How do non-Marxists perceive Marxism? Such perception of course varies with political tradition and individual experience, but there are several important generalizations to be made in regards to this perception.
Prevailing capitalist ideology operates according to an idealist outlook based primarily on explaining history through psychology (human nature). The concepts of capitalist ideology serve as a bridge to specifically capitalist activity: they identify the relationships, hierarchies and institutions of capitalism as the outcome of human nature.
In a similar vein, political opposition to capitalism is itself discovered to be an outcome of human psychology. Within this framework, a political tendency with complex historical and social roots can be reduced to a simple and self contained psychological stereotype removed from historical context. Without requiring considered empirical evaluation or practical experience, capitalist ideology allows the nature of any historical trend or event to be understood with apparent consistency. Just as importantly, capitalist ideology provides a foundation on which to base interpretation of empirical data, which it conceptualizes abstractly according to the norms and social imperatives of capitalist society.
Marxism is popularly conceived as the apparent psychological state corresponding to the abstracted superficialities of a disparate range of events and ideas. These superficialities are abstracted together in such a way as to blur distinct historical trends and circumstances. Out of this abstraction emerges a vulgar psychological narrative stripped of context and contradictions, as Marxism is reduced and normalized (made consistent with capitalist categories of thought) in the course of it being subordinated to capitalist ideology. At the most basic level, Marxism is conceptualized in abstract terms which in capitalist ideology are used as personal psychological labels, like religion, utopia, or even a compulsion to attain the absolute and pure abstractions of “absolute control” and “pure power,” i.e. “totalitarianism.” In every case the attributed ideological status is resolved in the psychological, e.g. political “totalitarianism” is only the “totalitarian” side of the human personality run amok. The various actions of the entire gamut of so-called socialists over two centuries and all the ideas and rumors attributed to socialism are transformed without much ado into a single psychological and ideological disorder given banal titles such as “big government.” The more elaborate criticisms of Marxism are based on mere permutations of this outlook. What motivates workers when the government provides everything? What is the price mechanism when a government determines all prices and allocates all resources? This is the self-assured criticism of a group of practiced ignoramuses, who absorb the general assumptions of capitalist ideology and then one-sidedly and superficially cite the experience of the non-socialist Soviet system and the entirely capitalist European welfare state without understanding them historically. The entire attitude involved in criticism of socialism, real and imagined, is framed from a perspective of a mythical, abstract capitalism and its alleged basis in such simplistic fictions as “small government,” “entrepreneurial” individualism, and “competitiveness.” Socialism and Marxism are attached to this stultifying and genuinely utopian concept as a sort of negative mirror image, just as idealized and removed from reality. “Big government,” “collectivism” “monopoly.”
The most formalized and “scientific” official criticisms of Marxism dwell on minutiae such as details presented in the pages of Capital, Marx’s economic treatise. These especially concern themselves with refuting the decline of capitalism, which is crudely and desperately dismissed based on impressionistic interpretations of capitalism’s economic stability. A capitalist economist writing in an upswing always feels that he can safely dismiss the crisis of capitalism. In a downturn such an economist will declare that economics is cyclical, dismissing historical development altogether (he does this while trying to forget about announcing that the business cycle had been resolved once and for all at the height of the wild speculation preceding the recession). Capitalist economists have always rushed to dismiss Marx’s observation that there is a historical decline in the rate of profit, which is indicative of their minimal understanding of Capital. Capital starts from a pure, unambiguous examination of how labor power is expressed in the value (not price) of a commodity based on simple equations and straightforward examples for the purpose of demonstrating the basic impetus of the labor theory of value. Marx goes on to explain that the international and multi-sector distribution of the profit rate enables average profit rates across the world and in different sectors to both rise and “maintain” themselves in the face of the increase in the ratio of constant capital throughout much of the world and in particular industries. There is nothing to be gained from plotting estimates of profit rates and looking for a linear decline across the graph line of the 20th century, as capitalist economists attempting to refute their own false interpretation of Marx have done. Serious understanding of Marxism (and capitalism) is far beyond the cursory a-ha-ing of capitalist economists and historians who are itching to declare the infallibility of capitalism amidst the horrors of war, poverty, economic instability and political corruption.
