Many of the problems with socialism, both official and unofficial, in fact many of the problems with the world, can be traced back to Karl Marx. Not that all leftists are, say, Marxist materialists — many today are idealists1 — nor that all leftists are uncritical of Marx — they understand that completely uncritical adulation is absurd and are often intelligent enough to see the more obvious flaws in Marxist philosophy. Nor even that all have read Marx — I’d guess that most haven’t. Rather, Marx is the source of — and we might say embodies — leftism as a whole, as a gestalt. Through understanding his philosophy, and seeing through it, it is possible to gain a more radical understanding of the humdrum world — or at least see through the unspoken, and quite insane, assumptions of leftism.
Marx’s economic and social theories were based on a rationally apprehendable, law-like universe, a continuation of Western civilisation’s perennial endeavour to found reality on factual-causal laws, which began with the Greeks and Jews of the Iron age, and reached its modern fulfilment in the work of Hegel (the law of history), Darwin (the law of nature) and Freud (the law of mind). This project is flawed from its foundation, for the facticity and causality it is founded on cannot be located in reality — they are conceptual tools, prodigiously useful, but no more foundationally real than numbers are. I explain this in detail in Self and Unself. Suffice it to say that establishing a philosophy on a universe of caused facts, or mind-isolated things, condemns the individual to alienation from the reality of that universe, that which is ‘beyond’ the representations that mind presents of it. Such a mind is incapable of even perceiving what ails it — it is conditioned by its own activity — let alone remedying its problems through fiddling with the rational-material-economic structure of society.
Philosophically speaking, the inherently alienating activity of the rational mind comes in several varieties, all of which entail gross fallacies and, to the extent they govern the lives of men and women, monstrous violence. The ‘varieties’ that Marx held to were rationalism and materialism which (just like their ostensible opposites, empiricism and idealism2) ignore what the non-rational and the immaterial have to teach us, forcing the story of humanity into an essentially mechanical process which can only be explained by artificial, rational laws. Marx, like all rational managers, had no interest whatsoever in the ineffable, in the paradoxical, in the ungovernable, in the elusive, or in the individual which embodies such qualities. He was only interested in the quantitative, material mass, motivated by entirely mechanical, utilitarian ends; the satisfying of material needs which must be met before any other airy-fairy value, like freedom for example, is attended to. For Marx ‘freedom’ must begin with the rational domination of nature and must find its fulfilment in the development of industrial technology, the only way, according to Marx, that the war against ‘scarcity’ can be won, the unquenchable lack that all humans are born with.
For Marx, history was a teleological, or purpose-driven, machine, the purpose being a classless society to which the various antagonisms within society must inevitably terminate in. Such a paradise is essentially no different from the standard Judeo-Christian heaven he rejected; promised, but continually deferred. To this end, Marx continually praised the development of capitalism — even when it resulted in the utter degradation of working people. Following the quasi-fascistic nationalism of Hegel, he praised England’s ruin of India, writing in his essay ‘The British Rule in India’, that the British empire was ‘the unconscious tool of history’ and that we might not be happy about the crimes of the British, or the crumbling of an ancient empire, but that we can console ourselves with the knowledge this grotesque torture ultimately ‘brings us greater pleasure’. He was equally sanguine about the European colonisation of the United States. Such events were ‘necessary stages’ in the linear, law-like process of history which he was committed to.
For Marx only mechanical, rational processes were of any interest. He entirely ruled out consciousness (timeless or otherwise) as an agent in history. Later Marxists attempted to sneak it, or its manifestation in culture, belief, law and so on, through the back door, or they sought to understand society as a whole; undermining, in both cases, Marx’s cast-iron determinative laws and the foundations of Marxism itself. Marx himself had no interest in exploring non-historical, non-causal and non-factual realities which is why, beyond his penetrating analysis of the alienating effects of capitalist economics on the human psyche, he had almost nothing to say about love, art, death, reality, morality or anything else of vital interest to human beings. His vision of revolutionary change, a mechanical, utilitarian process which must follow the direction of history, was a betrayal of free human nature.
