The Metaphoricality of Marxism and the Context-Freeing Grammar of Socialism

Alvin W. Gouldner (1974) Theory and Society, Vol. 1, No. 4, pp. 387-414

Whatever may be said of the failures of Marxism, these are essentially intellectual and theoretical failures—for example, the failure of its predictions—that are, quite properly, important to intellectuals and scholars. Yet Marxism has in no realistic sense been a failure as a politics. For if by “politics” we mean the struggle for power in the state, then Marxist politics has had an historically unparalleled success. Indeed, it is impossible to understand the revolutions of the twentieth century without seeing the role that Marxism and Marxists have played in them. In about half a century something like half the world has come under the governance of those defining themselves as Marxists. No other system of thought in human history has ever had so extensive a success, let alone in so brief a period.


Still, there is a problem here which essentially has to do with how Marxism was able to play such an important role in these revolutionary movements. This is problematic since Marxism was a theoretical system focussed on capitalism and advanced industrial societies which were quite unlike those under-developed economies in which the revolutions actually occurred. The problem, then, is how could Marxism be so successful politically in societies so very different from those in which it had developed, which it knew most about, and on which its critique of “capitalism” centered. How is it possible for Marxists to pursue revolution in societies that may scarcely have any proletariat at all and be only marginally capitalist?


An important clue to this problem lies in what I shall call the “metaphoricality” of Marxism, in the specific nature of its metaphors, in the underlying  rules for metaphoric switching that it employs; which, in turn, leads us to the fundamental grammar of Marxism. In the course of this discussion I will suggest that, for Marx, the “proletariat” and “socialism” were in part metaphors, and I shall try to clarify the special nature of these underlying metaphors. When, for example, Marx brings one study to its perorating culmination by declaring that philosophy was the “head” and the proletariat the “heart” of the revolution, he is signalling that very metaphoricality.

It is only when we attend to the problem of metaphoricality in Marxism that it becomes possible to understand how Marxist-socialists can speak of “socialism” in such different ways: as the dictatorship of the proletariat, as the democratic dictatorship of the “people,” as obtaining in Russia, Cuba, China, Algeria, Yugoslavia, as existing in industrially advanced as well as in economically backward countries. It is the metaphoricality of socialism, and Marxists’ rules for metaphorical switching, that permit that interchangeability. A similar interchangeability of proletariat, peasantry, and people also suggests that the proletariat too must be understood as a metaphor. It is the metaphorical openness of Marxism that also explains how it is possible for some Marxists to drop, or to contemplate dropping the proletariat as its “historical agent,” and to search for a different one.

The metaphoricality of Marxism is one of its greatest sources of political viability and adaptability. It is this metaphoricality that enables Marxists to see revolutionary agents in almost any oppressed strata, in almost any kind of society, at almost any level of industrialization or economic development. It is through its metaphoricality that Marxism may place revolution on the order of the day, almost anywhere and anytime.

Rather than being a superficial stylistic embellishment, it is precisely Marxism’s metaphoricality that signals its rationality. It signals that its fundamental commitments are not particularistic and historically partisan but are, rather, primarily to certain universalistic values. It is Marxism’s metaphoricality that provides clues to the deeper structures of Marxism, and better enables us to see Marxism as a duplex system of surface and deep structures. Marxism exists on its manifest (technical and ideological) level of categories, with rational discourse and with concern for evidence. It exists also on the level of a deeper structure embedded with highly condensed and affectively charged symbols. On this paleo symbolic (1) level, Marxism has more liquid, less firmly boundaried meanings which, in certain ways give it a measure of maneuverability and, in others, constrain it. On the paleo symbolic level, the limits of Marxism are different and broader than its surface technical structures. This deeper level constitutes the symbolic grounding within which elements on the surface level will be interpreted, especially when they are ambiguous or contradictory. The deeper structure symbolism specifies what constitutes allowable interpretations of upper level symbols, usually permitting a greater looseness, interchangeability, and a larger set of equivalences, than might be allowed on the technical surface alone. The deep structure is a submerged level, a kind of silence that cannot be reflected upon.

This deep paleo symbolic structure constitutes the last immanent code for interpreting the message in the technical communication. It contains the system of final rules, the code of last referral, for authoritative ambiguity-resolving interpretations of the manifest message on the upper technical level. It is a symbolic structuring mechanism, sorting, sifting and rearranging the symbolic contents on the manifest level, establishing the governing hierarchy of value-interests within which the technical code operates.

The deep structure, then, is the analytic of last resort. But it is an analytic geared with and operating at the interface with the sentiment-structure. It serves to mesh affect-system with cognitive-system; it makes certain value-interests more affectively resonant than others, giving them greater influence in the system as a whole. Those value-interests charged with a greater affective resonance will govern situations more than those that have not; they will have higher priorities than those that do not, and may thus contradict some of the symbolism on the manifest, technical level. Value-interests on the technical level which at first seem to have an equal importance will often be unequal, some more and some less important than might seem to a view confining itself solely to the technical perspective.

It is precisely because Marxism is grounded in this deeper paleo symbolic structure that its manifest, technical, upper level can survive contradiction; that it is able to accommodate to false predictions, without being demoralized by defeat. For this paleo symbolic level has switching rules that allow an inter-changeability of metaphors without incurring a demoralizing sense of Marxism’s non-rationality, incongruity, insincerity, or inauthenticity. It is Marxism’s grounding in a deeper paleo symbolic structure that is one central explanation of how it has been possible for it to survive countless reversals of party line, falsified predictions, and political defeats. For on that deep structure these changes are often within the boundaries of acceptable ultimate meaning.

To speak of Marxism as existing on these two levels does not imply that it is different from any other social theory, including “normal” academic sociology. As I suggested in The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology, normal academic social theory also exists on and derives strength from such different levels.


To understand Marxism’s successful adaptability to very different societies and its ability to foster revolutionary movements in them, what must be seen is that its metaphoricality gives Marxism a measure of context-freeness permitting it a great political versatility. Clearly, there are different ways of constituting metaphors; there are different bases on which things may be counted as equivalent within the Marxist-socialist community as in others. Among these different bases of metaphoricality are the iconic, the conceptual, and the functional.(2) In a conceptual form of metaphor, equivalences are established by defining a set of particulars as cases of some analytic connotation or definition, or by assigning them to some one conceptualized category. In an iconic form of metaphor, equivalence is established perceptually; one sees—or learns to see—certain particular cases as similar to some visually concrete form and thus as similar to one another. Finally, in the functional basis of metaphoricality, one imputes a similar function to diverse objects. They are defmed as functionally equivalent in what they do for some object, or as functionally equivalent insofar as our own use of them is concerned.

To illustrate the latter, functional bases of equivalence, in Marxism: vis-a-vis the uses to which a vanguard intelligentsia puts them, a proletariat, peasantry, or even lumpen-proletariat, may all commonly become objects of political mobilization. It is because of their equivalence on this functional level that they may also come to have a conceptualized equivalence as “historical agents.” Again, countries may be judged as socialist or revolutionary nations because they are the “enemies of my enemies.” Concretely, to lay successful claim to being opposed to the United States is, in different parts of the world, a basis for claiming acceptance as a revolutionary person or country.(3) Certain Arab countries’ claims to being “socialist” have sometimes rested on little more than that. In the course of the development of the socialist community, from Marx’s to the present period, the question of who or what is “socialist” has also become increasingly subject to functional considerations as to who mounts a struggle against the elites in power. Increasingly, violent struggle—physical or symbolic violence—defines the boundaries separating members of the socialist community from outsiders, decisively distinguishing the proven from the doubtful member.

