Beyond Vulgar Materialism: Hegel, Lenin, Zizek and the Philosophical Poverty of Today’s Radical Left

The following thoughts were prompted by Gabriel Rockhill’s truculent essay, “Capitalism’s Court Jester: Slavoj Zizek” on Jan. 2 of this year; Nick Pemberton’s subsequent defense of the Slovenian philosopher (based on “reading him seriously”); a reading of Kevin B. Anderson’s “Lenin’s Encounter with Hegel after Eighty Years: A Critical Assessment” (MarxismoCritico, 2/6/2014); and some recent involvements with Revolutionary Marxist Students, publishers of the new student journal Red Horizon which engages “a variety of topics from a Marxist perspective in an attempt to provide theoretical clarity for student politics and counter the current swamp of liberalism.”

Different Dialectics

In the beginning was the dialectic, or at least at the beginning of philosophy. The perception that everything contradicts itself, and exists in a state of ongoing transformation, along with the practice of seeking truth through the systematic pitting of ideas against one another, dates back to the ancient Greeks. (It should shock no one to realize that Karl Marx’s doctoral dissertation, written in 1841, was on Democritus and Epicurus. Or that Lenin, commenting on the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, says he provided in his On Nature—composed around 500 BCE “a very good exposition of the rudiments of dialectical materialism.”)

But one must note, in this era of greater world-historical consciousness than existed in Marx’s time, that not only Greek sophists, but thinkers in ancient India, produced materialist and rationalist schools of thought rooted in the examination of contradiction. In 1883 Engels presciently noted, in his Dialectics of Nature, that “dialectical thought – precisely because it presupposes investigations of the nature, of concepts themselves – is only possible for man, and for him only at a comparatively high stage of development (Buddhists and Greeks) and it attains its full development much later still through modern philosophy – and yet we have the colossal results already among the Greeks which by far anticipate investigation!”

Engels was of course unaware of Nagarjuna, the master dialectician of Buddhism in the second century CE, who explicated the concept of sunyata (emptiness), or Dignaga (ca. 480-540) who established a school of Buddhist logic. He probably was unaware of the Ming jia or School of Dialecticians in China that flourished between the fifth and third centuries BCE. (Ming can be translated as either “dialecticians” or “logicians.” In medieval European monasteries and universities, “dialectics” and “logic” were generally conflated.)

The “Three World Religions” as Material Forces in History

But Engels was, we know, aware early on of the “three world religions” as conceptualized by German thinkers such as Cornelius Petrus Tiele. Tiele, as Tomoko Masuzawa informs us in her excellent The Invention of World Religions (University of Chicago Press, 2005), introduced the term Welt-Religion in 1877. In 1880, in a critical review of the final work of the late philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach commissioned by the German socialist newspaper Die Neue Zeit, Engels challenged the latter’s suggestion (in his Gottheit, Freiheit und Unsterblichkeit, published in 1866) that only a new “religion” could effect social change. Engels contended instead that the “turning points” in the “general historical movement” are not, in fact, as a rule produced by religious change.

But there are exceptions to the rule, Engels points out, in the form of “the three world religions.” “Great historical turning points,” Engels declared, “have been accompanied by religious changes only so far as the three world religions which have existed up to the present — Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam — are concerned. The old tribal and national religions, which arose spontaneously, did not proselytize… Only with these world religions, arisen more or less artificially, particularly Christianity and Islam, do we find that the more general historical movement acquire a religious imprint.

“Proselytization” the active propagation of the belief system—is here seen as the distinguishing mark of these three world religions. (Note that Marxism itself, spread by the conscious, coordinated efforts of its—divided and contentious—adherents, shares this distinction with those other systems. Is not the Marxist concept of “propaganda” rooted in the historical practice of that proselytizing body known as the Society of Jesus for the Propagation of the Faith—the Jesuits?) Another is the tradition of dialectical thinking, inherited by both Christianity and Islam from the Greeks (with the Roman Catholic medieval scholastic tradition owing much to Greco-Roman knowledge as preserved by Muslim scholars), and in Buddhism which (as Engels notes) produced its own separate tradition.

Marx and Engels had given great attention to the transformative aspects of religion in history—which is to say, to the dialectics of mind and matter through time. They saw, in Martin Luther’s rebellion against the Roman Catholic Church, the “revolutionary past” of a Germany that had, unlike England and France, never experienced a bourgeois revolution. In lieu of such, the German Reformation set the stage for a continental social revolution. As Marx wrote early on (1843), in his famous “Introduction to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right:”

“Germany’s revolutionary past is theoretical, it is the Reformation.  As the revolution then began in the brain of the monk [Luther], so now it begins in the brain of the philosopher . . . But if Protestantism was not the true solution it was at least the true setting of the problem.”

How so? Luther, Marx declared, “replaced the faith in authority with the authority of faith.” By promoting the translation of the Bible into the vernacular, and its circulation among the masses to interpret according to their individual consciences, he helped theory (in this case, theology) to become a material force. In Hegelian terms, the contradiction between consciousness and matter is continuously resolved, by historical Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, in the transformative synthesis of religious “faith” and the historical struggle of classes.

In the same work, Marx avers that the “weapon of criticism cannot, of course, replace criticism of the weapon, material force must be overthrown by material force; but theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses. Theory is capable of gripping the masses as soon as it demonstrates ad hominem [meaning, in this case, “manifests for humans”], and it demonstrates ad hominem as soon as it becomes radical. To be radical is to grasp the root of the matter. But, for man, the root is man himself.”

