This book is refreshing and long overdue. It has two main qualities. First, it dares to call out some of the fashionable idols of academic Marxism and critical theory–including Theodor Adorno, Louis Althusser, Chantal Mouffe, Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Zizek–for being obscurantist on the one hand, and often deeply misleading on the other. Second, it explains and defends the philosophical basis of revolutionary Marxism in a very clear and combative way.
The stakes are high. The issues McKenna addresses are mainly theoretical, but far from abstract. They concern how people experience capitalism, the significance of class and the potential for anti-capitalist resistance. They even raise the question of our ability to understand society at all.
McKenna’s thesis is that many of the leading intellectuals associating themselves with Marx over the last decades have not just obfuscated Marxism, but attacked its essence. As a result they have had a deeply corrosive effect on the left in the universities, and by extension on the wider movement.
In chronological order, his targets include members of the Frankfurt School of critical theory, Althusser and his ‘structuralist Marxist’ followers, some of the big names of leftist literary theory, and the pin-ups of ‘post-Marxism’. Divorced from any real movements, these theorists, he argues, have in different ways stripped Marxism of all that is antagonistic, contradictory and dynamic. The results have been disastrous. McKenna dissects each of these tendencies in detail, and I can only point to some highlights and key themes here.
The benighted masses
Hinting at bluntness to come, the book’s first chapter is titled, ‘Why the Founding Fathers of the Frankfurt School Should be Considered anti-Marxist.’ The Frankfurt school developed a ‘cultural Marxism’ in the 1930s which became influential after the Second World War. Its most influential protagonists, Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer, argued that the mass culture that was developing around them was brainwashing the masses and was the key to understanding capitalism’s staying power. McKenna quotes a typical passage by Adorno and Horkheimer about Hollywood cinema:
no scope is left for the imagination. Those who are so absorbed by the world of the movie–by its images, gestures, and words–that they are unable to supply what really makes it a world, do not have to dwell on particular points of its mechanics during a screening. All the other films and products of the entertainment industry which they have seen have taught them what to expect; they react automatically (pp.23-4).
As McKenna points out, despite Adorno and Horkheimer’s pretentious and opaque writing, (‘its esoteric, incomprehensible idiom is meant to illustrate to the reader that they are dealing with the type of thought which can only be grasped by a glittering and select intellectual elite’), the point they were making was quite simple. They argued that commodification and mass production of culture were blinding people to their real predicament. It wasn’t just that the culture produced by the expanding entertainment industry was promoting capitalist values. Few Marxists would disagree with that. Their argument was that the new techniques of production were inherently mystifying. As they put it:
The stunting of the mass-media consumer’s powers of imagination and spontaneity does not have to be traced back to any psychological mechanisms; he must ascribe the loss of those attributes to the objective nature of the products themselves, especially to the most characteristic of them, the sound film (p.23).
As McKenna argues, this is an elitist approach, and, despite its influence amongst some calling themselves Marxists, it has nothing to do with Marxism. Commodification does have an impact on working-class consciousness, but this is not because of the mass production of culture, which will be an essential part of any socialist society, but because of the commodification of labour power.
As Marx explained, and the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács further elaborated, the commodification of workers’ labour makes exploitation appear as the mere exchange of equivalents–a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work–when it actually involves the robbery by the capitalist of a portion of unpaid labour. As McKenna says, this was for Lukács, ‘the essence of reification, the moment when social relationships appear in the guise of things’ (p.29).
This is a crucial distinction. Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique can only end in a one-sided pessimism. Marx and Lukács’ understanding of reification not only leads away from the cultural snobbery of seeing mass production as a problem, but it also contains within it the possibility of change. When workers become aware of the nature of commodification they can also become aware of the possibility of challenging it. This is because, unlike any other commodity, they are fully conscious beings and they experience their commodification as the appropriation of part of their own labour power by the bosses.
