Constructive Ideas for 21st-Century Marxism

by Abraham Marx on August 6, 2013

“There is chaos under heaven. The situation is excellent.”

– Mao Zedong

“Therefore from this high pitch let us descend

A lower flight, and speak of things at hand”

– John Milton, Paradise Lost, 198-199

The view from 30,000 feet is dire. A walkabout on foot, here and now, is an antidote to airy theory. Instead of an overview of the situation, which people agree or disagree with based on personal mood, terminological heresies, dogwhistles, or scholastic close-mindedness, concrete suggestions will be offered.

First and foremost is the recognition that politics, i.e. how Washington, D.C. governs the country, is so thoroughly stage-managed and deadened by the media echo-chamber that most people actively ignore or tune out the noises from that direction. Let us call them the nonvoting public.

First a note on the nonvoting public. Many commentators would call them ‘low-information voters,’ uneducated, apathetic – polite euphemisms for plebeians and peasants. This type of talk once had a distinctly racial overtone. But now it is neoliberal, all inclusive, colorblind. Human trash is defined by economic success or failure.

The nonvoting public is the segment of the population fighting over crumbs, with no notion of what’s on the table. They are competing fiercely, in any number of workplaces, over cents-per-hour raises, promotions with little pay increase, or to avoid getting laid off, fired, demoted. This struggle is fought at a manic fevered pitch for as many hours as they are on the clock, the auxiliary hours before and after work, socializing with coworkers; all of it centers around work. Work and its demands also serve as an escape hatch to avoid family, legal, and financial issues that cannot easily be resolved. And this is for those with jobs. Unemployment is a different ring of capitalist hell in which boredom, despair, stillness, impotence are the main enemies.

This wrangling and maneuvering, struggling for survival, is political in the extreme. But it is confined to the narrowest sphere and this obscures larger social struggles. The few who ‘follow politics’ only argue over it with the same talking points they see argued on TV and this often only as a bludgeon against coworkers or to get along with bosses. These people, to become political, in the sense that they can force Washington to change, have to be reached on other grounds.


There is culture at large. Books, movies, music, ‘art,’ i.e. human performance for neither profit nor revolution. It should be important to stress that this cultural engagement is not about criticism or journalism. The Left is already swamped with critics and journalists. Armchair politicians, executives, directors. This glut is precisely why there is so much infighting among Marxists. Too much criticism, not enough art, among a tiny self-involved audience. If every Marxist is a Marx, then every ‘thinkpiece’ is on par with ‘On the Jewish Question,’ every periodical at least a Suddeutscher Zeitung if not an Iskra, every tome on theory a Kapital. In the interests of bending the stick the other way, I suggest that Marxists abandon theory and criticism. If not for art, then for trolling with provocative ideas like occupying the GOP.

There is one especially effective weapon in our arsenal: comedy. Here, we must have recourse to the withering sarcasm of Marx. Let us learn to hold capitalism in contempt. Unhappy Mr. Peel who provided for everything except the export of English modes of production to Swan River.

All it would take is one brave voice, narrating, to bring the subtext of a movie up to ridiculous scrutiny. For an example of this form, see Wizard People Dear Reader, a masterpiece of oral literature. In it, the first Harry Potter movie is retold by the most manic fanboy who remakes Harry Potter into an asinine Messiah-fetish.

This technique, recast for Marxists, would render movies like Zero Dark Thirty, or Olympus Must Fall for what they are – childish hard-ons for an American Empire. In signes hoc vinces. Or, turn feel-good liberal movies, anything by Dave Eggers or Michael Moore, or involving Matt Damon and Sean Penn, into what they are – the most blatant dissociation from the hard truths of a reality dictated by economics not morality. We must crush illusions by revealing them as absurd idols. Satire would be the most powerful way to disarm shibboleths.

Then there is the Mystery Science Theater route. Namely, subversive criticism of movies. Or, in other words, making fun of a movie, cruelly. Zizek already does this a lot in his books, but we must make it less of an arcane pleasure to theory-weenies and more of a practical tool. To teach without seeming to teach. If any terms or book recommendations are dropped, they are done so one at a time, instrumentally. Surplus value here, hegemony there, and only if it’s the perfect word for the subject at hand – otherwise plain English, please. A shadow curricula radicalizing people as they laugh.

