Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 27, 2013

Does anyone ever get the revolution they asked for?

Filed under: philosophy,socialism — louisproyect @ 7:42 pm

For as long as I have been reading Crooked Timber, a group blog hosted by liberal and social democratic academics, I don’t think a year has gone by without it being devoted to the proposition that Marxism is dead—something that has been heard from such circles going back to the days of Eugen Böhm-Bawerk. In an odd way, all this does is pay tribute to Marx’s relevance. You don’t, for example, find The Economist, The New York Review of Books, or the Financial Times publishing articles on “Henry George RIP”.

In 2012 the big “Marx is Dead” celebration there was held under the auspices of a seminar on “Red Plenty”, a novel by Francis Spufford that depicted the rather vainglorious notions of Soviet citizens in the 1950s—starting with Nikita Khrushchev—that soon the USSR economy would pump out more air conditioners and V-8 gas guzzlers than the US. It was Spufford’s intention to bring a knowing smile to the people who read it, just is the case with the audience for the cable TV hit show “Mad Men”. What this has to do with what Michael Lebowitz called “the full development of human potential” is anybody’s guess.

Since I am banned from commenting (depending on the mood of the moderation board on a given day), I refrained from the proceedings at Crooked Timber but offered my own commentary at the Unrepentant Marxist.

This year the first outbreak of “Marx is Dead” appeared on January 25th under an announcement by philosophy professor John Holbo that a cyberseminar on Erik Olin Wright’s “Envisioning Real Utopias” was kicking off soon.

Although I have major differences with Wright, I give him credit for engaging with me over his book. You can follow the debate over the book here:




I also put my two cents in on Russell Jacoby’s attack on Wright. (Jacoby is not one of my favorite people.)


I do, however, want to spend some time dissecting Holbo’s article that is titled “Does anyone ever get the revolution they asked for?” since it reflects the methodological disability shared by the Crooked Timber crowd.

Holbo poses a binary opposition:


1) You get what you ask for, and it’s good.

2) You get something you didn’t ask for, but it’s good.


3) You get what you ask for, and it’s terrible.

4) You don’t get what you ask for. You get something else, and it’s terrible.

This pretty much epitomizes the formal logic that has dominated bourgeois thought since the very beginning. It simply can’t handle contradiction, a key element of Hegel’s dialectical approach that Marx appropriated and transformed in one fell swoop.

The problem is that formal logic is ill-equipped to handle motion, change, dynamic states, etc. Hence, it is nearly impossible to understand a revolution if you cannot accept that it can be a success and a failure at the same time.

I doubt that anybody on the Crooked Timber central committee has read Leon Trotsky–or having read him, understood what they were reading. I exclude Scott McLemee, who belonged to a Trotskyist sect long ago and most likely hooked up with the Timberites after becoming disillusioned with Marxism in the 1990s. From what I can gather, he has recovered nicely but remains on board with them although mostly on a formal basis.

When asked to describe the character of the USSR during its darkest days—the late 1930s—Trotsky refrained from putting a label on the state or facile categories such as “success” or “failure”. He wrote in “The Revolution Betrayed”:

The Soviet Union is a contradictory society halfway between capitalism and socialism, in which: (a) the productive forces are still far from adequate to give the state property a socialist character; (b) the tendency toward primitive accumulation created by want breaks out through innumerable pores of the planned economy; (c) norms of distribution preserving a bourgeois character lie at the basis of a new differentiation of society; (d) the economic growth, while slowly bettering the situation of the toilers, promotes a swift formation of privileged strata; (e) exploiting the social antagonisms, a bureaucracy has converted itself into an uncontrolled caste alien to socialism; (f) the social revolution, betrayed by the ruling party, still exists in property relations and in the consciousness of the toiling masses; (g) a further development of the accumulating contradictions can as well lead to socialism as back to capitalism; (h) on the road to capitalism the counterrevolution would have to break the resistance of the workers; (i) on the road to socialism the workers would have to overthrow the bureaucracy. In the last analysis, the question will be decided by a struggle of living social forces, both on the national and the world arena.

Doctrinaires will doubtless not be satisfied with this hypothetical definition. They would like categorical formulae: yes – yes, and no – no. Sociological problems would certainly be simpler, if social phenomena had always a finished character. There is nothing more dangerous, however, than to throw out of reality, for the sake of logical completeness, elements which today violate your scheme and tomorrow may wholly overturn it. In our analysis, we have above all avoided doing violence to dynamic social formations which have had no precedent and have no analogies. The scientific task, as well as the political, is not to give a finished definition to an unfinished process, but to follow all its stages, separate its progressive from its reactionary tendencies, expose their mutual relations, foresee possible variants of development, and find in this foresight a basis for action.

I guess the Timberites won’t be satisfied until they get “logical completeness” but history will continue to disappoint them.

But the most telling statement from Holbo is this: “A successful revolution that came off exactly as it was blueprinted would be a 10”. This betrays an utter inability to understand what Marx stood for, even though his article is meant to discredit Marxist thinking.

In the afterword to the second edition of Capital, volume one, Marx wrote:

That the method employed in “Das Kapital” has been little understood, is shown by the various conceptions, contradictory one to another, that have been formed of it.

