A Comment on Daniel Bensaid’s ‘What it Means to be a Marxist’

7 April 2021

Phil Hearse responds to ‘What it Means to be a Marxist’ a recent article posted on this site.

I was somewhat surprised by the Daniel Bensaid article, What it Means to Be a Marxist, published on this site. Daniel was a genuinely creative thinker, and an important political leader of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire in France, and of the Fourth International[1].

His early death was a tragedy for revolutionary Marxism globally. But no one is above criticism, not Marx, not Daniel. His article seems to be saying that there is no irreducible core of Marxism, which would identify it as a system of thought against other social theories. I disagree.

He says that he doesn’t use the term Marxist much anymore because:

“I wouldn’t say that I never use the term anymore, but I rarely say it, because the history of the word has taken over the meaning, the connotation has overtaken the signification. The word has been used for so many different and contradictory things that it can no longer be used innocently. There have been state-Marxisms, party-Marxisms… Today, we should speak of a thousand and one Marxisms. This pluralism flows from the very contradictions and historical limits of Marx’s thought. It is an open-ended heritage…”

The connotation overtook the signification a very long time ago in the 1930s when international Stalinism and its simplistic handbooks claimed to be genuine Marxism. Revolutionary socialists didn’t abandon the term Marxism in the face of that, and for very good reasons.

Daniel correctly criticises the attempt by Louis Althusser and his followers to turn Marxism into an exact science, if a complex one, similar to the physical sciences. But all science is ‘open-ended’ in the sense that its conclusions are provisional, and open to re-examination and redefinition. We have to accept some scientific conclusions are provisionally verified and usable in practice, otherwise, we could never build a bridge or design a vaccine. Open-endedness can only get you so far.

I take the core of Marxism, as a theory of society and history, to be encapsulated in the following, justly famous but much-maligned quote from the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy of 1859:

My inquiry led me to the conclusion that neither legal relations nor political forms could be comprehended whether by themselves or on the basis of a so-called general development of the human mind, but that on the contrary they originate in the material conditions of life… The general conclusion at which I arrived and which, once reached, became the guiding principle of my studies can be summarised as follows.

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. 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.[2]

There’s no doubt that in some earlier versions Marx gives a less happy account of the relationship between technological change and social systems, as in the equally famous quote from Poverty of Philosophy:

The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist.[3]

Actually, that is not a good summary of the argument that surrounds it, but no matter. In the Preface, Marx talks about the social relations of production being the ‘economic foundation’ of society (not technology or machinery). These relations give you a political and legal framework that ‘corresponds to’ that economic basis or is ‘appropriate’ to it. In other words, the social relations of production limit the political and legal structures that can arise with it.

So, for example, similar levels of production technique in feudal Europe and the early Ottoman empire in the 14th and 15th centuries give rise to different social relations and political structures—the ‘tributary’ society of the Ottoman Empire, against the society dominated by the feudal aristocracy in Western Europe[4]. The precise correspondence between technology, social relations, and political structures has to be investigated in each case. But there is a close interaction and determination between them, otherwise, Marxism is useless and doesn’t mean anything. It is this insight of Marx’s, explained in the Preface, that enables us to understand the social basis of neoliberalism and fascism, the role of social democracy, the origin of modern racism in the slave trade, or the role of pre-capitalist (bourgeois) ideology in maintaining capitalism.

Numerous authors have argued the deficiencies of Marxism in theorising women’s oppression and nature (and hence the climate crisis). Or that Marxism needs to be re-founded to integrate the insights of feminism or environmentalism, to adequately understand the modern civilisational crisis. But this works two ways. An adequate transformational strategy has to centrally locate the insights of Marxism about capitalism and class society.

In an interview that I did with him two decades ago, Daniel himself argued that the struggle against capitalism was the ‘great unifier’ in the fight for radical social alternatives:

If you consider these arenas (of oppressions and struggle-PH) are not structured in a hierarchy, but simply juxtaposed, then perhaps you could devise a tactic of putting together changing coalitions (‘rainbow coalitions’ on immediate questions). But there would be no solid strategic convergence in such an approach.

