In defense of Marxist materialism:

Chicago Workers' Voice discards the Marxist 'paradigm'

By Mark, Detroit
(from Communist Voice #18, August 1, 1998)


. The February issue of the Chicago Workers' Voice Theoretical Journal, contains an article which renounces Marxism as obsolete and calls for a supposedly new "paradigm" to guide left-wing activists. This is the conclusion of an article by Sarah entitled Some thoughts on the left and modern philosophy: a review of Kuhn's book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions [reprinted in its entirety elsewhere in this issue of CV]. This is a new milestone in the political decay of the Chicago Workers' Voice (CWV) group which once denounced others for abandoning Marxism-Leninism.

. This stand of the CWV is part of the crisis that has affected the left since the collapse of the phony communist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and the exposure of the rot of the Chinese revisionist system with its taking up of naked capitalist economics and exhibiting its tyranny for all to see. This crisis has raised in sharp relief the need for clarity on the nature of these regimes. The bulk of the left wrongly considered these societies as socialist or workers' states or some kind of alternative to capitalism. Thus, when these social systems fell, they saw it as a defeat of socialism. Many gave up hope that socialism was possible and felt Marxism had failed. But cynicism toward Marxism and socialism did not necessarily mean giving up on the fallen regimes. Unable to see any alternative to the ravages of market capitalism except the fallen regimes meant there was a strong tendency to cling to these corrupt systems and to apologize for the repression and new class exploitation imposed on the masses under the collapsed social orders.

. The CWV members came from a trend that did not share the general left opinion on the countries that claimed to be communist. This trend opposed the regimes which claimed to be communist and exposed how the regimes that ran the Soviet Union, China, Cuba and so on had revised Marxism beyond recognition and built a new type of state-capitalist order beneath their "socialist" signboards. This was the stand of the now-defunct Marxist-Leninist Party, which the CWV members had been part of. Yet in 1993 the MLP too collapsed. Its majority lost confidence in anti-revisionism and succumbed to the widespread mood, which arose with the fall of the revisionist system, which doubted the viability of socialism and Marxism.

. When the MLP shattered, those who formed the CWV group were among the ex-MLPers who criticized giving up the former revolutionary stands. But the CWV itself had begun to doubt one Marxist stand after another, especially the role of the independent Marxist party and the criticism of Third World petty-bourgeois nationalism. At first they continued to proclaim that Marxism-Leninism was still valid, but they held that anti-revisionism was sectarian and unnecessary in order to uphold socialism. But in distancing themselves from anti-revisionism, they left behind an explanation for the collapse of the state-capitalist regimes and the crisis in the left. The CWV's abandonment of anti-revisionism has now led Sarah to shove aside Marxism and give up any definite meaning to the concept of socialism.

The CWV then and now

The CWV's complete abandonment of a Marxist perspective can be seen by contrasting their views at the time of the MLP's collapse with their present stand. The CWV, which was then the Chicago Branch of the MLP, issued a statement on December 13, 1993 giving their views on the dissolution of the MLP. In it, they raised their voice against

"a number of party members (particularly some Central Committee members) [who] had developed one or more of the following views:
. "--that Lenin's theory of imperialism no longer applies to the current world and was, perhaps, flawed in its time
. "--that a perspective for socialist revolution is not valid for the developing countries until socialism is achieved in all the advanced countries
. "--that Leninism and perhaps Marxism are a burden not a tool, and that we need to start from scratch to develop class analysis and revolutionary theory, and more."

. In summing up their views the CWV members wrote that although there were many new issues to analyze and debate,

. "We do believe that Marxist-Leninist theory still stands and is applicable to the world we live in."

. My, my, how times have changed! Now Sarah says nothing about the viability of Lenin's theory of imperialism. She refers to Lenin only to say that perhaps the theory of Lenin (and Marx and Engels) which she previously supported were just "rigid interpretations" which should yield to a new paradigm.

