If you want to show that your version of Marxism is better than somebody else’s, the quickest way to do so is to call the other version vulgar. One’s own version is nuanced, sophisticated, subtle, erudite, philosophically rich – all the things the vulgar is not. Or so it has been for a century, now. Even outside the small world of self-described Marxists, some versions of Marxism have been acceptable in polite company – but not the vulgar ones. What is wrong about the vulgar other is a bit of a moving target, as we shall see. The category works by contrast. The sins of the vulgarians are whichever you claim your refinement of Marxism has corrected.
When Marx said something was vulgar, he meant it was bourgeois. One sense of vulgar is that which has been stripped of its qualities by exchange. But vulgar is a promiscuous word, and sometimes even among Marxists it refers not to the exchangeable thing, but the laboring peoples and the ‘dirt’ that sticks to them one way or another. Does it not seem strange that Marxism, which is if nothing else the point of view of the working class, dedicated to the theoretical and practical overcoming of exploitation and oppression, should want to distance itself from the vulgar?
There seems an element of bad faith here. Marxists of all kinds want to distance themselves from the vulgar. But what does that make them, genteel Marxists? They are most certainly genteel in only wanting contact with what is vulgar from a discreet distance, with gloves on. Certain hereditary rights of the intellectual are not to be questioned.
Perhaps the very notion that there’s something bad about what is vulgar needs challenging anyway. While far from exhausting the multitudinous senses of the word, here are some of the things the vulgar can be that might actually be ‘good’ things: ill-bred, obscene, crude, base, earthy, ordinary, popular, current, vernacular, coarse, common, indelicate.
There are certainly strands of Marxist or Marxist-influenced thought that engage with one or other sense of the vulgar. Berthold Brecht and the coarse, George Bataille and the base, Raymond Williams and the ordinary, Pier Paolo Pasoloni and the vernacular – just to name four. One could compose a whole counter-tradition of affirmative vulgar Marxisms.
I want to look a bit more closely now at how the insult “vulgar Marxist!” is deployed, and in otherwise not wholly compatible ways, before moving on to four lesser-known kinds I think worth particular attention in the current conjuncture. I suspect progress in the twenty-first century might only now be made from the starting point of the various vulgarians who were insulted along the way. All of the various exclusions might point to a door shutting in the face of this or that avatar of the vulgar that needs to be recovered and rethought. Its time, in short, to get our hands dirty, and maybe some other parts as well.
One context in which Lenin uses the vulgar Marxist insult before the revolution is over the agrarian question. The vulgar Marxists support the tsarist regime’s modernization of agriculture, because they think that the forces of production have to accelerate in both industry and agriculture for quite some time before socialist revolution will be possible. After the revolution, and writing in retrospect, Trotsky shares this characterization. The vulgarians think the space of possibility for political revolution depends on the level of development of the economic base.
A different exclusion, based on a different sense of the vulgar can be found in the founding texts of Western Marxism. For George Lukacs, the vulgarians think the foundations of bourgeois society are pretty unshakeable. They are in it for the long haul, building union organization, mass cultural institutions and electoral bases.
This gradualism in practice corresponds to a theoretical failing. The vulgarian does not take the totality as the central category, and sees it as unscientific. Vulgar Marxists reject the doctrine of fetishism as the root of a false consciousness which occludes the thought of the totality. They merely practice marxisant forms of each of the specialized forms of knowledge. A proper dialectical theory grasps the social totality both as concept and as sphere of action for proletariat, with the party as the unifier of theory and practice.
Karl Korsch likewise thinks the vulgarians do not understand the central importance of the correct dialectical method. They lack a philosophical perspective. To both Lukacs and Korsch, the ‘orthodox’ Marxism of the Second International is the main target of attack. They dissent from its social theory, where base determines superstructure, and also from its historical theory, which insists on the succession of economic stages and their corresponding political forms. It is too ‘materialist’ a Marxism, not dialectical enough. Interestingly, the ‘Machists’ are a subsidiary object of attack for both Korsch and Lukacs, but neither spend much time on the distinctive features of the Machist heresy.
Perhaps the most elegant summation of the vulgar is in Walter Benjamin’s ‘On the Concept of History’:
“The conformism which has dwelt within social democracy from the very beginning rests not merely on its political tactics, but also on its economic conceptions. It is a fundamental cause of the later collapse. There is nothing which has corrupted the German working-class so much as the opinion that they were swimming with the tide. Technical developments counted to them as the course of the stream, which they thought they were swimming in. From this, it was only a step to the illusion that the factory-labor set forth by the path of technological progress represented a political achievement. The old Protestant work ethic celebrated its resurrection among German workers in secularized form. The Gotha Program already bore traces of this confusion. It defined labor as ‘the source of all wealth and all culture.’… This vulgar-Marxist concept of what labor is… wishes to perceive only the progression of the exploitation of nature, not the regression of society… Labor, as it is henceforth conceived, is tantamount to the exploitation of nature, which is contrasted to the exploitation of the proletariat with naïve self-satisfaction. Compared to this positivistic conception, the fantasies which provided so much ammunition for the ridicule of Fourier exhibit a surprisingly healthy sensibility… All this illustrates a labor which, far from exploiting nature, is instead capable of delivering creations whose possibility slumbers in her womb. To the corrupted concept of labor belongs, as its logical complement, that nature which, as Dietzgen put it, ‘is there gratis.’”
