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Why I Left Marxism

Perhaps one day I shall have thought sufficiently well and far enough to feel the confidence to write a kind of manifesto or theoretical plank list of just what I hope to see realized in the world. There were the days in which I was a hotheaded moral and abstract idealist who found it so easy to speak of what should obviously be our direction in the world, but I now have a higher awareness of just how limited my thinking is and how little I know. While this does not bring me to any paralysis of thought whenever I am asked to opine on things—indeed, I’m more forthcoming with opinions these days than ever before—it does make me apprehensive towards putting down anything on paper as if I have things all figured out. I’m a lot more cautious with what I’m willing to positively assert. I still put my thoughts out on this blog for the sake of organizing my thoughts about certain things on which I wholly admit I am nowhere near well-read, but so far those things have to do with fragments of topics which I feel a certain confidence in tackling abstractly in what is clearly a merely critical manner with a few seemingly safe positive assertions.

Seeking a Science of Society

It was only a year and a half ago when I would most closely align myself to the Marxist project and theory. I felt that for all his weaknesses, Marx had discovered truths that came from that supreme and divine position of objective materiality and logical ideality. Class struggle and the material base seemed to me to explain everything in historythat ethics either mattered not a bit or  were simply unproblematic given a scientific anthropological basis for our ontological claims and that epistemology was no problem because dialectics seemed so obviously true in some cases. Though I kept away from the political Marxists for the most part, considering most of them to be distasteful theorists and dogmatists, I did still consider myself mostly aligned with Leninism on a practical basis.

Though I originally started my political search in Marxism superficially attracted to Trotskyism, I quickly found myself critical of the disgusting hero worship they showed towards Trotsky, and curious as I was, I looked into the counterarguments from Marxist-Leninists (tankies), and I found them far better and more convincing than what Trots had offered. While Stalin did nothing wrong in my mind in those days (because practical reality > morality), and maintaining socialism at great cost was just a reality from which to learn rather than to waste time endlessly judging, I did have the beginnings of an immanent critique of Marxism start to come forth in my reading and thinking.

What turned me from Marxism in the end issome may think it ironicexactly what had convinced me of it in the first place: Capital and its Hegelian logic. It was this absolute logic which claimed to not rely on moralisms or any external considerations injected into it, in order to prove the system of capitalism hopelessly broken and ultimately illogical, that blinded me with its splendor. My interest in reason, logic, and arguments were met by Marx’s claim of having derived the most absolute refutation I could conceive of anything: a reductio ad absurdum. Having come from Chomskyite anarchism and utopian technocratic communism in The Zeitgeist Movement, I was utterly disappointed in ethical arguments neither having any power to transform the world nor explain much of why our world was as it was and how it was to move towards the ideals demanded. I was hungry for something objective and practical. I was hungry for a science that could meet ethical demands without the seeming powerlessness of ethics. In Marx’s work, I found the promise of that answer.

Despite being in agreement with the ‘argument’ of Capital and becoming quite acquainted with much of the theory through reading Volume I of Capital as well as a lot of secondary literature on it which ranged across issues in Volumes II and III I was never quite satisfied with a superficial understanding of the logic that was supposed to structure the arguments. While I could see the immanence in some of Marx’s derivations, I did not understand what that immanence truly was and how I could carry out this method myself. I found out, disappointingly, that the overwhelming majority of Marxists were utterly incompetent when it came to philosophy, and their poor explanations of dialectics made the logic increasingly appear as something that was in truth nothing at all but a veneer for fools. I read Bertell Ollman’s Dance of the Dialectic, and while I found it interesting, I also didn’t find it much more illuminating. For a while, Ollman’s treatment of dialectics confused me, but monistic philosophical commitments at the time and an increasing mystical outlook with which Ollman’s own Marxian Spinozism (he doesn’t call it that, but I consider it such) made it a lot easier to swallow what now seems to me to be utterly worthless points from an equally worthless methodology based on the primacy of the principle of internal relations. 