That I think, on the contrary, that within a particular mode of production (capitalism), relations of exploitation and class conflict constitute an overarching framework which cuts across and unifies the other contradictions. Capital itself is the great unifier that subordinates every aspect of social production and reproduction, remodelling the function of the family, determining the social division of labour, and submitting humanity’s conditions of social reproduction to the law of value. If that is indeed the case, a party, and not simply the sum of social movements, is the best agent of conscious unification.[5]

In the current article on this website, Daniel says the following:

In order to understand our world, instead of being content with criticising and denouncing, Marx’s thinking remains a starting point – but of course not a point of arrival! Braudel said that if we wanted to put an end to Marxism, we would need to heavily police our vocabulary. Elements of Marx’s thought have become part of the everyday prose of our time, even of those who are not at all Marxists. So, for me, being a Marxist means keeping these tools for understanding the world, not in order to preserve them but to bring them to life. It means thinking that this world cannot be reformed by touching it up, that it must be changed, and that the urgency for this is greater than ever.

So which tools should we keep from Marx that enable us to understand society? The ones about class, about modes of production, about the capitalist state, about capitalist exploitation? If you hold all that, then you are a Marxist, and what’s the problem about saying so loud and clear?

Elsewhere in his article on this site, Daniel argues that Marxism is not a set of finalised theorises, to be locked up in a safe and guarded, but an approach to new understandings. This seems to me to parallel Lukacs’ argument in What is Orthodox Marxism?, that Marxism refers only to a method and not to particular theories or conclusions. This is one-sided and misleading. What use is a methodological approach that doesn’t come up with definitive (although open to review and revision) theories? Like the idea that capitalism is a system of exploitation, that fossil fuel capitalism is destroying the planet, that the repressive apparatuses of the state— the army and police— defend capitalism.

On the basis of the above, I do not like the idea of ‘many Marxisms’, or rather think it useful only within certain limits. Can Guy Debord, theorist of the capitalist spectacle, be regarded as a Marxist thinker? Obviously yes, even if ignored or traduced by orthodox Trotskyists (with the notable exception of Michel Lowy)[6].

Can Michel Foucault, nowadays the most popular theorist of power other than Marx in universities globally, be similarly regarded? In my opinion ‘no’. Because his theory of power, that power is everywhere and not structured via classes and states, is not amenable to any kind of Marxism, and indeed directly opposed to it.[7]

The Italian novelist and cultural theorist Umberto Eco made an accurate observation about postmodernism. He said that he could see nothing in it except a repetition of the basic idea of the ultra-reactionary German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, that everything is a matter of opinion[8].

Everything is not a matter of opinion or a matter of theoretical choice and debate. Marxism is based on the idea that the real world can be interrogated, and definite conclusions about it drawn, even if these are partial and provisional. The many approaches within Marxism have to share this common materialist basis.

Marxism is based on the idea that the real world can be interrogated, and definite conclusions about it drawn, even if these are partial and provisional.

Daniel Bensaid was of course a harsh critic and opponent of postmodernism. As you would expect from a leading exponent of revolutionary Marxism.

[1] See Daniel Bensaid, An Impatient Life, Verso 2010 https://www.versobooks.com/books/1837-an-impatient-life. This is an amazing book that any socialist would benefit from reading.
See also the interview with him about it here. https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/1662-astonished-by-the-past-daniel-bensaid-s-an-impatient-life-reviewed
[2] https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/preface-abs.htm
[3] https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/poverty-philosophy/
[4] See Perry Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State https://www.versobooks.com/books/1837-an-impatient-life
[5] https://www.marxists.org/archive/bensaid/2001/11/leninism.htm.
[6] See Michel Lowy, Consumed by Night’s Fire at https://www.radicalphilosophy.com/author/michael-lowy
[7] A basic introduction to Foucault and Power is at https://www.powercube.net/other-forms-of-power/foucault-power-is-everywhere/
[8] A more elaborated consideration by Eco of Nietzsche and truth can be found at https://nuovorealismo.files.wordpress.com/2012/12/eco_wcp.pdf

Phil Hearse is a joint author of System Crash: an activist guide to making revolution, just published by Resistance Books.

Phil Hearse is a member of Anti*Capitalist Resistance and joint author of both Creeping Fascism and System Crash.

Join the discussion