. The socialist perspective has been replaced by portraying the revisionist regimes as models without which there is only "difficulty describing the system" of the future. The idea that the anti-revisionist critique helps clarify what the communist future is all about has been tossed overboard. A few months after the party collapsed, Sarah could still condemn former MLP member Fred, then of the short-lived Revolutionary Socialist Study Group, because "Fred has wiped out all distinction between revisionism and anti-revisionism and communism."(1) Yet Sarah and the CWV have ended up promoting the state-capitalist regime of Castro as a semi-socialist alternative to capitalism. In her recent article, Sarah goes even further and lumps the Soviet Union, China and Albania together with Cuba as regimes whose nature is unclear to her, although she tries to make the Castro regime look better by falsely claiming that it isn't that repressive. So now Sarah has obscured the difference between revisionism and communism for all the revisionist regimes.

. For Sarah, these regimes had their faults. They exploited and oppressed the masses for instance. But Sarah now accepts that these regimes are Marxist anyway, and she has dropped the view that they are building state-capitalist societies that have nothing to do with the transition to socialism. Thus, a class tyranny over the masses is portrayed not as an abandonment of Marxism, but an "interpretation" of Marxism that tended to be "rigid and one-sided." That is why in the same issue of the CWV Theoretical Journal the CWV's Barb denounces supporters of our Communist Voice journal for stating that "the repressive society in Cuba has nothing in common with genuine socialism or communism" and goes on to declare that "even to bring up 'genuine communism' at this point in history" is "irresponsible."

. As for the question of what overall outlook should guide activists today, Sarah's article does not support Marxism-Leninism, but rambles on about the need for new paradigms in order to make sense of the world. She emphasizes how "modern science is raising serious questions" about "some of the classics of Marxist literature." According to Sarah, classical Marxism leads to "one-sided" views that don't take into account the "complex interaction" of different factors in society. Well if, as Sarah contends, Marxism really can't provide a framework that will clarify how society works, it clearly must go. We should in that case do an about-face from what the CWV members thought in December 1993 and "start from scratch" on finding a new paradigm. Too bad Sarah doesn't offer the slightest proof of her assertion nor provide us with a single really new insight. As we shall see, in so far as she hints at any framework better than Marxism, there is nothing new at all.

Half-baked philosophizing against Marxism

. In order to back up her abandonment of Marxism, Sarah gives her take on Thomas S. Kuhn's 1962 book where the author describes his idea of how scientific knowledge develops. Sarah holds that Kuhn's book has important lessons for the left. Here we will not attempt to review Kuhn's book, but merely what Sarah derives from it.

. In her article, Sarah writes that the importance of Kuhn's book is that it shows that old paradigms are eventually replaced by new ones. Kuhn, for instance, describes how the Ptolemaic system of astronomy was overthrown by the Copernican system. These paradigm shifts take place when the amount of problems that the old theory can't resolve accumulate to the point of a general crisis. New information and discoveries eventually call the whole previous framework into question. For Sarah, the idea that one theoretical framework replaces another gives a profound answer to the crisis of the left which she sees as a crisis caused by the inadequacy of Marxism. Clearly, the implication is that she believes it's time to replace the Marxist framework.

. Those of us who still uphold the Marxist framework certainly agree that scientific theories must be able to explain reality and account for new information. We do not gloss over the existence of the crisis of the left, but center our work on it. We see Marxism not as a set of complete and final answers on all questions, but as continually developing by providing a means to overcome the ever-changing barrage of problems and crises that come up in revolutionary work. Marxism lives by incorporating all new and really scientific information. Those who still think Marxism is valid think that the present world developments and new scientific discoveries tend to confirm the Marxist world outlook. In contrast, Sarah's article implies that loyalty to Marxism means turning a blind eye to the advance of knowledge.

. Our stand in support of Marxism is not based on the idea that everything has already been answered. In the first issue of our organization's journal, Communist Voice, we declared that the question of building the basis for the future communist movement would not be simply to repeat what was said and done in the past, even the best of the past. But to really take new developments into account required anti-revisionist communism which upheld Marxism-Leninism against revisionist distortions. Thus, the lead article of our inaugural issue stated:

. "But exposing capitalism is not enough. It is necessary to deal with the tragedy that befell the revolutionary movement. . . . We aim to revitalize communism, to once again bring Marxism to life, to preserve the spirit of the best accomplishments and struggles and theorizing of the past by rejecting all that has proved false and analyzing the needs of the new class struggle that is coming into being. We aim to lay a strong foundation for an anti-revisionist communism, a communism of the future, not a mere repetition of the past. We are Marxist-Leninists because real Marxism is critical and never-complacent and the only theory that can encompass the dramatic developments in the world today." (Emphasis as in the original)

. Sarah doesn't offer the slightest evidence that present-day realities contradict Marxism and require a new framework. While Sarah holds that Marxism is an outdated paradigm for studying new developments, what progress has the CWV made with their new "advanced" outlook? Sarah offers not even a hazy outline of an alternative framework. Nor does Sarah, presumably freed from the limits imposed on her by Marxism, offer any insight on questions of basic political orientation that are debated by left-wing activists. Indeed, today Sarah's article can do no more than repeat a call from four years ago that various political questions need re-examination.

New analysis or tired old thinking?

. While Sarah jettisons a Marxist framework, she presents her case in such a confusing way that for some it may be hard to understand just what paradigm she wants to replace. At one point she states that the paradigm which must be replaced is

"the 'official' socialism and 'Marxism' of the Soviet Union that was promoted at least since the 1930's, and its developments in various other regimes."

This might be taken to mean that Sarah is for the worthy goal of distinguishing between genuine Marxism on the one hand, and Stalinism and various other revisionist theories. But Sarah's article does the opposite -- she accepts Stalinism and "the official socialism" of the state-capitalist regimes as the real Marxism.

. Sarah talks about how new thinking is crucial to solve the crisis of left-wing theory. But throwing out the analysis that the revisionist regimes are state-capitalist means abandoning one of the crucial advances of the last several decades. Marx, Engels and Lenin did not live to make this analysis. It was the result of applying the framework they supplied to the new decades-long experience of state-capitalist systems developing under a Marxist banner. But the way Sarah presents the issue, Marxism can't guide us on the question of socialism because Marx, Engels and Lenin didn't give us a ready-made answer to all the new crises that would come up in the future. She sees Marxism as simply a dogmatic collection of pat answers and so can't understand how new advances have anything to do with Marxism-Leninism. Faced with the need to analyze various questions, she can only complain that Marxism (actually: she and the CWV) are "unable to answer" what socialism is and have a good deal of "difficulty describing the [socialist] system."

. But wait, doesn't Sarah hold that the new theory will "take in and account for the monumental work of Marx, Engels and Lenin?" Yes. But her account of Marxism-Leninism precludes any further development of this theory. Rather she praises Marxism while announcing its death. Keep in mind that even liberal economics professors can praise the monumental insights of Marxism provided that everyone realize that economic science has provided frameworks that render Marxism obsolete as a world-view. In similar fashion, Sarah relegates Marxism to the museum of great accomplishments of the past, while now we must strive to escape the impasse that the "one-sided" theories like Marxism have led to.

Sarah vs. Marxist materialism

. As mentioned earlier, Sarah argues that new advances in social sciences call into question "some of the classics of Marxist literature." Such a bold statement is not backed by the slightest argumentation in this or any other article published by the CWV, but is simply asserted. The issue isn't whether there has been valuable new information about how societies developed since the time of Marx. Obviously there has. The issue is whether the new scientific discoveries demolish the Marxist framework or tend to confirm it. Sarah obviously thinks that Marxism is demolished by them.

. Despite not giving a serious argument to back her views, Sarah does hint at what sort of problems Marxism allegedly has. Near the end of her article she mentions that "modern science is raising serious questions" about "some of the classics of Marxist literature, such as Plekhanov's The Monist View of History." She characterizes the issue at hand as "the nature vs. nurture debate." Sarah doesn't bother to explain what she means by "nature vs. nurture" or why Marxism is supposedly losing this debate.

. How then, does the issue of "nature or nurture," to use Sarah's terms, come up in Plekhanov's work? Plekhanov's book is a defense of Marxist historical materialism. The author shows how Marxism refuted the idealist notions that sought the ultimate cause of the historical development of human society in some innate "human nature." Plekhanov disposes of one after another of the idealist arguments. The view that Plekhanov defends is encapsulated in the famous passage from Marx's preface to A Critique of Political Economy which Plekhanov quotes in his work. According to Marx:

. "In the social production which men carry on they enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will; these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material forces of production. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society -- the real foundation on which rises a legal and political superstructure."

