1. Communism in USSR, China, etc. was not real communism. Although this is a popular point of view, it is largely unsustainable when Marx writings are compared with the rather faithful implementations of his ideology in the communist states (see, e.g., the 10 point program outlined in The Communist Manifesto.)
I think you're view that this is a shallow analysis is accurate to a degree. The nuance I would like to add is that Marx didn't necessarily view Communism as a system of government, rather as a state that humanity could achieve. Based on his writing, Marx's vision was clearly Utopian even though he and Engles criticized utopian socialists’ attempts to imagine a perfect society as undemocratic, unnecessary and impossible, though he had great respect for Charles Fourier and Robert Owen. There ample evidence that his vision of Communism was Utopian in his own words.
Communism as the positive transcendence of private property as human
self-estrangement, and therefore as the real appropriation of the
human essence by and for man;
communism therefore as the complete return of man to himself as a
social (i.e., human) being—a return accomplished consciously and
embracing the entire wealth of previous development. This communism,
as fully developed naturalism, equals humanism, and as fully developed
humanism equals naturalism; it is the genuine resolution of the
conflict between man and nature and between man and man—the true
resolution of the strife between existence and essence, between
objectification and self-confirmation, between freedom and necessity,
between the individual and the species. Communism is the riddle of
history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution. (pp. 96–97)
To understand what Marx meant by Communism, you have to look at the problem he is attempting to solve: Alienation.
From The Utopian Vision of Karl Marx, Patrick Coby writes.
Standing between man and his destiny, however, is the stubborn fact of
alienation. Historical man is alienated from his fellows, and so his
political life is riven by class division and class struggle. He also
is personally alienated from the artist within, thus his work-a-day
life is a drudgery and enslavement. In order forman to realize his
potential and to lead alife befitting his true nature, he must find
the means to rid himself of the shackles of alienation.
In Eestranged Labour Marx writes,
The relationship of the worker to labour engenders the relation to it
of the capitalist, or whatever one chooses to call the master of
labour. Prívate property is thus the product, the result, the
necessary consequence of alienated labour, of the external relation of
the worker to nature and to himself (p. 79). 4
Marx writes that private property is not the cause of alienation, but a result of alienation. Later he writes that the act of labor itself is the source of his alienation; He expands on this idea to suggest that labor due to a physical need is the source of man's alienation and refers to it as alienated labor or estrange labor.
This is also echoed by Marx in his essay "On the Jewish Question." Marx argues that the private rights of civil society, the 'Rights of Man', are simply an expression of alienation, which Marx calls "Judaism, hucksterism, egoism."
To Marx, alienation caused by labor as a result of need is the problem that needs to be resolved. The problem is scarcity that causes competition and alienation and the resolution is material abundance.
Need causes alienation which in turn causes private property and class
divisions. Classlessness, therefore, is a direct consequence of an
economy of abundance: once provided with material abundance, the
individual is able to break the chains of physical necessity and enter
into spiritual communion with his fellow citizens who seem to him as
comrades, no longer as competitors
Based on Marx's Utopian vision, you could make the case that 'Real Communism has never been tried' because it is not a thing that could be 'tried'. Marx's suggestions were geared toward achieving the state of Communism where alienation as a result of labor to satisfy physical need is eradicated and you labor to satisfy your creative impulses. This ultimately requires a positive transcendence because obviously, what is considered a 'physical need' changes drastically over time and labor to satisfy that need produces alienation.
Coby again writes,
Scarcity will persist--whether real or imagined; and with scarcity
will come divisiveness, alienation, and the perpetuation of class
This idea invokes all sorts of problems that Communist regimes attempted to deal with in various way. One of the issues is love and family, for example. Early Communists were considered anti-family for good reason. Marx and Engles were much tamer about the family than others, but from the Communist Manifesto they write:
Abolition [Aufhebung] of the family! Even the most radical flare up at
this infamous proposal of the Communists. On what foundation is the
present family, the bourgeois family, based? On capital, on private
gain. In its completely developed form, this family exists only among
the bourgeoisie. But this state of things finds its complement in the
practical absence of the family among the proletarians, and in public
prostitution. The bourgeois family will vanish as a matter of course
when its complement vanishes, and both will vanish with the vanishing
2. Reinterpreting Marx in modern terms - perhaps Marx would appreciate many social achievements of the modern capitalist societies in the 150 years since his work, so that he would incorporate them into his ideology and adopt non-violent political struggle (rather than calling for an overthrow of the existing economic and social order and dismissing left-wing political parties "duped" by the ruling political class into thinking that they can change the system without breaking it.)
