| by Christopher England |
In the wake of the global financial meltdown, Jacobin magazine has emerged as the preeminent mouthpiece for a resurgent Marxist intelligentsia. It attracts a steady stream of articles from academics who, in uncharacteristically readable English, preach about the inequity of liberalism. It can claim two issues with titles like “Liberalism is Dead,” and none, henceforth, that have shined such a harsh light on conservatism. Conservativism, as its contributors consistently note, can only be defeated if liberalism is brought low. This abiding antipathy for the democratic tradition is hard to reconcile with the magazine’s masthead. Though all stripes of revolutionaries have routinely been attacked as “Jacobins,” the term refers specifically to a radical contingent of the quintessentially liberal French revolution. Real Jacobins helped birth capitalism out of the womb of a bloodied aristocracy and counted themselves radicals because they fought for ideals like the rule of law and the disestablishment of state churches. Far from eager apostles of the socialist millennium, they exiled Babeuf, the Abraham of revolutionary communism, from their group.
Jacobin, however, is not as incongruous a title for a Marxist publication as it seems. In fact, this species of evasion defines modern Marxism. As a former fellow traveler myself, I can testify that there are still Spartacists who convene regularly in the tenement closets of Oakland to drape themselves in full Soviet regalia. However, most people find such an honest embrace of communism ludicrous. Marxism thrives precisely in proportion to how much it backpedals from its identity. If Bhaskar Sunkara had named his publication Stasi or Bolsheviki instead of Jacobin, today he would be vying for the attention of the East Bay Express instead of the New York Times. That the Marxist left is more drawn to one of the bloodiest sects in the liberal tradition than any of the artifacts of its own history testifies to the intellectual dissonance that is hiding just under the surface of the movement. Marxism offers exactly one thing: a gigantic corporate buyout, in which a single firm — the state — consolidates all the smaller firms with lead and rope. No one believes in that vision anymore.
The essential paradox of modern Marxism is that it has largely exorcised the ghost of its core tenet, socialism. Jacobin confronts the history of socialist governments only glancingly, if at all. It rarely considers what socialism would mean in practice. When it tries to flesh out its millennium, the response is rambling, imprecise, and often concludes by acknowledging that socialism might just be a rebranded reformist capitalism. The magazine assiduously avoids discussing even the socialism of its own age. While it glories in the supposed collapse of liberalism, it has demonstrated utter indifference to the spectacular decline of modern socialism. Gifted a seemingly invincible natural bounty of petroleum, Venezuelan socialism has still run aground. Hollande, France’s socialist president, hit 4 % approval; by comparison Clinton is a modern day folk hero — the Garibaldi of the pant suit nation.
Jacobin followed the French elections closely. Yet somehow, it failed to observe that the root of the chaos lies in the epochal disintegration of one of Europe’s historic Marxist parties.
This half-hearted Marxism was born in the university. The basic tenet of academic Marxism is that the Rheinlander laid out a useful paradigm for understanding society that can be treated mostly separately from the plan of action he proposed. Marxism provides a systematic approach to social analysis, gives easy answers to complex questions, and makes even small incidents relevant to a universal theory of history, easily contextualizing scholarship in a deep pool of literature. In the university, Marxism became a tool for critiquing the status quo, nearly, if not entirely disentangled from a concrete vision of the future. This was explicitly the case for C. Wright Mills, whose “Letter to the New Left” helped birth the trend. Mills believed that without ideology, social analysis devolved into the mere chronicling of disconnected facts. Yet, when asked by an exasperated scholar if he believed in anything at all, the motorcycle riding iconoclast declared simply “German motors.” There is something admirable about this attitude. There is no more extreme example of scholarly objectivity than treating a millennial religion dividing the world into hostile, warring camps with the same detachment as a geometrical theorem. But Mill’s argument only holds if Marxism is carrying its weight, improving analysis, rather than just weighing it down with the inertia of a scholarly culture that prizes hermetically-sealed self-referentiality.
