Skip to main content

Combat the Liberalization of Marxism!

Back during one of the multiple strikes my labour union embarked upon (and I can't remember which one), I ended up in an online email exchanges with more than one union member who identified as "Marxist"––who wanted the strike to end early so we could get back to teaching––who got mad at me for telling them that they should stop calling themselves Marxist for capitulating to management and aping the political line of our neoliberal employer. Did I imagine myself as the only authoritative interlocutor of Marxism, they demanded, to dare to suggest they were poor Marxists for their capitulationism? Obviously I don't imagine myself to be such an authority, and these hyperbolic questions were clearly rhetoric designed to obscure what was actually at stake. While I do believe there is only one scientific way to conceive of Marxism as an unfolding science (i.e. Maoism), and have argued this to the best of my abilities, I still understand there are other valid ways of interpreting Marxism (though in my opinion these interpretations are less sound), other tendencies and trajectories that result from how the tradition is assembled and pieced together. But my point was, then and now, that even if there is a heterogeneity of Marxist tendencies there is still something that makes all of them some kind of "Marxist". That is, you can't just call yourself "Marxist" and then make this term mean whatever you want, just like you can't call yourself a vegetarian and make chicken part of your regular diet. And in the context of a legal labour union strike, which requires the lowest level of class solidarity, to side with that faction of the union that is agreeing with the employer is about as "Marxist" as saying capitalism is the end of history.

With this in mind, I have to say I'm particularly annoyed with the current number of claims I've seen––fired across Twitter––about how Marx was actually a liberal. For some reason this claim––that Marx was a radical liberal, the consummation of the liberal tradition, etc.––continues to rear its putrid head whenever some Marxist academics are criticized for their liberalism. The presumption is that Marx was some kind of "socialist liberal" rather than a "capitalist liberal", as if liberalism can be easily divorced from capitalism, and results in capturing Marx within dominant Enlightenment and modernity narratives rather than accurately understanding him as, in Samir Amin's words, initiating "a modernity critical of modernity." Since my theory trilogy for abstrakt functioned to centre Marx and Marxism in relation to the Enlightment, modernity, and science––and thus situated Marxism as an enemy of liberalism––I won't repeat the multiple arguments I made in those essays here. But I still think it is worth repeating something I wrote as a conclusion for the collected version of that trilogy:

"For those who continue to claim that Marx and Engels were engaged in developing a radical form of liberal thought… we only need to point them to the claims systematized in this essay trilogy that demonstrate the opposite. If there is an overlap between Marx and Engels’ historical materialism and liberalism it is mainly because the names of certain values (equality, liberty, etc.) were noted by both; the conceptual meaning of these values, as works such as The Holy Family demonstrate, are significantly different. I write mainly because there is also the residue of liberalism in early works of Marx, such as some of the pieces in the 1844 Manuscripts, but this merely demonstrates that Marx was struggling his way out of the ruling ideology of the ruling class. (And the residue of Eurocentrism persisted for much longer.) By the time Capital and Anti-Duhring were written, however, all liberal categories of thought were consciously ejected; in these post-Manifesto works Marx and Engels openly mocked liberal philosophy, demarcating their theory from liberalism. […] Here it is worth noting the 1847 event where the League of the Just was transformed into the Communist League. In a line struggle dramatized in Raoul Peck’s The Young Marx, Engels attacks the liberalism of the League by pointing out that the desire for an abstract “brotherhood of man” is undermined by the reality of class struggle. Such a conception of common humanity ignores the fact that the bourgeoisie has nothing in common with the proletariat; the former is the enemy of the latter and the latter’s political programme must be based on this fact of animosity. The liberal tendency in the League, that functioned according to a utopian understanding of common humanity, was smashed with this anti-liberal recognition of class struggle."

Liberalism begins from the conception that humans are isolated individuals: this is its fundamental conception, which is the conception of liberty, that grounds liberal philosophy in a particular notion of the human subject as an autonomous rational agent. Marxism begins from different conception, that humans are individuated according to class struggle. This is precisely what Marx laid out in the introduction of the Grundrisse, arguing that liberal conceptions of "the individual" were in fact the conceptions of bourgeois agency projected unto the past. Attempts by these "Marxists" claiming that Marx was actually a liberal can be traced to throwaway statements he makes about true individuality being recognized in a collective, but in the Grundrisse he makes such claims clear: individuation according to a notion, taken from Aristotle but also pulled away from Aristotle's own social chauvinism, of the zo'on politikon. Otherwise Marx is antagonistic to the core notions of liberalism: isolated individuality, states of nature, the sanctity of property. In fact there was one radical liberal Marx was familiar with, and that was Proudhon: and he tore him apart in The Poverty of Philosophy.

(I won't further elaborate the way in which a different conception of politics and the economy from Marxism follows from the starting point of liberalism––which is a reification of bourgeois ideology and thus a particular class standpoint taken as universal––since I have written on this at length. Interested readers are more than welcome to look at my series Right Against Right if they want to pursue this line of reasoning.)

