Interestingly, once I am found out to read Marx, no one actually asks me if I am a Marxist. I started only recently to notice this bizarre occurrence. While it is absolutely necessary for someone who reads Marx to not be caught unprepared when challenged with the questions mentioned above, at the same time it is surprising how Marx has almost ceased to signify Marxism.
True. In many cases (actually in the majority of the cases) Marxism and Marx are two different things, but there are still some people (including me) who believe that being a Marxist has a specific meaning as long as for Marxism we intend what Marx has laid out in his writings and not the super-structures of the plethora of interpretations and critiques inspired by Marx.
Marx and Marxism have entered the dictionary of popular culture and thus they have become more exposed to the metamorphosis induced by the popular common sense. Marxism has become a general umbrella term which covers an extremely wide array of intellectual perspectives, political views, social and personal attitudes. In this sense, Marxism has gone through the same process of ‘metaphorization’ and abstraction that our language imposes to every notion or concept. There is something particularly annoying about the fate reserved to Marxism which has become either the object of a self-proclaimed critical theory (I will explained later why self-proclaimed) or the last resort for some people who, in need of finding an objective validation to their discontent with the capitalist society, see in some of Marx’s writing (and I stress “some”) the source of a vigorous afflatus for a society based on a new vision of Man and of its essence in the social context; a vision that often blurs ideas springing from different historical moments: the right to the pursuit of happiness, freedom of speech and religion, freedom from oppression, equality of the individuals in front of the law, etc.
Marxism is often intended as a form of humanism with at its core a strong belief in a man’s possibility of developing, in harmony with society, the full potentiality of his essence, both in spiritual and in material terms. I believe that this vision of Marxism as a form of humanism is one of the major causes for the misrepresentation of Marx in the popular culture and in the general common sense of an average individual. Even more, to go back to the last part of the previous paragraph, I believe that the self-proclaimed critical theorists are responsible for instilling in students, activists, and young scholars, an idea of Marxism as the source of a new vision of man and its essence. In this sense, Marxism -that which is professed by professional scholars- is one of the primary causes of the semantic, philological, and above all ideological confusion around Marx and his place in the contemporary debate.
Once Marxism is mistaken with a specific stance on human rights and the nature of Man (with the capital M) then the argument of the historical Communism as a concrete negation and invalidation of that very stance becomes not only reasonable but in many ways even irrefutable. The argument has even a connotation similar to Marx’s dialectic: the empirical evidence disproves the principles of theory.
Marxism is not a form of humanism because it is not an essentialist vision of the nature of Man. Rather, it is a discourse that stems from the historical irreversible disjoint of any essential bond between Man and Nature. What some self-proclaimed theorists fail to acknowledge is the direct lineage of their perspective on the question of human rights. Humanism (from its very inception in the early 15th century) was a philosophical redefinition of the nature of Man in a cosmic setting focusing on the creative power of subjectivity as the architect of a new symbolic order between Nature, God, and Man. This essentialist view, united with the principles behind the most important events in history for the definition of human rights -the American Revolution and Civil War, and the French Revolution- creates a monstrum where every man is intended as intrinsically equal to one another and thus with civil rights. In other words, the abstract essence of Man determines his rights in the actuality of history.
As long as there will be self-proclaimed Marxists perpetuating this confusion, Marxism will always be subject to the most naive criticism. If Marx ever wanted to derive civil rights from an abstract essence, all he needed to do was to either perpetuate the old Hegelian philosophy of Spirit, or simply join the cause of utopian thinkers. Instead, as we should know, Marx opts for a third and more important way: that of the dialectic materialism.
Marx was first of all a great philosopher (more specifically, he was a great reader of Hegel), and a great economist. To become both these things Marx had to experience the failure of the 1848 revolution and the exile. In that moment, we can say Marx abandons every shred of humanism to turn toward a scientific and dialectical interpretation of Capitalism.
Dialectics means something quite easy: history is a process of negation with no particular subject. The only subject is the occurrence of history itself. The negation does not find a teleological resolution in an Idea (as Hegel thought) but is always caught in a transient moment. The critique of Capitalism evolves along Capitalism itself. It is not separated from it. It is part of it.
Theorists who take snippets of Marx (most of the time from his early writings and the first 3 chapters of the first volume of Capital) do nothing but to apply Marxism as a set of hermeneutic tools to different aspects of the cultural and (which is the same) historical contingency. The problem is that the use of Marx as an arsenal of analytical tools is not only anti-dialectical, but it also conveys the insidious idea that there is something intrinsic or essential, in Marx’s theory that can be innocuously displaced anywhere.
In order to make Marxism function as this fluctuating interpretative screen, theorists must turn Marx into an anti-dialectic writer and of course search for those “essentialist” aspects of his works that can easily maneuvered. This contributes to create a vision of Marxism as a discourse that deals with something immutable, constant, and substantial. This is after all, the propaganda of the New Man of the Chinese and Soviet revolution…..
Marx should be read holistically which means in Marxist terms. Marx did not exclude everything from his analysis and self-proclaimed Marxists should not be selective about Marx. There is a dialectical process that leads Marx from his Philosophical Manuscripts to Capital and, as a true Marxist should know, Marx’s method was anti-evolutionist: he would always observe the most refined and complex form of something and then go back to its origin, not the other way around.
If we read Marx in Marxist terms, we would not be challenged with the question of why history seems to have contradicted Marx’s “beautiful” principles on the happiness of men. Instead, we would hear more people say: “I wish they had told me what Marx was really about… I can see now how his texts where so prophetically true about the condition of our contemporary mode of production.”
Why doesn’t this happen? One easy answer: laziness. Most self-proclaimed Marxist theorists never went further than the chapter on Commodity in the first Volume of the Capital and only know Marx indirectly through other writers. After all, this laziness, as Marx himself points out, is the highest ideal of Capitalism: obtaining the maximum profit with the minimum effort.
In conclusion, this kind of Marxism which looks for universal rights of equality and so forth ends up speaking the language of the dominant ideology, and of its bourgeois values. It is an illness that obscures the dialectical vision of reality and it is senile because it is the symptom of an old way of considering nature, man, and the real, in the terms of an eternal substance. In lacking an answer the easiest thing to do is to find refuge into metaphysical ideas in the hope that one day these ideas will become real. A true Marxist knows that every idea exists because a real correlation among things already exists, and that a problem can be posed only when the condition for its solution have already been posited.
After I have pointed my finger at the self-proclaimed Marxists, criticized the laziness of some scholars, and questioned the validity of certain commonplaces in the common sense, shall I proclaim myself a true enlightened Marxist? One of those rare samples of an endangered species that knows everything there is to know about Marx? No, I am not.