There is an old delicious Soviet joke about radio Yerevan: a listener asks “Is it true that Rabinovitch won a new car in a lottery?”, and the radio answers: “In principle yes, it’s true, only it wasn’t a new car but an old bicycle, and he didn’t win it but it was stolen from him.” Does exactly the same not hold for the fate of Marx’s teaching today, 200 years after his birth?

Let’s ask radio Yerevan: “Is Marx still actual today?” We can guess the answer: in principle yes, he describes wonderfully the mad dance of capitalist dynamics which reached its peak only today, more than a century and a half later, but… Gerald A. Cohen enumerated the four features of the classic Marxist notion of the working class: (1) it constitutes the majority of society; (2) it produces the wealth of society; (3) it consists of the exploited members of society; (4) its members are the needy people in society. When these four features are combined, they generate two further features: (5) the working class has nothing to lose from a revolution; (6) it can and will engage in a revolutionary transformation of society.[1] None of the first four applies to today’s working class, which is why features (5) and (6) cannot be generated. (Even if some of the features continue to apply to parts of today’s society, they are no longer united in singe agent: the needy people in society are no longer the workers, etc.)

The historical deadlock of Marxism resides not only in the fact that it counted on the prospect of capitalism’s final crisis, and therefore couldn’t grasp how capitalism came out of each crisis strengthened. There is a much more tragic mistake at work in the classic body of Marxism, described in precise terms by Wolfgang Streeck: Marxism was right about the “final crisis” of capitalism; we are clearly entering it today, but this crisis is just that, a prolonged process of decay and disintegration, with no easy Hegelian Aufhebung in sight, no agent to give to this decay a positive twist and transform it into a passage to some higher level of social organization:

 “It is a Marxist – or better: modernist – prejudice that capitalism as a historical epoch will end only when a new, better society is in sight, and a revolutionary subject ready to implement it for the advancement of mankind. This presupposes a degree of political control over our common fate of which we cannot even dream after the destruction of collective agency, and indeed the hope for it, in the neoliberal-globalist revolution.”[2]

 Marx’s vision was that of a society gradually approaching its final crisis, the situation in which the complexity of social life is simplified into one great antagonism between capitalists and the proletarian majority. However, even a quick look at the 20th century Communist revolutions makes it clear that this simplification never took place: radical Communist movements were always constrained to a vanguard minority, and in order for it to gain hegemony, it had to wait patiently for a crisis (usually a war) which provided a narrow window of opportunity. In such moments, an authentic vanguard can seize the day, mobilize the people (even if not the actual majority) and take over. Communists were here always utterly “non-dogmatic,” ready to be parasitic on another issue: land and peace in Russia, national liberation and unity against corruption in China… They were always well aware that mobilization would be soon over, and were carefully preparing the power apparatus to keep them in power at that moment. (In contrast to the October Revolution which explicitly treated the peasants as secondary allies, the Chinese revolution didn’t even pretend to be proletarian: it directly addressed the farmers as its base.)

The problem of Western Marxism (and even of Marxism as such) was the absence of the revolutionary subject: how is it that the working class does not complete the passage from in-itself to for-itself and constitute itself as a revolutionary agent? This problem provided the main raison d’être for the reference to psychoanalysis which was evoked precisely to explain the unconscious libidinal mechanisms which prevent the rise of class consciousness inscribed into the very being (social situation) of the working class. In this way, the truth of the Marxist socio-economic analysis was saved; there was no reason to give ground to “revisionist” theories about the rise of the middle classes, etc. For this same reason, Western Marxism was also in a constant search for other social actors who could play the role of the revolutionary agent, as the understudy replacing the indisposed working class: Third World peasants, students and intellectuals, the excluded marginals… The latest version of this idea relates to the refugees: only an influx of a really large number of refugees can revitalize the European radical Left. This line of thought is thoroughly obscene and cynical. Notwithstanding the fact that such a development would for sure give an immense boost to anti-immigrant brutality, the truly crazy aspect of this idea is the project to fill in the gap of the missing proletarians by importing them from abroad, so that we would get the revolution by a surrogate, outsourced revolutionary agent.

