Marxism is Antileftism, Part 1
The following essay resumes my series on the antileftist Marx after an “intermission” at the Platypus Review. The first three installments raised the problem of the “leftist Marx” and contextualized the unusual claim that “Marxism is Antileftism,” something we are now prepared to derive directly from the writings of Marx and Engels. In other words, the next three articles reading classical Marxism as antileftism will deliver the payoff promised by the first three releases. As you read and reflect on the present essay and the two to follow, please consider purchasing a subscription to support the future works that will branch out from the foundation laid by this initial series.
Antileftism is not some marginal component of Marx’s writings, and the suggestion of an antileftist Marxism today is not an anachronistic repurposing of Marx for politics incongruous with his own. Just as Marx’s philosophical breakthroughs centered on a materialist inversion of Hegelian idealism and a demystification of Feuerbach’s contemplative humanism, his political interventions also focused on a critique of abstractions, namely, the moral ideals on which the left-wing thinkers of his time aimed to build a foundation for socialism.
Beginning with their antileftist masterpiece, The Communist Manifesto (1848), and extending to texts like their “Address to the Communist League” (1850) and their letter to Germany’s Social-Democratic leadership (1879), the political writings of Marx and Engels are indeed saturated with ruthless criticism of the idealism and utopianism of all the existing socialisms of their time. Such works are not at all committed to the left’s perpetual attempt to harmonize a broad coalition in opposition to a common enemy on the right. Instead, they protest such class collaboration by insisting on the necessity of proletarian independence from bourgeois reformism. Engels’s famous pamphlet, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1880), which sought to distill the essence of his friend’s thought for a popular audience, indeed pivots not on a tension with something recognizable as “the right” but on a contrast between Marxism and the utopian socialism that is synonymous with the left.
Engels’s study of Marx’s departure from utopianism begins by linking the history of pre-Marxist socialism to the origins of the left in the French Revolution. Like the great utopians who aim to make reality conform to the ideal principles discovered in pure thought, the intelligentsia of that bourgeois revolution believed their philosophical eradication of irrationality to be ushering in a “kingdom of reason” in which “superstition, injustice, privilege, oppression, were to be superseded by eternal truth, eternal Right, equality based on Nature and the inalienable rights of man.” Yet as Engels claims, “We know today that this kingdom of reason was nothing more than the idealized kingdom of the bourgeoisie,” which in fact secured “bourgeois justice,” “bourgeois equality before the law,” and bourgeois property rights in a “government of reason” that “came into being, and only could come into being, as a democratic bourgeois republic.”1 The intellectuals of the revolution that gave birth to bourgeois democracy and therefore the left shared the same idealistic premises as the utopian socialists from which, in Engels narrative, classical Marxism diverges.
Like the original leftists of the French Revolution, the “three great Utopians” of the early-nineteenth century—Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Owen—“do not claim to emancipate a particular class to begin with, but all humanity at once,” aiming to solve the problems of the bourgeois world by imposing upon society “the kingdom of reason and eternal justice” comprehended by the human mind.2 Prior to Marx, socialism was governed by nothing other than this utopian mode of thought, central to the emergence of the left, in which “socialism is the expression of absolute truth, reason and justice, and has only to be discovered to conquer all the world by virtue of its own power.”3
Yet since each intellectual’s notion of an ahistorical “absolute truth” is in fact “conditioned by his subjective understanding, his conditions of existence,” the ideal principles guiding utopian socialism “are different with the founder of each different school.” Like the intersectional fragmentation of the contemporary left, this pluralism of tendencies led utopian socialism to become a “mish-mash allowing of the most manifold shades of opinion; a mish-mash of such critical statements, economic theories, pictures of future society by the founders of different sects.” This kind of “eclectic” socialism, which “dominated the minds of most of the socialist workers in France and England,” was indeed the situation challenged by Marx’s historical materialism.4