Things being as they were, given that I didn’t know what I was looking for other than accounts which I did not find coherent or convincing, I eventually started to move away from Marxists regarding dialectics and cautiously moved towards Hegelian accounts. This occurred for two reasons: first is that I had occasionally dipped into Hegel through philosophical questions while doing my regular college studies, reading snippets here and there commenting on his workoccasionally being brave enough to read a sentence or two directlyand I liked what I read. Contrary to what most said of him, Hegel did not seem crazy or strange at all, but struck me as having profound ideas which were as mind-blowing as Marx’s. Second was the suspicion that Hegel suffered the same problem Marx suffered in public opinion and judgment: outsiders to his philosophy were simply spitting critiques past it and not truly engaging it; thus, only an insider’s point of view could give me a hope of grasping what Hegel was truly about just as only an insider’s account had allowed me to understand Marx. Considering my experience with understanding Marx and the cliche that Hegel was even more difficult and unintelligible compared to Marx, I was prepared for a long haul, but I was determined nonetheless.

The Hegelian Shift

So what happened? Well, considering that I had no idea where to begin or who was a good source, I fumbled around various articles and academic papers online trying to find a way in. As I first had been with Marx, I was faced with a language constructed on terms I did not understand and could only guess at through familiar context, so I was confused for a long time despite finding interesting aspects of which I felt some comprehension. I did know an order in which the works were written and many assumed was best to engage, so there came a time when I decided to finally just give Hegel a direct reading with the Phenomenology of Spirit. After half a year of fumbling about with Hegelianism, I finally read the unintelligible philosopher directly. It was indeed difficult and most definitely unintelligible in parts, but it wasn’t completely unintelligible. I grasped enough that I was learning things, and my philosophical interests in general converged in Hegel with the epistemological content of the Phenomenology. While I was still a Marxist at the time of reading, I no longer accepted Marx’s or the Marxists’ critiques of Hegel, for what I had come to see in the Phenomenology was far from what had been claimed as an abstract idealism. Rather, I was seeing the opposite: a concrete materialism concerning the activity of knowledge.

My study of Marx dropped off in the time following my engagement in Hegel, and despite only making it to the Lord and Bondsman section on my first reading of the Phenomenology, I spent the next year and a half primarily reading about Hegelianism and chasing threads I had discovered in my own reading. In that time, I became convinced that the materialist/idealist divide propagandized by Marxists was completely false, i.e. that there was almost nothing in Hegel’s purely philosophical works which a Marxist could not accept as a materialistnothing, perhaps, except for the Philosophy of Right, but even in that I saw Marx’s theoretical work concerning capital fitting right in to fill the gap that was Hegel’s system of needs in that work.

During this time, I occasionally returned to old Marxist concerns and began to generate critiques in hopes of making things more coherent for myself. I began to see that use-value/utility and desire had something important to do in the system of capital such that labor-time could not be the only determinant of value, and that this could not be ignored. In engaging Hegelian issues, I began to see Marx’s idea of human nature as a cheap version of Hegel’s Spirit, and the more I learned, the less Marx seemed to really offer a philosophical basis that could satisfy my desire for truth. Marx, if we take his assumptions, makes a lot of sense, and there are many good interpreters that make him more coherent than less. Nonetheless, I found with Hegel something more than coherent or convincing. Hegel offered the promise of a kind of knowledge that could explain everything that was in principle explainable, and I was beginning to see it.

The Definitive Break

My definitively greatest break with Marx came in the last third of 2015. I met and became friends with Hyperion (@sophic_hegemon) through an online group of philosophy and radical leftism enthusiasts, and specifically through our mutual admiration of Hegel we found an encouraging atmosphere to advance our knowledge by reading and discussing important philosophical works. Both of us encountered the general works of an otherwise little known Hegelian professor, Richard Dien Winfield (whom we had known about before, but had given little attention). We read Winfield’s Hegel and the Future of Systematic Philosophy, and there I noticed some criticism’s of Marx, but they lacked detail. I found and listened to a set of Winfield’s lectures on Marx out of curiosity, and what I heard in those lectures was like a wake-up shock. I had gotten so used to hearing critiques from people who had neither a clue about what Marx meant by what he said nor of his method of dialectics that Winfield stunned me. He was no superficial reader of Marx, and the critiques he offered in that set of lectures struck a core of assumptions I had not previously questioned. A lot of it hinged on philosophical assumptions which Marx did not and could not carry to fruition in a rational manner, but I shall not go over them here. Upon hearing his critiques of the young Marx, I gave up on the humanism I had taken from him. If that had not been enough, when I heard the critique of Marx’s theory of value I simply was amazed at how easy it was to destroy and immediately gave it up as well. To put it simply: there is no rational basis for positing a labor theory of value if we follow the mere logic of commodities (I shall expand on this in its own blog).

It was relatively easy for me to leave Marxism behind just as it was easy for me to leave Anarchism behind when I first read Marx. Reason and truth are my ultimate drivers in search of a theory, and the moment a theory appears that goes beyond what I know, I do not hesitate to take up the next step. Unlike most, I did not bother to go ask on the Internet and beg for someone to give me an article or book that could successfully defend the theory. I was well grounded in my Marxist politico-economic knowledge as well as the general philosophical framework, and when Winfield took the legs from under it, I recognized it and simply did not bother fighting it. My knowledge of Hegel also came to a first peak a couple of months later when I finally read the Science of Logic and figured out the mystery of dialectics once and for all. Once I knew what it was, I understood the critique Winfield had leveled against Marx more than before. Convinced of the logic, as well as of what I wanted from a theory, I did not weep for leaving Marx behind on a theoretical basis.

On the basis of practice, I had never called myself a communist, so I wasn’t betraying a practice. For one, I had not considered myself worthy of such an identification since I did nothing for the cause. Second, I had never considered “Marxism” as my ideology, but simply a theoretical structure that I had considered true. I had not believed in Marxism or communism ironically, but rather wholeheartedly, and for the five years, I considered myself aligned to its project. I never once imagined I would turn from it considering how true the theory seemed. However, I did not think it impossible that there was something more true.

Considering my views of the practical side, despite wanting to do something, the vast majority of what I call the ‘political Marxists’ were a personally disgusting lot with whom I wanted no association. Dogma abound, taught ignorance was as much a part of these groups as it is in our schools, and I was disgusted by the repressive air around topics and discussion in these groups. If so-called tankies got their way, I’d rather not live in that world any more than live in this one.

In the last two years of my Marxist phase, I considered the so-called Left-Communists as the most philosophically rigorous Marxists, but I also thought they were the epitome example of the worthlessness of pure theory. Ultimately, it is the failure of Marxism as a ‘theory of praxis’ that was the greatest disillusion for me. I was attracted to Marxism for its philosophical as well as empirical scientific aspect. I was promised a theory both true and practically instrumental just like one expects in empirical scienceswhere a theory allows one to do thingsbut the more I considered things in broader perspective, the more I became aware of why this was not a realistic conception of practice and the necessary social revolution that would be needed to change the world. Marxism offered what seemed like a scientific theory that described what capitalism does, but not how to transcend it.

Insofar as I still think Capital is one of the most awe-inspiring theories ever to be developed, and one that is mostly true, I am still in the Marxist tradition. When it comes to Marx offering notions of a solution, however, I find neither his proposals nor the proposals of Marxists, including the communizers, realistic and thus not materialist enough by their own standards. Above all, I can no longer help but see the creeping vines of dogma and repression in their social schemes. In all of these, there must be a tight control of communities, a tight control of knowledge, a tight control of society. The ones who realize it seem to be unabashedly for it and justify its horrors as a historical necessityI myself did for a while—and the ones who don’t realize this seem to think that by claiming problems won’t exist, they indeed won’t; thus, they dodge all questions of detail.

If freedom will exist in this world, it must be a freedom that is freely free. People cannot be forced into freedom, and the freedom of society is precisely the freedom of disagreement, of different lifestyles, of different modes of living, of different tastes, of different opinions, and of different individual values which all exist grounded on one value upon which we should all agree: freedom—real freedom. But to know what this is to look like, we need to have a conception of what a freedom that is freely free looks like. We must know what self-determination looks like. While Marx’s humanism is beautiful and romantic, it is just another dogma and assumption, which if it is to have validity, must be worked on to flesh out what its freedom truly looks like.

While Marxist party practice was once actually practical in the world, it was never because of anything uniquely Marxist in theory, for the theory cannot detail the practical form of action in any context. If one looks at Lenin or Mao, one finds a keen eye for exploiting practical emergencies under general guiding ideas first and dealing with pure theory details later. As Hegel himself was aware, we live first and comprehend later. The future shall not be solved by those sitting in armchairs dreaming what should be against what is, nor shall it be solved by those merely jumping straight into practice within the system that exists. The question of the day is not between reform or revolution; it is rather on the question of what is the actual ground of movement today, i.e., the question of real organization and ends.

To say that I am not a Marxist, however, does not really assert that I am anything else in particular. I have no settled idea of what the future shall be, should be, or can be. While many are hasty in classifying themselves, I am not. If I am not a Marxist, I am also not a Hegelian by any stretch (whatever that means or implies). I see no value or use in putting oneself in an ideological box despite having no comprehension of said box. I am, for now, more interested in comprehending what the real problems of modernity are at their core, and this is something that is not reducible to class struggle or capital any more than it is reducible to individualist ‘human nature’ as something fallen and evil. The world, against our wishes, is not simple in the way we desire. Everything does not reduce to economics, power relations, identities, personalities, or even masses. A society is to be understood as an integrated system of mutually generating aspects of which the material life is only a relative beginning that generates a genie that once born shall not be put back in its bottle just because we annihilate the bottle from which it was released. A revolution does not happen without ideas, nor are ideas generated and believed without a world in which they are experienced as material realities.

I think the Marxist ideal is possible, but not in the way Marxists think. I believe a world where alienation is not dream-crushing and soul-destroyingwhere humans have the chance to be everything they can be by their own choice and meritis possible. I believe a world where we can coexist united in difference is possiblewhere the conditions of the possibility of human freedom are possible. This world is not a world where certain freedoms are denied as dangerous for society, but are rather an integral aspect of it. If this is to be possible, a real conception of concrete freedom is necessary, and this must account not just for material freedom, but for ideal freedom and its interrelation to this material life in the unified structure of a social whole.

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4 thoughts on “Why I Left Marxism”

  1. Hey “Antonio”! I found out about this blog through EmpyreanTrail and a lot of your insights have been personally interesting to think about. This post is especially interesting, since i’ve been starting to doubt a lot of my marxist convictions, too (however, i’m not an autodidactic philosophy fan like yourself so I don’t have the philosophical advantage of having read Hegel). I actually have three questions for you, if you don’t mind, of course.

    1. Of the Winfield lectures you posted, which one of these go into demolishing the law of value? I thoroughly want to have my ideas checked and I don’t want to stick to a doctrine once I know it’s false.

    2. Of your description of your “ideal world” of concrete freedoms, you seem to be very vague in your description of it. It comes across as something similar to the Marxist idea of a “free association of producers” in a sense. What exactly do you mean by this? Does commodity production/exchange still exist?

    and finally…

    3. Have you heard of Michael Inwood’s “A Hegel Dictionary”? I’m planning on getting it before I begin reading Science, but I’m afraid I’ll get into a situation where the book will actually be more of a curse than anything helpful. Kind of like when leftists read Richard Wolff before reading Marx, and then they get their analysis of Marx distorted because now they can’t stop thinking about starting co-ops. Especially with your emphasis on reading Hegel “literally” without prior knowledge obscuring the reading.

    Anyways, I like your blogs! I’ve always been intimidated by the very idea of Hegel ever since I’ve joined the left but your blogs have eased a lot of that fear away.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. 1. Somewhere around lecture 7/8 he gets into Capital chapter 1. The takedown of the LTV is only about 3 minutes in length, and it doesn’t require more than that since it is a solid logical objection.

      2. It includes Marx’s vision, but is more. I believe a whole system of society is necessary for it, and this is a state as society even if not necessarily and only possible as the modern state. It’s vague on purpose, I don’t want to give the impression that I know what is to work.

      3. I’ve heard of it. If you fear a ‘contamination’ in reading, Hegel does define things, but only in proper order. Don’t be too afraid of misreading, I misread all the time. The thing to worry about is not having the critical reading which lets you realize that what you have concocted does not flow with the text. Hegel has taught me much when i read him carefully, and that’s where most of my self-correction comes from: reading carefully. This is a long process of reading, conceptualizing, refining, and eventually rereading and being open to reading fresh again without relying on older notes.

      Don’t be afraid of Hegel, it’s the struggle of thinking that wins knowledge for itself. Glad my blogs are of interest.

      Liked by 1 person

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