The Evolution of Marxism

16 June 2010


In several posts written some time ago (nearly when I began this blog) I discussed the possibility of what I called intelligent institutions. Most of the institutions that we find ourselves more or less stuck with are not very flexible and they impede rather than facilitate the inevitable change that is part of life. We can imagine as an ideal the possibility of political institutions that are so intelligently crafted that their ongoing change is part of their intrinsic structure. In It takes all kinds to make a world I suggested that truly intelligent institutions would not catastrophically fail when faced either with external crises (like wars, climate change, and the like) or internal crises of governance (like civil wars or constitutional crises).

Recently in thinking about how dramatically Marxism has changed since its inception it occurred to me that we can’t really call Marxism an intelligent institution despite its flexibility and adaptability. The idea of Marxism is certainly an intellectual institution, but the practice of Marxism has varied so drastically that there is nothing really continuous that could be identified as one and the same institution that has changed over time. So what I am saying is not the Marxism is unintelligent, but that it is so diverse it doesn’t really qualify as an institution, and therefore not an intelligent institution of the kind I described earlier.

Nevertheless, Marxism — whatever it is — appears to be evergreen, or rather ever-red. As an intellectual institution, the idea of Marxism has been there, available to whomever, and to be used as anyone pleases. In other words, Marxism has been routinely, mercilessly, and radically exapted to the purposes of those who have chosen to self-identify as Marxists, and these latter have been a varied lot to be sure.

In my posts on historical viability I tried to emphasize that only those individuals, institutions, or other existents capable to changing their essential nature have true historical viability, and at the hands of its exaptors Marxism’s essential nature has been a plastic nature indeed, adaptable to any circumstances quite without reference to anything that Marx himself ever said.

For Marx, communism was essentially international, and a key part of his analysis was that the working class around the world had more in common with other members of the working class than with the elite classes of the nation-states of which any given members of the proletariat happened to be citizens. When Marxism and communism emerged as real forces in work history, they emerged as rivals to nationalism. Also for Marx, the predicted progression of history was very clear: first comes industrialization, then comes revolution.

Lenin was among the first to make radical changes in Marxism while self-identifying as a Marxist. Because Lenin wanted a revolution in Russia, and Russia was not yet industrialized (at least, not yet generally industrialized), Lenin came up with the theory that Russia, not yet being industrialized, was a “weak link” in the international system, and therefore the best place for the revolution to happen first. This was more than playing fast and loose with Marx; it was radically changing Marx in order to try to make him relevant to Russia.

Mao had to go even further afield in creative interpretations of Marx. China was even less industrialized than Russia, and Mao created his army from agricultural peasants from the countryside. For Mao there was no, and could be no, revolution of the industrialized proletariat of China because there was no industrialized proletariat of China. In a classic Chinese strategy of unifying the country through reducing the wealthy cities of the coast, Mao used the power of the peasantry of the vast interior of China against what little industrial organization existed in China at that time.

By the time we get to the later part of the twentieth century, communist guerrilla movements were almost exclusively identified with national independence movements with an intensely nationalistic character and no sense of internationalism at all. If we consider the surviving quasi-Stalinist dictatorship of North Korea, with its official “philosophy” of Juche, or self-reliance, we see this negation of ideal communist internationalism completely turned on its head and given official formulation in this inverted form.

Thus does Marxism survive as something that would be unrecognizable to Marx. Marx famously said even while he was still alive, “I am not a Marxist.” Well, perhaps if Marx could come back from the grave (he is no doubt spinning around in it anyway), he could choose among the various instantiation of Marxisms that subsequent history has witnessed and pick out which one with which he would like to identify himself. Then even Marx himself would represent only one particular shade in a spectrum of Marxisms that, taken together, far outstrip his original efforts.

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