Boris Korolev's highly abstract project for a monument to Karl Marx, 1919

Marxism’s relation to “communism”: Bruno Bosteels, Jodi Dean, and Boris Groys

IMAGE: Boris Korolev’s highly abstract
Project for a monument to Karl Marx (1919)
[Проект памятника К. Марксу в Москве]

The quasi-religious character of the question

Raising the question of Marx’s relation to communism immediately raises the question of Marxism‘s relation to communism. Even those who reject all everything that came afterwards in favor of a “return to Marx” implicitly set themselves up in opposition to the various Marxists who claimed to continue his legacy. They regard all developments subsequent to Marx’s death — by Mao, Stalin, Trotsky, Lenin, even Engels — as betraying his fundamental insights into the nature of class society. Those who do not restrict their consideration of Marxism’s relation to communism to the historical person of Marx himself find themselves compelled to choose between various legacies, heresies, orthodoxies, schisms, dogmatisms, and Reformation.

An overview of the major proponents of Marxism after Marx’s death in 1883 reveals that such figures explicitly sought to understand themselves in terms of their “faithfulness” to the tradition first established by Marx. Early on, a position of “orthodoxy” was claimed by those who understood their own work as building upon Marx’s theory by further applying his methodology. They thus adopted a kind of fidelity to Marx’s method of social analysis and revolutionary dialectic. Beyond the centrality of Marx, however, if he was indeed deemed central to any subsequent communist tradition, certain other figures were esteemed to have advanced his insights along the lines of Marx’s theory. These figures thereby attained a similar status in the regard of those Marxists who followed them.

Chris Cutrone details this briefly in his essay on “The Marxist hypothesis,” written in response to Alain Badiou’s Communist Hypothesis.

Cutrone, “The Marxist hypothesis”

From Chris Cutrone’s “The Marxist hypothesis”:

It goes a long way in making sense of the most important historical figures of communism after Marx, such as Engels, Kautsky, Plekhanov, Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky, Bukharin, Lukács, Stalin, and Mao, among others, to evaluate them as followers of Marx. It is significant that they themselves sought to justify their own political thought and action in such terms — and were regarded for this by their political opponents as sectarian dogmatists, disciples of Marxism as a religion. But how did they think that they were following Marx? What are we to make of the most significant and profound political movement of the last two centuries, calling itself “Marxist,” and led by people who, in debate, never ceased to quote Marx at each other? What has been puzzled over in such disputes, and what were — and are still, potentially — the political consequences of such disagreement over the meaning of Marx?

Certainly, Marxism has been disparaged as a religion, and Marx as a prophet. (For instance, Leszek Kołakowski dismissed Marxism as the “farcical aspect of human bondage”). But what of Marx as a philosopher? If Marx has been widely discredited as a political thinker, nevertheless, in 2005, for instance, a survey of BBC listeners polled Marx as the “greatest philosopher of all time,” well ahead of Socrates, Kant, Nietzsche, and others. On the face of it, this does not seem like a particularly plausible judgment of Marx, either in terms of his own thinking and practice or of “philosophy” as a discipline, unless Marx’s philosophy is understood as indicating how we have not yet overcome the problems he identified in modern society. As far as the reputation of Marx as a thinker is concerned, we seem to have been left with “Marxism” but without Marx’s own “communist” politics: “Marxism” has survived as an “analysis,” but without clear practical importance; “communism” has survived as an ethic without effective politics. How might we make sense of this?

The Marxist hypothesis is that the relation between Marx and “communism” needs to be posed again, but in decidedly non-traditional ways, casting the history of Marxism in a critical light. For it is not that communism found a respected comrade in Marx — perhaps more (or less) estimable than others — but that Marx’s thought and political action form an irreducibly singular model that can yet task us, and to which we must still aspire. Hence, the continued potential purchase of “Marx-ism.” The question is not, as Badiou would have it, what is the future of communism, but of Marx.

To address any potential future of Marxism, it is necessary to revisit Marx’s own Marxism and its implications.

Statue of Marx

Statue of Marx, “Workers of all countries, unite!”


It is interesting to note that posing the question of Marx’s (and hence Marxism’s) relation to communism, the responses immediately couch themselves in quasi-religious language. Of course, by this I do not mean that they in any way gesture toward some sort of reconciliation between Marxism and religion, something I’ve argued rather strongly against in recent months. It is rather that in order to make sense of the divisions, religious metaphors seem to enter in more or less automatically.

I don’t think that from this it follows that Marxism is somehow a kind of surrogate religion, as some have argued (Cutrone points this out). Neither do I think that Bruno Bosteels, Jodi Dean, or Boris Groys conceive it as such. Instead, it would seem that there is something about the way that ideas organize themselves in relation to an unfulfilled program of earthly redemption, in order to remain true to the audacity of its ambition, that resembles the old religious promise of heavenly redemption. This does not at all mean that they are identical. It merely means that they are bothered by the same unscratched itch.

