An updated and improved Marxism

This guy was a genius, but he wasn't infallible

A brief outline of a 21st-century conception of revolution. The notion of a "dictatorship of the proletariat" that smashes the capitalist state in one great insurrection has to be put to rest. Realism (materialism) is better than idealism.

It is the rare intellectual who can withstand the pressures of groupthink. This is a fundamental truth, or a truism, borne out not only by daily experiences in an academic or other “intellectual” context (e.g., the newsroom or editorial board of any establishment media outlet) but also by critical scholarship from the likes of Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky. Left-wing intellectuals tend to be vigilantly aware of irrational groupthink among mainstream, establishment types, or even among other leftist sects with which they don’t identify; but, like all intellectual cliques—indeed, like nearly all individual intellectuals—they’re reluctant to turn their critical gaze on themselves. They imbibe certain ideas and ideologies in their formative years and perhaps refine them as they mature, but on the whole their commitment to the ideology is apt to become rigid and uncritical.

This complacency has always most disturbed me with regard to Marxists, whose system of thought, if correctly formulated, is precisely the most critical, the most self-critical, the most democratic and revolutionary ideology ever devised. I expect intellectual laziness from most “postmodernists,” from liberals and centrists, from all witting or unwitting servants of power. I’m disappointed, though, when I see it in Marxists and semi-Marxists. There’s a pronounced dogmatism in most Marxist circles. Personally, I’ve tried to stimulate some critical rethinking of Marxism in various publications, including my book Worker Cooperatives and Revolution: History and Possibilities in the United States and this distillation of some of its arguments (though disregard the editor’s oversimplified summary at the top of the page), but I haven’t had much success. These writings appear to have been ignored.

Which is unfortunate, because I’m convinced it’s necessary in the twenty-first century to revise the Marxian conception of revolution. Conditions have changed from what they were a hundred or a hundred and fifty years ago; Marx would likely be appalled by the lack of creative rethinking that has met these altered conditions. It’s an unfortunate situation when millions of activists across the world are struggling to build new modes of production, new modes of politics, and Marxist scholars and thinkers still confine themselves, more or less, to quoting staid formulations from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (This fact, ironically, supports Marx’s argument that old ideologies tend to hang on doggedly even as changing material conditions make them progressively irrelevant.) Writers and ‘critical ideologists’ can play an important role in the construction of a new society from the ground up, but instead they’re usually content with elaborating on old slogans about seizing the state or smashing it, establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat, creating a vanguard party, and so on.

An article that Jacobin recently published provides an example of this stubborn immersion in the past, as well as an opportunity to propose a more critical and up-to-date interpretation of revolution. The article in question is actually an essay by the famous British Marxist Ralph Miliband, entitled “Lenin’s The State and Revolution,” published in 1970. In itself it’s a perfectly respectable and sophisticated meditation on Lenin’s classic work, indeed counseling a proper critical attitude towards it. But the reposting of it on the website of a “cutting-edge” left-wing journal almost fifty years later highlights just how stagnant (in some respects) Marxist thinking continues to be, especially given the editorial comment with which Jacobin introduces the piece:

Marx famously proclaimed the need to “smash” the bourgeois state. But what does that mean in practice? If our aim is a democratic, non-bureaucratic socialism, what kind of state should we be striving for?

Those looking for answers have often turned to Lenin’s State and Revolution, where the famed revolutionary confidently speaks of transforming “a state of bureaucrats” into “a state of armed workers.”

In the following essay, Ralph Miliband…offers a critical appraisal of Lenin’s pamphlet and explains why “the exercise of socialist power remains the Achilles’ heel of Marxism.” …[T]he essay is still the sharpest reading of State and Revolution available.

The accuracy of this introduction is rather sad. In 2018 we’re still looking for inspiration to a brief critical analysis written in 1970 of a short work written in 1917—in completely different conditions than prevail today—that itself was but a commentary on sketchy ideas put forward in the mid-to-late-nineteenth century. (One can argue, moreover, that State and Revolution was intended as little more than cynical propaganda for the Bolshevik party, in light of its deviation from Lenin’s earlier party line and his later authoritarian practice.) Surely we can do better than this.

Miliband is still right, though, that “the exercise of socialist power remains the Achilles’ heel of Marxism.” This is true not only of practice but of theory—which is to say, as I’ve argued in my paper “The Significance and Shortcomings of Karl Marx,” that the concept of proletarian revolution is Marxism’s main weakness. In the rest of this article I’ll again summarize, very briefly, some of the points from my book, in the hope of shedding a little light on an old problem.


The conceptual revisions I proposed in the book offer two main advantages: first, they bring the strategic or prescriptive aspect of Marxism up to date, incorporating the increasingly popular idea and practice of the “solidarity economy” (while simultaneously providing a systematic theoretical framework to interpret the latter’s potential); second, they correct certain inconsistencies and logical errors that Marx’s sketchy proposals on revolution introduced into the theory of historical materialism. That is, with my “revisions,” Marxism has been made more logically defensible and consistent with itself. And the road is cleared for even orthodox Marxists to engage creatively with the burgeoning alternative economy of cooperatives, public banks, and other experimental ideas/institutions.

We can start with Marx’s formulation of revolution in the following four sentences from the famous Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:

At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or—this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms—with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.

One problem with this classic statement is that its notion of “fettering” is meaningless. And nowhere else in his writings does Marx flesh it out with sufficient content. Capitalist production relations, especially in the last hundred years, are in fact constantly fettering the use and development of productive forces—and yet no post-capitalist revolution has happened. Recessions and depressions certainly “fetter” the productive forces; so do legal obstacles to the dissemination of knowledge, such as intellectual copyright laws; so do ideologies and practices of privatization, which hinder the public sector’s more socially rational and dynamic use of science and technology. On the other hand, even in decadent neoliberalism the productive forces continue to develop in various ways. So it seems wrong or meaningless to say that production relations fetter productive forces and then revolution breaks out.

A slight revision can remedy the problem, and at the same time changes the whole thrust of the Marxist theory of revolution. Rather than a conflict simply between production relations and the development of productive forces, there is a conflict between two types of production relations—two modes of production—one of which uses productive forces in a more socially rational and “un-fettering” way than the other. The more progressive mode slowly develops in the womb of the old society as it decays, i.e., as the old dominant mode of production succumbs to crisis and stagnation. In being relatively dynamic and democratic, the emergent mode of production attracts adherents and resources, until it becomes ever more visible and powerful. The old regime can’t eradicate it; it spreads internationally and gradually transforms the economy, to such a point that the forms and content of politics change with it. Political entities become its partisans, and finally decisive seizures of power by representatives of the emergent mode of production become possible, because reactionary defenders of the old regime have lost their dominant command over resources. And so, over generations, a social revolution transpires.

This conceptual revision saves Marx’s intuition by giving it more meaning: the “fettering” is not absolute but is in relation to a more effective and democratic mode of production that is, so to speak, competing against the old stagnant one. The most obvious concrete instance of this notion of revolution is the long transition from feudalism to capitalism, during which the feudal mode became so hopelessly outgunned by the capitalist that—after the emergent economy had already broadly colonized society—bourgeois “seizures of the state” finally became possible.

You see that the simple conceptual revision I’ve proposed changes the Marxian theory from advocating a statist “dictatorship of the proletariat” to advocating a more grassroots, gradual, unambiguously democratic transformation of the economy that proceeds at the same time and to the degree that the old society deteriorates. This change of emphasis is itself an advantage, since the old overwhelmingly statist theory (notwithstanding Lenin’s semi-anarchistic language in State and Revolution) was idealistic, un-dialectical, and utopian. Which is to say un-Marxist.

In the orthodox account of the Communist Manifesto and later writings, the social revolution occurs after a seizure of state power by “the proletariat” (which, incidentally, isn’t a unitary entity but contains divisions). But this account of revolution contradicts the Marxian understanding of social dynamics—a point, oddly, that few or no Marxists appear ever to have appreciated. It exalts a relatively unitary conscious will as being able to plan social evolution more or less in advance, a notion that is utterly undialectical. According to “dialectics,” history happens behind the backs of historical actors, whose intentions never work out exactly as they’re supposed to. Marx was wise in his admonition that we should never trust the self-interpretations of political actors. And yet he suspends this injunction when it comes to the dictatorship of the proletariat: these people’s plans are supposed to work out perfectly and straightforwardly, despite the massive complexity and dialectical contradictions of society.

The statist idea of revolution is also wrong to privilege the political over the economic. In supposing that through sheer political will one can transform an authoritarian, exploitative economy into an emancipatory, democratic one, Marx and Lenin are, in effect, reversing the order of “dominant causality” such that politics determines the economy (whereas in fact the economy “determines”—loosely and broadly speaking—politics). Marxism itself suggests that the state can’t be socially creative in this radical way. And when it tries to be, what results, ironically, is overwhelming bureaucracy and even greater authoritarianism than before. (While the twentieth century’s experiences with so-called “Communism” or “state socialism” happened in relatively non-industrialized societies, not advanced capitalist ones as Marx anticipated, the dismal record is at least suggestive.)

Fundamental to these facts is that if the conquest of political power occurs in a still-capitalist economy, revolutionaries have to contend with the institutional legacies of capitalism: relations of coercion and domination condition everything the government does, and there is no way to break free of them. They can’t be magically transcended through political will; to think they can, or that the state can somehow “wither away” even as it’s forced to become more expansive and dominating (to suppress capitalist resistance), is to adopt a naïve idealism and utopianism.

In short, the interpretation of revolution that contemporary Marxists have inherited is backward. It is standing on its head; we have to turn it right-side up in order to comprehend our activism and our goals properly. Of course this isn’t to deny the importance of engaging in political work, whether it takes the form of constructing a workers’ party, electing socialists under the aegis of the Democratic Party, or lobbying for particular laws. As during the transition from feudalism to capitalism, it’s essential to target the state at every step of the way. We simply have to recognize that a paramount strategy is to take advantage of openings and divisions in the capitalist state to politically facilitate the long-term construction of new relations of production, on the foundation of which the new society will gradually emerge. The revolution can’t happen in any other way. Certainly not through a historical rupture in which “the working class” dramatically seizes power, suppresses (somehow) all its opponents, and organizes a new economy on the basis of utopian blueprints. In the twenty-first century, any such ruptural conception, even if moderated by realism on some point or other, is astoundingly naïve.

The truth is that revolutionaries have to dig in for the long haul: a global transition to a post-capitalist society will take a century or more. Cooperative and socialized relations of production (in forms that it’s futile to predict at this point) will spread through generations of bitter struggle. Meanwhile, the conquest of political power will occur piecemeal—at different rates in different countries—suffering setbacks and then proceeding to new victories, then suffering more defeats, etc. It will be a time of world-agony, especially as climate change will be devastating civilization; but the sheer numbers of people whose interests will lie in a transcendence of capitalism will constitute a formidable weapon on the side of progress.


As Chomsky has said on more than one occasion, the job of intellectuals, or one of their jobs, is to make simple things appear complicated. You’re supposed to think that in order to understand anything about the world, you have to be able to read and write long articles or books full of citations and arcane terminology and long discussions of other writers, delving into the intricacies of their arguments, minutely dissecting the meanings of their favored terms, spinning out paeans to verbiage like a crafty spider trying to snare the unwary. This is how intellectuals protect their territory and ward off democratic challenges to their status. But the truth is that old-fashioned commonsense reasoning can get you pretty far. It only takes a bit of reading and a bit of critical thought to find approximate answers to classic questions about the nature of society, the nature of a good society, and the revolutionary path to the latter. And in fact, in the sociological domain, you’re never going to do much better than approximate answers. With interactions between billions of people to take into consideration, too little will always be understood.

So, to get back to the old question that Lenin and Miliband tackled: what does it mean to “smash” the bourgeois state? What kind of democratic state should we be striving for? Well, the notion of “smashing” the state is just a pithy metaphor that provides no guide to action. We should stop being bewitched by old and unhelpful imagery. In conditions very different from those that confronted Marx and Lenin, we should simply focus on the matters at hand rather than endlessly poring over what the god Lenin said. Keeping in our mind the Marxist and anarchist ideal of a stateless, non-coercive, economically democratic society, we should just do what we can to make the state we’re immediately confronted with more democratic and more just. We do what we can to expand democracy in the real world, and step by step we find ourselves approaching the distant moral ideal that guides us. It’s hopeless to try to spell out the ideal in detail. Marx understood this, which is why he was so reluctant to get bogged down in these kinds of questions, confining himself to some vague suggestions that, not surprisingly, turned out to be largely mistaken.

The task of Marxists now, aside from continuing to critically analyze society, is to rethink the old prescriptions and abandon tired formulations. In so doing, they’ll not only make themselves more relevant to the contemporary world, a world teeming with democratic and nonsectarian initiative; they’ll also, in effect, finally rid Marxism of its lingering traces of irrational dogma, internal inconsistency, and parochial nineteenth-century ideology. The system will at last have realized the old ambition of being a genuine science of society.