In his Theses on Feurbach composed the same year, Marx famously declared: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways; the point is, to change it.” In other words, it’s not good enough to merely analyze matter. We (humans) have to change it by “material force.” But again—analysis itself can become a material force. Thought and action penetrate when the former causes human beings to understand what it means to be humans for themselves—without God or Hegel’s “Absolute Idea”—liberated from delusion.

Marx and Engels on the Early Christian-Modern Proletarian Analogy

“Theory becomes a material force.” This was obviously true in the case of Lutheran doctrine, which destroyed the grip of Roman Catholicism—its doctrines and its institutions—over the early modern western world. (It was perhaps even more true of Calvinism, which provided the ideological underpinnings of capitalism with its notions of “callings,” its validation of merchant enterprise and profit, its inculcation of what Max Weber aptly termed “the Protestant Ethic.”) It was also obviously true in the case of primitive Christianity’s “conquest” of the Roman Empire, in which Engels saw “the cultured monotheism of later Greek vulgar philosophy” finally “gripping the masses” of the Greco-Roman world, through “the intermediary of the monotheistic Jewish religion.” (See Engels’ “On the History of Early Christianity,” 1894).

In a speech to the International in 1871, Marx drew parallels between the ancient Christians and modern socialists: “The events of the last few weeks had unmistakably shown that the working class must fight for its emancipation. The persecutions of the governments against the International were like the persecutions of ancient Rome against the primitive Christians. They, too, had been few in numbers at first, but the patricians of Rome had instinctively felt that if the Christians succeeded the Roman empire would be lost. The persecutions of Rome had not saved the empire, and the persecutions of the present day against the International would not save the existing state of things.”

In Rome, the “now hidden, now open” class struggle pitted, in the minds of the persecuted, the Christian god against his antithesis, the satanic Anti-christ; the Roman empire against the kingdom of God; the poor and meek against the rich and powerful who could no more enter that kingdom than pass through the eye of a needle (Luke 18:25). The “fundamental contradiction” for the Christian was that between the “pure spirit” of God and the world of matter—fleshly, sinful materiality. That this contradiction becomes articulated in more and more abstract and sophisticated terms (up to Hegel) does not prevent us from noting its primitive origins in the synthesis of Jewish monotheism and Greek philosophy Engels mentions.

“Christianity,” wrote Engels in 1883 (in a commentary of the Book of Revelation), “like every great revolutionary movement, was made by the masses. It arose in Palestine, in a manner utterly unknown to us, at a time when new sects, new religions, new prophets arose by the hundred.” And in one of his last articles in Die Neue Zeit (in 1894) Engels paid tribute to nascent Christianity as a class-based “movement: “The history of early Christianity has notable points of resemblance with the modern working-class movement. Like the latter, Christianity was originally a movement of oppressed people: it first appeared as the religion of slaves and emancipated slaves, of poor people deprived of all rights, of peoples subjugated or dispersed by Rome. Both Christianity and the workers’ socialism preach forthcoming salvation from bondage and misery; Christianity places this salvation in a life beyond, after death, in heaven; socialism places it in this world, in a transformation of society.”

This is to say (again): the idealist dialectics of Christianity involve the relationship between the person and the imagined god, while the materialist dialectics of (what would become) Marxism involve the relationship between classes of people, evolving alongside the productive human transformation of nature.

Both Christianity and the workers’ movement, argued Engels, had historically fought back. “Both are persecuted and baited,” he wrote in 1894, “their adherents are despised and made the objects of exclusive laws, the former as enemies of the human race, the latter as enemies of the state, enemies of religion, the family, social order. And in spite of all persecution, nay, even spurred on by it, they forge victoriously, irresistibly ahead. Three hundred years after its appearance Christianity was the recognized state religion in the Roman World Empire, and in barely sixty years socialism has won itself a position which makes its victory absolutely certain.”

(At the same time, Engels notes that one Professor Anton Menger, an Austrian jurist, has asked why “socialism did not follow the overthrow of the Roman Empire in the West.” He asks this, declares Engels “because he cannot see that this ‘socialism’ did in fact, as far as it was possible at the time, exist and even became dominant — in Christianity. Only this Christianity, as was bound to be the case in the historic conditions, did not want to accomplish the social transformation in this world, but beyond it, in heaven, in eternal life after death, in the impending ‘millennium’”).

Christianity developed by “merging with the thought material that [Greco-Roman] world had achieved,” wrote Engels. What was this “thought material”? It surely included the dialectics of Aristotle, rooted in those of Hippocrates of Ephesus and Zeno of Elea, absorbed into Christian thought by figures from St. Augustine to the medieval scholastics such as John Scotus Eriugena and Ratramnus of Corbie in the ninth century. (The latter, by the way, in one text on virgin birth composed in the Frankish Kingdom ca. 860: “Should we not, surely, follow the opinion of the Brahmans whom, it seems, relate that Bubdam [Buddha], the founder of their sect, was born from the side of a virgin, just as we say our Christ was?” Yes, there was some glancing awareness of the world religion Buddhism in northern Europe in the ninth century.)

Immanuel Kant and Georg Hegel, rooted in the classical tradition, espoused their own dialectical methods. Marx, as Engels put it, “turned Hegel on his head” in transforming dialectical idealism into dialectical materialism, which, in some form (including that outlined in Stalin’s Dialectical and Historical Materialism published in 1938) has itself obviously become a material force. But all three world religions have similarly “preached forthcoming salvation from bondage and misery,” in the process of establishing ideological and political hegemony.

