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Marxism Without the Crap July 3, 2003 by RedStar2000


As for me, I am no "Marxist" -- Karl Marx

Can you believe what his reaction to "Marxism-Leninism" would be? Not to mention "Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism", "Marxism-Leninism-Troyskyism", "Marxism-Leninism-Maoism", etc. Imagine what he would say now! (It will help if you are fluent in German profanity.)

And this doesn't even touch on the marked tendency of some folks to take Marx's writings and degrade them to the level of "scripture"...to be solemnly intoned on ritual occasions and to be otherwise ignored.

Is it possible to clear away the crap and arrive at a coherent definition of Marxism that is actually useful? Here is my attempt.

In the beginning, according to Marx, is material reality. A particular group of humans, living in a specific part of the world, with a unique history, a particular technology, etc.

It is Marx's idea that those specific details produce a certain kind of society with certain kinds of classes, certain relationships between them.

In turn, those relationships generate ideas, religions, cultures, etc.

So we have an "orderly" explanation of human society: material conditions leading to technology leading to classes leading to culture.

It was Marx's observation that there were "regularities" over long periods of time in this process. (He called them "laws" because that was the custom in 19th century European science.) He saw the evolution of human society in these "regularities" or "stages":

Savagry: hunter-gatherer societies with no fixed classes at all--sometimes called "primitive communism", no private property outside the realm of personal and usually portable possessions, a very primitive technology of hand-tools, no agriculture or domesticated animals, etc.

Barbarism (nomadism): the rise of private property in animals (and women), the emergence of the clan or extended family as a proto-class, etc.

Oriental despotism: the rise of agriculture and private property in land and people (slavery), the despot as "god" or "appointed by god" and ultimate "owner" of everything, the emergence of "clergy", etc. (Marx called it "oriental" because it looked "eastern" from the Euro-centric attitudes of the 19th century--but the Roman Empire was, of course, a despotism as much as anything found in Persia or China.)

Feudalism: the replacement of a single despot by a small number of mini-despots who owned huge tracts of agricultural holdings, with laborors being the property of the estate rather than the "lord" (serfs).

Capitalism: a new and much larger class of mini-despots who own the means of production and distribution and exploit the labor of those who don't; the end of private property in people.

We know, of course, that these are not rigid and impenetrable catagories (it's pretty certain that Marx knew it, too). There were "capitalists" in ancient Greece and probably in ancient Egypt. There are remnants of feudalism and even ancient despotism in modern capitalist societies today. But it seemed to Marx that there was a kind of large-scale progression of one kind of social order to another over extended periods of time, highly correlated with advances in human technology and other changes in material conditions.

The Marxist hypothesis is that while the ultimate cause for such changes lies in technological innovation, the means by which one social order surplants another is that of class struggle. Nomads had to physically defeat savages; early despots had to defeat nomad barbarians; feudal lords had to defeat the despots; and capitalists had to defeat the feudal lords.

These were not simply military struggles; they also took place in the realm of ideas. For example, new religions were invented to "justify" the rise of a new kind of ruling class. New "moralities", new "legal" concepts, new "philosophies", followed.

If this "metahistory" is more or less correct, asked Marx, what happens next? Is capitalism the "end of history", or will there be another new social order?

We know the answer that Marx gave, of course. Possibly he noticed the curious trajectory that was followed: primitive equality to proto-classes to centralized despotism, then mini-despots, then a lot of mini-despots, then...advanced equality? More likely, I must admit, he probably used Hegalian dialectics to arrive at the same conclusion (Hegalian philosophy was very fashionable in Marx's youth and exerted a lasting influence on the way he approached matters).

Technologically advanced equality, which he called communism, would be the next "stage" of human history, and one in which classes would no longer exist at all. Moreover, like all the others, it would come into existence through class struggle with the old ruling class. To Marx, it seemed inevitable that capitalism, left to itself, would become more and more openly despotic (and with fewer and fewer significant despots) and, because of its own economic constraints, would generate crisis after crisis threatening a return to barbarism or savagry unless overthrown...by all those who were not capitalists, the working class.

I have simplified (hopefully not over-simplified) the central Marxist hypothesis, which has withstood more than a century of criticism--and so-called "improvements"--and yet appears more accurate in many of its details (regarding the evolution of capitalism in particular) than ever before.

Yet the "big test" still awaits us. Will the working class fulfill Marx's prediction and become the class that abolishes class society?

By c.2400 or so, we should know for sure, one way or the other.


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quote:

Isn't it likely that the culture of Russia and China are what led to the "great leader" idea. For three hundred years the Tsar ruled Russia, like in Iraq now, the peoples of Russia didn't really comprehend the idea of a decentralised leadership. A figurehead was what they wanted.


Applying the general analysis of Marx to specific histories is tricky...and very fruitful when done properly.

I'm not an "expert" in Russian history (or much of anything else--"quick and dirty" summaries are usually all I have to offer).

But, as I understand it, the land once called "Rus" that originated around Kiev and later spread north and west and became centered on Moscow, was a despotism from its earliest stages. It arose as a consequence of the people there being brought into contact with the Eastern Roman Empire and traders from Scandinavia...and copied more or less faithfully the social institutions (a central despot and a land-owning nobility of war-lords) of those two regions insofar as their material conditions permitted.

Curiously, it turns out that when you export an entire "package" of culture and productive relationships, they don't always thrive in their new locations. "Rus" had a tough time of it, being severely defeated and occupied by Asian barbarians and their own attempts to achieve despotism on several occasions. Had things worked out slightly differently, there might still be a large nation there, but it would speak an Asian language and the "Rus" would be, at best, a small and insignificant ethnic minority, rather like the Chechnyans.

The specific social construct of despotism and feudalism that was Russia by the beginning of the 20th century was cracking up; beginning in the 1890s, there were localized famines and peasant rebellions every year. In a few places "favored" by western capitalists, there was a "hothouse" growth of massive industrialization and the despotism of capital.

With the exception of a small group of intellectuals familiar with western political and economic writing, nearly everyone else in Russia was indeed "used to" some form of despotism and could hardly conceive of any other form of rule.

That small group of intellectuals did have a disproportionate influence; they (Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, anarchists, etc.) were able to spread some anti-despotic ideas among the young working class there.

But on Russia as a whole, they had very little effect at all. The material conditions and the weight of cultural tradition favored, at best, a more "enlightened" despotism, a "modernizing" Czar like Peter "the Great".

Marx would have never argued that the details of history are "inevitable"--but I think he would have predicted that someone like "a Stalin" would have emerged in Russia without regard to the specifics of Stalin's policies.

The weight of cultural tradition is a heavy one; but I don't think it "creates" or "re-creates" a social order in the face of different material conditions. But the "forms" of the old order can and sometimes are retained, though their content has changed drastically. By western capitalist standards, Russia is still a very despotic country...but it is no longer a despotism and, I think, unlikely to ever be one again.

The material conditions there have changed too much for that to happen.
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First posted at Che-Lives on June 27, 2003
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quote:

Maybe it should be added that the "higher-level" stuff, like ideology, culture, etc. does react back on the economic conditions that produce it. For example, economic conditions producing revolutionary ideas, which lead people to make a revolution that transforms economic conditions.

So: Marx said that economic conditions were the main force, but treating them as the only force would be an oversimplification.


"Primary force" would be a better way to put it than "only force". I think there is a brief phrase somewhere in Marx where he does say that "under certain conditions" ideas can become a "material force" (I know Mao said it).

But aside from historians engaged in disentangling the specific relationships in a specific situation, I'm not sure how useful the observation is. We as communists act as if our ideas matter and will influence history; but the truth of the matter is that our ideas will have little or no influence unless objective conditions favor their implementation.

quote:

On Russian and Chinese "culture", you'd have to ask WHY they, and a number of other societies, had cultures conducive to "oriental despotism."


Murky waters here. One reason could be that despotism of the more "enlightened" variety "works" remarkably well in a wide variety of material conditions. It is an unusually stable form of class society that does not break down easily. It "contains" its internal class struggles better than other forms of class society...and when it does break down and get surplanted by feudalism, it is often because of foreign invasions.

It's interesting to note, however, that back in the 1400s, China was poised on the edge of a transition from despotism to at least proto-capitalism...the nobility and aristocracy managed to stop it, but it was a near thing.

quote:

It'd be interesting to see what the context was on the famous "I am not a Marxist" statement.


If memory serves me correctly, it was in one of his late letters and probably referred to people in the young German Social-Democratic Party who were calling themselves "Marxists" while uttering much nonsense...but don't hold me to that one, since it's been a very long time since I last read it.
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First posted at Che-Lives on June 27, 2003
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quote:

Because I think it's a real oversimplification. I tend to think that Marx and Engels created a science to back up their political and economic theories, which were really an ethical reaction to capitalism. They sought to justify ideas that don't really need justification by classifying and naturalising them in a science.


I'm unclear about what you mean by "oversimplification" in this context...certainly any attempt to look at the "big picture" of human history is going to miss an enormous amount of detail and complexity.

Is it perhaps your view that there really are no "regularities" in human history?

It seems to me that I have run across the view that Marx and Engels "made up a science" out of moral outrage...but it never seemed to make much sense to me.

Moral outrage was a highly fashionable sentiment in the 19th century...had Marx and Engels wished to do so, they could have easily found themselves a place in the ranks of the famous reformers of that era.

They wanted to place the study of human history on a scientific footing. One can argue about whether or not they succeeded or even if such a thing is possible.

But I don't think it's fair to simply dismiss their efforts as an attempt to cloak their prejudices in scientific disguise.
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First posted at RedGreenLeft on June 29, 2003
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