In short, Benjamin is resistant to the working class point of view of proletarian culture. From Dietzgen comes what one might call the myth of labor as a key resource for self-organization. How could labor come into its own if it did not see itself as the source of value? If it did not think the cyborgian entanglement of labor, techne and nature? In Korsch and Lukacs, what is vulgar lacks a proper understanding of philosophy. Here in Benjamin, interestingly, is a distancing from a positive sense of the vulgar, as the self-image of the working class.
Adorno uses the vulgar insult in a different way. In Minima Moralia he claims that the critique of ideology as false consciousness has itself become an ideology. The vulgar Marxist reduction of the cultural artifact to its basic economic determinants comes too close to paralleling the culture industry’s own evaluation of its products by their sales numbers. That which in culture might escape exchange value also escapes the vulgar Marxist’s attention.
For Lukacs, Korsch, and even Adorno, what is vulgar lacks a proper understanding of Hegelian dialectics. By the time we get to Althusser, it is precisely the dialectic which is vulgar! Those vulgarians think of the economic base as an essence and the superstructures as mere appearances. Moreover, they miss Marx’s crucial intervention in his critique of the economics of David Ricardo. Marx did not simply take over the object of economic science and bring a ‘dialectical’ method to it. He constructs a whole new theoretical object.
While Althusser sees dialectics as the taint of the vulgar, this is in the name of a genteel Marxism that calls for more, not less, engagement in philosophy. If for Lukacs the genteel Marxist has to bring dialectics to Marxism, for Althusser the genteel Marxist has to undo the vulgarizing effects of that dialectics in the name of a better sense of the correct method.
E. P. Thompson is famous for a book-length tirade against Althusser, and yet even in Thompson there is a tactical deployment of the vulgarian insult. In his appreciation of Christopher Caudwell, Thompson remarks that certain aspects of Caudwell might be considered vulgar, but Caudwell nevertheless deserves our respect and attention. The vulgar in this case is firstly a heavy hand with the insults – a style surely learned from diligently studying Lenin – and Caudwell’s lack of respect for disciplinary boundaries, although in Thompson’s case history is the master discourse, not philosophy. This use of the vulgarian insult actually contradicts Lukacs use of it in some respects.
There are then four general actions of othering involved in calling something vulgar. The first is political. The vulgarians think in terms of a gradual, evolutionary process of historical change. They lack a taste for the political leap. The second is theoretical. The vulgarians pay too much attention to specialized knowledge such as the sciences. They lack a sense of the central role of philosophy as guarantor of the correct method. The third is cultural. The vulgarians are too close to the self-identity of the working class. They lack a sophistication about the struggle within bourgeois culture. The fourth is more strictly academic. The vulgarian ranges too freely across disciplinary knowledge.
Despite their somewhat contradictory gestures, all of these uses of the vulgarian insult are designed to produce a certain autonomy and priority for the intellectual in relation to the working class. Marxism can’t be vulgar, because then the masses might figure out how to apply it for themselves to their own situation. Marxism has to be something superior to the sciences, otherwise actual scientists would have to be acknowledged as co-producers of knowledge. Marxism can’t prioritize the nexus between labor, techne and nature. That would pretty much exclude the intellectual from any leading role. On the other hand, Marxism can’t claim to critique scholarly knowledge from without. That would concede too much to those trained in the party schools.
If you track ‘vulgar marxism’ in Google’s ngram, its use ramps up steadily in the 70s, peaks around 1979 and tapers off from there. The 70s was the time when Lukacs, Korsch, Althusser and many others were translated into English. But there are also a new range of extensions and developments of the insult.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty revived the Hegelian variant: the vulgarians neglect the central concept of totality. Antonio Negri likewise thinks the vulgarians limit themselves to an objectivist and economistic Marxism and fail to understand the potential for revolutionary subjectivity. He even dares to hint at the vulgarity of Marx’s Capital, which in his view falls away from the integration of objective and subjective aspects of the Grundrisse.
Kojin Karatani criticizes as vulgar those Marxisms which take Marx’s economics to be an extension of Ricardo’s, whereas Ernesto Laclau follows Althusser in thinking the vulgarians make a philosophical error in thinking the revolutionary moment as one which produce an absolute reconciliation of society with itself, dissolving false appearances. Cornell West sees the vulgarian as the essentialist and reductionist Marxists who think action entirely as force and does not understand the discursive nature of the political.