There are many modern ideological descendants of Marx to analyze, Marx's work was highly influential. There are social advancements that Marx would probably appreciate, but I don't think he would attribute much credit to them; These would probably be used as examples of the Bourgeois class manipulating the Proletariat into cooperating within the Bourgeois structure.
Marx's ideas have been generalized and evolved quite a bit since his life. I will note that many people that revere Marx or who today would describe themselves as Marxists in the classical sense, generally do not agree with the assertion that these groups are descendants of Marx's philosophy. Many of these strains of Marxism have risen out of the intersection of Marxist philosophy and Post Modernism (PoMo). Classical Marxists tend to refute PoMo and suggest it is actually an ancestor of Hegelian thought and any similarities to Marxist thought occurs via that common ancestry. Many people who have studied Marx will even suggest that the PoMo spin-offs are actually at odds with Marxism because all other class conflicts are an explicit distraction from the real one. I tend to disagree with this assertion due to the fact that PoMo is a direct descendant of Critical Theory. Critical Theory was developed by a group of Marxists who wanted to distance themselves from classical (economic) Marxism but combined it’s principles with psychology and other philosophers and applied it to society and culture. PoMo ideas are fundamentally Marxist in origin. Another critique offered by classical Marxists is that some of the philosophies that bear the Marxist branding and rhetoric are not actually Marxism, but use the influential rhetoric to manipulate people into supporting the philosophy. The common theme of all these critiques is that Classical Marxists tend to reject anything that expands Marx's philosophy too far from his original work. The primary issue with that is every group who does expand his work tends to arrive at fairly similar conclusions, and classical Marxists, at least as far as I've seen, do not put much effort in rebuking the ideologies that invoke Marx's name and rhetoric. Additionally, these bastard child philosophies that Classical Marxists do not claim are more actually more prevalent today than Classical Marxism. This makes sense because Marx was highly influential and a lot of people were inspired to expand his work, many groups have obviously expanded it further than he envisioned or perhaps would have appreciated, but that does not change the fact that they are extensions of his work and bear his name. Ironically, Classical Marxists tend to not offer such a measured view of Capitalism, instead referring to it as a bogeyman and the source of all problems and exploitation in society (which Marx didn't even do, he claimed capital was a symptom of the real problem: Alienation.)
Patrick Kilroy summarizes Modern Marxist lineage nicely:
-- Michel Foucault was trained by a Marxist theorist. He expressly targeted “bourgeois capitalism”. He regularly analyses society through
the lens of economic classes. By making power and the will to power
the primary force of history, the materialist struggle between classes
is simply extended to a struggle between all people/groups. His work
is categorically influenced by Marxist thought among existentialism
and the psychoanalysts, DESPITE his clashes with puritanical Marxist
individuals. (His viewpoint was heterodox, not antithetical).
-- The Frankfurt school (Marcuse, Horkheimer, Adorno etc), influenced by Marx + Hegel + the psychoanalysts, sought explicitly to
improve upon Marxism by filling in the gaps in its theories.
-- Antonio Gramsci, thought of as the first postmodernist or proto-postmodernist (who influenced the Frankfurt school and others),
was another heterodox Marxist who criticised ruling classes for their
oppression through “cultural hegemony”. (Similarities to Foucault are
-- Fredric Jameson, another Marxist Postmodernist. Influenced in part by Sartre (who himself had an apparently contradictory
relationship with Marxism).
-- Jacques Derrida, though not a Marxist, contributed to shaping Postmodern thought in such a way that it was comfortable in holding
many contradictions in its mind at once. Deconstructionism and aporia
broke down conceptions of objective truth, opening the door to
relativism, in which postmodernists today are quite happy to dwell,
using it to paradoxically justify their Foucauldian critique of the
wielding of power in society. (It should be noted in the name of
fairness that this was NOT how Derrida intended his ideas to be used
nor how he viewed them himself).
It seems painstakingly obvious when you investigate the influences and
histories of postmodern thinkers that many of them have their roots in
Marxism or Marxist progenies. There are those, like Lyotard who
unequivocally distance themselves from Marx, but they do not outnumber
those who don’t. The history of philosophy is filled to bursting with
thinkers and ideologies which are contemporary, in competition with
one another and yet intertwined. Postmodernism rejects grand
narratives and yet is itself a grand-narrative that asserts all truth
is interpretation. Implied by this is that history is just a long
series of powerful people forcing “their truth” on others. This bears
striking resemblance the Marxist view of history that is a long series
of oppressors forcing such things as “the opiate of the masses” on
those they dominate.
Its paradoxes do not weaken it because it is meant to demonstrate the
paradoxical nature of how humans engage with reality. The Postmodern
response to being called contradictory could easily be to claim that
“contradiction” is a logocentric term that privileges Western Logic
over emotionally experienced truth, and should not be used to oppress
that minority viewpoint.
