Say Hello To My Little Friends: The Three Spirits of Marx


The Three Spirits of Marx:

A Discussion on Divergent Legacies


The conflicting ideas present in the writings of Marx as both philosopher and social revolutionary have supplied over the last 150 years the rivers and tributaries of discussion around the contradictory elements present in his work and where we might take them. He has served as a starting point from which much of the tradition of critical philosophy springs from. Above all in developing a critical philosophy he stressed that “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it”[1]

      Moving forward with this imperative, I aim to elaborate the divergent legacies of Marx with the goal of answering which legacies of Marx are useful in building a pragmatic understanding of the world as well as libratory praxis towards radical social transformation (social revolution). I have identified three spirits of Marx, though perhaps there can be found more, which I will describe as the Determinist, Reformist and Subjective or Humanist spirits present within his writing. I also hope to speak to the role of subsequent figures who have contributed to these conceptions after Marx’s death.


  Determinist Marx

Clearly prevailing in Marx’s political legacy are his concepts of materialist philosophy as they relate to historical analysis of society and the economy. With his adage that “the History of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle,”[2] Marx asserts the primacy of economic forces in social change as opposed to the idealist concepts he labors to criticize in “Theses on Feuerbach” as well as “The German Ideology.” “‘Liberation,’” Determinist Marx argues, “is a historical and not a mental act, and it is brought about by historical conditions, the [development] of industry, commerce, [agri]culture, the [conditions of intercourse].”[3] In other words, the process of emancipation is above all determined by economic forces and the development of the means of production within capitalism brings us closer to the inevitable proletarian revolution. This revolution being situated in the advanced capitalist nations of Europe and ideas are simply relegated as “the outgrowth of the conditions of your bourgeois production and bourgeois property.”[4]

      While the preceding paragraph sketches some of Marx’s own writings on materialism and the process of revolution, Determinist Marx needed a little bit more than this. Engels as well as future Marxian disciples and refiners, such as Lenin, worked to solidify Marx’s economic analysis into a framework of laws rooted in absolute truth akin to what physical scientists would develop to define the motion of planets (Newtonian physics). [5]

      Engels was the most early elaborator of this with his “Speech at the Graveside of Marx” where he asserts Marx’s work as having “discovered the law of development of human history,” and the “special law of motion governing the present-day capitalist mode of production,” comparing his work to Darwin’s who, “discovered the law of development of organic nature [evolution].”[6]  In what would become the most widely read presentation of Marxist next to the “Manifesto” Engels moved the definition of Marxism away from a qualitative condition defined by social relations and by humanity’s relation to itself, as we will discuss below, to “The proletariat seizes political power and turns the means of production into state property.”[7] In no ambiguous terms, socialism is reduced to the nationalization of industry by the state. With these words and his funeral eulogy for Marx, Engels might be described as convener of the spirit of the “Determinist Marx.”

      The refiner of this of this spirit, especially for the Marxists of the Marxist party left, is above all Lenin, the paramount leader of the Bolshevik Party during the 1917 Russian Revolution. Marx left little in the way of an articulate strategy in reaching social revolution, mostly stressing revolution as a fatalistic and inevitable. As the era of Marx eclipsed by 1910’s the socialist movement befell into crises leading into WWI, with each socialist party giving open or de facto endorsement to their respective national governments participation. Here Lenin enters the stage. With his works What Is To Be Done? and The State and Revolution he advocated an ideological and organizational shift of the socialist movement into a vanguard party formation, along with a firm commitment to channeling worker rebellion into an insurrectionary seizure of power through the state.

      What is most relevant for this discussion though is Lenin’s further refinement of the Determinist Marx,[8] which solidified the canon of what came to be known as Orthodox Marxism in contrast to the Western Marxism discussed later. Lenin took commonly held ideas of the socialist movement about the nature of worker consciousness and that of revolutionaries, along with elements of materialism, Hegelian philosophy and a conception of absolute knowledge. This became embodied in an entity, the vanguard party, who acted as the torch bearer of these ideas. As aptly articulated in Ron Taber’s critique of Leninism in Another Look at Leninism, Lenin clarified two important questions on behalf of Determinist Marx:

We have said that there could not yet be Social-Democratic[9] consciousness among workers. It could only be brought to them from without. … the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade consciousness. … The theory of Socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical and economical theories that were elaborated by the educated representatives of the propertied classes, the intellectuals.[10] 

      Though still largely upheld by those of the Marxist party left, the unfolding of history, the social sciences and especially the thinking of the last half of the twentieth century has largely condemned the spirit of “Determinist Marx” into analytical purgatory; or even worse yet, the proverbial ‘dust bin of history.’ Though many on the left operate nearly oblivious, as if they never received the message. Marx insists throughout the “Manifesto” on the forces of capitalist production as more and more dividing society into two hostile camps, driven by constant economic crises; revolution breaking out in the most developed countries; and the role of the state as a mere manager for the needs of the bourgeoisie.

      What Determinist Marx didn’t foresee was the advent of the modern welfare state and the Keynesian model of government intervention of the state into the economy. These interventions by the state have occurred directly against the interests of the bourgeoisie. Examples include US President Franklin Roosevelt’s passage of the National Labor Relations (or Wagner) Act which provided government sponsorship of unionism to contain the disruptive and radical wave of sit-downs and strikes by industrial workers in the 1930s[11] and the Mexican President López Portillo’s 1982 nationalization of the banking system in the face of a 70% devaluation of the peso.[12] Both actions were vigorously opposed by business classes of each country, yet the state intervened in the greater interest of preserving the capitalist system as a whole and against the immediate interests of the bourgeoise. In this day and age of global free trade agreements, the World Trade Organization and the World Economic Forum meetings, it’s hard to take seriously the portrait of the bourgeoisie “like a sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the neither world whom he has called up by his spells.”[13] If anything the capitalist class has shown itself as dynamic, cunning and foresightful, not the bumbling Merlin of the “Sword and the Stone” Disney movie.[14]

      Two other huge misses for Determinist Marx was the predominance of revolution in the underdeveloped third-world and often led by non-proletarian classes. While he looked to Germany and the US to lead the way towards socialist revolution in the “Manifesto,” the 1949 Chinese Revolution is the example par excellence of a peasant-led revolution in an underdeveloped country, among many other near successes. Also important were the emergence of non-wholly class based movements based on race, gender, sexuality, identity and environmental concerns (often called new social movements) that were based on far more subjective concepts than material conditions.   

 Revolutionary Marx?

Reading the “Manifesto” we might even wonder if, from the standpoint of our current economic and social arrangements, if Marx would be a revolutionary today. His reliance on the notion that private property formed the basic building block of capitalist social relations led him to believe that to do the inverse and “centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the State,” amounted to “despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of the bourgeois production.”[15] These are some of the final demands that Marx closes the “Manifesto” with: a graduated income tax; centralization of credit and lending into the hands of the state, somewhat like the functioning of the Federal Reserve system in the US; “industrial armies, especially for agriculture,” such as Bush’s proposed “guest worker” program today or the Bracero Program during the WWII period[16]; the bringing together of manufacturing and agriculture[17] and finally public education.[18]

      Reformist Marx, like the Determinist one also receives a key assist from Engels. The following piece quoted at length, “Draft of a Communist Confession of Faith” or sometimes referred to as “The Principles of Communism,” written by Engels, though clearly in collaboration with Marx, was approved by the Communist League in 1847 of which they were members, one year before the publication of the “Manifesto.” Lost in a personal archive for over a century, it was only rediscovered in 1968 and translated into English in 1971.

 Question 15: Do you intend to replace the existing social order by community of property [communism] at one stroke?Answer: We have no such intention. The development of the masses cannot be ordered by decree. It is determined by the development of the conditions in which these masses live, and therefore proceeds gradually.  Question 16: How do you think the transition from the present situation to community property is to be effected?Answer: The first, fundamental condition for the introduction of community of property is the political liberation of the proletariat through a democratic constitution. Question 17: What will your first measure be once you have established democracy?Answer: Guaranteeing the subsistence of the proletariat. Question 18: How will you do this?Answer: I. By limiting private property in such a way that it gradually prepares the way for its transformation into social property, e.g., by progressive taxation, limitation of the right of inheritance in favour of the state, etc., etc.II. By employing workers in national workshops and factories and on national estates. III. By educating all children at the expense of the state.[19] 

      Many of these “despotic inroads on the rights of property” would, in part, today read as features of a developed capitalist state such as America or any of western Europe. Clearly Marx and Engels’ discussions of what they felt would programmatically advance socialism amount to a program of gradualist legistlation to improve the efficiency of capitalism, rather than a program to empower workers toward social revolution. It is no wonder that the claimants to Marx’s legacy can march in such programmatically different directions.