Fred Jameson defends himself against “avant-garde art critics” who “quickly identified me as a vulgar Marxist hatchet man.” In some of his most popular works, Terry Eagleton frequently distances his own method from ‘vulgar Marxism’, in scare quotes. Writers otherwise as different as Amir Amin and Julia Kristeva share a rather similar disdain for vulgarians, who they think of adhering to a mechanistic and deterministic basic metaphor for thinking the social and historical.
In an original move, Jean Baudrillard takes up Walter Benjamin’s disdain for proletarian culture’s celebration of labor as vulgar but pairs it with genteel Marxism’s attempt to critique what labor becomes under capitalism. To him, oth positions already concede too much to capitalism as the social order which creates this fetish of labor in the first place.
By 1996, Laura Mulvey is surveying the media and culture industries and almost longing for a rather deterministic Marx to return: “This Marx would no doubt have reflected with interest on the Rupert Murdoch phenomena. For most of my intellectual life, such simple correlations would have fallen into the category of vulgar Marxism. Nowadays the gap of determination between economic structures and culture seems to be narrowing.”
Perhaps part of what happened is that as Marxism became a creature of the academy, it became more and more necessary to deploy the vulgar insult to cordon off respectable approaches to knowledge that could fit within disciplines. In the absence of first-world working class movements that could even appear to effect social change, hope retreated to the superstructures.
But there was another driver as well: Social movements such as feminism and gay liberation refused to settle for secondary status as mere epiphenomenon to the class struggle. However, the locus for articulating the centrality of these movements was sometimes positioned as outside of productive relations. The terrain of language, or the social, or domestic and reproductive relations became the new site of both conceptual and practical struggle. Making the case for such a locus sometimes proceeded via a distancing from vulgar Marxism, to which a relentlessly economic and class-centric approach would be imputed.
Times change, however. Coming out of the theory-wars of the 1980s, Gayle Rubin seems more concerned about “vulgar Lacanians.” Particularly in the era of climate change, revisiting vulgar Marxism might be timely. Lukacs disqualified the sciences as fetishes of the particular, unable to grasp the totality, over which only the non-science of philosophy had dominion. One finds variations on this attitude also in Adorno, Negri, Karatani, even Zizek. But this is surely an outdated view of the sciences, based on a critique of its specializing and reductive modes. But climate science is not such a science. And curiously, it takes as its object totality in a quite different sense: the totality of metabolic processes that take place on a planetary scale, and the in particular the contribution of collective human labor to those processes.
And so perhaps, in the twenty-first century, a more vulgar approach might be restored, if not to dignity, then at least to our attention. Given what we now know about climate change, the nexus of labor, techne and nature seems like an important one. Maybe its time to think more about that which is base, crude, ordinary and common. Maybe we spent too long up in the superstructures. That is why I want to propose a shortlist of four Marxist thinkers who are ‘vulgar’ in quite specific senses and whose work helps us address past, present and future concerns.
This is why I think it is timely to re-read the ‘Machist-Marxist’ Alexander Bogdanov. The Machists are occasionally included in broad-brush attacks on vulgar Marxism by Lukacs and Korsch, but it is vulgar in a rather different sense to the cartoon of economistic, deterministic, reductionist vulgar Marxism. Bogdanov took the nexus of labor – techne – nature to be primary. He had a much more extensive actual knowledge of the natural sciences than any of the leading Western Marxists, and had an early grasp – based on hints in Marx’s Capital Volume 3 – of the planetary, metabolic processes within which social labor was implicated.
Bogdanov also significantly developed the idea to be found in Deitzgen of a proletarian culture. Perhaps the most astonishing example of which is the life and writings of Andrey Platonov. Of proto-proletarian origins, Platonov experienced the 1917 revolution and civil war as a youth and young man. His first-hand experience of famine and suffering in rural Russia made him give up writing to study engineering. He applied his technical skills to improving the harvest. On his return to writing he produced a series of astonishing (anti)novels which chronicle the experience of the Soviet Union from 1917 through the Stalin years, but seen from below.
Bogdanov, while offering a magnificently vulgar grasp of labor’s struggle in and against nature to produce a surplus and secure a life, could be somewhat optimistic about the long term prospects for labor’s powers of self-organization. Platonov vividly stages the struggle in everyday life for people to become comrades, to struggle together against shared dangers for a shared life. Bogdanov and Platonov together flesh out a vulgar concept and affect which are based in the experience of the Soviet experiment but which still speak to our times.
