How My Professor Taught Marx: A First-Hand Experience with Academic “Marxism”

"Littke Red Karl Marx"

On February 1, when introducing her resolution “Denouncing the Horrors of Socialism,” Republican congresswoman Maria Elvira Salazar stated that “almost 40% of Gen-Z and Millennials think The Communist Manifesto, written by Karl Marx, the father of Marxism, is a better defense of freedom and equality than the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson.”

While bourgeois politicians are notorious for creating statistics out of thin air, Salazar recognizes an unmistakable current in America. Every day, tens of thousands of youth are turning towards the ideas of communism.

Since there is a vacuum of revolutionary leadership, many radicalized youth first learn about Marxism through “radical” professors. Generally, professors do not see or teach Marxism as the revolutionary doctrine of the proletariat but as a tool of academic analysis. Academics thus turn Marxism into a distorted, enfeebled mess.

In my first semester of college, I took a course on modern philosophy. My professor devoted five lectures to Marx, where I learned of a “Marxism” stripped of all its revolutionary character and infected with alien class ideas.

Leon Trotsky
“Anyone acquainted with the history of the struggles of tendencies within workers’ parties knows that desertions to the camp of opportunism … began not infrequently with rejection of the dialectic.” / Image: public domain

The petty-bourgeois rejection of dialectical materialism

Historically, petty-bourgeois “Marxist” intellectuals have had a tendency to reject dialectics. As Trotsky explained in In Defense of Marxism:

Anyone acquainted with the history of the struggles of tendencies within workers’ parties knows that desertions to the camp of opportunism and even to the camp of bourgeois reaction began not infrequently with rejection of the dialectic. Petty-bourgeois intellectuals consider the dialectic the most vulnerable point in Marxism and at the same time they take advantage of the fact that it is much more difficult for workers to verify differences on the philosophical than on the political plane. This long-known fact is backed by all the evidence of experience.

Therefore, it was unsurprising when my professor proclaimed in the first lecture that “the philosophy of Marxism is historical materialism” and that “dialectical materialism is not important.”

Dialectical materialism is an understanding of all processes at work. It explains that everything in nature and society is constantly in flux, coming into being, and passing away. It provides a revolutionary understanding of the world. Nothing is static, contradictions are the driving force of development, and change takes place through revolutions—that is, sudden leaps in which quantity turns into quality and vice versa.

On the other hand, American academia is built on pragmatism. Pragmatism—a combination of empiricism and rationalism—carries Aristotelian formal logic even further towards the logic of “common sense.” It rejects a deeper understanding of the world. Pragmatists care only for practicality, such as how to get from point A to point B in the fastest possible time.

Furthermore, most professors see Marxism as little more than “an academic lens,” which can be swapped with another outlook on a whim. However the real power of Marxism is that it is rooted in the scientific method, which gives us an understanding of all processes. This includes natural and human history, political economy, and the evolution of class society.

Academics like my professor hold similar interests to the petty-bourgeoisie in general; they only want meager reforms to make capitalism as comfortable as possible for themselves. They want to appear as radical gadflies of the bourgeois system, but when the time comes to overthrow the existing society many will freeze like a deer in headlights or jump to the side of capitalism.

The “young Marx”?

In our course, we focused on three works of Marx: A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (Introduction), the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, and Wage Labor and Capital. My professor explained that we would be focusing on the transition of the “young Marx” into the “mature Marx.”

"Young Marx"
The “young Marx” is academia’s attempt at creating a palatable Karl Marx. / Image: public domain

The concept of the “young Marx” is very common in academia. This idea revolves around the belief that his thought is divisible into two distinct periods. The “young Marx” is a humanist whose critique of capitalism revolves around alienation, while the “mature Marx” focuses on an economic critique of capitalism.

Fundamentally, it is not wrong to say that Marx’s ideas developed over time, but this formalistic portrayal of how his ideas took shape has a clear motive behind it. The “young Marx” is academia’s attempt at creating a palatable Karl Marx. By splitting Marxism into two, they portray the very early works of Marx as holding as much importance as his strongest works, rather than being the mere beginning of his ideas. The earlier works of Marx were less polished. Academics take advantage of this to teach students a distorted version with the objective, scientific character of Marxism removed. Marxism becomes just another form of petty-bourgeois radicalism. They teach alienation and economics as if they were directly opposed to one another. In reality, both ideas are interconnected and were prevalent in Marx’s works from the beginning to the end.