The failure of the working class as the revolutionary subject lies already at the very core of the Bolshevik revolution. Lenin’s art was to detect the “rage potential” (Sloterdijk) of the disappointed peasants. The October Revolution won due to the slogan “land and peace,” addressed to the vast peasant majority, seizing the short moment of their radical dissatisfaction. Lenin was thinking along these lines already a decade prior, which is why he was horrified at the prospect of the success of the Stolypin land reforms, which aimed at creating a new strong class of independent farmers. He wrote that if Stolypin succeeded, the chance for a revolution would be lost for decades. All successful socialist revolutions, from Cuba to Yugoslavia, followed this model, seizing the opportunity in an extreme critical situation, co-opting national-liberation or other “rage capitals.” Of course, here, a partisan of hegemonic logic would point out that this is the very “normal” logic of revolution, that the “critical mass” is reached precisely and only through a series of equivalences among multiple demands which is always radically contingent and dependent on a specific, unique even, set of circumstances. A revolution never occurs when all antagonisms collapse into the big One, but when they synergetically combine their powers.

The point is not just that revolution no longer rides the train of History, following its Laws, since there is no History, since history is a contingent open process. The problem is a different one: it is as if there were a Law of History, a more or less clear predominant main line of historical development, and that revolution could only occur in its interstices, “against the current.” Revolutionaries have to wait patiently for the (usually very brief) period of time when the system openly malfunctions or collapses, seize the window of opportunity, grab the power which at that moment as it were lies on the street, is up for grabs, and then fortify its hold on power, building repressive apparatuses, etc., so that, once the moment of confusion is over and the majority gets sober and is disappointed by the new regime, it will be too late to get rid of it, given its firm entrenchment.

The communists have also always carefully calculated the right moment to stop popular mobilization. Let’s take the case of the Chinese Cultural Revolution which undoubtedly contained elements of an enacted utopia. At its very end, before the agitation was blocked by Mao himself (since he already achieved his goal of reestablishing his full power and getting rid of the top nomenklatura competition), there was the “Shanghai Commune”: one million workers who simply took the official slogans seriously, demanding the abolition of the State and even the Party itself, and wanted a direct communal organization of society. It is significant that it was at this very point that Mao ordered the army to intervene and to restore order. The paradox is that of a leader who triggers an uncontrolled upheaval, while trying to exert full personal power – the overlapping of extreme dictatorship and extreme emancipation of the masses.

The question concerning the continuing relevance of Marx’s critique of political economy in our era of global capitalism has thus to be answered in a properly dialectical way: not only is Marx’s critique of political economy, his outline of the capitalist dynamics, still fully actual, but one should also make a step further and claim that it is only today, with global capitalism, that, to put it in Hegelese, reality arrived at its notion. However, a properly dialectical reversal intervenes here: at this very moment of full actuality the limitation has to appear, the moment of triumph is that of defeat. After overcoming external obstacles, the new threat comes from within, signalling immanent inconsistency. When reality fully reaches up to its notion, this notion itself has to be transformed. Therein resides the properly dialectical paradox: Marx was not simply wrong, he was often right, but more literally than he himself expected to be.

So what is our result? Should we write off Marx’s texts as an interesting document of the past and nothing more? In a dialectical paradox, the very impasses and failures of 20th century Communism, impasses which were clearly grounded in the limitations of Marx’s vision, at the same time bear witness to its actuality: the classic Marxist solution failed, but the problem remains. Communism is today not the name of a solution, but the name of a problem, the problem of commons in all its dimensions – the commons of nature as the substance of our life, the problem of our biogenetic commons, the problem of our cultural commons (“intellectual property”), and, last but not least, commons as the universal space of humanity from which no one should be excluded. Whatever the solution, it will have to deal with these problems.

In Soviet translations, Marx’s well-known statement to Paul Lafargue “Ce qu’il y a de certain, c’est que moi je ne suis pas marxiste,” was rendered as »If this is Marxism, then I am not a Marxist.” This mistranslation renders perfectly the transformation of Marxism in a university discourse: in Soviet Marxism, even Marx himself was a Marxist, participating in the same universal knowledge that composes Marxism. The fact that he created the teaching later known as “Marxism” provides no exception, and so his denial just refers to a specific wrong version that falsely proclaims itself “Marxist.” What Marx meant was something more radical: a gap separates Marx himself, the creator who has a substantial relationship towards his teaching, from “Marxists” who follow this teaching. This gap can also be rendered by the well-known Marx brothers joke “You look like Emmanuel Ravelli. – But I am Emmanuel Ravelli. – So no wonder you look like him.” The guy who is Ravelli doesn’t look like Ravelli; he simply is Ravelli. And, in the same way, Marx himself is not a Marxist (one among the Marxists); he is the point of reference exempted from the series. It is a reference to him that makes others Marxists. And the only way to remain faithful to Marx today is no longer to be a “Marxist” but to repeat Marx’s grounding gesture in a new way.

[1] G.A.Cohen, If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich?, Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press 2001.

[2] Wolfgang Streeck, How Will Capitalism End?, London: Verso Books 2016, p. 57.