The Purity Fetish and Middle Class Radicalism: Review and Application of Garrido's The Purity Fetish. By: Paul SoRead Now
Carlos Garrido’s book The Purity Fetish and the Crisis of Western Marxism is undoubtedly an essential reading for any revolutionary American Marxist who is serious about building socialism. It is an open secret, and an embarrassment, among leftists in the west that they are politically impotent. Despite the fact that an increasing number of millennials and generation z’s in the United States have a positive attitude towards socialism and Marxism, Marxists remain relatively impotent. Notwithstanding the rising popularity of Marxism, this popularity has not, as of yet anyway, transitioned into political action with significant impact on the world. Garrido, like any good Marxist, believes that one of the key contributing factors to the impotence of our socialist movement is due to our lack of understanding what Marxism really means.
So, what is Marxism?
Marxism is a worldview that seeks to understand all things in terms of their movement or change. Every movement, and every change, is made up of the ‘struggle’ between interpenetrating forces within a given thing. Capitalism is a historically specific mode of production, but it can’t be understood statically as a stationary object frozen in time. Rather, capitalism must be understood dialectically as a dynamic system in motion which consists of an internal contradiction between labor and capital. More specifically, its movement is accumulation of capital at the expense of labor. It is this very antagonism between capital and labor, in the form of accumulation, that turns into another species of movement: stagnation. But this species of movement creates conditions for a qualitatively new species of movement: revolution.
The above insight is just a summation, a gist if you will, of Marx’s dialectical materialism. Where the Western left seems to get hung up, however, is not in understanding abstract reasoning like this, but in its application to real-world issues. It’s one thing, after all, to grasp dialectical materialism on paper, but it’s quite another to apply dialectics in practice to understand the world that is in constant motion. Garrido argues that Western Marxists refuse to support successful socialist revolutions because of an inability to understand the objective revolutionary motion of socialist projects. Instead of the application of this dialectical materialist worldview, even when knowing the words written about it by Marx and Engels, they arrive at dogmatic conclusions about particular characteristics socialism must have in order to qualify as socialism, a pure socialism that exists only in the abstract realm of thought. And so, even when capitalist and feudal modes of production were qualitatively transformed into socialism against the background of imperialist encirclement, Western Marxists focus on the intrinsic attributes or lack thereof in socialist projects. Instead of looking at the objective motion, driven by both internal and external contradictions, of each successful socialist revolution, they focus on intrinsic “defects” of said revolutions and conclude that they aren’t real socialist revolutions. This is a very obvious failure to apply a materialist dialectic to societal motion, just as Carlos explains in the book. But why do they fail to apply dialectics? Carlos’s answer is the Purity Fetish.
Marxist scholars Domenico Losurdo and Jones Manoel critique Western Marxism in a similar way, explaining this rejection of socialism in the real world as desire for an ideal and pure socialist revolution without any blemish. Lusordo and Manoel contend that this desire for purity is influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition that values purity and innocence. All three thinkers agree that Western Marxism’s refusal to support successful revolutions stems from its fetishization of purity, but Carlos offers an alternative and more compelling explanation for the origin of this purity fetish. In particular, he argues that the purity fetish is ultimately rooted in the Eleatic school of thought.
What is characteristic of the Eleatic School’s outlook is Zeno of Elea’s conclusion that denies the existence of motion based on his affirmation that our entire reality is one homogenous, unchanging, and pure being. Zeno of Elea’s argument for his conclusion goes something like this: suppose an archer shoots an arrow at his target and when one pauses at a specific moment (the beginning) an arrow just barely leaves an archer’s bow. At this specific moment there is a measurable distance between an arrow and its target. Supposedly it takes an arrow a specific duration of time to reach its target. However, there are infinite divisions, and within each division there are infinite subdivisions, in between the beginning point (arrow just leaving an archer’s hand) and the end point (arrow hitting its target) that result in an infinity of infinitesimal intervals. An arrow must traverse each infinitesimal interval between its beginning point and end point, but precisely because there are infinite infinitesimal intervals an arrow can’t traverse all of them to reach its ultimate destination. Zeno concludes from this reasoning that motion is an illusion and what really exists is an infinite series of snapshots of an arrow at rest in different positions for each snapshot.