This tendency was first crystallized within Marxist-socialism by Leninism. More recently, it was epitomized by Fidel Castro’s plunge into the mountains of the Sierra Maestra and, above all, by Mao’s “long march” north. In Cuba, the “vanguard” party (the Cuban Communists) was in effect given the power by the successful daring of a small group of military intellectuals. In China, the vanguard party is partly fused with and partly checked or controlled by the army, which tends to become redefined as the vanguard; power, says Mao, comes out of the barrel of a gun. In Latin America, Che Guevara symbolizes the emergence of the new rule, calling for immediate open warfare. With this, there is on the left increasing urban guerilla warfare, kidnapping, building rural foco’s, deliberate executions, ritual assasinations, beatings, mail bombs, hi-jacking, urban bombing and burning. The revolutionary leadership becomes increasingly military and para-military.

Marxism’s future in the socialist world will depend on the career of the new rule of revolutionary violence which tends to escalate politics toward violence with maximum urgency. This new rule is dissonant with older ones in Marxism that tended to define violence as an instrument of last resort rather than of first, and often as an instrument of defense rather than of the offense. As these new rules penetrate the world socialist community, Communist Parties come to be defined as ineffectual revolutionary nullities. Increasingly, “opportunism” and “accommodation” to the established order tend to be equated with being slow to take up arms; killing becomes the litmus test of revolutionary sincerity. Regis Debray thus makes a special point, in his Revolution in the Revolution, about the value of exemplary killings from which, on the one hand, the peasantry presumably learns about the precariousness of the old order and by which, on the other, the revolutionary intelligentsia become (finally) de-bourgeoisified. (Because of these assumptions, the lumpen-proletariat and the maximum-security prison come to be defined as basic new recruitment areas for socialist revolutionaries.)

A fundamental question conceming this new rule in the socialist community, is whether Mao and the Chinese Communists are willing to endorse it. This is part of what was involved in the break-down of Chinese-Russian relationships, and in their contest for revolutionary leadership. The rules of the world socialist community have moved toward a new structuring in which the first rule says, whatever is, is wrong—”Rebellion is always justified,” as Mao said—and, secondly, to a rule asserting that the sincerity of the revolutionary is fully visible only in his willingness to exercise force and violence: to kill. These rules, if persistent, will tend increasingly to make “socialism” a social movement impelled toward permanent revolution and whose tactic is the immediate use of the maximally mobilizable force.

To repeat: this seems the direction, but it is not yet the completed outcome in the socialist community. The major force presently inhibiting it within the socialist world is the Soviet Union and the Communist Parties linked to it. Should their “prudence” (or “opportunism”) be defeated, it may be expected that the world socialist community will become increasingly inclined toward revolutionary nihilism, continual internecine struggle against its own achievements, and to “cultural revolutions” (and other kinds), even against its own successful revolutions. Che Guevara’s plunge into Bolivia had two functions: first, to spread the new rule by an exemplary violence, and secondly, to ensure that the new rule would not be applied to Fidel’s Cuba.


In what follows, I shall suggest that the most profound and perduring basis of metaphoricality in Marxism has been iconic, and that this is concretized in the paleo symbol of “enslavement.” Enslavement is a paleo symbol with an elemental visual imagery of body confinement: an imprisonment of the body and a repression of the flesh and instincts that inflicts gross indignities on the person. Enslavement is a condensed and elemental symbol evoking an imagery of crushed bodies, humiliated spirits, supine and beaten persons, and confinement in chains. The Comnunist Manifesto, it will be recalled, ends with a call to the proletariat who “had nothing to lose but its chains.” Subsequently, the Communist song, “The Internationale,” promised that “No more traditions’ chains shall bind you.” The symbol of enslavement evokes notions of an archaic cruelty abiding into a later, enlightened time and thus intimates that a grotesque, brutal primitiveness underlies the civilized veneer of more modern class systems. The imagery of enslavement in Marxism is also fused with a conceptual metaphor of debasement: to treat persons as “objects” rather than “subjects,” thus making them passive, deadened things.

Given the (tacit) rule that all historically specific class systems can be (or become) an enslavement, and that this is their true reality and proper interpretation, then there is no “real” difference between, say, Nazi Germany and liberal democracies; all are equivalent forms of “enslavement” and may, therefore, be treated in much the same ways. The revolutionary must then struggle to make manifest—indeed, to evoke actively so as to make manifest—the brutal essence of enslavement underlying the liberal disguise, thus polarizing the options between his enlightened socialism and their brutal “barbarism.” As Marx says, the choice is ultimately: socialism or barbarism.

The existence of metaphorical switching in the Marxist-socialist community is possible only to the extent that this community shares a common set of norms. It is only those who are not members of that community and do not share its norms who find strange the idea of socialism as a “people’s democratic dictatorship.” To understand the nature of Marxist metaphoricality, then, is to understand the rules by which the Marxist community lives. As J.A. Fishman remarks: “Metaphorical switching is a luxury that can be afforded only by those that comfortably share not only the same set of situational norms but also the same view as to their inviolability.”

At the present time, the Marxist-socialist speech community’s tolerance for metaphorical switching is being severely strained by the clash between the Russian and the Chinese versions of Marxist-socialism; for there is a growing difference in the norms that each recognizes as legitimate. Thus Mao has called the Soviet Union a “phony communism” and, in 1970, spoke of the USSR as a Hitlerite, German Fascist regime; in 1974 Chinese newspapers compared Soviet prison camps with Nazi concentration camps. Still, it is likely that even with this bitter clash, Marxist-socialists constitute enough of a speech community so that anyone wishing membership in it cannot call his ideal society, say, the “dictatorship of the university trained elite,” “the association of free enterpreneurs,” or “the alliance between the intelligentsia and the people.”

The question arises as to what are the shared norms permitting metaphorical switching in the socialist speech community? What rule or rules must one accept for membership? Which are its nuclear and untouchable deep structures? For example, is the “socialization” of the means of production the deep structure of “socialism” and of “socialist” speakers? This is not easy, and no resolution of this problem will be attempted here. Still, note that if  socialization of the means of production is the deep structure of socialism, this might require socialist speakers to recognize ancient Sparta, where all slaves belonged to the “state,” as a “socialist” society. And if not, why not? Again, if to be socialist is to follow a rule that says socialize the means of production, then what means of production? Would the socialization of land, in a predominantly agricultural society, constitute a socialism? Would the socialization of hand tools, in a predominantly handicraft society, constitute a socialism? Or is it only the socialization of industrial and factory production?

Assuming clarification of that question, another arises: what rule must one follow to “socialize” the means of production? Does socialization mean that the society must be run according to the rule that all in the society shall have an equal voice in the control of the economy? Does socialization of the means of production imply equality of consumption? Not according to Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program. Neither in early nor in advanced socialism does Marx call for an equality of consumption. For, in the first case, consumption is to be according to one’s work; in the second, according to one’ s need. There really is little indication of a burning and absolute commitment to equality in Marx and in the Marxist grammar of socialism (although there is in other versions).