. Marxism does not deny that there is interaction between all the various factors that make up society. It does not deny that, for instance, there is mutual influence between ideas and society, politics and economics, etc. But Marxism does not stop there and reveals what ultimately causes all the various factors in human society to develop.

. For example, Marxism emphasizes that the political revolution of the proletariat is a precondition of transforming the economic base. This is an example of "interaction" on a grand scale. But Marxism shows that this "interaction" occurs precisely because of the underlying contradictions of the capitalist mode of production. The creation of a revolutionary proletariat and a political structure that lords over the oppressed are both inherent by-products of the laws of capitalist economic development. Thus, Marxism's pointing to the underpinnings of politics in the economic system doesn't negate politics, but directs attention to the necessary political tasks.If societal development could be explained simply by "interaction" between politics and economics, it would imply that any political policy could be successfully pasted together with any type of society. Instead of a revolutionary struggle to transform society, the proletariat should instead simply seek to graft on good policies to any society.

. This indeed is how Sarah visualizes the revisionist societies. She sees something wrong with them, but her article says nothing about this being on account of their being state-capitalist societies. For her, they are part good (they try to carry out Marxism) and part bad (they oppress the people). For her, they have "similarities and differences" with each other and with "left" capitalist regimes, like those of Mexico in the days of General Lazaro Cardenas, the founder of the PRI regime. And continuing on this way, we could truly say that the revisionist societies have similarities and differences with every society that has ever existed! But none of this gets to the question of what is the fundamental nature of these societies. Sarah has given up the idea that their particular features stem from their basic structure and she ignores the Marxist work that has been done to demonstrate the structure of the state-capitalist societies. She doesn't consider the detailed study of the state-capitalist economics and class relations in these societies as dealing with the "similarities and differences" that she is interested in, as she no longer accepts the Marxist materialist approach on these questions and because she doesn't agree with the conclusions that this materialist approach leads to.(2)

. Having revolted in practice against the economic materialist analysis of Cuba, the former Soviet Union, etc., it is no wonder that Sarah revolts against economic materialism in general. It is Marxism's finding of the underlying factors in human history that apparently rankles Sarah.

. Plekhanov showed that Marx's discovery was a great leap in understanding human societal development. Here we cannot reproduce Plekhanov's many arguments in support of Marx's historical materialism. They deserve serious study though, especially as they show that many of the objections since leveled at Marx's theory are based on the most superficial understanding, or misunderstanding, of what Marx had said. Instead we will just briefly indicate what Plekhanov's reasoning means as regards the problem defined by Sarah as "nature vs. nurture."

. A number of schools of thought prior to Marx, such as the French materialism of the Enlightenment, had already realized that the social environment shaped the nature of human beings. But what shaped the environment? They also realized that human intellectual development, human ideas concerning how things should be run and what was good or bad, impacted on the social environment. But if human nature is itself a product of the general social environment, clearly it cannot also be the root cause of human development. And if the social environment is shaped by human thought, then it too cannot be the independent cause of human development. Thus, finding that there's interaction between social environment and human nature leads to the question of what causes both the social environment and human nature to develop as they have throughout history. Faced with this problem, even materialist pre-Marxist schools of thought tended to fall back on "human nature" as the most fundamental cause of human development. It was Marxism that solved this riddle. As Plekhanov puts it:

. "Thus it turns out that the psychology of social man is determined by his position [social environment], and his position by his psychology. This is once again the antimony [contradiction] we know so well, with which the writers of the Enlightenment failed to grapple.. . .
. "It is only the historical theory of Marx that resolves the antimony. . . .
. "The qualities of the social environment are determined by the state of the productive forces in every given age. Once the state of the productive forces is determined, the qualities of the social environment are also determined, and so is the psychology corresponding to it, and the interaction between the environment on the one side and minds and manners on the other."(3)

. As noted above, Sarah is skeptical about how the Marxist classics like Plekhanov's book explain human social development. "Modern science" has left these views in the dust she says. But strangely, she doesn't see any need to explain how it is that modern science has disproved Marxism. Instead we are supposed to be impressed by references to "complex interplay" of different factors in human development. This may be the fashion among the various schools in the social sciences today. But just because it may be a popular trend among present-day academia doesn't make it correct.

