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The deep appeal of Marxism
Imagining the future has power: past and present both pale in comparison
This is the fifth essay in Lorenzo from Oz’s series on the strange and disorienting times in which we live.
In response to curiosity about Muslim polymath Ibn Khaldun (discussed in essay four), Lorenzo has published a short piece on his own substack providing background. He’s also written a clarification on the way he uses Marx’s term “surplus” in a companion piece responding to a thoughtful comment from “Toad Worrier” on essay four.
Meanwhile, Arnold Kling has included Lorenzo’s fourth essay in an informative collection of links that includes a flattering comparison to Niall Ferguson!
This fifth piece can be adumbrated thusly: compared with a golden future that doesn’t exist, the present & the past will always look shit.
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The appeal of system
The appeal of Marxism is not anchored in it being an accurate analysis of social dynamics. Marx was wrong about almost every key claim he made.
The philosopher Bertrand Russell observed that Marx was the last of the intellectual system-builders. This was because, after Marx, there was too much new science. In particular, there was too much Darwin, too much evolutionary biology.
The key elements of Marx’s system were composed before publication of The Origin of Species in 1859, but also before the development of marginal analysis by economists William Stanley Jevons, Carl Menger, and Leon Walras in the late 1860s and early 1870s.
However, part of Marx’s appeal is precisely that he offers a system. Initially, it proved attractive to Jewish intellectuals in particular—a replacement for Talmud, Torah and Kabbala—but it also had much wider appeal.
Marx did more than just offer a system of thought and analysis. He offered a vision of knowing understanding in service of the transformational future. In other words, of a motivating and coordinating political purpose achieved through embracing his system. Folk embracing—and acting on—his system generated a combination of skills, of beliefs and networking, I call vanguard capital.
His was a vision exquisitely aimed at people like Marx, people with a certain verbal and intellectual facility who were angry at a social order that did not treat them as they felt entitled to be treated. Who could then inflate their anger and their rage into a social anger and a social rage. To a grand, and grandly moralised, historical purpose that justified acting on anger and rage.
Whether Hitler actually said that ex-Communists made the best Nazis is doubtful, even though those trained in Marxism can sometimes turn into fascists. Sometimes, the social and moral dynamics of class struggle and of race struggle overlapped.
The degradations of activism
The reason why Marx gets so much about social dynamics so wrong is that he is not a scientist seeking to understand the world, but an activist seeking to change it. In his eulogy for Marx, Engels claimed that Marx was the Darwin of the social world.
But Marx did not ask the Darwinian questions—why do similar patterns turn up again and again? What are structuring constraints and pressures?—and then carefully assemble and interrogate the evidence to come up with robust analysis. He starts with a belief in the transformational future and develops a system to justify belief in the same, to identify mechanisms he thinks will bring it about.
The problem with activist scholarship is the same as the problem with any activist X. Activism imposes a non-X structuring category on X. In particular, activism imposes a preset intentionality on X. This is particularly true of scholarship, which requires an open-minded humility as to where evidence takes one to which activism is profoundly antipathetic.
Marx, in an 1857 letter to Engels, displayed the intellectual dishonesty of the activist mind quite well:
As to the Delhi affair [the Indian Mutiny], it seems to me that the English ought to begin their retreat as soon as the rainy season has set in in real earnest. Being obliged for the present to hold the fort for you as the Tribune’s military correspondent I have taken it upon myself to put this forward. NB, on the supposition that the reports to date have been true. It’s possible that I shall make an ass of myself. But in that case one can always get out of it with a little dialectic. I have, of course, so worded my proposition as to be right either way.
One of most toxic features of our contemporary world is its sanctification of activism. Activism is often licensed bad behaviour based on power without responsibility. It attracts manipulative, disordered, bullying personalities and is often morally disordering in itself through the elevation of valorised motivation untethered from any obligation to make things work.
Marx presumptively decided that the dynamics of modes of production, and class based on modes of production, was to be the path to the transformational future. So his activism swallowed any pretension to scholarship, to accurate understanding of social dynamics. Activist scholarship is always degraded scholarship.