Stand-up comedy seems an especially ripe form. The legacy of Carlin and Hicks points the way. This via YouTube at first. It’d have to be honed to speak to different segments of audience. The highbrow stuff would be aimed at Marxists, making fun of sectarianism, the whole radical tradition. I was licking Rosa Luxemburg’s Labriola and got Zinoviev’s disease. Etc.

The middlebrow stuff would be the bridge between how shitty the system is and the suggestion that something could be done. Yakov Smirnov in reverse. Reagan telling Soviet humor, with remarkable aplomb and delivery. (Too bad he couldn’t remember anything about Iran-Contra.)

The lowbrow stuff is attacking capitalism with bitterness and gusto. Really just trying to rail against the rising price, decreasing quality and quantity, of commodities, services. Bringing grievances to the surface, grinding the axe, but redirecting the ire towards something funny.

Or, taking aim at Saturday Night Live, one can imagine revolutionary cells of Marxists forming little troupes to perform YouTube sketches. Without being didactic in the slightest, we can use these performances to rehabilitate terms like Marxism, socialism, communism. Or tear down the liturgy of modern politics: ‘bipartisan,’ ‘game-changer,’ etc. It would be too easy to spoof Jon Stewart as an Obama court-jester. Or to destroy the seeming credibility of any mainstream news anchor.

Movies are the most popular and effective means of representing reality. Capitalist reality. A far better entrée into mass society than criticism or journalism. A few angles of attack are open to us.

Something must be done to rehabilitate the heroes of our tradition. A biopic on Trotsky, based on Deutscher’s books, could be a summer blockbuster. The first step is a screenplay (my email is on this page). The first step is always good screenplays. Or even something like Judd Apatow-style comedies that sneak in more recognizably radical politics under sex and stoner hijinks. Formulaic plots, such as a community rallying against the austerity instigated by out-of-town big-shot businessmen, or the local bureaucrat who uncovers bad dealings, or the good family man pushed too far. Good writing, despite clear political commitments, could very well be the rope the capitalists see as only rope – for now.

Then there are the other forms; music, literature. Far more important than demolition is the need for utopian vision, art that can catch the imagination of hopeless multitudes. Art can bring the needed detail and nuance to a promise of a better world. On this point, I must be blunt. To hell with the academics and analysts who say that we cannot, or should not imagine a better world, or dream up recipes of what global communism should work like. It’d be nice to see, on screen, or on canvas, or in words, what an ecologically sustainable, globally united humanity, would be like as opposed to zombie movies qua apocalypse porn and the Marxist cottage industry of ‘analyzing’ these movies. The dream, the vision, the taste is far more important now than quibbling over theory and contingency. We must use the palette to prepare the palate for a better future.

Frankly, we must try and give birth to a cultural renaissance through sheer willpower, precisely because economic conditions are worsening on all fronts. A meteoric success here or there will open up new opportunities, and mint Marxist celebrities, leaders, heroes. If we create a few millionaire Marxists then the good ones, the honorable ones, will pour these resources into grants for artists or local politics or business. Or rifles for the worker’s militia.

But that is not all. As I noted in my first article on the GOP, history is putting Marxists into a strange position, where we must compete on distinctly unfriendly turf. If we can compete on such unfriendly turf and succeed, we win the respect of the unaffiliated, and the resources and authority to challenge capitalists on their terms, and begin creating communist possibilities where none existed previously.

If the Russian and Chinese communists of previous generations cashed in their revolutions for a shot at running the global casino of capitalism, we must start betting against the house, start short-selling, get on a lucky streak, and cheat the casino as much as we can before the old truism ‘The House Always Wins’ is enforced at gunpoint.

If even a fraction of Marxists academics, economists, et al., pooled their money and created a bank, or investment firm, then an entirely new front opens up. We can make war on the stock market through the stock market. One powerful way of undercutting capitalism is to have workers relocate their assets to a truly safe harbor, sending the stock market and the media into a swoon. Once utopian ideas, like the Meidner plan, a mass-buyout of the owners of the means of production, become spectres haunting Wall Street. Marxists have the knowhow to make all this happen. Quibbling over principles, given our near-extinction and impotence, seems like a refusal to shoulder the burden and responsibility of leadership or power. Why should Hamlet spare Claudius just because he has the gall to pray?

This segues into something a little more directly political inasmuch as it is more directly focused on material conditions. By this I mean organizing labor in ways that have nothing to do with organized labor as it has been understood. Because organized labor, as it currently functions in America, is a eunuch in the service of the Democrat Party, Occupy Oakland and the Longshoreman’s Union notwithstanding.

