I recently argued that there is a common thread that connects (1) Marx’s analysis of material world and superstructure, (2) his prediction of the inevitability of communism, and (3) his underdevelopment of subjective political strategy. Now I want to suggest that these three themes are connected to a fourth: Marx’s treatment of the state as an incontestable apparatus.
Marx’s view of the state is complex, inconsistent, and in a process of development over the course of his writing. Above all, though, he sees the state as the bourgeois state. The state emerged to serve the interests of a particular economic class (the bourgeoisie) and it is folly to entertain hope of it serving the proletarian class or ameliorating the inequality, exploitation and suffering caused by capitalism.
To understand this assessment of the state, we must examine Marx’s treatment of bourgeois and proletariat as neatly bounded categories. He details complexities and contradictions within each class, but he mistakenly believes that as capitalism proletarianizes more and more people, their conditions will become increasingly similar and, as a result, proletarians will come to recognize their structural commonality and begin to act self-consciously as a united class. As Cihan Tuğal explained, “The general trend in capitalism, according to Marx, is this increasing simplification of polarized classes. [my notes from a recent talk]” Contra Marx, history has instead shown how capitalism often achieves the opposite: a continuum of stratification within “the proletariat” and between classes, a popular orientation toward upward mobility, and fragmentation of class identity. Continue reading
Is there a positive relationship between the following three themes in Marx’s writing (in The Marx-Engels Reader): 1) his analysis of material world and superstructure (with the former determining the latter), 2) his forecast of the ultimate inevitability of proletariat revolution and communism, and 3) his underdevelopment of a theory of subjective political strategy? Before examining the question of a relationship between the themes, it is necessary to first briefly clarify each theme on its own.
Material world and superstructure: With a thousand different phrases, Marx expounds a cornerstone of his thesis that the world of thought, ideology and consciousness takes its lead from the tangible material world and the processes of material production. History is not determined by ideas; ideas, rather, arise on top of economic reality and essentially serve as post-facto narration, typically idealistic toward the political and economic interests of the dominant class.
Inevitability: Proletariat revolution and communism are, for Marx, a foregone conclusion. Future events, namely “the overthrow of society by the communist revolution” are “just as empirically established (p.163)” as observable world-historical activities that have led to present material conditions. He posits that the observable revolutionary transition within industrializing societies from feudalism to capitalism—observable in his time—as analogous to a predicted revolutionary transition from capitalism to communism. Continue reading
Marx (in Marx Later Political Writings) poses the observable revolutionary transition within industrializing societies from feudalism to capitalism as analogous to a predicted revolutionary transition from capitalism to communism. Where he does not discuss this analogy explicitly, it nonetheless serves as a foundational concept for his various descriptions, critiques, polemics, and predictions. Looking back, we can now access a century and a half of history in our examination of whether, or to what extent, the analogy holds up. But how much evidence was there to support the analogy’s validity during Marx’s time? Marx fancied his analysis scientific, but to what extent is his analogy a scientific theory or hypothesis, as opposed to an article of faith attached to a political agenda (dressed up in propagandistic signifiers of scientific thinking)? Might greater scrutiny of the analogy have opened up pivotal questions concerning how the particular content of a political system could alter the form—hence the “inevitability”—of revolution (e.g. from feudalism to capitalism vs. from capitalism to communism)?
Perhaps because of his deterministic theory/belief, Marx is able to maintain a long-haul optimism in the wake of the crushing defeat of the Paris Commune — even trumpeting the episode as the “glorious harbinger of a new society.” However, despite the inevitable eventuality of a dictatorship of the proletariat followed by communism that Marx’s structural determinism suggests, these essays still brim with an engrossing sense of subjective agency. Marx did not advocate waiting passively for underlying economic forces to accomplish the predestined. Indeed, most of his writing (in this collection) speaks to contingencies, especially in his polemical detailing of the incompetencies of opponents and allies alike. The details of particular actions and missteps, and their history-altering consequences, are of great concern to him.
That the workers want to create the conditions for co-operative production in all society, and hence first of all on a national scale, means only that they are working for the overthrow of present-day conditions of production, and has nothing in common with establishing co-operative societies with state aid! But as far as present-day co-operative societies are concerned, they are only of value if they are independent creations of the workers and not creatures of the government or the bourgeoisie.
–Marx Later Political Writings (p.221)
Here Marx is criticizing the German Workers’ Party for its demand of “state aid for setting up producers’ co-operatives under the democratic control of the working people.” I am no expert on the historical context to which Marx was speaking, but his critique strikes me as almost purist — and less than instructional concerning the relationship, practical or ideal, of a workers’ party to the state. Is Marx here suggesting an all-or-nothing contest between the proletariat and bourgeois classes for full control of the state apparatus? Ultimately, that is what Marx is advocating (e.g. with the phrase “dictatorship of the proletariat”), but is Marx conceding all concessions from the state in the interim? Is he suggesting that (bourgeois) state funding for worker-demanded cooperative projects is beneath the dignity of a true workers’ party — or that such an outcome is not a realistically attainable possibility? Must everything worth winning be seized? Can nothing first be conceded (by the bourgeois state, as it is, in the interim)? Could not the winning of such concessions be utilized by organizers as stepping stones — as tangible evidence of what collective action can accomplish, in order to whet workers’ appetite for larger victories? To what extent does Marx view the state as a contestable space?
Even the simplest demand for bourgeois financial reform, for the most ordinary liberalism, for the most formal republicanism, for the most basic democracy, is simultaneously castigated as an ‘outrage to society’ and stigmatised as ‘socialism’.
–Marx Later Political Writings (p.40)
Amongst other things it [the Paris proletariat] throws itself into doctrinaire experiments, cooperative banks and workers’ associations, hence into a movement renouncing an overthrow of the old world by means of its own great resources, and instead seeks to attain its salvation behind society’s back, privately, within its own limited conditions of existence, and hence necessarily coming to naught. It seems unable to rediscover revolutionary prowess or to renew its energy from fresh alliances… [emphasis in the original]
–Marx Later Political Writings (p.39)
It seems to me that in describing the feeble Paris proletariat, Marx was also critiquing a pattern wherein would-be political actors opt to build their own alternative projects from scratch instead of claiming and contesting existing structures, resources, social spaces, and cultures. That is to say they opt out of politics in favor of something far smaller; something that is consequential only to its self-selecting participants, and which can usually be ignored—perhaps not even noticed—by the rest of society and the existing power structures.
It is interesting to me that he names “cooperative banks and workers associations” specifically. I can imagine political potentials—not just cloistered alternatives—in such organizational forms.
This reminds me of some of the radical buzz today about “prefigurative politics” — a concept that I find useful through a strategic communications lens in the context of political struggle, but which is far too often treated as an article of faith; as if the prefigurative act will magically, by itself, without a larger strategic framework, bring about the new society. The allure of such projects can be self-expressive to the point of self-indulgence. It is fueled by a purism that seeks to avoid messes; a feeble longing to construct a more controllable, less contaminated, albeit miniaturized, microcosm of one’s Utopian vision.
As always the feeble found refuge in a belief in miracles, believing that the enemy has been vanquished when they have only conjured it away in a fantasy, sacrificing any understanding of the present to an ineffectual glorification of the future in store for them, and of deeds that they had in their hearts but did not want to bring to fruition just yet. They are the heroes who try to deny their proven incompetence by offering each other sympathy and banding together…
–Marx Later Political Writings (p.35)
Relates to my post: Falling in love with ourselves.