Filling the gaps

Rex Dunn continues his exploration of Karl Marx’s concept of the human

In the first article in this series, I described Marx’s essentialism in relation to his concept of the human, and considered its scope and application.1 In the light of that, I think that there are six problems which Marxists need to address and in this article I will deal with three of them.

1. History is a process, barring accidents

The October revolution of 1917 was a subjective necessity to kick-start the process of transition from capitalism to socialism. It occurred at the right time (in the midst of the first imperialist world war, whereby millions of workers were slaughtering each other on the battlefields of Europe), but in the wrong place - backward Russia, instead of an advanced, industrialised country (eg, Germany).

First came the counterrevolution from without - ie, imperialist intervention - which led to the isolation of the revolution from the world working class. In order to defend the first revolution in history which had actually overthrown capitalism, despite the cultural backwardness of the country, the Bolsheviks were forced to resort to an ‘iron dictatorship’.

This set up a negative dialectic. In Germany, the social democrats were able to contain the masses within a reformist framework. This in turn forced the infant German Communist Party to resort to acts of voluntarism: ie, it relied on a violent, putschist strategy, in the hopes that this would spark the German revolution. Instead, it had the opposite effect: it led to the final defeat of the revolution in 1923.

As for the situation in Soviet Russia, the events in Germany led to the defeat of Trotsky and the Left Opposition by the Stalin faction: ie, the counterrevolution from within. It laid the basis for the strategy of ‘socialism in one country’, the antithesis of world revolution. But after 60 years or so of slave labour, forced collectivisation, man-made famine, show trials, mass executions, etc, the working class everywhere has still to recover from its poisonous legacy.2

2. Instrumentalism: means-end necessity

Humanity needs to develop the forces and relations of production, while taking into account the needs of the rest of nature.

Here we must be prepared to consider the philosophical arguments of that arch-enemy of orthodox Marxism, Theodor Adorno, co-leader of the post-war Frankfurt school. Rather than criticise his rational pessimism and one-sided preoccupation with the superstructure, let us pause to consider Adorno’s concerns about the intelligentsia’s ambivalent relationship with the enlightenment tradition: eg, the bourgeois positivist’s idea that man has the right to subordinate and exploit his fellow humans, for the sake of increasing production, as well as dominating nature: viz, instrumentalism.

Contrast this to Marx, who points out that wage-slavery is the basis for the alienation of the worker - an alienation “born of that very domination”. In the absence of a countervailing force, this then becomes the basis of self-alienation (false consciousness) throughout society. Adorno was right to dismiss the Stalinist bureaucracy, precisely because it relied on an instrumentalist mentality, exemplified in the superexploitation of the workers, as well as the domination of nature - albeit in the name of ‘socialist construction’, regardless of the human and environmental cost. It was no different from capitalism. Therefore he was right to argue that the problem of instrumentalism has not gone away.

On the other hand, his rational pessimism would lead to an idealist separation of base and superstructure, which becomes increasingly characterised by sweeping generalisations. In Negative dialectics, for example, he says that Marx’s invitation to “change the world” in his Theses on Feuerbach has “miscarried”. There is “no universal history that leads from savagery to humanitarianism”; only “one which leads from the slingshot to the megaton bomb ... Freedom can be defined only in negative terms, as it always corresponds to specific forms of unfreedom.”3

But what if the revolution had occurred in a developed country, where the workers constituted the majority of society and where the possibility existed to use existing technology at the service of humanity - not a backward country, where a bureaucracy, on the basis of the socialised property relations, was able to assert its authority (by means of the gulag and the firing squad) and where it creamed off the surplus for itself and the state apparatus? In other words, the self-serving Stalinist bureaucracy, which had regressed back to a nationalist ideology (autarky, as in the five-year plans), had no intention of dismantling the existing division of labour, because it provided the most efficient basis for primitive accumulation. Such an instrumentalist approach to developing the productive forces was, of course, inimical to both the workers and the environment (as with capitalism in the 19th century or China today).