One way of helping Marxists re-enter the cultural fray would be through fostering record labels, art collectives, galleries, that do not cater to patrician-radicals, but rather meet an immediate need in the masses for artistic exposure and decent employment. If, for example, the left-leaning producers/musicians/promoters of gentrifying neighborhoods, or in smaller cities, were to band together, then money, influence, and authority would accrue. These centerless cultural formations could work hand in hand with local Occupies or help move beyond the first stage of Occupy.

I am not talking about coffee shops or bars or performance venues; that stuff could be a logical next step, which expands local culture and local business. By local business I don’t mean it the way capitalists do; here we must fight to remake terms and the identities these terms can convey. Local business can be a worker-run record label, not just a euphemism for a well-connected consultant or contractor.

Global communism can only come from a nationalization of major industry; most of the pollution, waste, and useful products are from large-scale industry, and can only be reformed through state power. But building up leaders in ‘small business,’ or trying to cut into capitalist hegemony on the stock market, will help the tide shift.

A third strain of related ideas. Not ‘political’ in the slightest, but rather first and foremost concerned with the world of work, the workplace, and working conditions. A no-nonsense labor organizing, against a lot of established practice. The point is not to get political about this. The point is to bring the lowliest workplaces, McDonalds or Kroger, Walgreens or Best Buy, out of darkness and into light. The light that exposes bad practices, shocks the national conscience, and the light that warms the poor souls, forgotten and hopeless, stuck in such places.

First, a website project that tries to open up Kapital to the masses. Instead of a recapitulation of the grand argument, simply take Marx’s terms and apply them to current business practices. Better still if one could get a notion of what surplus value meant for an industry – or company – one works for. A Walmart employee, for example, could click on surplus value and see how surplus value functions specifically, for him/her. A Burger King worker could click on fixed capital and see how that functions for her. Direct discrete concrete examples. Related news stories of overwork or abuse would be useful links. If the worker wants theory, beyond the case at hand, they can seek it out themselves.

Or a WikiLeaks for labor violations. Where people anonymously submit pictures, photos, text, about workplace violations, employee abuse, poor work practices. Or, make it less serious or ‘dangerous’ than Wikileaks, and instead make it a trendy tumblr about ‘evil bosses’ or ‘OSHA violations.’ I’m sure some clever Marxists can think of a fun #hashtag or meme or tumblr name that taps into many people’s rawest anger towards shitty workplace conditions.

Or, take some of the bourgeois liberal causes, and give them a good Marxist suckerpunch. Hunger for example, is often discussed on MSNBC by guilty liberals. A website that collected data, text, pictures, and video, showing how much food a grocery store, restaurant, pharmacy, or bakery throws out at the end of every business cycle. Many grocery stores throw out their fresh foods, sandwiches, chicken, bread, into special dumpsters so that homeless people cannot even dumpster-dive the food. This is a quantitative-data project and so my head cannot wrap around how best to make it work. But it would be a short step from collecting information about operating practices at a few different locations and generalizing about how much food a single company, or a single state, wastes every night. So much food written off, destroyed, denied to the hungry, so profits remain as high as they are.

And then, for something more directly and recognizably political – polemics on the internet – we cannot just argue amongst ourselves about this or that term or deviation. We must actually go on the offensive.

Marxists, and a broader coalition of anti-war activists, should stitch together information about war preparations. Scour the growing armed forces and foreign-policy blogosphere for information on ruling class and military-brass thinking. Better still, enter into meaningful debate with these people about the purposes of war. If nothing comes of it in terms of policy change, it sharpens our debating skills and helpfully redirects Marxists towards who their enemies are and unites them with each other. Arguing against military officers and think-tank academics is the best medicine for uniting Marxists.

There is another front for us to attack on. There is a growing blogosphere or movement, or strand of movements called ‘neo-reactionaries,’ of which all I can say is that most of them are probably very intelligent young people who are as equally shut out of politics as Marxists but have drawn diametrically different conclusions from the current state of affairs.

Engaging with these sites and people through staged debates and arguments will help unite Marxists and peel off or convince those on the far right who have used much of the same evidence to draw the wrong conclusions.