Modern transformational-future activists show the same pattern, attacking or denying any information from biology and evolution that contradicts their blank-slate premises. For the more structured human cognition is, the less plausible becomes the transformational future in which their politics, like Marx’s, is grounded.
Marx is both the exemplar of activist scholarship in whose footsteps so many have followed and also the exemplar of precisely what is wrong with activist scholarship. And why it should absolutely not be funded on the public dime.
Activist scholarship fails both democratic accountability and scholarly value. Especially as it is, almost invariably, not consilient with what we know from evolutionary biology and the anthropogenic sciences, so is then neither science nor true.
Not science, not scholarship
We see again and again what I’ve come to call “the Hegel mode” emerge within activist scholarship, a combination Hegel both pioneered and exemplified. Scientific illiteracy, prophetic pretensions, power worship, and obscurity creating a patina of profundity.
The scientific illiteracy enables rejection of inconvenient constraints. The prophetic pretensions generate a highly motivating sense of future ownership. The power worship goes with a belief one knows the proper direction of history. The patina of profundity from obscure language puffs up intellectual pretensions, provides a coordinating language for believers, and protects adherents from error-revealing dangers of clarity.
Hegelianism, Marxism, French post-structuralism, Gender Theory, Queer Theory, Gender Identity Theory: varieties of the pattern keeps emerging. All four characteristics should be intellectually disabling in isolation, and the combination utterly so. But, on the contrary—and as Hegel himself exemplified—the Hegel mode has proven repeatedly to be a path to academic success.
The transformational future
The politics of the transformational future, however, are both intoxicating and disastrous. This is because of the fundamental dynamics of information inherent in such transformational politics.
It’s a basic structural reality of our universe that there is no information from the future. Information is caused, and time is the dimension along which causation flows into the future, not from it. A one—, two— or three-dimensional space without time would have no sequential causation: you need a dimension along which sequences of states-of-affairs can happen to have causation.
As causation—and so information—does not flow backwards, there can be no information from the future. Every failed prediction is another demonstration that there is no information from the future.
Because there is no information from the future, human action is based profoundly on expectations. We use the information we do have from past and present to develop expectations—if-then predictions—and then act upon those expectations. We are cognitively primed to do so.
Much of human cognitive and social evolution turned on developing mechanisms for coordinating expectations so that we can cooperate more effectively. Folk with matching expectations can cooperate more readily.
Language is a structure of conventions (e.g. that c-a-t refers to cat): which is to say, a structure of shared expectations. But so is property, the key element of which is not mine! but yours! and operates according to conventions signalling possession that create presumptive ownership (the right to decide about some thing).
Given there is no information from the future, the future must be imagined. As a thing imagined, it can be imagined to be as perfect as one likes. This means politics grounded in an imagined future can be as morally grandiose as one likes, with whatever moral urgency goes with such imaginings.
This is deeply intoxicating.
Grounding one’s politics in an imagined future also provides huge rhetorical advantages, precisely because said future is as perfect as one wants it to be. Anyone who wishes to defend some actually existing thing has the problem that it will be the product of trade-offs and human failings.
An “imagined future” believer, by contrast, can just wish all that away for political purposes while hanging current imperfections on those who wish to defend what exists. In any contest between the actual and the imagined, the imagined sparkles ever so more brightly.
But there is a huge problem with grounding one’s politics in an imagined future: the imagined future provides no reality test. It is possible to be disastrous-for-human-flourishing wrong with such politics. As the entire history of revolutionary Marxism demonstrates.
The imagined future so lacks reality testing that there is no bar to it being not merely impossible in practice, but containing logical contradictions that make it impossible in any universe, not merely this one. It can fail not merely in the way biologist E. O. Wilson said of Communism (“wonderful idea, wrong species”) but because it’s not possible for a universe to be structured in that way.
