What is Marxism?

When I pointed out that the Marxist tradition is still alive in American academia, the most common response I got was: “But the Marxist tradition isn’t Marxist!” For example:

Overall, I’d liken the place of Marx in academic sociology to that of a senior citizen who everybody publicly respects, but nobody really listens to. Even the remaining self-professed Marxists seem more interested in in things like ecology and identitarianism these days, even though (as I’ve fruitlessly tried pointing out to them) all that is at radical cross purposes with the Marxist enterprise in both its theoretical and political aspect alike.

Over a quarter of academic sociologists are self-professed Marxists, but if their self-profession is wrong

I’m not sure the quantitative surveys you quote do justice to the point Sandifer (may) have been making. The ‘old style’ Marxism where you do class analysis of a state, looking at what the interests of a class are, looking at how the material conditions of production affect ‘superstructures’ such as culture, ‘rights’, etc, is very rare in mainstream social science departments these days. I presume because such analysis might undermine some of the shibboleths of the ‘Cathedral’ – including ‘diversity’, ‘inclusion’, ‘white privilege’, ‘patriarchy’, etc. Those who call themselves Marxists in the academy have mostly long since abandoned material conceptions of history for Judith Butler inspired charlatanry.

This charlatanry is better known as the New Left—or, if you prefer (and there’s no reason not to, since the term was used even before ’68), Cultural Marxism—or, if you’re Tom Wolfe, Rococo Marxism. “You proles aren’t down with us? It’s… it’s not like we ever thought you were the revolutionary agent of history anyway.” Or maybe the CIA made it, or maybe the CIA made Tom Wolfe. Whatever. But something is going on, and it’s been going on since 1931.

Marxism today isn’t a school of thought at all; it’s an idiom, a set of shibboleths. Imagined Communities decisively refuted Marxism—but it was written in the Marxist idiom, so nobody minded. Tom Whyman laments the loss of a grand unifying national myth and glorifies directionless, irrational mass violence, but he does it in the Marxist idiom, so he’s not a fascist (read: Sorelian), which he is. In fact, some ex-Communists tell me that their former circles were OK with anything, so long as it came from someone who’s very highly educated. Someone who knows words. Someone who has the best words.

Benedict Anderson’s decisive refutation of Marxism is that, to paraphrase, it served as an idiom for the expression of nationalism, or a strategic position for nationalists to adopt. Certainly this is true of Ho Chi Minh and Deng Xiaoping, but this could be generalized: it serves as an idiom for whatever the people who used it wanted to do anyway. In Vietnam, this was nationalism; in the USA, as we can see from true believers like Fredrik deBoer, it’s Menckenism.

Phil Sandifer complains in Neoreaction a Basilisk that Mencius Moldbug never engaged with Marxism, and writes that “there’s a confrontation that’s obviously waiting to happen that Moldbug endlessly deferred”. But, aside from deBoer, how many serious Marxists are there today? Moldbug may not engage with “the philosophical principles of Karl Marx”, but he does engage with the most popular use of the Marxist idiom today: the caste war.

10 responses to “What is Marxism?

  1. Carl Churchill May 11, 2016 at 9:17 pm

    Some interesting claims. What they need is evidence. I don’t see what someone’s random tweet proves, and it’s not clear what exactly you mean the “Marxist idiom” to be, and certainly it is described using many different terms by all sorts of rightist thinkers.

    But, does Moldbug actually prove that the “caste war” is a Marxist invention? Indeed, if I’m not wrong, his argument is that it’s something that goes back to 17th-century Anglo culture.

    Can you boil down the argument in this post? Since as it stands, it’s a bit hard to see the driving point.

    • nydwracu May 11, 2016 at 10:10 pm

      The consistent Marxist position is that, at the very least, the white working class is not a monolithic avatar of gross, disgusting filth that deserves everything bad that happens to it and more. I do not see anyone except deBoer taking this position. When I search Gawker, which is staffed by self-professed Communists, I see plenty of articles about the fact that the Flint River absorbs runoff from salted roads in the winter, but little to nothing about the massive and disastrous coal slurry spills in Appalachia. In fact, the phrase “coal slurry” has literally never appeared in a Gawker article, ever. Gawker also, despite being staffed by self-professed Communists, took an anti-vaping line, which of course materially benefits ‘Big Tobacco’. Gawker has spent literally infinitely more effort shoring up Philip Morris’s profit margins than pointing out places where capitalism actively harms workers who, like, deserve it, man.

