The Anti-Marxist Arrangement
The Problem Proposed
The political left and right agree: Karl Marx is the father of contemporary leftism. The American right, on one hand, views Marx as the source of a malignant tradition of critical theory, whose incubation in left-wing academia over the last half-century or more has supposedly produced the plague of wokeness it often derides as “cultural” or “neo-Marxism.” On the other hand, apparently radical segments of the left, such as the Democratic Socialists of America, embrace Marx as the revolutionary symbol of their “anti-capitalist” efforts to overcome the right in the creation of a more just and egalitarian society. For the left, Marx is the ultimate leftist, and therefore the ultimate democratic radical. For the right, Marx is the ultimate leftist, and therefore the ultimate radical Democrat.
This common assumption of Marx’s leftism serves different needs for each group, but it rests on both sides upon the convenient fiction that Marx’s thought was ever oriented by the left/right dichotomy central to bourgeois politics. As scholars of that divide like Steven Lukes recognize, “‘left’ and ‘right’ were never . . . part of the classical Marxist lexicon,” and indeed readers can make their way through Marx’s collected works without finding a single text in which he identifies himself or his project as part of something called the left.1 This is because “classical socialism (i.e., Marx) did not define itself with respect to the left/right divide,” as Jean-Claude Michéa observes, “but with respect to the opposition between the working classes and the bourgeoisie,” the basic conflict of Marxism, which the bourgeois common sense of left versus right exists to obscure.
Dismissing Marx’s association with the left because this term was absent from his vocabulary might lead a leftist to respond that “left/right” was not as ubiquitous in the mid-nineteenth century as it is today, and whether Marx used these terms or not, his work can be situated within a history of the political left stretching from the French Revolution to the democratic socialism of the present. I argue, however, that the left’s insistence on claiming Marx despite the fact that Marx did not claim the left only conceals a deeper contradiction: Marx was not merely not a leftist. He was an antileftist, whose originality emerged through a ruthless criticism of the left-wing politics of his time, namely, the various schools of socialism and anarchism against which he sharpened his historical analysis of class society.
From The Poverty of Philosophy’s assault on the mystical confusions of Proudhon’s petty bourgeois utopianism to the substantial section of The Communist Manifesto devoted to lambasting every alternative form of socialism, to his rivalry with anarchists like Bakunin, Marx spent his political life engaged in heated conflict with the left. “Marx criticized, and criticized viciously, every anarchist with whom he came into theoretical or practical contact,” as Paul Thomas writes, and the moralistic socialists of all the reactionary, bourgeois, and utopian schools he vehemently opposed hardly fared better.2
Despite the revisionist portrayals in popular leftist sources like Jacobin, Marx did not base his thought on a commitment to the moral abstractions, like equality and justice, that have defined the left throughout its history. If he did, we would likely have never heard of him, because as Marx’s constant polemics against utopian socialists like Proudhon illustrate, there were already plenty of prominent left-wing moralizers before him. Rather, what made Marx’s thought characteristically Marxist, and a revolutionary event in intellectual history, was his critical demolition of the left’s habitual tendency to obscure the reality of class society with an idealism, moralism, and utopianism that Marx reveals to be the ideological expression of its bourgeois nature. In contrast to the middle-class socialisms of his time and our own that attempt to harmonize class conflict with what he and Engels called “empty phraseology about ‘justice’” and appeals to “the true love of humanity,” Marx’s materialist conception of history overturned the left’s utopian projection of transcendental ideals, focusing instead on the real social relations driving the historical process, the class antagonisms perpetually mystified by the left/right organization of bourgeois politics.3
Both sides of liberal democracy equate Marx with the left because it is in their common class interests to reduce his theory of proletarian revolution to the bourgeois horizon they both maintain. This mutual aid arrangement allows the left to leech off the intellectual gravitas of Marx, while dressing up its anti-Marxist pluralism of intersecting causes and sophisticated apologetics for the Democratic Party in revolutionary garb. Of course, this agreement also benefits the right, which is all too happy to take the left at its word that its intersectional mélange of identitarian grievances has anything to do with Marx. Characterizing toxic bourgeois ideological offensives, which weaponize reductive racial essentialism and infinite gender fluidity, as “neo-Marxism” works to defang history’s greatest critic of capitalist society, something the right, like the left, has no intention or capacity to challenge.
That the right benefits from the suppression of the proletarian politics forwarded by Marx is conventional wisdom, yet the left’s apparent embrace of such politics has concealed its role in this arrangement. The secret of the left’s castration of Marx makes it the more pernicious side of the anti-Marxist partnership, however, for it undermines the theory of proletarian revolution through its deceptive claim on the Marxism it exists to dilute and subdue, something that makes it a necessary object of Marxist critique. Despite the pervasive association between Marx and the left, I argue Marxism does not equal leftism and the former, in fact, provides the critical resources for exposing the latter’s role as the leading ideological force operating against both Marxism and the proletariat today.
Analogizing the self-described left of the present to the implied left of the past risks charges of anachronism, as does transposing Marx’s critique of the latter to contemporary leftism. To speak of something as vague as “the left” across history, therefore, requires clarification and contextualization. Toward the end of recovering Marx’s antileftism and applying it to the leftist enemies of Marxism in the present, my next installment will analyze the history of the left/right divide to establish that from its origins it has always meant nothing but the restricted scope of bourgeois politics, an ideological concealment antithetical to Marxism, which obscures the class basis of social antagonisms by treating them as a difference in values and belief.
One excuse that keeps many critics of class society tethered to the concept of the left, despite its recurring submission to bourgeois imperatives, is the belief in an ideal form of leftism worth saving, the dream of a “real” left that, once upon a time, existed as a pure proletarian vehicle in contrast to the “fake” and corrupted left that sells out the working class in the present. The history of the left shows, however, that from the bourgeois Jacobins of revolutionary France to the Democratic propagandists of Jacobin today, it has always been the left wing of the bourgeoisie, the ideologists of progressive capitalism, who far from embodying proletarian interests, as Marx and Engels wrote of the “democratic petty bourgeois” of their time, tend only to “strive for a change in social conditions by means of which the existing society will be made as tolerable and comfortable as possible for them.”4 Historicizing the seemingly eternal struggle between left and right will demystify any illusion of a transhistorical ideal of leftism, while illuminating the conflict between proletarian Marxism and its bourgeois antagonists on the left.
Steven Lukes, “Epilogue: The Grand Dichotomy of the Twentieth Century,” in The Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century Political Thought, eds. Terence Ball and Richard Bellamy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 608.
Paul Thomas, Karl Marx and the Anarchists (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980), 14.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “Circular Letter to Bebel, Liebknecht, Bracke, and Others,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert Tucker (New York: Norton, 1978), 554.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “Address of the Central Authority to the League, March 1850,” in Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol. 10. (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1978), 280.
Note: For selections from Marx and Engels, I cite the editions I am quoting, while linking to the texts as they appear on marxists.org, which may contain different translations.