Marxism is Antileftism, Part 3
The bourgeois socialism “desirous of redressing social grievances in order to secure the continued existence of bourgeois society” is the form catalogued by the Manifesto that most resembles the socialism of the present. However, the final school described by Marx and Engels, “Critical-utopian socialism and communism,” illustrates idealistic patterns that also span the history of the left into the present. This form of socialism did include “a critical element” as it attacked emerging bourgeois society in sympathy with the earliest proletarian activity, but like the German “true” socialism that Ellen Wood connects to contemporary leftism, it responded to the historical situation of the capitalist epoch by retreating into utopian abstractions.1
In the systems of the great utopian socialists, Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Owen, “Historical action is to yield to their personal inventive action, historically created conditions of emancipation to fantastic ones, and the gradual, spontaneous class-organisation of the proletariat to the organisation of society specially contrived by these inventors.”2 Such utopian socialists aim “to improve the condition of every member of society, even that of the most favoured,” the ruling class which they believe can be convinced by the rationality of their schemes: “for how can people, when once they understand their system, fail to see in it the best possible plan of the best possible state of society? Hence, they reject all political, and especially all revolutionary, action; they wish to attain their ends by peaceful means, and endeavor, by small experiments, necessarily doomed to failure, and by the force of example, to pave the way for the new social Gospel.”
Like the leftists of today who carve out enclaves of “Autonomous Zones” in which to enact their “fantastic pictures of future society” within the existing one, the utopian socialists criticized by Marx and Engels, “still dream of experimental realisation of their social Utopias, of founding isolated ‘phalansteres,’ of establishing ‘Home Colonies,’ of setting up a ‘Little Icaria’—duodecimo editions of the New Jerusalem—and to realise all these castles in the air, they are compelled to appeal to the feelings and purses of the bourgeois.” Petitioning the bourgeoisie to recognize a common human decency and absolute notions of justice and equality, left-wing utopians, like all the socialisms opposed by Marx and Engels, deny historical development, endeavoring “to deaden the class struggle and to reconcile the class antagonisms.”3
The left has never shed the moral idealism of the utopian socialists, for whom the proletariat only exists “from the point of view of being the most suffering class,” one which deserves the pity of the bourgeoisie that the utopians seek to win over with their rational appeals to absolute principles.4 Setting aside the fact that such left-wing utopianism inevitably serves existing class power in practice, this ahistorical idealism represents the fundamental theoretical divide between leftism and classical Marxism.
Ultimately, Marx’s historical materialism is incompatible with the ahistorical utopianism of the left because it refuses to premise its critique of bourgeois society on transcendental, moral ideals. As Andrew Collier observes, “Marx’s critique of capitalism is essentially an immanent critique, not a critique in terms of ideals not shared by that society.”5 Utopian leftism attempts to remake the world in the image of the moral ideas existing inside the human mind, yet Marxism is a demystification of such abstraction that instead derives a theory for revolutionary transformation from the existing historical contradictions revealed by its critical analysis of social reality.
Marx’s radical divergence from the utopian idealism central to the left has prompted scholars like Collier and Alan Shandro to go so far as to make the paradoxical claim that Marx’s political thought is a form of “methodological conservatism,” founded on “an immanent or internal account of capitalist society and not upon the inadequacy of this society when measured against a transcendent or external standard.”
Whereas this conservative or “immanent” tradition of political theory takes for granted “the aims and interests of an existing society, group, or institution . . . as the appropriate frame of reference,” the “style of political thought, which is characteristic of radicals and liberals, might be termed transcendental, since its political practice consists essentially of attempting to bring political reality into conformity with an ideal that transcends it.” On this basis, Shandro argues that “Marx’s concept of proletarian self-emancipation . . . is appropriately understood as a variant of” the conservative critique in which “the proponents of fundamental or revolutionary social change necessarily fail by sacrificing the organic complexity of society and the individual upon a procrustean bed of dogmatic and rigid universal principles.”6
Although like the radicals, it stresses the necessity of social change, “Marx’s political thought bears a structural similarity to conservative thought in that each seeks to ground its political programme upon the study of society as it actually exists, rather than upon a vision of human nature considered apart from society.”7 What ultimately divides Marx from conservatism, Collier argues, “is his belief that the existing society involves contradictions, which prevent it from flourishing, and which can only be eliminated by changing the system.”8
But this does not mean Marx ever strays from an immanent account of the social process in favor of the unhistorical abstractions of the left. Immanently produced class need, not the realization of ideals or utopias, remains the only basis of social transformation in classical Marxism. Indeed, it is this stance, in Shandro’s words, that “dictates Marx and Engels’s refusal to speculate about the future as well as the contempt with which they treat attempts to ground socialist politics upon such abstract ideals as justice or equality.”9
Such attempts to base socialism in liberal ideals continues today, even in Marx’s name. Beyond the idealistic sloganeering that permeates the activist left, the intellectual venue most associated with the recent American revival of socialism, Jacobin magazine, in fact regularly assures its Democratic audience that socialism is merely the realization of unfulfilled liberal ideals: “Socialists’ goal isn’t to destroy liberalism,” a typical headline reads, “but to transcend its limitations.” Jacobin’s resident “Rawlsian liberal democratic socialist,” Matt McManus, often yearns for a reconciliation of socialism and liberalism in a recurring series of articles with titles like “Why Liberals Should Unite With Socialists, Not the Right,” “What Karl Marx Really Thought About Liberalism,” and “Why Conservatives Get Karl Marx Very, Very Wrong.”
These articles go to great lengths to establish the “deep commonalities between liberalism and socialism” in their shared commitment to “the moral equality of all human beings.” Inspired by a Rawlsian “vision of a just society of moral equals committed to both liberal freedom and socialist equality,” McManus seeks a “perfect union between the two” in a marriage between liberalism and Marxism that finally fulfills the former’s egalitarian rhetoric. From a Marxist perspective, McManus is correct: such bourgeois socialism premised on moral persuasion, ideas detached from history, and class collaboration is indeed deeply similar, one might say identical, to the liberalism whose abstract principles are nothing but the ideological cover story for capitalist society.
But this leftist idealism has nothing to do with Marx. The envisioned reconciliation between Marxism and liberalism achieved through rational appeals to shared moral ideals may be music to the ears of Jacobin’s audience of utopian leftists, but such incessant attempts to make Marx palatable to Democrats merely expresses bourgeois socialism’s enduring need to defang its greatest critic, and by extension, the class whose revolutionary need he theorized—a problem whose solution lies in the recovery of the antileftist Marx.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, in Marx/Engels Collected Works, Vol. 6. (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1976), 516.
Marx and Engels, 514-15.
Marx and Engels, 515-16.
Marx and Engels, 515.
Andrew Collier, “Marx and Conservatism,” in Karl Marx and Contemporary Philosophy, eds. Andrew Chitty and Martin McIvor (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 100.
Alan Shandro, “Karl Marx as a Conservative Thinker,” Historical Materialism, no. 6 (Summer 2000): 3-7.