The End of Millennial Marxism

Chris Cutrone

Image for article: The End of Millennial Marxism
July 2, 2022
Illustration: Scott Menchin

Marxism has been falsified and disproved definitively in both theory and practice in every conceivable way. And yet Marxism still seems to speak, and always newly. Karl Marx asserted that capitalism wouldn’t be overcome until the dictatorship of the proletariat was globally achieved. This was based on his conclusion that the inherent contradiction of bourgeois society during the Industrial Revolution posed an insoluble problem. He believed that the proletarianized working class, those at the bottom who embody and suffer the most from this contradiction, would inevitably try for political power in a democratic revolution.

As early as the 1830s, workers suffering displacement by technology revolted. By the 1840s, this working-class discontent had taken political form, as Chartists in England called for universal suffrage. Marx and his comrade Friedrich Engels expected proletarian uprisings to happen during the Revolutions of 1848. They wrote the celebrated Manifesto of the Communist Party in anticipation of this outcome.

But it didn’t happen. The main lesson that Marx and Engels took away from this failure was that without prior organization as a social and political force, the working class would never be able to cast off its fetters. They agreed with German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who famously said of the failed 1848 Revolutions that it was “not by speeches and majority resolutions that the great questions of the time are decided . . . but by iron and blood.” They considered the only alternative to the dictatorship of the proletariat to be the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, and a more or less Bonapartist dictatorship. Not merely strong-man rule—for example, Louis Bonaparte as Napoleon III—but a strong state became necessary. The capitalist state has been henceforth required to manage capitalism through recurrent crises.

For Marxism, the classic crisis of capitalism was an excess of money without opportunities for profitable investment and a “reserve army” of surplus workers without jobs: both labor and capital were devalued in inflation and unemployment, respectively. Social production became ever more expensive under capitalism and stagnated. This wasn’t a problem society could spontaneously solve on its own, for it went beyond mere market corrections. An “imperial” state rose above all rival social and political groups and established its permanent role, for instance the emergence of modern police and bureaucracies (including social-service agencies, which are merely unarmed police forces), necessary to preserve society. Yet this state only fed into and exacerbated social disintegration. Modern political parties arose to seize the state for competing interests—more or less vainly.

The state itself persisted, metastasizing at society’s expense. As Marx described it, this was a situation in which the bourgeoisie could no longer rule through civil society and subordinate the state, as in the original bourgeois-revolutionary, liberal-democratic vision, but the proletariat couldn’t yet take power in socialist revolution. The bourgeois-cosmopolitan “brotherhood of nations” was contravened as the imperialist capitalist state extended into empire, seeking control not only at home, but abroad, through international “police actions.” A prevailing “state of emergency” came into effect.

Capitalism has remained stuck since the mid-19th century. It is noteworthy that, as Lenin underscored in The State and Revolution (1917), the Marxist vision for the “dictatorship of the proletariat” was meant to be not only transitional and temporary, but the most minimal possible state, reduced severely from its capitalist excrescence, thereby restoring the civil-social freedom of liberal democracy and immediately “withering away” as capitalism was overcome by the proletariat.

“The domination of society by the imperatives of capitalism has remained unshaken.”

Capitalism will never be able to avoid civil-social and political strife. It will never be able to avoid wars, coups d'état, and revolutions. Indeed, it already has exhibited such phenomena in all countries at one time or another in the last two centuries. It will continue to do so. The only question is whether social progress—the progress of society—could possibly result from such concentrated violence, destruction, and sacrifice. It has not done so yet. Political power has been periodically overthrown and rearranged, but the domination of society by the imperatives of capitalism has remained unshaken. Marx wrote that the secret of every state is democracy. But democracy isn’t the opposite of dictatorship, but its constitution. Democracy has remained the basis for the dictatorship of capital. But capitalism is a constant crisis of the state.

Even if all the capitalists got together and decided to implement socialism, it wouldn’t be possible for them to do so. If all the managers, including the politicians, got together and decided to implement socialism, it wouldn’t be possible for them to do so. So long as there are desperately poor people willing to be exploited to survive, capitalism will continue. As long understood by Marx and subsequent Marxist thinkers, the logic of capitalism invariably concludes with the proletariat abolishing itself by its own agency.

