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Why Marxism isn't the activist's answer.


1. Crisis of Focus

In "Why the Anti-Marxists are Wrong" (MR, March) Milton Fisk argues that the economy helps define responses to racism, sexism, and authoritarianism and--without ever telling us who they might be or letting them speak for themselves--claims that analysts who deny this will misunderstand contemporary struggle.

Indeed, race, sex, and authority relations do differ depending upon economic influences. But doesn't a capitalist economy in turn also differ depending upon whether the surrounding culture is nonracist or apartheid? And don't race and economic relations differ depending on whether they accompany dictatorship or parliamentarianism? And don't state, race, and economic relations vary depending upon accompanying gender relations?

Fisk complains that whatever validity these "extra" claims may sometimes have, giving them too much credence might cause us to want to use "five adjectives and one noun to designate" a society, or that "even if we happen to find some formula that enables us to conceive of these features as a unity, it is a unity too convoluted to serve as the frugal and simple base usually required for a genuine explanation."

Fisk is right in noting that we would prefer to use more adjectives than he does, and he is also right that we could save adjectives, for example, by downplaying South Africa's and Switzerland's race differences. But is this route to frugality any more sensible than urging us to downplay East and West Germany's economic differences?

Moreover, Fisk conveniently ignores that while oversimplified theories may require fewer words, they also accentuate rather than correct social biases. In short, theories that elevate a single economic sphere aggravate tendencies to undervalue the importance of cultural, sexual, and state trends, and are therefore not so efficient after all.

So it is that even in the face of Marxist protests, most activists persist in believing that no single set of relations is always primary. Frequently two, three, or more types of relations help define social life, demarcate diverse constituencies, create (or subvert) opportunities for change, and reproduce (or disrupt) each other's dynamics.

Indeed, the error of Marxist monism appears most starkly when Fisk pronounces that "class domination is a primary form of domination in relation to sex and race domination." The absurdity of this view that women and blacks, for instance, can only be critical social agents as representatives of some class, and that they cannot be agents of history simply by virtue of their position as women oppressed by gender relations and blacks oppressed by racist community relations, fortunately has struck more than a few activists.

To sustain his economism, Fisk reiterates that "interrelations between the gender, race, and class systems of a society have a distinctive character because of the underlying economic framework." But the same sentence with any permutations of the words "kinship framework," "cultural framework," and "state framework" for "economic framework" would be an equally compelling truth! Fisk's unsupported and unsupportable monism is best evidenced in his use of the word "underlying." If he would allow this word to appear in all other permutations--for example, "interrelations between the gender, race, and class systems of a society have a distinctive character because of the underlying kinship framework"-- claims of a priori economic primacy would vanish. If Fisk objects to the possibility that kinship, cultural, or state frameworks can be "underlying" in as powerful a sense as economic relations can be, then--as he himself says--it follows that women, blacks, and others, as well as their interests and agendas, are confined by his theory to the back burners of activist program. We reject Fisk's monist economism and its derivative strategic implications.

Suppose we look at a complex scene and see only what is green. We'll see much, but a great deal will also be obscure. Suppose we have a way to also see red, blue, and yellow, though all with a heavy green tint. Still much will escape us.

Likewise, by looking at society with concepts built on a solely economic foundation, Marxism explains much about the material economy, but little about its sexual and racial divisions of labor. It explains much about income distribution, but little about violence against women, teen sexuality, race-hatred, or the social role of spirituality. It explains the state as it affects economics, but not in its own right, or as it affects race and gender and vice versa.

Fisk says that to be comprehensive and effective we must have "a coherent framework within which all [component systems] function." Perhaps, but why must this "coherent framework" be denied in solely economic terms? Fisk rightly labels economics important, but wrongly denies the parallel importance of other factors.

Blacks won's trust a politics that underestimates the importance of culture. Women won't trust a politics that underestimates the importance of sexuality. Those oppressed by authority won't trust a politics that underestimates the importance of the state. Are these sentiments less worthy than those of workers who don't trust a politics that underestimates the importance of economics?

If Fisk could accept the role of student, he might learn the lessons being taught by women, minorities, youth, and others, that the "coherent framework" contouring each sphere of social life in the U.S. is a complex meshing of the critical influences of class, race, gender, and authority.

