I am, in some vague sense, a Marxist–although I am not sure this corresponds to much meaningfully politically as the range of “Marxism” as a sub-set of “socialism” has been expanded by history to the point of signifying that one read the Manifesto once and maybe bought a socialist newspaper before they all went to blogs in the late aughts. Or one attended a socialist lecture in a university, an occupy sit-in five years ago, or heard about it a few times listening to KFPA. Maybe you confused a Das Kapital study group with becoming a developed revolutionary cadre, or maybe you actually think Jacobin Magazine’s weird blend of post-Keynesians, Social Democracy, a few Maoists, and lots of complaining about liberals while more or less proposing liberal policies are appealing. Maybe you are an English or a cultural studies major. (I know I was. A dyslexic one too.)
The thing is the signifier of “Marxist” has let to a vaguer and vaguer criterion of identification while removal from any historically significant and consistent Marxist movement outside of marginal parties in developing countries and, if one is extremely creative and generous, Deng through Xi’s “new synthesis” of Marxism with its traditional Asiatic enemy, Confucianism, has rendered the believers of the various Marxisms more rigid. Indeed, most talk of strategy is often confused with text proofing Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Mao, or, more recently due to the later twos historical failure, Bordiga,Debord, Adorno, or Kautsky.
A caveat: I identify my patterns of thought as rooted in Marx, to a lesser degree Engels and early Lenin, and to even lesser but still significant degree Bordiga, Bukharin, Adorno, and, yes, even the renegade Kautsky. I, however, am also informed by later German idealism, Marx Weber, Aristotle, Buddhism, and historiographic thinking. For me, every writing that Marx put down on a napkin, every slight modification between the manifesto and Das Kapital is intellectually important, but not necessarily immediately relevant to political economy. Furthermore, often what I do fine relevant, are the categories of value theory and methods of class analysis that are both contingent to capitalism or even specific periods of capitalism, many of which make other Marxists uncomfortable. Indeed, Marxist historiography is more important to me than Marxist politics, and Marxist “politics” is more important than the Marxist academic paper generation machine.
Lately, I have been highly encouraged by groups like the Red Party, the Communist League, and even some of the post-Maoist groups who are really publishing but renewed study of old ideas but also discussion of how the situation has changed both economically and politically. So, in light of these positive developments, why do I worry about this change?
Well, functionally, since 1989, Marxism proper has either been a hyper-activist or an academic cult of academics and failed statesmen. The ideas in Marxist circles popular on the current “radical left” (whatever that means) are often the ideas that don’t have origins in Marx, or even later Marxists, but come from a variety of epistemic and legal paradigms and tried to be reconciled with Marx, leading to incoherent miasmas of theoretical syntheses, weakening of categories, and universal acid to any analytic use of said categories. The response is often a call for deep renewal, to find an Orthodoxy that can sustain change. This is natural, but almost as problematic.
The point here isn’t just play the game of accusing people of Marxianity. It may be true in some cases, but it’s not particularly illuminating. The problem with renewal or re-emergence politics in Marxism that one does NOT see in liberalism as much is the picking of a very select period, generally before world war 2, but definitely before 1968 or 1979, to go back to and find the Orthodox position. While being intellectually consistent is a noble goal here, the prime goal should be to be right and intellectual consistent… and also change the world. Which means one doesn’t just go back to the texts like they are religious tomes, one learns form them, one understands the methods, and then only applies those methods consistently on material and social relations.
So while I am actually somewhat optimistic about the new groups in the Marxist milieu, the challenge remained: if it failed the first time, it will take more than just another college try to fix it.