On Criticizing Marx

Ernest Haberkern

MICHAEL LOWY’S ARTICLE in ATC 71 was titled “For a Critical Marxism.”This is obviously a misprint. The original title could only have been “Where Marx Went Wrong.”

Now, it is true that Lowy claims that he, being a non- dogmatic Marxist, is only trying to accommodate the valid insights of non-Marxist scholars and thinkers. Presumably Marx, being himself non-dogmatic (sic!), would have done the same if he had only been aware of these insights.

At any rate, it should be obvious that people who object to Lowy’s non-dogmatic revision of Marx reveal themselves, by this very act, to be rigid, dogmatic, and evensectarian.

Unfortunately, this ruse was already shop worn and transparent in 1898 when Eduard Bernstein used it to justify his “revision”of Marx. Like Lowy, Bernstein was in fact calling into question the fundamental premise of Marxism without saying so openly. Indeed, like Lowy, Bernstein claimed that he alone was really faithful to Marx in spirit.

Like his predecessor, Lowy pays lip service to the notion of working-class self emancipation. Otherwise he would have to come out as an open opponent of Marx. In a crucial passage Lowy explicitly declares his adherence to the traditional Marxist view and then steps back from the obvious consequences of such a view for contemporary left politics.

This passage occurs early on. Lowy points to the “obvious”transformations in the world of labor in recent decades: the decline of the industrial proletariat, the rise of the service industry and the creation of an excluded mass marginalized from the process of production.

He goes on to say that “Marx did not foresee these phenomena and they cannot at all be grasped with concepts like `unproductive labor’ or `lumpen proletariat.’”

Does Lowy mean to say that these phenomena render obsolete Marx’s emphasis on the proletariat as the agency of revolution? Well, he doesn’t say that. But for close to forty years now that has been the defining principle of what used to be called the New Left.

We have all heard of C. Wright Mills and Andre Gorsz even if we all haven’t read them. And their view of the organized working class as an obstacle to revolution or even radical reform was central to the New Left—as was the corresponding glorification of the economically marginalized underclass as the really revolutionary force. To state the premise of the New Left as undeniable fact, which can only be disputed by those with closed minds, while remaining silent on the conclusions which follow from this premise, is trimming.

As if to balance this paragraph Lowy follows it with one which states that “In the broad sense of the term, however, the proletariat, i.e. those who live from the sale of their labor-power or who try to sell it (the unemployed), remains the principal component of the working population and class conflict between labor and capital is still the principal contradiction of capitalist formations as well as the axis around which other emancipatory movements can develop.”

I think this is understating the case myself. Today, in the advanced capitalist countries of North America, Japan, Australia and the countries of the European union, the overwhelming majority of the population are members of the proletariat in Marx’s sense.

The independent peasantry has all but disappeared and the independent professional has been replaced by the salaried employee. And this is an enormous change even since World War II: In 1945 something like 45% of the Italian labor force worked the land. Today that percentage is around 5%.

But it is not only the advanced countries which have undergone this transformation. One of the problems that faces a country like Poland when it contemplates entering the European Union is the relatively high percentage of the work force engaged in agricultural production. This high percentage is 25%.

What that means is that since WWII Poland has been transformed from a country with a majority peasant population to one with a proletarian majority. And even the most economically backward countries today exhibit a level of industrialization, and consequently of working-class organization, comparable to that of most nineteenth-century European states at the height of the influence and power of the socialist parties of the Second International.

But even if we accept Lowy’s relatively modest statement, what follows? Here again Lowy simply drops the matter. But doesn’t it follow that the New Left project of the last forty years is bankrupt?

If the class struggle between labor and capital is, indeed, the principal contradiction of capitalist formations, doesn’t it follow that the attempt to build a movement of the left by amalgamating the diverse struggles of those marginalized by capitalist society under the leadership of an ideological “vanguard”is at best futile, and at worst a new version of the authoritarian anticapitalist movements that have plagued this century?

Lowy doesn’t say that, nor does he attempt to defend the New Left project in some way or another. He just moves on to other things without taking a stand.

A Revealing List

What really indicates Lowy’s direction is the list of thinkers whose “insights”have to be integrated into Marxism. The list is enormous. It would easily provide the basis of a five semester introductory HumLit course for undergraduates—although it could be objected that the list is very Eurocentric.

One could even argue that Francophones are over-represented. But, what is even more interesting is that, with the exception of a handful of post-Marx Marxists and some of the pre-Marx radical political economists, practically every member of this list is a reactionary.

I use the term here in its original meaning. These people counterposed to the capitalist system and its evils a romanticized version of pre-industrial society. One of the consequences of this new system they objected to was its destruction of traditional forms of authority and traditional deference to them. The French Revolution and its socially leveling tendencies were, for most of these people, at least as frightening as the atrocities of the early factory system.

The partial exceptions to this rule, such as Fourier or Saint-Simon, also opposed to the “anarchy”of the new society their own authoritarian solutions. That their schemes were, at least on the conscious level, developed out of their own heads rather than historical antecedents, didn’t make them any less authoritarian.

Indeed, people like Fourier and Saint-Simon also were repelled by the popular forces unleashed by the revolution. And this authoritarian rejection of the popular movement was what Marx objected to in these thinkers—not, as Lowy implies, their “unscientific”socialism.

Included in Lowy’s reading list are people like Georges Sorel, Charles Peguy, and Thomas Carlyle. It is hard today to read some of their writings without recognizing precursors of fascism.

It is typical that Lowy amalgamates with Sorel and Peguy a thoroughgoing revolutionary democrat like William Morris. What conception of socialism and even “Marxism”is involved here? What, except for opposition to capitalism, do these people have in common?

In Marx’s day and especially in the Second International period these authoritarian anticapitalisms could be, and were, dismissed as obsolete. At the end of this century that is more difficult. Despite the “Marxist”rhetoric, Stalinism, especially in its Chinese, North Korean and Cambodian versions, has more closely resembled a disastrous experiment in Utopian Socialism.

Given this history I find Lowy’s inclusion of a hard-line Stalinist like Che Guevara alongside Rosa Luxemburg in his list of post-Marxist revolutionaries whose “insights”are a necessary part of contemporary Marxism very disturbing.

So too his attraction to the practitioners of “Liberation Theology,”who combine a genuine hatred for capitalism with an attitude towards “the poor”they are “serving”that too closely resembles that of Mother Theresa for my taste.

Since 1990 there has been a tendency to dismiss the sixty years of Stalinism as a bad dream from which we have now woken and which we can now forget. But Michael Lowy’s article is one more reminder of the terrible damage done to socialist thought by this “bad dream”of authoritarian anticapitalism. You don’t have to be a Freudian to realize that it is not healthy to ignore what nightmares are trying to tell us.

ATC 76, September-October 1998

1 comment

  1. I didn’t read all of above article, but I have to say that I think Lowy is a pseudo-Marxist, and I come from the USEC tradition.

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