Again, does the socialization of the means of production mean workers’ control over their work places? But where, in fact,—in Russia, China, Cuba, Albania, Algeria? where? —do the workers themselves control the means of production? Through what instruments and within what limits do they do so? Everywhere in the Marxist-socialist community we find that the means of production are not controlled by the working people, the people who continue to work, but by the apparatus of the state in conjunction with the vanguard party.

As we might learn from Marx, there are three levels of possible control: (1) control over certain aspects of the process of everyday life in the work place; (2) control over the distribution of the services or products of the work place; (3) control over the economic surplus produced by that work place, including the right to allocate it for various purposes. Unless we know the rules governing these three levels and how workers participate in them, unless we know the operating rules governing workers’ participation in these three ways, socialism remains mystification.

To learn the meaning of “socialism” from current members of the Marxist-socialist community of speakers we must ask about the rules they follow in generating and distributing an economic surplus. That, at any rate, is what a Marxist would ask. For example: what is the rule about the amount of the surplus that shall be spent for military equipment and personnel, the police and secret police? Mass communication technologies and equipment? Investment in urban/rural communities and their differential allocations? Reinvestment in capital goods? And what are the rules concerning how and who makes these allocations? Especially, what is the rule concerning the role of workers in making these allocations?


Without knowing these rules, there is no way rationally to “produce” a socialism and there is therefore no understanding of what socialism is. Without knowing these rules, socialism remains vulnerable to mystification. One of the symptomatic things about Marxism is that it early renounced such a grammatical approach to the matter, doing so especially on the occasion of its critique of “utopianism” and of “utopian” socialism, which it condemned for attempting to “blue-print” the future. Yet it is one thing to attempt to explicate in advance the specific characterizing structures of a non-existent Socialism, as some of the “utopians” did, and quite another to attempt to explicate the underlying norms that members of an existing Marxist-socialist community do actually follow.

Our way of understanding socialism is to see it as an historically achieved social system; as a constructed system and movement; as a produced social movement and system. As Marx and Engels understood it, “socialism” was the real, historical movement for the liberation of mankind undertaken by the world proletariat, and not just an “idea.” This is also our own view of the matter. But to understand this real movement we must understand how it was produced. In accordance with that logic; in conformity with what rules, tacit or manifest?

No serious understanding of socialism—as social movement or social system—is possible unless we can say the rules by which it moves. We can have no rational understanding of what must be done to produce and reproduce—to create and to maintain—socialism unless we know what rules must be followed to do so. “Socialism” means and is the rules socialists obey. Without specification of the rules, there is no such thing as the “unity of theory and practice” in socialism. It is only through such a generative grammar of socialism that we can avoid mystifying it. Without a corresponding and comparable generative gramner of capitalism we shall not understand what it is, the differences between it and socialism, and what is involved in choosing between them.

In speaking of a “generative grammar” of socialism, I have, of course, referred to the analytic employed by Noam Chomsky, believing it may be helpful in analyzing ideologies in general and Marxism in particular. I must add, immediately and emphatically, that I cannot foresee when a generative grammar of socialism would have the rigor or power of a language grammar. What is presented here, then, is scarcely a completed grammar of socialism. Indeed, it is scarcely a “program” for such a grammar, but is at most an intuition of one. We can at best give some indication of some of the rules that would probably have to be included and, also, some preliminary suggestions of their differential “depth.”

The essential analytic ideas of a Chomskian grammar seem to be the following: there is a community of speakers who use their language in the daily conduct of its affairs and who can teach it to novices. All of them have linguistic reflexivity; they can not only speak the language but also speak about it. They can point to instances of correct or incorrect speech. From these, we can acquire a corpus with which we can confirm judgments about the rules speakers follow tacitly in speaking correctly, or break in speaking incorrectly.

The speakers, then, are treated as if they followed rules, knowledge of which constitutes them as competent speakers. Speakers’ conformity with these rules account for the production of permissible performances. A generative grammar, then, is the system of rules to be followed in producing the sentences of the language under analysis. The grammar is imputedly isomorphic with some kind of structure, in the speakers or their world, that de-randomizes their speech output with respect to correct and incorrect speech. For Chomsky, the idea of a rule implies an explicit and full directive precision at the level of prescriptive operationalization. If we can complete or produce what we wish by following the rules of the grammar constructed, then they may be inferred to be full and rigorous enough. A grammar then is a kind of simulation program.

There is thus a distinction between grammar as a structure and the things produced with its use. In contrast to the latter, which are performances, there is the speaker’s “competence” which is based on his “knowledge” of the grammar. Chomsky’s formulation of a generative grammar is also associated with the notion of an “innate” structure, a “universal grammar” which is part of the child’s original equipment at birth and which Chomsky postulates to account for the difference between the child’s small experience with a particular language and his great creativity in employing it. For our purpose here, we need no notion of innate structure. For us, differences between deep and surface structures are not inherently such. A surface structure may be a deep structure in relation to some third system. Deep structure is simply that which de-randomizes outcomes; surface structures are events viewed as the de-randomized outcome of some other (deep) structure.

In Chomsky’s formulation there seems to be some ambiguity as to whether “deep” structure describes a structure that influences actors without their awareness. No matter; let us simply reserve another term for that, say “latent structure,” to refer to any deep structure that de-randomizes human conduct which the actors are unaware of as they perform. We may leave open the reason for that lack of awareness.

Note that it need not be claimed that the grammatical rules exist or that people are only oriented by and to “rules.” It is true that some orientations are to rules; others are only treated “as if’ they were to rules. It is the reflexive theorist’s task to speak the patterning structures and regularities as if they were rules, to offer them to normal actors, and then to ask them: Do you recognize this as your rule? Is this the rule by which you would want to live? The reflexive theorist, in short, seeks to present a rational account of the actor’s behavior, to construct a rational account of it for (and with) him. The theorist’s object is to strengthen the actor’s reflexivity, his self-awareness, his knowledge and understanding of whether or not he lives by rules at all and, if so, which. The reflexive theorist’s task is to help make the actor’s behavior more fully visible to him as an object of his own decision, choice, and responsibility, thus sharpening his rational capacities, and confronting him as a subject with his own dissonant objectivity. If the normal actor does not regard himself as following such and such a rule, or if he accepts a proffered rule as his, then the question that arises is, Why? On what grounds has he made his choice, on what grounds does he regard some rule as acceptable or not?

The rule offered by the theorist to the normal actor may be “true,” but rejected by the actor. We understand this to mean that it was arrived at in ways differing from those of the normal, ordinary language speaking community, and that its cognitive validity and rationality exists within a different community, following different rules—the community of theorists. The key problems, of course, then arise concerning the settlement of differences between ordinary language speaking communities and those of social theorists. This is central to the dialogue that must develop between the two communities and their members. The important thing, so far as the theoretical community is concerned, is not to win the normal actor over to some concrete rule but to a rational analytic in terms of which judgment about concrete rules is to be made and differences between the two communities resolved.

In a general way, three kinds of “programs” or three “generative grammars” are needed for the de-mystification of socialism: first, a stipulation of the set of rules that, if followed, would produce a socialist critique of an existent society. Secondly, the rules necessary to produce an operating vanguard party. Third, and finally, the rules necessary for producing an ongoing, self-reproducing socialist society. In effect, these would be the generative grammars of critique, of vanguard, of socialism.

