Marx is overrated, the Bolsheviks killed people and put socialism back decades, and the Marxism most worth with bothering with nowadays isn’t very Marxist at all. Thus concluded our whistle-stop intellectual coach trip through far-left political philosophy, now pulling in at its final destination.
It’s obviously been a very selective and simplified overview. I’ve tried to write it in such a way that people not massively acquainted with the ins and outs of radical philosophy could understand it.
If you spent a bit longer poring over Marx – or Lenin, or Trotsky, or maybe even Stalin, at least from a grim-warning-from-history perspective – you’d almost definitely find more worth salvaging than I’ve picked out over the previous posts.
I’ve also stopped at a fairly arbitrary point in history. I’ve could’ve gone on, and talked about Louis Althusser, Jean-Paul Sartre, Chantal Mouffe, Ernesto Laclau and others. Some of the best people chipping away at the maddening neoliberal orthodoxy in the present day are Marxists, after all – I’m thinking particularly of Slavoj Zizek (excellent on ideology) and David Harvey (who masterfully dissects neoliberal economics), both of whom take the environment pleasingly seriously.
But I’ve had enough of translating mind-rending academi-speak into real English for one year, so it’s time to actually get to the point.
I’ve played down Marx, criticised the Bolsheviks, and talked up the Western Marxists that came after them. Does that mean I reckon we should all rip down our posters of Marx and Lenin and put up ones of Marcuse, like the student radicals of the ‘60s did (or at least the putting up Marcuse ones part)?
No. Because worshipping intellectuals like left-wing prophets – whichever ones you choose – is part of the problem. Name-isms aren’t very positive. Humans are flawed. No one person can write something so staggeringly insightful that you can build your entire worldview around. I agree with Chomsky on this one – terms like Marxist and Freudian and the like belong to religion, not serious critical thought. All the posters, and the flags, and the outdated old world symbolism need getting rid of.
More fundamentally: this blog’s whole approach was born out of a hatred of the kinds of books and articles that you have to read a whole pile of other books and articles just to understand – and that basic intellectual elitism that presumes anyone who picks up your intellectual masterwork is going to have a thorough knowledge of Nietzsche, Hegel, Schopenhauer and Baudrillard.
As far as most people are concerned, they could be posh chocolates you get at Waitrose. And that’s not just because consumer capitalism has brought about a headlong dash to the lowest common denominator in every sphere of human experience (which it has). It’s also because those writers and thinkers wrote far too exclusively in the first place.
Practically every work of philosophy or political theory ever has been written in an impenetrable academic jargon that most people don’t understand – or at least will never have the time, the education or the inclination to sit down and try and understand.
For a phenomenon supposedly dedicated to the liberation of the working (wo)man, the Left has performed spectacularly badly on that front (and the Frankfurt School were among the worst offenders – say what you like about the impenetrable jargon of Das Kapital, the Communist Manifesto communicated Marx’s vision with real clarity and power).
I think we need to put a decisive end to the situation where left-wingers write and talk about the world in an inscrutable private language. That means liberating the clever stuff – the insights, the strategies – from the clever people and their brain-bending inability to write things clearly (and from the paralysing fatalism that led Adorno and Horkheimer and others to give up on activist politics altogether).
We need to take the wisdom of every thinker with something important to tell us, from Socrates to the Artist Taxi Driver, and work it into a clear, conversational, jargon-free left-wing common sense. That means no more rambling tomes you need a PhD to decode into human, and left-wingers talking to themselves, and, crucially, other people, in a way the Campaign for Clear English would give the nod to.