The differences between Marxian and Marxist: Or on Vague Rhetoric like the 99% (2012)

Even though I actually dislike the term for aural reasons–it sounds bad–I have taken to calling myself Marxian as Marxist has implications that are really damaging. Marxian was a term used primarily by economists who studied and applied Marx without necessarily advocating the specific revolutionary agenda of Marx. This was expanded by the Marxian sociologists. Marxist generally referred to specific and partisan schools of thought and really has to be expressed with an specific modifier (Left Marxism, Marxist-Leninism, etc). The currents of Marxism as they currently exist aren’t really currents.

The small sectarian movements within Marxism are highly irrelevant to the current struggle as many of my liberal friends and colleagues have pointed out. Indeed, if a politicized leftist is honest with his/herself. one must admit that the left hasn’t had much to offer during the post-Reagan period in the US. While some small exceptions, most Marxism in the Euro-American West is of two varieties: cultural Marxism of universities and small partisans of hyper-marginalized groups which have had neither electoral nor revolutionary organizational power in their name. The OWS, however, has shown that there is a ground swell of anger involved, which has led to a battle over the narrative and incredibly vague rhetoric masquerading as class consciousness.

So the Marxian analysis must apply the concepts of Marx’s and see their truth. The Marxist must develop a program and praxis from these principles. This is not just an academic exercise, but Marxism as a ideological grouping has failed in this regard and rendered itself largely unable to be SELF-critical enough to actually propose anything useful in the changing conditions even if the basic assumptions of the structure of class society in market capitalism hasn’t changed much. The notions of class, indeed, have. So most my Marxist friends blame the betrayal of ideals or some of the barbarism of the Marxist Leninist regimes on liberalism or propaganda. What has left has largely been self-criticism that was productive.

Chris Cutrone has wrote on how the OWS and the anti-war movement has pointed this out in his essay “Whither Marxism” which I will quote from:

It is only right that such inadequate “Marxism” falters after the 2000s. Today, the “Marxist” ideological Left of sectarian organizations struggles to catch up with the occupation movement and threatens to be sidelined by it — as Marxist groups had been in Seattle in 1999.

It is a measure of the bankruptcy of the “Marxist” Left that organizations could only rejuvenate themselves around the anti-war movement, in terms of “anti-imperialism,” submerging the issue of capitalism. But that moment has passed.


In its place, as in Seattle in 1999, an apparently unlikely alliance of the labor movement with anarchism has characterized the occupation movement. Oppositional discontents, not with neoconservatism and imperialism as in the 2000s, but with neoliberalism and capitalism as in the 1990s, characterize the political imagination of the occupation movement. This is the present opportunity for Left renewal. But it is impaired by prior history.

The issues of how capitalism is characterized and understood take on a new importance and urgency in the present moment. Now, properly understanding capitalism and neoliberalism is essential for any relevance of a Marxist approach.6

The discontents with neoliberalism pose the question of capitalism more deeply and not only more directly than imperialism did. A Marxist approach is more seriously tasked to address the problem of capitalism for our time.

The need for Marxism is a task of Marxism

Anarchism and the labor movement, respectively, will only be able to address the problem of capitalism in certain and narrow terms. Marxist approaches to the labor movement and anarchism are needed.7

The need for Marxism becomes the task of Marxism. Marxism does not presently exist in any way that is relevant to the current crisis and the political discontents erupting in it. Marxism is disarrayed, and rightfully so.

The danger, though considerable, is not merely one of the labor movement and the broader popular milieu of the occupation movement feeding into the Democratic Party effort to re-elect Obama in 2012. Rather, the challenge is deeper, in that what is meant by anti-capitalism, socialism, and hence Marxism might suffer another round of superficial banalization and degradation (“We are the 99%!”) in responses to the present crisis. The Left may suffer a subtle, obscure disintegration under the guise of its apparent renaissance.

Nonetheless, this is an opportunity to press the need for Marxism, to reformulate it in better terms and on a more solid basis than was possible during the anti-war movement of the 2000s.

This is the gauntlet that both anarchism and the labor movement throw down at the feet of Marxism. Can Marxist approaches rise to the challenge?

It is a Marxian task to the understand why Marxism as a project largely failed in the capitalized West which is the opposite of the traditional vision of late Marxist society. The general answer that Imperialism undercut it is not particularly compelling. The Foucaultian answer that Marx is just another power discourse gives us nothing but an de-politicized rising and falling of new power discourses. Now, it that Marxian analysis has largely fallen out of the partisan discourse of Marxism, and become the realm of academics be they humanist cultural marxists, marxian economists, or Marxian sociologists. There has been a necrophile taste to a lot of the Marxists I have interacted with in West, in parties that begin in the 1970s watching either a return to 1968 or 1933 or 1918. As if we were reliving our own sad spiral of history, we continue to be regressive ourselves, and ignoring that theories have been incomplete or outright wrong, thrown ourselves entirely into either praxis or theory.

Vague rhetoric like the 99% get to this. The kinds of class tensions and ethnic tensions cannot be realistically portrayed in the complexity class interrelationships. Furthermore there is a necrophile element to hanging on the idea of an industrial proletariat as if that was the only form it could take. Even in the “developing world” there has been a significant de-industrialization in Latin America and most of Asia as well although not as rapid as in Europe. Slum dwellers also complicate the situations. We have acknowledged this problem but not realistically looked at the problems this has been. Much ink has been spent on these problems, but every little praxis has. Instead we have the flurry of jumping on other activities in hope to bend the narrative. Adorno had a thing to say about this:

Pseudo-activity is generally the attempt to rescue enclaves of immediacy in the midst of a thoroughly mediated and rigidified society. Such attempts are rationalized by saying that the small change is one step in the long path toward the transformation of the whole. The disastrous model of pseudo-activity is the “do-it-yourself.” . . . The do-it-yourself approach in politics is not completely of the same caliber [as the quasi-rational purpose of inspiring in the unfree individuals, paralyzed in their spontaneity, the assurance that everything depends on them]. The society that impenetrably confronts people is nonetheless these very people. The trust in the limited action of small groups recalls the spontaneity that withers beneath the encrusted totality and without which this totality cannot become something different. The administered world has the tendency to strangle all spontaneity, or at least to channel it into pseudo-activities. At least this does not function as smoothly as the agents of the administered world would hope. However, spontaneity should not be absolutized, just as little as it should be split off from the objective situation or idolized the way the administered world itself is. (Adorno, “Resignation,” Critical Models, 291–292)

We are both are and aren’t the 99%. The liberal consensus is having trouble maintaining itself and we have nothing to offer either disillusioned liberals or the vast majority of the working class but a few copies of the manifesto. No wonder despite increased dissatisfaction among both the poor, the working class, and the middle class, there has been an overall rightward drift to the country. We must be Marxian before we can be Marxists, and we must not think we can just repeat the victories of the past in a different context. Vague rhetoric that hits that fact doesn’t help either.


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