Is Marxism Deterministic?

A primary criticism of Marxism (often employed by people with a poor understanding of Marxism, incidentally) is that Marxism, and Marxists, are rigid determinists. The critique goes something like this:

“Marxism is a determinist philosophy. Marx thought that communism was inevitable, and that individual people are just automatons; mere pawns of historical forces. This strips people of their free will and individuality, and reduces them to cogs in a deterministic machine. Marx’s theory of history is basically just a secular version of Divine Providence or Destiny, and therefore should be discarded.”

Needless to say, this is untrue; and the point of this short essay will be to correct this common misconception.

First and foremost, while Marx did believe that history unfolded based on certain historical laws over which individuals have no control, he did not think that this meant human beings were merely plankton swept up in the oceanic wave of history, being tossed to and fro, with no ability to influence what happened to them. Marx argued, as I do, that although history unfolds via a process that human beings can’t dictate, it unfolds via human beings as it’s agents. Therefore, once human beings become conscious of the fact that history unfolds in certain ways, they can then be free to pick what role they want to play in that process. We are the agents of historical change; we are the vehicles through which history unfurls. To be conscious of that fact, and to choose action in the face of it, is to be as free as a human being can be.

Some Marxists, it is true, have been such strict determinists that they effectively gave up on political action; opting instead to either work within the capitalist system, or abandon politics all together, while waiting for the glorious revolution, and the subsequent ushering in of Communism which they viewed as inevitable and imminent. But this is a perversion of Marxism, if not an outright subversion of it. Marx was the person, after all, who famously declared that “philosophers hitherto have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it”. Marx himself was doggedly engaged in European politics during his life, and his theory and methodology was explicitly a call to action! It was meant to give the working class an understanding of their material and historical condition so that they could weaponize that understanding in pursuit of their own liberation. It’s our job as Marxists to organize, participate in direct action, form resistance movements, fight back against fascists, and do all the other difficult political work that there is to do in order to realize, in so far as we can, the system we want. To sit back and wait for history to play itself out as a convinced determinist is to effectively abandon Marxism altogether.

Other Forms Society Can Take As Capitalism Collapses

Marx was well aware of the fact that when capitalism began to break down, it would not necessarily lead to communism, it could just as well devolve into fascism, devolve into a sort of neo-feudalism, devolve into barbarism, or even result in “the common ruination” of the contending classes altogether.

The most likely of these outcomes, based on what has happened in the recent past, is the rise of fascism. As is commonly said “fascism is what capitalism does when its under threat”; and history proves this again and again. Most notably, Nazi Germany arose out of the Weimar Republic after the Great Depression and the national humiliation of WWI. In contemporary America we have just elected a white nationalist with fascistic dispositions and a segment of his base which is explicitly and unapologetically fascist. This is largely a reaction to the excesses, depravities, and the impotence of neoliberalism (i.e. globalized capitalism). The narratives on offer from the far right are always simplistic, visceral, bigoted, and broadly appealing to people who have been beaten down by the capitalist system but who lack a comprehensive understanding of how they ended up where they are. Capitalism creates problems, then brings out the teeth and claws in the form of fascism as the solution to the very issues that it has created.

It’s essential to understand this point, so I will restate it in a slightly different way: fascism is just a form of capitalism cleverly disguised as not only a totally different system, but also as a solution to the failures of  the system which it still essentially represents. This provides a unique challenge to revolutionary leftists. The right wing narratives are simpler than ours; whereas we try to describe reality as it actually is, the far right appeals to gut prejudices and creates convenient and easy scapegoats to distract people from the failures of the system itself. “It’s not capitalism that is to blame”, they say, “it is that Muslim, or that Mexican, or that Jew. THEY are the problem.” In this way the system protects itself.

Therefore it is by no means an inevitability that communism will arise out of the ashes of capitalism. To the contrary, we could get capitalism recapitulated as fascism, or we could merely descend into chaos and barbarism as institutions fracture and collapse. The left needs to understand this and organize in order to be a force and viable option when that time comes, so that we can push the system in the correct direction and not merely hand it over to the worst elements of our species by virtue of our impotence, disorganized state, and general inability to act. Communism isn’t inevitable, its merely an option among many, and it’s our responsibility to implement it. This requires action.

A Word On Social Democracy

One thing that Marx did fail to anticipate is capitalism’s ability to use it’s economic surplus to pacify the working class and the poor.

If fascism is capitalism with it’s fangs out, social democracy is capitalism with a smile.

In times of relative prosperity, capitalism maintains its hierarchy of wealth and power by handing out concessions to the lower classes. Northern Europe is a place where this aspect of capitalism has been fully developed. But it’s important to realize that social democracy is one way the capitalist system, when it is in good health, holds off revolutions and maintains it’s stranglehold. It essentially “buys off the revolution” by pacifying the working class with goods and services as part of the social safety net (healthcare, education, and maybe even a basic income), while ensuring the basic social relations, power inequalities, and authoritarian hierarchies of capitalism stay firmly in place. This strategy, while certainly the best that capitalism has to offer, suffers from the same flaws of capitalism generally, and, as I said above, only takes hold in times of relative prosperity. The moment economic times get rough, social democracy and it’s bedazzled social safety net is the first thing to be sacrificed on the alter of “austerity”. So social democrats should be wary of hitching their wagon to capitalism: it’s failures will be your failures. Additionally, anti-capitalists should be wary of social democrats. For us, social democracy can only be a means to a further end, something to support while working for more radical changes. But it can never be the end itself.