But why? Why, according to Marxism, is it necessary for the working class in particular to overcome capitalism? Why did Marx call for the dictatorship specifically of the proletariat? The Marxist vision is that bourgeois society is the product of the everyday activity of people laboring and exchanging the products of that labor—it is the society that arises from modern commodity production. Capitalism is essentially the crisis of the commodity relations of that bourgeois society as the result of the Industrial Revolution: the laboring bourgeois Third Estate became divided between workers and capitalists, each upholding one antagonistic side of production, labor and capital. Marxism is the theory that the demands of the working class for its fair share drives society into a choice between funding laborers’ wages and subsistence, versus funding advancements in production through science and technology. Insofar as it is more immediately profitable, capitalists both individually and as a class will always favor technology over human labor, increasingly leaving the working class vulnerable to unemployment. Or, conversely, labor will be exploited at the expense of technical progress. In fact, both occur, however contradictorily, in capitalism. Despite the best intentions of society to employ technology for human benefit, the reverse takes place.

The demands of the working class thus led to a contradictory result of eliminating jobs while requiring that society continue to provide employment. This has driven several waves of industrial transformation since Marx’s time, in which not only technology but also forms of work have changed. In each case, however, the crisis of the social value of human labor in production has caught up with capitalism and produced a bust after every boom. As Marx put it, capitalism has developed in “fits and starts.” Every affluent generation’s offspring, whose biological reproduction was encouraged by a relatively high standard of living, reaches adulthood only to find that there aren’t enough jobs. Only the working class as subjects, and not merely objects, of this process could possibly put an end to this evil cycle of destructive creation. The question is how this recurrent generational dynamic has repeatedly raised the specter of socialism—or “communism”—for two centuries.

Marxism has necessarily appeared differently in different moments of history. We can discern several such moments between Marx’s formative time of the 1840s and our present moment: the later period of Marx’s life, specifically the aftermath of the 1848 Revolutions, and leading to the formation and dissolution of the First International Workingmen’s Association in the 1860s and ’70s; the time of the Second International leading to World War I and the Marxist-led revolutions that followed, from the 1890s to the 1910s; the time of the Old Left and the Third and Fourth Internationals of Stalinism and Trotskyism in the 1930s and ’40s, leading to World War II and the subsequent revolutions of the mid-20th century; the post-Stalinist New Left of the 1960s–70s; and the millennial left of the early 21st century, leading to the present.

In each moment, the prevailing form of capitalism shaped how Marxism appeared and appealed to a new generation seeking societal change. There were also intervals of history between these key moments, such as in the 1950s and in ’80s and ’90s, when Marxism disintegrated into various post-Marxist ideologies (we might be entering such a period of interregnum now, as the millennial moment has subsided).

So now might be a good moment for reflection on the substance of Marxism, what is fundamentally essential to Marxism, and what has proven continuous despite all this intervening history of change.

"What has been lost sight of is the ‘end’ of Marxism, the goal to which it leads."

Differences within Marxism originated over strategic and political disagreements. Factions sought to justify themselves “theoretically” by looking at changing historical situations in which the struggle for socialism has taken place. Unfortunately, these have been misremembered and perpetuated falsely as differences in principle, in which tactics have been mistakenly evaluated in moral and ethical terms. Perhaps this has been inevitable, since “Marxists” have found themselves on “both sides of the barricade”—on opposite sides of ostensible revolution and counter-revolution for more than 100 years. Worse still, these differences have not been clarified but only further muddled through constant historical revisionism, as succeeding generations have sought to explain this history to themselves anew, often in contrary and indeed directly opposed ways. As a result, the basic “philosophy” of Marxism—especially its philosophy of history itself—has been buried, several times over. What has been lost sight of is the “end” of Marxism, the goal to which it leads.

We might be living in a nightmare of Marx’s—a reality too terrible for him to have consciously contemplated. Marxism in its original historical moment never reckoned that we would accept the hellish unfreedom of capitalism, as we appear to have done for the last 100 years.

What was Marxism, then, and what is its potential continued relevance today? The question is especially pressing, since Marxism, despite some spectacular historical events associated with it, seems to have consistently failed to produce the desired social emancipation from capitalism that Marx originally prognosed. Why do people periodically return to reconsiderations of Marxism, reaching back across so much history?