Adorno would go on to abandon dialectical and historical materialism - ie, the dialectic of base/superstructure - because, as an aesthetician, he became increasingly concerned with events in the cultural realm (namely, a culture industry which threatened to swamp authentic art, etc). Therefore he failed to appreciate the fact that Stalinism not only betrayed the revolution: it also let capitalism regain its world hegemony. This ensured that, post-1945, the door was now opened even wider for the rise of the société de consummation and the culture industry.

Be that as it may, he is right to argue that, as things stand, instrumentalism is deeply ingrained in the human psyche. However, “it does not offer a blueprint for the future”, but responds to “the darkening of the world” brought about by fascism, Stalinism and the growth of the “administered society”, in which “false needs are met, not real ones” - via advertising, the culture industry, etc.4

3. The gaps in Marx

The gaps in Marx do not help. As I stated in the first article, of Marx’s four impediments to consciousness - private property, alienated labour, commodity fetishism and the hierarchic division of labour - the last of these is crucial to overcoming the other three, given its mind-crippling effects for the worker (both yesterday and today). This explains why the masses are unable to develop communist mass consciousness spontaneously.

István Mészáros is one of a handful of Marxists who is willing to address this problem - not just historically, but also concretely. In Thepower of ideology (1989), he explains that the characteristic feature of the ruling ideology which prevails during the declining phase of a mode of production is that there is “no alternative”, despite the growing crisis of the system. Although Marxism argues the opposite, it will not succeed unless its “socialist project strives for a ‘positive social revolution’, in the course of which the associated individuals can ‘change from top to bottom the conditions of their industrial and political existence, and consequently their whole manner of being’ (Marx)”:5

For Marx, capitalism was private-property capitalism and, where it seems to lose its strictly private-enterprise nature, as in state industries and even joint-stock companies, he saw it as a partial abolition of the capitalist mode of production within that mode of production: a sign of the decay of the capitalist system.6

But “in the face of the massive power of capital’s increasing concentration and centralisation, the countervailing political force of labour must be on an equally large scale, if it is to have any chance of success against its adversary”.7

History shows us that the creation of a “countervailing political force of labour on an equally large scale” poses a huge problem for Marxists, since this cannot be imposed from above. It is integrally related to another equally important question: viz, the need to work out a strategy to overcome the existing division of labour, so as to ensure that the masses develop the required communist consciousness - not just for the revolutionary moment, but in a form which can be sustained for more than one generation; otherwise the social revolution will fail. But, given the fact that Marx does not provide such a strategy, finding an adequate material mediation has dogged revolutionary Marxists ever since.

Mészáros illuminates the problem of the gaps in Marx by looking at his account of The civil war in France (1871). Written from London in considerable ignorance of what was really happening in Paris, this amounts to an optimistic evaluation of the commune as a “revolution against the bourgeois state”.

Of course, we have the luxury of hindsight - unlike Marx himself when he wrote his famous address. Nevertheless, it is essential that we compare the dream with reality. On the one hand, the communards demonstrated that, in order to succeed in the first instance, the proletarian revolution must overthrow the centralised state power, including its apparatus of a standing army, police, bureaucracy, clergy and judiciary, because these are based on the “hierarchic division of labour”. On the other hand, in reality, the associated individuals did not possess the consciousness of the need to “change from top to bottom the conditions of their industrial and political existence, and consequently their whole manner of being”. They did not understand the historical import of their own achievements.

Therefore, firstly, they allowed the standing army to retreat to Versailles. Secondly, they failed to confiscate the “great financial companies and contractors of Paris”, who were guilty of “colossal robberies against its citizens”. Thirdly, they were unable to win over the rest of France to their cause; including the other great cities, such as Lyons and Marseilles, and especially the peasantry, who had to bear the brunt of the Prussian indemnity.8

One reason for this was the fact that the leadership of the commune was divided between supporters of the International Working Men’s Association, anarchists and radicals. Moreover, the working class in the other cities of France were not at the same level of consciousness as the communards.