. In fact, Plekhanov's Monist View shows how the theory of "interaction" between various factors in society explains very little in comparison to Marxism. Nor is the theory of "interaction" by any means a new theory. Plekhanov, for example, traces it's roots in the French materialists of the 1700s. He also points out that the fashionable sociology of his day (the last decade of the 19th century) promoted "interaction" theory. The intellectuals who thought this way were horrified by the alleged "one-sidedness" of Marxism. Plekhanov gives the following description of the sociologists of his day who opposed Marxism.

. "Usually, in questions of this kind, people confine themselves to discovering interaction: manners influence the constitution, constitution influences manners. Everything becomes as clear as daylight, and people who are not satisfied with clarity of this kind betray a tendency to one-sidedness worthy of every condemnation. That is how almost all our intellectuals argue at the present time. They look at social life from the point of view of interaction: each side of life influences all others and, in its turn, experiences the influence of all the others. Only such a view is worthy of a thinking 'sociologist', while those who, like the Marxists, keep on seeking for some more profound reasons or other for social development, simply don't see to what degree social life is complicated."(4)

. When Sarah reproaches Plekhanov, the Marxist classics and the MLP for "one-sidedness" and chides them because allegedly they have "not studied the complex interplay" of different factors, Sarah repeats the tired refrain that has sought to discredit Marxism from day one. Evidently, Sarah's idea of searching for a new paradigm for the left is to retreat to ideas that have already suffered bankruptcy and crisis 150 year ago!

. It should be noted that what is at stake here is not whether Marx or Plekhanov was right in each and every description of particular societies. Undoubtedly discoveries since their time have greatly added to the factual material on these matters. The disagreement with Sarah is over whether the accumulation of factual material has meant that the basic theory of why human society developed as it has is still valid. It should also be pointed out that while Plekhanov's book generally is quite good at elaborating the philosophy of Marxist materialism, Plekhanov degenerated politically and went so far as to go over to the camp of Russian social-chauvinism during World War I. Nevertheless, Lenin, despite being bitterly opposed to Plekhanov's political treachery, continued to promote studying Plekhanov's earlier elaboration of Marxist philosophy.It is precisely this correct part of Plekhanov which Sarah now finds dubious.

Lessons of MLP history

. Sarah's article also includes her brief rendition of MLP history. She recounts how over time the MLP and its predecessor organizations discarded their illusions in Maoism, Stalin's views, etc. as they learned they were incompatible with a really Marxist-Leninist stand. For comrades of the CVO, such progress inspires us to make our contribution to completing the anti-revisionist task. Sarah draws opposite conclusions. Instead of trying to deepen this struggle, Sarah has retreated to fashionable opportunist stands rightfully denounced long ago by the MLP.

. Sarah's account of MLP history is tailored so as to make her rejection of anti-revisionist work seem reasonable. To her, every trend with Marxist pretensions agreed with one or another regime that claimed to be Marxist and thus all these groups were about the same. She doesn't grasp that the trend which formed the MLP did not simply follow Mao or Stalin or Albania, but also developed its own views which were distinct from those advocated by these regimes and the other left trends. These distinct stands and policies of the trend which formed the MLP provided the basis for it to cast aside its illusions in Mao, Stalin and Albania. Can the same be said about other trends that supported a country that claimed to be Marxist? Do not the bulk of Trotskyists continue to prettify the revisionist regimes as workers' states despite whatever criticisms they may have? Don't they all continue to adhere to the dogmas of Trotsky in their overall stand? Do not the Maoists to this day base themselves on Mao's erroneous views? In contrast, the MLP repeatedly proved able to resolutely leave behind theories and practices that hindered the revolutionary struggle no matter if it meant standing up to the big existing trends.