The William Buckley Show with Socialist Workers Party Presidential Candidates Fred Halstead and Paul Boutelle

The internet is a big place and yet its tendency to create cloistered echo-chambers is one of its biggest flaws. If Marxists don’t go out looking for fights with people of very different views they will only argue with each other. If Marxists can’t win internet debates – conducted with as much respect and decorum as worthwhile opponents allow – then perhaps it is time to give up on Marxism entirely. Well-articulated Marxists arguing for sensible economic policy and against war, sensitive to distinctions and the nuances of history should trump nearly every polemical or ideological opponent. Opponent, not comrade. On this point we should try and create our own Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment. For example, most Marxists have been following the Syrian conflict and yet the fog of war gives rise to competing ‘analyses’ of the situation, which leads to squabbling amongst Marxists. Yet how many people, liberal, conservative, or nonvoting, have no clue about anything related to Syria?

The left needs to position itself more clearly. Our enemy is essentially the corporatist network that includes the media, industry, finance, and the uppermost strata of government bureaucracy. They will favor LGBT rights when convenient (market share or votes); they will enact affirmative action when pressured (to avoid lawsuits). They will give concessions to churches to avoid controversy. They will throw down scapegoats from time to time to sate the public’s taste for blood, Spitzer, Weiner, even, in a different sense, the disgrace of Tiger Woods or Paula Deen; the sensationalistic trials of Zimmerman, Arias, Anthony, Simpson, et al., also serve this function. But, when they find themselves in the crosshairs, they will mercilessly slander, destroy, discredit, root and branch, people like Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, using any and every bigotry, prejudice, and distortion.

The left needs to be equally supple, in making friends, or allies, in tactics. Hosting well-moderated internet debates, or real debates, with those ‘neo-reactionaries’ will unite Marxists and create a larger constituency independent of the two-party system, yet politically involved. Healing rifts with anarchists is also crucial.

We must do whatever we can to isolate and destroy the central pillar of the American system: the Democratic Party, ‘the good cop.’ Criticizing Republicans serves no useful purpose; let MSNBC make money doing that. But we must flog the dead horse of liberalism until its death-stench is in the nostrils of the least politically minded among us. Once hope in the Democratic Party has been lost, real change is possible. This means ridiculing most cultural issues for what they are – distractions – while demanding things that unsophisticated Republicans or rightwingers could agree to: restore Glass-Steagall; set tax rates to where they were during Clinton; repeal the Patriot Act. Other demands are attractive in their own right: Medicaid for all (which covers the whole spectrum of reproductive rights without referent to the divisive culture wars); universal employment (rendering affirmative action unnecessary); a debt jubilee or forgiveness, for mortgages and student loans (a Keynesian solution without needing to spend anything). Making clear demands like this will appeal to a host of independents, non-voters, and rank-and-file Republicans who hear none of the anti-‘guns and religion’ dogwhistles, or snotty condescension, that typify their view of Democrats (who do, after all, rely on being ‘not Republican’ far more than they do in advancing anything).

The more distance there is between the ‘left’ and Democrats and liberals, the less distance between the Democrats and the Republicans, the more exposed they are to complicity in the modus operandi of Washington, D.C.

I’m suggesting that we have a tall order. It is much more than just political, cultural, or economic. These things have coalesced into a witch’s brew of solipsism, loneliness, greed, desperation, addiction, splintering, fracture; Marx limns around this in much of his writing, on fetishism and the bourgeois individualism that the buyer/seller proposition creates and reproduces.

Marxism as it currently stands is for the over-intellectualizing hair-splitting academia-as-mother’s-milk liberal-cum-radical. What I hope for Marxism is that it learns to communicate with those people who attend AA, who don’t want or need deep theories or reasons, but rather need simple insights and slogans to hold on, to build a movement. We have more types of toilet paper and tooth paste than we have political parties. Land, Bread, Peace. Jobs, healthcare, education. Drop debt. Food not bombs. Books not bombs. Proverbs and songs, not dissertations or deconstructions. The merger of socialism as it should be and the worker’s movement as it is.

At the end of the day, all of these suggestions are just spitballs from a lone Marxist in a Red State. If the close-minded bien pensant reaction I got last time was any indication, this stuff will be shouted down, critiqued for a thousand deviations, decried as opportunist, and the sects and the little websites will overlook all the birthpangs of the world revolution until a stillborn fetus lies at their feet. And then proceed to blame each other, or ‘objective conditions.’