To argue convincingly for the above would require careful explanation of how society's four defining spheres affect one another, interactively demarcate diverse constituencies, reproduce and/or transform society's defining features, and together influence history. Here, we can only motivate readers to examine more complete presentations by pointing out some reasons why the above claims would be important if they are correct.2

1) Classes would not be the sole agents of history, nor economic relations the only important ones for leftists to transform. Alongside economics, political, sexual, and cultural agendas would have to become critical focuses for social transformation.

2) Strategy would have to settle on programs, organization, and tactics in light of state, gender, cultural, and class forces outside and inside the left.

3) Respect for diverse movements would have to replace attempts to highlight only an economic logic. The dynamics of classism, racism, sexism, and authoritarianism and of production/consumption /allocation, sexuality/socialization, religion, ethnicity, and bureaucracy, for example, would all have to be understood in their own right and interactively in light of each other, rather than only in terms of their economic implications.

4) Movement dynamics would have to create a diverse movement culture, institute real participatory democracy, and elevate nonwhite, nonacademic, nonmale leadership as critical elements of a strategy for change.

The response that modern Marxism accounts for all this is simply false. Though arguments regarding Marxism's "crisis of focus" have certainly begun influencing "rank-and-file" Marxists, economistic views still prevail among Marxist scholars. Michael Harrington's new book, Next Left, (Henry Holt, 1986) and Ralph Miliband and Leo Panitch's recent article "Socialists and the New Conservatism," (MR, January 1987) are recent examples of Marxist works that continue to focus almost exclusively on economic analysis, strategy, and goals. Neither gives more than passing attention to race, gender, or authority, and yet each purports to strategically guide the whole left. This is what the debate over focus is all about--even the best Marxism in real use by brilliant and dedicated people produces myopic analyses. And it will continue to do so because the roots of this particular failure are in the underlying concepts, not merely in specific misguided applications.

II. The Crisis of Class Allegiance

Marxism rightly teaches that to properly interrogate any theory we should examine what it asks (or fails to ask) and what it highlights (or obscures). However, if we do this with Marxism we quickly discover Marxism is not a theory of all the oppressed since (1) a theory of women wouldn't fail to highlight rape and violence against women; (2) a theory of blacks wouldn't peripheralize the cultural dimension of racism and denigrate spirituality; and (3) a theory of the politically disenfranchised wouldn't promote electoral forms that continually return the same people to power or advocate Leninist discipline. In addition, (4) though it is certainly anticapitalist, Marxism is not a theory of the working class.

The argument for this last claim is surprisingly simple. Any economic relations that divide economic agents into opposed groups can potentially define classes. One instance is when differences in ownership oppose workers to capitalists. But a second instance is when differences in work roles cause "coordinators" to conceptually organize and administer the activities of workers who are in turn confined to executing tasks defined and administered by others.

To argue that this "conceptual/executionary" distinction is only between strata within the working class fails to recognize that coordinators can not only "sell out" to capital or serve workers as "organic intellectuals," they can also become a ruling class in their own right. That is, beyond struggling between labor and capital, coordinators can use workers' energies to inaugurate coordinator-dominated postcapitalist relations.

And what does a coordinator economy look like? Means of production are socially owned so capitalists are eliminated. Coordinators attain relative monopolies over critical information, skills, and decision-making authority, and define economic tasks which workers carry out. And though coordinators may argue among themselves over whether central planners or local managers should hold greater sway and may contest power with Stalinist political elites, they undertake such struggles as rulers or workers, not as their advocates or servants.

In a coordinator economy market competition insures that plant decisions will be alienated from the humane interests of workers and carried out by a layer of managerial coordinators; central planning only adds to local managers a level of coordinator planners within society's central allocation institutions; and hierarchical local management further fortifies coordinator rule in each workplace. In short, coupling public ownership plus markets and/or central planning with compatible hierarchical workplace management facilitates coordinator and not worker rule. The Soviet system is not deformed socialism, or a peculiar capitalism, it is an instance of coordinatorism, with its own institutional dynamics and associated class relations. And not only are "existing socialist" countries coordinator, so too are all models put forward by Marxists, since without exception these models offer markets and/or central planning and traditional workplace managerial hierarchy, and call alternative approaches to allocation and organization "utopian," thereby short-circuiting any serious investigation of alternative possibilities. In short, wittingly or not, even in its most subtle versions Marxism conceptualizes the economy in a way that hides the coordinator class, yet fosters coordinator interests. Again the problem is at the roots of Marxism and not just a manifestation of vulgar interpretations of it.3

In contrast, a true theory of the working class must pay more attention to qualitative activity, information flows, and decision-making hierarchies. It must help reveal that existence and interests of the coordinator class and correct the longstanding confusion of coordinatorism for socialism. It must help devise forms of participatory allocation superior to markets and central planning, and forms of council organization and equitable local role definition superior to traditional hierarchy. And it must help conceive strategies capable of empowering workers rather than coordinators.

