Marxism is a dreadful framing
Which not even a fine writer can rescue.
I have been reading Freddie deBoer’s writings for years. He is a highly intelligent commentator with sparkling prose. Well-written intelligence is to be valued.
Even better, he often writes about subjects about which he is both deeply knowledgeable and perceptive. Even if you end up not agreeing, he makes you think.
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Every time he writes about the travails of being bipolar, I want to hug him and tell him to please try just eating red meat for a couple of months and see if that helps.
The trouble comes when he writes about subjects where he clearly does not have the requisite depth of knowledge. For then, his Marxism comes to the fore and, as I have discussed here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here Marxism is a toxically bad way to analyse the world.
When I say a Marxist is a person for whom no amount of tyranny and mass murder will stop them worshipping the splendour in their head, I absolutely include Freddie deBoer. He invokes the standard “experience does not apply” tropes of Marxist apologia, telling us, for instance, “I don’t think the Communist Party of China is authentically Marxist”.
I have previously discussed the emptiness of this defence, so I will not revisit it, except to note that it makes Marxism impervious to any criticism from experience. Any and every failure that does not achieve the good things Marx promised becomes “not authentic Marxism”. This is a religious, not a scientific, mode of belief.
A notable case of “Freddie, you do not have the knowledge base” was an essay he published supporting legalisation of polygamy. We have a whole lot of experience of polygamous societies, and the experience is not good. Christian sanctification of single-spouse marriage was not only good for the status of women — and a major element in making Christian societies distinctively less patriarchal than Islamic, Brahmin and Confucian civilisations — it also fostered the organisational, commercial and technological development of Christian societies. Not least, because partnership (i.e. single-spouse) marriages enabled much better use of the talents of women.
Hegemony and order
In so much Marxist or Marxian commentary, the moral perfectionism of Marxism — coming from setting the imagined future as the benchmark of judgement — leads to a massive discounting of trade-offs, which means not taking the problems of order seriously, which are all about managing trade-offs.
Freddie deBoer classing the US as the main force for evil — committing crimes on an unparalleled scale in the contemporary world — in international politics represents a classic Marxist, indeed progressivist, failure — one they share with libertarians — of not taking the problems and demands of order sufficiently seriously. If you believe that national borders are “an illegitimate fiction”, you do not understand why public goods are almost invariably bundled in as club goods — in the case of states based on a territory — or how order works or why it is needed.1
Yes, the US acts like a Great Power. Nevertheless, its oceanic hegemony has imposed a pacifying order on an inherently anarchic world system that has enabled the greatest movement out of poverty in human history while avoiding war between Great Powers. For all the (manifold) sins of US foreign policy, it would be cheap at twice the price.
It is entirely typical of Freddie not taking order seriously is that he is against the US doing anything useful to stop Russia’s aggression against Ukraine — which, to be quite clear, is genocidal in the straightforward sense of eliminating Ukrainian national identity, Putin told us so — apparently sharing Putin’s fantasy that lots of Ukrainians think themselves to be Russians really, in the sense of being aspirant citizens of the Russian Federation, which is demonstrably not true. Classic Russian imperialism — Putin is acting much like any Russian autocrat of the last half millennium — is apparently not worth the US’s attention.2
A central conundrum of CCP foreign policy is that, on one hand, no country has benefited so much from the pacifying effects of the US oceanic hegemony as has China — a hegemony based not only on the US Navy but also on its extensive alliance structure — yet Xi and the CCP want to replace US hegemony in the world system. An ambition that various members of the US alliance structure find threatening, so Xi’s foreign policy has tended to strengthen the US position, especially in China’s environs.
There are reasons Japan, South Korea and Australia have been keen to support Ukraine. Just as there were reasons Russia’s neighbours have wanted to join NATO.
It is typical American Great Power arrogance for Freddie to see the expansion of NATO as something the US did. To be a member of NATO you have to apply and every other member state has to agree.