For example: among the rules of the generative grarnmar of a socialist critique, there would seem to be the following:

1. Publicly reproach the old regime for the disparity between its performances and promises; especially for its failures to live up to whatever collectivity-concerned standards that it itself professes.

1.1 Focus in particular on those failures where, it is held, the old regime could technically be able to conform with its own promises.

1.2 Publicly define these failures as caused by the vested interests of the hegemonic class which are grounded in the society’s relationships of production and its property institutions. (The failure of the society as a social system and the failure of its hegemonic class are thus identified.)

1.3 Call upon members of the society to organize themselves to change these relations of production and property institutions.

Here the rules of the deeper underlying structure are: men must act in conformity with some set of rules; either (a) by changing their own conduct so as to conform to an old but neglected set of rules, or (b) by instituting new rules to which men may then conform under changed conditions, and/or (c) by changing those social conditions—productive relations and property institutions—which, in tum, allow rules and conduct to converge.

Essentially, then, the rule of the deep structure here is that men and societies must be “rational.” An “irrational” society is one in which there are “contradictions” between what the society professes to do for the collective welfare, and those institutional inhibitions that produce a failure to conform with these promises (which could otherwise be done, from a purely technological standpoint). In a way, the Kantian rule “ought implies can” is reversed, becoming: “can implies ought.” That is, the rule becomes: people are obliged to correct a defective “rationality.”

In the further development of the generative grammar of socialist critique, one could go on to explicate other concrete rules. A rule, for example, calling for public reproach of the self-seeking partisanship of the hegemonic class; they are to be shown as using the state apparatus to protect their class interests, even when this is at variance with the interest of the society as a whole. Similarly, the hegemonic classes would be attacked when it could be shown that they are betraying the interests of the society to foreigners, rather than leading the struggle to protect their own people from foreign exploitation. In both cases, the deep structure of the critique of the hegemonic class’s behavior, toward the state and the foreigners, is its common failure to conform with self-professed rules, to wit, the rule calling for action on behalf of the collectivity as a whole, rather than seeking special advantages for themselves.

The formulation of the generative grammars of socialist critique, vanguard, and society would be an effort toward a new realism with which to explore the rationality of socialism. It would, on another level, better enable us to understand the symptomatic significance of Marxist metaphoricality. It would move toward understanding the Marxist analytic of last resort, the paleo symbolism underpinning and allowing continuity amidst the vagaries of Marxist politics, and which constitutes the shared norms of the concretely diversified community of Marxist speakers.


The early history of Marxism allows a greater visibility of the metaphors and of the rules of metaphoric switching in which some of the deepest structures of Marxism are to be found. The fundamental syntax of Marxism is displayed in its metaphoric switching between: God :: universal rationality :: man :: proletariat. Much of Marxism begins with an effort to clarify the syntactical structure of these elemental symbIs: “… . the critique of religion is the prerequisite of every critique,” wrote Marx in his “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Right.’ ” (Orig., Paris, 1844; Cambridge Univ. Press 1970, p. 131.)

Marxism inherits the general achievement of the young Hegelians that “the foundation of irreligious criticism is this: man makes religion; religion does not make man.” Here the metaphoricality of religion and man is unequivocal. The only qualification made is that it is presumably only a one-way switch: “Man —> Religion” is correct; “Religion —> Man,” is incorrect.

The radical ambiguity of this last denial is secondary to Marx’s clear acceptance of the sheer metaphoricality. It is ambiguous because, just several pages later, Marx will brilliantly exhibit one case in which religion does, at least in significant part, “make man.” There he remarks that Luther “overcame servitude based on devotion, but by replacing it with servitude based on conviction … He transformed the priests into laymen by changing the laymen into priests . . . He freed the body by putting the heart in chains.” (p. 138; italics added) This certainly appears to be a strong case of religon “making man,” which Marx rejects as such apparently because it is not a right making of man. But that silent qualification changes the issue.

Along with Feuerbach and the young Hegelians, Marx expressly affirmed a metaphoricality of religion, religious theology, metaphysics and rational philosophy. That metaphoricality is, in fact, the basis of the critique of Hegelian philosophy as embodying a suppressed religiosity. “The secret of theology is anthropology,” said Feuerbach, “but the secret of speculative philosophy is theology.” (Samtliche Werke, Leipzig, 1883, Vol II, p. 253.)

That this critique was merited is clear from Hegel’s having affirmed a metaphoricality in which man’s reason is described as the “divine in man.” Again, in his Philosophy of History, Hegel celebrates Christ as the pivot of the world, the “Man who is God—God who is man . . .” In the brilliant formulation of Nicholas Lobkowicz: “In fact, the whole of [Hegels’s] history is nothing but the growing of the One Truth which Christ has sown, which began to sprout at Pentecost, and matures in man’s theological thought. And Hegelianism is the ultimate expansion and fruit of Christian faith; it is faith transfigured into rational thought, faith transfigured into philosophy … Philosophy … translates religion’s symbolism into rational thought.” (N. Lobkowicz, Theory and Practice, Univ. of Notre Dame Press, p. 181.)

The metaphorical switching between man/God:: philosophy/religion is also evident in the following commentary by Marx: “Religion is only the illusory sun about which man revolves so long as he does not revolve about himself.” It is the task of philosophy, says Marx, to move from the critique of religion to the critique of the world in which it grew, so that the conditions that foster and reproduce illusions will themselves be overcome. Philosophy, says Marx, is now “in the service of history.” (p. 132) Thus philosophy:: history = theology:: God.

As the critique of Marx and the other young Hegelians moves from a critique of theology to a critique of philosophy, from a critique of topic to a critique of resource, from a critique of other to self, even the rational theoretical self is seen as having a “false consciousness;” as not having transcended theology,as having failed in its tacit, universalistic, self-imposed requirement to obey 401 the rules it imposes upon others. Philosophy itself must be transcended and actualized on earth by changing the social being of which it is the flawed consciousness. But now, having come down to earth, philosophy requires a material basis that can actualize it there; that material basis is the proletariat.


“The critique of religion ends in the doctrine that man is the supreme being for man . . . with the categorical imperative to overthrow all conditions in which man is a debased, enslaved, neglected, contemptible being. . .” (p. 137; italics added) Two points are worth mentioning here. First, note that in making man the “supreme being” there is a metaphorical switching between God and Man; this entails the usual “inversion” which is not so profound a change as may at first seem, because the claims conventionally made for religion and God are reassigned to Man, as the assets of a bankrupt business are assigned to the court-appointed receiver.

A second point: note that the imperative is, at this point, to overthrow “all” enslaving conditions. “Capitalism” is thus a metaphor of “enslavement.” It is precisely because of this that Marxism may move from a particular theory of revolution against capitalism to a more general theory of revolution in almost any society.

This theoretical shift is subsequently most visible in George Lukaics’ “methodological” reading of Marxism, which emerges following the failure of the Hungarian and German Revolutions. But this is in the nature of a reversion, for early Marxism began with a theory of “universal emancipation” and a general theory of revolution; Marxism only subsequently moved to a narrower theory of proletarian revolution in capitalist society. Lukacs’ thrust toward a general theory of revolution was thus not so much an “invention” but a re-discovery of what had been suppressed in Marxism as it developed from a more universal to a more specialized theory of proletarian anti-capitalist revolution.