The utilitarian need to meet material needs, for Marx the determinant factor in human affairs, manifests as the economy, the mechanism by which such needs were met at scale. For Marx, thought, awareness, instinct, belief, inspiration are, first of all, subordinate to the need to eat, sleep and keep warm, and then, as societies grew, to the need to plant crops, build houses, manufacture trousers and so on. Apparently, we don’t first of all need to be aware, to think, to believe, to have instincts and to be inspired to hunt, cook, make fire, fire clay, write books, tile floors or run restaurants. Not that material needs and the economy don’t explain much of the world, or shape man’s attitudes — obviously they do3 but positing material-economic facts as the sole or primitive determining factor in man’s life reduces him to a component in a material history machine, which isn’t just a morally repugnant conception of humanity, but intuitively false — at least to anyone conscious enough to experience their own inner reality — logically false — as all economic relations are founded on an original conception of property and on a coercively maintained assumption of scarcity — and empirically false — what actually happens simply doesn’t bear out Marx’s predictions. He was confident, for example, that the immiseration of the proletariat would compel it to revolt against the bourgeoisie. As we know, that didn’t happen and doesn’t happen; man enters the capitalist world in a submissive state which only gets worse as he is stupefied by poverty (particularly in the third-world), crippled by professionalism, domesticated by technology and pacified with the various sops offered to him by the welfare state — a quasi-socialist mechanism perfectly consonant with capitalist self-perpetuation.
The so-called ‘real basis’ (Engel’s words) on which Marx established his laws of history led to four disastrous interconnected consequences; statism, reformism, technophilia and professionalism. Statism — attempting to create a socialist state (or ‘nationalist capitalist’ state) which will then be overthrown by the proletariat — was, according to Marx, an indispensable step on the road to communism. This is why he made the almost unbelievable demand that ‘the bourgeoisie must first come to the helm’. As with many socialists and communists to follow, he made vague gestures towards the state one day withering away, but like the constantly deferred freedom of all tyrannous authority, it could only be effected by first granting power to experts (such as Lenin’s ‘vanguard party’) who will manage the state-mechanism for the ‘good’ of the people. That this party might (and time and time again did) manage the state in its own interests didn’t seem to occur to Marx, nor that the technological progress that he demanded as a prerequisite for meeting the needs of such a state would further bloat it with a centralised techno-bureaucracy, again with its own interests.
In fact Marx had no intention of bringing down the state, he wished only to reform it from within. This is why the concrete reforms he called for in The Communist Manifesto, his ‘radical’ programme for revolutionary change, called for an inheritance tax, graduated income tax and centralization of credit and communications. Mikhail Bakunin, who, like all anarchists worth their salt, endeavoured to do away with the state by actually doing away with it, opposed this feeble, self-serving gradualism tooth and nail;
Marx is an authoritarian and centralising communist. He wants what we want, the complete triumph of economic and social equality, but he wants it… through State power, through the dictatorship of a very strong and, so to say, despotic provisional government, that is by the negation of liberty. His economic ideal is the State as sole owner of the land and of all kinds of capital, cultivating the land under the management of State engineers, and controlling all industrial and commercial associations with State capital. We want the same triumph of economic and social equality through the abolition of the State and of all that passes by the name of law… We want the reconstruction of society and the unification of mankind to be achieved, not from above downwards by any sort of authority, nor by socialist officials, engineers, and either accredited men of learning—but from below upwards, by the free federation of all kinds of workers’ associations liberated from the yoke of the State.
In Marx’s ‘above-downwards’ reconstruction of society, nature and human-nature continue to be dominated, only now in the name of the people, by technocratic officials and with the deferred aim of doing away with the authoritarian state. The embarrassing fact that authoritarian domination persists, and continues to ruin that which it is supposed to liberate, is pushed out of view by socialists, as is the fact that, in essence, nothing has changed. ‘Work’, to take one critical example, was supposed to be liberated in a communist society. The idea was that by taking over the industrial system of production developed in a capitalist economy, with all its specialists, and their theories, and all its technicians, and their machines, something fundamentally different would thereby result. In the real world this is a ridiculous ambition. A capitalist machine which exercises total control over the working man — over where he works, over how fast he works and over what tiny specialised manoeuvres he is expected to make — remains the same machine when governed by a communist state. It cannot do or be otherwise. How is a furniture-factory for example (the kind that makes IKEA flat-packs), to hand over autonomy to the individual worker? How is the individual labourer to take complete control of the productive apparatus of the shop floor, devised for a mechanised, rigidly hierarchical system, and designed to mechanically discipline the workforce? The factory was designed to produce the maximum number of goods at the lowest cost and the highest speed; this is what its machines are for. How then are they to be used to produce high quality hand-made goods, at the pace the individual worker chooses, and with the individual worker able to autonomously exercise his discriminating intelligence on the process of creation? How is this…
…to be reformed, under communist governance, into this…?
