20 February 2016

Two post-Marxist paths

Fr. Sergey Bulgakov

Marxism is a creed which holds the two tenets simultaneously that: the working classes, which have been exploited since the beginning of recorded history, are entitled to justice; and that their ultimate victory is an inevitability dictated by the laws of historical progress. Karl Marx was, of course, an incredibly brilliant man, and it would be futile to deny the fact, as many do, by pointing out after his passing where he has been proven wrong. (And man alive, has he ever been proven wrong.) His thought pointed straight toward the ‘problem of economy’, which the overwhelming majority of his critics fail to grapple with in any kind of seriousness. How is our material world organised? How are its benefits distributed? What processes of form, organisation, action and thought govern the entire economic process? Marx delved with his incredibly astute philosophical mind into these questions, and in the end, tragically mistook what he found there to be the whole of reality. He began with a question of how the worker may at last come into his own and be free, and ended with a triumphalist millennial eschatology which casts all of humanity into the fetters of a materialistic determinism.

It must be remembered that all heresies – and this includes materialistic heresies like Marxism – contain a grain of truth. And Marxism’s grain of truth lay in its unmasking of the hideous realities of exploitation that had been hidden away and smoothed over by arguably five whole centuries of bourgeois sentimentality and false piety. It is well for us not to underestimate the drawing power of this truth; as George Grant (himself no Marxist!) put it, Karl Marx was no crude ideologue or bumbling egghead, but indeed ‘a social theorist of the first rank’, who managed to highlight all the streams which bore along the ideology of progress. But, as with the doctrines of all heresiarchs, no matter how brilliant, ultimately the centre of their thinking cannot hold, and a follower either takes the grain of truth and flees the heresy, or crushes it under the weight of the overbearing one-sided logic of the heresy itself. Thus there are two paths out of the Marxist house, but they are not alike in dignity.

The first post-Marxist path we may call the path of Bulgakov. I do not choose the name of Fr. Sergei Bulgakov at random, as I feel his journey away from Marxism is exemplary of the type I wish to describe. But there are any number of other philosophers, economists, artists, poets and men and women-of-letters who have emerged along this path or along parallel ones: Nikolai Lossky, Nikolai Berdyaev, Dorothy Day, Fei Xiaotong, Jacques Ellul, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Alasdair MacIntyre, Christopher Lasch, Gar Alperovitz, Miyazaki Hayao, Jiang Qing and Kang Xiaoguang. This path seeks to preserve the initial question of Marxism, and the drive for justice behind that question. As Fr. Sergei Bulgakov himself put it:
The fact of economy has always aroused philosophical “surprise” in me, and the problem of the philosophy of economy—of man in nature and nature in man—has in fact never left my spiritual horizon but only turned about to show various aspects… And although [Marxist] theory quickly ceased satisfying my consciousness, as the perceptions of childhood cease to satisfy it, yet the questions that it answers in its own way have retained all their force.
It should be noted that this Bulgakovian post-Marxist path still accompanies Marxism through its unveiling of the hidden brutality of bourgeois liberal ideology and capitalist organisation. Fr. Sergei’s critique of Marxism in his Philosophy of Economy applies in spades also to capitalism. But precisely for that reason, those following this path could not be satisfied with the materialist answers proffered by Marxism in the main, or by scientific positivism more generally. It seeks other modes of being; it is not satisfied with levelling all to a bare-minimum of material goods defined in bourgeois terms. It is no accident, indeed, that those following this path tend to end up turning to traditional religions, or to localism, distributism, populism, anarchism or some mixture of all of the above, or else holding to a non-Marxist socialist ideal. Personalism, as opposed to individualism, is a key philosophical commitment in Bulgakovian post-Marxism. Those who follow it tend to be disenchanted with the ‘flattened’ material anthropologies they find in bourgeois thought, and end up seeking an affirmation of the depth of human personhood in community, and particularly those spiritual forms of community that have been attenuated and forced underground by a capitalist mode of exchange. The traditional peasant, with his local, grounded and integral ways of knowing, is not for the Bulgakovian so much an obstacle to be removed as a tutor to be heeded. One sees that the fact and substance of authenticity is of particular interest to the Bulgakovian post-Marxist, much more so than its outward political potential.