In rejecting the strict materialism of Marxism, postmodernists sought
to upgrade and revamp it, not destroy it. They were antagonistic
toward Marxists in the same way a Stalinist was toward Trotskyism, or
Protestantism was toward Catholicism.
Probably one of the most influential modern descendants of Marxist thought is Paulo Freire from Brazil, however, he is no longer among the living so applying the 'modern' label to him is probably a slight stretch. However, his work to frame education and literacy in Marxist philosophy has influenced nearly (if not all) educational institutions in the West.
From what I can tell, Modern Marxist thought can be generalized then as the following:
- Society is only understood as a class struggle between oppressed classes and oppressor classes.
- Society generates humanity. By extension, change the societal institutions (government, culture, language) to change the man who in turn produces society.
- All aspects of society must be continually destroyed and rebuilt to ultimately achieve a state of classless transcendence.
- Anything that regenerates the existing society must be targeted: Inheritance, private property, education, family structures, hetero-normativity, patriarchy, whiteness, literacy, etc.
- Those who are awakened to the class struggles are most equipped to lead the State, and it is a moral responsibility to take control of it via Revolution.
- The new State, under the auspices of the Awakened, must consume all aspects of production, society, and culture.
- The oppressors must be oppressed until they have paid appropriate penance for being part of the oppressor class as determined by the awakened.
These principles are most present to varying degrees in what are derogatorily called 'wokeness' or some other variation by their opponents, or generally 'Cultural Marxism' to the chagrin of Classical Marxists. Some examples:
Critical Race Theory
Critical Race Theory is the belief that fundamental organizing principle of society is racism, and that this racism was created by white people specifically to oppress people of other races, and that white people maintain that racism so that they can maintain their own advantage in society.
Capital is replaced with whiteness. Its ideology is white supremacy. Its winners are whites and white-adjacent. Its losers are people of color. Either of these can become anti-racists when awakened to race consciousness. The structure of this society is enforced by systemic racism, which is both materially and structurally deterministic. Its goal is the abolition (or transcendence) of whiteness.
Examples of its Marxist roots:
Patrisse Cullors co-founder of Black Lives Matter, "Myself and Alicia, in particular, are trained organizers. We are trained Marxists. We are super-versed on, sort of, ideological theories."
"Am I a Marxist? … I do believe in Marxism. It’s a philosophy that I learned really early on in my organizing career… the U.S. is so good at propaganda and being like … it has sold the idea of the American dream, and that’s tied into capitalism and wealth. It’s much harder to sell communism … ."
The Combahee River Collective,
We are not convinced, however, that a socialist revolution that is not
also a feminist and anti-racist revolution will guarantee our
liberation...Although we are in essential agreement with Marx's theory
as it applied to the very specific economic relationships he analyzed,
we know that his analysis must be extended further in order for us to
understand our specific economic situation as Black women.
So we gathered at that convent for two and a half days, around a table
in an austere room with stained glass windows and crucifixes here and
there-an odd place for a bunch of Marxists-and worked out a set of
principles. Then we went our separate ways. Most of us who were there
have gone on to become prominent critical race theorists, including
Kim Crenshaw, who spoke at the Iowa conference, as well as Mani
Matsuda and Charles Lawrence, who both are here in spirit. Derrick
Bell, who was doing critical race theory long before it had a name,
was at the Madison workshop and has been something of an intellectual
godfather for the movement. So we were off and running.
In Queer Theory, normalcy replaces capital. Its taret is cisheteronormativity, which is the idea that it is normal to be straight. Its winners are cisheterosexuals and people who pass as such. Its losers are the abnormal. These can become allies or queer when awakened with queer consciousness. The structure of this society is enforced by homophobia, transphobia, and other bigotries of normativity, which is both materially and structurally deterministic. Its goal is the abolition (or transcendence) of normalcy and all norms and socially enforced categorical expectations.
Queer capital: Marxism in queer theory and post-1950 poetics https://sro.sussex.ac.uk/id/eprint/86259/
The near-simultaneous rise of New Left Marxism and lesbian/gay
liberation in the 1960s produced a flowering of lesbian/gay Marxist
politics (charted in the second section of this guide). London gay
liberation in particular yielded work by Mario Mieli and David
Fernbach. By the 1990s Marxist Leslie Feinberg was helping to lay the
foundations of trans liberation. Theoretically (as reflected in the
third section of this guide), the sexual attitudes of pre-Stalinist
Marxism were further theorized with Herbert Marcuse’s defence of the
‘perversions’ in Eros and Civilization. US John D’Emilio’s essay
‘Capitalism and Gay Identity’ linked ‘free’ labour under capitalism to
identity formation. Rosemary Hennessy’s Profit and Pleasure was a key
text that summed up earlier Marxist work on sexuality on the eve of
the 21st-century emergence of queer Marxism.