The problems with the Frankfurt School go deeper. Their pessimism about the modern world ended up as a critique of the Enlightenment altogether, of the progressive capacities of rational thought. For Adorno, human beings in general cannot truly understand the world outside them, and so he argues that they have developed a thought process that deals with the natural world in an abstract, instrumental and destructive way. Such reactionary thinking remains fashionable today, but it ignores one of the most central concepts of Marxism, the centrality of labour to human development. It is precisely in understanding the historical role of labour, human beings’ active interaction with nature, that we can overcome the philosophical division between human consciousness and the objective world.
Louis Althusser turns Marx on his head
The importance of labour and class in understanding the world is the central theme of the book. The chapter on post-Marxism takes on the still influential work of the French philosopher Louis Althusser, and the enduringly fashionable theorists, Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau. Althusser called himself a Marxist, but his defining move took place when he argued that it was ideology that ‘produced’ human subjects.
Here Althusser was turning Marxism on its head. One of the central propositions of Marxism is that ‘being determines consciousness’, that people’s experience of the actually existing world, and in particular its economic processes, shapes their ideas. For Marx, labour and the struggle between the exploiter and the exploited at the heart of the capitalist economy was key to the possibility of a genuine, critical, understanding of the world. It was through these processes that the apparent division between consciousness and reality can be overcome in practice.
By turning Marx upside down, Althusser was also dragging philosophy backwards towards the idealism of so many of the highpoints of bourgeois philosophy. In McKenna’s words:
The Althusserian claim that “ideology produces subjects”–when stripped of the verbal paraphernalia of the tortured structuralist idiom–is nothing more than a vulgar idealism in which consciousness one-sidedly determines being (p.81).
This had big implications. Most importantly, if our understanding of the world is shaped by ideology as opposed to the reality around us, the unfolding of struggles and so forth, there is no obvious way in which we can ever break out of it. Althusser had to fall back on ‘scientificity’, effectively the role of the gifted individual, to relieve the masses of their delusions.
This delinking of ideas from material reality also led to the notion of the ‘relative autonomy’ of various processes from the economic structure of capitalist society. For Marx the way the main contradictions in society played out always depended on actual human practice, but the idea of ‘relative autonomy’ effectively breaks any notion of determination of human behaviour by the existing conditions, rendering Marxism redundant.
Althusser’s side-lining of labour and class struggle led in turn to the stress on ‘discourse’ that has been so dominant on the academic left ever since. Laclau and Mouffe are amongst the worst culprits. In what McKenna calls their ‘overburdened, esoteric sentences’ (p.95), they try to fuse existence and consciousness in the notion of ‘the field of discursivity’ (p.94). As a result, confusion reigns:
Mouffe and Laclau’s concepts, emptied of historical content and genuine human agency, necessarily become vague and solipsistic and we enter into a rarefied academic landscape in which the concepts themselves seem to develop an entirely artificial agency and life; reality becomes ‘decentred’, society becomes dislocated and meaning is understood in terms of signifiers which, rather surreally, tend to float (p.95).
Fredric Jameson’s false move
In the chapter titled ‘Literary Theory and the Loss of Historical Totality’, McKenna turns his attention to celebrated cultural critic Fredric Jameson, and some of Terry Eagleton’s theoretical writing on culture. Jameson’s work, it should be said (and McKenna doesn’t), mainly involves trying to hold on to a totalised understanding of society, against the odds as he would see it. For McKenna, his defining mistake is the polar opposite of Adorno’s. Where Adorno saw mass production as the key to mystification, Jameson sees the production of physical commodities as the key to workers’ ability to understand capitalism. McKenna summarises Jameson’s approach thus:
The worker simply sees the commodity rolled out as a “finished product” and therefore identifies it as a moment in the generic process of production, and from this, Jameson argues, the worker is then able to see all things in their guise as aspects of historical change, developing the possibility of a more revolutionary perspective therein (pp.167-8).
The problem here is that the totality that Jameson builds as a result is static and undynamic. In Jameson’s own words, ‘inasmuch as he knows the interrelationship of tools and equipment to each other (the worker) …will come to see the outside world not as a collection of separate unrelated things, but as a totality in which everything depends on everything else’ (p.169).