Zeno denies the existence of motion because it involves a contradiction. What’s the contradiction? It’s that there are infinite infinitesimal intervals between the arrow’s origin and its destination and at the same time the arrow traverses through all of them and reaches its target. Zeno assumes that both facts can’t be true. In the light of this contradiction, Zeno denies that the arrow traverses through all infinite infinitesimal intervals and subsequently concludes that motion is an illusion. In stark contrast to Zeno’s denial of motion, Heraclitus affirms the existence of motion because he understands it as a unity of two contrary forces. Heraclitus sees motion, a unity of contrary forces, as an intrinsic feature, not a bug, of reality. Unlike Zeno, Heraclitus holds that reality is not one homogenous, unchanging, and pure being, but a unified reality consisting of contrary forces pulling and pushing against one another.
Overall, Zeno denies motion precisely because he believes in a pure, unchanging, and homogenous reality that doesn’t contain any impurity, whereas Heraclitus believes in motion because he believes in an impure, changing, and heterogenous reality that consists of contrary forces in constant tension with one another. And so, this character of the Eleatic School does not simply deny motion, but fetishizes purity, as that which breaks purity must only be an illusion for it. This is the complete opposite of Marxism, a worldview which has its Heraclitian heritage, inherited from Hegel’s dialectics, manifested in its systematic analysis of motion as contradictions.
We see here, then, that these Western ‘Marxists’ arrive not from the roots of Marxism at all, but instead, from the Eleatic school of thought, which takes a far different path from Marxism to arrive at modern conclusions. And what conclusions. For example, the refusal to acknowledge China’s project of socialist construction because it does not conform to their ideal and abstract archetype of unadulterated socialism purged of impurities and contradictions. Specifically, according to Western Marxists, since China’s economic system is a market economy where class exploitation, private property, and mass commodity production exist, how can China legitimately claim to be a socialist country? It is not the idea of socialism held in their heads, after all. In contrast to Western Marxists, Carlos cites Chinese Marxists who argue that socialism is not an abstract universal without any impurities and contradictions, but rather it is a contradictory process of construction where the market functions like a scaffolder, arriving from the Marxist school to give us all a breath of fresh air and dialectics.
Chinese Marxists argue that Marx observed in Capital that markets exist in pre-capitalist modes of production such as ancient slave societies and feudal societies. Nobody concludes from such observation that such societies are capitalist. While markets are essential to capitalism, capitalism isn’t simply a market economy. A market in an ancient slave society exists as a groundwork for the commodification of human beings as slaves for exchange. A market in a feudal society exists for guilds and peasants to produce and sell their surplus of goods. Overall, a market plays a different function under different modes of production. Like anything else, a market can’t be analyzed in isolation, but rather it must be analyzed in relation to a mode of production that encompasses it.
A socialist market doesn’t exist ultimately for the accumulation of capital. Rather, the accumulation of capital is an extension of developing productive forces. Specifically, in the context of China, accumulation of capital translates into an accumulation of productive forces; this is the primary purpose of accumulation of capital for the Communist Party of China. Any surplus of wealth that is accumulated is invested into developing infrastructure, factories, machineries, and other forms of technology essential to developing China’s economy. Furthermore, the surplus of wealth is also invested back into its country to eliminate extreme poverty. Overall, while the accumulation of capital controlled by the dictatorship of the proletariat creates wealth inequality, it also develops the productive forces and eliminates extreme poverty because the worker state is able to control how the generated wealth is invested as part of its overall central plan for the economy. While “capitalists” exist, they are subordinated to the state that represents the interest of the working class.
If socialism is understood in the abstract as simply workers controlling the means of production, one might find the above account of China’s socialist market economy to be a mere rationalization. Afterall, China has capitalists. How can a socialist country have billionaires? However, one must keep in mind that Marx understood socialism as a process or movement towards a new form of society. In the case of China, it was Mao who pointed out that during this process there still exist classes, and therefore some level of exploitation. While the bourgeoisie went through a complete expropriation of political power, they haven’t yet experienced full economic expropriation. In other words, the bourgeoisie experiences political expropriation insofar as it no longer has significant control over the state apparatus to enforce and protect their collective class interest, but economic expropriation of their means of production is not yet fully completed. Marx suggests this when he wrote in the Communist Manifesto (Chapter 2):
“The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organized as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.” (My emphases)
In the above passage, when Marx speaks of the proletariat using its political supremacy, he’s assuming a scenario where the proletariat has already politically expropriated the bourgeoisie and thereby established its political supremacy by creating a new state apparatus for the working masses. However, Marx also adds that when the proletariat uses its political supremacy to expropriate capital from the bourgeoisie, it will have to do so by degree rather than all at once (and history has played out precisely in this manner - there has never been a revolution that simply eliminated all bourgeois right, all capital from their class, etc., at once - always, it has been by varying degrees based on the conditions prevailing within a given revolution and what challenges it faced). This implies that economic expropriation is not yet complete while political expropriation is already complete. In effect, classes, and therefore exploitation and private property, can and to some degree must exist during the process of socialist construction. Economic expropriation, then, is an ongoing process during the process of socialist construction, but it isn’t necessarily prioritized in the case of China because the development of productive forces takes primacy.
China’s case, with the knowledge of Marx’s theory, illustrates that how socialism is constructed in China will take on a particular form that is unique to China’s condition. In the Soviet Union economic expropriation took place rapidly after the Soviet Union’s NEP period, but China’s economic expropriation is an ongoing and unfinished process because it takes priority in developing its productive forces through its market. Why is this the case? Chinese Marxists since Mao theorized that China is in the preliminary stage of socialism (also known as the primary stage of socialism) where socialism is particularly underdeveloped because it inherited underdeveloped productive forces from China’s feudal agrarian and semi-colonial past. Even after a series of five year plans under Mao when China enjoyed substantial development, China was still far behind western capitalist countries whose productive forces were highly developed, due in large part to their four centuries of plunder, enslavement, colonization, and expropriation. How can China construct a highly developed and modern socialist economy given its relatively unique history of underdevelopment? It’s important to step back for a moment and recall one very important aspect of dialectics: the dialectical interpenetration between the universal and the particular.
For the Marxist worldview, Socialism is conceived as an abstract category or a universal. However, like all universals, socialism only becomes realized through its concretization in a particular form. A universal that remains detached from reality is merely something that happens in the realm of thought. When a universal takes on a particular form through historical development driven by contradictions, contrary forces, and based on its conditions, it exists in material reality because it exists through a particular. Just as there is no such thing as a pure and fixed universal “dog” without any diversity and particularity of dogs conditioned by the history of breeding and evolution, there is no such thing as a pure and fixed universal “socialism” without a variety of historically conditioned particulars of socialism.
The dialectical relationship between universal and particulars is key to understanding not only dialectical materialism, but also the Purity Fetish. Essential to the theory is the complete alienation of the universal from the particulars. The result of this alienation of a universal from particulars is a pure, abstract, and fixed universal, which means it is also a completely dead, hollow, and destitute universal - as opposed to an organic, rich, rooted, concretized or particularized universal embodied in a material world as an embodied particular in motion. A universal embodies a particular form with its own internal contradiction propelling it to develop and unfold itself in a complex and hostile material world. In other words, there is no such thing as a pure and ideal oak tree without an acorn. An oak tree must take on a particular form, but this form has its own particular ‘moments’ necessary for the development of the oak tree. The oak tree begins by taking the embryonic particular form of an acorn, so that the particular acorn can fully develop to realize its potential to become an oak tree. In this context, there is an interpenetration of opposites between a particular embryonic form (acorn) and a universal that constitutes its real content (oak tree).
A particular embryonic form is unintelligible without a universal in the same way one can’t understand an acorn without understanding its real content, an oak tree, ready to unfold in motion. In effect, both the universal and its embryonic particular belong to one another as one organic whole consisting of a unity of opposites. Thus, if an oak tree as a universal is alienated from its particular, the acorn, we simply have a dead and impoverished universal that merely exists as an abstract thought, the particular is nothing more than an empty carrier. It is this estrangement between a universal and a particular, a fissure that breaks apart an organic whole into two artificially separate things, that results in a dismembered corpse. What is a dismembered corpse to a dialectician is preserved perfection to a purity fetishist.
In essence, the Purity Fetish is an alienation of the universal from its particulars by reifying the universal as more real and perfect than particulars. To reify is to not only abstract the universal from its particulars like one would abstract the universal “dog” from a tapestry of particular or individual dogs (e.g., from a German Sheppard to a poodle), but also treating an abstraction or universal as independent from its concrete particulars and more real than its particulars. This is an error because the universal can’t exist without its particulars. Thus, purity fetishists commit this error of reifying universals by treating the universal as more real than its particulars.
So much more real, in fact, that the actually existing and therefore particular version of a universal couldn’t possibly embody it. The universal is treated as a transhistorical archetype that transcends the particulars as opposed to being embodied in them. Because the universal is treated as not only alien to the particulars, but also more dominant over them due to its alleged perfection, it is also fetishized as having independent authority or power over the particulars; the particulars must conform to the universal’s dictum rather than the universal adapting and living through the particulars. To fetishize something isn’t necessarily to sexualize it, but to treat it as possessing a supernatural or sacred quality, power, or authority when in fact it doesn’t really possess such features. Universals are fetishized by purity fetishists because they are treated as having a supernatural or sacred quality, power, or authority of commanding particulars to imitate them, but in reality they lack such features because they can only exist through a particular.
Socialism is reified and fetishized by Western Marxists as an independent and abstract universal possessing an innate authority over how particular socialist revolutions are supposed to proceed. They believe that particular socialist projects are supposed to imitate this pure and abstract universal which they call “socialism.” In this sense, the Western “Marxists” (Scare quotes necessary) resemble Platonists who believe the realm of particulars are supposed to imitate the realm of universals because of the latter’s perfection. It is Plato who believes in the fundamental divide between the universal and particulars; the universals were more real, perfect, and eternal than the particulars - and conversely, the particulars were imperfect and distorted imitations of the universals. The universals live in the celestial, transcendent, and incorruptible realm of ideas while the particulars dwell in the terrestrial, material, and corruptible realm where all things are fleeting. Western Marxists treat socialism in this way, as a perfect archetype that exists in the realm of ideas but hasn’t materialized in the realm of particulars. In reality, socialism is an organic and concrete whole, a unity of opposites between the universal and its particular socialist project. Treating socialism as only identical to the universal is to alienate the universal from its particular.
Overall, the Purity Fetish denies the objective motion of society – revolution – because it is made impure in its concretization, in the real world, which is necessarily impure and contradictory. Underneath this denial of motion is the unconscious attempt to alienate universals from particulars by reifying universals as more real and perfect than particulars and fetishizing universals as possessing an innate authority over particulars. Socialism as a universal is reified by Western Marxists as more real than particular socialist projects, holding it above reality, fetishizing it. The purity fetish of Western Marxists is essentially platonic because it segregates the universals and particulars into artificially separate realms: the perfect realm of suprasensible ideas and the imperfect realm of particulars - the only difference is that the Western Marxists do this on an ideological level, whereas Plato was quite conscious of his thought and reasoning. For the Western “left”, socialism only exists in the realm of ideas, only to be imitated by socialist projects. In effect, socialism as an alienated and estranged universal is therefore deprived and hollowed out of all its real content, as opposed to a universal that embodies a particular form in motion. Marxism is then turned from a worldview which strives to change the world to a platonic and idealist worldview that interprets what socialism is supposed to mean in the realm of ideas where no motion is taking place at all. This, in effect, is the absolute poverty of particulars - and the very essence of dogmatism.
On Middle Class Radicalism:
Gus Hall wrote a paper in 1970 developing an addition to Marxism Leninism for the American context - the theory of petty bourgeois radicalism, or what I call middle class radicalism. The middle class radicals, as I understand it, are essentially the same as Gus Hall’s petty bourgeois radicals in meaning, but I use the term “middle class radicals” to denote a stratum of the middle class, a class which developed during the Cold War Era in affluent capitalist countries such as the United States. Like the proletariat, the middle class consists of workers who don’t own the means of production and live on the sale of their labor power, but unlike the proletariat the middle class workers don’t have the same relationship to the reserve army of labor. The proletariat can only exchange his labor power for a wage that is equivalent to its means of subsistence and therefore it is incapable of accumulating above its means of subsistence. It is precisely because the proletariat can’t accumulate above his means of subsistence through the sale of his labor power that he lives in constant precarity and is at the razor thin edge of joining the reserve army of labor.
However, the middle class worker can exchange his labor power for a highly secure and well paid job from which he receives an income that is above his means of subsistence because his income affords him means of stability. A middle class worker’s means of stability is his house, car, retirement pension, and possibly a small amount of capital in the form of stocks or shares. It is the middle class’s accumulation of means of stability through the sale of their labor power among other things that protects them from the risk of joining the reserve army of labor. The accumulated means of stability creates and reproduces conditions that not only determine middle class social consciousness, but differentiates it from that of the proletariat whose precarious condition is living on means of subsistence acquired through wage labor. When this material basis for the middle class is under threat by crises of capitalism, the middle class is losing its means of stability and enters into the condition of precarity, giving rise to middle class radicalism.
In his Crisis of Petty Bourgeois Radicalism, Hall identifies two major characteristics, both of which, according to my analysis above, could be updated to include analysis of the purity fetish. First, middle class radicals develop concepts they take to be revolutionary, but in practice those concepts bounce off from reality because such concepts are based on unreal abstractions. Second, middle class radicals reject class struggle, including the proletariat, as the vehicle for revolution. The first characteristic is explained by the second – because middle class radicals reject class struggle as the vehicle for revolutionary change, their concepts are divorced from reality. What drives their rejection of the proletariat? The worldview of the purity fetish.
The proletariat in the United States was created by a historical process of contradictory forces that were behind the development of capitalism. Slavery, colonization, genocidal expropriation (settler-colonialism), conquest, exploitation of immigration, and so on created the foundations for the expansion of American capital. Such conditions created a variety of dispossessed peoples whose labor was ripe for exploitation by capital. Without these contradictory processes, the American working class wouldn't have existed today. The working class as a universal embodies an embryonic particular form of an American working class and develops through these contradictory processes of the so-called primitive accumulation of capital. At the same time, it must not be forgotten that the American Civil War, Reconstruction, the civil rights political revolution (often wrongly reduced to a movement), and so on also contributed to the development of the working class. This contradictory motion, constituted by progressive push and reactionary pull, has created and developed the working class of today.
Middle class radicals reject that the working class in America is a revolutionary agent because of those impure and contradictory processes that created conditions for its production and reproduction. Without slavery, settler-colonialism, expansionism, and so on, the working class wouldn’t have existed today. So Middle class radicals reason that the working class benefited from the past that created their condition for reproduction as a class. After all, capitalism in the U.S. is built on stolen land and resources.
But capitalism can only exist when land and resources are transformed into constant capital owned by capitalists, and it is this very same transformation that constitutes dispossession and expropriation for the masses and their descendants. Capitalism takes on a particular form in the United States; it takes on an embryonic form of settler-colonialism which begins as genocidal expropriation of indigenous peoples, enslavement of Africans, and indentured servitude of poor Europeans in order to transform all land and resources into embryonic capital. Once settler-colonialism has created conditions hospitable for capitalism, it begins hatching its particular shell to emerge as industrial capitalism, feeding the textile mills of the British Empire with slave labor cotton. In this sense, in the context of America’s history of class struggle, settler-colonialism is embryonic capitalism. Settler-colonialism’s transformation into mature capitalism has created the proletariat much in the similar way that expropriation of the commons, which transformed them into capital, transformed peasants into proletarians. It is the inhumane and heterogeneous process of settler-colonialism with its slavery and genocidal expropriation that has created the proletariat of America. Once the proletariat was created it was never docile and servile, but rebellious from the beginning (and even beforehand, if we want to go back to the original abolition movements).
The Civil War (including the general strike of enslaved proletarians), Reconstruction (including the dictatorship of the proletariat that took place), Pullman strike, Haymarket affairs, the battle of Blair Mountain, and so on are all testament to the proletariat’s tendency to rebel. The transformation of settler-colonialism (embryonic capitalism) into capitalism in the US has created the proletariat, but just like all other forms this universal of ‘proletariat’ has taken on in other times and places, the US proletariat has had advanced sections that represent the future of the class, and those advanced sections led the charge in the contradiction between the proletariat and bourgeoisie in the American context, the same as other forms have in other contexts.
Despite this nuanced and contradictory history of American class struggle, middle class radicals of the US reject their proletariat. They point out the mass lynchings of the white proletariat against their black counterparts, but fail to recognize these black counter-parts as part of the same class, and at our most revolutionary moments, representing the vanguard of the entire class. They ignore that the American proletariat as a whole, like all things, has its own internal contradiction between various peoples of all colors. Nothing exists without any internal contradiction. This doesn’t excuse mass lynchings at all. The proletariat of now, which is far more advanced than it was a century ago, wouldn't have been the same without Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Revolution that created conditions for the proletariat’s further advancement. Instead of studying the American proletariat in motion, driven by its own internal contradiction between various proletarian peoples and the struggle against their exploiters, middle class radicals subconsciously imagine an alienated yet perfect archetype of the proletariat, the revolutionary agent, absent of any internal contradiction and thereby incapable of embodying an imperfect particular form.
Middle class radicals treat the revolutionary agent as a pure and abstract universal whose origin can’t contain a single pollutant. Perfection must come from perfection. But you can’t separate a thing produced by its condition from the condition that produced it. Detaching the proletariat from its impure condition to preserve its pure essence is to destroy it. The “proletariat-ness” of the American proletariat can’t be alienated from the historical process and conditions that created it. Settler-colonialism in America as embryonic capitalism, developing into a mature capitalism, has created the American proletariat, but one can’t claim that this proletariat can’t be the real proletariat just by extracting their class character and history away from them and treating this abstract class character as too pure for them to claim. Class character will always take on a historically particular form of real and concrete people embedded in and created by their material conditions.
In essence, middle class radicals alienate the universal revolutionary agent from its particular American form by reifying it as more perfect and real than the particular and concrete working class of America. Middle class radicals fetishize the universal revolutionary agent as having independent power and authority over the particular working class in America to imitate it. Since the particular working class of America fails to imitate this dead and impoverished universal that middle class radicals take to be more perfect and real, the real, living, and concrete working class is rejected, dismissed in a hundred different ways, according to whatever subject may give rise to the dismissal in a given form.
Middle class radicals develop concepts divorced from reality: they predicate their understanding on a view of the ideal and perfect revolutionary agent that doesn’t exist in reality, and precisely because their particular working class fails to imitate this dead universal, they reject their working class for the pure ideal. This is the form in which middle class radicals, governed by the purity fetish worldview, reject class struggle as a whole. Until we are able to address and overcome the purity fetish, this middle class radical section of society will continue to be a thorn in the side of revolutionary organization - a thorn we can scarcely afford in the current era. While this doesn't mean that the remnants of the middle classes can't be organized in revolutionary organs of worker power, it does mean that their middle class instinct and purity fetish consciousness must be abandoned for the dialectical materialist worldview - the historical outlook of the most advanced sections of the workers and communist movement.
 This analysis is inspired by Noah Khrachvik’s theoretical contribution in his work about re-proletarianization, which will be featured in his upcoming text, Re-proletarianization: The Life and Death of the American Middle Classes (Forthcoming 2023).
Paul So is a PhD student in philosophy at University of California Santa Barbara. He received his MA in Philosophy from Texas Tech University (2017) and later received his MA in Bioethics from New York University (2019). While his original research interest was on Philosophy of Mind, he developed his newfound passion in Marxism not only as his research interest, but also as his world outlook. His current research for his dissertation focuses on Karl Marx’s account of alienated labor, Labor Republicanism, and Structural Domination. Paul enjoys taking a long walk, lifting weights in the gym, and visiting art galleries and museums.