You hear a lot about “Marxism” these days. Mostly as a scare word. The big bad Socialism coming to ruin your good, American, life just like the Communist Red Scare of the 1950s. Problem is, almost no one talking about Marxism in the news right now is using the term even remotely correctly.
So, what then, is Marxism?
The majority of breathless, talking heads going on about “Marxism” lately seem to be confused by the relationship between several different moments in intellectual history. The first is “postmodernism,” a tragically out-of-date category dragged kicking and screaming out of the 1990s. “Social justice,” or “identity politics.” which is supposed to correspond to the idea of “wokeness” that they believe is suppressing their freedom of speech. And Marxism, their overarching boogeyman for all things left of center. Within this category they also use something they call “Cultural Marxism,” which is really just made up of various right-wing anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that are meant to convince people that the political Left is out to “de-Christianize” America and is directly attacking American morality and ways of life with “extreme political correctness.” Listen, Cultural Marxism isn’t a thing, OK? It’s just not.
Any way. These pundits would like to imagine there is some kind of ideological homogeneity within the entirety of the Left (would that were true!). This ideology is then that of “Marxism,” which the pundits believe to be a kind of basic common sense of the entire Left.
In this sensationally news-worthy version of Marxism (and I am simplifying here), they propose that it is a theory of class struggle and the explanation of all social phenomena using economics. It then goes on to revolve around the oppressor/oppressed binary of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat (in this case, “the rich” and “the working class” – minus “the poor” who are governed by a different ideology of Deservingness here). They then go on to say that the fact that class struggle failed to result in a mass Socialist revolution in Western countries has instead resulted in “Cultural Marxists” who have concluded that they must wage a new struggle at the level of culture, against “Western civilization” and “family values,” in order to achieve that promised revolution. Add in a little Postmodernism, which generalizes the oppressor/oppressed binary beyond class and into identity, and then combine it with a total rejection of every principle of rationality or objective truth – and you have the Right’s definition of “social justice.” (Which, almost ironically, is the verbatim definition of the “political correctness” debate from the 1990s.)
With me so far?
So. Is that actually what Marxism is? Well, no.
Marxism certainly proposes a materialist theory of determination by economics and a politics of class struggle, but this completely fails to even allude to the actual content of Marxist theory and the various developments it went through even during the classical period of Marx and Engels.
In his early years, Marx was attempting to explain Capitalist/Market society. How it worked. Why it worked. For whom it worked, who it left behind, and why it was so successful in replacing Medieval feudalism. Overall, he did this by proposing a juridical abstract equality between individuals generated by the separation of the economic and the political, and proceeded through to Engels’s later arguments about “superstructure” which rests on the economic “base” as a relatively autonomous, determining, factor for what happens in a society.
Too much theory? Ok. In other words, what he was getting at was that workers in a Capitalist society do not own the means—machines, raw materials, property, factories—which they use in their work nor do they own the products or services they produce. These are all owned by the capitalists to whom the workers must sell their “labor,” or ability to do work, in return for a wage (a wage which very often is not equal to the actual value of the goods or the labor – the difference then being taken as profit by the capitalist). This dynamic, Marx argued, then results in one half (or more) of society being physically exploited, impoverished, and rendered politically powerless by the other.
But Marx’s economic theory can’t be understood in terms of a simple moralistic binary between oppressor and oppressed. He analyzes Capitalism as a contradictory system, which is prone to crises and ultimately undermines its own capacity to deliver economic growth because of its relations of production (as above). More basically, he argues that Capitalism will always fail to elevate and support the entirety of a society beyond a certain point and should, in the end, be replaced by Socialism (meaning that the means of making, moving, and trading wealth should be owned or controlled by the workers within a cooperative society and not by an “owning” class). World economic history demonstrates that Marx was absolutely correct in the first sense and we see examples of this every day.
(Democratic socialism, by the way, is one of several types of socialism; including Revolutionary, Libertarian, Market, and Green Socialism. In Democratic Socialism, factors of production are under the management of an elected administration. Vital goods and services such as energy, housing, and transit are distributed through centralized planning; while a free market system is used to distribute consumer products.)
Now. There were other Marxist theorists, though, and it is often the work of these writers that pundits are drawing on to create their “Cultural Marxism.” Antonio Gramsci (a Communist revolutionary in early 20th century Italy) was imprisoned by the fascist regime. In prison he wrote lengthy notebooks reflecting on Marxist theory and the political situation he had encountered. While he presented accounts of the different circumstances faced by revolutions in Eastern and Western Europe, he also reflected on the way that capitalism secured the consent of the population (rather than relying on military force) through cultural institutions. In short, Gramsci was really engaged in formulating a Marxist theory of politics; reflecting on the way that Marxism could account for the formation of alliances between classes (such as, the proletariat and the peasantry, or in our case, the upper and middle classes versus the poor) and the formation of organizations that would be able to take on class struggle (such as, political parties). Hence, Marxism as a cultural explanation of social hierarchies based on class.