. But the issue is not simply how one evaluates how the MLP did in its attempt to uphold Marxism against opportunism. The issue is whether one moves forward to a better, more complete anti-revisionist stand or gives up the fight. For Sarah, the collapse of the MLP is more evidence that Marxism has led nowhere. We used to have pat answers, she argues, and now we have nothing but unanswered questions. But actually the process of discarding answers that prove incorrect or inadequate marks the advance of knowledge. Sarah says that discarding illusions in Stalin, Mao and Albania meant "the MLP now had difficulty describing the system that was its goal." Yes, it would have been much more convenient if there was a socialist society around that we could point to as a goal. But the years of re-examining Soviet history and the principles of Marxist socialism meant a great increase in understanding the issues involved in building a socialist society and how such a society differs from the revisionist state-capitalism that eventually developed.

. Not everyone in the MLP saw it that way, though. The fact that there was no socialist country to turn to for guidance meant that those who wanted to develop the critique of revisionist society and uphold genuine communism would not have a ready-made model of how to achieve the goals of Marxism-Leninism. It was clear that those who wanted to develop anti-revisionism were on their own. This led to a loss of confidence and orientation for many who used to be in the MLP and was a factor in its collapse in 1993. Sarah has now followed suit. She has reached the conclusion that the loss of a country to call socialist is the same as loss of orientation in general and that, therefore, Marxism can no longer provide a framework for revolutionaries and one can no longer be sure about the socialist goal itself.

Collapsing into the arms of fashionable opportunism

. For all the talk of new thinking, Sarah's CWV group has lost its ability to stand up to the fashionable opportunism of the day. The Castro regime has become the last big hope of those promoting illusions in revisionism. The CWV has caved in to this. There are long-standing prejudices against the need for proletarian party organization among activists. The CWV has been belittling the need for a proletarian party. Instead they imagine that the role played by a genuine Marxist-Leninist trend can be replaced by a general left coalition. The popular idea among the left is that the present trade unions will be converted into real fighting organizations with some minor tinkering. The CWV continues to mouth phrases against the AFL-CIO union bureaucracy, but in practice it promoted that some meek local-level trade union bureaucrats would build a large and militant class movement.

. The common left "wisdom" is that solidarity with the uprisings of the masses around the world means reconciling with the petty-bourgeois nationalist views that often dominate these struggles today. The CWV, which prides itself on its solidarity with the Mexican movement, is unable to differentiate between proletarian politics and the petty-bourgeois radicalism prevalent there.They have difficulty separating themselves from the traditional Cardenista politics, a problem that has plagued the Mexican left to this day. In the late 1930s, General Lazaro Cardenas, the founder of the PRI system that is now tottering, co-opted much of the left, converting it into a sort of radical wing of the regime. Today, many leftists are channeled into being a militant vanguard for Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, Lazaro's son, who is trying to keep the anti-PRI struggle within reformist limits.

. Here we cannot elaborate on these issues. We've written on these matters and other issues of the CWV stand elsewhere. Our present purpose is simply to show that when the CWV abandoned anti-revisionism, it did not lead to some wonderful new concepts but enslavement to the prevailing opportunist views. The CWV has proven that dropping anti-revisionism meant dropping the Marxist stand on one issue after another. Finally it led to declaring against Marxism itself.


(1) "Toward an assessment of the present debate;" Chicago Workers' Voice Theoretical Journal #3; June 1, 1994; p. 5. The author is Sarah, who at that time wrote under the name "Julie." (Return to text)

(2) A number of articles in previous issues of Communist Voice have provided analysis of the economy and class structure of the former Soviet Union and Cuba. For example, on the Soviet Union there is the article "The anarchy of production beneath the veneer of Soviet revisionist planning" (Communist Voice, vol.3, #1; March 15, 1997) while on Cuba there are articles such as "Cuban 'socialism' adopts the Soviet state-capitalist model (CV, vol.3, #1) and "Cuba in the 1960s: Bureaucrats head to 'communism' without the workers" (CV, vol. 4, #2; April 20, 1998), the later of which appeared soon after Sarah's article dismissing Marxist materialism. (Text)

(3) The development of the Monist view of history; Part V.: Modern Materialism; subsection:"Ideology", bracketed remarks added. (Text)

(4) Ibid.; Part I. French materialism of the 18th century. (Text)

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