(I do not mean to echo here the Albert Camus of L’Homme révolté, in which he depicts Marxism itself as a faith-based movement designed to equip “absurdity” with “lucidity.” Marxism is not that, or at least should not be. But the functional similarities between religion and the historical Marxist movement are obvious, as indeed Engels suggests in 1883, remarking that activists in the labor movement could sympathize with the early Christian organizers in the matter of constant fund-raising. “I should like to see,” he writes, “the old ‘International’ [organizer] who can read, for example, the so-called Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians without old-wounds re-opening… The whole epistle, from chapter eight onwards, echoes the eternal, and oh! so well-known complaint: les cotisations ne rentrent pas — contributions are not coming in! How many of the most zealous propagandists of the sixties would sympathizingly squeeze the hand of the author of that epistle, whoever he may be, and whisper: ‘So it was like that with you too’”)!

Early Buddhism and the Proletarian Movement: An Unexplored Analogy

Engels, perhaps due to his Pietist upbringing, always retained a keen interest in the history of Christianity, finding in its theological trajectory reflections of the “now hidden, now open” class struggle. But he could have found similar interconnections between, say, the multiple White Lotus peasant uprisings in Chinese history, energized by the conviction that the Buddha of the future, Maitreya, would in a period of inevitable decay (all things, according to the Buddhist teaching, subject to decline, including the Dharma itself) establish a paradise on earth.

Of these the First White Lotus uprising of 1351 which helped topple the Yuan dynasty and the Second White Lotus Rebellion of 1796, a revolt against heavy taxation, deserve special mention. In Korea, a revolt in 889 influenced by the Maitreya cult brought down the Koryo dynasty. In Vietnam, in 1516 a similar rebellion occurred. In 1858 a fisherman claiming to be Maitreya sought to expel British imperialists, and other uprisings connected to the millenarian belief system occurred in 1860, 1886, 1889 and 1922. In 1928 200,000 Burmese rebels rose up under the banner of Metteya and the cult remained powerful into the 1960s when it was influenced by Marxist ideas. This list could continue. And then there were the uprisings influenced by the Amida cult, and the vision of a Pure Land that might be realized in this life, on earth. The radically innovative Shinran, who flourished in Japan in the thirteenth century, much resembles Luther in questioning the need for a formal clergy, rejecting celibacy, and stressing the faith of individuals from all classes—in Amida, not Jesus—as the guarantee for salvation.

Looking specifically at the Pure Land school of Buddhism, we see a dialectical progression from the conception of the Pure Land (or Western Paradise, possibly a Zoroastrian borrowing into Buddhism) as an actual, physical location within the cosmos, described in rich earthly detail, much like the Muslim Jannah Paradise; to a reconception (embraced by the Chan or Zen school, perhaps opportunistically) of the Pure Land as a focus of this-world meditation; to the conception of the Pure Land as the potential, realizable paradise in the here-and-now. The latter had been embraced by Chinese Chan in the form of the school of Taixu (1890-1947) even before the Chan establishment, led by Yuanying (1878-1953) embraced socialist construction as its goal after the revolution.

(In Japan meanwhile such Buddhists as Miki Kiyoshi, Senoo Girō, and Kawakami Hajime—who translated Capital from German into Japanese—also came to equate socialism with the Pure Land. While Marx and Engels wrote much about the relationship to Christianity to historical change in general, we can today do the same for Buddhism.)

Muslim Dialectics

Marx and Engels were more aware of the history of Islam, but saw it simplistically as a reflection of the contradiction “between the settled but demoralized fallaheen [peasants] of the towns” versus “Bedouin reaction” (Engels to Marx, June 6, 1853). Engels wrote in 1894 that “Islam is a religion adapted to… on the one hand to townsmen engaged in trade and industry, on the other to nomadic Bedouins. Therein lies, however, the embryo of a periodically recurring collision. The townsmen grow rich, luxurious and lax in the observation of the [sharia] ‘law.’ The Bedouins, poor and hence of strict morals, contemplate with envy and covetousness these riches and pleasures.” But Islam also contained “thought material” which legitimated revolt—such as the massive Zanj slave rebellion in southern Iraq the 870s (which some Marxists, such as Suad Mustafa Muhammad, see as an “anti-feudal” reaction to increased exploitation in the Abbasid period.) Their rebellion was expressed in religious terms: “God,” one banner read, “has purchased the souls of believers and their property, for they have attained to paradise fighting in the way of God.” That the rebel army of African slaves seized the sacred cloth covering the Kaaba stone in Mecca indicates that they looked to the Quran for inspiration, despite the scripture’s endorsement of slavery; we’re talking layers on layers of contradiction.

The Zanj rebellion occurred in a caliphate that had encouraged the study of both Greek and Indian philosophy, and sponsored the translations of Greek, Syriac, Persian and Sanskrit manuscripts. (The reason the west was later able to recover much of its classical heritage was due to the Arab preservation of the Greek ones, translated from Arabic to Latin in later centuries.) Abbasid scholars accessed the dialectics of both the Greeks and Buddhists, as well as those of the Zoroastrians and Manichaeans (with all their dire implications for a cosmos in which Good and Evil, precisely matched, are somehow destined towards the ultimate conflagration—although in the Manichean as opposed to Christian version, the Apocalypse is followed not by rapture but by annihilation).

The synthesis of Islamic thought as it existed at this time reflected more than conflict between townspeople and nomads. It reflected the contradiction between Quranic material and the philosophical works of Aristotle, Plotinus and Proclus, as found in the writings of the ninth century Persian thinker Abū Bakr al-Rāzī and later, Ibn Sina (Avicenna) in the eleventh.

