Monday, February 14, 2011

Marx's materialism not consumer materialism

Or even economic materialism in the way it's conventionally thought of. Despite the distortions of Lenin, who appointed himself the arbiter of what Marxism was and what real socialism was, and Stalin, Marx himself was ambiguous about the relationship of his historical materialism with the values of french style materialism. Although often times sarcastic, his materialism was arrived at post-Idealism, and was of the sort later termed monistic materialism in distinction to mechanistic materialism.

Marx's ideas can be easily read not as that economics literally determines everything in society, and that there's nothing beyond the lowest material interpretation of reality, and that therefore only economic values matter, but instead as saying that the economic structure of society is the most important determiner of how society is set up, that it exerts a strong but not absolute or totalistic influence on beliefs and culture, and that though class is important human beings are more than their economic status.

There's nothing in Marx that condemns a person to having a narrow, fairly crass, worldview that excludes more subtle and less obvious concerns, to only looking at material interest. In fact, the charge that Marx encouraged economic materialism by pointing out what the working class experiences, especially in his own day, is kind of a low blow, because the point of the analysis was to help people get mobilized in order to change society so that they would not be so hemmed in by basic, material, economic constraints anymore.

An ethic that's anti-materialist in the sense of being against consumer culture and against the materialistic greed that goes along with it is completely compatible with a belief in historical materialism, that says that material economic structures existing on a society wide level have been the most decisive influence on the nature of societies and to a certain extent on how history manifests.


The sort of ideological conformity associated with some Marxism that critics occasionally talk about died with Stalin in '53 and was buried with Khruschev's Secret Speech in '56. After that, there was no force that could possibly cause Leninist Marxism, either Stalinist or otherwise, to be as ideologically cohesive as it was before. Trotskyist groups were on their own, and the up and coming Mao didn't have the same prestige.

Stalin's death and the Secret Speech paved the way for the possibility of the New Left. Once that started, Orthodox Marxism was no longer the mean bully on the block.

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