Not only does the imagined future have no reality test, it distorts one’s use of the information to which we do have access. The past is profoundly discounted by its distance and difference from the imagined future. It is both morally discounted—a record of sin and depravity—and structurally discounted, because it has not undergone the social transformations that are imagined to change everything.
If the imagined future is a secular heaven, then the past becomes a moral hell from which we must escape. All information from it is tainted as profoundly impure and corrupt: the record of sin.
Any facts or structures that tarnish the imagined future must be discounted or ignored in service of the unimpeachable imagined future. The imagined future’s very lack of reality tests provide it with the basis for creating absolutely trumping moral authority based on an intention to achieve it.
De-commodification—a world where we no longer exchange goods for prices in markets, which is Marxism’s central aim—is a classic goal of the transformational future. It’s also nonsense all the way down.
First, there is the yet-again failure to ask the Darwinian questions: why does every society that has production at any scale exchange goods in markets for prices? Because, due to information and incentive constraints, it’s the only way to produce and distribute reliably at scale. Which is why every Marxist regime commodified furiously. With the partial exception of North Korea, which demonstrates horribly why human societies commodify.
Advocating de-commodification is to advocate reducing the global population by billions. Moreover, as we have been commodifying things for most of our history as a species, producing things to be exchanged for other things, or as investments in social connection (aka gifts)—across thousands of generations—we’re probably adapted to it by now.
Marx provided, in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, an eloquent statement of the triumph of the imagined future over the declared pathologies of the past:
The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped away all superstition about the past.
The politics of the imagined future generates all sorts of reasons to either discount, or simply not ask, questions about enduring structures and experiences revealing them. To even raise such issues can be seen as a sin against the transformational future and the utterly dominant goal of creating it.
As Steven Pinker has observed, progressive intellectuals tend to be most hostile to citing evidence of progress in the here-and-now (and even more so in the past). Acknowledging such progress undermines the motivating contrasts of past-as-moral-hell, present as moral-hell-continued—contrasted with the golden transformational (imagined) future, commitment to which so ennobles its adherents.
Acknowledging the reality of social improvement undermines the nobility of a commitment to the imagined future and the nobility of a rejection of oh-so-sinful past and present. A perspective that, through its profound devaluing of past and present, also profoundly devalues everything that democracy has wrought.
The belief in the transformational future is the fundamental reason why otherwise intelligent people can believe in Marxism despite its appalling record of murder, misery and failure. Because that appalling record is simply discounted—the past does not matter—to preserve belief in the transformational future.
All the failures of actually implemented Marxism are just “proof” that Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Pol Pot, Mengistu, Kim il Sung, Hoxha, Tito, Ceauşescu, etc., weren’t doing it right. The were not operating in the mode that prophecy required.
Just as with Marx himself, such believers accept the system that provides a path for the golden, transformational future, free of alienation and exploitation, and let that acceptance drive, and deform, their understanding.
Divine should be, not the profane is
What they are supporting is an imagined Marxism. The Marxism that should be, not the Marxisms that exist or have existed.
The claim about all existing Marxist states—that they are “not authentic Marxism”—is a classically religious claim. Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Pol Pot, Mengistu, Kim il Sung, Hoxha, Tito, Ceauşescu, etc., become heretical deviants from the true path who failed to adhere to the path of prophecy. A manifestation of the fundamentally religious nature of patterns of belief in the transformational future.
Calling the imagined, transformational future a secular heaven is not merely a metaphor. It is precisely what makes the politics of the transformational future deeply religious in nature.
It is useful to distinguish the sacred:
things valued in a way such that any trade-off against them is likely to be resisted or refused and may be seen as a betrayal
from the divine:
the realm of transcendent doctrines and authority insulated from replicable feedback.
Now, believers in revelations, and of the doings of divine beings, believe they have information from the divine while omens and divination are attempts to get feedback from the divine embedded in the world. But all such are intrusions into our world that cannot be checked.