It isn’t. It can’t be. The factory, as it is, has to be destroyed. And not just its physical architecture and machinery, but its ideological and organisational structures; the division of labour activity into a thousand hyper-specialised tasks, and the division of labour purpose into the intellectual work of the manager and the submoron machine servitude of the worker. Somehow, magically, all this can be reformed, under communist or socialist governance, back into a dignified whole, although nobody knows how. Marxists and socialists simply hope that all of the scattered tasks required by, say, the mechanised industrial cake-making system (one man on the mixing machine, one man on the baking machine, one man on the cutting machine, one man on the boxing machine) will somehow, by itself, dissolve into the autonomous activity of a single baker, and that the management class will, once freed of the pressures put on it by capitalist owners, freely join hands with the drones who follow their orders, cheerfully re-skill each other and then triumphantly march towards a lower-tech society that makes the specialist skill of the manager, and the power based thereon, obsolete. We are supposed to imagine that the bureaucratic techno-elite demanded by a global industrial machine will renounce its power when that machine is taken from the hands of private business owners and given to the socialist state, and that nuclear power plants, oil-powered container ships and injection-moulding factories will be thereby reformed to serve low-energy, local economies.
This idea is, to anyone able to perceive it without the distorting ideological filters of leftism, a ludicrous, childish, religious belief. An immense industrial factory can no more be reformed for the benefit of man than a tractor can be repurposed to dig over a garden. And just as the land has to be redesigned to fit the needs of the tractor, so man has to be redesigned to fit the needs of the factory, which explains why factory-man (including a management class which may never set foot in a factory) is so keen on perpetuating the factory system, and resists the idea that if man is to be in control of the factory the whole factory has to be destroyed and rebuilt for man — and not just one factory, but all the interlocking systems which feed into and from it. Factory-man understands that a radical threat to the industrial system is a radical threat to his own being, which is why he receives radical critiques of industrial technology in almost exactly the same way as fundamentalist believers take radical critiques of their prophets or sacred texts.
Marx’s understanding of what the full ‘development of the productive forces’ of mankind, through technological progress and expansion, actually entails, or what it inevitably will entail — the ruin of man and the absorption of the human psyche into a nightmarish, self-informed (and, ironically enough, non-material) simulacrum — was nil. He did not understand, or did not want to understand, that a technocratic system demands a bourgeois technocratic management elite. His analysis of productive alienation was second-to-none, and still justly celebrated, but his obsession with class exploitation blinded him to exploitation by the democratic mass, by the technocratic system, by professional power and by the abstracted hyperworld parasitically overwhelming conscious reality. The alienating effect of having one’s capacity to freely work, learn, speak, heal and die completely uploaded into a ‘weightless’ technosphere, or appropriated by a class of technicians (calling themselves ‘managers’, ‘teachers’, ‘scientists’, ‘doctors’ and occasionally ‘businessmen’ and ‘politicians’) was invisible to Marx, as it is to all the professionals who, directly or indirectly, have followed him up the blind alley of technological progress. Bakunin (and, incidentally, Dostoevsky) saw the writing on the wall;
A scientific body to which had been confided the government of society would soon end by devoting itself no longer to science at all, but to quite another affair; and that affair, as in the case of all established powers, would be its own eternal perpetuation by rendering the society confided to its care ever more stupid and consequently more in need of its government and direction.
We now find ourselves in the dead-end that Bakunin predicted and that Marx and his many followers directed us towards, one where it is no longer principally kings or capitalists, but professional, technical experts, and the bewildering supermachine they tend, which oppress us. The military power and property power of kings and capitalists still exists, but it has been supplanted by the managerial power of technicians (who, as their universal acceptance of lockdowns and the latest bio-fascist phase of the system demonstrated, are just as happy to see the working classes brutally disciplined as capitalists and kings ever were) and the reality-absorbing power of virtual unculture and a world built to serve it.