Where is the Marxism that does these things by virtue of its conceptualizations of society and history? Vulgar Marxism doesn't, to be sure, but then again neither does Fisk's Marxism, or Harrington's Marxism, or Miliband's Marxism, or Ollman's Marxism, or Sweezy's Marxism, or anybody else's, for that matter.

Derivatively, so long as Social Democratic and Leninist strategies offer only markets, central planning, workplace hierarchy, and subservience to coordinator styles, they will be anticapitalist, but procoordinator. In them, workers will be fodder for another class's revolution, however progressive the anti-imperialist forms of that revolution may be.

III. Anti-Marxism or Pro-Liberation

Consider that an economic activist might become a Marxist in hopes of establishing a postcapitalist economy in which (1) coordinators rule, or (2) workers rule.

For the pro-coordinator, a primary attraction of Marxism is precisely its "allegiance inadequacy"--the fact that it omits coordinators from the class equation and yet promotes coordinator goals. It is clear why for procoordinators the "crisis of class allegiance" is no crisis at all.

But, in addition, will a black worker who has identified as a black antiracist proud of his or her culture, or a woman worker who has become a militant feminist proud of her gender's heritage and potential, or a student or rank-and-file soldier who identifies as an antiauthoritarian, likely accept coordinator oversight? To ask the question is to answer it, in the negative.

And so it turns out that for the procoordinator, Marxism's economism also pays dividends. Procoordinator Marxists can't really fear that incorporating priority attention to race, gender, and authority would decrease the likelihood of worker militancy. Such a view is too obviously false. But they might intuitively reason that overthrowing economism may cause economic movements containing multiply-radicalized women, minority, and youth workers to oppose not only capitalism, but also Leninism, Social Democracy, and any other coordinator agenda.

That is, because acute consciousness of dynamics in noneconomic spheres can provide a "coherent framework" conducive to anticoordinator economic consciousness, Marxists seeking coordinator advance will have ample reason to try to peripheralize race, gender, and authority agendas even when such Marxists are themselves personally sincerely antiracist, antisexist, and antiauthoritarian. For procoordinators it turns out that like the "crisis of allegiance," the "crisis of focus" is also no crisis at all, but a boon.

But what about Marxists who truly seek worker rule and full social liberation? These activists accept Marxism on grounds of its revelatory power regarding capitalism and especially imperialism-- not on grounds of its serviceability to coordinators, which they are either unaware of or doubt. But they also know that no matter how liberating anti-imperialist revolutions have been, Marxism has nowhere delivered full economic liberation (much less full liberation in all spheres). Shouldn't these anticapitalists and anti-imperialists then reason that if Marxism is flawed, activists can hope to gain better prospects for future victories by finding and transcending its flaws? For these folks the crises of allegiance and focus should be of paramount importance.

In any event, whatever response our entreaties to transcend Marxism may elicit, it is important to highlight that related arguments are no more "anti-Marxist" than discussions of the advantages of quantum mechanics over classical mechanics are "anti-Newtonian." By rushing to call critics "anti-Marxists," Fisk implicitly portrays Marxism as a kind of untouchable religion, a view Marx himself certainly rejected. At a minimum we ought to be able to get beyond that. At a maximum, if the case outlined here is valid, we are going to have to get beyond Marxism as well. Moreover, doing so under such circumstances will be necessary and hopeful. Surely these matters deserve serious debate in which all sides partake.

1. I write as a coauthor of Liberating Theory along with Leslie Cagan, Noam Chomsky, Robin Hahnel, Mel King, Lydia Sargent, and Holly Sklar (South End Press, 1986). For further elaboration regarding not only economics, as discussed here, but also kinship, culture, and politics, please see that volume.

2. See Liberating Theory, op. cit. or Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel, Marxism and Socialist Theory and Socialism Today and Tomorrow, South End Press, 1981.

3. For comprehensive discussion see Albert and Hahnel, Socialism Today and Tomorrow and Quiet Revolution in Welfare Economics, as well as Albert, Bohmer, and Hahnel, Political Economy of Participatory Economics, both forthcoming from South End Press.
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Author:Albert, Michael
Publication:Monthly Review
Date:Dec 1, 1987
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