Sunday, January 03, 2010

Schwarzmantel: is Marxism a heresy of liberalism?

There's one final point of interest in John Schwarzmantel's article. Recently we had a discussion about the relation between Marxism and liberalism. It seems to me there are three possible answers:

  • Marxism and liberalism are fundamentally opposed to each other
  • Marxism and liberalism are distinct but related forms of modernism
  • Marxism is a variant of a larger liberal orthodoxy

One of the commenters was firmly committed to the first option. He thought that Marxism stood in opposition to liberalism - which then makes it sound as if Marxism is one of a number of real alternatives to liberalism within modern politics.

At a general level, Schwarzmantel seems to agree. After all, he is a neo-Gramscian Marxist attempting to set up what he calls a "counter-ideology" to the dominant liberalism of today. But it turns out that he views Marxism more in terms of the second and third options.

For instance, he describes Gramsci as believing that,

Marxism was a 'heresy' of liberalism, since both were born on the same terrain of modern civilisation ... For him both liberalism and Marxism were modernist ideologies par excellence ... (p.10)

The idea of Marxism being a heresy of liberalism suggests that liberalism is a parent philosophy from which Marxism is derived. And what is the heresy? Schwarzmantel writes:

To return to Gramsci for a moment, his idea was that Marxism, the 'philosophy of praxis', could provide the effective opposition and transcendence of liberalism. It was, like liberalism, a modernist or progressive philosophy, born on the terrain of modern civilisation. But it could go beyond liberalism ... in that it would appeal to broader strata of the population, it would be the Reformation compared to the 'Renaissance' represented by contemporary liberalism. (p.18)

This doesn't help much as it describes the 'heresy' in terms of political reach rather than in terms of underlying philosophy.

Schwarzmantel himself advocates as his "counter-ideology" to liberal dominance something that seems to very closely resemble left-liberalism. He describes his "counter-ideology" as,

an ideology of the Left. It takes seriously classical values of the Left, equality, solidarity and reciprocity, as well as a desire to restrain or restrict the scope of commodified market relations. (p.19)

I doubt if there are too many left-liberals who would have a problem with such a counter-ideology. It is typical of left-liberals that they reject the right-liberal reliance on the hidden hand of the free market to organise a society of autonomous individuals.

Schwarzmantel is concerned to reject a right-liberal view of freedom as a freedom of consumer choice. He prefers instead the idea of a freedom of self-development. He admits that this too is an idea to be found within liberalism:

The first of these is the theme of self-development, common to both liberalism and Marxism. The dominant ideology of contemporary society holds out a view of freedom as the freedom to choose; this, indeed, is the title of a popular book by M. Friedman, Free to Choose.

Both liberalism and Marxism (and here I think is common ground between them) have a more developmental view of freedom, as the freedom to develop human potential. I would argue that in both perspectives this capacity for self-development is not tied to market relations. Indeed, market relations with their instrumental perspective are seen as at best necessary but subordinate, or at worst quite inimical, to the development of human potential. (p.14)

And what of this self-development that is not tied to market relations? What does is consist of? Schwarzmantel advocates ideals of political and economic citizenship. The economic citizenship runs as follows:

all would have an obligation to work and to contribute ... a more egalitarian society in which work presented 'a site of intrinsically valuable challenge' would be able legitimately to call on citizens to make whatever contribution was in accordance with their ability. (pp. 16-17)

In other words, careerism! We are to self-develop through careers. This is what liberalism nearly always recommends, because it fits with the idea of a self-creating, self-determining individual. We get to choose our individual career pathway, in contrast to our nation, our ethny, our religion, our culture and so on. So for liberals, career is nearly always put at the centre of life meaning.

So not only is Schwarzmantel not establishing much of a "counter-ideology" to liberalism here, he is also still tying human potential to economic purposes - to the market - the very thing he set himself against.

As for political citizenship, Schwarzmantel himself doubts that "shared citizenship rights" are likely to have enough emotional appeal to motivate a commitment to society:

... the issue is whether a concept of shared civic rights is rooted firmly enough in an affective base which is needed in order to give citizens the incentive or emotional stimulus to internalise and make their own ideas of shared political community. (p.17)

So I can't see how Schwarzmantel's political and economic citizenship is likely to extend the development of human potential. Nor can I see how it's likely to trouble the role of the market. Nor how it runs "counter" to liberalism in any significant way.

Schwarzmantel has produced another left-liberal ideology and not a counter-ideology to a dominant liberalism.


  1. I think you've quite correctly diagnosed this fellow's political leanings (i.e. left liberal). Also, I think it is clear that both marxism and liberalism are different kinds of post-Enlightenment philosophies. Would you assert, however, that this guy typical of Marxism in general?

    The countries that adopted revolutionary socialism as their ruling creed were all, without exception, devoid of liberalism before and after their revolutions (Russia, China, Vietnam, Cuba, etc). Also, it may seem at first glance that marxism and liberalism differently principally in terms of economics (i.e. laissez-faire vs planed economy), but the differences run far deeper than that. Marxists have a radically different philosophical conception of man to liberals. The following is a reasonably succinct summary:

    In the communist manifesto, Marx (correctly, in my view) traced the rise of liberalism with the new bourgeois order, as opposed to the old conservatism of the aristocracy:

    When the ancient world was in its last throes, the ancient religions were overcome by Christianity. When Christian ideas succumbed in the 18th century to rationalist ideas, feudal society fought its death battle with the then revolutionary bourgeoisie. The ideas of religious liberty and freedom of conscience merely gave expression to the sway of free competition within the domain of knowledge.

    The key ideas of liberalism - lax or no economic planning, a certain conception of freedom (which you call autonomy), competition, representative democracy, etc., were all thoroughly rejected by Marx, and by his followers. It may be possible to find some non-Marxian socialists (Fabians, etc) who hold to a mixture of liberal ideas with some social democratic economics. There are also leftist anarchists, like Chomsky, for instance, who calls himself a 'libertarian socialist'. These latter two categories are nor Marxist, however, so the thesis that marxism is the bastard son of liberalism is for me an unconvincing one.

  2. Radical Marxists are on the same continuum as Socialists Social Democrats - Bolsheviks & Mensheviks, really. From what I can see, "Left liberal" in the sense of FDR Democrats = "Social Democrat", although most US Socialists and Radicals also call themselves Liberals or Progressives.

  3. Great Posts.

    For me the third option seems most likely.

    The East was exposed to Liberalism well before the revolutions. How else would a revolution be fermented.

    Liberalism seems to be on a reductive continuum, just how far can it go.

  4. Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

  5. Anon contrarian,

    Thanks for the link. I think it's true that in the following quote Marx does set himself apart from the usual atomised view of the individual you get in the classical liberal tradition:

    Marx accuses the liberal tradition of slighting the social nature of man. "Liberty is, therefore, the right to do everything which does not harm others... It is a question of the liberty of man regarded as an isolated monad, withdrawn into himself."

    The question, then, is whether Marx theorised a more social view of man that was distinct from the earlier (or subsequent) liberal tradition.

    Of this I'm not sure. After all, he wanted to abolish nations, the family, the church and, in the long run, the state - all in the name of an equal freedom.

  6. Marxists didn't want autonomous individuals; they wanted equal individuals who would with equal/single purpose pursue the united will of the Proletariat ("workers of the world unite" etc.).

    But "equal" and "autonomous" are not as antithetical in theory as they are in practice. Both follow from the idea of liberation for all, which is the rallying cry of Liberalism and Marxism both.

    M & L contradict each other in practice because humans are in fact neither equal nor autonomous. Thus, to make different humans with different wills have the same united will (equality), you must suppress their autonomy.

    And to let different humans have different wills (autonomy), you must allow different results(inequality). RLs prefer autonomy over equality. LLs and Marxists prefer equality over autonomy. But they both pursue liberation for all, just read their own rhetoric.

  7. Anon Contrarian writes:

    "The countries that adopted revolutionary socialism as their ruling creed were all, without exception, devoid of liberalism before and after their revolutions (Russia, China, Vietnam, Cuba, etc)".

    "Without exception"? What about Bela Kun's revolutionary socialist Hungary in 1919 (preceded by a liberal-left government under Count Karolyi)? Joao Goulart's revolutionary socialist Brazil in 1961-64 (preceded by liberal governments under Presidents Kubitschek and Quadros)? And Salvador Allende's revolutionary socialist Chile in 1970-73 (preceded by liberal Catholic President Frei Senior)?

    Merely because all three of these revolutionary socialist regimes were eventually defeated by genuinely right-wing forces (as opposed to the utterly ineffectual right-liberal regimes which are all that the Anglosphere has ever had in modern times by way of soi-disant "conservatism") does not mean that they did not exist.

  8. The Hungarian example is fair enough, but Allende, a parliamentary socialist (and the precise opposite of 'revolutionary') is not an example of radicalism, in my view. And what is a 'genuine' right-wing position in this instance? Are you suggesting that Pinochet is an authentic conservative?

  9. Anon Contrarian, I must admit, it never occurred to me that, at this late stage, anyone would be seriously denying the revolutionary / Marxist commitment and credentials of Allende (1972 winner of the Lenin Peace Prize, BTW). But perhaps the following link from a broadly left-wing newspaper, Britain's INDEPENDENT, will be of interest.

    The article's author, far from being pro-Pinochet, describes Pinochet as "a vile Fascist" who instigated a "Fascistic reign of terror". Nevertheless, the sheer lunacy of Allende's regime can no longer be seriously questioned, any more than can the sheer lunacy of the Spanish Reds' Popular Front in 1936-39:

    Of course, Pinochet was (like Franco) Catholic, so that is yet another reason for the average Anglo secularist demonising him.

  10. Greece and Malaysia had strong communist movements as well as parliamentary democracy (for substantial periods).

    There's some excellent comments here btw.

  11. RJ, the article on Allende is a mixture of omissions, distortions, and outright lies, from start to finish. The author, Neil, implies that Allende is undemocratic for receiving only 36% of the vote, yet omits that this was all that was necessary for his party to form a coalition government. (Howard's Liberals in Australia formed government with a similar percentage). Neil makes false claims of Allende sending 'thugs' invade homes and factories. This is unsubstantiated and untrue. Allende's reforms were the beginnings of a welfare state - again, Howard's Australia was more 'Marxist' than Allende's Chile. Finally, Neil alleges that Chile suffered from Allene's economic ineptitude. In reality, wages and economic conditions were vastly and consistently better under Allende than Pinochet, who went broke and had to nationalise the banks.

    My understanding is that Franco and Pinochet are opposed not because they are Catholic, but because both employed mass terror and repression for political ends. Some on the right like to mythologise their economic performance, but the documentary shows that these myths are mere hot air.

  12. On Mark's original post with liberals promoting careerism. Isn't work focus a good thing? I mean lots of the modern hassles I think we have come about because people pay off work and are only interested in its rewards.

  13. anon contrarian - Noam Chomsky is an anarchist?

    What is an anarchist? All I've run into seem to be street people who are really Marxists at heart but don't want to come out and say so -- "anarchist" sounds more interesting, dangerous, and romantic.

  14. Jesse 7,

    There are, of course, lots of positives about work. But I don't think it can carry life meaning to the extent that moderns think it can.

    Think of all the feminist women who were taught to fanatically devote themselves to careers but who then get to their 30s and wonder if that's all there is.

    Liberals strip the individual of some of the traditional "anchors" of life, such as membership of an historic community; a masculine or feminine identity and the sense of moral purpose derived from this; an honoured role within the family as a father or mother and so on. We are then left with the individual as an atomised personality.

    And what then do they suggest gives the individual a purpose in life? They talk in a vague way about an individual life project. It's as if everyone had mystically implanted within them some individual life project which would realise their true, unique, inborn essence.

    But what could this life project be? It has to be something that we can choose individually as a unique individual liberated from ties of nation, family, manhood etc.

    Liberals seem very shy about spelling out exactly what such life projects might be. But on the rare occasions I've seen it discussed it comes down to careers of some sort: becoming a doctor or musician or something like that.

    I don't think it's enough. Let's say you're a bus driver. You might well think your work serves a useful purpose. But are you really likely to think, "I'm a bus driver, therefore the purpose of my life falls into place - this is the high, meaningful expression of who I am"?

    I doubt it. For most people, those traditional anchors, the ones rejected by moderns, are more significant in the long run.