Thus the Paris Revue Positiviste reproaches me in that, on the one hand, I treat economics metaphysically, and on the other hand — imagine! — confine myself to the mere critical analysis of actual facts, instead of writing recipes (Comtist ones?) for the cook-shops of the future.

Recipes for the cook-shops of the future…

No wonder Crooked Timber gives Erik Olin Wright the benefit of the doubt despite his life-long self-description as a Marxist. (Admittedly this is Analytical Marxism, something that may have about as much relationship to Marx as Eduard Bernstein—another self-described Marxist—had.)

By writing a book about the need for a return to Utopian thinking, Wright in essence was formulating recipes for the cook-shops of the future. Let me conclude with an excerpt from one of my articles linked to above:

Once he has dispensed with classical Marxist theory, Wright puts forward his new (“Wrightist”?) theory in chapter 4, titled “The Socialist Compass”. He starts off with the notion of a road map, but realizes that a compass is less rigid:

Instead of the metaphor of a road map guiding us to a known destination, the best we can probably do is to think of the project of emancipatory social change more like a voyage of exploration. We leave the well-known world with a compass that tells us the direction we are moving and an odometer which tells us how far from our point of departure we have traveled, but without a road map which lays out the entire route from the point of departure to the final destination. This has perils, of course: we may encounter chasms which we cannot cross, unforeseen obstacles which force us to move in a direction we had not planned. We may have to backtrack and try a new route.

Unfortunately, neither a road map nor a compass is the sort of metaphor that will be of much use to a socialist movement. Road maps and compasses are only useful when it comes to static realities, like a street, a lake, a rest stop, an ocean or a continent. Revolutionary politics defy any attempts to apply fixed categories since the ground is always shifting beneath your feet. Yesterday’s South might be tomorrow’s North. Indeed, there is absolutely no engagement in Wright with the social realities of present-day America, from the problems of immigrant labor to the decline of the trade union movement. It makes no sense of speaking about compasses to lead you in the direction of socialism while ignoring the pitfalls in your immediate path.


  1. Two issues:

    1. I never understand the insistence by so many Marxists that the bourgeoisie and bourgeois ideology can’t grasp/utilize Hegel’s dialectic, since Hegel was in the end acting in the service of the bourgeoisie. I view Hegel’s dialectic more like the internet.. created by the bourgeoisie for its own purposes, it later got out of its hands and grew out of control into a tool of the proletariat.

    2. I never understand your actual stance on Trotsky. In some places it seems you’ve completely moved beyond him, in other you quote him as authority (oddly to me in places where he was demonstrably incorrect — “on the road to capitalism the counterrevolution would have to break the resistance of the workers” — what resistance?? the destruction of the USSR was hailed and celebrated by Soviet workers!). Could you clarify? Or maybe this is just more of that dialectic stuff and that’s why I can’t get it.

    Comment by Clifford Saint Claire the Beloved — January 28, 2013 @ 5:48 am

  2. There’s sn entertaining analogy with religion here. You don’t find the Roman Catholic Church going on and on about the cult of Apollo. Apologies, I stole this analogy from someone I don’t remember, but it fits regardless.

    Comment by David McDonald — January 28, 2013 @ 6:55 am

  3. Shouldn’t the piece you’re addressing be linked to here? Cheers. http://crookedtimber.org/2013/01/25/does-anyone-ever-get-the-revolution-they-asked-for/ .

    Comment by P. Punk (was: "Whatever") — January 28, 2013 @ 10:41 am

  4. “on the road to capitalism the counterrevolution would have to break the resistance of the workers”

    Trotsky wrote this not to anticipate perestroika/glasnost but to address the conditions of the USSR on the eve of WWII. I think that a half-century of Stalinist atomization left the workers in a passive state and open to counter-revolution in much the same manner that Ukrainian peasants welcomed the Wehrmacht.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 28, 2013 @ 3:41 pm

  5. This is a great article. I’ve posted a response here: http://trotskyschildren.blogspot.com/2013/01/is-marxism-dead.html

    Comment by Dan King — January 29, 2013 @ 3:27 am

  6. I’ve got to greatly (though respectfully) disagree with you there Lou. Trotsky specifically and categorically stated that the “Workers State” in the USSR could not be eliminated short of a counter-revolution that went over the resistance of the workers to smash it. To argue otherwise, he said, would be to run the film of reformism in reverse (i.e. if a workers state can be taken over “peacefully” by the bourgeoisie, why can’t a bourgeois state be taken over peacefully by the workers?).

    Comment by Clifford Saint Claire the Beloved — January 29, 2013 @ 5:13 am

  7. One point which should be clarified, the Wehrmacht was warmly welcomed in West Ukraine (aka Polish Galicia) which Stalin had annexed in 1939. There was no such comparable welcome of the Wehrmacht in East Ukraine which had been part of the USSR since the Russian Civil War. This is also tied up with current differences in what is presently called Ukraine. The West Ukrainians lean pro-West and the East Ukrainians lean pro-Russia, as a general rule. The attempts to promote the hoax that the famine which resulted from crop failure caused by natural disater in 1932-3 were somehow a “manmade artificial famine” motivated by an alleged attack on “Ukrainian nationalism” by Stalin have also been predominantly a West Ukrainian campaign.

    Comment by PatrickSMcNally — January 29, 2013 @ 9:52 am

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