All of this explains why Marx was contemptuous of that class of society least affected by industrialisation; namely, the peasantry. Marx (like Plato) had zero interest in the lessons that wild nature could teach man and advocated, effectively, the end of small-scale rural production. He wished to see ‘modern methods, such as irritation, drainage, steam ploughing, chemical treatment and so forth applied to agriculture…’ along with a ‘large-scale’ cultivation of the land; what today we would call a ‘monocultural’ farm. The extermination of bio-diverse nature and of the conscious lives of those who lived from it didn’t, ultimately, concern him, just as it doesn’t those who, despite much high-sounding ‘eco-friendly’ rhetoric, are still engaged in the suppression of subsistence and of vernacular independence. Such people don’t just include land-owning nobles and information-controlling professionals but the very proletariat which Marx told us would create a classless society, but who were and still are engaged, in collusion with the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy, in the industrialisation of all aspects of life and culture, imprisoning themselves ever more profoundly in ‘the kingdom of scarcity’ that such activity produces.
David Cayley summarises Ivan Illich’s account of this process;
“The [working] man found himself in a conspiracy with his employer” insofar as “both were equally concerned with economic expansion and the suppression of subsistence.” “This fundamental collusion between capital and labour,” [Illich] continues, “was mystified by the ritual of class struggle.” The breadth of this claim is quite breathtaking. Marx had asserted that the universal class in which capitalism meets its comprehensive contradiction and potential abolition is the proletariat. Not at all, says Illich—the proletariat is only an accomplice in the war against subsistence, which is the real site of the contradiction. The novelty that Marx misses or takes for granted is homo economicus, a being who must be “distinguished… from all other human beings.” The class struggle is no more than a ritual, and a ritual, as Illich’s defines it elsewhere, is “a procedure whose imagined purpose allows the participants to overlook what they are actually doing.” What the antagonists/accomplices in the class struggle are “actually doing” is making war on subsistence through their joint interest in industrializing every aspect of culture and every element of livelihood—the project that marks out homo economicus from “all other human beings.” Marx’s “proletarians” with “a world to win” and “nothing to lose but their chains” are, in fact, tightening their fetters by trying to improve their position in the kingdom of scarcity rather than fighting for a restoration of the commons. The true universal class is the shadow workers—all those who toil “unproductively” in the shadow of production.
Marx had no idea that the working class would become subdued and domesticated by the ‘development of their productive forces’, that the industrialisation of their lives would force them to surrender to the God of Productivity, and lay waste a natural world in which scarcity does not exist. Marx was unable to predict that eventually everyone — meaning the individual psyche of everyone on earth — would inevitably become a ‘means of production’, a virtual capitalist-industry of one, working in front of, and psychologically welded to, the factory of the screen. How can you ‘seize the means of production’, as Marx told us to do, when this means of production is your self? Who or what is to do the seizing? Marx had no answer to this question. Not because he could not imagine a world dominated by, say, the internet, but because he did not — could not — ask any critical questions of the technocratic priesthood he was part of, and in some senses the founding prophet of.
Marx was the first stagversive, or professional radical; promising revolution, freedom, equality and other such marvels, but, in his actual assumptions and actions, supporting the system, and helping to develop it. He was uncritical of technology or of the techno-bureaucratic class of functionaries (managers, professionals, politicians, trade-union leaders) it engendered, he was contemptuous of the power of the rural poor and the working class (the peasantry and the ‘insufficiently developed’ proletariat, both of which were, for Marx, dispensable before the almighty laws of history) to manage their own affairs, he was supportive of colonial wars, provided they worked towards his statist revolution, and he was committed to a monstrously crude theory of human life, history and experience with nothing of interest to say about life beyond it. This is why he was feted by the bourgeois press, by edgy radicals like John Stuart Mill, by company-men, by progressive businessmen and by ‘revolutionary leaders’, of whom, several decades after Marx’s death, Lenin was to be the most notorious, tyrannical exemplar.
If this were all, we could safely forget about him, but in all these key respects he is identical to the the countless socialists, communists and nominal anarchists4 who followed him, which is why, once we have extracted the few observations of priceless value he made — along with those within the indispensable critique of capitalism he initiated (e.g. those of Braverman, Baran & Sweezy, Mumford, Ellul, Fromm, Berger and many, many others) — why it is so important to understand and completely reject his crude, hyper-rational theorising, his brutally insensitive authoritarianism, his pathetically gradualist reformist — and statist — politics, his monomaniacal worship of technological, bourgeois-managed progress, his naked contempt for ordinary people and his celebration of the civilising machine which makes slaves of us all.
Postscript 1: The World Turns Socialist
Management can be done away with only by eliminating the machinery that makes it necessary.
Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality, 1973
There is no real difference between capitalism and communism5; the former is the ideology of private / corporate power, the latter the ideology of professional / state power, but both completely depend on and merge into each other. They are one. It doesn’t look that way, however, because, firstly, the two groups — owners and technicians — are often at odds, and secondly, in order to give the impression of genuine democratic choice, between the right and the left, it serves both of their purposes to massively exaggerate their differences. They continually broadcast their disagreements about which aspect of systemic power should, at any one time, come to the fore, they dress in different colours and speak of different commitments, but they work together (the leftist state in control of welfare, policing, taxation, professional-credentialisation and providing a PR show of‘ democracy’; the rightist private sector in charge of everything else) and when push comes to shove, they always join forces, moving power, in the form of money and capital, around to fit the demands of the moment.
Nevertheless there are, clearly, some differences between the communist left and the capitalist right, just as there is between the private corporation and the public state. They serve different functions and, at any one time or place one must have, or be given, or occasionally must seize more power than the other. At the moment we are seeing a shift to greater state power and so communism is now being promoted. Not so long ago it was simply unthinkable that anyone with real power in the West would seriously criticise capitalism. Fringe leftists were given space to speak on socialist media platforms,6 but they were not taken seriously. In the past five or ten years or so, and particularly in the last couple of years, all this has changed. Criticisms of capitalism (including criticisms of ‘work’) are now promoted everywhere. Many leftists, as lockdowns shattered the lower levels of the economy, began hailing the ‘end of capitalism’ and the ‘beginning of communism’, unaware, as ever, that the system comprises both. Slavoj Žižek was a prominent case, but there are now many socialists and ‘anarchists’ beating the anti-work drum in rhythm to that rumbling down from Mount Central Bank (similar, in a way, to XR and BLM battling courageously away for nature and for black people but in the same direction as the system).
The reason for the new socialist dawn is that the system is currently demanding a contraction of the world economy and the imprisonment of everyone who exists within it, which requires, in turn, a massive augmentation of state power. As Marx taught us, capitalist economics are inherently unstable and prone to crash, and inherently contradictory, forced to simultaneously exploit and exclude workers. It’s still difficult to say for certain quite what happened, but it would appear that as the world economy faced a crisis set to make the 2008 crash look like a post-prandial burp, the world’s most powerful banks and investment funds cooked up a plan (‘conspired’ you could say) to ‘inject liquidity’ back into the system, ‘insulate the real economy from deterioration’ and throttle production. Irrespective of what went on behind the scenes, soon after this, our locked-down world appeared which, conveniently enough, involved completely virtualising the economy, liquidating small businesses, forcing, or attempting to force, everyone to carry a passport to access society and pumping billions into the tech and pharmaceutical industry. All of this, again rather conveniently, deferred another economic meltdown and transferred the means by which the ever more excluded population of the world (particularly the vanishing middle-classes of the West) could be coerced; from the carrot (a Huxleyan capitalist system) to the stick (an Orwellian socialist system).
The new, latest and probably terminal phase of the system, the biofascistic totalitarianism (a.k.a. techno-feudalism) set in motion at the beginning of 2020, requires massively inflated powers of state-managed legal control, policing, surveillance, welfare, technological development and deployment and, of course, ‘health’. This is why we are seeing a swing towards socialism and communism, as the state is being asked to ‘manage the pandemic’ which, unfortunately and completely unexpectedly, has resulted in an economic ‘downturn’. What actually happened was that the state was tasked with creating a ‘pandemic’ (which is to say inflating the seriousness of a flu-like virus, which is why states most keen to introduce vaccine passports were, amazingly, the worst affected) in order to manage a crash and manage the millions of workers that technological expansion has made redundant. Those who complain about ‘communist’ governments and ‘communist’ management of the ‘pandemic’ and the ‘climate-emergency’ are unaware, or unwilling to accept, that capitalism, albeit in an altered form, will continue uninterrupted, that private power, and inequality, will continue to increase, and that all the foundational assumptions and tools of capitalism will and must remain in place — a usurious debt-based financial system, private wealth, inviolable property rights and so on — but they are quite right in seeing the statist spectre of Marx, the technofascist bureaucrat, haunting the new world, which is why it is so important to see him, and his philosophy, for what they are; tools of the system.
Postscript 2: Response to Criticisms
This article, published by OffGuardian, caused a storm in a socialist teacup. Many were appreciative, others very much not. Criticisms included the following;
- I have not read Marx.
- It is badly written.
- I confuse Marx with Marxists.
- Communists have done a lot of good.
- I am advocating postmodern relativism.
- Marx’s philosophy is not rigidly deterministic.
- Fascism and communism are different.
- Criticism of Marx equals support for capitalism.
- Leftists today do not hold these positions.
- Marx endorsed independent working class movements.
- Marx could not have predicted our enslavement by technology.
(And these were the politer and more reasonable responses. I was accused of being a ‘cop’,7 of working for the CIA, and of being part of a ‘counter-revolutionary network’ spearheaded by Paul Cudenec. Author C.J. Hopkins contented himself with telling me why I wrote the article and how I felt about him blowing a raspberry at it. John Steppling said it was ‘factually wrong, philosophically incoherent and infantile’ — although he was unable to say why.)
That I have read Marx (although certainly not all or even most of what he wrote), that I quoted him directly, that people often accuse writing that makes them angry of being stylistically poor (for obvious reasons), that it is patently obvious that communists have done a lot of good (even a few communist governments), that I am certainly not advocating relativism (rather pointing out the catastrophic limits of factual-causal literalism), that Marx’s philosophy is disastrously founded on such ‘literality’ (regardless of the fact that it is ‘dynamic’ and not ‘rigidly causal’), that it is ridiculous to suggest a criticism of communism equals support for capitalism8 (when there is a third option; anarchism), that fascism and communism are obviously different (but have similar origins and equally lamentable outcomes), that, yes, Marx did also endorse independent working class action (despite his feeble gradualism and contempt for small scale peasant production), that, as I said in the article, he was a perceptive critic of capitalism9 (despite saying very little of interest about anything else) and that, as I also said, obviously Marx could not have predicted the internet…
…are all, ultimately, besides the point. All these criticisms ignore my central point, that Marx’s technophilia and thirst for industrialisation (to say nothing of his insane hyper-rational literalism and reformism) lead to a ‘war on subsistence’, a techno-bureaucratic class of powerful, statist professional elites and no way to create a world worth living in; all problems very much still with us, regardless of whether leftists today hold Marxist positions or not, or have even read him10. That capitalism is also still very much with us is clearly true as well. As far as anarchists are concerned both must be, and will be, overcome.
- e.g. pacifistic Buddhists
- Again, as I have argued in Self and Unself.
- Or that hunger is caused by belief in food — obviously it is not — or that coercive propaganda in a hierarchical economic system doesn’t depend on that hierarchy to be accepted — obviously it does.
- The social-democrat Chomsky-Bookchin-Graeber-type, and the nihilistic ‘against everything’ Sex-Pistol type.
- n.b. I am using these two terms, here and elsewhere, in something of a modified but everyday sense, not in the technical sense of economists.
- Here in the UK The Guardian, The New Statesman and even, believe it or not, the BBC, would give space and time to socialists and communists.
- By Marxist-Leninist provocateur Phil Greaves
- This was John Steppling’s feeble objection.
- I received one email which summed up his contribution accurately and succinctly; ‘This is the analysis of the merchandise form, the logic of exchange value (which today some scholars extend to the logic of value tout-cort) and above all of the analysis of capital and its need to grow indefinitely by imprinting the form of merchandise even on the most intimate and communal activities of man, now even on biological ones’.
- In this sense I do conflate Marx with Marxists / socialists.