  15. What is an anarchist?

    There seem to be as many species of anarchism as there are anarchists, but my understand is that anarchists generally believe in redistributive economics, collective ownerships, etc., but also are opposed to the state, and to state intervention. Specifically on the topic of Chomsky - he disavows Marxism, and all of its descendants (such as Leninism), and has claimed that his political philosophy is exemplified by something like revolutionary Barcelona, or the kibbutzim - basically, 'direct action' forms of leftism rather than those requiring a state to do the heavy lifting.

  16. Mark,

    Interesting and informative series of posts on "Dr Black Coat", generating a burning desire to say:

    "what IS his problem !??"

    He's a tenured academic and Marxist busily living Gramsci's Long March through the Culture himself - and all on the taxpayer's coin !

    One could fill columns with examples of the 60s student activists who 'Marched' off the streets in 1968 and into the institutions - and proceeded to multiply, indoctrinate and radicalise, producing a growing New Class ( a la Betts 1999 ) which has arguably moved the political centre of gravity steadily Left.

    For example - I would have thought that the 15,000 UN, government and NGO participants crammed into the Bella Centre in Copenhagen who reportedly gave a standing ovation to Hugo Chavez's call for socialism to triumph over capitalism to 'save the world' would have been a milestone moment for Gramscian Marxists ??

    But thinking about Dr Schwarz-thingie's apparent dissatisfaction and desire to reshape 'The Cause', what might be troubling him in all this ??

    Well - an initial hypothesis is that They have indeed successfully captured and molded much of the Cultural Institutions - but what they haven't produced is a critical mass of card-carrying Party faithful.

    Where are the New Class winding up ? Arguably, as social democrats or, more likely, inner urban Greens.

    They aren't following Marx, Lenin or Mao.

    They are taking their cues from Al Gore and the celebrity enviros in their respective countries - such as Amory Lovins, David Suzuki or ( gawd help us Down Under ) Tim Flannery !!

    And while the race has a long way to run yet - New Class Environmentalism is not going to find itself in too much common cause with Old Skool Marxism - other than with a shared distaste for the market economy and crass commercialism ( as opposed to Gore/Flannery eco-commercialism ).

    If I may borrow an analogy from Mary Shelley - Dr Franken-mantel and his comrades have created their monster, but they have lost control of it and maybe it even threatens to destroy them in the finish ?


  17. This post reminds me of a conversation I had with a bank teller today. The lady was telling me that she is actually a certified French teacher. When I asked her why she left teaching, she replied that teaching was great, but she just didn't "have a passion" for it.

    I didn't say anything to her, but I left the bank shaking my head. My brother laughed on the way out that he'd never met someone before who was passionate about filling out deposit slips.

    I don't think that's what she meant: I'd be surprised if she is any more "passionate" about bank telling than she was about teaching, but that's the problem, isn't it? It's pretty unlikely she's ever going to find something in the daily grind that excites her imagination and gives her a reason to exist. And who knows how many good jobs she'll give up because she's always looking for the one she has a "passion" for.

    Now here's where I get passionate. Leftists like A.C. might think their esoteric rhetoric makes for interesting repartee, but it screws up people's lives.

    It isn't cute. It isn't harmless. It worms its way into ordinary people's minds and then makes them do really dumb things.

  18. Yeah good posts.

    People's life passions might involve a career but they usually involve "artistic" careers. I stopped being a financial wizard to be a photographer etc. The underlying concept is that its not good making money for the man, a real "passion" must be not financial.

    Love also fits in here. The magic love affair will make everything meaningful.

  19. Continuing on from the point made by Mark and Bartholomew, what should you do with your life etc? I've heard several possible candidates for the "meaning of life", (if you're the patience to listen to them).

    As expressed the first is "life is competition", this is the keeping ahead of the Joneses argument. "He who dies with the most tools wins". It has its charms. Another is as was previously expressed, follow your "passion". Another is have the most fun, have the most experiences, do whatever you want. This involves lots of base jumping and travelling.