The world religions today generally challenge Marxism; while Marxism, hardening into an orthodox doctrine (despite such protests as Georg Lukacs’ important “What Is Orthodox Marxism?” essay of 1919), has acquired many features of a world religion. These include the notion on a single “correct line” (see: “article of faith”) in struggle with multiple “incorrect lines” and “deviations.” If Marx declared soon before his death in 1883 (to his son-in-law Paul Lafargue, as reported by Engels): “ce qu’il y a de certain c’est que moi, je ne suis pas marxiste” (“what is certain is that I, I myself am not a Marxist”), how much more would he distance himself today from proponents of dogmatic drivel (“science”) peddled in his name!

Consciousness, Matter, and History

Marx’s contribution to Hegelian dialectics begins with his observation that consciousness is social. The way we think is the result of innumerable interactions between innumerable different consciousnesses responding to ever-changing material conditions. And Lenin, in his Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1908) writes: “The materialist regards sensation, perception, idea, and the mind of man generally, as an image of objective reality.” (Compare the concept of the Five Skandhas in Buddhist thought, which considers the individual “personality” an ever-changing “heap” of sensations, perceptions, mental formations, consciousness and matter.) But Lenin’s formulation here is crude, equating, as it does, “objective reality” with matter.

This belief that consciousness (merely) “mirrors” matter, and is generated and conditioned by matter, as has been conventionally espoused by Marxist-Leninists, leads to the conclusion that matter has its own built-in dialectic driving it ever “forwards” towards the (human) attainment (on this planet, at some future time) of classless society. In that case, individuals’ actions are all to be assessed in relation to that “inevitable” process, inherent in matter itself, leading humanity “forward.”

(Compare the—equally innocuous—Calvinist doctrine of predestination, as found in Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1536. Here Calvin states: “God…has determined in Himself what would have to become of every individual of mankind. For they are not all created with a similar destiny; but eternal life is fore-ordained for some, and eternal damnation for others.” For one concrete application, see the work by “Southern Calvinist” Dr. George D. Armstrong, The Christian Doctrine of Slavery, published in 1857. Or see Presbyterian pastor Thomas Smyth, writing in South Carolina in 1862 that God had decreed “that through the history of the world, slavery should exist as a form of organized labor among certain races of men, and that lordship over such slavery should be a part of the perpetual blessing of the races of Shem [Semites] and Japeth [white Europeans].”)

But this view, suggesting that the future’s already been decided, down to the last detail by the Supreme Being, bears no resemblance to Marx’s view, in which neither the tyranny of the biblical Jehovah nor Hegel’s History play any part. “History,” he declared with Engels in 1845, “does nothing. It possesses no immense wealth, it wages no battles. It is men, real, living men, who do all this.” He also rejected, in 1877, “a general historico-philosophical theory, whose supreme virtue consists in being supra-historical.” (See Marx’s draft letter to the editorial board of the Russian newspaper Otechestvennye Zapiski.) But this is precisely the theory one finds in Stalin’s writings, which treat the primitive communism-slavery-feudalism-capitalism-socialism progression as a sort of predictable clockwork performed by a built-in mechanism.

Lenin’s understanding of dialectics, and of the relationship between matter and consciousness in particular, evolved over time. Seriously studying Hegel’s Science of Logic in Zurich in 1914-15, Lenin seems to have broken with his earlier understanding, concluding that: “Intelligent idealism is nearer to intelligent materialism than is stupid materialism.” (It’s no wonder that Stalin was happy to bury Lenin’s Hegel Notebooks!) Lenin also averred that a full understanding of Marx’s Capital, especially Chapter 1, was only possible after reading the entirety of the Logic!

In his “abstract” of Hegel’s Logic, Lenin expresses excitement at Hegel’s contention that “the ideality of Being-for-Self as a totality…passes over, in the first place, to reality, and that too in its most fixed, abstract form, as the one.” Lenin saw here a persuasive challenge to “vulgar materialism” (such as he had articulated himself eight years earlier), commenting: “The idea of the transformation of the ideal into the real is profound! Very important for history. But also in the personal life of man it is evident that there is much truth in this. Against vulgar materialism. NB. The difference of the ideal from the material is also not unconditional, not boundless [überschwenglich].” Matter and consciousness interpenetrate ongoingly.

“Very important for history” here implies that the record of human events shows that ideas profoundly impact the material world. Marx had of course noted early on, in the “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” cited above, that the “weapon of criticism cannot, of course, replace criticism of the weapon, material force must be overthrown by material force; but theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses.” Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 actually promote “a unity of idealism and materialism,” according to Kevin B. Anderson.

Lenin: Materialism Needs “a Solid Philosophical Ground”

In 1922 Lenin wrote that materialism as applied in the sciences had been a necessary corrective to the idealism reflected in “clerical obscurantism” (that is, the idealism of Christian theology). But, he added: “ . . . it must be realized that no natural science and no materialism can hold its own in the struggles against the onslaught of bourgeois ideas and the restoration of the bourgeois world outlook unless it stands on a solid philosophical ground.” What was this solid ground? An understanding—with the “intelligent idealist” Hegel—of the universality of contradiction, and of ceaseless self-generating change linking both mind and matter.

