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On the 175th anniversary of Marx and Engels Communist Manifesto (1848) (Part Three)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted May 29, 2023

Among the more fruitful re-interpretations of Marxism, were those carried out by the Frankfurt School (Adorno, Horkheimer, et al.). The Frankfurt School has now emerged as a curiously bivalent tradition, which has inspired some of the most serious critics of what is considered the current-day "managerial-therapeutic regime" (such as Paul Piccone, the late editor of the New York-based scholarly journal, Telos) -- as well as providing one of the strongest "props" for that system, i.e., the theory of "the authoritarian personality." The psychological critique of "personality" at its most pointed considers "authoritarian" political identifications a form of mental illness to be eradicated by mass conditioning, and, if it is discovered in an individual, to be "cured" by semi-coercive "therapy." However, the Frankfurt School's deep-level critique of consumerist, consumptionist society -- which could be seen as one of their main contributions to intellectual inquiry -- is clearly evocative of traditionalist cultural conservatism.

Another fruitful re-interpretation of Marx's thought can be seen among the so-called "social conservatives of the Left" -- such as William Morris, Jack London, George Orwell, and Christopher Lasch. In an age of a pre-totalitarian and pre-politically-correct Left, John Ruskin, a nineteenth-century aesthetic and cultural critic, could say, "I am a Tory of the sternest sort, a socialist, a communist." However, it should be pointed out that these figures could probably be placed more in the ambit of "utopian socialism", "guild-socialism", or "feudal socialism" -- tendencies which were polemically condemned in Marx and Engel's The Communist Manifesto. Another interesting off-shoot of Marx's thought is the Syndicalist system represented by Georges Sorel, as well as by varieties of Anarchist ideas. The Papal encyclical De Rerum Novarum certainly was a reaction to Marx's thought -- and it can be seen that the so-called "Catholic social teaching" tried to embrace what were seen as the positive aspects of Marx's critique of capitalism and of extreme social inequality, while avoiding its iconoclastic radicalism and possibility of abuse by power-hungry ideologues. G. K. Chesterton's Distributism and C. H. Douglas' theory of Social Credit were two attempts to maintain the rights of decent small-property holders and workers against the depredations of monopoly finance-capital, without recourse to violent dictatorship.

It has often been said that Marx's critique of the iniquities of nineteenth-century capitalism was on the mark, but that his proposed solutions had turned out to be horrible in practice.

Given the apparent irrelevance of "classical Marxism" by the 1960s -- especially in regard to such areas as its underdeveloped theories of psychology, art, religion, and literature, and its thin materialism -- there arose varieties of "neo-Marxism." The presence of "neo-Marxism" allowed for the countering of the more common criticisms of earlier Marxist thought, which were now simply categorized as describing a "vulgar Marxism" that the new Marxist theorists did not themselves hold. In the attempt to "rescue" a more subtle Marx, great attention was paid to Marx's Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 – which were fully published in English only in 1959.

There were also, among the leading innovations of neo-Marxism -- especially as seen in the thought of Frantz Fanon – the embrace of social outcasts, racial and sexual minorities, and the Third World, in the face of what were characterized as the "embourgeoified" white working classes. What classical Marxism had disparagingly termed "the lumpenproletariat" now became to a large extent the focus of revolutionary energies for the neo-Marxist theorists.

Also important for neo-Marxism was Antonio Gramsci, whose claim to fame was the idea -- in contrast to classical Marxism -- that the "ideological superstructure" would actually bring into being the social and economic facts of "the base" -- hence the need for "an intellectual war of position" and "the march through the institutions" in order "to capture the culture." The existence of, and need to engage in, "cultural warfare" -- can be seen as an idea with great cachet in virtually every part of today's political spectrum.

While remaining within the broad confines of Marxist class categories, it is possible to argue that what was actually happening in the 1960s revolutions in America was the creation by the now-deracinated haute-bourgeoisie of new ideological structures that would allow it to re-establish its dominance over the working majority. The triumph of the working majority in America -- when a factory-worker was able, by his own labor, to earn enough to support his wife and family -- was to be short-lived. These new ideologies combined counter-cultural lifestyles, mass media saturation, juridical and administrative social engineering, consumerism, and corporate capitalism, which led to ensuring again the dominance of a narrow ruling group. Policies such as mass, dissimilar immigration and (what is now called) outsourcing were driven by the impulse to strengthen the consumerist-capitalist system -- a system which was much different from nineteenth-century bourgeois capitalism.

To be continued. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.

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