For Bosteels, it is framed according to the binary of orthodoxy and heresy, terms which he claims work to establish each other’s existence. For Dean, the real danger is neither in orthodoxy nor heresy. Rather, the danger is that of a form of fetishism or idolatry, a kind of political primitivism. For Groys, finally, the matter is best explained by analogy with the Protestant Reformation, with traditional, Soviet Marxism playing the role of the Catholic Church and Western Marxism the role of the Protestants.

Groys, “Remembrance of things past”

From “Remembrance of things past,” my interview with Boris Groys:

BG: …[I]f we look at the intellectual trajectories of different figures, from Sartre to Foucault and Derrida and so on, all of them in one way or another defined his position in the first place vis-à-vis the Communist Party, much more so than in relation to capitalism. So if you look at the career of Badiou, for example, he began with a kind of Sartrean connection, but then developed a Maoist infatuation very early on, in the 1960s. His project since then was one of constant revolt against the domination of the French Communist Party. The Maoist movement, like many others from that time, was actually directed against the leading role of the Communist Party. Everything that we read now from Badiou and others comes out of this very early experience of French Maoism in the 1960s. They experienced the “betrayal” of the 1960s movements by the Communist Party, even though these movements had been partially directed against the communist parties to begin with. We can argue what happened in different ways, but my impression is that right now we have the continuation of an immanent contestation of the communist party that started much, much earlier — in the 1960s.

On the other hand, I was and still am very interested in the institutional and official traditions of communism. As with the early Protestants who saw the Catholic Church as the church of Satan, communists today claim, “All these decades and centuries of communist movements — that was not real communism. Communism will begin with us.” It is a claim that one can understand, but it seems to me historically, ideologically, politically, and philosophically problematic. All of the theorists of communism today say: “We start anew. We reject everything that came before. We don’t interpret or correct it — we just reject it as a fundamental failure.”

RW: Just as the theorists of communism at present would say that all past forms of communism were the work of Stalin?

BG: They reject Stalin in favor of the idea of communism. But how is one to access this “idea” of communism? To stress the immediate idea of communism is idealistic and neglects the necessity of dealing with the materialist side of communism. Communism is not God. One cannot be a Saint Paul of communism. Sartrean existentialism, Maoist event, or Deleuzean direct contact with energies, desires, affects — these all claim to provide an unmediated understanding of what communism is beyond any tradition, institution, or party. They’re direct, individual, ultimately involving only one person. That is a very Romantic, almost mystical-religious approach. Because, of course, traditionally Marxism has something to do with mediation and a disbelief in the possibility of directly grasping something like “the idea of communism,” or of experiencing communism as an event.


RW: As an author of one of the books on communism for Verso: How central was Marx’s thought to the formulation of communism? Obviously there were pre-Marxist communists such as Saint-Simon or Fourier or Proudhon. And later there were non-Marxist (anarchist, post-Marxist) developments or articulations of the idea of communism. But with respect to your own work the question is different, I think, in that more than the irreducibility of Marx, it asserts the irreducibility of Stalin.

BG: I would argue for irreducibility of both, and that of Marx, I have summarized already…Stalin’s insight was that a classless society is not something that emerges immediately, spontaneously, or even necessarily, after the abolition of the existing class system. The society that comes after the revolution is also a society that should be managed, which creates its own classes. Now the question is how one deals with that.


RW: To rephrase things slightly: Would you say that Marx’s thought is the necessary presupposition or the condition of possibility for communism? And then, conversely, would you say that Stalin is the necessary outcome of communism?

BG: No, I wouldn’t say all of that, for there isn’t any single answer to this question. Stalin is an answer. Is it a plausible answer? Yes. Is it a likeable answer? Well, no, it’s not. But it’s not an answer that can be ignored. The market doesn’t provide an adequate answer. Stalin doesn’t provide an adequate answer either, at least, not the answer I would prefer. But at the same time, I don’t believe that any answer can be sufficient if it ignores the question, and all its radical implications.

Bosteels, “Traversing the heresies”

From “Traversing the heresies,” my interview with Bruno Bosteels:

RW: While he may have been its most celebrated advocate, one of Marx’s enduring contributions to revolutionary thought arguably consists in his sustained polemic against rival theories of communism that existed during his time. Would you say that Marx’s critical intervention into the history of the communist idea is irreducible? Or might his legacy of immanent critique perhaps be dispensable at present?

BB: For me it is not a question of going back to an orthodox notion of communism that needs to be resurrected — the result of the Marxian purging of other rival theories of socialism and communism. I am not interested in restaging these debates. It is actually more about reliving the confusion: literally the “fusion” or coming together of a variety of socialist, communist, utopian, anarchist, and anarcho-syndicalist understandings of the politics of equality (in its most generic terms). So it is rather an attempt to study how people sort out the advantages of one position over another instead of the construction of an orthodoxy out of those deviations.

Žižek writes in a preface somewhere that it is important when talking about deviations, “left” or “right” deviations from a more correct line in the middle, to realize that, in a paradoxical way, the deviations precede the orthodoxy. Deviations do not occur from a pre-given orthodoxy. The orthodoxy does not exist, except by going through the debates and the polemics that arise.

RW: So the heresies precede the orthodoxy?