    So using the bus driver example how would these apply to you? If you're a bus driver maybe its a bit hard to stay ahead of the Joneses as far as career status is concerned. However, you could be highly unionised and demand respect through prospects of strike action. You could have your respect for your work reflected by high wages and improved conditions. Often the argument is made that wage rises are needed to maintain standards of living but often it seems obvious that the motivator is the desire to win appreciation or see what can be gotten away with.

    Secondly as a bus driver you might not have a "passion" for your work but you could have passion for weekend pursuits, football or fishing. The work pays the bills but I live to fish.

    Lastly was the enjoy life philosophy. Well perhaps you could do this by maintaing a casual attitude to work. Be a happy go lucky bus driver who likes to chat to everyone and knock off early. Come on lottery ticket!! How many days are there till retirement?

    The effect of these three attitudes must reflect in work performance. On which philosophy motivates the greatest performance in work I would say the keeping ahead of the Jones would the strongest. By saying "I don't make mistakes, my driving is flawless, I'm better than you or that guy" you're motivating yourself to stay good. If you ask me though it’s a little bit of a selfish motivator. If you're that way focused you MIGHT (I'm not saying you would be but you might) for instance be less reluctant to be train future drivers thoroughly, "If you're good you'll pick it up if you're not get out". Because if people are your competition why would you be inclined to see them succeed. Perhaps if their success reflects on you somehow.

    The second argument, "passion" could get you through your career. You could have a passion for doing a good job as well as for weekends. The problem is that one criticism can be made and then out can come the old furphy "Ah what's the point!" If things are done because of the way you feel personally your commitment could falter at every cross wind.

    The third motivator was just have fun. Again in any routine occupation the facts of the job would blunt. You’d still have your weekends and working for the weekend isn't the end of the world, however, it does mean you're probably not going to go "over and above". Its possible that this is less important for routinised labour but I don’t think it follows in other careers. Gold bricking and corner cutting comes to mind. The maestro who sweats for perfection seems out of favour. "Perfectionism" is today used as a pejorative.

    The alternative to these three is "do the right thing" or even "do a good job". I think while these three don't get a serious look in its not surprising that we in the West should feel uncertainty about our future.

  20. Speaking of perfectionism I should have checked my last comment again before posting.

  21. Mark.

    Liberalism and Marxism are diametrically opposed. Their only common factor is the denial of any form of overriding morality. Liberalism places the locus of morality in the self; Marxism, in the group.

    Marxism is however an offshoot of liberalism, it would have been impossible without liberalism's underpinnings. Marxism also owes its birth to simplistic Christianity.

    Christianity always taught that the poor had dignity if not authority. The abuses of those in power lead to a sympathy towards the poor and Liberalism and the Romantic movement transformed this notion into the idea that that the poor had nobility. A simplistic Christianity which criticised the rich (who were nobles) and elevated the poor(who were not)played a significant part in the genesis of this heresy.

    Marxism(which has always loved "Social Gospel" Christianity) took this idea further, arguing that the nobility of the poor entitled them to the right of governance and that governance should be absolute. The will of the people as a sort of Divine right was an idea of the French Revolution. Marxism is then really an absolute aristocracy(only in the inverse).

    N.B. In case people think I'm dissing Christianity I'm not. Nobility in the Christian context finds its locus in Character, not social station; something a lot of the moderns seem to forget.

  22. Haha, yeah, that's a good question, Jesse. If we think the careerism of leftists is wrong, what should we do instead?

    Hey man, I don't know. I'm just a 27 year old trying to figuring out how to live. But, here's what I'm thinking:

    How about we not put all of our eggs in one basket, so to speak? Why make our career, or the weekends, or money/possessions the sole criterion of a successful life? We could also add wife and kids, friends, volunteering, etc. Why just settle for an interesting career and give up on everything else? Isn't that kind of life a little...unbalanced?

    When I read the stories of the men and women in the Bible whom God blessed, I notice that their lives weren't dull. They were faithful to God; they were usually married and had kids; they worked with their hands; they knew who they were; they had friends and gave generously to their neighbors; they fought and defended all that they loved; and they even got to travel! What is it again that the libs are offering us?

    You know when I look over that list, about the only thing I can figure the leftists have that the Bible doesn't is lots of indiscriminate sex. Huh. Well, I guess that's the choice, then.

  23. Keep posting stuff like this i really like it.