Monday, February 7, 2011

In Defense of (a slightly more modest) Marxism

      Continuing my process of reprinting older material, this is the first piece of writing that I had published in the Arise! Journal.  It was  a letter critiquing a Marxist-Leninist polemic published in the journal.  Looking back on it, Ellen Messer-Davidow's classes on Foucault and Marxism played a strong influence on my thinking at the time, along with my strong left communist inclinations.  I thought it would be worth putting up to complete the full set of Arise! writings.

          I read Michael Wood's commentary on Marxism-Leninism with a great deal of distress.  Once again we were presented with a totalizing, almost religious rendering, of Marxism with the tripartite image of the Marx/Engels/Lenin godhead (father, son, Holy Ghost anyone?)  This vision of Marxism has already died (and good riddance to it) as a meaningful political force with the fall of the eastern bloc in 1989.  Whatever benefits they gave their subjects in the form of welfare cannot make up for the totalitarian and undemocratic nature of the regimes.  Instead of trying to liberate the masses from the yoke of capital, they merely tried to perfect its practices under one state and party.  Utterances such as Wood's are similar to the digestive systems of a corpse that continues its process even after death for a period of time.
            This does not mean the philosophy of praxis or the process of thought beginning with Marx should be abandoned.  But the ideas discussed above must be jettisoned.  The first thing that must be rejected is the claim that Marxism is a science valorized above other modes of thinking simply due to such a claim.  Marxism is a set of incredibly valuable critical tools, but it would be arrogant to say that it doesn't have valuable things to learn from other forms of thinking such as feminism or Foucauldian notions of discourse.
            Along with that the very notion of an authoritative or orthodox Marxism must be rejected.  There are many different marxisms traveling on many different trajectories.  It's significantly different for Louis Althusser, Rosa Luxemburg, Frederic Jameson, etc.  Each of these individuals was or is responding to distinctly different formations of capitalist domination within different time periods.  Andreu Nin of POUM stated that the map of Russia could not be laid upon Spain.  Similarly, no particular approach of Marxism can be meaningful to everyplace at the same time uniformly.  There must be translation of ideas across cultural borders.  Good examples of this can be seen in the POUM of republican Spain, the FSLN in Nicaragua, and the IRA in Ireland.  One should go even further by saying that no form of Marxian thinking should be privileged over others within a single location.
            The third and last thing that must be rejected is the notion of the vanguardist party.  I think it's interesting that Michael Wood left out this important part of the beginning of the manifesto. "The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working class parties.  They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.  They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mold the proletarian movement."  I think that Marx's more radical and democratic vision contained within these statements should be embraced over the stifling and undemocratic vision of Lenin's dictatorship over the proletariat in the form of an avant-garde intellectual leadership.  We should be in solidarity with the multitude, and work with them towards our mutual liberation.
            Rather than building our visions of radicalism on unreconstructed, nostalgic visions of cold war dichotomies, we should instead reach into the future and build anew. No matter how tentative the process is and how many mistakes we make on the way there,  those acts will be incalculably more valuable than the wise practices dictated to us by the cleverest central committee.


  1. I'd love to know where you stand in relation to these older writings now...

  2. That's a long conversation that we should have at some time. I feel that there isn't anything that I directly disagree with, although my views on Lenin are a little more nuanced at this point, and I have a much higher opinion of the CPUSA than I did before, as a historical organization. I'm still skeptical of the democratic centralist model (too much centralism and not enough democracy, all too often) I am impressed with the accomplishments of the organization around the popular and cultural fronts. Beyond that, the other major issue that I have been thinking about is the question of representation, which has come out of my thinking around the public education struggles this year....

  3. thanks, robert. i would love to discuss all of this with you sometime soon. i obviously am a bit more sympathetic to leninism insofar as, in my experience of a certain trajectory of democratic centralism, i have not felt suppressed or bossed around. but i wouldn't say that it must be the ONLY organizational form, just that i think some excessive energy goes into lambasting it... as for representation- yes. really interesting and important. i find david lloyd and paul thomas in "culture and the state" to be a useful place to start thinking through that question in relation to aesthetic education in particular.