This is not Karl Marx

Subjective or Humanist Marx

Now that we’ve witnessed the Determinist and Reforming spirits of Marx that have haunted the thinkers contemplating his work, we now convene the “Subjective or Humanist Marx.” This is the Marx present in “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” calling for philosophy to “unmask human self-alienation in its secular form now that it has been unmasked in its sacred form.”[20] This is the Marx deeply concerned with humanistic values, who sees criticism as waking humanity up from the slumber of alienation and that once awoken must act to change the world; not simply watch and interpret it as a series of economic motions. When in the company of this Marx theory exists “only realized in a people [in] so far as it fulfils the needs of the people,”[21] rather than as history operating “behind man’s back, without his conscious, active involvement.”[22]

      We can find the most robust presence of Subjective Marx in The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, unfortunately not published in full until 1932. Here we find a Marx intimately concerned with the notion of humanity’s estrangement from itself  through the alienated process of wage-labor, “The object which labour produces- labour’s product- confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer.”[23] Best elaborating the spirit of the “Manuscripts” and reflecting the humanist present in Marx is radical Marxist psychologist Eric Fromm,

 Clearly the aim of socialism is man. It is to create a form of production and an organization of society in which man can overcome alienation from his product, from his work, from his fellow man, from himself and from nature; in which he can return to himself and grasp the world with his own powers, thus becoming one with the world. Socialism for Marx was, as Paul Tillich put it, “a resistance movement against the destruction of love in social reality.”[24]     This is the spirit of Marx present in Feire, Fanon, Gramsci, Fromm and the whole of the Frankfurt or Western school of Marxism. If Engels said “he [Marx] was the first to make [the proletariat] conscious of its own position and its needs, conscious of the conditions of its emancipation,” these figures developed their approach quite different. If the colonial subject must engage in an act of violence against the colonial oppressor, or the oppressed must embrace their own freedom rather freedom rather fear it or raise themselves to a critical awareness of their role in the present society, then the oppressed must exercise an agency in opposition the powerful to change the existing social order.

      A long running parallel tradition to Subjective Marx has always been the other major branch of socialism, anarchism. Parting ways following the conflict between Marx and Bakunin in the First International, anarchism would go on to play a leading role in the radical left and workers movements globally.[25] Though declining in most countries following the Russian Revolution, anarchism within the last decade has made its resurgence felt[26] and has long overlapped with the recent thinking of the autonomous or “open” Marxism of John Holloway, as we will touch on later. Historian of early twentieth century Chinese radical politics Arif Dirlik catches some of the overlap between these estranged siblings in his work The Origins of Chinese Communism. He dedicates a chapter to discussion of the anarchist contribution to the 1917-1923 intellectual ferment of the New Culture Movement in China which culminated in the May Fourth protest movement against China’s subjugation by western powers following the aftermath of the WWI.

What distinguished the anarchists’ contribution to New Culture thinking was their insistence that the question of individual liberation was fundamentally a social question. … As Richard Saltman has observed of Bakunin’s preoccupation with remaking the individual as a “free and dignified being,” mainstream anarchist philosophy has “understood that man could accomplish this restoration of his human capacities only with and through his fundamental unity with his fellow man.”[27]

      Subjective Marx has also been a bit of a late bloomer though in comparison to its other spirit siblings. While always present within Marx’s work and pushed forward by thinkers here and there such as György Lukács, this spirit arguably did not truly begin to emerge until the 1930’s writings of Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci and the thinkers of the Frankfurt School of Marxism and this spirit only fully blossomed during the aftermath of the WWII, as radicals began to rethink their outlook. This motivation was driven by a number of forces which included most importantly the failure of preceding decades to bring about revolution outside of Russia, growing disillusionment with the ‘socialism’ of the Soviet Union, the reordering of the global political order, and the challenges to the west by anti-colonial movements.