But if the suggestions in this article don’t please anyone, then let the spirit behind them be received with more warmth. Marxism is the sharpest method for any thinking person who wishes to understand history. But it is precisely in recognizing this fact that one also sees that other discourses, jargons, and groups can grasp the world just as sharply and shrewdly. As such, the end of Marxism can be achieved without recourse to hammer and sickle or the dense terminology of value theory if the basic point can be translated into other discourses. Which is precisely what Marxists must do if Marxism is ever to grow out past 1991 and the sterile academy.

I welcome suggestions, collaborations, and death threats.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Gumby August 10, 2013 at 12:23 pm

I like this article. I also found your other controversial GOP article to be interesting. I find these sorts of explorations to be more useful than another article about lenin or a another rehash of the communist manifesto. I hope more people read this.


Daniel August 11, 2013 at 7:10 am

I LOVE this article and am sharing it with everyone I know. Here’s my first contribution:

“On Poets & Sodomy”
My name is Daniel and I was sodomized for the first time on Thursday
In New York, taxis cough like old men in a sullen lot
Working class wealth & political power is being decimated by corporations

Like my anus was pounded by that strapped-on queer creature
We’ve replaced the stars with lights from tall office buildings
The capitalists mean to fuck us till all the pennies jingle out of our coats

But it’s tough to stop once you get in the rhythm
And while the working class is hungover after its 30 year fucking,
It still feels good three days later.


Abraham Marx August 12, 2013 at 10:38 am

Please share.

I would really enjoy doing some writing for comedy sketches or helping others do the same.

As to your poem, it walks the fine line between being serious, sick, and sad.


Daniel August 11, 2013 at 7:34 am

It is interesting that you mentioned “Wizard People, Dear Reader” which is a Situationists-inspired work related to the theory of Guy Debord. Guy Debord amended Marxism by claiming that capitalism had moved beyond presentation as “an immense accumulation of commodities” and now appears as a ‘spectacle’. One thing this points to is obviously mass media, advertising, and forms of oppressive information-control. Another thing it points to is the fact that we have an entire substratum of the middle class which produces such deception professionally. (Debord & the Situationists were immensely influential in France in the 70s and elsewhere.) Embracing the concept of ‘la société du spectacle’ may give Marxism a new lease on the ideological struggle.

I have a list of resources on the Situationists, so reply to this comment with a request and I’ll dig it up. This is absolutely worth a watch.:

We can’t abandon the revolutionary party, but YES, revolutionaries should seek “Epic” professions in the Brechtian sense of using your particular social medium to work toward class consciousness. That medium was theatre for Brecht, but for others it may by working in a library, cafe, or in public transportation. Preferably working as owner in a co-op, but even an employee often has options.
And we should organize left-wing banks to finance such businesses! How’s that for a snarky slogan: “the bank against banks”!


steve bug August 21, 2013 at 1:03 am

AM, I found your article to be quite interesting. As a “millenial” I look forward and see no viable way out (for anyone not in the ruling classes) of the swamp we are ensnared in. What is most interesting is that you posit actual actions to be undertaken. I admittedly do not know much about marxism proper, but I know that something must be done and infiltrating pop culture and hijacking the republicans are both tantalizing. There are just so many fronts to expand upon I know not where to start.
We need action, we need organization, and we need it now. Please email me at your leisure because I would like to learn more and hone what you have already developed.


Abraham Marx August 21, 2013 at 11:48 am

To anyone who wants to work on practical stuff, like writing jokes or sketches, or even doing some targeted opposition research (on the military blogosphere or the neo-reactionary blogosphere) and entering into critical debates, or even something more ambitious, like drafting a screenplay based on Deutscher’s Trotsky, please email me at AbrahamMarx137 [at]

I’m still at work.


Richard Estes August 29, 2013 at 9:43 pm

” . . . a screenplay based on Deutscher’s Trotsky . . . ”

a great concept, sounds fascinating, but surely it would pretty lengthy?


Abraham Marx August 29, 2013 at 10:56 pm

It’d be at least two parts. of about four hours each.

Or one long 3ish hour piece.


Abraham Marx August 29, 2013 at 8:46 pm

Well at least I left one good article here…


sutopo March 21, 2015 at 12:05 am

Thanks for your personal marvelous posting! I really enjoyed reading it, you may be a great author.I will remember to bookmark your blog and will eventually come back very soon. I want to encourage you to ultimately continue your great job, have a nice holiday weekend!|


Agen Mokamula Surabaya October 9, 2015 at 2:18 am

As to your poem, it walks the fine line between being serious, sick, and sad.
I would really enjoy doing some writing for comedy sketches or helping others do the same.


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