Marxism and Difference

Note of 21 August 2012: In case anyone is still coming across this post for the first time, I need to rectify some hasty and careless statements that I made in this entry.  Throughout, I talk about ‘difference’ and I specifically say that Marxism “has a problem with difference”. I need to clarify that the difference I’m referring to is epistemological difference in particular, not difference in the broader sense that includes, for instance, gender difference, racialization, and so on. Marxists, to varying degrees of course, have been highly active in struggles against gender inequality, racism, homophobia, and other forms of social inequality currently associated with the term ‘difference’. The “problem of difference” that I wished to focus on is the problem of epistemic difference: what do we do when you and I know the world in substantially different ways?

This past Sunday I had the privilege of joining the student protest in Montréal and had the special good fortune of getting to talk with some executive members of La Classe, one of the two major student organizations leading the strike. La Classe is organized on the basis of direct democracy, in which political deliberation and decisions are organized to include all members rather than just a few elected representatives.

La Classe has had remarkable success in attracting and keeping members and in mobilizing their members to collective action. This is an encouraging sign for people, like myself, who favour direct democracy and other moves towards less hierarchical decision-making over more conventional representative democracy and other elite-driven political forms.

Talking and thinking about these issues puts me in mind of an issue I raised briefly but left hanging in an earlier post. To recap, here is what I wrote:

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 a tailor and revolutionary activist:

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.

Of course this was a hyperbolic thing for me to say. The reasons why Marxism has not achieved its goals are many and complex, and concern the historical development of the class contradictions of which Marxism is itself an expression. But this little anecdote illustrates a certain recurring practice which exasperates me, one that is by no means unique to Marxism but which is especially important to Marxism because one finds it so often in among Marxists and leftists in general, and because it undermines the revolutionary egalitarian aspirations that Marxists affirm.

Marx encounters Weitling, who has been trying to enroll German workers in communist struggle. Marx disagrees with Weitling’s methods. So how does he handle this? He assaults Weitling verbally, dismissing his tactics as “preaching” and of “dishonest sermonizing”. He refuses to listen to Weitling’s response, cutting the man off, slamming his fist on the table and shouting.

In Bourdieuian terms, this behaviour counts as symbolic violence. Marx refuses to recognize Weitling as an equal or even as someone deserving of being heard. He establishes a personal dominance through a combination of rational argument and histrionic gesture. He disqualifies not only Weitling’s methods but his very persona as a revolutionary. It’s not surprising that Weitling left the scene; this departure was perhaps the only way in which he could continue to exercise agency.

Wilhelm Weitling

From what I’ve read, this behaviour was typical of Marx. He loved verbal combat, and his career in the European revolutionary socialist movement reads in part like a series of duels in which he verbally destroys one opponent after another.

On one level there’s nothing remarkable about this. Marx makes rational arguments, and if he gets carried away with anger or arrogance, these excesses do not undermine the validity of his analyses.

On another level, it’s hard not to see the parallels between Marx’s personal intolerance of dissent and the pernicious authoritarianism that has plagued Marxist politics.

However, it would be a mistake to collapse the full complexity and breadth of Marxian politics into its authoritarian manifestations.

More to the point, It would also be a mistake to reduce the political failings of Marxism to the idiosyncrasies of Marx the individual, as if one man could single-handedly create a movement with all its strengths and all its limitations.

Karl Marx

Still, it seems to me that Marxism has a problem with difference, and this problem is prefigured in Marx’s own interpersonal politics.

Or, more specifically, since every political movement faces the problem of what to do with difference, Marx and Marxists in general have tended to resolve that problem in a particular way that has definite advantages and disadvantages.

Specifically, the Marxian tradition tends to deal with difference by excluding it. This exclusion hardly makes it unique; such exclusions are the norm in political movements from left to right. But I think this exclusion undermines the goals of radical socialism and is therefore problematic for left movements in a way that it is not problematic for right movements.

How does Marxist politics exclude difference? Through this basic gesture: insisting on a common analytic framework as a precondition for political action. First we must collectively arrive at a correct analysis of the conditions of our oppression, then on the basis of that single correct analysis we will formulate a unified strategy for overcoming that oppression.

One finds this gesture repeated ubiquitously throughout the Marxist tradition. Only the means vary: from authoritarianism and terror at one extreme to pure rational persuasion, Habermas’s ‘communicative action’, at the other.

Jürgen Habermas

If we assume that all human beings inhabit a single, objective reality and, moreover, that all human beings are gifted with a faculty of reason that works the same way everywhere, then of course this gesture is self-evidently necessary and appropriate.

But if we do not make these assumptions then we can see this unifying gesture as a kind of production: the production of ideological sameness.

And if we take a step further and assume that reality and rationality are relative, fluid, and contingent, then the production of sameness constitutes an attempt to fix reality; it is a labour of reification.

The contradiction, for revolutionary socialists, is this: that the production of ideological sameness requires the establishment of a single unified regime of symbolic domination. To the extent that socialism is supposed to entail freedom and equality, this production undermines socialism. And yet it has been the principle means by which radical socialist politics have advanced.

5 thoughts on “Marxism and Difference

  1. I wonder whether the average participant in any of the recent mob actions in Montreal has the intellectual wherewithal to get through any of Marx’s writings- but then again, I suppose that such a creature has no use for books of any sort, save perhaps as handy projectile weapons. The Left needs to step back and ask itself just how it could have sunk to the point where the supporters of Sarah Palin on the populist Right are not only more civil, but more literate. At least in that camp, things have not yet descended to the rock-bottom level where careful thought and reasoned analysis yields altogether to wholly brainless mob actions on urban streets.


    • I disagree entirely with your characterization of the student movement and I wonder how you have arrived at it. My observations of the movement in the media, my participation in one of their mass demonstrations, and my conversations with two members of the CLASSE executive have all impressed me deeply with the intelligence and thoughtfulness of these activists.


  2. Sorry in advance for the length; I don’t often leave comments in blogs and have no idea what the etiquette is.

    I arrived at my characterization by living in Montreal. Earlier this year, after several uninterrupted months of disorder and outright riot, it dawned on me that the guys marching down the street banging on pots and pans when not actually swinging at the cops, if they think at all, probably allocate more of their thinking time to thinking about getting their shots in through riot shields than about the epistemological challenge that differance poses for Marxist analysis and so on. N.B. this goes for the rank-and-file, not the leadership, which by and large is comprised of trainee members of the local, peculiarly State-centred bourgeoisie, viz. people destined to assume roles in the local governing class. (At least one of them has already been offered, and has taken, the chance to stand for public office by a major party). The rank-and-file, meanwhile, will go on to either (in the minority) find a natural home in jail and-or welfare, or (in the majority) eventually- and tenuously- attain to the lower tiers of the social division of labour.

    None of this has anything to do with direct democracy, and nor will it seriously undermine the corporate social structure here. On the contrary. The recent disorders belong to a tradition of populist manifestations that irrupt whenever the Third Estate fears an encroachment on the small privileges it is entitled to, by its social betters, as the cost of the general obedience of its members and their due observance of their place in the corporate order of things. These mob actions contribute to the reproduction of the corporate order by telling the dominant, corporativist ideology exactly what it wants to hear, namely that their average participant is irrational, lawless, and fit only to be ruled (cf. Aristotle’s “natural slave”), or at best (in the case of students), immature. Those fortunate enough to have the status of yet-immature members of the governing class will, in full adulthood, assume positions in a notoriously bloated and openly patrician State apparatus; having attained patrician status, they will promptly forget the fraternal boasts of their youth. Meanwhile, those destined to assume the status of plebs (i.e. most of them) will continue to manifest only when their little entitlements are threatened, and quietly keep their place otherwise. It’s all happened here before (e.g. many members of the Liberal political machine once believed in liberalism, the PQ in anti-colonialism, etc.)- and there is no good sociological indicator of a structural transformation profound enough to suggest that guessing that it’s happening again would amount to rejecting the true null hypothesis. Only time will tell, but it probably won’t tell us much.

    In Quebec, then, the utopian dream of equality and direct democracy always wakes up to the corporate reality of authority and hierarchy. This wouldn’t be a bad thing, had not that reality been rendered anomic and contemptible by chronic infection of materialism, atheism, “rationalism”, and liberalism (e.g. reciprocity replaced by vicious, zero-sum rivalry and exploitation; the authority of the Church replaced by an improvident, wannabe power-State; both Divine and Natural right fecklessly discarded in favour of long-obsolete Statist fads and foibles; and Anglo-Saxon individualism monstrously grafted onto French-Canadian culture so as to collate the vices of both traditions while dispensing with their respective virtues). But I digress. The Quebec student movement is mere mutiny. Anybody looking for egalitarianism, direct democracy, etc. ought to look elsewhere.


  3. Pingback: Marxism and Genocide | The Practical Theorist

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