First, we must review the millennial left’s return to Marxism, which took several forms through the various phases of the millennials’ career through recent history. The distinctly millennial left arose after 9/11, protesting against the War on Terror. This was originally an “anti-imperialist left,” seeking to oppose and potentially change the American empire. Marxism at this time was seen as explaining the causes of war in the nature of the international system of American-led capitalism, why and how US imperial policy sought to uphold the global political and economic order against discontents, oppositions, and resistance and rebellions within it. Specifically, neoconservative foreign policy was regarded as the political form of US global hegemony. But liberal human-rights interventionism was also part of this international politics. (The subsequent election of Barack Obama, which to many on the left seemed to signal the end of empire, was anything but.)

This moment of origin for the millennial left was soon followed by the 2008 financial crash leading to the Great Recession. Marxism was looked to for an explanation of the causes of the crisis. An early expression of renascent “socialism” was also found during this moment. The Obama presidency promised a (Green) New Deal, health care for all, and perhaps even a jobs program—none of which came to pass. This crisis of capitalism led to anti-austerity protests, including the Arab Spring toppling of regimes and outbreaks of civil war in the Middle East and North Africa, and Occupy Wall Street in the United States, as the costs of the collapse were felt across the world.

Frustration with the Obama presidency and with the apparent limitations of the greater progressive liberal and social democratic politics of the metropolitan capitalist world led to the Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn campaigns and emergence and growth of the Democratic Socialists of America and the Momentum movement inside the UK Labour party. Elsewhere, the rise of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain expressed the crisis of the traditional center-left political parties.

Since 2015, there has clearly been a crisis of neoliberalism: the fraying and breakdown of the combination of economic conservatism and social liberalism that had dominated mainstream capitalist politics since the 1970s.

A key phenomenon of this crisis was the 2016 Trump campaign and election that wrangled the Republican Party and occurred alongside the Sanders and Corbyn bids for leadership of their respective parties, as well as the Brexit referendum vote. That last, Brexit, was a response to the crisis of the reigning neoliberal politics of the European Union that had been made manifest in the sovereign debt crisis of Greece and other states in Southern Europe afflicted by the Great Recession. Discontent with and opposition to the regime of trade and other international exchange (such as immigration) that favored the ruling interests of global capital could be found across the entire political spectrum. A populist right and a socioeconomic left both seemed on the rise.

"The millennial left was drawn back into the Democratic Party’s ethnic-constituency racket."

But the apparent success of right-wing opposition to neoliberalism pushed the millennial left in an anti-racist, “anti-fascist” direction, centered around Black Lives Matter protests. The millennial left was drawn back into the Democratic Party’s ethnic-constituency racket, group-identity politics, and electioneering.With this emergence of social identity movements about race and gender, #MeToo and BLM, Marxism appeared yet again as an explanation for racism and sexism under capitalism, eclipsing concerns over socio-economic crises. The millennial left is not, as it likes to imagine, the present embodiment of Marxism—“intersecting” the concerns of class-based and international imperialist exploitation, as well as race, sex, and gender oppression. Instead, it has replayed the liquidation of historical Marxism that occurred through the various phases of the last century, reanimating the corpse of every hoary myth and nightmarish self-delusion.

Sanders and Corbyn themselves seemed to stylistically embody this combination, though they were both vintage 1960s activists of the New Left, and had successful political careers at the dawn of the neoliberal era. Their advanced age and cantankerous oratory seemed to make them blasts from the 1930s past. As such, they served as effective if unlikely standard-bearers for the millennial left, symbolizing and expressing its complaints and aspirations better than anyone else. They were “anti-imperialist” and upheld the New Left social movements against racism and sexism, all the while expressing socio-economic grievances. Indeed, they ticked all the boxes for the millennial left. But their combination of such divergent concerns could not hold, falling apart into the perennial “race vs. class” debates from the 20th-century left.

This represented less a set of problems inherited from historical Marxism than a present crisis of progressive neoliberalism in the Democratic and Labour parties. The battle wasn’t over socialism or Marxism, but progressive liberal capitalism—a battle for millennial leadership of capitalist politics. But one significant problem the millennials came up against was that of motivation. Were they acting out of optimism or pessimism? Was a better world possible or not? BLM’s avowed “Afro-pessimism” and “black nihilism,” for example, pointed to the disproportionate loss of black middle-class assets in the 2008 financial crisis, resulting in demands for “equity”—vocabulary taken from terms for mortgages and shareholder assets. There has been an attempt to shore up and restore the Democratic Party’s electoral coalition of organized labor with social-identity interest groups. But the Democrats’ New Deal coalition has been in disrepair for quite some time, salvaged however briefly by the Clinton and Obama presidencies. After Trump, the Biden-Harris administration is a “dead-man-walking” warning to the millennial left of the tenuous viability of Democratic Party politics. The millennial left’s response: the DSA’s Jacobin magazine’s test-marketing opinion research for turning out the youth vote. (It won’t work.)

The crisis of the 1930s-40s Old Left was one of pessimism; capitalism in a downturn of the Great Crash of 1929 and subsequent Depression, and the rise of fascism and renewed world war. Whereas, by contrast, the crisis of the 1960s was one of optimism; the “revolt against affluence,” discontented with the apparent success of capitalism in the postwar boom under the New Deal Democrats. The 1960s New Left wanted to go beyond capitalism and its evident limitations, not merely fight against it. The subsequent 1970s stagflation economic crisis caught them unprepared and brought about another round of pessimism. This was answered not by the left, but by Reagan’s “morning again in America” turn toward neoliberal capitalism in the 1980s, completed by the “man from Hope,” Bill Clinton, ushering in the 1990s boom. “Hope and change” was Obama’s neoliberal coda in the new millennium.

Until the emergence of the millennial left, Marxism seemed permanently sidelined, its irrelevance dramatically confirmed by the belated collapse of the Soviet Union and Communist regimes in Eastern Europe. But history, and hence Marxism, has returned in the new century.

The Marxism of the Second or Socialist International at the turn of the last century was motivated by the optimism of the Second Industrial Revolution, which came to a dramatic end with the Great War. But Marxist figures of those revolutions that resulted from the crisis of World War I, figures such as Lenin in Russia and Rosa Luxemburg in Germany, were animated by the same optimism, recovering from the failure of the Second International, in launching their new Third or Communist International in 1919. The subsequent 20th century was a paradoxical product of failed world socialist revolution (despite its grotesque Stalinist caricature expanding after World War II into the voids vacated by global capital in the zones devastated by fascism). As with the Gilded Age a century earlier, the turn of the 21st century seemed to bring new problems, and perhaps with them opportunities for change, and yet it still stubbornly recalled the past. Whence this lack of imagination?

The millennial left originated in a combination of the optimism of the 1990s of their early childhood—the last boom period of global capitalism—and the shocks and pessimism of the War on Terror and the Great Recession. The progressivism of millennial leftists still expresses that enduring optimism, even if tempered by a catastrophic cast of mind regarding phenomena such as climate change. In many respects, their pessimism is that of diminished career prospects—hence their anxiety around the obvious meaning of their middle-class, professional-managerial sociological composition.

Generally, Marxism seems to fare better during optimistic periods—when capitalism appears as an obstacle to its own potential, rather than a mere baleful malady besetting society. The socialist movement of the working class was facilitated by upsurges of capitalist development, led by workers in new industries. This was true of the high period of historical Marxism in the advanced capitalist world, during the period before World War I which gave rise to Eugene Debs’s Socialist Party of America as part of the greater Second or Socialist International of August Bebel, Karl Kautsky, and Rosa Luxemburg’s SPD, as well as Lenin’s Bolsheviks. But the socialist left has been on the defensive and in retreat since at least the 1960s (if not the ’30s). There hasn’t been a significant movement for proletarian socialism in many generations.

The “post-political Marxism” of my own formative years in the 1980s had more in common with the later period of the Boomer experience of the 1970s economic downturn, and recalled the 1930s anti-fascist “resistance”-era Stalinism of defensive retreat in the face of Reaganism and Thatcherism. It was characterized by academic leftism and social-movement activism. The 1980s left was nothing if not pessimistic. But the millennial transition to the reborn left of today marked a regained optimism. The question is what this optimism has to do with Marxism. What was “millennial Marxism”? Perhaps it wasn’t as optimistic as it appeared.

“Marxism” is commonly used as a shorthand for socialism, so some necessary clarification is in order, to be able to discuss productively the present moment’s “socialism” and its relation to the history of Marxism. Marxism has been regarded by the millennials as the theoretical justification for socialism and for opposition to and criticism of capitalism. The preceding 1990s–2000s World Social Forum Left’s slogan of “a better world is possible” was not really a euphemism for socialism, but only for reformed capitalism against what was seen as the abuses and excesses of neoliberalism in the 1990s. But the millennials’ socialism is more earnest, and seems to have been based on more than mere desire.

It is difficult to disentangle the exhaustion and crisis of the neoliberalism of the older generations from the progressivism of the new generation. But if the real possibilities expressed by the latter are actually to be found in their “progressive” political and social agenda, then the question is what, if anything, this has to do with socialism in any even remotely “Marxist” sense. Isn’t this just a “progress” in capitalism? Especially since it has resolved to try to reform—restore—the Democratic Party from within its existing electoral coalition? Apart from right-wing hysteria, this isn’t “socialism.”

To clarify this issue, we must address the perspective of original historical Marxism and its vision of socialism, before showing how it is quite distant from and at odds with the left’s concerns today.

"Critique is not mere criticism."

Marxism was born of critique. Critique is not mere criticism, not fault-finding or debunking or falsifying of things, but exploring conditions of possibility for change, and not merely accidental, random or otherwise “objective” change, as in entropic processes, but conditions for the transformation of the world by free, subjective agents. Furthermore, critique is not opposition, not treating phenomena as if from the outside, but finding potential from within something of which we are inextricably parts and participants. The aim of critique is to recognize the possibilities for being subjects rather than objects of change: not change as something that happens to us, but change for which we can claim responsibility as the product of our own action.

Marxism was born of the critique of an existing socialist and communist movement that arose in the 19th century. Marxism sought to clarify the aims of a movement already underway. Socialism pointed beyond capitalism from within capitalism. As such, socialism was a capitalist phenomenon. It aimed to realize the potentialities of capitalism that capitalism itself held back. Conversely, liberals have regarded socialism as the abandoning of the free potential of capitalism in favor of the retrograde restoration of a more traditional community. Marxism was always aware of this downside of “reactionary or conservative socialism.” Marx and Engels themselves, for example, esteemed the ambitious visions of the utopian socialists, born of the optimism of the Industrial Revolution, but they considered that capitalism itself actually outstripped and went beyond the utopians. There was a self-contradictory character in socialism; it both pointed back as well as ahead. This duality followed from capitalism itself, which constantly goes beyond while also restoring bourgeois society.

Socialism wasn’t possible before capitalism. Nor was it necessary—nor even desirable. Marxism hence held a dialectical relationship between capitalism and socialism. For Marxism, capitalism is nothing but the possibility and necessity of socialism. Capitalism was for Marxism the crisis born of the contradiction of bourgeois social relations by the industrial forces of production that were the product of the historical progress of bourgeois social relations. In this way, Marxism found the industrial forces of production pointing beyond the bourgeois social relations to be the expression of the self-contradiction of those social relations. What were these “bourgeois social relations,” according to Marxism? They were the social relations of labor: the exchange of labor as a commodity as the basis for society, emerging in and through and as the product of the dissolution of the preceding caste community of traditional civilization. Bourgeois society was the liberation of production through the emancipation of labor.

The bourgeois revolution regarded itself as the revolt of labor: the revolt of the Third Estate against the illegitimate authority of the religious and noble-aristocratic orders, the First and Second Estates. The Third Estate comprised all those who worked, as opposed to those who prayed and those who fought. Bourgeois right was the right of labor against the right of might, the right of conquest, upon which the preceding social and political order had been based, and which the Church had blessed. This was the rule of society for thousands of years—perhaps of nature for eons. Bourgeois society is one in which there are “no gods and no masters,” no traditionally sanctioned patriarchs and no slaves, but only human social rights: it was the rule of freedom over nature. The struggle for socialism or communism proceeds from this already-accomplished bourgeois emancipation. If there was still illegitimate power—not right based on labor and its exchange-relations in freedom—Marxism regarded this not as a holdover from the ancient past, but a new, modern problem due to capitalism. In this respect, Marxism regarded capitalism as the regression of bourgeois society—the regression from bourgeois freedom: “wage-slavery.” It was the regression from a history of freedom to prehistory, a reversion to nature.

Marxism regarded the emerging self-contradiction of bourgeois social relations in capitalism to point beyond the emancipation of labor from traditional civilization, which was necessary but insufficient for full freedom. Alongside the subjective phenomenon of the socialist or communist movement for working-class freedom emerging after the Industrial Revolution, there was a new objective phenomenon of a proletarianized working class, workers expropriated of the social property of their labor as self-possessing owners of commodities, their labor-power and its products as contributions to social cooperation, participating as bourgeois citizens in society through their labor. The “proletariat” refers to citizens without property in the ancient Roman Republic: tribal Romans who were entitled to rights as citizens despite not owning property—which meant not possessing the land of Rome’s conquests. (Tribal Romans were a ruling class in the sense of an aristocratic warrior caste of conquerors ruling over subjugated peoples and territories.)

But in bourgeois society, property is not a physical possession claimed through conquest, but a social right recognized through the social relations of labor in free association and cooperation. Hence, a proletarianized working class in bourgeois society is a contradiction in terms, an expression of the self-contradiction of society. For Marxism, it is the Industrial Revolution that divides the bourgeois Third Estate of labor and its social relations into antagonistic interests of capitalists and workers: owners of capital as the means of social production and owners of labor-power as a commodity that is increasingly stripped of its concrete material contribution to social cooperation. This division was an expression of the self-contradiction of freedom in social production, the self-production of society and its free self-transformation.

This is why Marxism regards capitalism as a self-contradiction and crisis of production—and not a matter of unequal distribution and inequitable consumption. It is a crisis of society and its freedom. It is a real crisis of the basis or substance of society, in which workers as citizens lose their social rights, not intentionally or deliberately, but as a result of a seemingly “objective” process of the development of social production. It isn’t the result of ruthless exploitation or theft—which bourgeois society condemns as not only illegitimate, but criminal—but something that took place “objectively,” as a result of the actions of the workers themselves, and was their responsibility. Workers’ demands for the social value of their labor as participants in bourgeois cooperation—the cooperation of citizens in bourgeois society—is an engine driving the improvement of production, to realize and maximize the value of labor in the production of wealth, but undermines the social measure of wealth according to the human time of labor, as industrial production—science and technology—outstrips the measure of human labor-time as the basis for the value of wealth in society. The unintended consequence of this is the devaluation of labor even while social wealth increases.

This is a complex phenomenon that is expressed at both a micro and a macro level. It manifests as a phenomenon of the reproduction of the human species in the historical succession of generations, in which a surplus of workers is experienced as overpopulation—the crisis of the overproduction of both material wealth and of the human race itself. But Marxism regarded it not as surplus humanity, but surplus labor and surplus capital, the waste of social production and of human life, pressing for a resolution. It was a contradiction of wealth and value, or of wealth and the means for appropriating that wealth by society in its social relations of labor. The struggle for the appropriation of social wealth and its potentialities beyond itself between capital and labor isn’t a struggle for possession between groups, but a self-contradiction of wealth and its social value in capitalism.

Thus, Marxism regarded communism as the “real movement of history” in capitalism—namely, the real potential possibility of industrial production pointing beyond bourgeois society and its relations of labor. But this real movement of history is contradictory. It is not only linear, but also cyclical: It points backwards as well as forwards, as society struggles to restore the social value of labor even while the industrial condition of material production leaves it behind. The result of this contradictory movement of society in history is not only to divide the bourgeois Third Estate between workers and capitalists, but also and more importantly to divide the proletarianized working class between high-wage and low-wage sectors as well as between employed and unemployed, among other distinctions, in a disparity and hierarchy of exploitation and wealth and participation in social production within the working class, which takes place not only within local communities, but between localities in global production; and not only in space, but in time, for instance between generations, in which older workers might benefit from capitalism at the expense of younger workers or younger workers benefit at the expense of older ones.

In short, capitalism creates competition between workers as a new dynamic of historical movement, fundamentally affecting the concrete forms of social production in capitalism, especially as the conditions for production are struggled over, economically, socially, and politically. But this competition not only promotes innovation or improvement of production as in the original bourgeois vision, but actually undermines and destroys the basis of social production. It devalues both labor and capital, throwing human beings and concrete forms of production prematurely on the scrapheap of history before their full potentials are realized.

In Marx’s own time, it appeared that the widening contradiction between bourgeois right and industrial production in society led directly to social and political crisis and antagonism—a political struggle—that demanded resolution. As Marx put it, the capitalists and workers both had bourgeois right—the right of the social value of labor in production, whether in the form of wages or capital—on their side and “where right meets right, force will decide,” namely politics (not violence!). Hence, capitalism was a condition of “insoluble contradiction”; the “class struggle” was inevitable.

This class struggle, however, was understood originally by Marxism to be not merely the antagonism of different social groups, capitalists and workers, but the struggle for the proletarianized working class to constitute itself as a social and political force and thus as a class: the proletariat vs. the bourgeoisie. But since the working class not only suffers under but benefits from capitalism—depending on wage-labor to survive and, indeed, to thrive—the class contradiction of the proletariat vs. the bourgeoisie is not the same as the antagonism of the capitalists and the workers—which itself is not identical to the contradiction of capital and labor.

The workers’ labor is capital—it is, for instance, “circulating capital vs. fixed capital” and “variable vs. constant capital,” according to Marx—and so the social antagonism of capital and labor is always also an antagonism within labor as well as an antagonism within capital. It was not enough for Marxism that the social disintegration of production in capitalism manifest as antagonism, for instance the Darwinian struggle for existence among capitalist firms or among many capitals—for example, between “national” capitals—but also such a struggle among workers —including among “national working classes [sic]” or national sectors of the global working class.

What Marxism regarded as necessary was the self-constitution of the working class as a class in-itself objectively, through the constitution of itself as a class for-itself subjectively. For example, Marxism recognized that, for the value of labor as a commodity to be constituted in industrial (as opposed to artisanal) production at all requires collective bargaining. Without collective bargaining, labor is not even a commodity, not even a unit of social exchange, and there is no bourgeois social relation or bourgeois right of labor to be found at all—this is why liberal democratic bourgeois thought found labor union collective-bargaining to be necessary not only to preserve, but to constitute bourgeois social rights in capitalism.

But the workers’ struggle to constitute their social right in capitalism was for Marxism the constitution of the contradiction of capitalism: the contradiction of industrial forces by bourgeois social relations. Society itself seemed to face a choice between supporting human labor in the working class and supporting scientific technique and technology in production. It is society as a whole that faces the choice and contradiction of capital vs. labor. This includes the working class in its collective bargaining as a social subject in capitalism—whether this takes place economically through trade-union negotiation in private employment contracts, or as the public subject of citizenry in political democracy adjudicating law and policy.

For Marxism, the limits—the self-contradiction—that the proletarianized working class came up against in capitalism had already been faced in bourgeois society and liberal democracy, in both civil society and political democracy, in the early 19th century, and the struggle for socialism or communism had emerged as a consequence of such limits being reached and contradictions made manifest as an inevitable impasse in history. But this contradiction and limit had manifested and reached an impasse in the socialist or communist movement itself, producing divisions and antagonisms in both theory and practice among the socialists who predated and lived into and as contemporaries of Marx’s own time.

Not only that, but the self-contradictory character of socialism had already been recognized in bourgeois economic, social, and political thought and among bourgeois politicians—sometimes more acutely than among the socialists themselves. Not only Marxists and socialists, but bourgeois thinkers and political actors found the real movement of history to lead inevitably to socialism. Conservative bourgeois and reactionary observers in the 19th century bemoaned it, but nonetheless recognized the inexorable tide of history moving against them, toward socialism. So the problem was one to be faced and overcome by the would-be reformers and “revolutionaries” of capitalism themselves, whether from among the workers or the capitalists. For Marxism, the class struggle was one over the direction of society within and beyond capitalism.

The workers’ struggle for socialism was motivated by a conservative impulse to restore bourgeois social relations—the value of labor in society promised by the bourgeois revolution—but this pointed beyond capitalism in that industrial production foreclosed any such return to the idyll of a community of cooperative producers. In capitalism, we live in a community not of labor, but of capital, and this must lead us beyond bourgeois society. But capitalism’s crises lead us back into bourgeois society—if we fail to constitute the political will of socialism. Because such will is itself self-contradictory—simultaneously Luddite and techno-utopian—it tasks consciousness in specific ways, in both practice and theory, and demands sustained effort over significant historical periods, long enough for the problem to come into view with an adequate horizon of proper perspective.

Marxism began by taking up and critiquing the crisis and confusion of contemporary 19th-century reformers and revolutionaries as a matter of their self-contradictory social and political aspirations and visions—how these were not observations from outside, but perspectives from within capitalism itself, from within its self-contradiction and crisis, pointing not only to potential possibilities beyond itself, but to its seemingly inevitable end.

The purpose of Marxism in its original historical moment was to serve as a critical faculty in the progress of the proletarianized working class’s struggle for socialism. It was to arm socialists with an awareness of the reasons for the historical crises besetting their own movement, and precisely in its success and forward motion. But not only that success and forward motion, but the movement itself ended long ago.

Today, by contrast, after the rise and fall of historical Marxism over a century ago, and due to its failure, capitalism no longer appears to have an inevitable end expressed by the possibility and necessity of socialism, but rather “socialism” seems to be a mere desire, a utopian vision divorced from practical reality, whether economic, political, or social. For instance, socialism has become an aspiration that, as the DSA’s Jacobin magazine founder and editor Bhaskar Sunkara put it recently, is “at its core moral and ethical in nature,” but which drives not inevitably towards its revolutionary realization, but rather motivates capitalist reforms to render distribution more “equitable,” and this is primarily on a national-state and not international, let alone global, level. This necessarily and not accidentally avoids the contradiction of capital—and guarantees its perpetuation.

"Jacobin and the DSA are formulating solutions for capitalism to continue, albeit under new leadership."

The problem of capitalism is today no longer faced, let alone grasped as a self-contradiction of the workers’ struggles leading to the necessity of socialism as a historic task, but is just a matter of unbearably excessive social pathologies and suffering demanding capitalist political measures to try to deal with mounting discontents: Jacobin and the DSA are formulating solutions for capitalism to continue, albeit under new leadership.

The current crisis of neoliberalism is not a terminal crisis of capitalism—not even one that could be made so politically—but merely an opportunity for the reconstitution of it. And not through the self-constitution of the working class as an economic, social, and political subject of history, but just as an electoral constituency of liberal democracy. And not even a subject of political democracy, but an object of state policy.

Jacobin agonizes over its role as would-be professional managers of the working class; really, they aren’t even that, but just self-deluded ideologues opining their craft of spin for the latest capitalist messaging. More or less unemployed millennial and zoomer workers watch YouTube videos as neurasthenics between anxious applications for their next gigs, seeking to explain the reasons for their endless misery. Hopefully, they will quickly forget them for the niche click-bait ephemera that they are, in favor of more mainstream, and hence more socially rational, pursuits.

This is why the existential crisis of humanity and society shows up today not in the battle of politics and democracy in a proletarianized society and its working class’s struggles, but rather in culture and psychology, about which Marxism has nothing to say beyond how these are already expressed by humanistic bourgeois culture in crisis, including its most radical “anthropological” questioning, such as speculations on the “trans-” or “post-human” condition of society in capitalism. It is not raised to the level of collective politics in public life—not even as matters of technocratic management, which is just a reified and ossified mechanized bourgeois humanism in crisis—but devolves upon isolated individuals in their private misery.

Supposed “Marxism” today isn’t the critical self-clarification it once was of a historic revolutionary or even reform movement for socialism, but is just an obscure justification for choosing among policies for managing the crisis of capitalism that is no longer regarded as an insoluble contradiction and historical impasse, but has become naturalized as a permanent condition of society and of humanity, purported “human nature” itself—including the degraded condition of what passes for “politics” today as the gang warfare telling you which “side” to be on—among the ruins of bourgeois society in capitalism.

Marxism today has no goal to work toward, but serves only as a reminder that there once was a purpose, a purpose to capitalism, in socialism. Without an existing struggle for socialism, Marxism has no purpose. Without the purpose of socialism, there is no Marxism.

The end of millennial Marxism has been to realize this—or not.