The Philosophic Roots of Marxism

“The fullest possible appreciation of pleasure creates a need for the prudent management of the flow of pleasures over time, and for a mental grasp of the art of living.”

Marx’s dissertation compared the Epicurean tradition favorably to the Skeptics. Marx used Greek materialism to found his socialist humanism.

Marxist materialism is elaborated by Mandel (D Henwood found this):

Ernest Mandel, Late Capitalism, pp. 394-396: 6.

“…Marx fully appreciated and stressed the civilizing function of capital, which he saw as the necessary preparation of the material basis for a ‘rich individuality’. The following passage from the Grundrisse makes this view very clear: ‘Capital’s ceaseless striving towards the general form of wealth drives labour beyond the limits of its natural paltriness, and thus creates the material elements for the development of the rich individuality which is as all-sided in its production as in its consumption, and whose labour also therefore appears no longer as labour, but as the full development of activity itself, in which natural necessity in its direct form has disappeared; because a historically created need has taken the place of the natural one.’

 For socialists, rejection of capitalist ‘consumer society’ can therefore never imply rejection of the extension and differentiation of needs as a whole, or any return to the primitive natural state of these needs; their aim is necessarily the development of a ‘rich individuality’ for the whole of mankind. In this rational Marxist sense, rejection of capitalist ‘consumer society’ can only mean: rejection of all those forms of consumption and of production which continue to restrict man’s development, making it narrow and one-sided. This rational rejection seeks to reverse the relationship between the production of goods and human labour, which is determined by the commodity form under capitalism, so that henceforth the main goal of economic activity is not the maximum production of things and the maximum private profit for each individual unit of production (factory or company), but the optimum self-activity of the individual person. The production of goods must be subordinated to this goal, which means the elimination of forms of production and labour which damage human health and man’s natural environment, even if they are ‘profitable’ in isolation. At the same time, it must be remembered that man as a material being with material needs cannot achieve the full development of a ‘rich individuality’ through asceticism, self-castigation and artificial self-limitation, but only through the rational development of his consumption, consciously controlled and consciously (i.e., democratically) subordinated to his collective interests.

 Marx himself deliberately pointed out the need to work out a system of needs, which has nothing to do with the neo-asceticism peddled in some circles as Marxist orthodoxy. In the Grundrisse Marx says: ‘The exploration of the earth in all directions, to discover new things of use as well as new useful qualities of the old; such as new qualities of them as raw materials; the development, hence, of the natural sciences to their highest point; likewise the discovery, creation and satisfaction of new needs arising from society itself; the cultivation of all the qualities of the social human being, production of the same in a form as rich as possible in needs, because rich in qualities and relations – production of this being as the most total and universal possible social product, for, in order to take gratification in a many-sided way, he must be capable of many pleasures, hence cultured to a high degree – is likewise a condition of production founded on capital….”

There is No Compromise with Conservatives

“So, the Heritage Foundation said let’s do an individual mandate because it keeps it (health care reform) within free enterprise. The alternative was single payer. And they didn’t want that, and I’m in sympathy with that. So now all of a sudden the free-market alternative becomes unconstitutional and terribly intrusive where a government imposition and government-run project would not be? I don’t get it. Well, I do get it. It’s politics” Liberal-conservative Charles Fried commenting on the the Randy Barnett-led conservative campaign, which aims to use the Supreme Court to kill Obamacare. 

Obamacare (The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, PPACA 2010) requires, on pain of fines, individual Americans to buy health insurance from private health insurance firms. Why conservatives hate it is because it is a progressive redistribution of wealth, and so an enlargement of power and freedoms. Further, millions of Americans cannot afford food or shelter, let alone buy expensive health insurance; so their insurance costs must be socialized. Conservative states and conservative business organizations filed lawsuits (and amicus brief), and the Supreme Court agreed to hear their arguments.

Say you want to get something done: Address the problem of the predatory, unregulated health care industry which is sapping the economic strength of responsible employers and the working class, causing crisis within the working class and foisting the costs of an unhealthy, traumatized populace upon the state, capital productivity, and society.

If you wanted to do something, you would have had to coordinate a massive protest + polity campaign, first to get a President who would and could appoint progressive judges to the Supreme Court, and then to press for universal  Medicare, with the state being a single buyer of services (to negotiate medical rents down). Given the judiciary is conservative, this is a long-term project at this point. There is no other road. If you wanted to get social reform accomplished, you cannot compromise with class warrior conservatives, because even though they own Congress, they own the judiciary more. Ideologically, Republicans and other class warrior conservatives will not tolerate the idea that any policy that strengthens the working class strengthens the capitalist class or economy.