The idea that the world is a totality in which ‘everything depends on everything else’ is true but of limited explanatory value. It misses the essential point that for Marx totality involves contradiction and conflict. Jameson’s critique is therefore completely ahistorical, reduced to one of structure, to the idea that the problem with the world is that it ‘lacks a privileged centre’, that it has become a ‘serial society’ (roughly, this means a society of averaged, atomised individuals).
At this point we move onto another of McKenna’s themes, which is the fact that these distortions of Marxism ironically tend to reify society, turning socio-historical processes into static things:
When one does away with living history driven by social and class distinctions, one needs to find another way with which to describe reality; a genuinely social arrangement is replaced by a purely physical one; the work of these thinkers, therefore, consistently tends towards a systematic reification of the philosophical realm in terms of a set of conceptual categories whose physicality reflects this (p.235).
Throughout, McKenna contrasts the dreary academicism of these ‘top-flight intellectuals’ with the dynamism of the revolutionary tradition that Marx developed out of Hegel. In particular he strongly defends Lukács’ central idea of the working class as the subject/object of history. For Lukács, the separation between subject and object which still bedevils mainstream philosophy was a product, first of all, of the bourgeoisie’s role in society. Capital appropriates the labour of another class. As McKenna argues, things are different for the worker:
It is true that the proletariat as a class stands in an irrevocable and dualistic opposition to the bourgeoisie every bit as much as the bourgeoisie does to the proletariat. But the difference is this. For the proletariat, capital, the object, “out there” is not something which it appropriates; rather it is something which has been appropriated from it; capital is the labour power of the proletariat which has been alienated by the bourgeoisie … the revolutionary move of the proletariat to take over the means of production … involves reclaiming the estranged essence of its own subjectivity (pp.216-17).
The common theme of these critiques is that in all cases the authors displace the fundamental social contradictions of class and class struggle from the centre of their analyses. The losses involved are fatal to any philosophy that wants to be ‘radical’ either in the sense of pointing the way to fundamental change or of understanding the root of things. Most importantly, the marginalisation or removal of class struggle means that the greatest potential source of anti-capitalist resistance and consciousness is side-lined. This retreat helped weaken the left’s ability to combat the subjectivism that drove the rise of identity politics.
Moreover, by expelling contradiction and conflict from their understanding of society, the authors also lose the ability to comprehend how society actually develops historically. Hegelian Marxism, that is Marxism as Marx conceived it, involves grasping totality as what McKenna calls ‘a historical unfolding of a mediated whole’ (p.170). Marxism is in fact nothing other than ‘the means by which philosophy locates, in the culmination of historical processes, the concrete answer to its own most profound questions’ (p.103). Far from removing history and struggle from philosophy, Marx’s great breakthrough involved understanding how the two are inextricably and dynamically linked.
There are times in the book when McKenna is unfairly dismissive of particular authors, I think there should have been a more balanced account of the work of Walter Benjamin, for example, who wasn’t anything like as bleakly elitist as his Frankfurt School colleagues. I think too that although he would certainly hold his hands up to the charge of eclecticism, and he undoubtedly got lost in the post-structuralist maze, Terry Eagleton has written very powerfully in defence of Marxism, something that cannot be said about any of the other authors examined here.
McKenna’s formulations will be too polemical for some tastes. But his central thesis stands and matters. Without class and class struggle at its heart, ‘Marxism’ becomes lifeless and hopeless, and turns into its opposite: an account of why society probably can’t be changed. This is not an exaggeration. A shocking number of so called leading ‘Marxists’ have so distorted Marxism that a student coming upon their work for the first time is liable to be ‘daunted and depressed’ (p.245). McKenna rightly points to the roots of these pessimistic ideas in defeats in the real world. Yet theory matters, and the work of these so-called radicals has deepened the gloom and reinforced pessimism on the left. McKenna is also right to say it is time to take on the emperors of academia, and to point out their lack of clothes.