As far as the archive of all possible Marxisms goes, Bogdanov and Platonov were all but erased form history. The former through Lenin’s anathema and the derision of the Lukacs and Korsch. The latter through the suppression of publication of all of his major works, and – what may be almost as bad – treating the revival of his reputation as a matter of ‘literature.’ And so there aren’t a lot of Bogdanovians and Platonovians one can point to as alternatives to the influence of Lukacs or Althusser on later Marxist thought.
However, there are things which are vulgar Marxist in interestingly useful and analogous ways that are more recent. Here I want to mention just two of them. Like Bogdanov, Donna Haraway knows her biological science first-hand. While sometimes thought of as a feminist or science studies or cyber-studies scholar, I want to make a case for the vulgar-Marxist aspect of Haraway. She brings a critical approach to bear on a scientific literature surely as powerful in our time as political economy was in Marx’s: the life sciences. Like Marx, she shows how this is at one and the same time an actual science and yet one limited by the basic metaphors emanating from the forms of production of our times.
Haraway would not sit still for the unexamined humanism on Bogdanov’s version of proletarian culture, nor for his rather limited sense of what the labor is that produces collective human life. But what is interesting is that one can read Haraway as making this more, rather than less vulgar. She asks messy questions about how gender and sexuality are caught up in productive and reproductive labor – and even in relations that are not obviously either. And most famously she puts the labor – techne relation on a whole new basis, opening up a space to think our always-already implicated (techno)nature.
Haraway’s writing is also vulgar in another sense, in that the cyborg is among other things a kind of counter-myth. Buried within the knotty writing of that text is a nugget of science fiction, drawing in particular on feminist utopian and science fiction writing. A contemporary writer who I think takes this kind of project to the next level is Kim Stanley Robinson. He is unapologetically a science fiction genre writer aiming at a popular – and in that sense ‘vulgar’ – readership. But it’s a writing which, among other things, incorporates a wide variety of progressive, radical, feminist, multicultural and Marxist – both genteel and vulgar – traditions.
Robinson manages to incorporate the vulgar in two other senses. Firstly, this is science fiction. His famous Mars Trilogy, which charts the path of a revolution and a post-revolutionary society on Mars, frames its story within the bounds of a science that seems cognitively plausible. The sciences are a source of not only specific forms of knowledge in Robinson but also orientations to working in and against nature. One of the problems he highlights – not unlike Bogdanov – is how different labors and forms of technical knowledge can coordinate and cooperate in the absence of an overarching philosophical master-code.
Here there’s another kind of ‘vulgarity’ at work in Robinson, the role of folk knowledge. Like Haraway, Robinson is interested in the question of creating counter-myths that can extend out from specific experiences of interacting with the world and providing a sense of community and project. But Robinson is well aware that such a project has in our time to be a plural one. There can be no single proletarian culture any more.
In Platonov, characters more often than not fail to come up with comradely modes of inter-relating their labors, not least because the centralizing, controlling doctrines of dialectical materialism don’t really address themselves to everyday struggles. In Robinson, the relation between modes of working and communicating is always what is at stake, rather than achieving the correct, genteel method that guarantees correct knowledge. The Mars Trilogy is in that sense a kind of meta-utopia, about how different forms of life might coexist.
So here are four kinds of vulgarity: about nature and labor, techne and utopia, that are not quite those usually covered by the “vulgar Marxist!” insult. They are surely useful kinds of vulgarity with which and about which to think, given that the era of climate change is upon us. There are surely other senses of the vulgar that one might add, and other writers who make them thinkable. That might be part of a larger project of rethinking the paths through the archive that open these traditions up again in news ways to confront the present.
And so: four cheers for vulgar Marxism!!!! Four rather than three, as the vulgar is always a little excessive. Four cheers for these four vulgar Marxist writers, although they are also much more than that. Bogdanov and Platonov offer unique perspectives on what Jodi dean calls the ‘communist horizon’; Haraway and Robinson on what Mark Fisher calls ‘capitalist realism.’ I have been thinking for a while now about why I chose to write about them together, in my book Molecular Red, for which these might be some provisional notes. Perhaps it is because if we are to have a low theory for the times, it will be vulgar, or not at all. Opening up the vulgar wing of the archive again might open some more plural pathways through which to think from past to present, to inhabitable futures.
Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, p. 43-44
Samir Amin, Imperailsim and Unequal Development, p. 236
Jean Baudrillard, Mirror of Production, p. 37
Walter Benjamin, http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/benjamin/1940/history.htm
Terry Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism
Terry Eagleton, Ideology: An Introduction
Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, p. 297
Kojin Karatani, Transcritique, p. 10
Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language, p. 16
Ernesto Laclau, Emancipations
Karl Marx, Grundrisse, p. 488
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, pp. 171-172
Laura Mulvey, Fetishism and Curiosity, p. xiii
Antonio Negri, Marx Beyond Marx, p. 137
Gayle Rubin, Deviations, p. 292
Cornell West, The Cornell West Reader, p. 9, p. 72, p. 260