      After you understand that that’s not at all uncommon, you can, say, spend some time in actual Marxist circles and realize that the reason they don’t care about their unpopularity among the white working class is that they literally believe the white working class should be gassed, or look up what actually-existing Communist states thought of homosexuality (they called it bourgeois and banned it), or read up on the Bunting controversy in the South African Communist Party in the 1930s, where the people who took the obviously racist line that the workers of the world should unite were purged and the rest of the Party decided that it “had to become, in the first place, the Party of Native Black workers, reflecting the Black Nation character of the country”.

      But you should just read deBoer, who thinks people are attracted to radical leftism for reasons other than cracker-bashing and being Cool On The Internet, and as a result has much more patience for these idiots than I do.

      The caste war isn’t a Marxist invention, but Marxism is (in the charitable interpretation) a living tradition [which at this point has become completely detached from its origins] or (in the uncharitable one) a set of shibboleths that signal, “I’m very highly educated. I know words. I have the best words.”, rather than a philosophy in the sense that Rawlsianism and neocameralism are philosophies. Sure, there’s such a thing as a philosophy derived from the works of Karl Marx, but there’s also such a thing as a philosophy derived from the works of Afrikan Spir (no, really, there is, that was his name), and no one goes around saying that everyone has to engage with Afrikan Spir, because no one cares about Afrikan Spir. Does anyone care about Karl Marx?

      Maybe a better analogy would be: engaging with Catholicism isn’t the same thing as engaging with Jesus or the Bible. Catholicism isn’t a textual philosophy; it’s a living tradition.

      • NRK May 16, 2016 at 7:30 am

        When people say that marxism is marginalized, I think what they mean is that people no longer care for the philosophy of Karl Marx. Which nobody can deny.
        Still, yours is an interesting take on the phenomenon, reminds me of some modern-day more-than-self-proclaimed german communists who have replaced the marxist label (which even Marx rejected) with more general terms like materialism or the critique of ideology.
        Still, the use of ‘marxism’ to describe each and every loony on the left does sound a lot like a red scare tactic, and has been so historically.

  2. Denswend (@Denswend) May 11, 2016 at 10:58 pm

    Let me see if I got the train of thought correctly.

    People have urge to gain status. Social status is gained by being “holier than thou”. People who claim “holiest than thou” status and thus dictate what is and what isn’t holy are the Priestly class. Suddenly, God and all that jazz falls out of favour. So now our Priests need new points over which they can coalesce in their holiness spiral circlejerks. In comes our boy Marx and provides another set of values – the care for the proletariat, a deification of the mass instead of some abstract God. It turns out, that if you’re a high class Vaisya who makes it his raison d’etre to differentiate himself from smelly proles, taking proles as the core of your ideology is a stupid idea. The proletariat is not “down” with the Revolution (as if they would like them even if they were), and it notices that all the Commies tend to be high profile academics who do not correspond exactly to Working Class. In fact, proles like a different kind of socialism, fascism. So Vaisya goes to another set of values, using the same methodology of Marx but focuses on women, gays, and other degenerates.

    • Jefferson May 13, 2016 at 2:24 pm

      This is a good start, but a broadening of its scope is better. Marxism seems like an industrial iteration of Christianity’s status calculus: the meek are holy. In agriculture, it’s the peasants (ohai there, Napoleon) in industry, “workers,” and in post modernity…well, regional variation gives us lots of options.

  3. Pingback: What is Marxism? | Reaction Times

  4. Jefferson May 13, 2016 at 2:38 pm

    The primacy of words explains why Moldbug was named dean of Harvard, Yale, and Berkley just last week.