Yet in the first draft of The civil war in France, in ‘The character of the commune’,Marx ascribes to the working class “the full consciousness of their historic mission”: The working class “knows it has to pass through different phases of the class struggle” and must “replace the economic conditions of class labour by conditions of free and cooperative labour”, etc.9

Nevertheless, Marx was right to praise the commune’s actual achievement - however heroic, albeit limited and short-lived - as the prototype for a revolutionary government of the future; as “the form at last discovered” for the emancipation of the proletariat. Thus he concludes his address with these resounding words:

Working men’s Paris, with its commune, will be forever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society. Its martyrs are enshrined in the great heart of the working class. Its exterminators’ history has already nailed to that eternal pillory from which all the prayers of their priests will not avail to redeem them.10

Later in What is to be done? (1903), and other works, Lenin tries to fill the gaps in Marx with his theory of the vanguard party. But, as we have seen, backward Russia was isolated from the workers in the advanced capitalist countries. The longer this situation continued, the counterrevolution was bound to triumph, because the iron dictatorship that was necessary to defend the revolution also laid the material foundation for the victory of the Stalinist bureaucracy. Arguably it would become the most monstrous regime in history. As a result, it has left a poisonous legacy, both for the left and the masses. Therefore today Marxism struggles to survive, in both theory and practice.

The failure of the social revolution in the 20th century unleashed the forces of global capitalism on a far greater scale than that envisaged by Marx. He had already “put the question of the transition to socialism on the historical agenda in a hostile global context”. Therefore the “tentative first steps in the direction … of the state’s withering away could not be seriously contemplated for a moment, in view of the prevailing relation of forces heavily dominated by the capitalist ‘dominant peoples’”.11 Certainly this restricts the opportunities for a successful revolution engineered by a single country, as the defeat of the Chilean revolution in the 1973 shows; also the degeneration of the Cuban revolution (one hesitates to mention the tragedy of the Vietnamese revolution: two million people died - but not for socialism!).

The experience of the post-war ‘mixed economy’, based on the nationalisation of ailing industries, albeit under the control of the state, produced the same forms of hierarchical management as in the private sector, which was in the process of “transnational integration”, which does not make the producers any more “associated producer” than they were before. Finally, “in the face of the massive power of capital’s increasing concentration and centralisation”, a “countervailing political force of labour … on an equally large scale if it is to have any chance of success” has not materialised.12

The Lukácsian dilemma

The gaps in Marx also lead us into the dilemma which Lukács found himself in, as a result of his own experience as a revolutionary Marxist in the period of downturn for the world revolution (1919-21). In 1919 he supported a voluntarist strategy, based on the assumption of “imputed class-consciousness”, whereby the workers were expected to move directly from “unmediated consciousness of the commodity” to the “(mediated) interests of the class that have been arrived at through experience and theoretical knowledge13 (which relates, in turn, to the problem of the division of labour, as outlined earlier). Thus the Hungarian workers’ state was short-lived, ending in bloody defeat.

Forty-odd years later, in his preface to the 1967 edition of History and class-consciousness, Lukács admits that, in 1919

I was unable … to progress beyond the notion of ‘imputed’ class-consciousness. By this I meant the same thing as Lenin in What is to be done?, when he maintained that socialist class-consciousness would differ from the spontaneously emerging trade union consciousness, in that it would be implanted in the workers “from outside”: ie, “from outside the economic struggle and the sphere of the relations between workers and employers”.14

But, less than five years later, in 1923, he does a volte face and writes History and class-consciousness: ie, he rejects the strategy of the vanguard party, because it leads to voluntaristic actions on behalf of the class, which are counterproductive. He now turns to Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism, as outlined in Capital volume 1, albeit under capitalism in its mature form (but on the cusp of decline): viz, a society in which the commodity form is “dominant, permeating every expression of life”, compared to capitalism in its immature form, wherein the commodity “only makes an episodic appearance”, which is essentially one of quality.15

By 1925, contra to “vulgar materialist communists” and the “bourgeois positivists”, he felt the need to reject the idea that “technology was the principle that objectively governed progress in the development of the forces of production”, because, on the basis of first-hand experience, this can also lead to “historical fatalism, to the elimination of man and of social activity”, as expressed in History and class-consciousness.16 In other words, for the time being, Lukács anticipates Adorno’s idea of the inherent danger of instrumentalism in Dialectic of enlightenment (1947), wherein “universal savagery does not lead to humanitarianism” via technology, etc.