The better part of “Marxist” scholars have, in fact, been steadily bashing apart the edifice of Marxist theory without the wherewithal to understand what they were doing. One could spend a lifetime struggling in vain to find an argument for communism in the Communist Manifesto. Marx derided those who believed that communism was morally correct as “utopian socialists” whose silly faith in ideals was at odds with the mechanistic nature of a fundamentally material world. Marxism was prophecy. Communism was inevitable, not right. When it proved to be neither, scholars took to explaining why that was the case. But, if Marxism is not inevitable, it is nothing. Ronald Reagan, with his abiding fear that the Evil Empire would spread without intervention, was, in this sense, a much better Marxist than David Roediger could ever hope to be.
Without this sense of inevitability, Marxism lacks most of its intellectual heft. Its prophetic qualities made Marxism a predictive model that intellectuals could use to understand historical development. But the same scholars who purport to abide by this model have taken brickbats to it. We now know that race, nationality, and religion do, in fact, divide the proletariat, preventing the formation of working class consciousness. We know that the most socially active classes are generally the propertied and relatively independent middle classes, historically farmers, perhaps students today. Even working class consciousness in England, one of the strongest such examples, is now understood as a historic accident rather than the product of inevitable and generalizable forces. If Marxists no longer believe that history is driven by the economic interests of defined and conscious classes, in what sense are they Marxists? What does Marxism contribute to our understanding of the world?
In fact, academic Marxism no longer seems to be a model so much as a series of bad habits that help scholars reach interesting, but ultimately unwarranted, conclusions. It is the language of German idealism — passed down since Hegel — with its large, sweeping, platonic vocabulary that guards against the sort of nuance that would complicate grandiose conclusions. It is the presumption that systems of power are always operating in preconceived ways, supplying scholars with knee-jerk conclusions that require no empirical evidence. “Capitalism,” “imperialism,” and the “state” function in consistent ways; any dark fact of modern reality can be attributed to these vast, all-powerful phenomena. A recent issue of Jacobin inexplicably argues that “bourgeois” rule of law enabled Trump (because of Louis-Napoléon?). Armed with a worldview that provides answers without regard for facts, Jordan Von Manalastas is confident that the rule of law is the problem, even though the courts have checked the president several times, whereas it was Manalastas’ proletarian godhead that originally manifested the orange menace from under its hardhat.
— Jacobin (@jacobinmag) July 3, 2017
The example of socialism in practice should have long since banished to the dustbin of history this presumption that all social ills can naturally be attributed to a particular social system. If Manalastas is concerned with the abuses of bourgeois rule of law, does he long for a return to the arbitrary retribution of the Gulag? Jacobin routinely attributes “Islamophobia” to a system of capitalist imperialism. Do they not remember that Marx derided religion as the “opium of the people?” Have they forgotten that Stalin shuttered Mosques or that Al-Qaeda was born in the struggle against Soviet intolerance? Even today, France has taken the radical step of banning burqas under the leadership of a Socialist Party committed to secularism. When all human history had been defined by class society, it was possible to attribute the world’s intractable problems to that system. Now we have “seen the future” and should know that some social ills have deep roots—that certain struggles are destined to stretch into the eternal darkness of men’s souls.
Even the core analytical principle of Marxism — class — has only survived because the sloppiness and imprecision of Marxist language. At least one contributor to Jacobin, Michael Beggs, acknowledged that much of the analytical framework of Marxism has been worn threadbare, but found something valuable in the idea of class. But what was class to Marx? Does Marx’s understanding of class really have anything to do with what we think of today as class? For Marx, class wasn’t simply gradations in wealth and especially not — as some might believe — in income. Marx believed that the inexorable force of history split capitalist societies into two clearly defined groups, one that owned capital and did not work and another that owned no capital and lived on wages. Economic conflict had existed throughout history, but the finely granulated differences of class in earlier societies made society too complicated for the various lower classes to be organized into one cohesive group. The magic of capitalism — the fatal flaw that made it the mechanism for its own destruction — was that it abolished degrees of class and divided the world into two distinct groups, clearly defined by their antithetical relationship to capital.
But today there is neither a particularly clear division between the bourgeois and proletariat nor even any certitude that one is necessarily more oppressed than the other. According to Marx, West Virginia dirt farmers and street peddlers are the capital-owning bourgeoisie — or at least the “petit bourgeoise” that he believed would have long since have died out. Meanwhile, professional athletes and high level executives, both wage earners, are members of the revolutionary proletarian. Since Marx’s epoch concluded, corporations became the dominate form of economic organization. These limited the role of bourgeois entrepreneurs, making the dominate class in business wage earning managers and executives. On the other hand, the emergent “precariat” is often property owning and entrepreneurial. Uber drivers own the means of production (automobiles) and work as independent contractors. Jacobin itself has highlighted the development of a large class of precariously employed third world entrepreneurs sponsored by microfinance. In a modern age of economic uncertainty, a steady salary seems like an aristocratic perquisite rather than a marker of subjugation. Added to that, most people today seem at least, if not more, concerned by rent than their relationship to capital. However, businesses rent, creating a community of interest between capital and young workers of all employment statuses, oftentimes against working class old-timers who use NIMBYism to make the state a partner in land speculation.
All these theoretical flaws play out in the real-world development of socialist movements. The power of ideology is that it shapes the action of large groups of people into a unified and coherent movement. But Marx failed to provide such a model, instead arguing that a cohesive working class would naturally use force in the optimal way. That unified, revolutionary working class never appeared. And so, Marx’s decision to trust in natural processes rather than leave a blueprint has left the movement listless and divided when it needed to resort to old-fashioned individual choice to implement the complex processes of economic planning. Similarly, Marx’s tendency to recur to vague terminology like “the dictatorship of the proletariat” has made his ideology more fruitful ground for disputation than unified action.
Without the conditions Marx predicted, Marxism inevitably becomes a doctrine of intolerance and dissension. Without a clear antagonist, class warfare amounts to lining up a circular firing squad. Without the predicted ideological unity of classes, the Marxist doctrine of force succumbs to a chaotic parade of violence. Because Marxism depicts ideas as a product of economic interests, differences of opinion are derided as evidence of complicity in the system. In the primaries, Sanders refused to meet with representatives from think-tanks. Apparently, policy interns who can claim fewer years in remunerative employment than Sanders can in the Senate are part of an “establishment” that the career politician from Vermont wants no part of. This same attitude of paranoid suspicion accounts for why Marxist organizations have been notoriously fractious, prone to schisms, and systematically marginalized by infighting. To this day, American Marxism has more organizations than members, divided largely over whether some Russian expat in Mexico deserved an icepick in his head and whether the dictatorship of the proletariat is, in fact, the flesh and blood of the godhead or merely a symbolic representation.
The people at Jacobin are correct that the left needs vision. They fail, however, to recognize that socialism no longer offers a radical paradigm so much as a warmed-over shadow of liberalism without the intellectual scaffolding to rebuild something meaningful. Bernie’s plot to break up the banks was not socialism. Socialists have always argued for the consolidation of business as a step toward the day when there would be one business—the state. Sanders’ plan was a reiteration of the anti-monopoly tropes of progressivism, without the underlying liberal faith in competition to give it meaning. Offering free higher education is the opposite of a class-conscious social provision—its liberal focus on social mobility feeds directly into Horatio Alger narratives. Sanders offered popular policies ripped directly off a Facebook wall, but couldn’t provide a wider vision because those policies were derived from an alien ideology. The only time that Sanders became more than a caricature of New Deal transactional liberalism was when he talked about campaign finance reform. Then he evoked the threat of money power to democracy, a long-standing liberal trope that is more Thomas Jefferson than Karl Marx.
In lieu of explicitly evoking the liberal vision of a free, meritocratic, and democratic society that underlies most of their planks, socialists rely on empty rebranding that is bound to disappoint. Sanders promised “revolution” and “socialism.” The real world changes by degrees and promising to cross the threshold into a fundamentally new social order will end in a whirlwind of disappointment. That is why modern socialism has been so fragile; instead of direction it offers a fleeting vision of change. Sustainable change comes from articulating a defined vision for the future, complete with incremental steps and a coherent value system. For fifty years, Marxism has only been a tool of criticism. It has no solutions of its own. It maligns liberalism, but expropriates from it every bit of its positive platform. If the left wants to make that platform into a sustainable basis of change then it needs to be able to embrace the values that underlie it, and those are liberal, not socialist values.
Christopher England has a PhD in U.S. History from Georgetown University and has, since graduating, been an adjunct at UW-Madison and a fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. You can reach him at LinkedIn here via email at: email@example.com