Illustrated: the difference between Fried (a Reagan-era conservative = Democrat) and Barnett class-warrior conservatives is that the former agree that something had to be done about health care cost and access in the US–and something could be done that would benefit capital. Whereas the latter are “Let them eat cake” Malthusians. The Barnett class-warrior conservatives believe that the working class should be miserable, in crisis, and dead young (The elitist Supreme Court judges laughed merrily at the idea of working-poor families booted off health insurance.), and on principle no state should stand in the way of that proper “market”/god-given outcome. Following feudo-capitalist British tradition, as long as US military troops and mercenaries are competitive in imperial war, there is no need for class compromise or social amelioration in Malthusian conservatives’ view. Might makes right.

And when I’m finally old enough to learn to play the game, 
Oh the dinosaurs will roam the earth, and resume their bloody reign. 

Political Problem: The Supreme Court is a Fundamental Enemy of Democracy

Robin plumbs another depth to conservative strategy: The reason why the Supreme Court agreed to hear this challenge to Obamacare as a matter of constitutional law is because that conservative court has been using the Constitution’s commerce clause to work toward constructing the class-warrior legal interpretation: broadly, the interpretation that the Constitution does not give Congress the authority to create working class-supportive social institutions (eg. Medicare, food assistance, Medicaid, Social Security, etc.). This conservative constitutional interpretation would illegalize all institutions of the welfare state, making the US a night watchman state.

Doug Henwood and Daniel Lazare argue that with one exception-that-proves-the-rule (post-FDR) period, history has shown that the Supreme Court is hopelessly anti-democratic. Robin explains the  elitist Supreme Court problem for democrats: The commerce clause hasn’t always been an obstacle to progressive social change. Iff you had a social movement in place, and iff you ALSO had a president who was able to appoint Supreme Court justices who wouldn’t strike down all progressive legislation, the commerce clause could be turned to freedoms expansion.

So after Roosevelt’s liberal judicial appointments, and with social movement pressure, for a couple decades justices used the commerce clause to authorize Social Security, the Wagner Act, the Civil Rights Act, and more. But  social movement is not enough. There were social movements in the US for many decades that managed to pass legislation, and it all got struck down by the Supreme Court.

Unless you struggle to abolish the Supreme Court or pass an amendment that radically restricts its authority, it’s going to wield that authority and strike down freedoms-expanding legislation.

The only temporary alternative is if a social movement can over time both advance a President who will appoint new progressive judges and maintain the disruption and pressure needed to advance progressive, freedoms-expanding legal interpretation.

Left Hegemonic Strategy vis-a-vis the Right

This long discussion may provide some clues as to how some members of the non-elite Right can be won over by the Left.

Left Gramscian considerations for a reorienting organization of non-elite conservatives
Generally: Understand that most non-elites, especially in Anglosphere societies, have been socialized (in the workplace, in the church, in the patriarchal family) primarily as feudal serfs, not ideal liberal workers. To organize them Left requires a Freirean approach.

The conservative ideological system–narrow boundaries of moral exclusion, aversion to democratic politicization (qua change), god-affirmed feudalism–is self-reinforcing in its parts and founded in institutionalized solidaristic incentives.

Tactical consideration 1:
a) Well-educated Left can make alliances with non-elite conservative intellectuals, focus on broadening their circle of moral inclusion
b) Left organizers create organizations with solidarity incentives to engage non-elites, focus on broadening their circle of moral inclusion

I consider that one opportunity lies in understanding and addressing the non-elite Right’s struggle to come to terms with their boundaries of moral exclusion. Conservatives seem to feel overwhelmed at the extent of humanity. The Right reflex seems to be to see the human world as very small, with a big old throng of sub-humans outside the boundaries–so, broadly, the conservative’s relationship to that sub-human throng is properly, reflexively, simply to use/exploit that sub-human mass, like you might eat vegetables.

Yet in the context of modernity (which the Right labors to destroy), and with Left critical mass delegitimizing this cognitive ordering, perhaps the non-elite Right can be convinced to broaden their boundaries of moral exclusion. The very well educated Left might best be situated to move well-educated, non-elite conservatives, who probably believe in intelligence hierarchy.

…But moral boundary expansion will be hard to accomplish when elites with control over the surplus can just pay non-elites to keep the boundaries narrow. Still, it helps to increase the cost of repression and, in organizing, the Left can work solidarity incentives. Existing resource: Easing young people through broadening boundaries of moral exclusion is what many liberal arts scholars do as educators; so liberal arts scholars can have a role to play in social movement.

Tactical consideration 2:
a) Model not getting overwhelmed by politicization, understanding politicization structurally, not taking politicization too personally. Train conservatives into politicization desensitization, not abjection.
b) Prioritize and rationalize your organization’s politicization agenda, in anticipation of coalition building. This can be different for different groups, and can change over time with collective consideration. But affinity groups with solidarity incentives should reduce anarchic politicization, by for example, using the same people who craft group principles to execute principle-based agendas.

Business Insider’s Dougherty points out that non-elite conservatives become exhausted with and abject the Left tendency to recognize “all” areas of life as subject to political debate between equal humanities. Although they may enjoy political warfare, conservatives yearn for social settlement, social contract settlement, containment of politics-qua-change (but on high-inequality, feudalistic terms that at least somewhat privilege themselves).

Would rationalizing politicization help move conservatives, if they were simultaneously helped to widen their moral exclusion boundaries? I think there is potential for Leftists to help non-elite conservatives, rather than disengage, either learn to relax in the face of politicization aimed at decreasing socio-economic, health, and political inequalities and increasing freedoms. Though such learning is probably more feasible with stronger Left institutions to socialize people. Or Leftists can collectively prioritize and order politicization in time and space.

This is an interesting question, and a point of co-optation vulnerability for the Left, because just about everybody, conservatives, liberals and Leftists included, is exhausted by and hates anarchic politicization–it can be a social capital / trust destroyer. Humans are limited, not gods, and do not have the capacity to live in absolute aporia. But under favorable conditions, we can live with more freedoms-broadening politicization than conservatives are willing to allow. Existing resource: Easing young people through politicization is what many social scientists do as educators; so social scientists can have a role to play in social movement.

Tactical consideration 3:
a) Demonstrate to non-elites that order is not secured by a god-principle, but by fallible humans.
b) Build organizations and institutions that value and can develop democratic order, in order to short-circuit conservative loss passion.

For conservatives, the good society engages people in a romantic / mystified struggle for what they  were already socially-given. Conservatives’ elite ideal is the feudal warlord; their subordinate ideal is the feudal serf. Conservatives yearn for people to earn / demonstrate the assets / virtue that they have been assigned / ascribed. Conservatives ache for order confirmation, to see the face of God, necessity behind power, its lack, and order. In their view, rulers need to be provided the opportunity to demonstrate their vigor to rule.

…But this demonstration is always underdetermined–What does the face of God look like?; and so elites can be shown to be undeserving of their privilege.

With aforethought, and in system contradiction and crisis, I think Left critical mass can use this particular conservative psychology of desire to divide non-elite conservatives from elite conservatives. It’s a potential wedge.

But obviously, non-elites then need to be weaned from the psychological compulsion for unassailable order confirmation.

Failure example:
Such weaning was one of postmodernists’ projects, I think; though they failed at it because they took the liberal view of automatic progress (even though they were cynical about it) at its word, and they tried to wean before anyone had managed to divide serfs from their feudal lords. (Consider feudal workplace law.)

(I think that’s why postmodernist language became so insular; they had to just keep on chastising the Left “modernist” academics–the only people sort of capable of hearing the demand to wean, though they didn’t need it very much because they didn’t have much of the conservative compulsion for divine confirmation. Again, we settle for the path of least resistance and fail to get stuff done.
…And now, with that, I will quit blogging today.)

Tactical consideration 4:
a) Build humanist “churches” (communities)

One of the strongest themes that emerges from the conversation with Dougherty is the cementing role of an institution in Dougherty’s management of his own psychology of order-confirmation compulsion and his compulsion to contain freedoms-expanding politicization, and in providing solidarity incentives. For Dougherty that institution is the authoritarian Catholic church of his father. The Left needs to be able to design and offer sufficient (modified) replacement for many of the mobilizing, social, and coordinating functions of religious churches.

To support broadening moral inclusion, politicization navigation, and critical thinking, the Left needs to build new solidarity institutions that can provide sacred solidarity incentives (where unions have been effectively legislated out of existence, where universities have lost the capacity to provide solidarity incentives, and where universities are too exclusive).

In essence the Left could build humanist community churches that provide many of the same cohering, intergenerational social functions religious churches provide: social interaction; collective opportunities such as supportive social networking, solidarity incentives, collective coordination and action, a cohering discourse about working for a higher good, a collective, sacred experience of the sublime via culture–including creating a beautiful building together to house the humanist church, singing, music, dancing, raising food and cooking and eating together, collective public-oriented actions, and collective retreats to sacred, sublime, semi-natural environments (absent from most people’s lives).

The current state of the Anglosphere Left is woefully undersocialized, and so far more ineffective than it needs to be or has been in the past or elsewhere. We sit and watch AIPAC with our mouths open in disbelief–How does 2% of the US population accomplish all that?, when we should be analyzing AIPAC’s political, economic, networking and cultural tactics, and adapting them to a Left (low capital) initiative. Part of what we should be learning is that everybody, including the Left, can be moved to cooperation by a combination of solidarity incentives, the sublime (culture, nature), the sacred community, and collectively fashioning a greater good. This combination needs to be rigorously designed because the Left lacks the most important “solidarity” incentive in capitalism: ownership of the surplus, and the prestige it confers.

Existing resource: Apprehending, learning from and appreciating (regarding as sacred) the sublime natural world is what some biologists do as researchers and educators; some artists, craftspeople and women tend to attend to aesthetics and collective creation and appreciation; so biologists, artists, and women can have a role to play in social movement.

Tactical consideration 5:
Cultivate external support, especially where domestic elites will not support the Left.

AIPAC has Israel. The North American Left needs external allies as well.

Tactical consideration 6:
Oppose austerity culture.

James Livingston argues that tactically, the US needs a pro-libidinal, anti-austerity cultural revolution, starting with affirming consumerism and environmental exploitation.

Sigh. OK, I understand it’s not within Anglosphere culture to understand Epicureanism. Let’s just try to get there, OK? The most direct route starts with Elaine Scarry (The Body in Pain). Also, I think that where it might appeal to anti-intellectual suburbanites and marketeers, Livingston’s cultural revolution is going to clash unstrategically with environmentalism.  Can pro-libidinal culture be modified to jibe with environmentalism? (See Magdoff’s modest proposal.)

Livingston’s argument is a little like the suggestion that social democracy was reinforced by Scandinavians’ 20th-century bonobo-style feminist free love culture, whereas chimp-like, ascetic, violent, authoritarian, militaristic cultures involve the concentrated accumulation of sexual access and withholding sexual libidinal release from the majority of young men.

It was William Julius Wilson who argued that affirmative action in the US was designed and applied  to benefit (black) elites rather than the people who had been super-exploited in US history, see “Still separate and unequal” by George M. Frederickson.

Adolph Reed was critical of Wilson, but consanguinely argues that affirmative action is primarily used by black elites (eg. mayors) to support capitalist elites.


  • Frederickson implies that Wilson’s critique applies more widely: Global elites benefit from affirmative action, rather than impoverished American minorities with historical roots in the US. Does Wilson say this, or does he just focus on middle class v. working class American blacks?
  • Does this critique apply to multiculturalism / diversity management as well? Angela Davis and Zizek have critiqued global capitalist multiculturalism.
  • What have BAR, Manning Marable had to say about this, if anything? 

“The term ‘pluralism’ is acquiring increasing currency in our own time. It is presumably the ideology describing the centrifugal tendencies of a society that threatens to disintegrate into unreconiled groups under the pressure of its own principles. This is then represented as if it were a state of reconiliation in which people lived together in a harmony while in reality society is full of power struggles. As a minor by-product of these lectures I would like to recommend that you adopt an extremely wary attitude towards the concept of pluralism which, like the similar concept of ‘social partners,’ is preached at us on every street corner. To transfigure and ideologize the elements of discontinuity or of social antagonisms in this way is a part of the general ideological trend. In the same way, it is very characteristic of our age that the very factors that threaten to blow up the entire world are represented as the peaceful coexistence of human beings who have become reconciled and have outgrown their conflicts. This is a tendency which barely conceals the fact that mankind is beginning to despair of finding a solution to its disagreements.” (Adorno. History & Freedom: 93)

BAR has published Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (imprisonment) in serial form. Other commentators on this topic: Bruce Western, Angela Davis.