The US alliance structure is not imposed on other countries. A lot of countries have an interest in having pacified oceans and the largest military Power guaranteeing their borders.
Then there is Freddie deBoer’s recent essay on Israel-Palestine. This is a classically fraught subject, where folk often think they know more than they do.
Sadly, Freddie deBoer invokes Benedict Anderson’s ahistorical bollocks about nations as imagined communities. Regino of Prum (d.915) offered a definition of nation, riffing off Classical discussions of the same, that became the standard fourfold definition during the medieval period:
Diversae nationes popularum interse discrepant genere moribus lingua legibus.
(The peoples of various nations differ by origin, customs, languages and laws.)
King Aethelstan (r.924-939) declared himself King of the English in 927, which required there to be folk identifiable as English he could be king of. For centuries, the title of the King of Sweden was King of Swedes and Geats, which required there to be folk identifiable as Swedes he was king of. The 1320 Declaration of Arbroath waxed lyrical about the long history of the Scoti.
Said Declaration — which was a rejection of the imperial ambitions of the King of England — also makes any attempt to tie nationalism to imperialism particularly silly. National feeling has proved to be a destroyer of empire, with the break up of the Soviet Union being the most recent example.3
In Antiquity, only Greeks could participate in the Olympic games, which required there to be identifiable Greeks. Compiling all the Classical and medieval writings on peoples and nations would fill many volumes. The first nation-state is pharaonic Egypt — the Egyptians had a very clear idea of who was, and was not, Egyptian — with the first “bloody foreigners” rhetoric I am aware of being Egyptian denunciations of “the vile Kush”, though the 18th Dynasty castigating the foreign Hyksos it had overthrown is better known.
Anderson proceeds in typical Marxist style: construe history so as to fit his theoretical framing and ignore or recast all the bits that don’t fit. It is perfectly true that the C19th sees the development of mass politics. The falling costs of transport (railways, steamships) and of communications (telegraph) plus mass factories separating households from production — so lots of (mainly men) working and socialising together — enabled mass politics beyond the confines of an individual city.
Such mass politics was used to increase the salience of national feeling — including acquainting peasants with the idea that there was a world beyond their localities full of people different in language and folkways than themselves — but to imply that national feeling or identity was thereby created for the first time, or that there was nothing substantive being referred to, is flatly not true. Such mobilised nationalism, along with socialism, was — as historian Friedrich Meinecke argued — both a manifestation of, and a response to, the change in scale the enormous increase in population generated. That change in scale — including the huge shift in population from country to city — and the responses to it, produces effects that Marx and Engels famously characterised as:
All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned …
No, nations do not have unchanging primordial essences. They are things in history, that come and go, evolve and disappear, as things in history do. Just as your genetic lineage passed through many — now extinct — species, so your human lineage has passed through many — now extinct — ethnic groups.
With the Palestinians, we can see ethnogenesis taking place within living memory. There was no Palestinian people in 1920. There absolutely is now and has been for decades.
Nor has everyone belonged to an identifiable nation: broken lands such as the Pripet Marshes attracted varied waves of folk who, for whatever reason, fled into them.4 But nations are not creations of the C19th and you have to be ignorant of quite a lot of history to think that they are.
Somewheres — folk who tend to live, marry, work and die within a particular community — with their dense localised marriage and interaction patterns that can be stable over astonishing periods of time, create ethnicities. Anywheres — those whose networks are not locality-based — administer, mobilise or denigrate such, according to their convenience. Anderson’s “imagined communities” bollocks is classic Anywhere academic sneering at Somewhere concerns.5 A pattern I have discussed elsewhere.
It is deeply ironic for Marxists to denounce nationalism as politics imposing myths on history, for there is nothing more of a mythic imposition on history than The Dialectic.6 Much of the Marxist anger at nationalism is fairly clearly about how it derails their own mythic and prophetic view of history. When they do violence to history — and, of course, when they do violence in history — it is usually to uphold their own mythic and prophetic framing of events.
Freddie says he can challenge the existence of any nation-state if he wish.
As a free speech point, of course he can. As a matter of practical politics, challenging the existence of a nation-state as an intellectual exercise is very different from doing so in a situation where major armed groups actively wish to abolish that nation-state.
Arguing whether Ukraine should exist as a nation-state has very different implications after February 2014 — and even more after February 2022 — than it did before those dates. In a situation of armed conflict, where one side is seeking to abolish the existence of a combatant nation-state, denying that the contested nation-state should exist is clearly giving aid and comfort to those warring to impose precisely that outcome.
Realities of peace
Freddie deBoer’s statement that peace has to start with justice for Palestine is one of those ringing moral declarations that is supposed to show a proper moral commitment but, in the circumstances, just displays a deep unwillingness to grapple with the inconvenient realities.
Israel has never had a potential Palestinian peace partner. Hamas, which seeks the destruction of Israel, the killing or expulsion of its Jewish population and the reduction of any survivors to subordinated dhimmis under Muslim rule, is obviously not a potential negotiating partner. Indeed, its strategy has including undermining any prospects of an Israel-Palestine or Israel-Arab peace. Its body-cam pogrom of October 7th — a far more gleefully public mass Jew-killing than anything the Nazis got up to — seems very likely to have been aimed at destroying a looming Israel-Saudi peace deal. Hamas has expended massive resources in its genocidal project.
It has, however, made at least some folk shift from a one-state solution to a two-state solution. For it was also a brutal reminder that Israeli Jews would be suicidally stupid to give up the IDF.
Alas, for reasons discussed below, it also raises doubts about whether a two-state solution is viable, while experience so far suggests path-to-peace formalisation has not been very successful.
For nor is Fatah a potential Palestinian peace partner. Israel has made serious peace proposals, only to have them rebuffed by Arafat and Abbas. The sticking point is that the Palestinians will not give up the right of return. A demand which is, in effect, the demand that Israel agree to its own abolition.
Obviously, Israel is not going to agree to any Palestinian wish that it abolish itself. Israeli Jews will simply not willingly give up the IDF, nor should they.
So, if such is your requirement for “peace”, then you are not after peace, you are after the destruction of Israel — and all the murder, slaughter and oppression that would entail — and should be honest and say so. Which means, of course, you are committed to continuing, indefinite, conflict of fluctuating violence. Including the reality that Israel will do what it needs to to maintain itself.
The PLO was founded on the model of the FLN, whose policy for French settlers in Algeria was “a suitcase or a coffin” (“La valise ou le cercueil”). Genocide as a threat was built into the decolonisation struggle Frantz Fanon wrote The Wretched of the Earth in the middle of — and to vindicate. His book became the archetypal text and example for Postcolonial Theory. This history makes the shrieking about a bombing campaign against an explicitly genocidal Hamas that uses Gazans as human shields as genocide all the more morally wretched.
Excusing the body-cam pogrom as decolonisation-in-action is entirely consistent. The point of the Hamazi pogrom was the frightfulness, the point was to say you will never be safe here: so the suitcase or the coffin. This is Hamas doing its bit to derail even a two-state solution.
If you get outraged by Muslims being killed by Israelis (i.e. Jews) but Muslims killed by anyone else is morally invisible to you, then you are in the business of Jew-hatred.7 One of the horrifying realisations to many Jews in Western countries — but particularly progressive Jews — is how many of their friends and acquaintances clearly have, to put it mildly, a distaste for Jews that they are now happy to publicly unleash.8 A pattern both aggravated and enabled by (1) identity politics that holds successful groups to be presumptive oppressors and by (2) how readily Israel-Palestine — or rather, very simplistic framing thereof — plays into the moral perfectionism that the politics of the transformative future mobilises so well.
The racialisation of identity is, indeed, the racialisation of identity. A recent US poll found that (pdf) 67% of people 18-24 agreed that “Jews as a class are oppressors.” As writer Wesley Yang points out:
You didn’t have to teach the woke to hate Jews per se — you just had to teach them anyone who has anything out of proportion to their population share is an oppressor and let them reinvent the oldest hatred.
Refugees as weapons
Palestinians are the world’s only hereditary refugees. If you are the patrilineal descendant of someone resident in what is now Israel between 1946 and 1948 who was displaced (for whatever reason), or fled after the 1967 war, you are a Palestinian refugee. 75 and 56 years later, they are still refugees. Indeed, the number of such refugees keeps growing. They are the world’s only hereditary refugees, because they are stateless sticks to beat Israel with.
There were plenty of population “swaps” during the C20th. Palestinians alone were not taken in by their ethno-religious confreres — apart from the Kingdom of Jordan making non-refugee residents of the West Bank citizens.11
It is quite conspicuous that those who are all hot for “justice for Palestinians” do not seem to be anywhere near as exorcised by Jewish refugees from Muslim countries, a comparable population movement. But Israel (and the West) took in and integrated such refugees. They did not leave them hanging as stateless sticks to beat Muslim countries with.
So, because the Arabs have been Jew-hating shits, the Palestinian refugees continue to have a moral salience the Jewish refugees do not — the latter having largely disappeared down the collective memory hole.
Of course, Jordan’s and Lebanon’s experience with lots of Palestinian refugees — who maintained their status as Palestinian refugees — were not happy ones. Hamas using Palestinians as human shields is a more brutal extension of using their statelessness as a weapon.
Why will Fatah not give up the right of return? Because then Palestinians stop being refugees, and the hundreds of millions of dollars channeled through UNRWA comes to an end. The world community literally pays the Palestinians not to make peace with Israel. A payment stream that Iran, and other Muslim sources, add to. Something that oh-so-morally concerned commentators on Israel-Palestine regularly fail to notice.
Hence, Israel has no Palestinian partner for peace. Nor, as long as UNRWA exists, and Palestinians are the world’s only hereditary refugees, will it have such a partner. Even more than Putin’s regime re:Ukraine, for the Palestinian political class, continuing conflict is much more sustainable than peace.
Israel is doing to Hamazi-run Gaza what the Western Allies did to Nazi-run Germany and what the US, with some allied assistance, did to militarist Japan. This worked: German and Japanese militarism were smashed, as was German anti-Semitism.12 It worked because the imposed catastrophe of the previous paths contrasted with a clear, if developing, different vision of a postwar future for each country. One can doubt whether Israel has that final, vital piece.
In the aftermath of the Hamazi’s gleeful body-cam pogrom — part of whose context is that Islam sanctifies rape against women who have not accepted the rule of Allah, the law-providing sovereign of the universe, whose rules apply to all — it is obvious that, for many, there is literally nothing Palestinians can do to de-legitimise their cause. The congenial framing is all that matters: it is not about what folk do, but what role they are assigned in the relevant mythic framing of history.
Such “it is all about justice for Palestine” folk are doing their bit to ensure those claiming to act on behalf of Palestinians have no incentive to be other than as barbaric as they want to be. A barbarism which a key operational element in the strategy of threatening genocide against Israeli Jews: the suitcase or the coffin.
One can have sympathy for Palestinians as a people. The reality is, however, that their political class is so toxically dysfunctional — and paid to be toxically dysfunctional — that the only hope for peace is an Israeli victory and/or a new Palestinian political class not paid to be toxically dysfunctional.
A two-state solution is the median Jewish solution. A no-Israel outcome is the median Arab solution.13 That has always been the fundamental problem. Those who advocate the end of Israel provide comfort and support for the program of threatening genocide, for the program of never negotiating with any seriousness with Israel.
A friend who keeps an eye on Arabic Twitter commented that:
I’m struggling to work out who the Arab Street hates more: Jews or Palestinians.
The stereotypical Arab view of Palestinians is that they are whining losers who got beaten by Jews and are filthy, hopeless embarrassments to their fellow Arabs. In Arab responses to Israel, Jew-hatred is way more important than the empathy for Palestinians they generally do not have (to put it mildly): hence Palestinians being left as stateless sticks to beat Israel with.
Justice is not on offer. When justice is not on offer, go for a stable political order. Israel can, demonstrably, provide that.14 The Palestinian political class cannot and, unless they and their incentive structure is comprehensively altered, will not. This is the grim reality of Israel-Palestine.
Marxism is built on an imagined future. It is the original case of social alchemy theory — burn away the oppressive present and the transformational future will emerge from the ashes, like gold emerging from burning away the base metal. In the words of Herbert Marcuse:
What kind of life? We are still confronted with the demand to state the “concrete alternative.” The demand is meaningless if it asks for a blueprint of the specific institutions and relationships which would be those of the new society: they cannot be determined a priori; they will develop, in trial and error, as the new society develops. If we could form a concrete concept of the alternative today, it would not be that of an alternative; the possibilities of the new society are sufficiently “abstract,” i.e., removed from and incongruous with the established universe to defy any attempt to identify them in terms of this universe.15
Max Horkheimer says essentially the same thing:
The Critical Theory which I conceived later is based on the idea that one cannot determine, what is good, what a good, a free society would look like from within the society which we live in. We lack the means. But in our work we can bring up the negative aspects of this society, which we want to change.
Critical Theory, in all its evolutions, riffs off Marx’s ruthless criticism of all that exists to operationalise the notion that one gets rid of current alienating oppression — a nonsense characterisation of contemporary developed democracies that devalues democracy — and the liberated future will emerge.
Such social alchemy theory has always been a toxically delusional claim — and a ghastly serial failure16 — that corrodes centuries of human achievement to buy a pseudo-sophisticated pig-in-a-poke. It anchors judgement in the moral perfectionism of an imagined future and so creates a cast of mind where “peace starts with justice for Palestinians” seems a moral and sensible thing to say.
When was the last time a peace was based on justice and not a congruent calibration of relative power and will? But to think like that is to take the demands of order seriously. Not something that Marxism, or its derivatives, encourages people to do.
Freddie deBoer’s fundamental decency shines through when he grapples with ways to make things better in current society. When he accepts the world of constraints and trade-offs, he does not display the moralised narcissism — what I can think up is so much better than what you have struggled to achieve — of social alchemy theory.
Freddie deBoer is way more interesting on pop-culture, media, politics within what nowadays passes for the Left, and the dynamics of education — matters on which he is genuinely knowledgeable and perceptive — than when his Marxism, unburdened by sufficient depth of knowledge, rises to the top.
Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Revised Edition, Verso,  2006.
Geoffrey Blainey, The Causes of War, Macmillan,  1988.
Alison S. Brooks et al., ‘Long-distance stone transport and pigment use in the earliest Middle Stone Age,’ Science, 360, 90-94, 2018.
Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, Penguin,  1967.
David Goodhart, The Road to Somewhere: The New Tribes Shaping British Politics, Penguin, 2017.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, ‘The Manifesto of the Communist Party,’ in The Essential Left: Five Classic Texts on the Principles of Socialism, ed. David McLellan, Unwin, , 1985, 7-50.
Friedrich Meinecke, The German Catastrophe: Reflections and Recollections, (trans.) Sidney B. Fay, Beacon Press, [1946, 1950] 1963.
Herbert Marcuse, An essay on liberation, Beacon Press, 1969.
Daniel Seligson and Anne E. C. McCants, ‘Polygamy, the Commodification of Women, and Underdevelopment,’ Social Science History, (2021), 46(1):1-34.
Edward Peter Stringham, Private Governance: Creating Order in Economic and Social Life, Oxford University Press, 2015.
To be fair, a lot of economists do not think their thoughts through to the end on public goods. Yes, coercing payment for goods that are both non-rivalrous (my consumption does not block your consumption) and non-excludable (I get the benefit regardless) solves the payment mechanism problem, but you still have a scope problem: both in who is covered and who pays. States all have specific territories for deeply practical reasons — bundling public goods into a territory turns them into club goods, making the scope problem manageable. There is a reason we refer to countries.
Which is not to support over-stating Russia’s ability or willingness to engage in further military aggression Westwards.
It is even sillier, given that socialism means that the state apparat colonises its own society even more completely than the welfare state already does.
And a later generation Anywhere intellectual sneering at the efforts of earlier generations of Anywhere intellectuals. This is also a continuing pattern.
As for the Dialectic, in an 15 August 1857 letter to Engels, Marx expressed all one needs to know about the epistemic value of that concept: “As to the Delhi affair [the Indian Mutiny], it seems to me that the English ought to begin their retreat as soon as the rainy season has set in in real earnest. Being obliged for the present to hold the fort for you as the Tribune’s military correspondent I have taken it upon myself to put this forward. NB, on the supposition that the reports to date have been true. It’s possible that I shall make an ass of myself. But in that case one can always get out of it with a little dialectic. I have, of course, so worded my proposition as to be right either way.”
If you only add in Muslims killed by Westerners, Muslims are still just convenient props in your morality play.
It also illustrates what a grotesque failure the “we must control how we are portrayed” efforts of the Jewish lobby have been.
Marx himself was famously in favour of abolishing the very identity of being a Jew, see his On The Jewish Question (1844). For those who doubt that Marxism has any tendency towards genocide, Engels, The Magyar Struggle (1849), provides a counterpoint: “The next world war will result in the disappearance from the face of the earth not only of reactionary classes and dynasties, but also of entire reactionary peoples. And that, too, is a step forward.” Israelis have clearly been classed as a reactionary people.
Islam and Critical Theory have congruent views. The repressive tolerance notion that those with the correct critical consciousness, who know the correct direction of history, have the right to deny those who lack such the authority to speak or act in ways they disapprove of has the same structure of authority, and consequences, as Sharia. Classing Muslims as “oppressed”/“marginalised”/“minoritised” generates sensitivity training that essentially adopts Muslim views of the world. Unsurprisingly, both Islamists and Critical Theory folk tend to be puritanical, humour-policing, killjoys.
There is also public concern that accepting more refugees will encourage Israel to engage in expulsions, though how that changes Israeli incentives is less clear.
Hence the problem with “proportionate response”. If you do a “proportionate” response and the bad thing keeps happening, it is not an effective response. The Allied response in World War II worked because it was catastrophic for those who engaged in the triggering aggressions, rather than proportionate, while providing the basis for an alternative path.
Most directly expressed in the three noes of the 1967 Khartoum declaration: no peace with, no recognition of, no negotiation with, Israel.
The Marx who saw British rule in India as bringing modern capitalist productivity to a land of oriental despotism would clearly prefer the capitalist bourgeois democracy of Israel to the theocracy of Hamas.
The Marxian vision of the transformative future — particularly in its attack on commodification — represents a form of revolt against the demands of production at scale. To have economic operations at scale, there are only two alternatives — commerce or command — and both require some form of commodification to generate gains from trade at scale. Since both trade and gift networks require some form of commodification, we Homo sapiens have been doing it for about as long as we have been a species, so are probably adapted to it by now.
Every attempt, from the Anabaptists of Munster (1534-5) to Pol Pot’s Year Zero (1975-9), has been a horrible failure because we remain Homo sapiens — so not blank slates — living in a world of trade-offs. The project of transformation to fit us to such an imagined future requires tyranny to direct it and mass murder to eliminate the resisting human dross. Biologist E.O.Wilson’s comment about communism as “good ideology, wrong species” is much grimmer in its implications than folk often realise.