It's also interesting that "Marxists" who claim that Marx was a liberal are also invested in separating Marx from Engels. That is, when you present them with passages in Anti-Duhring where Engels attacks liberal morality, they tend to respond that this was Engels and not Marx. Never mind the fact that Anti-Duhring was edited by Marx and called by him the best summation of historical materialism to date. Never mind the fact that, as Bertell Ollman has noted, there is no evidence in Marx and Engels' long correspondence that they ever diverged in thought. The search for a "pure" Marx that justifies liberalism, that can allow people to keep their "Marxism" and liberalism together, is also about deleting everything Engels wrote during the period of the writing of Capital just as it deletes the line struggles, of which Marx and Engels were a part of, in the League of the Just and elsewhere.

In any case, the only pertinent way to be Marxist is to centre class revolution; class revolution and not reform was central to Marx and Engels, was precisely what was meant by "the point is to change [the world]", and all marxisms that decentre the pursuit of making revolution are simulacra of Marxism. In this sense, Marxism is excluded from the theoretical boundaries of liberalism. Mill's famous corn dealer analogy, which argues that it is okay to publish and discuss socialist ideas just as long as they do not infringe on the individual rights of the wealthy, not only demonstrates that liberalism is opposed to the core ethos of Marxism, but provides some indication of why some "Marxists" want to claim that Marxism and liberalism are the same: so that they can reconcile with the bourgeois state while also castigating it in the marketplace of ideas. Or, as Austin and Bentham would have it: censor freely but obey punctually––the cornerstone of liberal law theory.

As ever, the opening passage of Lenin's State and Revolution is pertinent:

"What is now happening to Marx's theory has, in the course of history, happened repeatedly to the theories of revolutionary thinkers and leaders of oppressed classes fighting for emancipation. During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the 'consolation' of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarizing it. Today, the bourgeoisie and the opportunists within the labor movement concur in this doctoring of Marxism. They omit, obscure, or distort the revolutionary side of this theory, its revolutionary soul. They push to the foreground and extol what is or seems acceptable to the bourgeoisie."

Because there are "Marxists" now who want to reconcile their pursuit of Marxism with liberal normativity simply because they want to "censor freely and obey punctually." They are precisely like the good, respectable liberal subjects of Mill's corn dealer example who think Marxist ideas are merely part of the marketplace of ideas. In order to justify the fact that they call themselves "Marxists", despite having  no interest in revolution, they "omit, obscure, or distort the revolutionary side" of Marxism. They try to make Marxism commensurable with liberalism. They pick and choose elements of Marx that coincide with this commensurability. They ignore everything that Marx said otherwise, they push Engels to the margins, and they definitely do not conceive Marxism as an unfolding revolutionary science. Marxism thus becomes the best kind of liberalism, or even worse a Platonic thought experiment, but at the end of the day an expression of dominant Enlightenment tropes. Its essential meaning is distorted by bourgeois ideology.

In this context, Mao's Combat Liberalism is instructive. Despite the fact that some critics have claimed that it has nothing to do with combatting liberalism because at no point in this small article is liberal theory directly discussed, this is disingenuous. While it is indeed the case that Mao does not directly engage with liberal philosophers, the concept of liberalism, or anything that these critics claim they want to see, what each and every example of liberal behaviour castigated in this article demonstrates is that, organizationally, communists must not be liberal subjects. That is, the kind of person that bourgeois ideology socializes people into becoming––through the institutions of family, school, media, work, etc.––is that particular creature that liberalism claims is synonymous with personhood itself: the liberal subject which is the bourgeois subject. The idea that we are isolated individuals whose freedoms necessarily bump against the freedoms of other individuals––that we are essentially self-interested and rational––not only appears in Hobbes' cynical conception of the the state of nature, but in Mill's justification of the harm principle, Kant's categorical imperative, and Rawls' veil of ignorance thought experiment.

The starting point of liberalism, as with the starting point of bourgeois ideology, is the isolated individual set against every other individual––an ideological perspective Marx, as noted above, mocked in the introduction of the Grundrisse––which is why liberal philosophy is largely a philosophical reflection of bourgeois ideology. Indeed, feminist and anti-racist political philosophy, critical legal theory, critical disability studies, etc. (whose thinkers often do draw upon Marxism) have been in agreement that this notion of the liberal subject––the self-interested and rational agent––is the starting point for the dominant and liberal traditions they seek to critique. Hence, Mao's examples of the liberalism that needs to be combatted are examples of expressions of this subjectivity. And the line of demarcation is that the pursuit of communism cannot be based on the foundation of liberal agency. One divides into two: communist subjectivity is a complete rupture from liberal subjectivity. In this context, any "Marxist" who calls themselves a liberal is in the enemy camp.