Slavoj Zizek, in his Absolute Recoil: Towards a New Foundation of Dialectical Materialism (2014) and elsewhere reincorporates aspects of Hegel into Marxist theory, updating it (in Chapter 15) to accommodate “the disappearance of matter” found in contemporary quantum physics and string theory. According to the current scientific paradigm, microseconds after the Big Bang gravity separated from electromagnetism and weak and strong nuclear energy, allowing for the formation of neutrons, and thus mass. Matter emerged out of nothing at some point. (Cf. the Buddhist contention, succinctly expressed in the Heart Sutra, that “matter is nothing other than emptiness, emptiness is nothing but matter.”) Where was consciousness in the interim? Maybe consciousness and matter arose simultaneously and have always comprised a unity of opposites. We have long since been able (with or without Zizek) to question Marx and Engels’ dictum that “It is impossible to separate thought from matter that thinks. This matter is the substratum of all changes going on in the world” (The Holy Family, 1845).

But it has, in fact, since the nineteenth century of Marx and Engels, become as possible for our brains to imagine consciousness without matter as to posit matter without consciousness, and even to ask whether matter is the hardware and consciousness the software of the universe, or vice-versa.

Theory and “Boundless Pity for the Mass”

Raising (and reraising) the question of matter and matter-that-thinks does not mean a return to religion, in which Pure Spirit (God) wills that a world (“without form, and void”) be illuminated—and then goes on to produce the cosmos and everything in it. Nor a return to the “critical criticism” of the Young Hegelians vitiated by Marx and Engels in The German Ideology (1846, only first published in Moscow in 1932), which pitted not consciousness against matter but Theory (or Spirit, or Consciousness) against “Mass,” the latter category including both matter in general and “the masses” in need of that Theory.

(See especially Chapter 1: “Critical Criticism in the Form of a Master-Bookbinder,” in which Marx mocks the vulgar materialism of the advocates of “critical criticism”—sometimes used synonymously with “Theory”—as rehashed religiosity: “Critical Criticism, however superior to the mass it deems itself, nevertheless has boundless pity for the mass. And therefore Criticism has so loved the mass that it sent its only begotten son, that all that believe in him might not be lost, but may have Critical life…” Marx’s anticipated readership would have caught, much more immediately than contemporary readers, the satirical allusion to John 3:16).

But raising the question of consciousness and matter is incumbent on any Marxist seriously considering advances in the natural sciences since Marx’s day. Marx in Capital saw humans as toolmakers, uniquely capable of transforming their environment. But it’s been known since 1960, thanks to Jane Goodall, that chimpanzees use tools as well, and a host of other animals. Octopi use coconut shells as tools and, as the film My Octopus Teacher (2020) shows us, are capable to communicating with humans. We now learn (from neuroscientists Tzvetan Popov and Paul Szyszka), that even bees share with us a form of consciousness, and from Lars Chittka’s work that “even tiny-brained bees are profoundly intelligent”).

Beyond and Before Matter and Consciousness

Marx emphasized consciousness as a social phenomenon, evolving through the interlinkings of the mind, and the surrounding world—and other minds. That, in opposition to the Hegelian notion that the Absolute Spirit is something that evolves over the course of history, in the form of ever-advancing human consciousness directed from without. Where Hegal saw capital-H History as the unfolding of consciousness, Marx saw consciousness as a product of innumerable human interactions. This itself was a breakthrough, and it can be expanded to include consciousness shared between species.

We humans share consciousness, not only with one another, but with much of the animal kingdom; we communicate with our pets, and even indirectly with any creature with a nervous system. Ants are aware, not of humans as such, but of two-dimensional effects of our presence, such as the shadows we cast, to which they respond.

Even before the appearance of the first fish brains and nervous systems around 400 million years ago, there were animals whose cells communicated with one another through electrical or chemical signals. Even when there was no life on Earth at all, there was surely consciousness, elsewhere in the expanding cosmos, of this small marginal planet. Our human consciousness can increasingly understand the moons of Saturn, due the material products of our minds such as reflective telescopes and space probes. Such observations are hard to reconcile with any materialism without dialectics but riddled with dogmatic assumptions about cause and effect, which is to say, “vulgar materialism.”

Turning to a random example of such dogmatic assumptions. You ask me to give a talk on U.S. imperialism in relation to Ukraine. When I submit a text emphasizing NATO (which is to say, inter-imperialist contradictions), and the alliance’s aggressive expansion to encircle Russia, you ask: why spend so much time on NATO? What about the fundamental contradictions at work in Ukraine? What are the material forces—wheat, gas, oil—in contention? Who are the comprador capitalists, as opposed to the national capitalists? (The last question sounds like one posed by someone fresh from reading Mao’s “Analysis of Classes in Chinese Society” of 1927. It may also reflect a type of historicism, dogmatic adherence to undigested dated texts, reliance on dead experts and lack of imagination.)

Why is such dogmatism undialectical? Because it sees “laws” of history and reads them into concrete reality, resisting the recognition of the free interpenetration of consciousness and matter, and the capacity of the former to defy expectations. Lenin, quoting Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust, cautions, “Theory, my friend, is grey, but green is the eternal tree of life.” In his own historical investigation of the Origins of Capitalism in Russia (1899), the Russian revolutionary declares:Of course, infinitely diverse combinations of elements of this or that type of capitalist evolution are possible, and only hopeless pedants could set about solving the peculiar and complex problems arising merely by quoting this or that opinion of Marx about a different historical epoch.” Implicit here is the realization that there are no “inherent contradictions” within precapitalist formations (including feudalism) that “inevitably” generate the next stage.