Owing to the advantageous position of capitalism, whereby social norms and morality, forming in capitalism’s particular environment, are inevitably an expression of capitalist interests. Capitalist critics of all stripes have long been able to denounce Marxism as “amoral” for being a disruption to the ideal norms of this environment. The same choice abstractions of the Soviet experience, labor militancy, and the selected quotations of various authors have been used to assert that Marxism is nothing more than a conduit for the violent tendencies in the human psyche. The totalitarianism and utopianism of Socialism leads Socialists to impose on others, disrupt regular life, kill indiscriminately and destroy freedoms. There is no room here for context or historical development, and there is no room for a comparison of the “amorality” of socialism with the “moral” actions of capitalist states and corporations, which tend to provide the casual background for the “crimes” of “socialism” which capitalist critics selectively abhor. Nothing is said of western provocation of the Soviet situation (beginning with the Russian Civil War), anti-democratic and anti-labor conditions prevalent under capitalism, aggressive war, or the direct establishment and maintenance of dictatorships throughout the world by capitalist imperialism.
To a content member of the capitalist class, the Marxist insistence on socializing capitalist productive property and confiscating the holed up wealth of the major banks and corporations is unmistakable proof of the malicious, oppressive anarchy of Marxism. The capitalist class instinctively feels that the whole of human society is built exclusively upon its privileges, and if the Marxists “steal” them away, humanity will collapse in very short order. This belief permeates throughout all official discourse, without ever acknowledging the exclusivity of its class and epochal origins.
Working class perception of Marxism is a reflection of capitalist perception of Marxism, as in all ideological matters. The dominant ideology in a class society is a product of the total structure of that society. This is true both for what the working class thinks and what the capitalist class thinks, but owing to the productive structure and function of capitalism, the dominant ideology is necessarily identical and inseparable with the class interests of the capitalist class. The essential experience of the working class, which conditions all of its thoughts, is life under capitalism and in subordination to capitalists. All other elements of reality which confront the working class have to be mediated through this fundamental experience, which reconfigures and reduces every phenomenon to fit the contours of capitalism’s own self-image. It is only the experience of class conflict which begins to break down the links of capitalist ideology, bringing certain aspects of its assumptions into conflict with others. The ideology of the working class in this circumstance does not transform from capitalist to Marxist, but the opportunity to turn the capitalist ideology of the workers against the actual social power of capitalism becomes a reality via transitional demands and the leadership of the Marxist vanguard.
The initial categories of thinking about socialism and Marxism among the working class are consequently close approximations of the criticisms made by capitalist ideologist, particularly the abstract verbal/psychological reduction of politics in general. This tends to take the form of catchphrases and simplistic narratives that represent the overwhelming lack of exposure broad layers of the working class have had to anything remotely resembling coherent history, philosophy and/or political alternatives.
The ideology of the “left,” the middle class radicals and reformists of all stripes, is largely only a decorative variation of capitalist ideology in general. For some among the “left” milieu, socialism is a fashionable title to be hyphenated with various other honorific titles adorning the byline of “radical” authors. They do not agree with the basic principles or perspective of Marxism, but will profess an admiration for the “young Marx” or a general disapproval of “excessive” capitalism and will occasionally invoke class in a long list including gender, race, religion, culture and sexual orientation….
For these hyphenated socialists of the “left,” capitalist criticisms of Marxism are on the whole correct and incontestable, which is why it is up to them to salvage Marxism, even if it means replacing every bit of it with capitalist class compromise and identity politics.
1 thought on “How Do Non-Marxists Percieve Marxism?”
A wonderful concise summary that clarified and extended my thinking. Thank you
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