I found some translated excerpts from an article by Ingo Elbe.

Elbe distinguishes “between the hitherto predominant interpretation of Marx, primarily associated with political parties (traditional Marxism, Marxism in the singular, if you will), and the dissident, critical forms of reception of Marx (Marxisms in the plural).” I like the conceptual distinction very much. A minor terminological quibble, though: this could be marked more strongly terminologically. Anyway.

Marxism “is understood as a product and process of a restricted reading of Marx, in part emerging from the “exoteric” layer of Marx’s work, which updates traditional paradigms in political economy, the theory of history, and philosophy and succumbs to the mystifications of the capitalist mode of production, systematized and elevated to a doctrine by Engels, Kautsky, et al, and culminating in the apologetic science of Marxism-Leninism.” Marxisms, however, tend to claim to “return to Marx” and tend to “explore the esoteric content of Marx’s critique and analysis of society, often consummated outside of institutionalized, cumulative research programs, by isolated actors in the style of an “underground Marxism”. Elbe here makes it clear that he means in particular “Western Marxism as well as the German neue Marx-Lektüre (“new reading of Marx”).” That suggests it’s not clear how big the generalization is that Elbe intends to make (it’s not clear which marxisms count as Marxisms in Elbe’s technical use of the term, so to speak; it also seems to me that Western Marxism is a bigger category than neue Marx-Lekture so the comparison between them is a bit confusing.)

“readings which are critical of Marx or Marxism (…) their picture of Marx usually corresponds to that of traditional Marxism.” Yeah. That gets at a frequent conversational disconnect for those of us who are interested in Marx and marxisms other than the official, traditional Marxism, where someone is critical of traditional Marxism and readings of Marx but acts like that’s the entirety of the tradition and the only way to understand Marx.



“the birth of a “Marxist school” is unaminously dated back to the publication of Anti-Dühring by Friedrich Engels in the year 1878 and the subsequent reception of this work by Karl Kautsky, Eduard Berstein, et al. (…) Above all (…) it was Anti-Dühring that was to be stylized as the textbook of Marxist theory as well as a positive depiction of a ‘Marxist worldview’. (…) In many respects, Marxism is Engel’s work and for that reason actually an Engelsism.”



“Scientific socialism was conceived of as an ontological system, a ‘science of the big picture.’ The materialist dialectic functions here as a ‘general law of development of nature, society, and thought’. (…) Engels – bundling together the scientism of his epoch – paves the way for a mechanistic and fatalistic conception of historical materialism by shifting the accent from a theory of social praxis to one of a contemplative, reflection-theory doctrine of development. The vulgar evolutionism in the European Social Democracy of the 19th century is a nearly ubiquitous phenomenon. For that reason, it is not just for Kautsky, Bernstein, and Bebel the case that the deterministic concept of development and the revolutionary metaphysic of a providential mission of the proletariat occupy a central place in Marxist doctrine (…) a historical metaphysic with a socialist signature.


in the Erfurt Program of the German Social Democratic Party, this revolutionary passivity is codified at an official level as consistent Marxism: the task of the party is to remain braced for an event that will ‘necessarily’ happen even without intervention, “not to make the revolution, but rather to take advantage of it.” The ontological orientation and the encyclopaedic character of Engels’ deliberations also feed the tendency to interpret scientific socialism as a comprehensive proletarian worldview. Ultimately, Lenin will present the ‘Marxist doctrine’ as ‘omnipotent’, a ‘comprehensive and harmonious” doctrine that “provides men with an integral world outlook.’


All of these developments, which undoubtedly constitute a theoretical regression, ultimately culminate in the theory of “Marxism – Leninism” conceived of by Abram Deborin and Stalin. If for Lenin, Marxism constitutes – despite all emphasis upon the political – a “profound doctrine of development” 21 that calls attention to breaks and leaps in nature and society, in the case of Marxism-Leninism the naturalist-objectivist current is elevated to a state doctrine: the central argumentative figure will be, “what is valid for nature must also be valid for history” or respectively “nature makes leaps, therefore so does history”. Political praxis is thus understood as the consummation of historical laws. This impressive logic is perfected in Josef Stalin’s work “Dialectical and Historical Materialism”, for decades an authoritative work in the Marxist theory of the Eastern Bloc: historical materialism stands for the “application” and “extension” of ontological principles to society, which implies an epistemological essentialism (a theory of reflection, which in the form of Dialectical Materialism conceives of “being” and “thinking” independent of the concept of praxis) and a sociological naturalism (a developmental logic – to be “consciously applied” or “accelerated” by the party as the highest technocratic instance – existing independent of human agency).”