The historical significance of Marx lies not in anticapitalism, something already espoused by the utopians, but more specifically in his antileftism. As Engels emphasizes by defining Marxism as a break from utopian socialism, Marx did not morally condemn capitalism while painting pictures of ideal social conditions like the bourgeois fantasists of his time or the DSA organizers of our own. Instead he opposed with historical materialism the leftist criticism of capitalism steeped in idealism, moralism, utopianism, and sentimentalism: “The socialism of earlier days certainly criticized the existing capitalistic mode of production and its consequences. But it could not explain them, and, therefore, could not get the mastery of them. It could only simply reject them as bad.” Enter Marx, for whom social antagonisms were not to be resolved by moral persuasion in reference to some notion of absolute justice but through “the struggle between two historically developed classes—the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.”5
Unlike the utopian leftism that sets out “to manufacture a system of society as perfect as possible” in correspondence to its ideal principles, the intervention of Marx was “to examine the historico-economic succession of events from which these classes, and their antagonism had of necessity sprung, and to discover in the economic conditions thus created the means of ending the conflict.” Socialism only becomes science, on Engels’s telling, with Marx’s “materialistic conception of history and the revelation of the secret of capitalistic production through surplus value,” a scientific explanation of the development of capitalist society that “threw light on the problem” keeping “both bourgeois economists and socialist critics . . . groping in the dark.”6
The essential distinction Engels makes between Marx’s scientific approach and the moral idealism of left-wing utopians is the critical tension that animates Marx’s political engagement. “Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself,” as Marx and Engels pronounce in The German Ideology. Instead, they “call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.”7 In contrast to all existing socialisms that sought to impose positive ideals onto the world, classical Marxism theorizes proletarian communism as the revolutionary negation generated within existing social reality. Its critical task is to guide this immanent, historical process, not to introduce ready-made utopias on top of social contradictions. It is no surprise, therefore, that the clearest expression of Marx’s politics, The Communist Manifesto, is an assault on the entire menu of left-wing utopianism rather than an attempt to counter competing forms of socialism with alternative ideals to realize.
Although Marx’s most popular work, The Communist Manifesto, is canonized as the ultimate left-wing classic, it in fact scythes through all the instincts and premises of the left: moral denunciation of capitalism, privileging of abstract principles over historical process, mystification of class antagonisms, and bourgeois reformism. Whereas utopian socialists condemn capitalism as a moral evil, Marx and Engels recognize the historical necessity and progressive achievements of the bourgeoisie, which “during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together.” Rather than protesting the movement of history, they admire as an advancement beyond feudalism the unprecedented creative forces unleashed by bourgeois society, “Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground.”8
Crucially, they do not reject bourgeois society as bad, but appreciate it instead as a historical phenomenon, analyzing how like the feudalism it supplanted, it contains within itself certain contradictions that herald its eventual demise, namely, its necessary production of “its own grave-diggers,” the proletariat.9 Repudiating all abstract socialisms “based on ideas or principles that have been invented, or discovered by this or that would-be universal reformer,” they define their communist theory as expressing “in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes.”10
Marx and Engels are not concerned with expressing moral outrage about the inevitable effects of the capitalist system; they focus their wrath instead on those left-wing bleeding-hearts whose moralism only obscures the historical nature of capitalist development and the class conflict poised to bring about its end. “The more strongly [utopian socialism] denounced the exploitation of the working class, inevitable under capitalism, the less able was it clearly to show in what this exploitation consisted and how it arose.”11 Such antileftism at the heart of classical Marxism indeed climaxes in “Socialist and Communist Literature,” the substantial section of the Manifesto devoted to a critical demolition of all the left-bourgeois tendencies that only confuse and compromise the historical movement of the proletariat. This pinnacle of antileftist Marxism is where we must turn next.
Friedrich Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert Tucker (New York: Norton, 1978), 684.
Engels, Socialism, 685.
Engels, Socialism, 693.
Engels, Socialism, 693.
Engels, Socialism, 700.
Engels, Socialism, 700; Engels, “Speech at the Graveside of Karl Marx,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert Tucker (New York: Norton, 1978), 681.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, in Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol. 5. (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1976), 49.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, in Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol. 6. (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1976), 489.
Marx and Engels, Manifesto, 496.
Marx and Engels, Manifesto, 498
Engels, Socialism, 700.