“We are now free of this delusion. We see the task more clearly.”
-Gáspár Miklós Tamás, “Telling the Truth about Class”
Angelus Novus, monoprint by Paul Klee, 1920.
Walter Benjamin took this image as indicative of the negative dialectic of history he and Theodor Adorno would inherit from Marx in what has otherwise come to be known as Western Marxism.
What if this delusion were the 20th century? What if the fall of the Soviet Union portended not the end of socialism but its beginning? What would it mean to make all of history, from the good to the ugly, necessary for the emergence of socialism?
Today’s (western?) leftists know that their forebears didn’t succeed. If they had, the former wouldn’t be out here fighting the same fight! And so, today’s leftists dutifully turn to history to sort it all out. They turn to the left’s own history and interrogate it in light of the present. They ask why it wasn’t enough, how the losses could have piled up, whether any of it matters. They come to all sorts of conclusions and add in all manner of new ingredients: this ain’t your grandmother’s socialism, let’s put it that way. And just like Grandma’s old recipes, treasured and hand-written, it may just be that the original instructions faded over the course of time, necessitating some creative improvisation. Or perhaps our tastes have evolved since her time and we find it necessary to add or omit ingredients, techniques, etc., that would have been inconceivable to her.
In short, the left returns to its original impulse and investigates history as the locus of freedom, the sedimented past making the present into the staging ground of the transcendent future.
But if the impulse is correct, the method is certainly lacking. Today’s left encounters not history as Marx understood it but rather histories—or, perhaps more indicatively, herstories. If history used to be the wobbly but progressive journey toward ever-more-perfect human freedom (Hegel), or even the history of class struggle (Marx—a more useful way of saying the same thing in changed conditions), history as such doesn’t exist anymore. The left is indeed scornful of such history—suspicious of ‘meta-narratives,’ as the postmodernists used to say—and is instead fixated on the plural, the diverse, the anti-Western. The left deems history as Marx understood it a violent, colonial, Western invention used to silence the just-as-valid but trampled-upon histories of ‘non-Western’ peoples.
But such a fragmented view of history in turn conditions a fragmented approach to contemporary praxis. If the world isn’t united in one single emancipatory struggle but rather caught in a fragile game of ever-shifting Venn diagrams, then there is no hope for a single emancipatory future. It’s the old metaphysical problem of the many-and-the-one. The many (races, sexes, genders, etc.) cannot become one (the class) or else they lose their many-ness, their diversity. And diversity is all the left has to cling to in an era of the Bonapartist state’s unfettered hostility toward industry, productivity, wages that allow for high consumption, and, yes, laborers themselves. As neoliberal capitalism cannibalized that which gives it life, the left has clung to the pieces falling like the sky itself. History itself has been sacrificed on Hegel’s slaughter bench. And with it has gone proletarian socialism too.
If history used to be problematic in a way that tasked its students with its solution, today its same problematic nature is taken as a harm so insidious that even to name it is tantamount to ‘epistemic violence.’ But what would be a more useful method?
...why not Marxism?
We’ve seen everything else tried already. Utopian socialism, classical liberal internationalism, fascism, the welfare state, decolonization, neoliberalism, so-called state capitalism, Trumpism—all have come and gone, and the problem of the self-contradiction of freedom remains. Why not try Marxism? It’s the only one left standing. It may have grown cold out in the maelstrom of history, but, if anything, it has proved its weather-beaten durability.
But isn’t today’s left already Marxist? What if that were the source of its weakness?
Sure, today’s left is Marxist. We might even say that since the Paris Commune, the entirety of the left has been Marxist by necessity. Even many non-leftists, including not a few anti-leftists, have found it necessary to drape their activities in Marxism. I’ll grant all of this. But it still must be observed that in the course of its young life, Marxism has altered its own self-conception. Marxists have dramatically changed what Marxism means, from Marx’s own “je ne suis pas Marxiste” to Steve Bannon’s infamous “I’m a Leninist.”
The evolution within Marxism of Marxism must be accepted as a fact as irreversible as the simultaneous development of capitalism. What this means is far from clear, but above all it must be approached from beyond good and evil, as Nietzsche would no doubt remind us.
At the very least, today’s left must learn to consciously register each moment along this trajectory. If the left dedicated more of its time to reencountering what Marxism used to mean for each generation of its standard-bearers, from its mainstream to its dissident partisans, it may rediscover the hope it needs to make Marxism its own again. There is hope as long as there is history. This does not mean we return to the past only to neglect everything Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels did not touch or do or write. Far from it. But neither does it mean we accept every queer woman of color as necessarily, in and of herself, to the “left of Karl Marx,” as Carole Boyce Davies’ biography of Claudia Jones is entitled. Rather, this would simply be a call to ask ourselves what it means to learn from history. And I mean really ask ourselves, in thought and in action and in the thousand shades of gray in between.
I myself sought to answer this question by recourse to my favorite means of communication: the essay, that most bourgeois of literary forms. I originally set out to interpret the long 20th century through a kind of reconstructed Old Leftist lens. But two realizations forced me to abandon that project in favor of the present one. The first was that such an endeavor would raise more questions than answers. But the second was the more important: the means chosen would have rendered an answer impossible. Today’s lack of a viable left makes the question itself misplaced. The question can be answered, but not yet. There is work to be done before this necessary question can be revisited. And a dense text that no one reads certainly wouldn’t be a step in the right direction!
And so I’ll ask again: what if the “delusion” we are now freed from were the 20th century itself? What if the baggage that century attached to the word ‘Marxism’ finally had to fall to make Marxism possible again? What if the betrayal and disintegration of the Second International, the disappointment of Stalinism, the realness of Maoism, the shocks of Vietnam, Reagan, and Trump—what if all of it were simply the detritus making the ground fertile for new red shoots to sprout? What kind of contemporary left would it take to make such things true?
Wes Vanderburgh is a member of the Communist Party USA based in Washington, D.C. They strive to create the conditions for the reemergence of the revolutionary left in the United States and beyond.