Additionally, the “young Marx” theory is blatantly mechanical and eclectic. It disregards the fact that Marx’s ideas constantly developed throughout his life. It offers two static “versions” of Marx, each antithetical to the other. When discussing how he became the “mature Marx,” the debates never focus on historical and personal events in Marx’s life. The search for a “turning point” only focuses on his writings.

The Italian Marxist Antonio Labriola once explained, “ideas do not fall from heaven, and nothing comes to us in a dream.” The proponents of the “young Marx” theory disagree with this. Otherwise, they would not present his earliest works as being more true than his most developed works. To teach Marxism this way—lecturing only on works written before The Communist Manifesto, the 1848 revolutions, or the experience of the International Workingmen’s Association—is like a biology professor only teaching Charles Darwin’s ideas before he wrote On the Origin of Species.

Marx and the permanent revolution

Based on this approach, it was easy to predict my professor’s disdain for the Russian Revolution. In describing historical materialism, my professor explained that revolutions only happen once each stage of class society is fully developed. Hence, he argued that Marx would not have agreed with the Bolsheviks since he allegedly saw the overthrow of capitalism as possible only in countries where bourgeois-democratic demands had already been fulfilled.

Intentional or not, the “young Marx” theory prepared the ground for my professor to slander the October Revolution. He only taught about the ideas Marx developed up to 1847, but it was during the revolutions of 1848 that Marx and Engels reached similar conclusions to those Trotsky reached in 1905 and Lenin reached in 1917.

In 1848, a revolutionary wave swept across Europe, threatening to topple the ruling monarchies. While these revolutions took the form of a struggle for a bourgeois-democratic republic, it was the proletariat that played a leading role in every country. In the February Revolution in France, workers built barricades, looted arms shops, and died on the barricades. After the victory in February, the proletariat still held power on the streets, forcing the bourgeois provisional government to fulfill their demands. They also established organs of workers’ democracy called revolutionary clubs.  The bourgeoisie saw that they could not take power for themselves if the workers remained on the streets, so they began their war against the French workers.

"Horace Vernet-Barricade rue Soufflot" February Revolution 1848 France
The “June Days” uprising showed Marx that workers could not hand power to the bourgeoisie after the victory of a bourgeois-democratic revolution. / Image: Horace Vernet, public domain

After the provisional government dissolved the national workshops in May and purged itself of all socialist members, the workers rose in what became known as the “June Days.” For the first time in history, the proletariat took up arms in a struggle to take power for itself. However, being completely isolated and without leadership, the revolution was defeated four days later. Similar defeats would take place all across Europe.

These events showed Marx that workers could not hand power to the bourgeoisie after the victory of a bourgeois-democratic revolution, nor could they depend on the capitalists to lead the way. Instead, the proletariat had to hold onto their arms and continue the struggle until the bourgeoisie was overthrown as well. Rather than playing a progressive role, the bourgeoisie in 1848 played an actively counterrevolutionary role, helping the monarchs return to power. As Marx explained in his “Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League”:

We told you already in 1848, brothers, that the German liberal bourgeoisie would soon come to power and would immediately turn its newly won power against the workers. You have seen how this forecast came true. It was indeed the bourgeoisie which took possession of the state authority in the wake of the March movement of 1848 and used this power to drive the workers, its allies in the struggle, back into their former oppressed position. Although the bourgeoisie could accomplish this only by entering into an alliance with the feudal party, which had been defeated in March, and eventually even had to surrender power once more to this feudal absolutist party, it has nevertheless secured favorable conditions for itself (my emphasis).

If the Bolsheviks hadn’t led the working class to power, vicious reaction would have triumphed in Russia too. The Bolsheviks were the only ones who understood that without a revolution against the bourgeoisie, everything won in the 1917 February Revolution would soon be lost. “The Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League” shows Marx’s unfavorable position to my professor’s stagism:

While the democratic petty bourgeois want to bring the revolution to an end as quickly as possible, achieving at most the aims already mentioned, it is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent until all the more or less propertied classes have been driven from their ruling positions, until the proletariat has conquered state power and until the association of the proletarians has progressed sufficiently far—not only in one country but in all the leading countries of the world—that competition between the proletarians of these countries ceases and at least the decisive forces of production are concentrated in the hands of the workers. Our concern cannot simply be to modify private property, but to abolish it, not to hush up class antagonisms but to abolish classes, not to improve the existing society but to found a new one.

“Vanguardism” and Leninism

At one point during the course, a student said it was depressing to read the works of Marx knowing that capitalism would never be overthrown. I responded that this was far from the case, as the workers have proven time and time again that they can take power, but have failed to consolidate it because they lacked a Marxist leadership. My professor interrupted, saying that what I described is a “Leninist” standpoint, and discussed how Lenin created the idea of a vanguard party to lead the proletarian revolution.

In reality though, the necessity of a revolutionary party to overthrow capitalism has been a fundamental component of Marxism from the beginning. If the academic “Marxists” were merely to look at the fact that the original title of The Communist Manifesto was The Manifesto of the Communist Party, then they would realize how ridiculous this attack is.

Marx and Engels constantly worked to build a revolutionary party throughout their lifetimes. From 1846, Marx began this struggle by connecting socialists across Europe through the Communist Correspondence Committee. They fused with other groups and created the Communist League. While the league disbanded in 1852, it was the predecessor of the International Workingmen’s Association, better known today as the First International. In his speech at Karl Marx’s grave, Engels explained just how important this was to Marx, stating that the International Workingmen’s Association “was indeed an achievement of which its founder might well have been proud even if he had done nothing else.”

Even if Marx and Engels had never devoted their lives to building a communist party, the lessons of every mass proletarian movement have shown the importance of “vanguardism.” Every failed movement has ultimately come down to a failure of leadership. As Trotsky explained, “the world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat.”

The Bolsheviks did not lead the privileged lives of “armchair revolutionaries.” / Image: Grigory Petrovich Goldstein, public domain

The Bolsheviks: armchair revolutionaries or fighters for the working class?

When discussing the Russian Revolution, my professor described the Bolsheviks as a party that saw themselves as “above the working class” and “gave orders” to the Russian workers while they stayed inside. He chiefly described the Bolsheviks as “armchair revolutionaries.”

If one were to look at the history of the Bolshevik Party, it would be obvious what an absurdly erroneous characterization this is. In the first place, no revolutionary party immediately reaches the point where it can lead the labor movement. Even using my professor’s gross depiction of the Bolsheviks, they could not have become “armchair revolutionaries” without first winning the trust, support, and confidence of the Russian proletariat.

The term “armchair revolutionary” depicts a very privileged lifestyle of people who advocate for revolutionary ideas from the comfort of their armchairs. This was anything but the lifestyle of the Russian revolutionaries. Thousands were sent into exile in Siberia, placed in terrible prison camps, and many even died in this struggle. Lenin and Trotsky were not relaxing in armchairs. They spent years abroad, frequently risked imprisonment and death, and lived in poverty.

Even after the October Revolution, Lenin did not lead the life of an “armchair revolutionary.” Victor Serge described the humble lifestyle of Lenin after the revolution:

In the Kremlin he [Lenin] still occupied a small apartment built for a palace servant. In the recent winter he, like everyone else, had had no heating. When he went to the barber’s he took his turn, thinking it unseemly for anyone to give way to him.

The Bolsheviks were a party of revolutionaries willing to sacrifice their lives to overthrow capitalism. According to Wikipedia, an armchair revolutionary is “a speaker or writer who professes radical aims without taking any action to realize them, as if pontificating ‘from the comfort of the armchair.’” There is a great deal of irony in my professor teaching about Marxism from the comfort of a classroom, while calling those who sacrificed their lives to lead the Russian Revolution “armchair revolutionaries.”

Marx famously explained in his “Theses on Feuerbach” that “the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” He did not devote his life to helping academics with their cultural analysis but to playing his role in the eventual overthrow of capitalism and in turn, the freeing of humanity from class society. His sole mission in life was to help liberate the oppressed from their chains. As Engels said, “for Marx was before all else a revolutionist.”

As long as the youngest layers of society continue to fall under the influence of bourgeois academia, Marxists must continue their struggle against all attempts at distorting Marxism and defend its genuine revolutionary traditions. We are living in a world on fire, where 2.3 billion go hungry despite an overproduction of food and the climate crisis is destroying millions of lives. There is only one thing that can put out this fire: the revolutionary ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky. Join the IMT and help us build a real communist party!

Click to Donate

Are you a communist? Then apply to join Socialist Revolution!

Click to Donate