The later Marxist theory of increasing “misery” of the proletariat, and the early Marxist theory of general revolution and universal emancipation, both center on the metaphor of enslavement. This, in turn, is continuous with Hegel’s equally universalized analysis of the dialectics of the master-bondsman relationship. In this, the slave continues to grow and develop in autonomy by reason of his need to woik and cope with necessity, in time making his master dependent upon and inferior to him. Encysted within the subsequently historicized Marxist focus on class struggle and, in particular, of the struggle of proletariat and bourgeoisie, lies a paradoxically timeless paradigm of human conflict.


Although most fully elaborated in his Phenomenologie des Geistes, Hegel’s concern with the master-bondsman paradigm is to be found in a large variety of his work including “the so-called theological essays;” and George Armstrong Kelly is surely correct in speaking of “the symbolic power of the master-slave image throughout most of his corpus of philosophical writings.” (p. 333) In Josiah Royce’s lucid, anglicized version:

The master essentially recognizes that he needs somebody else in order that this other may prove him, the master, to be the self.. . I can only know myself as this individual if I find somebody else in the world by contrast with whom I recognize who I am… the slave, to be sure, has no rights, but he has his uses, and he teaches me, the master, that I am the self… the master hereby becomes dependent upon the slave’s work… The master’s life is essentially lazy and empty. Of the two, the faithful slave after all comes much nearer to genuine selfhood.. . The slave, so Hegel says, works over, reconstructs the things of experience. Therefore, by his work, he, after all, is conquering the world of experience, is making it the world of the self, is becoming the self… who in the end must become justly proud of the true mastery that his work gives him… (Royce, Lectures on Modern Idealism, Yale Univ. Press, 1967, pp. 177-78.)

It is the metaphor of “enslavement,” then, that is the central “switching house” in which rebellion against any kind of master is sanctioned and which allows Marx’s specific theory of proletarian revolution against capitalism to cope with the failure of rebellion in advanced capitalist societies and, by a tacit regression to the deeper metaphor of enslavement, to re-emerge as a generalized theory of revolution.

The role of the enslavement paradigm in Marxism is a “labelled” metaphor, for the historically sensitive Marx knew well enough that proletarians of bourgeois society were not identical with slaves of antiquity or, for that matter, with those of the new world. Deeper than this labelled metaphor in Marxism, however, is an unlabelled metaphor of enslavement that permeates Marxism, which was assimilated from its heritage in German philosophical idealism and, especially, Hegel. This unlabelled metaphor of enslavement is tacitly implicated in the structural distinction central to this entire philosophical tradition, a distinction that Marx tacitly continues and on which he grounds his critique of alienation in capitalist society. This central distinction is that between “Subject” and “Object,” actor and acted-upon, knower and known. From the specific standpoint of idealism, the Subject is in the nature of a Self, the true self, which is the locus of all the most, basic dimensions of meaningfulness: goodness, potency, and mobility. The subject is thus the sphere in which there may reside potency and goodness, the norms or ideals to which potency will conform. In effect, then, the intellectual tradition from which Marx emerged saw the relationship between man 1 and man 2, between man and nature, and between Self and Other, as (at first) a relation of Subject to Object.

The crux of the relation between Subject and Object (physical world, nature, Other) is that the Object is constituted by the Subject (self) as, indeed, is the Object’s very foreignness to the self. Composed of contradictory and opposing forces, the self is at first unconscious of its own nature and of the powers which it successively unfolds and develops. The Subject is thus the realm of both a consciousness and an unconsciousness. Above all, it is precisely as knower that the Subject lacks awareness of itself, for it ordinarily takes the world in a common sense way, as an Object existing apart from it, rather than as a produced thing of its own making. The Subject is at first “objectivistic.” The self’s maturation entails its growing recognition of its own activity, its overcoming of the foreignness and Object-ness of the world, and its mounting awareness of the way it itself is world-making.

The Subject-self’s ultimate achievement is the recognition of its own world- constituting, and its recognition of the world as self-produced. Since the world as Object is (conceptually) constituted by the self, the world must bear the impress of the constituting self and hence must be at one with self. Self and world, Subject and Object, knower and known, then, must have essentially the same structure. “Nature,” physical “environment,” “world:” all, then, are externalizations (or projections) of self, projections of mind.

At length, the development of the self, through its confrontation with these alien objects, leads it to the discovery that it is both Subject and Object, knower and known, self and Other. Indeed, this is the mark of the subject’s development. It is in achieving this unity or harmony, this new wholeness, that there is a crowning achievement of the identity of Subject and Object, an overcoming of all contradictions and a new, culminating oneness, the Absolute. The Absolute is the philosophical sublimation of deity, the completion of perfect being, the surmounting of limitations, the end of change and time, and the transcendence of all contradictions. German idealism, in short, entails the sublimation of God in Reason.

The “Object” of German idealism is everything that is not a Subject; it is the Other that cannot exist except for the Subject to whom it is an Object. Since it is Subject and self that is primordial, being best known and most real, there is a certain residualness in the Object. It is, in a way, that which is left over beyond the sphere and boundaries of the Subject. It is that-which-has-not-yet- been-assimilated into the Subject-self. Subject and Object each define the other. An Object exists only in relation to a Subject to whom it is an Object; the Subject could not know itself, and the self it declares to exist and to have, without a demarcation from what it declares is not it, the Object.

Crucial to this structural distinction between Subject and Object is their imputed historical future. It is held that the historical mission, the fate, of the Subject is to transform itself, hence its relation to its Object, and, in time, to discover that it, the Subject, and the Object, are essentially one and the same, rather than mutually alien. But this identity of the Subject and Object is not simply an impersonal prediction about the outcome of an impersonal evolution. It is not just a fact of nature or history but, more than that, it is also an achievement or an upward movement, a consummation. Here in this culminating discovery, all contradictions, fragmentations, and incompleteness will be resolved, transcended, forgiven. Wholeness of men, society, history, nature and spirit will be established.

Seen from one perspective, this is a Protestant mythos of the overcoming of fragmentation recited in the idiom of logic; it is logic anthropomorphized and historicized. It is the union of logic and ontology. This reunification, in Hegel’s version, has an historical progress going through various stages or forms of development, each of which has its falsity and yet its limited truth and necessity; and each subsequent form incorporates the latter and transcends it. Each form has a certain unavoidable necessity in that it can only be realized at certain times and places. At any given moment and place, depending on what has been before, only a certain limited kind of movement toward the ultimate unity and wholeness can be achieved.

The unity finally to be attained, however, is not in the nature of an even- handed “reconciliation” in which the opposing Subject and Object come to tolerate and co-operate with one another as equals, thus implying that they will continue to maintain their separate and sovereign identities. Rather, their culminating unity will be one in which one side, the Subject, ultimately assimilates the other, the Object, and in so doing also eliminates its own subjectivity. The ultimate unity thus takes place at the initiative and under the guidance of the Subject and by reason of its activity, until, at last, the Subject has so deepened its awareness of its own being that it recognizes that  the Object is part of its own being; thus what seemed like an autonomous foreign being, an Other, now appears in its true light as only a different guise of the Subject-self.