Herbert Marcuse, on the other hand was a German academic who came from an entirely different theoretical orientation: grounded in the study of Hegel, influenced by the phenomenological trends of philosophy, Weberian sociology, etc. These influences came together in what was called the Institute for Social Research (better known as the Frankfurt School) which Marcuse was a member of. Marcuse tends to get dragged into all of this because he was a Jewish intellectual who moved to the United States and taught at an American university; where he became a supporter of the New Left (unlike his Frankfurt School colleagues). Marcuse also had his own peculiar interpretation of Marxism; building on the idea that the industrial working classes of advanced capitalist countries had been so integrated into the system that revolution could only come from those who were “outside” of society. In other words, the poor, the marginal, the immigrant, and the oppressed (BLM as a Marxist organization anyone?). His framework was therefore certainly cultural, but his willingness to give up on the working class as the true agents of revolution puts him totally at odds with Gramsci.
Ultimately, capitalism has obviously changed a lot in the hundred years or so since Marx wrote about it. In the basic relations and structures which distinguish capitalism from feudalism and socialism, however, it has changed very little, and these are the main features of capitalism addressed in Marx’s theories (i.e., Marxism). Workers, for example, may earn more money now than they did in the last century but so do the capitalists who rely on them to profit. Consequently, the wealth and income gaps between economic classes is as great or greater now than it ever was before. Workers’ relationships to their labor and products, and to the capitalists they work for (traced in the Theory of Alienation and the Labor Theory of Value) are basically unchanged from Marx’s day. Probably the greatest difference between our current version of American capitalism and Marx’s has to do with the more direct involvement of the State in the capitalist economy (to bolster flagging profits/bail out corporations) and, as a consequence of this, the expanded role of ideological “patriotism” has been to disguise the increasingly obvious ties between the government and the capitalist upper classes.
From its beginnings, Marxism has weathered heavy criticism but the major attacks are currently being directed against claims that Marx never made. For example, some have mistakenly viewed Marx’s materialism as evidence that he ignored the role of ideas in history and in people’s lives. Viewed as a kind of “economic determinism,” Marxism has also been criticized for presenting politics, culture, religion, etc. as simple effects of a one-way economic cause (It doesn’t, as this would be undialectical). Viewed as a claim that labor is the only factor in determining prices (equated here with “value”), the Labor Theory of Value has been wrongly attacked for ignoring the effect of competition on prices. And viewing what are projections of capitalism’s tendencies into the future as inviolable predictions, Marx has been accused of making false assumptions. But let’s be honest, pretty much none of you know about or care about any of these details. Marxism is just anti-democratic Communist-Socialism designed to take money out of the pockets of good Americans, right?
Some pundits like to point to the anti-democratic practices of many Communist countries and claim that authoritarianism is inherent in Marxist doctrine. But Marx’s theories specifically concentrate on advanced industrial capitalism with its imperfect but still functioning democratic institutions and he never thought that socialism could achieve its full promise in extremely poor, politically underdeveloped, nations.
Marxism, as defined here, has had its main influence among workers and intellectuals in broadly wealthy capitalist countries, especially in Europe, who have used it as a major tool in defining their problems with and constructing political strategies around economic wage-labor exploitation. In Western countries, even non-Marxist intellectuals, particularly Sociologists and Historians, have drawn considerable insights from Marx’s writings. As have Feminists in regards to “unpaid emotional/domestic labor” and “the second shift.” In non-Western contexts, Marxism—considerably modified to deal with different mixtures of economic conditions—has clarified policies in response to post-colonialism, increased globalization, and multi-national corporate trading. And sure. In some Communist countries, selected doctrines of Marx have been frozen into abstract principles to serve as the official ideology of the regimes. But the influence of these varieties of Marxism is as different as their context.
In American capitalism’s latest crisis, Marxism helps to clarify the combination of growing unemployment and worsening inflation that has flustered the usual “experts.” As people note, the most powerful nation in history cannot erase growing poverty, provide full employment, guarantee decent housing, or an adequate diet, or good health care to its people. Meanwhile, the rich get richer. Exponentially so. So, part of how we talk about this is via the theories of Karl Marx. Marxism, as an account of the rational unfolding of a basically irrational capitalist system, helps to make sense of our current chaos. It’s not the only thing going, of course, and not everything is reducible to economic relationships, but Marxism remains a pretty decent framework for understanding the basics.
See also: Asad Haider, “Critical Confusion” and Bertell Ollman, “Marxism, A Bird’s Eye View.”