When you detach dialectics from what Lenin called “vulgar materialism,” you become less inclined to embrace a crudely stageist theory of history, in which (just to cite the common Maoist paradigm) socialism was realized in the USSR (from precisely 1917—in the sense that a party committed to socialism held power from that point—to precisely 1956, when the class traitor Nikita Khrushchev denounced Joseph Stalin). This view entails the judgment that Stalin—despite his “errors,” based on his incorrect understanding of “the correct handling of contradictions among the people” was a great, pioneering communist leader, whose denunciation signaled the near-immediate “restoration of capitalism.” But, this historiography contends, the People’s Republic of China continued to hold the Red Flag high—until after Mao’s death in 1976 class traitors immediately seized power, causing China to “change color” overnight. Since then, while the restoration of capitalism has for some reason not produced a concerted national uprising in China—on the part of people well-educated (we thought!) about the genuine threat of capitalist restoration in a socialist society—a series of movements in what Mao called the Third World have kept that banner aloft.

Unfortunately, the most promising People’s Wars (in Peru, then Nepal) fizzled unexpectedly, the first due largely to the Guzman personality cult (which, as Don Quixote put it, put all the eggs in one basket), the second due to ideological and political capitulation. The Red Flag waves tenuously over the two ongoing People’s Wars, in the Philippines (where the military says NPA guerrilla fronts have dropped from 89 a few years ago to five) and India (where the armed struggle has declined about 80% in the last fifteen years). One wishes the Maoists well, but cannot rest one’s hopes for global socialist transformation on these movements.

That version of history is not merely wrong factually; it’s become quaintly nostalgic, like an old Wobblies’ picket-line anthem.

Locating Ourselves in the “Marxist Tradition”

All of us who identify as Marxists feel obliged to locate ourselves within what Gabriel Rockhill terms “the Marxist tradition.” This tradition has always, of course, been complex, producing trends, ideas, and modes of action in struggle with one another, much (as noted above) as the world religions have spawned manifold sects. There being no Marxist Vatican, there is no Marxist voice that can plausibly speak for the whole tradition, nor to even “objectively” explicate the state of global Marxism today to the satisfaction of all “Marxists.”

(The Communist International or Comintern existed from 1919 to 1943 and, while generally dominated by Moscow, shaped by Soviet national objectives, and hobbled by its promotion of “Marxism” in a form that Herbert Marcuse aptly, in his 1958 work Soviet Marxism, termed a “state religion,” nevertheless provided a unifying reference point to communist parties throughout the world. After its official dissolution, Moscow continued to command the respect of Marxist-Leninist parties, or at least assert its ideological leadership, until Mao Zedong launched his searing critique in 1956. If the leadership of political Marxism in the world, leaving aside the numerous schools of academic Marxism, had been fissured by the emergence of Trotskyism in the 1930s, now it was shattered permanently with the emergence of Mao Zedong Thought and the assertion that the USSR, far from serving as the leader of the global revolutionary movement, had restored capitalism and entered the enemy camp.)

Today we are in a “post-communist” period. I do not mean that communism as a social formation is a thing of the past; it has in fact never materialized, although socialism in the Marxist sense has been attained, imperfectly, in some places for periods of time. And Marxists have generally conceptualized socialism as extending over a period—increasing recognized as a very lengthy period—prior to the withering away with the state that in theory accompanies communism. Maoists emphasize that class struggle continues under socialism, that the wrong side can win, that progress towards equality can be arrested and reversed. Surely this thesis has been confirmed by events, just as events have rendered Stalin’s claim in his Report to the Eighteenth Party Congress in 1939 that the USSR was “free of class conflicts” (and thus had entered the early stage of communism) bitterly amusing.

Nor do I mean that the communist movement is spent, or that our aspiration for a classless society has petered out. I’m suggesting that the historical communist movement of the Comintern era, and the postwar Cold War, no longer exists. The restoration of capitalism in what were once reckoned “socialist” societies, the failure (or “defeat”) of the most promising post-Cold War revolutionary communist movements to acquire power, and the inability of self-defined communist parties in the west to connect with one another or the masses have led, if not to a dead end, to apparent paralysis.

I find (to my satisfaction, given the alternatives) a new generation of college students embracing what they call MLM (Marxism-Leninism-Maoism) and upholding, as their main inspirations, the several low-intensity People’s Wars. Just as I myself for years saw Peru and Nepal as shining paths towards the re-establishment of socialism, somewhere—a socialism to which we could point, as some of our grandparents pointed to the Soviet Union or PRC, as a model for this country and all countries to emulate. But it’s to Zizek’s credit that he questions our enthusiasm for these experiments, as though they were the best we can do, or whose reoccurrence is more likely than the reappearance of Hanfeizi’s rabbit. It’s also to his credit that he does not downplay as mere “errors” by flawed leaders (in the process of fulfilling their positive historical role) what were in fact often unpardonable crimes. Or what should be considered crimes, for those not morally trapped in their historicism.

No Socialism Anywhere

There is no socialist society in the world today, no beacon for current incarnations of ‘the Marxist tradition” to steer by. There is no coordinated international movement, no agreement among ostensible Marxists about how to understand the history of the communist past, much less reestablish what was positive in it. There is no credible revolutionary communist party in this country. There is no god (or God-substitute such as Hegel’s “History”) to judge or absolve anything; Fidel Castro (in his pre-Marxist phase, not that it matters) may have declared at his trial in 1953 “La historia me absolverá” but this was merely a rhetorical flourish. What might have said more accurately is that the fragile movement he headed was likely to seize power with mass support when more competent military and political leadership (Che Guevara) jumped on the bandwagon.

In the end we are left with our individual reasoning processes. These lead equally reasonable and decent people to varying conclusions about what Marxism REALLY is; about what it (in all its aspects) has achieved since 1848; about who is or was REALLY “Marxist” (including castro and Che); about what in that body of thought and history of action should be upheld or condemned, etc. And over time some issues that once were regarded as “dividing line” become less relevant.

These might include the evaluation of the nature of the East European states before 1991; Rockhill apparently sees them—including Yugoslavia—as examples of “Soviet socialism,” while Maoists have been divided on the issue of whether any of them were ever genuinely “socialist,” before or after the “restoration of capitalism” in the USSR. (For a time the Filipino communist movement, led by the late Jose Maria Sison—whom I met and worked with a bit in the 1990s, and repeatedly defended in Counterpunch columns thereafter—retracted its earlier characterization of the East European states and attempted to reestablish party-to-party ties with some of them. That position was soon “rectified.”)

In any case, the fact that Zizek rejoiced at the downfall of the “people’s democracies” is itself hardly disqualifies him as a Marxist. I am old enough to recall the bleakness of the years after 1991, as the global press universally trumpeted the supposed “collapse of communism.” Suddenly the word “capitalism” was in vogue. The quaint euphemism “free enterprise system” (often abbreviated to just “freedom”) was now joyfully replaced by “capitalism.” A word rarely encountered hitherto, except in statements by the communist enemy, treated in the U.S. media as a mere anti-western euphemism, was now broadcast from the rooftops. Capitalism was not only triumphant, it was suddenly cool. Yuppies handed out business cards self-identifying as “venture capitalists.” Wall Street Journal advertised itself as “adventures in capitalism.” Capitalism, no longer in struggle with any meaningful “socialist” challenge, had won out in the final conflict and, according to the overrated Francis Fukuyama, brought “History” (as a struggle of ideas) to its end.

Even to those of us long convinced that the Soviet Union had changed color by the late 1950s, its sudden and unexpected collapse, the accompanying triumphalism, the crowing of the U.S. imperialists and their professional opinion makers, were demoralizing. I myself had thought from the mid-70s that the only hope for revolution in this country was the re-emergence of socialist examples and headquarters somewhere in the Third World. I thought that the level of what Marx called “immiseration” would not become so intense, here in the belly of the beast, so as to generate a revolutionary movement capable of seizing power. The end of the Cold War only enhanced that feeling.

But the dismantling of what had been called “the welfare state;” the slashing of social funding during the Reagan-Clinton years; the humbling crash of 2008; the Occupy Wall Street movement; the popularization of the realization that One Percent owns and controls this country; the polls showing most young people view “socialism” (however they conceive of it) positively; the Sanders campaigns (in their capacity to popularize at least some vague concept of “socialism,” potentially laying the ground for real radicalization); even the fruits of “politically correct” education here and there have actually raised my hopes.

If revolutionary action must be guided by socialist objectives, it’s necessary for socialist consciousness to spread. There are millions of young people in some way “engaging” Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Mao—not through the prism of somebody’s orthodoxy but fresh and unfiltered. That is a good thing, the premise for a genuine movement, but only if, with Lenin, “it stands on a solid philosophical ground.” That requires engagement—beyond the scriptures, into the commentaries—of such figures as Lukacs, Gramsci, Marcuse, and a host of thinkers the Red Guards dismissed as “bourgeois” and “revisionist.”

But again: there is no mass movement in this country that can be called socialist, communist, or Marxist, and there is no credible revolutionary party capable of philosophically inspiring the masses.

Zizek’s Usefulness

Onto the bleak post-Cold War landscape stepped Slavoj Zizek, a self-identifying Marxist philosopher detached from, and critical of, the now-dead communist orthodoxies. Entertaining, sometimes thought-provoking, he is often, in my opinion, downright reactionary. (His positions of NATO and Ukraine are, as Rockwell suggests, appalling.) Nevertheless, he seemed a sort of mini-Sartre figure, one of these “public intellectuals” the French left traditionally generates, an ally to the radical left, someone good to have on your side.

Or to endorse your book. When, in 2005, the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA wanted to promote a series of “conversations” between its chairman Bob Avakian and philosopher (and Zizek student) Bill Martin, it secured a foreword from the Slovenian celebrity. It wasn’t what the party wanted, so Zizek was asked to change it. (Martin and Zizek have, like most intellectuals who have worked with the RCP, become sharply critical of it; they thus become what the group calls “objectively counter-revolutionary.”) The point is, Zizek at the time (2005) seemed a source of legitimization and ongoing relevance for practically any organization claiming to be Marxist. Zizek’s mentor Alain Badiou received similarly deferential treatment. One didn’t have to agree with these people; it was enough to cite them as evidence for the continuing relevance and vitality of “the Marxist tradition,” and to profit somehow by association.

Defending Zizek from Rockwell, Nick Pemberton declares that he has learned from the Slovenian thinker “to interrogate what the politics of putting historical materialism rather than human superstition first would entail.” I am not sure what this means, or how human superstition might hold some advantages over (genuine) historical materialism. But if I understand Pemberton correctly, he has learned (from Zizek, although he might have learned it from Raya Dunayevskaya among others) that Stalin did perceive the socialist construction he oversaw as part of the relentless march of “the historical process,” and saw any “mistakes” made in the process of execution as ultimately absolved by this History. The above-mentioned Dialectical and Historical Materialism encourage this view, as do perhaps decontextualized quotes from Lenin, such as: “We repudiate all morality that proceeds from supernatural ideas or ideas that are outside class conceptions. Morality is entirely subordinate to the interests of class war. Everything is moral that is necessary for the annihilation of the old exploiting social order and for uniting the proletariat.”