Let us ask, as Hegel surely might, what kind of consciousness was it that could produce such a theory? It is clearly a consciousness that is bent on oneness; that defines oneness at the highest good; and correspondingly resists separations and differences in the world; that has a secret impulse to annihilate “otherness.” It seeks to eliminate the alien Other, being uncomfortable with anything unlike itself; its drive is to transform and assimilate everything into the self—to make and to see it kin to the self; to make it one substance with the self; it is a consciousness, then, which seeks to remove, deny, or destroy alienness; which always sees difference as a limiting contradiction, rather than as a completing complementarity.

This consciousness, then, is an exoteric psychology that contains two components: humanistic imperialism and a xenophobic drive to dominate the environment of the self; and mind and consciousness are the forms through which this control comes to be exerted. Unlike the Eternal Platonic forms, the consciousness at work here is an unfinished and evolving one. It does not begin with an eternal perfectness of being, but rather continually progresses toward that perfection in the Absolute. The dramatic culmination comes, precisely as in a classical Greek drama, with the Subject discovering who he really is or has finally become.

For the Marxist, the comparable culminating moment comes when the proletariat has been transformed from a weak exploited class—from an Object of the system—from a class as such, into a class with a new awareness and with a new transforming self-consciousness. In becoming a class for itself, the proletariat becomes a true Subject rather than a mere Object, and in this act provides a liberating transformation of the entire society. In transforming the society, the proletariat also transforms itself; it ceases to be “proletariat” and is now neither Subject nor Object after having produced a new socialist society in which this division has been transcended. This ends man’s pre-history and is the culmination of all of history hitherto; it takes the form, especially in the Hegelian formulation of Marxism, of the overcoming of man as a passive, controlled Object and his transformation into an active, controlling Subject.

The basic aim of revolution and the deepest meaning of human liberation and of socialism itself were, then, first conceived by Marx in terms of (and remained deeply rooted in) this structure of the Hegelian Subject and Object, and the dialectics of their movement toward an Identity and Unity. It was precisely because this modern German socialism was first formulated by neo-Hegelians that they understood and conceived it in the Hegelian language of the Subject-Object and its evolving identity. It is in large measure because this Hegelian framework was so deeply rooted in their infrastructure that its meaning needed no formal definition. Marxist socialism is the political economy of the “identical Subject-Object.”


Two of Marxism’s fundamental critiques of the pathology of capitalism—that of alienation and reification—are, like “socialism,” intelligible at the deepest levels only in terms of the tacit presence of the language and assumptions of the identity of the Subject-Object. The Marxist critique of “alienation” is an indictment of a society in which men make their own history without knowing that it is they who are making it, and without having control over the history they make. It is a failure, then, of both men’s consciousness and power.

If workers are “alienated from the means of production,” it is that they have no control over these but, to the contrary, are used by them. If men have been alienated from other men and from themselves, this means that Self and Other have acquired an alien Otherness, an unrecognizability and difference from the discerning Subject-self, with the result that there is less understanding of self and Other, and, also, less self-control and control over the Other. In any event, to be alienated means to rupture connections of understanding and control of things (leaving aside the question of whether the control sought is entirely contingent on or mediated by understanding). To be alienated is to confront a situation in which men’s access to “things” is impaired; and because of this impairment, the Other has become a Thing to whom, therefore, we relate as an alien Other, as something unlike us; as an Object vis-a-vis our Subject-ness.

Still, it is far from self-evident why the entire world should be open to us—understood and controlled by us. It remains unclear why the Other has no right to maintain his alienness, to keep his distance. Refusal of this has a prima facie propriety only from the tacit standpoint of Hegelian premises about the approaching identity of Subject-Object. From my own standpoint, however, it has no such prima facie propriety. Since there is such a manifestly powerful impulse to control the Other and to use understanding as an instrument of such control, it would seem that the alien Other who values its autonomy would do well to remain alien from Subjects so infused with agression that they apparently cannot come to terms with a cosmos not under their control.

Fundamental to the Marxist notion of “critique,” one of its central rules, is the ideal of a “transformative criticism,” which is also grounded in the subject-object distinction. For what transformative criticism does is to invert the mystifying relations claimed between subject and object, showing that what had been claimed to be the Object was truly the Subject, and vice versa. In J. O’Malley’s formulation:

Feuerbach made explicit his technique of the subject-predicate inversion utilized earlier in The Essence of Chnistianity and presented it as a general method of criticizing speculative philosophy… “All we need to do is always make the predicate into the subject… in order to have the undisguised, pure and clear truth… We need only… invert the religious relations—regard that as an end which religion supposes to be a means—exalt that into the primary which in religion is subordinate, [and] at once we have destroyed the illusion, and the enclouded light of truth streams in upon us.”

Leaving aside the glowing conclusion, which ignores the role of practice, it is clear that the paradigm of “mystification” is conceiving of religion as having made man; the essence of a de-mystifying critique then is to invert that Subject and Object, now making man the Subject and religion the Object he has made. In the course of the decades-long discussions of the relationship between Marx and Hegel, and the old and young Marxes, it has become absolutely clear that even the mature Marx’s political economy is grounded in a concept of critique as an inverting de-mystification. Bertell Ollman’s study of Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in Capitalist Society (1971), documents these continuities in convincing detail. Similarly, Dick Howard’s work has also stressed that:

The critique of the mystification of the Hegelian state has its analogue in Marx’s political economy. In Capital.. . Marx devotes an important part of the analysis of comnsdities to the “fetishism” which makes them in- dependent subjects… Marx speaks of the “inversion of subject and object” and notes later that: “in the labor process looked at for itself, the worker utilizes the means of production. In the labor process which is equally a capitalistic production process, the means of production utilizes the workers. . . The domination of the capitalist over the worker is thus the domination of the thing over the man, of dead labor over the living, of the product over the producers… This is exactly the same relationship in the material production, in the actual social life process… which presents itself in the ideological domain in religion: the inversion of subject and object, and vice versa.” (Dick Howard, “On Marx’s Critical Theory,” Telos, Fall 1970, pp. 226, 229.)

It is essentially in terms of such a notion of transfonnative criticism, in which inversion is presumably at the heart of mystification, and in which reversal of the received Subject-Object relationship is at the heart of de-mystifying critique, that Marx puts his own relationship to Hegel in his famous aphorism about tuming Hegel right side up, and standing him on his feet.

In effect, then, (the early) Marx saw social relationships as on the order of speech processes, as entailing a language and grammar. The effort to analyze social processes was seen as akin to formulating sentences about subjects and objects; a de-mystifying critique of such an analysis was the proper re-ordering of the inverted Subject-Object relationship.

Two implications of Marxism’s grounding in the grammar of the Subject-Object can only be mentioned briefly here, although they are of considerable importance: One is that given the notion that critique proceeds by a transformative inversion, then falsification of reality is assimilated to a grammatical, logical, or formal error. The decisive cognitive tool of critique thus becomes formal, rather than making the empirical dimension equally problematic. The problem is seen as finding the right transformation to move from one to another equation. Thus the question of the empirical and factual need not be raised; whether the facts at hand are sufficient, or whether they need “testing” and development, is defocalized. The empirical, in short, becomes enshadowed.

