Marxism was originally billed as some grand, infallible, all-encompassing theory of everything – which it then went on to spectacularly fail to be. Unstoppable social and economic trends were supposed to spell the inevitable destruction of capitalism and guarantee that socialism would spring out of its ashes. As it turns out, just because a clever man with a beard says something is going to happen doesn’t mean it will.
Classical Marxism has been roundly trounced by history. Marx’s predictions haven’t come to pass. Messy reality just hasn’t unfurled in the neat, systematic manner he anticipated. And as a result, in the decades since, the best Marxism has abandoned attempts at cast-iron predictions and rigid socioeconomic frameworks, and instead concerned itself with pragmatically addressing two big questions: if capitalism is so abundantly awful – anarchic, crisis-prone, horrifically exploitative to an extent that limits and ruins billions of lives (which it is) – then 1) why do people not rise up and get rid of it? And 2) how can we bring about a situation where they do rise up and get rid of it?
What became known as Western Marxism emerged in Germany in the 1920s. Two left-wing thinkers, Georg Lukacs and Karl Korsch, began questioning the fundamentals of orthodox Marxism. Critical both of Soviet authoritarianism and the Soviet-style Marxism practiced by many Western dissidents, they rejected the idea that revolution was inevitable. They argued socialist transformation was something radicals had to creatively, doggedly make happen.
Shunning the mainstream Marxist fixation with all things economic, Korsch and Lukacs began to examine the social, cultural and political roots of capitalist dominance, placing far greater emphasis on the Marxist concepts of ideology or false consciousness (a way of looking at and thinking about the world that favours the rich and powerful) and alienation (the way capitalism not only physically but psychologically damages working people, forcing them into dull, tedious work where they’ve got no autonomy).
This made them deeply unpopular with their own side. Established non-Soviet Communist Parties were busy ruthlessly policing a Marxist orthodoxy dictated by Moscow. Mainstream Marxism had become a sort of secular religion – Marx was God, Das Kapital was the Bible, Lenin was Jesus, communism was heaven and capitalism was hell. Korsch and Lukacs had dared to deviate from Holy Scripture, and they were accordingly condemned as blasphemers.
They had the last laugh, though – not long afterwards, someone published a trove of Marx’s earliest writings, having snuck them out of Moscow where the Soviets had hoped to keep a lid on them. It turned out the young Marx had broadly agreed with a lot of what Korsch, Lukacs, and others who came after them had been arguing.
Korsch and Lukacs might’ve started it, but arguably the most significant Western Marxist was a man called Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci had the misfortune of being a high-ranking member of the Italian Communist Party during the rise of fascism, and was jailed for nine years as an opponent of Mussolini’s regime. He spent his near-decade inside thinking and writing about politics – turning out one of the most insightful investigations of how capitalism endures ever put to paper.
Like his German counterparts, Gramsci rubbished the idea that socialism was inevitable. Instead, he dedicated himself to explaining why socialism hadn’t emerged at a time when it was nevertheless highly desirable – why populations stifled and exploited by a system run by and for a tiny, mega-privileged elite didn’t rise up en masse and put and an end to their oppression, and instead seemed quite content to go along with the way things were.
Gramsci came up with a concept called hegemony (or to be precise, he broadened the definition of a word Lenin and others had used to refer to the hypothetical situation where the working-class established its supremacy after a socialist revolution). If ‘ideology’ or ‘false consciousness’ is a worldview that excuses a grotesquely exploitative, unequal status quo, ‘hegemony’ is the way the ruling elite ensures practically everyone shares that worldview – turning it into a sort of universally-accepted, unquestionable common sense. And they achieve that by manipulating our culture.
From birth, practically everything we’re bombarded with in the cultural realm legitimises the way things are – the nuclear family, private property, wage labour, and so much else that society could really do with getting rid of. Thanks to the books we read, films we go and see, TV shows we watch, songs we sing, what we’re taught at school, or told by the church or our families or the government, we literally cannot imagine a world in which those things don’t exist – in which the richest don’t own almost everything, and the vast majority aren’t forced to give over most of their lives to making them richer.
Gramsci thought there were two ways of achieving socialism. The first one was very familiar: a good old-fashioned armed revolution, which he called a War of Movement. And the second was what he called a War of Position – a much longer, more drawn-out ideological struggle against capitalist hegemony within civil society and popular culture. The latter, Gramsci thought, was far more suited to the advanced West – and as such, he called for mass working-class self-education, to foster more working-class intellectuals, to help counter the propaganda offensive from above and join the ideological fight to replace a capitalist hegemony with a socialist one.
Critical Theory and the Frankfurt School
If Korsch, Lukacs and Gramsci offered a sort of alternative Marxism, distinguishing itself from the dogmatic Soviet-template leftist orthodoxy, the so-called Frankfurt School went further. A group of German academics originally working out of Frankfurt’s Goethe University, the F-Schoolers (as no-one has ever called them) sought to combine elements of Marxism with psychoanalysis, sociology and existential philosophy to try and diagnose why modern society was quite so horrible. It became known as Critical Theory.
The most famous, and arguably the most important, Critical Theorists were Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse, but there were others. And although they were very different people, with different specialisms and intellectual preoccupations, they were united by a profound pessimism about the state of the world.
They lived at a time when naïve notions of inevitable progress and gradually liberalising societies had been utterly smashed. Their own homeland, the most advanced industrial society in the world, had turned to fascism (another of their number, Walter Benjamin, committed suicide while attempting to flee the Nazis). That in turn had led to the premeditated, mechanised, industrial-scale slaughter of eleven million people – the holocaust. Science, supposed to make life happier, healthier and easier for all, had produced the atom bomb, and two of them had been dropped on Japan. Stifling totalitarianism had arisen in the Soviet Union, supposedly the crucible of socialism. In the United States, allegedly Land of the Free, racism was virulent, and Senator McCarthy’s rabid anti-leftism was making a mockery of free speech. And in the ‘liberal democratic’ West more generally, consumerism was ironing out individuality and replacing it with a sort of banal, passive conformity – resulting in whole populations of unreflective, apathetic, brainwashed drones. Or to put it another way, the Frankfurt Schoolers’ gloomy disposition was somewhat understandable.
Horkheimer and Adorno were blisteringly critical of the path social and technological progress had taken in their book Dialectic of Enlightenment. The Enlightenment, a period of intellectual flourishing across seventeenth and eighteenth-century Europe, had classically been seen as overwhelmingly positive – a time when science and rational thinking finally began to batter aside old superstitions and prejudices, freeing people from irrational beliefs and allowing them to step up and take control of their own destinies. Adorno and Horkheimer disagreed. They saw it as giving rise to what they called instrumental rationality – an all-pervading technocratic outlook focused only on the most efficient or cost-effective means of achieving a specific end. As a result, societies became all about efficient management and control – reducing everything, including living, breathing human beings, to ‘mere stuff to be dominated’.
Horkheimer looked at the state, and the nature of authoritarianism. At a time when it was popular to see the three as distinct and completely separate, he saw striking similarities between Stalinised Communism, fascism and Western-style liberal democracy. All three were ruled and administrated by powerful, detached bureaucracies. All three were divided between ruling elites and subservient masses. All three made liberal use of stupefying mass media and state propaganda. And all three forced people into the kind of meaningless, deadening work that produced alienation in spades.
Adorno was interested in art, music, and popular culture. He believed that where once art and other aspects of pop culture had the potential to challenge people, intellectually and politically, capitalist societies churned out mindless dross that kept people distracted, apolitical and passively satisfied. People were instilled with false desires – made to want things they didn’t really need, but that the capitalist system could make a lot of money out of providing them. These had gradually pushed genuine human needs – the kind required for happy, fulfilling existences – out of the picture, taking the idea that capitalism should be replaced with a system that could actually deliver those things with it.
Erich Fromm was a psychoanalyst, who, in his seminal work The Sane Society, essentially argued that Western civilisation was mentally ill. He assessed how much modern industrial society allowed individual human beings to flourish, fulfil their potential, experience happy, healthy, satisfying lives – and, surprisingly enough, found it to be an abysmal failure in each case.
He looked at the status quo, with its seemingly endless war, economic injustice and preventable human suffering – noting that the most ‘advanced’ nations had been reliably shown to experience the highest rates of mental illness – and judged it to be completely insane. In his view, a person’s sanity shouldn’t be measured by how much they adjusted to society. Instead, society desperately needed to adjust to fit the emotional needs of human beings. Capitalism prized the freedom of capital above all else. As far as its priorities went, the wellbeing of the species was a distant second. And the only proper solution, in Fromm’s view, was a communitarian socialism that was geared around satisfying real human needs.
Which leaves us with my personal favourite, Herbert Marcuse. Marcuse’s most famous book was One-Dimensional Man, in which he argued that modern society was severely limiting human beings, emotionally, intellectually and politically – turning out whole generations of ‘one-dimensional’ people. He described a system which eliminates individuality, and neuters or ‘co-opts’ all dissent and opposition – think of how Labour pre-Corbyn had gone from a boisterous working-class movement to just another wing of the establishment, or how rap and punk and other politically-conscious types of music have been stripped of the radical attitude and made mainstream.
Rather than letting people develop (potentially subversive) opinions of their own, Marcuse suggested, society destroys their ability to think critically, in a lame trade-off for dumb, consumerist satisfaction. It then just imposes its own values system on them much in the way Gramsci described – so successfully that they think the pro-establishment platitudes they spout are somehow ‘theirs’. As such, liberal democracy is just a sham in Marcuse’s view – people who don’t know what they need, who’ve got no opinions of their own, allowed to choose from two or three shades of elitist bureaucracy within political inches of one another. With typical Frankfurt School-grade pessimism, he concluded that the possibility of radical social change had been snuffed out.
And on that singularly bleak note, we’ll bring our discussion of the best bits of Marxism after Marx to a close for one day – saving concluding thoughts for another post so as not to make this one an unassailably massive read.
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