The other path out of Marxism I will describe as the path of Popper. Karl Popper, having started off as a member of the SDAPÖ during its formative radical stage, abandoned both it and the Marxist ideology very early on in his youth. But even though he discarded the central question of Marxism, and with it any real interest in the problem of economy, he continued to think with the logic of a Marxist. Even though historicism was (in part rightly) the primary object of Popper’s attack, he nonetheless ascribed a final-and-ultimate historical significance to the ideal of the ‘open society’ – by which is meant: bourgeois individualism, legal formalism and procedural democracy – and dedicated his efforts to the ideological proscription of its ‘tribalist’ enemies (most especially Plato, Hegel and Marx). Popper attacks historicism and yet cannot recognise his own peculiarly-Whiggish variety of it, in the sense that he believes individualism, formalism and democracy are inescapable and inevitable once they begin to develop, and that efforts to reintroduce ‘tribalism’, even on a cultural rather than a political level, are not only inherently immoral but doomed to failure. As such his is a direct antecedent of the ‘end of history’ thesis forwarded (and then walked back) by Francis Fukuyama.

American neoconservatives are thus the archetypal Popperian post-Marxists. They tend to be (ex-)Trotskyists who are drawn toward the globally-expansive logic and form of the ideology, rather than to its existential origins and goals. Neoconservatives in particular take Marxist doctrine and invert it such that the bourgeoisie are the messianic class and the ultimate victors of the inevitable world revolution. I would thus then characterise Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz as Popperians, as well as the ‘respectable’ and ‘decent leftists’ of the school to which Oliver Kamm and David Aaronovitch belong – in whose view the American military-industrial complex is seemingly the last best hope of the world proletariat, and for whom the ‘idiocy of rural life’ is still something to be eradicated. I would also consider ‘democratic’ Trotskyists of the Cliffite variant as being halfway out along Popper’s road.

With Marxism the centre cannot hold. But, from Nikolai Berdyaev’s insight that Marxism is simply a materialist Christian heresy, it follows that there is a way of recovering for Orthodox Christianity that which was good and true in it, but refuse to follow its one-sided logic to its hellish conclusion, in hegemonism and imperialism, and in the denial of the person. I am still very much of the mind that we must keep David Mitrany’s work in mind, tracing the fatal mistakes of the early socialists – yes, even and particularly the early ‘democratic’ socialists – in their hostile, overweening and censorious approach to the traditional peasantry, and thus ensuring their demise at the hands of more totalitarian elements on both the far left and the far right.


  1. well said. very needed insight for our current age where too many Orthodox think the best answer to communism is to become rabid hyper-capitalists or fascists.

  2. Too, too, too good. May you live to be a hundred, and may your mind never grow dim. We need your blog - every last word and post of it. Your writing fills a disastrous and very large hole in Orthodox intellectual life. May God bless you sir!

  3. Interesting. Have you read "Nationalism, Islam, and Marxism" by Sukarno (the leader of the Indonesian independence movement and Indonesia's first president)? If not here is a link in English. One thing worth noting at the outset is the number of Hindu reference points he draws upon. His mother was Hindu before marriage, and his father was Javanese and thus, though Muslim, had a strong Hindu aspect of his culture. In fact Sukarno was named after a Hindu hero.


    It see in it a lot of the Bulgakovian points you make. His point that Marxism must give up on class struggle in the name of seeking solidarity in the economy, his delicate balancing of internationalism and nationalism (following Gandhi's rhetoric on this point -- worth noting Gandhi was influenced by Chesterton here), and his deep criticism of Western liberalism and industrialism.

    Sukarno also turned Marxism on its head, but instead of rejecting the need for justice for the working class, rejected Marx's progressive aspect returning to tradition, family, localism, and distributism (again via Chesterton by way of Gandhi).

    There's a certain mistake we often make in the West, of treating third world (non-aligned countries) as being in the process of becoming Westernized. However, instead most are in fact non-aligned because they have rejected Western liberalism and seeking a better path.

  4. Thank you all very much for the comments!

    Fr. John - Bless, Father! I certainly hope we together are able to articulate a way forward that is truly Orthodox, and neither capitalist nor fascist!

    Fr. Cassian - Bless, Father, you are too kind! I'm 'a transmitter and not a maker', though. And if there's anything good in what I write, glory to Christ and those who followed Him - wherever they started out!

    Heill og velkomin, Einhverfr! I haven't yet read Sukarno's work, but from what you describe of him I feel like we'd get along quite well indeed. Þökk for the link; I very much look forward to reading it!