Secondly, given the Subject-Object distinction as conceptual framework, there is generated a very specific social ontology in which, for example, things are either Subjects or Objects but not both. Despite Engels’ determined efforts at eluding this implication, the fundamental Marxist distinction between the economic infrastructure and the socio-ideological superstructure is grounded in and invisibly reproduced by that Subject-Object grammar. Given the Subject-Object structure, some are active potent Subjects who produce others; and others are the made, receptive acted-upon Objects. One is thus disposed to categorize things as either makers or made, and to see this as entailing unidirectional relationships. Thus the full possibilities of a social systems theory, in which all are both Subjects and Objects, then becomes difficult to explore, as indeed, Engels was articulately beginning to do. Implicit in the Subject-Object structures there is a cryptic theory of power, in which emphasis is placed upon the discontinuities rather than the continuities in the power of different groups, in which there is an implication of power as a zero-sum game; for here what is Object cannot also be Subject.

Underneath the Marxist critique of capitalism, then, with its diagnosis of capitalism’s pathologies and a conception of its remedies, there is a generalized notion of “enslavement,” a labelled metaphor; and under that is an unlabelled metaphor of Subject and Object. It is largely in terms of this system of metaphors that it becomes possible to understand how Marxism, which in its mature political economy was a critique of capitalism, could transcend this to become a gereralized theory of revolution, justifying revolution at almost any time and any place in the modern world, even where there was scarcely any proletariat.


On several occasions, Mao has said, “To rebel is justified,” and “Trouble- making is revolution.” In this, he speaks in deep communion with those most elemental rules that allow rebellion against any and all enslavement. That is, wherever the world falls short of the ideal, one is always under the obligation to make it converge with the ideal. This is the very deepest structure of Marxism, grounded as it is in Western society’s Judaic-Christian asceticism and transcendental ethic.

By demanding obedience to the divine commands, the Old Testament prophets created the image of a world that must be fashioned by men in accordance with ethical norms. This deliberate contrast between the world as it is and as it ought to be, required that man develop himself as a tool for the attainment of goals that transcend the world. (Reinhard Bendix, Max Weber, An Intellectual Portrait, Doubleday and Co., 1960, p. 154.)

In the later Marx and Marxism, however, the tacit obligation to enact the ethic—the rejection of enslavement—is historicized and de-absolutized. That is, it is increasingly rationalized historically and politically, and is grounded tacitly in terms of a Kantian norm of the moral which holds: ought implies can. Which is to say, one is obligated to fight enslavement when that enslavement is not historically necessary at a given stage of historical development, and when there exists an historical agent who can provide the material basis for that struggle. Even as early as his Contribution to the Critique ofHegel’s Philosophy of Right, Marx insisted that in bourgeois society there “is not naturally existing poverty but artificially produced poverty.” (p. 142) It is needless poverty, poverty imposed by society, not nature, that is now the enemy; poverty that is not necessary because the available means of production can overcome it, were they not crippled by the present property system and relationships of production. Correspondingly, enslavement is also un- necessary when there is a political force—as well as a technological force—whose needs coincide with what rational diagnosis indicates.


“Revolutions require a passive element, a material basis,” (4) said Marx, and subsequently identified that passive element as—the proletariat! “Theory will be realized in a people only insofar as it is the realization of their needs.” (Ibid., p. 138) Here, of course, are the germs of Marx’s—Marx’s, not the scapegoated Engels’—positivism; it is the opening to a deadening “scientific socialism” that minimizes the autonomy of theory, dialectic, consciousness, and hence, of human striving.

Still, notice: if the material basis is “passive,” what is active? There is a certain ambiguity here. Is the active force the “needs” generated in ordinary people by their everyday lives and their contradictions; or is the active element theory and philosophy itself, at least when it coincides with the former. This is an interpretation consistent with Marx’s culminating contention:

Just as philosophy finds its material weapons in the proletariat, so the proletariat finds its spiritual weapons in philosophy … The head of this emancipation is philosophy, its heart is the proletariat. Philosophy cannot be actualized without the abolition of the proletariat; the proletariat cannot be abolished without the actualization of philosophy.

The image of the proletariat that emerges from this is as the instrument and passive vessel through which reason and philosophy will be achieved; as providing philosophy with a “material basis,” which “philosophy,” being the “head” of this emancipation, then guides, informs, emancipates—in other words, directs. Philosophy, the “head”—masculine, intelligent, and dominant;  proletariat, the “heart”—feminine, feelingful, and passive. These at least were the conventional semantics. Hidden in the philosophy of universal emancipation is a tacit sexual metaphor, and hidden in that is a silent theory, a blue-print for the “relations” between the intelligentsia and the proletariat. Read properly, the cryptogram tells us who is to do what to whom.


Marxist pragmatics here faces a fundamental task: to normalize the relationships between “power” and “goodness”—basic dimensions of semiotic space (as developed in Charles Osgood’s The Measurement of Meaning). In other words, a basic semiotic task of Marxism is to find a way in which the powerful may be made consonant with the “good.” The union of philosophy and proletariat is a metaphor for a world in which the good and the powerful have been united. There is, however, an ambiguity here as to who is which. Is it the proletariat or philosophy that is the powerful? And which is the good?

Marx’s tacit solution is complex. He refuses to do the conventional thing of assigning goodness to one concrete unit and potency to another. His point is that there is no power without their alliance; no power to satisfy the proletariats’ needs and no power to realize the aims of philosophy. And correspondingly, there is no goodness in a proletariat devoid of philosophy’s enlightenment or in a philosophy divorced from the proletariat’s needs. The union of philosophy and proletariat is the closing of an historical circuit that generates and normalizes both power and goodness in their relationship to one another.

There is, nonetheless, a remnant and key difference between philosophy and its “material basis:” the latter is “passive;” it is clear, then, that philosophy or theory is tacitly understood to be “active.” This activity or “movement” is neither power nor goodness in itself, but something different. It is in the nature of an “enzyme” that may initiate major forces of growth; or a small “precipitant” that may unhinge a larger frozen equilibrium. The capacity for the kind of mobility attributed to philosophy tacitly likens it to an activating, information-bearing, seminal fluid.

The implicit rationale for the intelligentsia in this, then, is not that it has a potency superior to the proletariat’s nor that it has a greater goodness. Both have both, but neither will be realized unless they can be brought together; what accomplishes this is the intelligentsia’s capacity for a self-movement. It is the initiatives of the intelligentsia, then, that unite philosophy and proletariat, normalizing power and goodness.

The hidden engram is: it is the intelligentsia who must carry philosophy to the proletariat. This is the memory-trace that is later de-coded correctly by Karl Kautsky and by V.I. Lenin and was concretely enacted in the theory and practice of the vanguard. Part of what I am suggesting, then, is that the theory of the vanguard is not a distortion but a correct reading of one of the most difficult messages in Marxism. (Let me reiterate: the theory of the vanguard, I have suggested, is a correct reading of Marxism; but this is not to say it is a correct reading of the needs of the proletariat, or of any given society.)

But why was this message implanted so cryptically? Because it is in contradiction to that “bondage” of the intelligentsia expressly affirmed by the Marxist theory of ideology. Because it is arrogantly elitist for an intelligentsia to claim that it contains and it will transmit the information necessary for a “proletarian” revolution. Because it is dissonant with a “materialist” theory that holds that “social being determines social consciousness” and whose ontology thereby assigns, or appears to assign, priority to that “material.” For all these reasons, and one more that I will discuss below, Marx does not speak focally about the “activity” of the intelligentsia.


As Marxism emerged in the work of the young Marx, it began with a concern for a total universal human emancipation. Marxism is thus at first the utopian politics of a sublimated Hegelianism; the semiotic of both master and disciple were anchored in the paleo symbolism of a millenial redemption.(5) The millenarian paleo symbolism of Marxism is suppressed for at least two reasons: first, because such symbolism, in a Christian culture, is an historical and genetic “given” being internalized in the course of youthful, primary socialization, into a “restricted linguistic code” of restricted reflexivity.

Secondly, it is also suppressed because it is profoundly dissonant with rational philosophy’s drive toward secularization. The latter expresses itself in modern science and epistemology—as Martin Heidegger’s brilliant analysis of the “mathematical project” makes plain—in the demand for axiomatic grounding and intellectual self-sufficiency, which is to say, system. “System” (as Kant well understood) is the disguised overturning of hierarchy, for a system is that which is self-maintained and homeostatic, rather than that which depends on a hierarchically superior being. At bottom, then, the millenarian component in Marxism must be suppressed because it is dissonant with the Enlightenment paleo symbolism of the self-groundedness of men. (This is the fundamental meaning of Marx’s insistence that it is “the critique of religion that is the beginning of every critique.”)

The object of Hegelianism and Marxism alike is to express and actualize man’s self-grounded essence. This culminates, in the Hegeliam version of German philosophical idealism, in the unity of the Subject and Object; meaning that what the questing Subject prowling among the alien Objects of the universe at last realizes is that they, the Others, are—himself.

The first thrust of emerging Marxism toward a total universal human emancipation is in part also repressed because of the crushing failure of the German Revolution of 1848, after which the go-it-alone grimness, the hardening of the self, the tempering of the revolutionary agency all, become more focal. Then Marxism’s original thrust toward universal human emancipation is repressed—repressed, not obliterated—becoming encysted within the narrower, pragmatic politics of an historical movement, socialism, and its historicized quest for proletarian emancipation. The critique of religion with which Marx and the young Hegelians begin thus does not end in the dissolution of all (including their own) religious paleo symbolism. Rather, it entails the substitution of one Supreme Being for another. The claims once made by conventional Christians for the Supreme Being are, at first, transferred to and invested in Man as a “species being.” Subsequently, under the impact of French socialism and the English labor theory of value, and of the middle class’s loss of Jacobin fervor, they are still further transferred to the suffering proletariat—a class, said Marx, having a universal character because of its universal suffering and the unqualified wrong done to it—which then becomes the historical agent and metaphor for man. Thus the nest of metaphorical equivalences in Marxism, going from the last developed, most elaborated, most technical, and most rationally controlled symbolism to the earliest, most “restricted” code and paleo symbolism is: Proletariat : Man: Universal Rationality : God. The “unspeakability” of the intelligentsia and of their role in Marxism is precisely due to their symbolic association with the deeper (and more idealistic) paleo symbolism.


From this perspective, the “essence” of the radical intelligentsia’s political striving must be understood as the removal of any social obstacle to societal rationality. This intelligentsia can be the enemy, then, not of the contradictions of capitalist society alone but of any society; anywhere in the world today; at any level of development. Its enemies may be small money lenders who exploit still smaller peasants, rural landlords, village notables, or chieftains whose vested elite interests may lead them to betray the rules that every modem elite promises to follow: first, to act on behalf of the collectivity as a whole; and secondly, to live in conformity with such rules as it professes.

From this perspective, Marxist “critique” is above all a critique that focusses, most especially, on the societal elite’s lack of rationality, here construed (among other ways) as their failure to live by rules, especially rules they themselves affirm. Marxist critique thus takes the specific form of “making these petrified relations dance by singing before them their own tune.” Marxism, then, is a tacit promise of rationality. That is, it is a promise that socialists will constitute a new and legitimate elite who will live by a set of rules, most especially the rule of every modern elite: Serve the People. Unlike other elites, however, socialists hold that the new society will have no internal contradictions preventing them from conforming with that rule, and that they therefore will actually conform to it and be a rational elite.

At the deeper levels of Marxism, then, what we discover is the ancient commitment to govern rationally, the commitment to the “philosopher king.” It is a commitment to unite rationality (the good) and power, theory and practice. It is a commitment to put governance in the hands of those who, having no institutional blockages to such obedience, will, in turn, put them- selves under the governance of a rule of law and rationality. Marxism’s deepest commitment, then, is to rationality and, afterwards, to whatever else is necessary for that.


(1) I do not limit the “paleo symbolic” to the pre-linguistic level as does Jiirgen Habermas for reasons that cannot be discussed here. Most basically, our view of the paleo symbolic converges with Basil Bernstein’s concept of a “restricted” linguistic code and with Lev Semonovich Vygotsky’s concept of “Inner Speech.” The paleo symbolic is, also, more of an analogic system than a digital.

(2) Cf. the distinctions made by P. Greenfield, L. Reich, R. Olver, and J. Hornsby, in P. Adams, ed., Language in Thinking, Penguin, London, 1972, pp. 217 et seq. and pp. 303 et seq. (Original published 1966.)

(3) Thus K.S. remarks: “To find out if a statesman or intellectual is progressive or reactionary we must look not so much at his professions of faith as at his attitude toward the United States.” (K.S. Karel, Guerilas in Power: The Course of the Cuban Revolution, Hill and Wang, New York, 1970, p. 55.) Such a functional and concrete rule, of course, runs into trouble when one-time enemies achieve “detente;” for according to this rule, one must now conclude that China and the U.S.S.R. who have accepted Richard Nixon’s and Henry Kissinger’s detente, are reactionary.

(4)  In this, Marx is breaking no new ground but exhibits his Hegelian heritage and assumptions common to German philosophical idealism. Thus Hegel remarks in his 1795 Letters: “Reason has achieved what it can when it fmds and proclaims the law; courageous will and living feeling have to execute it. When truth is to triumph in the struggle with forces, it must itself become a force and put up some drive as its advocate in the realm of phenomena; for drives are the only moving force in the world of feeling.” Here, of course, is a cryptic philosophical rationale for the notion of an “historical agent.” Comparing Hegel and the young Marx on this, shall we say that the continuity exhibits Marx’s abiding links with idealism, or that Hegel gave him his earliest presentiments of the power of the “material?”

(5) The literature on millenarianism is, of course, enormous; it has been most recently re-explored in Michael Barkun, Disaster and the Millenium, (Syracuse University Press, 1974); the millenarium connection with Marxism is still best explored in Nicolas Lobkowicz, Theory and Practice, (Notre Dame Univ. Press, 1967.) Alisdair Maclntyre and Robert Tucker have also long since seen the continuity between Marxism and Christianity. If one firmly rejects any idea that such a continuity is necessarily discrediting to Marxism as an intellectual system; or that this ipso facto invalidates Marxism as a technical theory; and, finally, if one also sees the continuity between religion, on the one side, and physical science, on the other—as fully adumbrated by Robert Merton on the basis of Weberian hints—then pointing to this linkage between Marxism and religion is no mere “unmasking” grounded in a hidden political animus. There is no more necessary animus and unmasking in showing the connection between religious movements and Marxism than there is in showing the use of folk musical themes in the sophisticated compositions of the great German and Russian composers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: