Greatest Marxists poll

by Chris Bertram on November 9, 2003

Chris Brooke (the target of my comments in the post immediately below) has been blogging much of interest recently. He’s noticed “Josh Cherniss’s Greatest Marxists poll”: and “gives his opinion”: :

bq. I went for Gramsci, Luxemburg, Benjamin, Adorno and Habermas, raising a querymark over whether the last one was allowed, and worrying over whether this list was a little too full of the Frankfurt School.

All in all, a pretty rum set of choices if you ask me. The only one of them who would make my list is Rosa Luxemburg. Gramsci has always struck me as (a) unreadable and (b) uninteresting and — as Chris admits — Habermas wasn’t a Marxist (but then nor were Adorno and Benjamin). Whatever his faults, there’s no question that Leon Trosky should top the poll.

Trotsky should get the award for the creative adaptation of classical Marxism to new and unforseen political and social circumstances on at least three separate occasions (1) the dynamics of revolution in underdeveloped societies and the connection between those events and the world revolution (the theory of permanent revolution) (2) the analysis of the the degeneration and corruption of the Soviet state and (3) the rise of fascism in Germany. In writing of these events he managed a level of analysis coupled with reportage reminiscent of some of Marx’s own best work such as the _Class Struggles in France_ and _The 18th Brumaire_ .

As for the other four: Vladimir Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Kautsky and Georg Lukacs get my vote (the last named for _History and Class Consciousness_ rather than for anything later).

[None of these commendations, I should note, implies any kind of moral or political endorsement. But if asked about who the greatest Marxists after Marx were, one should, in my opinion, name those who most creatively developed and applied Marx’s own methods of social analysis. Literary scribblers and misplaced German romantics just don’t cut the mustard.]



Wag 11.09.03 at 8:10 pm

Crooked Timber? Wasn’t that a rumor about President Clinton?


The Shamrockshire Eagle, editor and sole proprietor of 11.09.03 at 8:19 pm

Oh, come now. By “greatest Marxists” (as opposed to say, “greatest
political activists” or “greatest Communists”) we surely mean people
who made a sizeable *theoretical* contribution to Marxism, no?
What was Trotsky’s contribution to Marxist thought, pray? Adorno
and Benjamin were certainly Marxists, a fact most demonstrated
by their refulsal to regard “Marxism” as a corpus of invariant
doctrine; I’ll grant you Habermas is not, though. My top five,
in no particular order:

Karl Korsch,
Paul Mattick,
James Connolly (call it social chauvinism if you will ;-|)


Ophelia Benson 11.09.03 at 8:28 pm

Not Vladimir Lenin, by the way. Nor Volodya neither. My Russian history teacher (a lovely if corpulent Polish man) taught me long ago that that’s a solecism. Lenin is just Lenin, tout court. It’s a nom de guerre, it doesn’t take the legal names along with it. The guy is either V.I. Ulyanov, or Lenin, nothing in between. Same with Lev Davidovich and Iosif Vissarioniovich, too.

I would nominate Isaac Deutscher as a great Marxist…


Chris Bertram 11.09.03 at 8:36 pm

Ophelia, weren’t books published in his lifetime under the V.I. Lenin moniker? If so, that’s presumably with his approval and we should take him as authoritative about the shape of his own pseudonym.

Shamrocksire Eagle: ” _What was Trotsky’s contribution to Marxist thought, pray?_ ” To repeat myself: theory of permanent revolution, analysis of fascism, theory of the Soviet Union’s degeneration.

( BTW I seem to remember that Arthur Stinchcombe in his _Constructing Social Theories_ [?] says that it is one of his greatest regrets as as professional sociologist to have been unable to persuade people of Trotsky’s merits as a social theorist.)


Jaybird 11.09.03 at 8:42 pm

I suspect that had Trotsky “beaten” Stalin, Stalin would have done better in the poll.

And there would be a lot of talk in certain quarters about how Marxism still has never been tried and, man, what if Stalin had won against Trotsky?


Ophelia Benson 11.09.03 at 9:24 pm

Hmm – don’t know, Chris. I only remember how emphatic that teacher was – one got the impression that calling him V.I. Lenin was the equivalent of blowing one’s nose on the table cloth. Nyet kulturni, sort of thing.


schnauze 11.09.03 at 9:36 pm

what about rudolf hilferding? his theory of the state may be pretty week, but his explanation of the role of finance in capitalism is, to me, still very impressive.


Will 11.09.03 at 9:44 pm

What about the donnish recent crop: G.A. Cohen et. al? I thought _Karl Marx’s Theory of History_ was rather good.

I don’t suppose a suggestion of Fred Jameson or even Antonio Negri would be met with wide agreement.

Incidentally, I also wonder if any scientists still have a good reputation for their Marxism — Pannekoek, Haldane, and Bernal, for instance.


Matt 11.09.03 at 10:14 pm


I can’t speak about the good-old-days, but pleanty of people now in Russia who are Ochen kulturni are happy to call Lenin Vladimire Lenin. And children, for years, were told stories of “young Lenin”, where he was volodya, and not volodya ulyinov, for sure. At least this is what my ex-young pioner wife tells me.



Matt 11.09.03 at 10:15 pm

Oh yeah- I’d give a vote for Alec Nove, though he’d probably not be happy to hear himself called a ‘marxist’, given his criticism of Marx. A damn-good and under appreciated thinker, though.


Henry 11.09.03 at 10:18 pm

Agree re: Trotsky on fascism – some very intelligent, and sharply written stuff. I always wondered how the SWP crowd – never shy about describing their intellectual opponents as fascists – squared this with Trotsky’s devastating critique of the Third International’s simplistic take on Social Democracy as “Social Fascism” &c. As Trotsky pointed out, the Third International saw the change from Weimar democracy to Bruening and then to Hitler as just being one form of fascism succeeding another.


Brett Bellmore 11.09.03 at 10:19 pm

Why would anybody be interested in the “greatest” adherents to a political philosophy which demonstrably leads to genocide when put into practice?

You’d tear the right a new orifice if they started polling to decide who the greatest facists were. Explain why this effort shouldn’t meet with equal (Or proportionately greater, given the relative butcher bills!) contempt?


Kieran Healy 11.09.03 at 11:29 pm

Why would anybody be interested in the “greatest” adherents to a political philosophy which demonstrably leads to genocide when put into practice?


You’d tear the right a new orifice if they started polling to decide who the greatest facists were.

I’d vote for Carl Schmitt.


jam 11.09.03 at 11:39 pm

Eduard Bernstein, anyone? Kautsky? Jaures? Lafargue?

Or are we (re)defining Marxism as Leninism?


Ophelia Benson 11.10.03 at 12:28 am

Oh, okay, thanks Matt. I stand corrected. Beg pardon, Chris.

(Dang, I’ve been believing that for years and years, and now I have to remember to stop believing it, such a nuisance.)


The Shamrockshire Eagle, editor and sole proprietor of 11.10.03 at 12:31 am

Trotsky’s contributions to Marxism:

“theory of permanent revolution,”

Nothing there that wasn’t already in Marx — or in Lenin’s theory of
“uninterrupted revolution”, if you want to pick hairs. But it’s not a
new contribution to Marxism, simply a theorectical justification of a
political line he wanted to follow.

“analysis of fascism,”

A very poor one.

“theory of the Soviet Union’s degeneration.”

A theory which amounts to no more than, “Oi! Djugashvilli! *I*
wanted to do that!”

> Or are we (re)defining Marxism as Leninism?

It seems some of us are…


msw 11.10.03 at 1:24 am

Maybe this is too practical, but for bringing the whole thing to an unexpectedly non-nuclear end, I’d have to vote for Gorby.



Timothy Burke 11.10.03 at 1:36 am

Granted that making a distinction between practicioner and theorist is already an intense violation of Marx’s thought, but I think I would agree a bit with the rubbishing of Trotsky as a great Marxist thinker. Not only do I think his theoretical contributions are not especially distinguished on a tightly drawn list, I think Trotsky comes out as high as he does in some estimations entirely because some wish to maintain a lineal connection to the Bolshevik Revolution; his place in some canons rests in the end on not being Stalin. Moreover, if you want to maintain Chris’ criteria that Marxist thought isn’t so interesting as analytic applications of Marxist thought, well, swab me, you can’t exactly wash your hand of the disastrous consequences of said applications. You want to have your actually existing praxis, you’re going to have to answer for it.

I also cannot grasp the need to knock Gramsci as unreadable. Let’s toss the whole damn list if that’s one of the central evaluative standards, eh? Except maybe Benjamin. Adorno, Lukacs, even Luxumburg, not exactly summer beach reading, you know.


Brett Bellmore 11.10.03 at 1:45 am

150,000,000 dead, give or take a bit. “Yawn” indeed…


Conrad Barwa 11.10.03 at 2:50 am

I am confused to as to what exactly one means by greatest Marxists, especially troubling given Marx’s own distancing of himself from nay of his self-proclaimed followers. I think some strands are overlooked; Benjamin and Adorno can definitely count as Marxists; while the latter displays the typical elitist pessimism of the Frankfurt School and could be said to incline towards a more idealist reading of historical development much of the core of his thought was inspired by Marx and as for Benjamin I don’t think it can be doubted that Marxism formed an important bedrock of his thinking; the problem lay in his rather weird interpretation of it. However some strands of thought seems absent here, one should also be clear about whether those who could be described as “Marxian” as those who use essentially Marxist ideas and tropes as a basic part of their own work but who don’t share necessarily in conventional Marxist politics or teleological views of history. An example of this I think would be Kondratieff
And his theory of Long-Waves of development; which I don’t think could have been written without relying on Marx’s ideas about capitalist development and historical materialism, on the other Kondratieff’s refusal to see an internal collapse of capitalism led him to be rejected by the orthodox Communist parties of his day. Much of this kind of thinking was taken up in the 1970s by the ‘Regulation School’ and their analysis of new structures of capitalist accumalation in the Post-Fordist era, again an essentially Marxist methodology but one which pessimistically saw no proletarian utopia at the end. The same debate could be had over World System Theorists and dependency thinkers; and whether important figures like Wallerstein, Frank and Arrighi can be said to be Marxist thinkers or not. Certainly their contribution would be difficult to think of without Marxism.

But as for great Marxist/Marxian thinkers, I think some of the best work on Nationalism should be up here; from Otto Bauer and the other Austro-Marxists to more modern approaches like Tom Nairn(on the break-up of Britian), Michale Lowy and the Anderson brothers. Perry Anderson’s work on Feudalism and the absolutist state and Benedict Anderson’s classic on “imagined communities” are among the best ever written on this topic. Also one of the earliest thinkers on Orientalism who developed the idea along with Tibi and Said was Bryan S. Turner who ties in the ideological critique of control of knowledge much tighter with the actual economic expansion of the time and the control over circulation relating the cultural and material spheres in a more systematic manner than his more well known peers.

A word should also be said on Althusser, who whatever one thinks of his ideas has had a huge impact on post1945 thought; his influence on later post-structuralist and post-modernist thinkers like Foucault and Derrida is apparent (the last two both being erstwhile members of the decidedly Stalinist PCF) even though they later moved away from mainstream Marxism as another ‘meta-narrative’ they retained along with Braudrillard, Lyotard and other similar thinkers the heavy print of Marxist ideas in their views of political economy and social relations. Their influence on contemporary “Post-Marxists” such as the political geographers David Harvey and Nigel Thrift as well as social theorists like Slavoj Zizek (with the rest of the ‘Slovene’ School) and Michel Pecheux should not be underrated. In the fields of anthropology, some mention should be made of Levi-Strauss, whose Marxism was an important influence on his ideas about structuralist anthropology, which in many ways is a marriage of Marxist epistemology and anthropological fieldwork. As for sociology, surely one of the giants of the field, Pierre Bourdieu should be counted with his important contributions to the field, with concepts such as doxa, habitus, and analysis of class relations in the areas of cultural and symbolic capital. His work on relating mundane aspects of social life, such as taste in music, sport, food to socio-economic structures is one of the most innovative applications of Marxist thinking one can think of and he is probably one of the most original and important post-1945 Marxist thinkers. Georges Lefebvre’s work on the practises of everyday life and the production of space have also had a crucial impact in the way many social scientists and theorists think about these topics today and is another novel application of Marxist thinking to a new subject area. The same thing can be said to other figures who in sometimes not so over ways allowed their Marxism to influence their seminal contributions to their field as in natural science (Gould) archaeology (Childe) linguistics (Bakhtin-Voloshinov) and the more obvious historians and regional specialists: Fred Halliday, Hobsbawn, Stedman-Jones, Carr, Robin Blackburn, Du Bois, CLR James etc.


Kieran Healy 11.10.03 at 2:50 am

150,000,000 dead, give or take a bit. “Yawn” indeed…

Marx put it better than me, in a recent interview.


alkali 11.10.03 at 4:00 am

>You’d tear the right a new orifice if they started polling to decide who the greatest facists were.

I’d vote for Carl Schmitt.

I’d plump for Heidegger.


wcw 11.10.03 at 5:11 am

what, not Marinetti? at least the Futurists generated some great art.


David W. 11.10.03 at 6:47 am

If we’re getting into contemporary theorists, how about some consideration for Mike Davis? I doubt the analytical philosophers around here will have much use for him, but his book on L.A. was one of the most literate, paranoid, brilliant pieces of Marxism in action I’ve ever seen.


dsquared 11.10.03 at 8:28 am

150,000,000 dead, give or take a bit.

If by “give or take” you mean “give”, and by “a bit”, you mean “25% of the highest estimate in the Black Book of Communism”, I suppose you could make this point, but you do run the risk of being accused of pulling numbers out your ass.


Chris Bertram 11.10.03 at 8:32 am

Leaving aside the Shamrockshire Eagle’s perverse and inaccurate view of Trotsky (we aren’t going to see eye to eye on this one), it is clear that people bring very different preoccupations to this discussion.

FWIW, as someone influenced by analytical Marxism, I’m pretty disinclined to take seriously the claims of wittering and confused neo-Hegelian philosophers to “great Marxist” status. Positive social theory and concrete analysis is what I want to see from plausible contenders. The one great exception I’ll allow is Lukacs for his brilliant synthesis of Marx, Hegel and Weber that somehow rethought the young Marx in theory before the 1844 MS were known. All subsequent neo-Hegelians are variously charlatans, lightweights, obscurantists and dilettantes. Fighting words I know!


Brett Bellmore 11.10.03 at 10:56 am

Oh, that’s a rousing defense of Marxism, that it only killed in the neighborhood of a hundred million. lol Whereas Kieran resorts to the, “Nobody who tried to put it into practice was REALLY a Marxist.”

For that matter, I doubt the people in power in Nazi Germany were such pure facists. But facism got the blame, rightfully, and marxism ought to take the hit for Pol Pot’s stacks of skulls, too.

I blame it on the fact that we were in a hot war with facism, which forced the right to purge it’s obvious brownshirts, while Stalin was our nominal ally in WWII, and the subsequent war was mostly cold. So the left didn’t have to purge itself of it’s totalitarian theorists. An accident of history, in other words. Still, you ought to be able to show SOME judgement, without being forced to!


Conrad Barwa 11.10.03 at 12:24 pm

I’m pretty disinclined to take seriously the claims of wittering and confused neo-Hegelian philosophers to “great Marxist” status [……..] All subsequent neo-Hegelians are variously charlatans, lightweights, obscurantists and dilettantes.

Hmm, could perhaps be said to be true of Marxist philosophers; but this depends on how the dichotomy between analytical and dialectical Marxism is played out. Each stream tends to disregard the contributions of the other and I see no reason to privelege analytical Marxism.

On the other hand, it is not true of important Marxist thinkers; since many thinkers have made very significant contributions to fields outside philosophy that stand up much better than some of the old classical figures. Someone like Bourdieu or Bakhtin is just in a different (superior) class than Kautsky or Trotsky; it is no use pretending otherwise in the impact and relevance they have had on their relative disciplines.


Thomas 11.10.03 at 1:30 pm

‘All subsequent neo-Hegelians are variously charlatans, lightweights, obscurantists and dilettantes.’

All except Guy Debord, I’m sure you meant to say.


Andrew Edwards 11.10.03 at 2:03 pm



David W. 11.10.03 at 3:00 pm

Forgot about Fanon. Also, there has been no mention of any of the great Marxist-feminists, although part of the problem is that it’s hard to choose one (many made good contributions, noone seems dominant).

Brett, do you frequent Christian theology discussions, droning on about how noone takes the inquisition seriously?


will 11.10.03 at 6:09 pm

Sidney Hook just occurred to me.


josh 11.10.03 at 6:36 pm

Wow, what a great discussion going on here! I encourage all the contributors to send their nominations for 5 top (NB: not necessarily the same as ‘greatest’, as I explain on my blog) Marxists to me via e-mail.
Also, just a response to Brett Bellmore: I’m sympathetic to the point, but I would like to point out that 1)The poll is for Marxists, not Communists or Leninists. This isn’t to absolve Marx from any responsibility for inspiring the ruthlessness and brutality of his followers; nor is it to insist on a line between Marxist/good and Communist/bad. I do think that at least some of the seeds of Communist inhumanity are found in Marx’s own ideas, and I do think that Marxism as a political movement has a pretty dubious track record (as a theoretical position it’s also flawed, of course, but I don’t see this as the same sort of moral problem). But that shouldn’t prevent us either from a)recognizing the way in which Marxism, for better and, I’d say more often, for worse has transformed the world (hence the value of a list of ‘greatest’ Marxists), or the internal diversity, and moral variability, of the Marxist intellectual tradition (as jam notes, there’s a whole tradition of Revisionist and Parliamentarian Marxism, against Communism, that’s well worth defending).
Also, since I take it Brett’s initial contribution was meant to suggest that anyone who even contemplates having, let alone initiates, a poll like this must be insufficiently aware of the horrors and evils of Communism, I should perhaps note that I am not now, nor have I ever been, a Marxist, let alone a Communist; indeed, I’m politically staunchly, even somewhat rabidly, anti-Communist, and philosophically anti-Marxist, though not unsympathetic to some strains of Marxist theory.
As for greatest fascists, why not? Except that it’s not nearly as rich and varied an intellectual tradition. But, if we are taking nominations, how about Leo Strauss …
Kidding. I’m kidding.


Brett Bellmore 11.10.03 at 6:48 pm

“Brett, do you frequent Christian theology discussions, droning on about how noone takes the inquisition seriously?”

If the inquisition were recent history, I might. Especially if it had been remotely as deadly as communism… Fortunately, although Christians don’t generally admit to it, Christianity is more of a lifestyle these days, than a serious religion. Which goes a long way towards explaining why they don’t still burn heretics at the stake, and I can survive publicly admitting to being an atheist. If only Muslims were half so unserious about their religion…


Tom 11.10.03 at 11:37 pm

Bernstein, Martov, Plekhanov, Djilas, Dubcek, Nagy.


zizka 11.11.03 at 2:53 am

Another vote for Mike Davis.

I don’t think that Stephen J. Gould was really a Marxist. He grew up in a Marxist environment, never went neo-con, and casually gave some credit to Marxist dialectics as an influence, but that’s about it.

Leo Strauss was authoritarian but I don’t think you can call him fascist, since he was strongly anti-populist and unfriendly to nationalism.


dsquared 11.11.03 at 1:00 pm

Oh, that’s a rousing defense of Marxism, that it only killed in the neighborhood of a hundred million

If you look carefully at my post, you’ll see no defence of Marxism, rousing or otherwise. It was purely and simply an attack at you, Brett, for being a bullshitter. I note that you offered no defence against this charge (rousing or otherwise) and therefore tacitly admit that you are a bullshitter, you bullshitter.


josh 11.11.03 at 6:17 pm

Thanks zizka — the comment on Strauss was facetious, as I tried to indicate; he was of course — contra Lyndon Larouche and a good many ill-informed commentators in the press and blogosphere — not a fascist. Indeed, I’m not convinced he was even an authoritarian, though he does sometimes seem to point that way, and I think he was certainly a sort of elitist. But I really shouldn’t have brought up the Strauss canard again.
The lists continue to be impressive; but I’m disappointed that, so far as I can see, Riazanov hasn’t come up yet …


roger 11.11.03 at 8:46 pm

How about Engels? Weird how nobody remembers Engels. I’d have to say I don’t see how Bourdieu and Bakhtine are different, improved models of … well, any previous Marxist. For me, the creative use of Marxism, instead of adherence to some ultra purified reading of Marx, is what makes a Marxist great. If you accept that premise, then the Sartre of Critique of Dialectical Reason — and the notebooks on violence — and the Deleuze of the anti-Oedipus period are my nominations.


Doug Muir 11.12.03 at 9:18 am

Nice to see that someone remembered Djilas: theorist, practitioner, writer, thinker, active revolutionary. And subsequent long-term political prisoner, of course.

IMO his critique of Communism-as-actually practiced beats Trotsky all hollow.

Doug M.


Doug Muir 11.12.03 at 9:39 am

I was wondering who would cite the _Prospect_ article; not too surprised that it was Kieran.

If I had more spare time, and didn’t think that someone else was already doing it, it would be fun to take that thing apart. It’s a remarkably feeble apologia, and just plain wrong in a number of spots — frex, there’s no way that Marx, or even his ghost, would descripe Sephardic Jews as ‘clever people of good stock, who know the value of money’.

In all seriousness, Brett raises a legitimate point, whether his numbers are good or not.
Marxism in practice has proven to be a remarkably destructive doctrine. By any measure, institutions self-identifying as Marxist have killed far more people than those self-identifying as fascist. The fact that only one person is pointing this out — and that he’s getting responses like “yawn” and “your numbers are off, bullshitter” — is a little disturbing.

I realize this is a lefty blog, but, well, refusal to acknowledge and deal squarely with these sorts of issues is a lot of what’s wrong with the left today. “La la la, not relevant” is just not a meaningful response to the many and vast horrors perpetrated in Marx’s name… though I suppose it goes a fair way towards explaining the moral confusion and political impotence of today’s far left.

Doug M.


Doug Muir 11.12.03 at 10:08 am

Whoops, missed Josh’s post. My bad. Good, thoughtful response; thanks, Josh.

However, I think it says a lot that it took a non-Marxist to make it. The repeated and horrific failures of Marxist ideas in practice remain the elephant in the kitchen for most modern-day Marxists AFAICT.

Doug m.


schnauze 11.12.03 at 10:15 am

voloshinov/bakhtin was a great thinker, but as a marxist simply doesn’t hold up. “marxism and the philosophy of language” has perhaps one throwaway reference to marx (i think in the first few pages). the book is about saussure, flaubert, style indirect libre etc.

i’m equally mystified by the notion of bourdieu as a marxist.


Chris Bertram 11.12.03 at 11:40 am


I’m sorry to say that I find your remarks completely misguided. The ground are multiple, but for starters:

1. The fact that a regime or a movement self-identifies as Marxist doesn’t make it Marxist. If, on examination, it turns out not to be Marxist then none of its misdeeds can reasonably be laid at the door of KM.

2. You write as if Marx produced some kind of recipe, which people then tried to cook with disastrous consquences. He didn’t.

3. The great bulk of Marx’s writings (and those of his followers) don’t consist of prescriptive formulas but of claims about how the world is. Some of those claims are false, but even those that are false are often so in interesting ways. Marx often asks the right questions about society even if we disagree with his answers. Intelligent social scientists and philosophers (I’ll mention Max Weber as a case in point) have always acknowledged the virtues and merits of Marx’s work, and of the work of his followers. The comparison with fascism (which isn’t even in the same class of object! – it sits alongside socialism, communism, liberalism, conservativism etc as a political doctrine) is just puerile in the light of Marx’s deserved social scientific standing.

4. There have always been Marxists (and self-defined Marxists) who have set themselves full square against all the tyrannies that describe themselves as Marxist. Those people have gone under many labels, and many of them have died for their beliefs. Indeed, they were among the first victims of the Gulag. You surely know this. You berate the “left” for failing to ask whether there is anything in Marx’s ideas that is conducive to tyranny. But if you had looked, you would find that socialists and Marxists of various kinds have been asking that question for the past 80-odd years (or longer). They have tried to address it seriously in the light of this or that specific claim in Marx’s writings, the “Marxism-leads-to-tyranny” brigade are usually saying no more that “post hoc ergo propter hoc”.

5. Suppose that, on examination, we decide that some error or omission in Marx’s political writings made tyrannical action by later Marxists more likely (and I doubt that a stronger claim than than can plausibly be made), that would not establish the falsity or worthlessness (or whatever) of, say, the materialist conception of history.


Conrad Barwa 11.12.03 at 3:32 pm

voloshinov/bakhtin was a great thinker, but as a marxist simply doesn’t hold up. “marxism and the philosophy of language” has perhaps one throwaway reference to marx (i think in the first few pages). the book is about saussure, flaubert, style indirect libre etc.

Actually this is not really true. Firstly Marxism and the Philosophy of Lnaguage is a rejection of Saussure’s linguistic determinism; as Voloshinov saw language primarily as a form of social interaction that couldn’t be separated from their spatio-temporal and material context and not as a Saussurean independent system of self-referential signs. Also unlike Saussure’s structuralist approach Voloshinov argued that language could not be separated from its context to have proper meaning; his ideas of muilt-accentuality and utterance located the meaning of language within the social relations from which they originated and was an attempt to tie it into the class-struggle narrative. In contrast to Sassure, language here was seens as incredibly sensitive to social relaity which it was held to “reflect and refract”; the Sausserian distinctions between langue and parole were erased and language was analysed both as a system and as a process.

Secondly Voloshinov himself like other fellow linguists, Medvedev was unqeustionably a Marxist – not of the orthodox variety to be sure, but one nonetheless – I have not heard anybody seriously assert the opposite. Bakhtin on the other hand has a more ambigious relationship with Marxism, early on in life he was a member of the secret sect Voskresenie led by Alexander Meier, which supported the Bolshevik economic policy but opposed their atheistic cultural policy; along with other important members like Pumpianskii and Iudina; the members sought to combine their quasi-Messianic interpretation of Christianity with social revolution. Certainly Bakhtin’s attitude towards Communism soured after Stalin and his exile; and there can said to be a real tension within his work between his desire to reconcile historical materialism with neo-Kantian idealist philosophy, but mcuh of the central tenets of his later work are based on Marxist thought and could not be possible without them. I think the term Marxian is accurate for Bakhtin.

i’m equally mystified by the notion of bourdieu as a marxist.

You may want to look at the context of the discussion here. Bourdieu wasn’t a member of the fashionable leftist crowd from the ENS that joined the PCF in the 1950s but his criticisms of leftist French intellectuals of the period all come from their failure to hold a really leftist position on issues of the time like the Algerian war. The infleunce of Althusserian structuralism on his early work like “Sociologie de l’Algérie”, “Travail et Travailleurs en Algérie” (, “Le Déracinement” is very clear and as he himself noted in Pascalian Meditations all effective social analysis must begin with Marx. In his later work, the concepts of symbolic and cultural capital and their circulation within their respective economies as well as the great discussion of class relations and the impact they have on cultural taste amongst different fractions of the bourgeosie and the working class in his magnus opus “Distinction” is heavily Marixst – indeed would be difficult to understand outside a Marxist framework. Bourdieu provides powerful contributions to debates at the heart of Marxist theory, in particular with regard to cultural production (The Rules of Art) and consumption (Distinction) and in his analysis of the state and the role played by bureaucracy and education in the reproduction of its domination (Reproduction, Homo Academicus, The State Nobility). The argument which runs through these works is that the ruling class ensures its hold over the means of ideological production, not simply because of the fact of its control, but because it is able to legitimise its privileged status by disguising it as the result of meritocratic triumph through sheer talent. Thus several times, and in quite conventional Marxist terms, Bourdieu asserts the general primacy of the economic, in the Althusserian turn of phrase that economic capital is “always at the root in the last analysis” (“The Sociologist in Question”). It is true that elsewhere he is more circumspect, as where he admits that “in advanced capitalist societies, it would be difficult to maintain that the economic field does not exercise especially powerful determinations” while simultaneously asking “should we then for that reason admit the postulate of its (universal) ‘determination in the last instance’?” . This, however, may still be in accord with a developed theory of cultural capital once it is realised that the economic field is but a part of the general economy of practices (and hence “economic theory . . . [but] a particular instance, historically dated and situated, of the theory of fields” . If there is a parallelism between the cultural and the economic marked by the presence of specific forms of capital in both fields, rather than a dependency of the former on the latter, then what is at issue is the determination of the economic within the cultural, in other words the nature of cultural capital itself. Thus the economic could be seen as determinant in particular situations even if this were an economic logic proper to the field of culture. Again, however, this argument could only be sustained so long as cultural capital were clearly also fully capital

On the other hand while when Bourdieu theorises the general nature of capital, he seems remarkably close to Marxist orthodoxy as he provides what is essentially the labour theory of value: “Capital is accumulated labour (in its materialised form or its “incorporated,” embodied form) which, when appropriated on a private, i.e., exclusive, basis by agents or groups of agents enables them to appropriate social energy in the form of reified or living labour.” (“The Forms of Capital”)
But the proximity to orthodoxy is misleading. Indeed, it is startling that Bourdieu here provides what in the labosr theory of value is, precisely, a definition of value rather than a definition of capital. For the essence of the labor theory of value is that it defines value as accumulated labour. But value is quite distinct from capital (even if capital depends upon value) in that capital, for Marx, is the result of a process in which “value . . . becomes value in process . . . and as such capital” . Bourdieu does mention such a process of valorisation or exploitation in his adding a description of appropriation to his definition. But this is an addition: he here defines capital as contingently rather than necessarily related to appropriation. Appropriation, in other words, is exterior (and as such other) to capital: “Capital is accumulated labour . . . which, when appropriated . . .” (my emphasis) rather than that is appropriated. As such, this definition of capital, cultural or otherwise, forestalls any understanding of surplus value or valorisation, which is what “converts [value] into capital. For Marx, this process whereby capital is produced is the production process itself; in contrast, what Bourdieu outlines here is rather a theory of (unequal) distribution of capital effected through appropriation. As some observers like John Guillory have pointed out, Bourdieu’s definition herereproduces certain features of a Marxist account of capital without grounding the concept in the cycle of production or ‘productive capital. By subsuming capital into a definition of value, Bourdieu passes over the passage between value and capital, and between capital and value, and hence production and valorisation disappear from his framework. So in a sense much of his work are based on framework that could be said to be marxisant, rather than Marxist as such. Still I think he can be subsumed under the Marxian label.


David W. 11.12.03 at 3:36 pm

Echoing Chris’s third point–there are tons of social scientists who are thoroughly Marxist in their approach, but have no interest in any kind of socialist revolution and establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat–they just find his methodology and tools for social research useful. I’m thinking here of Charles Tilly, Theda Skocpol, etc.

To my mind, blaming Marx for the moral and political failings of the USSR makes about as much sense as blaming Rousseau for the moral and political failings of the French Revolution, but I can’t imagine we’d be getting any complaints on a “greatest Rousseauians” discussion.

In both cases, some of their key writings were seized upon by revolutionary elements in society, and some of these ideas were used to shape the rhetoric (mostly) and perhaps, a little, the institutions put in place after the revolution. In both cases, these were clear misapplications of theories in question (Marx said socialist revolution was for advanced capitalist states and Rousseau said the social contract was for Corsica–but this is just the start of how the revolutionaries got it wrong). In fairness, the theories of both Rousseau and Marx, while utterly brilliant, do not include the protections for individual rights that most (I’d wager all) of us would like to see. But I’d wager that if Marx and Rousseau had been more concerned with human rights, it wouldn’t have changed much in France and Russia.

Hitting perhaps closer to home for those of us who are Americans, I think you could also make a compelling case that Locke, the defender of individual rights and inspirer of the founders in the US, could be understood as creating a theory that led to a great deal the conquest of indigenous peoples in the Americas–specifically his arguments about property and land ownership in chapter five of the Second Treatise.

(Can we blame Hobbes and Plato for the misdeeds of authoritarian governments?)

But the complainants here suffer from a serious misunderstanding of the relationship between theory–especially normative political theory–and practice. If every political theorist was always stopping and asking himself “Could this theory be used by misguided radicals to justify evil?”, we probably wouldn’t have any great visionary political theory, but we’d still have evil.


josh 11.12.03 at 4:30 pm

I’m afraid I’m going to have to disagree with Chris Bertram and David W on this one, at least in part.
First of all, I think that Doug Muir makes a good, important point, which is that being rude and dismissive towards those who raise the question of the relation between Marxism and the evils of Communism — whatever one might think of the quality of their arguments or characters — is pretty unattractive. It’s also, let’s face it, an evasion. You can make the case that Marx shouldn’t be blamed for the evils of Communism, and (with greater difficulty, since Marxism is so hard to define) that Marxism shouldn’t be blamed for it. But you do I think have to make that as a case, and not just wave off the objection with a yawn.
Because the fact of the matter is, millions of people have been killed, and millions more enslaved, tortured, terrorized, starved, etc. — in the name of Marx’s ideas. There are very few thinkers of whom that’s true, it is something largely unique to Marx (Jesus is of course an exception, but, contra W, I don’t really consider him a philosopher in the modern sense), and it’s something we have to acknowledge and deal with. Even if we conclude that Marx’s own writings and thought weren’t responsible for any of this, we need to address the question and make a case, not assume the answer. So, Doug’s raising of the question is I think fair, valid, valuable.
Now, as for Chris’s defense of Marx. Chris certainly knows more about this than I, and I should probably, were I wise, defer to his judgment; but I of course won’t. First, I do think that it’s notable that Marxism as a political ideology and movement — which is after all part, though as Chris says, not all of what it is (but I think the same can be said for other positions as well …), has generally either led to horror, or failure, on the political level. This of course needs to be qualified, and I’m sure were I to think about it more fully I’d be able to come up with a number of succesful, useful, positive political achievments by Marxist parties. But what does stand out most clearly is the moral and political failure that has been Communism.
Now, one can deny that these governments were actually Marxist, as Chris suggests. This too seems to me dubious, though. It seems to me that these governments THOUGHT they were Marxist, and thought they were deriving their ideas and their goals from Marx. Perhaps they misread him; but then it seems to me that re-readings and mis-readings of Marx are central to the nature of Marxism. Anyway, Chris’s case is I think somewhat undermined by his nominating of Lenin and Trotsky, as well as the sometime apologist for Stalinism Lukacs, as among the greatest Marxists. I don’t mean to suggest that these figures are intellectually worthless by any means, or that their ideas have no value apart from their actions. But if we are to consider these figures genuinely Marxist, then I do think we have to conclude that the systems they founded or guided or praised were indeed Marxist, and conclude that Marxism, at least as expounded and developed by these figures, really did contribute directly to the horrors of the Soviet Union, its satellites and its immitators. I think that it’s important to make the point that there’s a genuinely democratic/parliamentary tradition in Marxism, which remains genuinely Marxist; but we also ought to admit that the opposite wing of the Marxist tradition, the totalitarian one, is also genuinely Marxist.
As for Marx himself, I think that Chris’s attempts to present him as a theorist and analyst of society, while obviously correct, also just won’t cut it. The thing about Marx was that he was devoted both to theory and to practice; that he believed he was scientifically analysing society, but also regarded himself as a committed revolutionary whose works guided and served the cause of revolutionary action. And what I’ve read of Marx suggests that he was perfectly happy to allow that that action might be — even would have to be — bloody and involve considerable cruelty and tyranny at some stage. It seems to me that Chris’s attempt to defend Marx rests on driving a wedge between theory and practice, analysis and action, that Marx himself would reject.
As for David’s Rousseau analogy: of course, many HAVE blamed Rousseau for the Jacobins, and attacked Rousseauians — and have left quite a mark doing so (think of Burke or Constant). But there is a crucial difference, of course. Rousseau never embraced an actual political program (unless one counts his drafted Constitutions for Poland and Corsica); Marx founded a political movement. Rousseau’s writings point to a frankly anti-political conclusion as often as they point to a political program, and Rousseau himself never joined a political movement nor, so far as I know, thought extensively about political tactics. Marx did found a movement, a movement which in other hands was involved in a good deal of evil, he did embrace a political program, he did devote considerable time to political agitation and debates about political practice. To regard Marx as a philosopher or social scientist is of course correct — he was both, and its as such that he’s made a lasting, and in some ways still suggestive, contribution. But he was also a political activist, and that side of his career and thought can’t be divorced from his theoretical or analytic works and tossed aside.
So, while I think that Chris does make some good points, I think he’s unjust to say that Doug’s comments are ‘completely misguided’. I think Doug raises a perfectly valid, serious point; and while I agree that the evils of Communism shouldn’t be blamed on Marx or ‘Marxism’ (I ultimatley don’t think that ideological labels can bear responsibility for actions; only people can. This, incidentally, is one thing that makes me very un-Marxist), I do think that one can’t talk about Marxism as a whole without including Communism, and all its evils. And while we shouldn’t let revulsion against Communism prejudice us against Marx or dismiss him as a thinker, we also shouldn’t be too quick to absolve him of any responsibility for the development of Communist doctrine and what one might call the Bolshevik mindset. Even if we do conclude that Lenin’s ideas are a complete perversion and bastardization of Marx’s thought, we still need to acknowledge Marx’s own intolerance and fanaticism, and the lasting harm they’ve done to the reception and development of his genuine insights.


Doug Muir 11.12.03 at 10:09 pm

Thanks, Josh. You have to a large extent stated my case better than I could have myself. Just a couple of additional points.

1) Chris, you say that “The fact that a regime or a movement self-identifies as Marxist doesn’t make it Marxist.”

Well then: What regimes, in your opinion, /have/ been Marxist? Any, ever? And if the USSR wasn’t Marxist, then how do you justify naming both Lenin and Trotsky as among your personal “greatest Marxists”?

I’m not trying to fork you; I understand that the middle is not excluded, and that the USSR could have been Marxist in one sense but not in another, or Marxist now and not later, yadda yadda und so weiter. But if you’re going to evade the evils of Communism by claiming that not all those horrible regimes were Marxist, then I think it behooves you to tell us which were and which weren’t. In your opinion.

2) “You write as if Marx produced some kind of recipe, which people then tried to cook with disastrous consquences. He didn’t.”

Yes, he did. (Man, that “recipes for future kitchens” quote has been getting a lot of mileage in the last decade or so, hasn’t it.) Marx /did/ write a number of specific recipes, and they pretty much all turned out to be wrong. I’ve mentioned the collective farms before. People tried to cook that one and, by God, there were disastrous consequences.

4) “There have always been Marxists (and self-defined Marxists) who have set themselves full square against all the tyrannies that describe themselves as Marxist. Those people have gone under many labels, and many of them have died for their beliefs. Indeed, they were among the first victims of the Gulag. You surely know this.”

Um… I hate to interrupt a good righteous harumph, but did I or did I not just devote a post to Djilas?

Remember him? Good Communist, practical revolutionary, theorist, writer? Spent nine years in Tito’s prisons for pointing out that the Emperor was going commando.

And — I say again — his analysis of what went wrong with Communism as actually practiced is IMO far superior to Trotsky’s. Trotsky still had axes to grind and killings to justify; Djilas, alone in prison, was able to be a lot more objective. And Djilas seems to have been that rarity, an intellectually honest revolutionary. He suffered for it accordingly.

But anyhow. No offense, but this does make me wonder whether you’re reading or just reacting.

“You berate the “left” for failing to ask whether there is anything in Marx’s ideas that is conducive to tyranny.”

I said that the far left was morally confused and politically impotent. That’s not berating; it’s a plain statement of fact.

N.B., I am writing from the Balkans. Pause to contemplate the various positions taken by the European far left on this region in, say, the last ten years, and their practical political effect. Then tell me again that I am “completely misguided.”

Doug M.


Manumission 11.13.03 at 11:44 am

It’s a funny thing about the old “how-many-people-did-Marxism-kill” argument – we never hear the same people condemning capitalism, democracy, and organized religion for the many more people who died under these systems. Native Americans, Tasmanians, Africans… odd how no overarching political/ideological theories seem to be responsible for millions of deaths there. They “just happened”.

Anyway, 5 great Marxists, a bit late: V.G. Childe, Gramsci, Ferruccio Ross-Landi, Luxemburg, Hobsbawm.

Childe put archaeology on a totally new and productive path; Rossi-Landi was an Italian semotician/philosopher who wrote about language and signs in the context of social reproduction (archaeology and semiotics; how’s that for two obscure fields?). They are both good examples of the “creative” and applied use of marxism. I don’t know if any of them would make a “top-10 greatest list”, but they deserve mention.


josh 11.13.03 at 3:48 pm

Great list, manumission! I’m afraid what you say to begin with just won’t stand, though. To reverse Chris’s argument somewhat, Marxism is an ideology, a particular political/social-philosophical position, and a political movement (though not always a wholly unified one), in a way that democracy and capitalism (which are, as you note, general systems) and organized religion tout court (ok, I really have to stop using that phrase!) aren’t (if we spoke of Christianity more specifically, say, we’d have a somewhat different case). It’s quite true that many people have been killed under capitalism and democracy, and perhaps even because of these systems, though I tend more towards the view that these systems are flawed in allowing, rather than causing, the deaths (imperialism is a different case, which you seem to point to without naming; but again, it’s not a single ideology or movement). On the other hand, so far as I can tell, Marxism-Leninism or Communism really has been a motivation and judtification for mass-murder on a genuinely unparalleled scale. Which, as I’ve tried to say before, shouldn’t lead to the conclusion that Marx himself or Marxism as an intellectual position are responsible for these things. But I do think we need to recognize Communism as a unique and horrible historical force; and recognize that the evils of Communism were carried out in Marxism’s name, and, I think, under the inspiration of (one strain, and possibly a perverted one, of) Marxism. And pointing out the evils of other systems, while in itself perfectly valid, can’t really detract from or effectively deny that fact.


roger 11.13.03 at 6:05 pm

Douglas Muir makes a standard point that would be stronger if it didn’t displace — and disguise — what was happening in the 19th century by focusing on what happened in the twentieth century.

I think Mike Davis, who was mentioned in these comments, has done us a service by focusing on what he called the Victorian Holocaust — the terror famines, to use Robert Conquests useful term, that chronically re-occured in India from 1870 to 1910, and that can be pretty easily linked to the British program of re-forming property law in India to reflect laissez faire norms — in fact, a classic case of a planned economy, with the maybe thousand member Indian Colonial bureaucracy revamping India according to an ideology derived from Bentham.

Interestingly, Marx approved. This shows, I think, that Marx’s isolation from what was happening at the time can be exaggerated. In one way, Marx, like the classical economists, were at one in targeting peasant economies for destruction. What Stalin did in the Ukraine does reflect this ideology — what we fail to do is contextualize that in terms of the whole history of the capitalist assault on peasant economies. The difference was that the state accrued, ideally, the surplus labor value of the peasant landholder — instead of directing the liquidation of that peasant landholder’s property in the interest of finance (in India) or agribusiness (in the U.S.) The painful thing is, what was the alternative? An industrial, and a post-industrial order can evidently not co-exist with a large agricultural sector — the collapse of the agricultural population in the U.S. is one of those long events that have certainly defined the twentieth century.

If you rephrase the accusation against Marx in this way, you can actually make an interesting, semi-Marxist point.


David W. 11.13.03 at 9:16 pm

I simply don’t have time to respond at length right now, but I would like to make one point. I’m not sure why this debate ought to have anything to do with “the left” or “the far left.” Is it because this is generally a left/liberal blog? It is, but in a profoundly un-Marxist kind of way. Anyway, that seems irrelevant. It strikes me as a topic of interest to political/social theory junkies, of any political persuasion. I told my lunch companions about the poll, and we had a spirited discussion about the proper composition of our lists. These people are, respectively, a Burkean conservative and a Rawlsian liberal. It never occurred to either of them that participation in this poll had anything to do with “the far left” and its alleged pathologies.

I strongly suspect that the vast majority of those who comprise “the far left” would find this poll boring and pointless, whereas a goodish portion of those interested in political and social theory would find it worthwhile and entertaining. If this exercise is evidence of moral confusion (and I’m pretty sure it’s not) it would be moral confusion amongst political and social theorists, not some ambiguous and undefined entity known as “the far left.”


josh 11.13.03 at 11:00 pm

Thanks, David! That was the thinking behind having the poll in the first place …


Doug Rivers 11.17.03 at 10:51 pm

BTW everyone. Pretty damn interesting discussion. It is opening the door on a very basic moral dilemma: how culpable is the Theory if it has been consistently, persistently, horribly abused in Practice?.

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