The problem for Lukács is that, firstly, he misunderstands what Lenin (quoted above) means. Lenin does not put forward a notion of “imputed” class-consciousness in What is to be done? Rather he puts forward the idea that there is no such thing and so, in the first instance, socialist consciousness has to be introduced from “outside” the economic struggle. Given the existing division of labour, communist consciousness can only be attained by the intelligentsia, who are able to develop a theoretical understanding of reality, which must go beyond outward appearances, as well as having a world view. Only in this sense does communist consciousness come from the “outside”. But then it has to be introduced to workers from inside the economic struggle itself, albeit in the form of a democratic organisation, which sets out both to supersede the “immediate interests of the individual” with “the mediated interests of the class that has been arrived at through experience and knowledge”, and to dismantle the existing division of labour: ie, by a vanguard, comprising advanced workers and intellectuals, both in theory and practice.

Secondly, Lukács would later go on to reconcile himself with the Stalinist bureaucracy, which perpetuated the undemocratic nature of the party, along with the existing division of labour. The left has been bedevilled by this ever since, which today becomes even more problematical, given its isolation and reduction to a few small, squabbling groups, which are unable to overcome their sectarian differences and so unite their meagre forces into something more substantial.

Lukács chose to shelter under a boulder, which, as he soon realised, could suddenly move and crush all those who crouch there - unless, lizard-like, you are able to escape in the nick of time and live to fight another day. To his credit, in the 1950s, the lizard did criticise the boulder, when it moved against his native Hungary:

When the Hungarian revolt erupted in 1956, Lukács, [whilst being brutally objective about] the chances of success of an essentially spontaneous uprising, did not hesitate to cast his lot with the cause of the insurgent workers and students. Participating in the Nagy government, in which he presciently warned against withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact, he was seized by Russian troops …17

Somehow the lizard escaped! But the man who hated modernism also attacked Adorno and his friends in the Frankfurt school, who had “taken up residence in the Grand Hotel Abyss ... a beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort”, including second Viennese school entertainments designed to “heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered”.18 Thus the tragedy of the 20th century ground on.

With the benefit of historical hindsight, which neither Lukács or Adorno possessed (then or later), once again, the real tragedy was the accident of the revolution itself: ie, it should have happened in Germany or Britain, which had the right conditions to take it forward.

Here I need to develop an earlier point concerning the failure of the social revolution: the betrayals of Stalinism. ‘Socialism in one country’ meant revolutions must go to the wall in the name of ‘peaceful coexistence’ with imperialism. Therefore, in the post-war world, the door was pushed wide open for the rise of the société de consummation, including new forms of mass entertainment or the “culture industry” (as Adorno describes it). Its foundations had been already been laid in pre-war America. But the process was now given an enormous boost by the emergence of large private corporations, able to make use of new technologies to develop and market ever more sophisticated - albeit standardised - forms of mass entertainment as a means to manufacture false needs. On the one hand, the culture industry is the beneficiary of Marx’s fourth impediment (which is key): the fact that the masses already suffer from the bourgeois division of labour, which is “mind-crippling”, combined with the fact that they are so tired and stultified by the system - hence their insatiable need for distraction. A marked contrast to communist society. On the other hand, at the same time, the culture industry reinforces this division. Thus we now have a fifth impediment to communist consciousness.

Building on Lukács’s theory of reification and Adorno’s theory of the culture industry, Debord introduces his theory of the “society of the spectacle”: “The spectacle ... is the very heart of society’s real unreality”: concretely “news or propaganda, advertising or the actual consumption of entertainment”, which serves as total justification for the “conditions and aims of the system”, 24/7.19 But in the midst of all this there was May 1968.

May 1968 turning point?

The événements were an example of “positive dialectics”, yet Adorno never saw it coming! The post-war boom had created full employment, wage rises (snapping at the heels of rising prices) and expanded higher education, along with the ‘culture industry’, etc. Yet it was the ‘children of Marx and Coca-Cola’ who started it all.