There is nothing inherently supernatural about the sacred. It is perfectly possible to have an entirely natural and secular sense of sacredness: of that for which trade-offs are resisted, even anathematised. Including an entirely natural and secular contrast with the profane: that where trade-offs are readily accepted.
Nor is there anything inherently supernatural about the divine, as the imagined, transformative future is precisely a realm of authority without replicable feedback.
What belief in the divine as a realm of authority is, however, is religious. Many folk have noticed the similarity between Marxism and religions. Even more have noticed the similarity between Post-Enlightenment Progressivism (“wokery”) and religion.
The point is not that they share metaphysical claims with conventional religions (they don’t). Rather, they share a certain epistemic grounding for authority. They ground authority in a realm without replicable feedback. When it comes to a golden future, a realm of explicitly no feedback at all.
They also share various functions with religion, defining religion as:
sets of beliefs, rituals, practices (including taboos) that provide strategies for coping with self-consciousness and group-living based on the divine (realm of authority without reliable feedback) and the sacred (realm of action over which trade-offs are resisted) motivated by a sense of sacredness (sense of ultimate insight and/or quality generating a trumping sense of authority). Religion is thus a manifestation of extended phenotype.
Religion gives authority to norms and expectations that makes them more robust. Convergent norms and expectations are the basis of group cohesion, so religion regularly operates to increase cohesion among the in-group. It also gives a sense of meaning, and purpose, of narratives for understanding the world. These relieve the burdens of being a self-conscious species (such as fear of death).
It is hardly surprising that senses of the divine and the sacred are ubiquitous among human societies. Or that, as societies became more complex, moralising religions developed, creating more robust norms and conventions that could be (and were) socially scaled up.
The divine being insulated from feedback allows faith to anchor a common normative language, a common language of authority, motivation and justification. None of these are subject to contradiction from within its realm and source of authority. In the case of the transformational future, things cannot be disproven by what hasn’t happened yet.
The vision of the transformative future is very powerful. Not only can it be imagined to be as perfect as one likes, it is insulated from contradiction by experience outside of its realm of authority. The vision can be as grandiose as one wishes, generating a claim to authority that trumps all others.
Marx did, of course, make various predictions that failed to come true. There is, however, a long history of faiths surviving prophecy failure. Indeed, accepting the necessary rationalisations in the face of failure of prophecy can become a useful way of signalling one’s commitment to faith and group.
One has to be authentic. One has to be of the correct faith. If it does not lead to the transformational future, clearly it is not of the correct faith.
This is absolutely a religious framing, not in its metaphysical claims, but in its grounding of authority. It is the mode of epistemic authority that makes religions, not metaphysics.
It is also no basis for justifying holding a set of utterly false claims about how societies work, whose attempted implementation has an appalling track record of murder and misery, being supported on the public dime.
Religions make all sorts of metaphysical claims, but at the heart of religion is an authoritative claim of authority from believing. This is particularly so in transcendent (next-world) religions of salvation such as Christianity and Islam. But it’s also true of all the immanent (this-world) religions of salvation that transformational-future belief-structures are. And Marxism is historically the most significant example.
Turning history into something with a proper end, especially with an end whose achievement provides grounding for morality and action, is to theologise history. History is given a proper, justifying, supreme narrative. This is also to constrain history, indeed to subordinate it as a source of knowledge. History cannot be permitted to tell us anything that does not support the narrative.
Thus, the politics of the transformational future has a constant tendency to create caricatures of history, to obscure its contingency and complexity. This creates and supports those myths that sustain and support the supreme, justifying narrative. The politics of the transformational future is endlessly driven towards creating lies and distortions that present themselves as history, and allow the keepers of the faith to celebrate separation from the manifold sins of the past.
And from the profound inadequacies of the present. Such politics is also driven towards creating lies and distortions about contemporary society: to de-legitimate it so as to elevate, justify and ennoble commitment to the transformational future.
Any set of ideas that aid and enable the development of status strategies built on the politics of the transformational future, and generate social leverage through control of legitimacy will have a deep attraction. Including about what it is, and is not, acceptable to say. To embrace shared faith patterns of required affirmations, of not noticing and the stigmatising of wrongful noticing that operate as a shared social strategy which participants have a common interest in upholding, and in blocking attacks on, or resistance to.
The post-structuralist (aka “postmodern”) intellectual turn to the centrality of language, of discourse, is a world where words trump truth claims. This has removed any connection to reality as a constraint on discourse—words only point to other words. This removes any constraint on the development of industrial-strength status and social leverage strategies.
Being “after structure” is very much what they are about. Not only in bathing themselves in salvationist authority but also in giving themselves far more intellectual (and so social) space to evolve more effective status and social leverage strategies and to reject any sense of structure that would get in the way of such strategies.
It also makes postmodernism and what came after less intellectually serious, and even more nihilistic, than Marxism. Marx at least laid out a path—the development of capitalism—and an end-goal—the end of alienation through the end of commodification.
What has replaced Marxism has neither. Just an endless rage at past and present and a toxic destructiveness that holds that smashing the present will allow the glorious future to emerge. The less coherent the path, the less detail to the vision, the more it becomes a form of collective worship of noble intentions in their heads. The less grounded in the real, the more abstract the claims of authority, the easier the slide into nihilism becomes.
But it’s possible for all the forms of after-Marxism to be less intellectually serious because Marxism prepared the way. The acceptance of activist scholarship within the academy—including, for example, making it intellectually respectable to claim that the Holocaust was authentically Nazi but the Holodomor was not authentically Marxist—has allowed even more intellectually degraded simulacra of scholarship to flourish.
This process has been aided by the shift to a mass academy, so status games shifted from being erudition steeped in the heritage of Western civilisation to postures of self-ennobling opposition to that civilisation and the societies in which academe was embedded.
Words trumping truth also meant a decisive break with the Enlightenment. Whatever the flaws of Marxism, it is very much an Enlightenment system. Hence Marxists, such as Eric Hobsbawm, Terry Eagleton, and Freddie deBoer, have been acerbic and perceptive critics of Post-Enlightenment Progressivism (“wokery”).
Post-Enlightenment Progressivism could equally be labelled Counter-Enlightenment Progressivism. It shares the same obsessions as the Counter-Enlightenment: race, cultural authenticity, the cultural expression of sex (i.e. gender), sexuality, feelings trumping science. It also has the same tendency to analyse them hierarchically (though it typically reverses the hierarchies).
It is not the specific doctrines of Marx and Marxism that drive Post-Enlightenment Progressivism (or, if you prefer, Counter-Enlightenment Progressivism). Those doctrines have mostly been abandoned. It is the underlying template that Marxism provided that has evolved.
I will explore this in my next essay.
Scott Atran, In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, Oxford University Press, , 2004.
Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Pantheon Books, 2012.
D. Jason Slone, Theological Incorrectness: Why Religious People Believe What They Shouldn’t, Oxford University Press, 2004.
Stephen Smith, Pagans & Christian in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac, Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2018.
Articles, papers, book chapters, podcasts
Scott Atran, Robert Axelrod, Richard Davis, ‘Sacred Barriers to Conflict Resolution,’ Science, Vol. 317, 24 August 2007, 1039-1040.
Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham, ‘Planet of the Durkheimians, Where Community, Authority, and Sacredness are Foundations of Morality,’ December 11, 2006. https://ssrn.com/abstract=980844.
Karl Marx, ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon,’ Marx/Engels Internet Archive  1995, 1999, 2010.
Daniel Austin Mullins, Daniel Hoyer, Christina Collins, Thomas Currie, Kevin Feeney, Pieter François, Patrick E. Savage, Harvey Whitehouse, Peter Turchin, ‘A systematic assessment of 'Axial Age' proposals using global comparative historical evidence,’ American Sociological Review, Volume 83, Issue 13, 2018.
Raul A Rahe, ‘History and America’s Decline,’ John Anderson Podcast, Nov. 4, 2022.