Elbe writes that over all “one could claim that Marxism in the form presented here was a rumor about Marx’s theory, a rumor that was gratefully taken up by most critics of “Marx” and merely supplemented with a minus sign.” That’s succinct and I think right. Elbe adds though that while this is an accurate assessment over all, it “makes things too easy” because by “regarding the above misinterpretations as being completely external to Marx’s own theory [it] thus exclud[es] the possibility of any inconsistencies or theoretical-ideological ambiguities in Marx’s work.” That’s fair. Elbe also adds that it’s important not to ignore “deviations from the dominant doctrine that also understood themselves to be Marxisms,” which makes a great deal of sense to me. Elbe reformulates the “rumor about Marx’s theory” description more rigorously: “traditional Marxism should be understood (…) as an elaboration, systematization and assumption of dominance of the ideological content of Marx’s work – within the framework of a reception by Engels and his epigones. Practical influence was almost exclusively allotted to these restricted and ideologized interpretations of Marx’s theory.” That is, traditional Marxism is one marxism which became very influential, especially among people who had more cultural authority/informal leadership and more decision-making power/formal leadership in relatively powerful institutions, compared to other marxisms.

“Engel’s theoretical statements concerning the state (…) constitute the source of the traditional Marxist conception of the state” in which the state is “understood as a mere instrument of the ruling class.” This instrumentalist understanding of the state “leads to reducing the anonymous form of class rule institutionalized in the state to a mere ideological illusion, which (…) is interpreted as a product of state tactics of deception.”

I hadn’t seen these Engels quotes before, from the 1891 Critique of the Draft Social-Democratic Program, “when we pass on from joint-stock companies to trusts, which dominate and monopolise whole branches of industry, this puts an end not only to private production but also to planlessness,” and from the Anti-Duhring, “The more [the state] proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit,”

Elbe says Engels has “a tendency to equate state planning and monopoly power with direct socialization.”
In Anti-Duhring Engels writes that “the transformation, either into joint-stock companies, or into state ownership, does not do away with the capitalistic nature of the productive forces” but Elbe writes that Engels “sees an immediate transition to socialism setting in as a result. (…) Engels thus suggests that the workers movement merely has to take over the forms of corporate bookkeeping in joint stock companies and the comprehensive planning by monopolies developed in capitalism. For Engels, the bourgeoisie has already become obsolete through the separation of ownership and management functions. The “transformation of the great establishments for production and distribution into joint-stock companies and state property” demonstrates according to Engels “how unnecessary the bourgeoisie are for that purpose”, i.e. for managing “modern productive forces”. “All the social functions of the capitalist are now performed by salaried employees. The capitalist has no further social function than that of pocketing dividends, tearing off coupons, and gambling on the Stock Exchange, where the different capitalists despoil one another of their capital.”

All of this reminds me of some quotes from Paul Mattick that I’m going to post up later, and it also reminds me of Raniero Panzieri’s article “Surplus Value and Planning.”



Elbe writes that Western Marxism arose in response to the aftermath of WWI, like Perry Anderson. Elbe, however, is much more positive about Western Marxism than Anderson and notes, which Anderson avoids, that Western Marxism was critical of Leninism and Bolshevism (and not just Stalinism, as Anderson depicts it). Elbe, like Anderson, describes Western Marxism as isolated, but unlike Anderson he includes as causes of this isolation “the Bolshevization of the Western Communist Parties and the establishment of Marxism-Leninism as the official ideology of the Third International since the middle of the 1920s.” In its isolation, Western Marxism became “characterized by the neglect of problems of politics and state theory, a selective reception of Marx’s theory of value, and the predominance of a “silent orthodoxy” concerning the critique of political economy.”