What Does It Mean to Be a Marxist? by Norman Geras
What does it mean to be a Marxist?
By Norman Geras
I should like to begin by thanking the organizers of this conference for inviting me to take part. I am particularly glad of the opportunity to speak on this topic since it is one I have thought much about in recent times, feeling as I do that there are ways in which I continue to be a Marxist, but also that there is one way in which I don’t. I’ll get to that later. Let me also say at the outset, having brought up the subject of my own relationship to Marxism, that I shall be making further reference to it here. The issues I want to discuss are of quite general import; but I haven’t found it possible to discuss them in a general way without at the same time touching on this individual, biographical dimension.
I shall distinguish three meanings of ‘being a Marxist’. I don’t say that these exhaust the field of possible meanings. They are merely three meanings of interest to me and around which I find it convenient to organize my thoughts. To signal the general shape of what I will go on to say, these three meanings may be labelled, for short, personal, intellectual and socio-political ways of being a Marxist. I deal with them in turn.
This first meaning is conceptually quite straightforward but it is not uninteresting for all that. For someone to be a Marxist, in the first – personal – sense I want to distinguish, he or she must (a) subscribe to a significant selection of recognized Marxist beliefs, and (b) describe him or herself as a Marxist. Let me elaborate on each of those two points.
(a) I put it the way I do – speaking of a significant selection of recognized Marxist beliefs – because I don’t think there is any single essential, or obligatory, tenet of Marxist doctrine or theory without which a person must fail in their self-identification as a Marxist. In my experience this is not always agreed amongst Marxists themselves. I have come across people who regarded acceptance of the labour theory of value – or, more bizarrely, of the falling rate of profit – as a sine qua non of authentic Marxist identity. More famously perhaps, Lenin wrote in chapter 2 of The State and Revolution that ‘Only he is a Marxist who extends the recognition of the class struggle to the recognition of the dictatorship of the proletariat’ (Lenin 1949, 33). But given the breadth as well as the historical age of Marxism, and the consequent intellectual diversification of it, such attempts to pin down a single compulsory requirement of Marxist belief strike me as absurd. As Stefan Collini (2011) wrote in The Guardian a week ago, ‘A quite extraordinarily rich and sophisticated body of ideas developed, and continues to develop, under this label..’. – he is referring to Marxism – and as Marxism has not been a church (despite certain religion-like features displayed in some of its branches; despite the view of certain of its critics that it is a secular variant of religion), it is not up to anyone to decree that adherence to any single thesis is indispensable to being a Marxist.
Naturally, it would not be sensible to call someone a Marxist on the basis of her signing up to some isolated and inconsequential proposition(s) lifted from, say, Capital or the Communist Manifesto; and that is why I refer, in the first condition above, to adherence to some significant plurality of Marxist beliefs. I shall give an illustration of the point. When asked a few years ago whether I still thought of myself as a Marxist, I answered that I did, and gave three reasons why I did. They were: (i) that historical materialism is broadly true – or perhaps it would be more accurate to say here, where I’m not spelling out the whole answer with its qualifications, true enough; (ii) that Marxism involves an ‘enduring commitment to the goal of an egalitarian, non-exploitative society’; and (iii) that I valued ‘Marxism’s focus upon what is sometimes called the problem of agency: the problem of finding a route, the active social forces, between existing historical tendencies and the achievement of a substantially egalitarian society’. I would still, today, give these reasons for my being a Marxist; and I offer them also as an example of how being a Marxist depends, in the first of the two conditions I have proposed, on affirming some significant conjunction of Marxist beliefs.
What about the second condition? This is (b) that the person who affirms the relevant beliefs describes him or herself as a Marxist. I add it as a second requirement not only because, Marxism not being a church, nobody is in a position to insist for anyone else on their membership of it: Marxism is a broad intellectual tradition, and one is free to adhere to it or not, as one chooses. But there is an additional reason for this possibility of choice, one that has long been clear to me as a matter of simple experience and that I shall now try to exemplify in quasi-formal terms.
Imagine someone who sees himself as a Marxist, but not in the sense of slavishly adhering to every important element of what he takes to be Marxist thinking; in the sense, rather, of using his critical faculties to distinguish what is right from what is wrong in that tradition and upholding only those elements he sees as viable. Thus, he says that he is a Marxist because of p, q and r, these all being aspects of Marxist thought which he takes to be true and/or valuable, and despite x, y and z, also aspects of Marxist thought but which he thinks are wrong and to be rejected. Now, here is a second person and she, it just so happens, reverses the weighting put on the very same pair of sets of components of Marxist thought. She says that she is not a Marxist, this because of x, y and z, which she, like the other guy, thinks are wrong, and despite p, q and r, which she too finds true and/or valuable, but not true or valuable enough to outweigh the wrongness and disvalue of x, y and z. These are two people, in other words, who agree that Marxism is good in the very same ways, and no good in the very same ways; and yet the two of them divide over whether to call themselves Marxists.
Thus, it is perfectly easy to imagine someone saying in response to my declaration of intellectual allegiance of eight years ago that, while agreeing with me that there’s a lot of truth in historical materialism, and that the goal of an egalitarian, non-exploitative society is a good one, and that Marxism’s focus on the problem of agency showed a commendable sense of social and political realism – nonetheless they do not subscribe to Marxism, preferring to identify with a radical left liberalism. Why they do not subscribe to Marxism is, let us say, that the insufficient attention of the tradition to ethical issues, and the lack of an adequate theory within it of political democracy, and the common dismissal by Marxists of the merits of liberalism, have all been seriously disabling features of the tradition, time and again leading its adherents astray. It is not by accident that I cite as weaknesses of Marxism features that I really do take to be such. I call myself a Marxist despite them. I can well understand why others might decline to call themselves Marxists because of them.
There is a sort of existential choice one makes. The choice is based on reasons, as I have tried to show; but the reasons are guiding rather than forcing ones, and other factors come into play, though I leave aside what those other factors are.
I turn to my second meaning of being a Marxist, the one that I have called the ‘intellectual’ meaning. What I have in mind here is that, as well as having some relevant combination of Marxist beliefs, a person can work – as writer, political publicist, academic, thinker, researcher – within the intellectual tradition begun by Marx and Engels and developed by later figures. They can work as Marxists, write as Marxists, by engaging with major themes or thinkers of the tradition, by wrestling with problems they perceive it to have left unresolved, by applying Marxist concepts in fresh domains, by doing new research to expand previously undeveloped aspects of Marxist thought, and so on. Here, too, I would want to emphasize the breadth and variety there has been in this way of being a Marxist.
For Marxist intellectual work embraces the work of historians who have seen themselves as applying the methods and insights of the materialist conception of history to the study of particular countries, social formations, historical periods; of political economists writing on the phases of capitalist development, today on globalization; political philosophers studying the ideas of Marxist thinkers, whether to clarify their meaning, take them further or remedy deficiencies they find there; literary and cultural theorists, interpreting literary texts and other cultural products in the light of Marxist concepts; sociologists of development; students of labour movements; those attempting to theorize the nature of fascism; etc. Whatever its weaknesses and its failures, one of the strengths of Marxism has surely been that it could animate the work of so many people across so many disciplines.
In this connection also, however, I want to propose that one shouldn’t think of Marxist intellectual work in too fixed and narrow a way – so that writing history or doing political economy can be seen as a straightforwardly Marxist type of activity; whereas, say, doing moral philosophy is not, because moral philosophy isn’t something Marx himself engaged in and it has not been a notable feature of Marxist discussion since Marx. For suppose, as is in fact the case, that Marxism has been deficient in certain areas, saying nothing, or nothing useful, or not much, or the wrong things; and one wants to try and make good the deficiency, help to fill the gap. I shall suggest two examples: one from my own work, the other more speculative.
What does each of us owe to other people in the way of aid or rescue when their situation is dire – life-threateningly dire? What is the extent of our duty to others under such circumstances, assuming there is one? Now, one can ask of these questions: are they Marxist questions? They’re obviously not specifically Marxist since anyone could ask them; they are of quite general philosophical and indeed human concern. But they should be questions of interest to Marxists, since the notion of solidarity, including international solidarity, has been important to Marxists. They are, in any event, questions that I asked in my book (1988) The Contract of Mutual Indifference. They illustrate the fact that there are questions that have not been central in the Marxist canon but that it is proper for Marxists to pursue – proper because they are questions that arise directly from what are more specifically Marxist concerns. That someone could raise and try to answer the very same questions without relating them to any Marxist context is true, but it isn’t relevant to the point I’m making: which is that the development of Marxist thought must sometimes involve working in intellectual regions, such as moral philosophy, where its presence has hitherto been weak to non-existent.
My second example I will merely gesture towards, sweepingly, as being a general requirement if political Marxism is to thrive again in future – a prospect I no longer take for granted. Marxism has been characterized by a huge deficit with respect to democracy. The deficit has been both theoretical and practical. Theoretical because, envisaging the transformation of the world, no less, Marxism never adequately projected the theory of political democracy that would be adequate to coping with so far-reaching a task. And practical because, partly in consequence, Marxist movements have time and again fallen into anti-democratic and murderous ways. I will do no more than allude to the Stalinist experience, because it is definitive for many as a warning of what Marxism could become. Unless, today and tomorrow, Marxists show themselves willing to engage fully with the intellectual resources of liberalism – yes, liberalism, this so often maligned figure on the Marxist left – and to absorb everything that liberalism knows and Marxists have either derided or belittled or ignored; unless a Marxist political theory comes to terms with the truths of liberal political theory, acknowledging the normative force of human rights, the idea of judicial independence and separation of powers, exploring different forms of representation, insisting on free elections and an untrammelled freedom of speech and opinion, understanding the virtues of political pluralism; unless all of that, Marxism as a political movement might as well shut up shop.
Note that I do not say Marxism should be uncritical of liberalism. Liberalism in many variants is too accommodating of unjust inequalities. Yet, if it is not willing to learn from liberalism, Marxism is unlikely to be of any benefit to anyone politically. It will deserve to have had its day. A frankly, unashamedly liberal Marxism – this too might look unfamiliar to many in the way of Marxist intellectual work. But it is not merely a possible, it is a vital, area for future Marxist work if Marxism itself is to have a worthwhile future. That leads, so to say organically, into the last part of this paper.
The third meaning of ‘being a Marxist’ that I want to discuss – the socio-political meaning – concerns not just the would-be Marxist’s beliefs or the content of his or her intellectual work. It’s about being part of something larger. On this meaning, a person is a Marxist if they belong to the Marxist left. Here I could refer to the old theme of the unity of theory and practice, or to the idea that Marxism as well as being a theory was a mass movement. There is a well-known pedigree for these claims, starting with the eleventh of Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach– ‘the point is to change it’ (MECW Vol 5, 3) – and taking in the idea of Marxism as the self-consciousness of the working class, a theory for the workers’ movement. Whatever truth there may once have been in this notion of a theory providing guidance to a movement, however, it doesn’t apply today. Politically, Marxism has become a very marginal presence.
Still, there is a Marxist left – both in an organized and in a looser sense. There are political organizations that profess Marxism; and beyond these there is a wider current of opinion formed by people who would call themselves Marxist or admit to being significantly influenced by Marxism; one might even count as on the periphery of the Marxist left people who would not acknowledge any direct Marxist influence on their thinking but who share with more avowed Marxists or semi-Marxists some important tenets of belief. Given what Marxism has now come to, it would surely be too strong to refer to this Marxist social presence as a movement. Despite that, I think we can continue to talk of a Marxist left of sorts. And one can be a Marxist in the sense of being part of this Marxist left.
At the risk of startling you, or some of you, but not just for that effect – rather in order to register my own conviction that here is a way of being a Marxist that no longer recommends itself – I am sorry to say that to be a member of the Marxist left today is to be part of something, a body of opinion, a political current, that is accursed. Steady on, you may think, that’s a bit strong, isn’t it? Accursed? Why that? And why now? In view of the history of the Soviet Union, or of the international communist movement that supported and excused it, or of China under Mao (to mention only those sorry examples of Marxism gone wrong), how has the Marxist left become accursed only today and not long before that?
I will not shirk the question, which is fair. This is my answer to it. It is partly personal, but also partly general. Like everybody else, I was – I am – of my generation. I was inducted into Marxism already knowing about Stalinism and all its horrors; but knowing also that that experience didn’t exhaust the totality of Marxist thought or, as I thought and hoped, of Marxist possibility. Stalinism had been one grossly distorted realization of Marxism’s anti-capitalist project, embarked upon under maximally unpropitious historical conditions, but other better realizations were still possible, and under the watchword this time of socialist democracy. Furthermore, what I knew in this regard, or at any rate hoped, I knew and hoped in the company of large numbers of others on the Western left, people not at all indulgent towards the crimes of Stalin. We were a part – for those who remember the 1960s and 1970s – of a new left, a left that had learned the lessons of the historic tragedy that the Stalinist experience had been. So, although there was even then a section of the Marxist left that one could aptly regard as compromised by an ugly past or indeed present, apologists for the crimes of Stalin and/or Mao, this was not the Marxist left as a whole, as we knew it.
Today, in the light of what has happened in the first decade of 21st century, it is not so easy, if you believe in human rights and the importance of the fundamental civic and political freedoms that we owe to historical liberalism, to find a Marxist left that is worth belonging to or being broadly identified with. In both its organized and its looser, more amorphous forms the Marxist left is a place of the most disgraceful apologetics and ambiguous or worse than ambiguous alignments. What makes this a matter for especial regret and criticism today, by those of us who still think of ourselves as Marxists in either or both of my first two senses but feel no identification with, and eschew membership of, the Marxist left as such, is that this is a Marxist left that can make no further appeal to historical ‘innocence’. It already knows the consequences of undemocratic organization, the absence of liberal safeguards, the elevation of the great leader; and of turning a blind eye to all this so as, supposedly, not to give comfort to enemies on the political right. It should know better, but it doesn’t.
What am I talking about? I’m talking about a Marxist left from within which after 9/11 there came voices ready to make excuses for an act of mass murder that the whole left should have forthrightly condemned. And which, more generally, is always free with forms of ‘understanding’ of terrorism – by another name, murder of the innocent – in a shallow root-causes sociology of grievance, alienation, poverty or what have you. And from within which there have been people willing to march side by side with radical Islamists – that is, anti-democratic and reactionary theocrats – and to shout ‘We are all Hezbollah’ (also not an organization renowned for its commitment to Enlightenment or, for that matter, Marxian universalist values, to say nothing of liberal and democratic ones). And within which there are still those who will sing the praises of Cuba as a post-capitalist society, its harsh way with political dissent notwithstanding. And those who will turn out in Camden to give a warm welcome to Hugo Chavez, just the latest in a line of adored leaders whose merit seems to be that they are from somewhere else. And who will speak up even for the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or the Chinese leadership where there is a matter of some criticism directed at them by Western politicians who enjoy the moral advantage of being leaders of countries with free electorates and free elections.
And who have been so convinced that there was only one possible, one legitimate, viewpoint on the left about the war in Iraq that they have reacted to others on the left who didn’t share that viewpoint as if they could no longer be of the left. These are often the same people, incidentally – these unswervingly convinced-of-one-viewpoint ones – as opposed the US-led response to 9/11 that overthrew Taliban rule in Afghanistan, and as opposed Nato’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999, and as opposed the eviction of Saddam Hussein’s armies from Kuwait in 1991, and as opposed the eviction of Argentina from the Falklands in 1982. They are, in any case, unable to accommodate the idea that someone on the left might favour the overthrow of a genocidal and fascistic tyrant.
They are also, some of them, people who have worked tirelessly to put in place in British universities a policy of boycotting the academics of one country – one country only – Israel; and irrespective of what the Israeli academics to be boycotted (in fact blacklisted) by them may individually think about the policies of their government; and irrespective of the historical pedigree of the idea of boycotts directed exclusively against Jews. And who, again some of them, treat the right of nations to self-determination as unproblematically to be recognized for many peoples but not, apparently, in the case of the Jews.
This is a Marxist left that, in order to make its opposition to the Western military presence in Afghanistan more psychologically comfortable for itself, prefers not to talk about what the return of Taliban rule to that country would mean for its people, and its women and girls more especially, or when it does talk about it is not above mocking and belittling the genuine concern of others on that score. It is a Marxist left today which, in its Anglophone embodiment, is governed by one overriding impulse, ‘anti-imperialism’; and, within this, opposition especially to any policy supported by the US or British governments, with all other considerations subordinate to that, if given any think-room at all.
I anticipate, as one possible response to all this, that these ideas and activities may be features of a small fragment, the ‘far left’, but that it is too quickly generalizing on my part to treat them as any more widespread than that, or as typifying the Marxist left in general. I am familiar with this response and I don’t accept it. To put it briefly and bluntly, I read. I read what goes on in the opinion pages of the national press, and so far from these tropes being confined to the far left, the SWP and its like, they extend even beyond what I have referred to as the more amorphous Marxist left, into broadly ‘progressive’ circles that would not willingly own to the name Marxist. This is, if you want, an ironic and distorted coming to fruition of the notion of Gramscian hegemony. Even with Marxism as a body of thought in overt political decline, some of the most lamentable apologetic tropes and moral compromises of Marxism’s least glorious realization have taken hold more widely amongst the left-liberal intelligentsia.
I do not say, just to be clear about this, that there are no distinctions within the body of opinion that I have here evoked, no gradations. Distinctions and gradations there certainly are. There are the ‘hard’ crowd: the out-and-out ‘we-are-all-Hezbollah’-niks; unashamed apologists for terrorism, dressed up this in the obscuring language of ‘the right to resistance’ and of ‘revolutionary violence’, as if either formula could justify murdering the innocent; the apologists for Cuba, or China, or Iran. But there is a softer version too, offered by the practitioners of the mumble and the evasion where authoritarian movements or regimes are up for assessment and possible condemnation; democrats to a man and a woman, and as insistent as anyone on the importance of basic rights when some misdemeanour of a Western government is under scrutiny, but much more ‘nuanced’ when patently undemocratic polities or organizations are the object of critical attention.
How to explain it, the continuing weakness, the persistent moral failure, of this sector of the left, with the Marxist left a substantial core of it? A full answer to the question would doubtless need to go much wider than I can on this occasion, but one part of the answer, I would suggest, is this. The failure has its source in a group of temptations regularly displayed by a section of the Western left when confronted by (a) the undemocratic practices of supposedly socialist or anti-imperialist or (in some assumed sense) ‘progressive’ states, and (b) the claims made for the democracies of the wealthier capitalist countries. There is, first, a temptation to look for considerations mitigating the lack of democracy in the kind of states I have just referred to: considerations such as blockade, encirclement (of the young Soviet state), underdevelopment, the legacy of colonialism, and so on. There is, second, an attempt to point to features compensating for that lack of democracy: principally social and economic achievements of one kind and another (rapid industrialization, Cuba’s health care). Third, there are arguments to the effect that the democracies of advanced capitalist societies are themselves either flawed and limited as democracies or not really democracies at all but disguised forms of dictatorship.
Now, it is not that there is nothing at all to be said in support of these themes. In turn: (i) a country mired in poverty has fewer democratic resources than a wealthy one; (ii) where there are achievements to note, there is nothing wrong with noting them; (iii) the democracies of the capitalist world are indeed flawed in certain ways – differently, and some more than others, but invariably failing to offer all their citizens an equality of influence and rights. Nonetheless, there is a central piece of bad faith in the way that, for a section of the left, these three themes typically combine to enable their partisans to evade a single inescapable fact: namely that, flawed as they may be, the capitalist democracies are democracies, whereas none of the would-be anti-capitalist countries, anywhere, has managed to sustain comparably good or better democratic institutions over any length of time. I do not say that this means it could never happen. I do not believe that. What I do think, though, is that the democratic institutions we are familiar with have yet to be improved on in any of those places that some leftists are given to casting an indulgent eye upon even while they seek to distance themselves critically from the political institutions of their own countries, institutions from which they benefit and which are superior. Unwilling to profess a clear allegiance towards what is democratically better, a certain type of leftist is always ready to make allowances for what is democratically worse.
This is a standpoint more attached to its own anti-capitalism than it is to the struggle against political tyranny or, if it comes to it, to the opposition (obligatory for any principled socialism) to terrorist murder. Some may be upset by such a characterization of the evaluative priorities of the left I’m talking about here, for it is not a ranking openly avowed as a rule. Yet, practically, in terms of the dominant polemical rhetoric coming from the relevant quarter, this is how it too often goes: the democracies of the West flawed, at fault, hypocritical, aggressors, and so forth, while quite appallingly anti-democratic movements and regimes are made apology for, and bathed in the mitigation of that shallow root-causes sociology to which I earlier referred – root causes for which some proximate ‘we’ is always said to bear the ultimate responsibility. Tyranny, terrorism, even genocide, almost cease to be horrors in their own right, evils to be opposed alongside economic exploitation, inequality, poverty and other byproducts of global capitalism. They are, as it were, ‘levelled’ by always being traced back in their turn to capitalism and imperialism, so that they become lesser evils and their direct agents and perpetrators lesser enemies.
In conclusion, then, I have considered three meanings of ‘being a Marxist’. They can go together or they can come apart. Marxists in the first and second meanings may also be Marxists in the third meaning; or they may not. However, unless a Marxism of personal belief and a Marxism of creative intellectual work both thoroughly renewed and wrested once and for all from the grip of anti-democratic and illiberal themes and concepts – unless such a Marxism can come to animate the Marxist political left, Marxism as a political force might just as well be dead and buried. A movement so slow to learn would have earned this fate.
Collini, S. (2011) ‘How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism by Eric
Hobsbawm – review’, The Guardian, 22 January 2011. Available from:
Geras, N. (1998) The Contract of Mutual Indifference: Political Philosophy after the Holocaust,
Lenin, V. I. (1949) The State and Revolution, Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Marx, K. and Engels, F. (1975-2005) Marx/Engels Collected Works, London: Lawrence and
 As too often, responses to these points of mine at the January 2011 conference reached immediately for the easy convenience that I shouldn’t confuse criticism of Israeli policy with anti-Jewish animus. As anyone can see for themselves, I took no exception, in what I said, to criticism of Israeli policy, an entirely legitimate activity. I took issue with (a) punitive actions directed against Israeli academics (which is not merely ‘criticism’); and (b) the denial of the right to national self-determination of the Jews and the Jews alone, a denial implicit in the view that Israel is an illegitimate state (which, too, is not mere criticism, but a threat to the organized national existence of the Jewish people).