Conclusion

Marxism is not a fundamentally deterministic philosophy. It does not preach a narrow-minded inevitability, and Marxists can only truly be Marxists, in my opinion, if they act on their Marxism. To sit back, endlessly theorizing and waiting for the magical revolution, is to abandon a fundamental aspect of Marxist philosophy: political action. That is not to say that theory has no place in Marxism, of course it does! But theory only becomes relevant when it is backed by concerted, organized political action. Marx and Engels knew that as well as anybody, and it’s worth noting that the Communist Manifesto, which they wrote together, was a call to arms, not armchairs.

 

 

 

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Six Ways of Approaching and Interpreting Marxism

Marxism, like many philosophical traditions, is a huge series of concepts and ideas with plenty of complexity and nuance. Too often discussions of Marxism are befuddled and unproductive because people are using the term in different ways than their conversational partner, and so they end up talking past one another. What I want to do here is propose six basic ways of approaching and studying Marxism in an effort to bring some of these complexities and nuances to light, and thereby, hopefully, increase clarity and understanding with regards to discussions of Marx and Marxism. I am motivated to do this because I think Marx, more than ever, offers an essential and important way of orienting oneself to current social, political, and economic events in the pursuit of understanding them fully. However, for a plethora of reasons, there continues to be a stigma attached to Marx and Marxism, and a large reason for this is because so much confusion exists as to what exactly it is; I hope this short essay will clear some of that confusion up.

Here are six general ways of understanding Marxism (in no particular order):

1) As a historical, empirical subject of study: If you were asked, for example, to do a paper on Marx in a college class, you would likely approach him in this  way; as a subject of third-person research or of a biography, in which the historical facts of his life and writings are explicated in as objective a way as possible.

2) As a doctrine: as a core set of ideas. This is done by extracting what one considers to be the central points of Marxism, and molding them into a coherent doctrine that can be subscribed to or refuted. This involves abstracting away from any changes in his thought over time in order to put forward a cohesive net of basic ideas. It is a rational reconstruction of Marx’s thought based on what one believes to be the most important, or most central, aspect of his thought. 

3) As a conceptual revolution: One could view Marx, fundamentally, as starting a *tradition* of thought; as re-conceptualizing capitalism and history, and thereby spawning a philosophical and political tradition. Much like Darwin and Freud re-conceptualized biology and the mind, starting long traditions which expanded on, edited, corrected, and carried forward those basic ideas.

4) As a branching-off: You could study the thought of *the people who called themselves Marxists* throughout history (Lenin, Adorno, Althusser, Gramsci, Debord, Kautsky, Luxemburg, etc.). So Marxism just becomes a loosely connected net of different strains of thought as represented by different thinkers after Marx. In this interpretation, Marxism becomes identical to the thought of historical figures who called themselves Marxist.

5) As a historical application: You could study Marxism merely by studying the ways in which his ideas were put into practice, focusing more on how they operated in the real world (Soviet Union, Cuba, China, etc.) instead of on the ideas themselves or the methodology he proposed. In this interpretation, Marxism most often becomes synonymous with Leninism and Stalinism. Many of Marxism’s opponents take up this interpretation as the ONLY valid interpretation for obvious reasons.

6) As a methodology: as an interpretive lens through which one can make sense of historical and political events and through which one can analyze the economic paradigm. It can be seen as a continuing project of consistently applying the methodology that Marx put forward. Under this view, it matters less what the exact ideas of Marx himself were, and instead focuses on the WAY in which Marx proposed we analyze the world.

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I study Marxism largely via #3 and #6. And insofar as I call myself a Marxist, I mean that I view him as a conceptual revolutionary who put forward an interpretive lens and a methodology (namely historical and dialectical materialism, theory of alienation, the critique of political economy, etc.) that I find particularly useful in analyzing current social, political, historical, and economic events. It is not a dogma or a doctrine to which I blindly adhere, rather its a general approach I take, fully backed up and informed by my own critical thinking, ethical values, and political / historical context. Beyond that basic orientation to Marxism, I also find #4 extremely important. Marx was just a human being, and as such he was wrong about a lot, and many thinkers that came after him took his thought in new and exciting directions, and expanded on his philosophy in such a way that it was improved and updated, and continues to be improved and updated. I place myself in that long tradition of people who studied Marx and his philosophical heirs, and who continue to update Marxism and apply it in new and unique contexts (as Marx himself would have wanted).

But NONE of these ways of interpreting Marxism are completely wrong. All of them are valid ways of studying Marxism, its just a matter of realizing that all these approaches exist and are valid in their own ways, and then being conscious about how you are using the terms involved at any given moment.

Lots of confusion stems from people talking past one another by using different approaches without being clear, in their own minds as well as explicitly, about which one they are using. I’ll often get into arguments with people interpreting Marxism STRICTLY as #5, when I am using it in the ways outlined by #3 and #6. Such discussions are bound to fail because we are literally talking about different things without realizing it, and no constructive dialogue can blossom out of that fundamental miscommunication.

So, whether you are sympathetic to Marxism or are firmly opposed to it, I hope you keep these distinctions in mind going forward, and do your best to articulate them explicitly when engaging in dialogue about Marx and Marxism. It’s not only an intellectual obligation, its also a moral one, because in these times of rapid change, ubiquitous corruption, and constant upheaval, understanding Marx, and what he had to offer, is more important than ever.