Marxism and Genocide


Several Marxist governments have committed genocide[1].  Does this mean that Marxism is a genocidal ideology?

Several liberal governments have also committed genocide[2]. If Marxism is a genocidal ideology, then so is liberalism, and by extension the entire Enlightenment project.

Western civilization is indeed chronically genocidal.  But not because of its ideology.  Ideology is not what causes genocide.


The history of genocide shows that, given time and resources, people can rationalize anything. This suggests that ideology is an expression of events, not the cause of them.

Marx’s social theory itself claims exactly this. Historical materialism proposes that human consciousness derives from practical social relations.

Marx’s explanation is partial, however, because he reduces practical social relations to relations of production. He does not theorize other kinds of practical, embodied, material social relations, such as relations of force.

The modern sovereign state is a formation of material social relations of force. A state formation[3] claims a near-monopoly over the means of force. Genocide results from the dynamics of state formation. But how?


To secure its monopoly on military and police force, a state formation inscribes itself on the habitus of its subjects (and, optionally, on their consciousness as well). The state requires its subjects to identify with it, to identify themselves as its subjects — not necessarily consciously, but on a practical level. This happens via the process of deferentiation. Genocide is an expression of the contradictions of this process. Genocide targets an identity formation on the margins of the state formation; pushing that difference to the outside strengthens the identity on the inside.

The practical dynamics of state formation sometimes generate powerful incentives towards genocide. When this happens, would-be political leaders come up with an ideology that legitimates the most atrocious acts. The leaders most capable of doing this become the most prominent. It looks as if the ideology causes the genocide, but the correlation is mostly spurious. Genocidal ideology emerges out of the opportunity for genocidal practice, which in turn emerges out of the dynamics of competition for sovereignty.


It is easier for people to change their ideas about the world than to change their ways of acting.  Ideology adapts itself to material social relations, including the relations of force which form the core of state formation.

But how does this happen? Genocide is antithetical to the humanistic ideas of the young Marx. So how can self-identified Marxists have rationalized their involvement in genocide?

We can imagine several of possibilities: either Marx’s ideology changed as he matured, or Marxism was changed by others after his death, or the genocidaires did not practice the ideology they preached.

Obviously all three of these things did happen. But stating how the ideology changes does not explain why it changes, what made it change.

Let’s shift from a push to a pull epistemology, from actor-centered questions to event-centered questions.  Instead of asking, how did Marxists rationalize their involvement in genocide, let’s ask how was Marx’s social theory susceptible to being used as fodder for genocidal ideology?


To connect ideology to practice, we must consider ideology as practice. Ideology does something. What does it do?

Let’s make a distinction: between praxis, and pseudopraxis. A praxis is a form of knowledge that facilitates a certain type of practice.  A pseudopraxis is knowledge that facilitates practice, but a practice different from what it claims to enable.

Marx intended his ideas to function as a praxis that would enable the working class to seize the means of production and abolish class contradictions. Clearly things have not turned out this way, so far.  In both the Soviet Union and China, for instance, labour-power was still alienated and labour was still exploited. In those states, Marxism failed as praxis and became a pseudopraxis. So what did that pseudopraxis actually do?


Marx’s political theory, as I understand it [4] [5] [6], centers on the postulation of a binary opposition between proletariat and bourgeoisie.

A whole host of other binary oppositions are then mapped onto this central opposition: progress vs. reaction, emancipation vs. slavery, and — most importantly from the point of view of state-formation — us vs. them.

Binary oppositions like this are enormously useful to state formations. The more ambiguous and polysemous they are, the better. Marx’s concept of class, properly understood, is not polysemous: class relations are social relations of production. However, Marx’s technical definition is abstract and obscure in comparison with most people’s understanding of class. The concept of class in common usage is broad, ambiguous, and polysemous.  This makes the notions of class and class struggle easy to appropriate.

As a result, one can accuse almost anyone of being a class enemy on the basis of almost any social difference, and most people won’t know whether or how this violates Marx’s actual theoretical writings.

In other words, it is much too easy to map the political conflict between a (nominally) Marxist political faction and its opponents onto the class struggle between labour and capital.

This is what happened in the Soviet Union, China, and Cambodia.  Young and initially unstable state formations adapted Marx’s theory into a pseudopraxis which they could use to strengthen their subjects’ identification with themselves and thereby strengthen their own sovereignty.

On certain occasions these same state formations engaged in genocide, also to extend or strengthen their own sovereignty — successfully in the USSR and China, unsuccessfully in Cambodia.  When this happened Marxist ideology was adapted to genocidal ends.


This is a fiasco, obviously.

Marx wanted to build a revolutionary and emancipatory praxis, not a politically malleable pseudopraxis. What went wrong?

Marx’s theory was incomplete.

Marx’s systemic critique of capitalism is the single greatest accomplishment of social theory in the nineteenth century. But this accomplishment is still limited. The theory has no conception of force or sexuality as material social relations, only a narrow and reductive analytic of social difference, no analysis of communication or decision-making — in sum, no systematic theory of politics.

There’s nothing to be gained from blaming Marx for this personally or dwelling too much on his failures. He figured out that capitalism is a social system and that human emancipation depends on superceding this system. He put his finger on the problem. But identifying a problem is not the same as solving it.  And this problem is much larger and more complex than anyone working in the mid-1800s could possibly have solved.

Expecting Marx to have provided the formula for communism would be like expecting Gregor Mendel to have mapped the human genome.


We need Marx today. Not his humanism or his moral vision. We can get humanism and moral vision from many other sources. We need Marx’s social theory: his concepts of class, alienation and exploitation as material social relations and his theory of capitalism as a social system.

But we also need to go beyond the boundaries of the paradigm Marx established. Revolutionary social theory, when we figure out how to build it, will include concepts, objects, methods, and analyses which Marx would have prohibited or which he never would have considered. And it will let go of some practices which have often defined political Marxism as such.

In particular, I suspect that revolutionary social theory will not center on an “us-them” binary opposition. Such oppositions are useful for constructing sovereigns. Oppositional movements can use them to cast down the sovereign and take his place. But to truly socialize the means of production requires that we we cast down the sovereign and have no one in his place.

For this we need new theories.

Where are we, and what are we doing in this handbasket?

[1] Established cases include the Soviets in Ukraine, Khazakistan, and north Caucusus; the Maoist government in Tibet; the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia; perhaps others.

[2] The United States, for instance, is culpable for genocide within its own territory against Native Americans, in Iraq via the sanctions regime, and is has abetted genocide in several client states including Guatemala, Indonesia, and others. Britain, Canada, and Australia have all committed genocides against indigenous peoples. And so on.

[3] Rather than talk about ‘the state’, which suggests a static thing, it is better to talk about ‘state formations’. A state formation is a process by which the sovereign monopoly on force is established and reestablished. It is also simultaneously a particular network of actors engaged in this process.

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