But these views, rooted in a stageist, inevitablist concept of history, bear no resemblance to Marx’s understanding. As mentioned above, he saw “History” itself as “doing nothing”—it is merely the (human) record of what humans do. And again, he rejected any “a general historico-philosophical theory” that tries to be “supra-historical.”

Lenin is justly known as the man of action, the creator of the party armed with Marxist theory, able to practice what Mao was to call “the mass line” with its cadre serving as “tribunes of the people,” able to seize power with mass support, smashing the existing state apparatus and establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat. Lenin was also the framer of our modern conception of capitalist imperialism, the theorist who posited the eventual “withering away” of the state, a philosophical proponent of materialism who interrogated Hegelian idealism. Next to Marx, he is the most important Marxist thinker (although some allot that spot to Mao). His concept of the communist party, as outlined in What Is To Be Done? (1902) was described as “voluntarism” by Eduard Bernstein, Georgi Plekhanov and others during his lifetime. But is it not really an acknowledgment of the decisive role of the human will, as an integral component in the interpenetration of opposites that determine the evolution of both mind and matter?

Crude materialism assumes that things happen because they have to, given the nature of matter and the “laws” that govern it. It knows what has happened historically and posits that these laws remain operative, what happened before will happen again. It is comfortable with history by analogy, reading back into the past an “inevitability” never posited by Marx and Engels in their historical writings.

Marx never outlined a theory of how and why slavery (in which the ruling class exploits labor-power principally through the ownership of people) leads to feudalism (in which the ruling class achieves this through serfdom, the legal attachment of people to the land as serfs). This is because slave systems don’t necessarily lead to some sort of feudalism. Marx’s discussion of the genesis of feudalism, explicitly confined to Europe, emphasizes what Rosa Luxembourg called “contingencies,” such as the breakdown of the Roman latifundia, and the impact of the “Germanic military constitution.” He nowhere posits that things had to be that way, and had he studied what are widely today reckoned Asian “feudalisms” (where Marx merely saw an “Asiatic stage” of stagnation), to say nothing of Polynesian ones, he would find that they arose out of diverse contingencies. Nor is there any necessary transition from a society in which the main form of labor exploitation is serfdom, to one based on “free” wage labor.

Mao—hailed by the idiosyncratic Zizek for his “great text” On Contradiction, praised for his “central contribution to Marxist philosophy, his elaborations on the notion of contradiction” ” (see Slavoj Zizek Presents Mao: On Practice and Contradiction, p. 5) at times promoted crudely utilitarian historiography. The whole argument, promoted especially after 1970, that the establishment of the Qin Empire under Qin Xi Huangdi ended the “slave period” in Chinese history, and inaugurated the (progressively) “feudal” era in the fourth century BCE was nonsense. So was the accompanying notion that Confucius was somehow the spokesperson of the slave-owning ruling class, versus the rising “feudal” class (whose ideology was the Legalism of Shan Yang and Hanfeizi). In reality, forms of control over the masses through forms of serfdom were prevalent throughout premodern Chinese history, although slavery was practiced as well, and by no means diminishing neatly century by century. There were far more slaves in the Qing period than in the earlier Ming.

But the point was not to accurately assess the history of China or even to seriously examine the history of class struggle in China. The point was argued by analogy that the First Emperor (so admired by Mao since he was a high school student) had acquired power through leading a class struggle, just as Mao had, and had needed to deal with Confucian scholars, just as Mao needed to smash residual Confucian ideology in China during the Cultural Revolution. The “Campaign to Criticize Lin Biao and Confucius,” imputing comparability to two totally dissimilar historical figures, was whatever its immediate political purposes an unfortunate contribution to serious study. Worse, the campaign against Western classical music waged between 1973 and 1976, in which Mozart and Beethoven were condemned as “poisonous weeds” because they represented the class enemy; along with this campaign, others raged against Shakespeare and Honoré de Balzac (who happen to have been among Marx and Engels’ favorite writers). The Gang of Four promoted a profoundly incorrect—here the word is actually appropriate—version of history in which there are (as Mao’s wife Jiang Qing might say about revolutionary Beijing Opera) “no middle characters,” but just class heroes and class enemies.

Zizek, while praising Mao, and editing a “Slavoj Zizek presents” editions of his essays “On Practice” and “On Contradiction,” chides him for his “theoretical mistake of rejecting the ‘negation of the negation.’” That error is shown here in the either/or evaluation of historical persons and events. Vulgar materialism cripples the mind, disables aesthetic sense, and diminishes the humanity of its adherents. How can it take on such challenges as resisting the outset of World War III, beginning in Ukraine? Or even grasp the issues in all their nuances?

But back to Zizek, the passionate defender of Hegel who in Absolute Recoil actually says little about dialectical materialism, the anti-imperialist who supports NATO expansion. He is useful as a self-described Marxist who contributes in his own way to the normalization of Marxism, increasingly allowing for discussion in more and more PC-dominated academe.

Zizek’s humanism, like that of Marx, is preferable to the Gang of Four’s ignorant posturing and aesthetic blindness. But anyone hoping to correct historical Marxism’s dogmatism with the “intelligent idealism” of Hegel can find better interlocutors than the Slovenian firebrand, including Lenin in Zurich, in 1915.

Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: