What is Leftist Marxism?
Antileftist Marxism poses the problem of “leftist Marxism.” In doing so, it aims to contextualize the latter as a particular, albeit dominant form of Marxism rather than Marxism in general. Leftist Marxism, on the other hand, presents itself as the only possible kind of Marxism and therefore sees no need to acknowledge its specific existence. Recognizing no difference between Marxism and the left, it would consider “antileftist Marxism” to be an oxymoron and “leftist Marxism” to be a tautology.
To speak of “leftist Marxism” in the first place is an effort to challenge its common sense, to turn into an object of criticism something that wasn’t distinguishable. It is an attempt to give context and critical definition to a social phenomenon that previously had none. But what is leftist Marxism and why is it a problem?
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Although it appears in various manifestations, leftist Marxism designates all the existing Marxisms that idealize the left and demonize the right. The different forms of leftist Marxism indeed cohere around a common function to reinforce—explicitly or implicitly—the left/right divide of liberal democracy. Leftist Marxists, that is, tend to be more attached to the concept of the left, and its differences with their notion of the right, than they are to a Marxist criticism that calls such frameworks into question.
Leftist Marxism runs the gamut from the Rawlsian Marxists of Jacobin magazine to the Marxist-Leninist gamers and Twitch streamers, from the pedantic Marxists of academia, who claim to have mastered every word of Marx, to the young activists who have read none but find in Marx a revolutionary symbol for their hatred of the intersectional evils of capitalism, colonialism, imperialism, racism, sexism, etc.
What makes all these “leftist Marxism” is how they harmonize Marx’s thought with progressive liberalism and the premises of its parties.
Many leftist Marxists in the US media and academy in fact make Marx palatable to Democrats for a living, as vote-blue-no-matter-who partisans who reliably perpetuate the logic of lesser-evilism and the promise of reforming the Democratic party. But even when they are not whipping votes for Democrats, leftist Marxists serve the coalition by indulging a moral emphasis on oppression while raising specters like fascism, racism, and environmental collapse on which progressive liberalism thrives.
The anti-electoral fringe of leftist Marxism can indeed be counted on to wrap radical liberal premises in extreme aesthetics and Marxist-Leninist iconography. The farther away from a basis in Marx, the greater the need to disguise it in a hammer and sickle. This is because the function of the he/him Stalinists of leftist Marxism is not to clarify anything with Marxist criticism, but to mystify the thought of Marx to the point where he becomes a he/him leftist like them.
For all their radical aesthetics and sloganeering, leftist Marxists rarely conflict with the intersectional premises of the Democratic Party. They agitate to act on those premises in a more extreme way, to inflate the threat of Democrat enemies, to elect more radical Democrats, for regular Democrats to become Marxist Democrats like them. Indeed, leftist Marxism advances Democratic Party interests “from a Marxist perspective.” It is for a select group of self-loathing progressive liberals who need to believe they are radical revolutionaries when they are in fact just radical Democrats.
Marx may have defined his thought as the ruthless criticism of everything existing, but the left is the one thing leftist Marxism will never fundamentally criticize. It will criticize this or that leftist tendency or instance of the left, but it never turns the destructive force of Marxist critique to bear on the left in general. It is not interested in critiquing the left as a historical phenomenon and ideological mechanism of liberal democracy. It only knows the left as a good thing, whether in thought or reality, whether today or in the past.
This brings us to the final boss of leftist Marxism, those like Chris Cutrone of Platypus, who do take the unusual step of rejecting the existing left entirely. But they do so by considering it a fraudulent left. Their apparent critique of the left in fact works to preserve the sanctity of the left as a concept against which today’s left doesn’t measure up.
The purpose of this leftist Marxism is to remove the stench of the present left from “the real left” in their minds, to keep the dream alive of a better left that can be achieved by purifying the existing one. It puts “the left” in ironic quotes, calls it a fake left, a pseudo-left, a synthetic left, a post-political left, a dead left, the right, anything to conceal that it has something to do with the left itself.
Although this most sophisticated type of leftist Marxism rejects today’s left, like every other form, it functions to perpetuate the left/right logic of bourgeois class rule. The common sleight of hand of leftist Marxism is indeed to translate the social contradiction between classes with different interests into a superficial opposition between groups with different beliefs. The house of cards of leftist Marxism indeed relies on equating the right with the bourgeoisie and the affirmation of existing conditions, while identifying “the real left” with the proletariat and the transformation of society. But this flimsy logic, which conceals the left’s historical role in perpetuating bourgeois society, is precisely what leftist Marxism exists to defend and naturalize.
A leftist Marxist might charge me with merely replicating the rationale behind its claim that today’s left is not the real left. After all, I may appear to be juxtaposing, in a similar way, the “fake” Marxism of the present with an idealized “real” Marxism. But here’s the difference: I do not dispute that leftist Marxism is the real Marxism today. Leftist Marxism is not fake Marxism. The overwhelming majority of existing Marxists are indeed leftist Marxists, and they are not some unreal deviation but the real result of Marxism’s history.
Even if they have not absorbed a word of Marx, the Rawlsian liberals, utopian socialists, romantic anti-capitalists, and intersectional Stalinists of leftist Marxism are what "Marxism" signifies today. This may be regrettable but it is undeniable. Marx's writings support a critique of leftist Marxism, not a denial of its reality.
In this sense, antileftist Marxism is more unreal than leftist Marxism. It is not existing Marxism; it is a Marxist criticism of existing Marxism. It does not wish to prove it is the real Marxism. It attempts to become real itself through the negation of leftist Marxism, whose unavoidable reality is the problem that creates it.