    Or perhaps it is important/status positive to find the most opaque combination of words that still manage to convey the underlying post-Christian message. The focus on semantics and labels actively obfuscates the underlying mechanism. This conversation strikes me as akin to debating the number of angels that fit on the head of a pin. We’re discussing distinctions that hold extremely limited functional merit.

  5. Mr Zero Man May 18, 2016 at 5:13 pm

    For what its worth, here is an anecdotal account:
    I was a dedicated Marxist as a student in the US (early 2000s). Studying dialectics, believing in a workers’ revolution, calling each other comrade, all of that. I come from a South European country where a lot of people are still communists, there are communists in parliament, it is common. My impression in the US at the time was that marxism was dead there. There was pretty much no marxist elements in any of the social science or humanities courses I took (I was a philosophy major). The postmodern liberal agenda which was evident in social sciences & humanities at the time was to me completely alien to marxism. I didn’t feel any crossover. I graduated leaving the US academic world feeling it was an explicitly anti-marxist and anti-communist place.

    Some details: Me and my small group of 4-5 friends were libertarian Marxists at the time – we were familiar with Lenin but we were of the opinion that the Bolsheviks had betrayed the workers; we identified with the Kronstant rebellion, with the Paris Commune, and with the anarchist movements in Catalunia and Ukraine. We generally considered anarchists to be more principled but never having achieved the higher theoretical standard of Marx. Socially we admired the anti-colonial movements in Cuba, Algeria, Vietnam etc even though we felt those revolutions had all been betrayed by their leaders, which is how we felt about the USSR and China as well. We admired small guerilla groups like Red Brigades, RAF, 17N and Weatherman for their authenticity and I guess their youthful outlaw sex appeal. The French May 68 and the Situationist interpretation of it was very important to us. In the US we got on much better with anarchists than we did with the Leninists or Maoists who still hung on to little ineffectual communist parties. There was an anarchist bookshop that we used to go to, and used to hang out with anarchists. Anarchists were at heart just a tribal youthful in-group based around punk music and veganism but there was quite a few of them. We had the original Black Panthers in high regard, but we couldn’t get anywhere with the blacks we tried community outreach to because of how different our mentalities were (in contrast to the 60s-70s when there still were communist blacks).

    Theoretically I adhered to the line of the young Marx, agreed with a lot of the Frankfurt School interdisciplinary approach, but even more so with the French Situationists Debord and Vaneigem. I read early Lukacs and some Hegel. I thought Reich’s contribution was central. And to a lesser extent Fromm. I liked Chomsky as a describer of US foreign policy but he wasn’t a theorist.

    This little microcosm of ours had no influence from the university, from the faculty, from the curriculum. Like I said, I experienced those years as if Marxism was completely dead in the US and especially within academia. All the 3rd wave feminist, pro-gay, politically correct liberal stuff was to me at the time completely irrelevent and unconnected to Marxism, it was bourgeois identity politics that didn’t grasp capitalism and the state as the main enemy. There were very few contemporary thinkers who had proper marxist dialectical thought behind them. Negri and Hardt were a bit trendy but I thought they were full of shit. Zerzan has a lot of Marx in his theorizing and I still like how he thinks but he went up a dead-end street. Apart from Fredrik Jameson the only other real American marxist thinker in the tradition of the Frankfurt-School I can think of is Christopher Lasch and he ended up a social conservative, which I think is very interesting because I took a similar path completely independently.

    The way “Marx” and the evil “Frankfurt school” are tossed around on NRx and the manosphere as strawmen and proofs of conspiracy still annoys me, it’s not rigorous in the least.

    The claim “they literally believe the white working class should be gassed” doesn’t match my experience at the time. As marxists we usually did the opposite, we idealized the working class, white or black, and (as you can probably guess) most of us were middle class and higher. We believed in direct democracy and so we considered the working classes as intrinsically noble people who would make the best choices if only they achieved the revolutionary consciousness that education and the media were holding them back from.

    Note again this is just anecdotal personal experience, but I would be really surprised to find evidence that there is significant marxist influence in US academia or the greater Cathedral. Marxism and SJW-liberalism have common ancestors but very little overlap between them.

  6. Pingback: Some comments on New Left history | nydwracu niþgrim, nihtbealwa mæst

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