Other modern Marxist theories:
Post Colonialism: something something decolonize everything, including your brain
(Marxian) Feminism: Society is structured to benefit males, the special property is called patriarchy. You can become feminists when awakened with feminist consciousness. The structure is enforced by misogyny, structural sexism, gender normativity, ect. Its goal is the abolition (or transcendence) of patriarchy.
Critical Pedagogy: Capital is replaced with formal education or literacy. Its winners are the formally educated and literate, regarded as knowers, and its losers the illiterate, who are actually knowers in their own right, though the system excludes them, their ways of knowing, and their knowledges. They are awakened through political literacy, and conscientization is the process of their awakening. The structure is enforced by expectations on literacy and formal education. The goal is the abolition (or transcendence) of formal education and objective knowledge to humanize.
Disability Studies: Capital is able-bodiedness. Its target is ableism, the that it is in general better and more normal to be able-bodied instead of disabled in some way. Its winners are the able-bodied. Its losers are the disabled. These can become disability activists when awakened with a critical consciousness of ability status. The structure is enforced by dis/ableism. Its goal is the abolition (or transcendence) of ableism.
Fat Studies, Capital is thinness. Its ideology is thinnormativity, that it is normal for the human body not to be overweight. Its winners are the thin. Its losers are the fat and bodies of size. These can become fat activists when awakened with a critical fat consciousness. The structure is enforced by fatphobia along with healthism. Its goal is the abolition (or transcendence) of thinnormativity and expectations about weight and body size.
A Classical Marxist would probably scoff at these Philosophies bearing his name and view them as distractions from the real class struggle and Marx's vision. Typically, the intersection with the PoMo philosophy is the point of contention. Classical Marxist generally reject PoMo as an extension of Marxist thought. I do not take issue with that idea, as people should obviously be able to define their own belief system. However, these ideas are clear extensions of Marxist philosophy though they are distinct from Classical Marxism and Marx's actual work. There does seem to be some ambiguity regarding some self-described Marxists about what that actually means. I would not be surprised if many of these people have never read his work directly, so its no surprise that the Marxist category is so ambiguous. It seems many of the talking points from Classical Marxists are lifted from the site https://www.marxist.com/ so a better understanding of what that specific group believes could be found there. Most of the modern critiques of Marxism are targeted toward its PoMo bastard child and descendants. Better discussions can be made if people distinguish precisely what they mean by Marxism, because each version has specific critiques. It's not necessarily fair to criticize Marx directly for Fat-Studies as an example. Some people refer to these offshoots as Cultural Marxism (which people have tried to tie to Goebbels' anti-Jewish propaganda), Rhetorical Marxism, neo-Marxism, postmodern neo-Marxism/Critical Social Justice, etc. but I should emphasize a distinction should be made between these and Classical Marxism. As I mentioned earlier, the distinguishing of the ideas does not remove the Marxist lineage of the latter. In fact, Classical Marxists have supported and embraced these modern neo-Marxist philosophies generally: The contention they seem to have is that they should not be considered Marxist due to their PoMo roots and the lack of a unified theory and scientific rigor. This seems odd considering the claim that PoMo is inherently incompatible with Marxism from Classical Marxists. If the philosophy is completely incompatible with yours, why not reject it as such instead of embracing it? I'm also wholly confused at the assertion that Marxism is peak rationality from marxist.com, but that's neither here nor there.
Another thing to harp on this point is that Marx insisted that within the core of politics there needed to be a deep and empirical analysis of social relationships framed with regard to the economy, and that everything else stemmed from this analysis.
With that perspective Marxism is a method of analysis, not a political philosophy, which indicates that the PoMo descendants of Marxism are very natural extensions that Marx himself may have embraced, pending his own personal biases.
Slavoj Žižek is probably the current person a modern Classical Marxist most reveres for insight.
3. Dismissing Marx altogether and appealing to pre-Marxist communist movements.
I find that this is a more rare and fringe occurrence from people who either want to avoid the nameplate of Marx or are looking for ideological purity. This is sometimes referred to as proto-communism and is essentially Utopianism. Marx criticized Utiopianism as unrealistic, though he revered some Utopians (as mentioned earlier). Generally Marx's criticisms of these ideas are accurate. Thomas More also wrote a very subtle and successful criticism of this Utopianism in his aptly titled book, Utopia. The idea of a society that lives in a Utopian state or some similar type of peaceful classless existence has been around for quite some time. Its sort of a remedial idea at any meaningful scale to be frank, and its been an easy target for philosophers for around 500 years.