead generations.” More important than arguing about the past, tomorrow’s Marxists would note that utilizing hierarchical structures in economic and/or political or social institutions risk ushering in coordinator rule (as well as creating an environment uncongenial to widespread worker involvement). 

If tomorrow’s Marxists wanted to argue that in some difficult contexts such structures have to be employed, they would urge seeing them as a temporarily imposed expedient and in all other respects try to pave the way for classless self managing social relations, now and in the future.

Finally, is there also great wisdom in Marx and subsequent Marxist writers and activists that tomorrow’s Marxists would rightly retain? Of course there is. But people who rightly reject not only capitalist property relations but also a coordinatorist division of labor as well as patriarchy, racism, and authoritarianism would also want to avoid fulfilling Marx’s own commentary that:

“The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time honored disguise and borrowed language.”

mέta welcomes responses to this text by Michael Albert, which will be published on our website in order for a dialogue on these issues to commence.