The internal contradiction of Marxism

From Mary Gabriel’s fascinating biography of Karl and Jenny Marx, Love and Capital, describing an early meeting of the Communist Correspondence Committee, the first international socialist organization to which Marx belonged, in which Marx confronts Wilhelm Weitling, a utopian socialist:

Engels opened the meeting, attended by a handful of colleagues, saying it was necessary for those who wanted to transform labor to agree on how that might be done. In his memoirs Annenkov described Marx’s leonine head bent over a piece of paper, a pencil in his hand, while Engels spoke. But Marx couldn’t sit quietly for long. He demanded that Weitling, whom he accused of making “so much noise in Germany with your preaching,” explain his activities. Weitling offered vague ideas about acquainting workers with their plight and rallying them to communism and democracy, but Marx interrupted angrily. He said raising fantastic hopes on the part of the workers was mere dishonest sermonizing, which “assumes an inspired prophet on the one side and on the other only gaping asses.” It was not enough, he argued, for men to know that they were miserable, they had to understand why, and rousing the workers without offering them a clear plan or doctrine could lead only to failure. Weitling tried to defend himself, but Marx slammed his fist on the table so hard it shook the lamp and shouted, “Ignorance never yet helped anybody!” Everyone scattered. Marx was left angrily pacing the length of the room.

To me, this anecdote encapsulates the entirety of why Marxism has not achieved its goals.

9 thoughts on “The internal contradiction of Marxism

  1. Thank you for sharing this brilliant insight that helped fill some gaps on the line of thinking I was taking with Marxism… first of all, I think Marx was absolutely accurate in his statement. Rousing speeches in themselves aren’t enough. Rousing speeches can be used to wile an ignorant public into any direction (no better example than our current political system), but what one should be able to offer the population at large is some direction, some plan of action well thought through and practically implementable. Something that holds true to the spirit of what people seek to achieve; which is, essentially, self-empowerment for all. Opportunities to grow as human beings.

    Marx was right that a plan was needed… however, unfortunately, he was unable to offer any. This is also why he seems to lambast Weitling and yet is frustrated that he cannot provide the answer to his problem either. I think Edward Griffin brings some insight into what happened because Marx couldn’t offer a plan of action:

    http://possibilitymagazine.me/2012/05/10/does-communism-exist-leninism-and-fabianism/

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    • Hi! Thanks for your comment! And for the link; that’s an interesting article.

      I deliberately didn’t say *why* I think the anecdote illustrates the failures of Marxism or what I think the contradiction is, because I wanted to see what other people would come up with. I hadn’t noticed how Marx doesn’t provide a solution, but you’re right, he doesn’t.

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    • I find the idea of a resource based economy very interesting. Back in my MA days I read a theorist named Howard T. Odum who was contributing ideas to this line of thinking in the 1960s. Have you read the Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson? Or the Three Californias trilogy by him? Robinson is a fan of resourced based economics and in his novels he describes very plausible scenarios in which it gets implemented.

      Resource-based economics gets around some of the problems which Marx diagnosed as inherent to the commodity form, specifically those related to the fetishization of exchange-value. I don’t know if it has all the answers but I think it’s a step in the right direction and/or a necessary component of what a viable socialist economy will look like.

      The major challenge facing this kind of project is right there on the page you linked me to, in the sentence “Let’s imagine for a moment we had the option to redesign human civilization from the ground up.”. Social theorists have been doing that since Plato wrote The Republic. The challenge is finding a way to turn such utopian dreams into practical realities. The problem with schemes based on holistic systems thinking is that one cannot change a system all at once (this is the using the fullest sense of the world “system”, not in the narrow sense of “the existing legal framework” or somesuch); one can only change a system from within that system .

      One strategy is to try to convince enough people that our particular utopian vision is desirable and then try to use political power to implement aspects of that utopia until it takes root. I call this norm entrepreneurship. It can be very effective, but I also think it has certain inherent limitations (which will provide the subject matter for some future blog posts).

      The strategy that interests me more is a more practical form of prefiguration. How could we implement resource-based economics in limited, local contexts, in ways that people find rewarding, so that it thrives and spreads itself like a virus without having to be implemented from the top down?

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  2. Thank you for bringing my attention to Kim Stanley Robinson. I haven’t read him, but will start immediately, and get back to you. After reading different variations of an “attempt” (mostly failed attempts) at Utopia, such as “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley, I was very inspired by what I felt was the closest science fiction work to the possibility of a Utopia – “Stranger in a Strange Land” by Robert Heinlein. Most other works seem to have some inherent assumptions about “HUMAN NATURE” that are not necessarily applicable.

    As for your thoughts on the resource based economy, I completely agree with you. My own thoughts on Utopia I expressed here. Would love your feedback: http://possibilitymagazine.me/2012/04/28/is-utopia-a-fairytale/

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  3. This account from Annenkov is also discussed in Alvin Gouldner’s book Against Fragmentation (published, I think, in 1985), which is a thorough sociological investigation of the social roots of Marxism, that manages to be both sympathetic and critical. It focuses on the background of Marxists as privileged intellectuals, and the consequent difficulties they had relating to a largely anti-intellectual, artisanal workers movement (within which Weitling was popular). It also suggests (though without fully developing this) a way of understanding the limitations of Marxism as the consequences of theoretical sleights of hand adopted in order to ‘massage’ this basic social contradiction. I’d recommend it.

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