The students began with a demand for education reforms, but ended up imagining what freedom might be like in a different kind of society; they fought the riot police in the streets. Then millions of workers started the biggest general strike in history, and not just over wages: thousands of them also occupied their factories and raised political demands as well. Together workers and students began to discuss what kind of future they wanted. But within weeks the revolt ended almost as quickly as it had begun.

But surely thisexplodes my main argument concerning Marx’s four impediments, as outlined in the Economic and philosophic manuscripts (commodity fetishism and division of labour), along with a ‘fifth’ impediment: ie, reification reinforced by the mass media/entertainment industry? Not so. The latter did play a role in 1968, albeit in conjunction with the counterrevolutionary role of Stalinism: ie, the Parti Communiste Français. Faced with an incipient revolution, it decided that ‘now was not the time’. Therefore it entered into a counterrevolutionary pact with the French state: in return for the promise of immediate improvements in wages for the workers, the party used its influence in the trade unions to call off the general strike, as well as end the factory occupations. At the same time, it denounced the revolutionary students as ‘anarchists’.

This strategy had the desired effect: ie, the PCF was able to split the rank and file away from the vanguard workers and stop the tiny revolutionary left from gaining further influence. Once the workers agreed to return to work, the students had no option but to end their revolt. Thus the “society of the spectacle” was able resume its work: to epitomise “the prevailing mode of social life”.20

Later this historic defeat was rationalised by Louis Althusser, erstwhile Marxist philosopher and supporter of the PCF. According to his structuralist (undialectical) theory of ideology, men do not make their own history; rather they are constructed by ideology: “Both the ideological and the theoretical are redefined as practices which produce particular products” and so they are “as much material forces as are the economic or political practices”.21 Therefore Althusser overturns Marx’s base/superstructure model.

At the same time, this disconnect between Althusser’s theoretical imperatives (the ‘enlightened Marxist theoretician’, on the one hand, and the ‘ensnared proletariat’, on the other) and “lived experience” produced a “critical reversal”, or the rise of post-structuralism. In philosophical terms, the latter may be characterised as a Nietzschean rejection of the enlightenment and “repressive reason”, in favour of the “the logics of disintegration”. Therefore, Jacques Derrida argues that “stable conceptions of meaning, subjectivity and identity” have to be dismantled, whereas the ex-Trotskyite, Jean-François Lyotard, introduces the “politics of desire”, wherein he toys with the idea of the “libidinal economy” (for whom?)22

Post-structuralism also encouraged the rise of postmodernism - or the idea that the new mass media has opened up a new epoch for art, albeit one which privileges conception over aesthetic labour at the expense of form. Thus, by means of false consciousness, backed up by the art institution and the market, art ceases to be art: ie, the free play of man’s physical and mental faculties, whose driving force is the human desire for freedom and fulfilment.23

In the final article in this series, I will discuss the remaining three problems that I believe Marxists need to address in relation to Marx’s essentialism and his concept of the human.



1. ‘Marx’s concept of the human’ Weekly Worker January 26.

2. See the introduction to the essay section on my website, which provides a more expanded and nuanced account: rex.dunn@rexgdunn.co.uk.

3. T Adorno Dictionary of critical theory London 2001.

4. Ibid.

5. I Mészáros The power of ideology London 1989, p259.

6. Ibid p271.

7. Ibid p272.

8. K Marx The civil war in France Cambridge 1996, pp163-207.

9. Ibid London 1996, p532.

10. K Marx The civil war in France: address of the general council of the International Working Men’s Association Mew York 1983, p522.

11. I Mészáros op cit p270.

12. Ibid pp 271-72.

13. G Lukács History and class-consciousness: reification and the consciousness of the proletariat London 1990, p173 (my emphasis).

14. G Lukács op cit preface to 1967 edition,ppxviii-ix.

15. Op cit p84.

16. Op cit preface, pxxxiii.

17. I Mészáros The power of ideology London 1989, p119.

18. Ibid p95.

19. G Debord Society of the spectacle (1967), thesis 6: www.marxists.org/reference/archive/debord/society.htm.

20. Ibid p13.

21. T Lovell Pictures of reality London 1983, p31.

22. P Dews Logics of disintegration London 1990, pp128-29, pix.

23. S Morawski Marx and Engels on literature and art New York 1977, pp38-39.