      At this point I would like to close with a review of two contributing thinkers who in my view most embody the spirit of Subjective Marx, followed by my personal final conclusions. Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci represent the most eminent in Subjective Marx not entirely in the statements he laid down, but more for the analysis he was seen as first articulating which broke from the orthodoxy of Determinist Marx. Many of his ideas and questions raised have gone on to become the subsequent starting point by many inspired by the tradition of Subjective Marx.


      Gramsci’s began his first contributions to Subjective Marx with his direct criticism of Determinist Marx in his earliest writings. Immediately following the Russian Revolution, “The Revolution Against Capital,” uses the example of Russia as a break away from the positivistic, “predetermined course” which state that only in developed countries could a revolution develop. Rather, for Gramsci, “events have overcome ideologies. … [They] have exploded the critical schemas determining how the history of Russia would unfold according to the canons of historical materialism.”[28]

      Next, is his notion that revolution required an act of self-conscious activity on the part of the oppressed and that this is intricately linked to a critical understanding of subaltern self-consciousness. According to Gramsci the proletariat (which could be interchangeably substituted with oppressed social groups) “acquires awareness of itself, of the task which it must now carry out in order to assert itself as a class, becomes conscious that its individual ends will remain purely arbitrary, pure words, empty and inflated wishes, until it possesses the tools, until these wishes have become will”[29]

      This takes us to our third point, which is Gramsci’s notion of the self-consciousness of the oppressed. In his most famous essay, The Study of Philosophy, Gramsci introduces his concepts of ‘good sense’ and ‘common sense.’ Here he elaborates that there exists

 two theoretical consciousnesses (or one contradictory consciousness): one which is implicit in his activity and which in reality unites him with all his fellow-workers in the practical transformation of the real world; and one, superficially explicit or verbal, which he has inherited from the past and uncritically absorbed.[30]  

      These concepts form a radical departure of Determinist Marx which sees the oppressed blinded from their true interests by ‘false consciousness’ or incapable of moving beyond reform struggles. Rather Gramsci posits that the oppressed already possess revolutionary consciousness due to their daily oppression and occasional acts of resistance, yet are also hindered on the ideological level by the presence of competing non-revolutionary ideas.

      Finally, the concept of hegemony popularized by Gramsci ranks foremost as one of the most important contributions to late twentieth century critical thinking, but to Subjective Marx as well. The concept of hegemony brings his other concepts into focus by explaining not just the nature of rule in advanced capitalist states, but also notions of a continuously contested rule as a result of the give and take of numerous forces which may not be explicitly or solely determined by economic forces. Author Cynthia Kaufman in Ideas for Action, aptly summarizes hegemony as rooted in the fact that 

systems of domination require a certain amount of consent from the governed to survive. They manage to accomplish this through dominating the society’s systems of meaning, building what he called hegemony- the way that idea systems come to legitimize, or support, the interests of ruling groups in society.[31]

      In sum, we can see Gramsci as a revolutionary who saw materialism as “a set of concepts comprising tools of analysis, a method of examining social situations, not a rigid framework of absolute laws.”[32] Rather he advocated a materialism infused with idealism, evoking the maxim “Pessimism of intellect, optimism of the will.” Whereby the base determined what was possible, a number of possibilities, the ultimate outcome was determined by humans who acted on ideas and shaped history accordingly. It could be said that Gramsci was the point where Subjective Marx truly came into being, moving from scattered criticism of Determinist Marx and heterodox reading Marx himself, to a true, living spirit.


Nearing our conclusion, we move to the final contributor to the various spirits of Marx, John Holloway. An Irish born philosopher, sociologist and autonomous Marxist most associated with the Zapatista movement, Holloway is important to Subjective Marx not only in his original discussions, but also as a still living author, someone who still breaths and speaks to the events of today. In How To Change the World Without Taking Power along with many articles, he begins his work with the concept of ‘the scream.’ Much like the “¡Ya Basta!” of the Zapatistas, this serves as a starting point of negation, of rejecting of the current social order; a cry of the oppressed against an inhuman world. Much of what Holloway discusses is a critical re-thinking of our conceptions of social struggle and the urgent necessity of bringing the revolutionary project back to its humanistic roots, in his words to “struggle to break the domination of things, the struggle for humanity.”[33] He defines his conception of autonomous Marxism (also referred to as operaismo from the Italian far left) as “the movement to put the subject at the centre of revolutionary theory.”[34]  To this he contrasts notions of ‘scientific socialism’ and ‘orthodox Marxism’ and their concepts of objective knowledge and an objective historical process proceeding through history.

      The most controversial aspect of his work, yet what also I believe makes the greatest recent contributions to Subjective Marx, is his discussion of the relation of the state to social movements. In contrast with Marx and Engels obsession with the centralizing power of the state over the economy and the state as representing the general will of society,[35] Holloway posits anti-capitalist struggle as the antithetical to the state. Rather than the state as an instrument for social change, to Holloway the state should be seen “as a form of social relations or a process of forming social relations. This means that struggles against capital or against the capitalist state must take a quite different form … [it] can not come about by taking state power but only by developing a quite different concept of power.”[36] And by different concept of power, in juxtaposition to the ‘power-over’ of the state, he stresses the importance in the construction of ‘power-to,’

 ConclusionOverall this piece reflects my own struggle with Marxism and my own way of separating out the ideas that I have seen as problematic brakes on those thinking about and engaged in struggle between the ideas and the praxis needed for radical social change. Despite each of these spirits I have outlined being somewhat caricatures invented for my own devices, rather than a careful, balanced weighting of Marxism as a whole (which would be far too arduous a task besides), it reflects nonetheless what I have been able to find inside Marxism. To me it represents a coming to a closure with the problematic aspects laden in Marxism that I have always struggled with; and for many years without a language for or an exact conception of. It represents an embrace of the emancipatory conception of the “subject at the center of struggle” and revolutionary politics as both an act of liberation as well as a movement of consciousness; as a “resistance movement against the destruction of love in social reality.” Hopefully this painting of three spirits helps present this clearly. At least it does for me.

[1] Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach” in The Marx-Engel’s Reader Ed. Robert Tucker (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1978), 145.

[2] Karl Marx, “Communist Manifesto” in The Marx-Engel’s Reader Ed. Robert Tucker (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1978), 473.

[3] Karl Marx, “The German Ideology” in The Marx-Engel’s Reader Ed. Robert Tucker (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1978), 169.

[4] Karl Marx, “Communist Manifesto,” 487.

[5] For a discussion of this see Taber’s chapters on Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-criticism in Ron Taber A Look At Leninism (New York: Aspect Foundation, 1988), 67-92.

[6] Friedrich Engels, “Speech at the Graveside of Karl Marx” in The Marx-Engel’s Reader Ed. Robert Tucker (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1978), 681-682.

[7] Friedrich Engels, “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific” in The Marx-Engel’s Reader Ed. Robert Tucker (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1978), 713.

[8] Joseph Stalin also offered his own further additional and rather crude refinement of Lenin in The Foundations of Leninism, but we’ll leave this aside for the purposes of this discussion.

[9] When Lenin wrote What Is To Be Done? in 1902 the term Social-Democracy was synonymous with socialism and only during the beginning of the Comintern period did Lenin and others switch to the use of  ‘communist’ to differentiate themselves from the reformist parties of the Second International.  

[10] Lenin, What Is To Be Done? (no citation present) as quoted in Taber, A Look at Leninism, 29.

[11] Staughton Lynd, Solidarity Unionism: Rebuilding the Labor Movement From Below (Chiacago: Charles H. Kerr, 1992)

[12] Hector Aguilar Camin and Lorenzo Meyer, The Shadow of the Mexican Revolution, Contemporary Mexican History 1910-1989 Translated by Luis Alberto Fierro (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1993), 212-218.

[13] Karl Marx, “Communist Manifesto,” 478.

[14] For Merlin see

[15] Ibid., 490.

[16] See Ernesto Galarza, The Merchants of Labor, The Mexican Bracero Story (New York: McNally & Loftin, 1972).

[17] On the coming together of urban manufacturing and agriculture see Carey McWillims, Fields Into Factories (Santa Barbara, CA: Peregrine Smith, 1971 Revised) and for the most recent analysis Richard Walker The Conquest of Bread, 150 Years of Agribusiness in California (New York: New Press, 2004).

[18] For an excellent discussion on the role of the education system in reinforcing capitalist social relations see Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, “Beyond the Education Frontier; The Great American Dream Freeze” in The Structure of Schooling, Reading in the Sociology of Education, Ed. Richard Arum and Irene R. Beattie (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2000), 112-136.

[19] Frederick Engels, “Draft of a Communist Confession of Faith” in The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels with Related Documents, Ed. John E. Toews (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999), 103.

[20] Karl Marx, “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction” in The Marx-Engel’s Reader Ed. Robert Tucker (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1978), 54.

[21] Ibid., 61.

[22] Louis Althusser, Philosophy of the Encounter; Later Writings, 1978-1987 (NewYork: Verso, 2006), 186.

[23] Karl Marx, “The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844” in The Marx-Engel’s Reader Ed. Robert Tucker (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1978), 71.

[24] Eric Fromm, “Marx’s Concept of Socialism” in The Capitalist System; A Radical Analysis of American Society Ed. Richard C. Edwards, Michael Reich and Tomas E. Weisskopf (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972), 521.

[25] “In 1905-1914 the Marxist left had in most countries been on the fringe of the revolutionary movement, the main body of the Marxists had been identified with a de facto non-revolutionary social democracy, while the bulk of the revolutionary left was anarcho-syndicalist, or at least much closer to the ideas and the mood of anarcho-syndicalism thatn to that of classical Marxism.” Eric Hobsbawm, “Bolshevism and Anarchists,” Revolutionaries (New York: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973), 61.

[26] See David Graeber, “The New Anarchists” New Left Review No. 13 January/February 2002, 61-73 and Barbara Epstein, “Anarchists and the Anti-Globalization Movement” Monthly Review Vol. 53 No. 4, September 2001, 1-14.

[27] Arif Dirlik, The Origins of Chinese Communism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 75.

[28] Antonio Gramsci, The Gramsci Reader, Selected Writings 1916-1935  Ed. David Forgacs (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 33.

[29] Ibid., 38.

[30] Ibid., 333.

[31] Cynthia Kaufman, Ideas For Action, Relevant Theory For Radical Change (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2003), 258.

[32] Joseph V. Femia, Gramsci’s Political Thought; Hegemony, Consciousness, and the Revolutionary Process (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1987), 81.

[33] John Holloway, “¡Viva la Linea Correcta!,”

[34] John Holloway, “Time to Revolt: Reflections on Empire,”

[35] Karl Marx, “German Ideology,” 161.

[36] John Holloway, “The Invisibility of Struggle: An Interview with John Holloway,” A-Infos.


Fixes this piece needs: word redundancies (thought, whereby, notion); clear up academic, jargony language; simplify sentences.

Determinist Marx: Are these the best quotes, are there some better ones out there?

Reformist Marx: Is it OK to leave out Kautsky for this? It would be great to add his famous “the movement is everything, the end goal nothing” (or whatever it is), but I don’t have any sources or references. I’m hoping Nate will have this.

The Humanist Marx: There’s so much more that could be discussed here. Is this a decent portrayal? I feel this could come out a little better.

Where would be a good place to take this piece? Submit to Upping the Anti- I have a feeling they wouldn’t be interested in the topic and its not up to their standards. Rewrite for an anarchist audience in intro and conclusion around the questions ‘what can anarchists get out of marx? How can we understand the problems we have with him better?’ and send to the North-Eastern Anarchist.


I don’t think the set up that I’ve created is wholly new, though Nate says not to overestimate the importance of originality. I’m sure I’ve read smaller hints of what this piece does. I think Althusser periodized him into distinct stages even. I’m just wondering, is this a useful way to see the legacy/legacies of Marx? Would this help folks less familiar with these bigger debates understand better the different sides of him (people newer to the movement, maybe anarchists who haven’t picked up Marx, or even help younger Marxists rethink how they see him- this would mean expanding the reformism part and detailing some history)?? To expand on the last point, I really hate the effort of Trotskyists to try and disassociate everything bad with Marxism to Stalinism or not acting like the Marxism of the Second International was completely something different from the Marxism of the Third. It’s a form of excuse making that doesn’t address the real issues of the conflicting legacies which stem from Marx.

 I have some more things to say, but my brain is too dead at the moment. -AW

3 Responses

  1. hey dude I’m gonna print this out and read it soon (I can’t do long stuff on screen); if I’m slow remind me please. I’m real into reading this, just life’s hard and busy right now.

  2. This is Todd’s early morning (very good) ramblings in response. Thanks Todd! I made some notes to these notes and will get on them soon… one small this he raises is the conflict I knew I was gonna get into over a more objective assesment of Marx and inevitable leaving some things out. Its a hard balance. One side is presenting something that reflects something real and is not disingenuous in doing so (ie purposely leaving contradictory shit out). The other side is that I wrote this for a philosphy class, and the fucked up but cool thing about phil is that you get to make shit up and that’s ok (the line between creative presentation and mispresentation is blury). The 3 spirits are somewhat carictatures (sp?), I know they won’t be 100% accurate/sum up everything, but the questions are– is it faithful to ideas? is this a useful presentation to get across somethings real? where can it improve to meet those?



    this is a super scattered reply. it gets more intelligent at the bottom. I reply to parts and then give some suggestions for making the whole clearer. All in all it is a good solid paper and with some cleaning up i think it could be useful for anarchists to learn about marxism from. i like the pics and format too.

    initial thoughts (outside of typos and wording, which i can comment on if you want):
    -you kept it brief which is important, some of my comments go contrary to brevity so potentially ignore them 🙂
    -the determinism section I think straddles two concepts economic determinism and revolutionary determinism. lenin was the former engles maybe both (marx probably both). I would actually seperate them into putschism and determinism. Lenin was an economic determinist, but believed in the necessity of intervening in revolutionary struggle with a putsch (blanquism but i think thats a dumb word). for marx, The obvious quote to have too is from the intro to a critique of pol econ, where he says the base superstructure distinction bit (which nate hates when you bring up btw).
    -with reformism it is worth talking about marx and engels building the social democratic movement and spending most of their time building reformist parties. I’m sure there are marx quotes on this which might be useful, since I think marx was just as big a reformist as engels.
    -humanist: The logic structure of the portion on what marxs thinks could be elaborated more. I’d say something like-
    -marx gave an analysis of alienation in terms of economic relations
    -he showed its effect upon who we are, our cities, and lives
    -he discussed the revolutionary possibility for transformation and abolishing alienation

    But I would qualify this too with quotes from marx attacking moralism. he (and marxists since) were staunchly against revolutionary theory involve morals or values, and it is important that his theory of alienation remains in the economic domain. I would criticize the usefulness of subjective marxist thought on both these fronts.

    The quotes you give about marx I don’t think actually contradict determinist marx, because marx sees conscious activity in history as a dialectic which arises from the economic forces. He thinks it plays a role, but one determined by economics. This is a problem for him and hence why he invents class for itself/in itself.

    The transition between marx and the thinkers in this section needs a bridge. Talking about alienation and the role of consciousness –> the role of consciousness making it not determined.

    -the discussion of gramsci brings back the lenin vs engels distinction. Gramsci isn’t necessarily disputing lenin’s putschism though since he still thinks that without the party bringing the embroyonic conscisousness into an organized front the revolution can’t happen. I think this is worth not glossing over since gramsci is essentially a revisionist of lenin, rather than other thinkers who believe that the working class has its own tools of emancipation. Other marxists would be better along those lines.

    It is also worth mentioning that gramscian hegemony was not really an innovation (Except to marxism). It was common thought in bourgeious political science of his time, and chomsky references a lot of those thinkers. Likewise anarchists had discussed the role of received opinion in attaining manufactured consent at least since the 1870s and what not. Gramsci made these thoughts compatible with marxism, and specifically with the notion that it is necessary to try and build consciousness through struggle, which is fairly anti-marxist (but he fell short by qualifying it and marrying it to lenin’s theory of the party).

    On history reforming theory- there is lots of good marx on this, specifically comparing say the manifesto with the civil war in france, or with his stuff on russia at the end of his life (i.e. it could skip capitalism).

    Your section on holloway is too fast. Its unclear why we can’t take over the state, i.e. how that contradicts the social relations of capital. I think this section would be served well as the distance from gramsci. i.e. marxism has evolved away from gramsci’s baggage towards a position where life in its broad sense is trying to be revolutionized (a broad and ethical sense of alienation), and the role of the proletariat is sufficient (though must be internally rather than externally organized), and the abolition of hierarchical power all together.

    -I think you could restructure the piece a little to bring out your points more clearly and make it more linear. In the end you’re writing about models of how revolution occurs. You have in certain parts what revolution means, but you don’t seperate them. You might just talk about the former, or talk about both in each section. Here’s how i would structure it:

    -marxism has produced many theories of revolution. these tendencies can be seperated into these categories. you will see i think X is the use of marxism in our work
    -determinism: revolution will be produced by economic forces cause everything is. form of revolution and consciousness of prols determined as well vs. sure its determined but it needs an outside party (bourgeious) to bring consciousness to the prols.

    there are 2 goals: overturn property relations (and any number of other things, i.e. vague State vs Paris Commune, Manifesto vs alienation etc) or install workers dictatorship to build socialism.

    -reformism: consciousness and material base of revolution is built through undermining private property and power of bourgeious in the domain of the state. revolution evolves out of this.

    goal slow building of power through reforms in state.

    -humanism: revolution requires a conscious and organized proletariat. goal= transformation of existing society and un(economically)alienated existence.

    marx’s take
    holloway- self-organized, autonomous, and hierarchy impeding it it… abolish the state.

    Then i’d have a section showing anarchism’s take (self-organization, role of consciousness, and a broad social theory of alienation), and how marxism can supplement it.

    i think what we can take away from marx in your paper is how your theory of the prol evolves with the struggles in history, how alienation from our labor affects us (flesh this out how alienation from property would impact other things), and i’m spacing.

    hope this helps. sorta rambling sorry


  3. hi Adam,
    I read the printout of this on the bus yesterday and made notes. Here’s my scattered response. I like it. Thanks for sending it to me. Have you read Harry Cleaver’s Reading Capital Politically? I recommend it. You might also like Steve Wright’s book Storming Heaven and Nick Dyer-Witheford’s CyberMarx. Cleaver and Dyer-Witheford are all readable online. I’m not sure if you’d be into it, but you might also check out Jason Read’s book Micropolitics of Capital. Definitely look at the Cleaver if you haven’t, though.

    It seems to me that among other things your paper is sorting Marx(ism) in terms of both descriptive/explanatory elements and prescriptive/political-organizational elements, and then talking about (picking sides) within each. So, on the one hand there’s the philosophical accounts of humanity (humans have qualities such that waged labor damages/alienates us), history (history/communism is pre-determined), and society/culture (the superstructure is a product of the base). On the other hand there’s the issue of reformism vs revolutionary politics and stuff. These elements are linked, but it seems to me there’s no automatic correspondence. Like you could be a determinist but still have what we would identify as a more revolutionary perspective, or you could believe in freedom but have a more limited politics. Does that make sense?

    If so – one thing that’s not clear in the paper is if your looking for explanatory/descriptive tools from Marx or political-organizational/prescriptive ones. (I’m probly making that distinction sound too hard and fast here.) Or both?

    I really like the “what can we do with Marx” spirit of the paper, and I agree with your implication that we should be critical of Marx(ism) as we use him/it.

    Also – it seems to me that Marx changes his mind somewhat over his life, or at least different elements become more and less emphasized. (All of this is wicked controversial depending on who you ask.) I think marxology is a really interesting hobby but ultimately just a hobby and doesn’t really matter… still it might be good to say something like “I’m not considering the changes in Marx’s thought, I’m sort of looking across Marx’s work and picking out different bits”, to make it clearer that what you’re doing is giving readings of Marx for different purposes, rather than making strong claims about what Marx did and didn’t mean. (I think the latter is a minefield or a tar pit and is potentially never-ending – like bible interpretation.)

    On determinism in particular, I’ve got a paper you might be somewhat into, criticizing some Althusserians related to this. A draft of it is here –

    On periodizing Marx, like I said I think it’s silly to make too much of that, but I’m kind of a silly person so I’d love to chat about that some time, re: Althusser or whoever.

    Lastly, I’d be down for some sort of discussion/article series or something, “anarchists reading Marx” or whatever, if that’s what you have in mind. Anyways, nice piece and let me know what you do with it.

    happy holidays,

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