BB: Yes, the orthodoxy establishes itself by purging a number of positions, which are then labeled “heresies.” The energy for a rejuvenation of leftist politics lies in tracking these debates. Today one sees the same regurgitation of the whole debate between anarchist riots versus an organization that then very often has to take the form of a party, as Jodi Dean writes about Occupy. It is a different way of going through the controversies between a so-called “anarchist” position and a so-called “Marxist” or “Leninist” position. The renewed emphasis on communism is a way to suggest, in the context of a Marx without politics (without communism), that we go back to Marx as a figure who is part of a larger political landscape.

RW: Is a non-Marxian communism necessary, then? Or is Marx indispensable? Must any future communism go through Marx?

BB: No, I would not say indispensable, because then the question becomes: Why would Marx be the standard-bearer and therefore the measuring-stick by which we would gauge the authenticity of a political sequence? That seems a little exaggerated. From another viewpoint it is the same problem that is presented by the issue of socialism or communism in Latin America. The immediate way this has been tackled by historians and political theorists is to inquire about what might have been the influence of the Soviet Union, the Second International, or the Comintern in the region. So historians ask: “To what extent did they know about Marx? Did they read him correctly? Did they have enough knowledge about the Marx and Bakunin debate?” But why would that have to be the measuring stick for the spreading of socialist ideas? Which Marx? Or even more narrowly, which texts by Marx are they supposed to have read? It is a huge problem not only in peripheral countries, but for Western European nations as well. Did they have access to the right texts? The right manuscripts? That cannot be the way that one measures the emergence or reemergence of certain communist ideas. It is maybe not even that helpful to establish too rigid a divide between socialism and communism. The point is not to reestablish any lost orthodoxies but to traverse the heresies.

Dean, “What is to be done with the actually-existing Marxist Left?”

From “What is to be done with the actually-existing Marxist Left,” my interview with Jodi Dean:

RW: Though he may have been its most celebrated interlocutor, one of Marx’s most enduring contributions to revolutionary thought arguably consists in his sustained polemic against rival theories of communism (those of Cabet, Dézamy, Weitling, Fourier, Proudhon) that existed during his time. So would you say that Marx’s critical intervention into the history of communist discourse is irreducible? Or is this legacy of immanent critique of other leftists dispensable?

JD: I don’t think this legacy is dispensable. It just shouldn’t be a fetish-object, right? It shouldn’t be some kind of “all or nothing.” My friend James Martel has a trilogy of books on Walter Benjamin. In the first of these, Textual Conspiracies, he criticizes what he calls “idolatry,” using Benjamin’s discussion of Baudelaire. James is an anarchist, and we disagree there, but his critique of idolatry as a mode of left attachment is really good.

2 thoughts on “Marxism’s relation to “communism”: Bruno Bosteels, Jodi Dean, and Boris Groys

  1. There is an issue regarding Bosteels, Dean and Groys as “Marxists:” I don’t think that they claim to be. They are all avowed “post-Marxist” “communists.” Hence, Bosteels and Dean’s fandom of Badiou and Zizek.

    They reduce Marx to “comrade Marx,” i.e., as one of many “communists.”

    So, my point about the relation of “communism” and “Marxism” is lost precisely through the due deference shown by Bosteels, Dean and Groys to Marx(ism): They pay their respects and move on.

    My point about redeeming the history of Marxism is different. It is to acknowledge that Marxism cannot help today (after its failure) but become something like a religion, involving exegesis of “sacred texts” etc.

    But the point is that Bosteels, Dean and Groys treat *”communism”* as the “religion” in this sense, not Marxism. Marxism becomes part of the church of communism, thus avoiding the question of Marxism per se as having the character of “religion.”

    If “religion” is understood as “ideology” in Marx’s sense, then there is no question that communism is a religion — ideology.

    The only question is “Marxism” become an ideology.

    Bosteels and Dean in particular dodge this essential issue because of their conception of the relation between communism and “science,” in the Althusserian pseudo-Marxist mode. In other words, that the task of communism is to render society’s material reality scientifically, i.e., non-ideologically. They thus avoid the problem of Marxism itself, relativizing it.

    Whereas the Hegelian point is that there is no addressing society, either theoretically or practically apart from “necessary forms of appearance” — ideologies. Thus Marxism becomes an important historical phenomenon (form of appearance).

    That is, the only way society will be changed is through its ideologically necessary forms of appearance — misrecognition. Marxism was not only the “scientific” clarification of communism, freeing communism (somehow) from ideology, but was itself a reflexive symptom of the development of the workers’ movement for socialism. (This was because the meaning of “science” for Marx was entirely Hegelian.) If Marxism took over ideological leadership and self-understanding of the socialist workers’ movement, then this was extremely treacherous development.

    Communism is an ideology that Marx nonetheless endorsed, joining it. But this was in order to push the symptomology of communism further — to advance its self-contradictions, not only through theoretical reflection but political practice — through the revolution.

    Such insight is nonsense to the likes of Bosteels, Dean, et al.

  2. Pingback: The mind and face of Bolshevism (1926) | The Charnel-House

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