Social Thought Post-Marx

A Review of Gabriel Kolko's After Socialism: Reconstructing Critical Social Thought

After Socialism: Reconstructing Critical Social Thought
by Gabriel Kolko
Routledge, 2006
195 pp.

Gabriel Kolko’s insights into so many questions I had about socialism, both formulated and not — as lacking authoritative scholarship, leave alone my inability to think through some basic premises — is liberating. I learned more at Kolko’s instruction about Marx than I ever had from Marx’s writings or their acolytes. As Kolko illustrates, Marx is hard to understand because he is obtuse, supercilious, opaque, boring and utopian. Marx’s notions of the withering away of the state, and classes, are romantic. Marx’s economic theory owes a debt practically to its very existence to the assumptions of laissez-faire economists and theorists such as David Ricardo, as well as Hegelian dialectical mysticism.

There is no Marxism without Hegelian dialecticism, observes Kolko, which doesn’t exist in the real world. “The result of trying to employ Hegel was utter confusion and mystery wrapped around a cause and sense of injustice that was really quite simple and, had it remained that way, would have appealed to more people and retained their commitment for far longer… [Socialist goals should] have been far simpler and more easily expressed and defended, but socialism from its inception was hobbled with an incomprehensible Marxist method and mysticism… Analytically, it [should have been] far less determinist and far more useful in a world full of unpredictable surprises and changes… Faith, in large part to confront its obscurity and inconsistencies, thereby became integral to Marx’s entire system.” These are just some of the unscientific, confusing traits in Marxism, writes Kolko.

Kolko dwells on nineteenth and early twentieth century thinkers, which he characterizes as an optimistic age that believed in progress and the betterment, indeed the perfectibility, of the human condition. Kolko places Marx in a historical context as a part and product of changing fashions that included Fabians, liberal nationalism, anti-industrialism, mysticism, religious theory, phrenology, Christians, spiritualists, feminists, dress reform advocates, “and many more who were intensely obsessed by ideas they believed [were] certain… Romanticism and a faith in pseudo-science explain dimensions of this mood… What all these doctrines most shared in common…was generosity and faith — thinkers wished to be good and they believed that most people would follow them.”

Kolko says Marx referred to his thought as communist to distinguish it from this larger socialist movement. The goals and the reasons for them that socialists, including Marx, held were laudable; thusly Kolko assails the illusory analytic framework of Marx’s social economic theory: Marxism was a less formidable challenge to capitalism than might have emerged in the absence of its relative significant organizational strength. Indeed says Kolko, with their explosive growth through the late nineteenth century, the socialist parties abandoned and compromised their principles and theoretical capacity in favor of the organizational strength that sought power for its own sake, along with all its baggage.

Kolko examines in detail the catastrophic eventuality of the World War in 1914, and its deleterious affects on the socialist movement, the human psyche, and the world. There would have been no Bolshevism, writes Kolko, without the German Social Democratic Party’s nationalist support of the world war. Thusly, says Kolko, there would have been no repressive, autocratic socialist model to further tarnish the socialist ideal.

Marxism, says Kolko, avers economic and thusly social laws — positivistic, deterministic, and mechanistic — that unfold inexorably; and it is practically a matter of awaiting the expropriation of the expropriators by the proletariat, the workers. Unfortunately, he says, this determinism and these unvarying laws don’t exist in a real world subject to contingency, unpredictability, especially wars, more recently serious ecological challenges, human greed and capriciousness.

Marxism is penurious in its predictive character, says Kolko, a trait by which the advantageousness of a social theory should be judged. Marxism’s indecipherability makes impossible the application of its principles to the colossal modern challenges, says Kolko. It follows with almost mathematical precision that Marxism thusly has no principles. With unparalleled capacity for nuance, Kolko explains the distortion of the past-historical, and present, role of the proletariat.

Kolko shows that Marxism provides no useful analytic tools or framework to understand, and thusly to respond, to: collusion of capitalists to maintain their privileges, state intervention in the economy, war, ethnic nationalism, religious fanaticism, racism, opportunism, and massive population migration, of salient significance even in Marx’s time. That these factors exist outside the unyielding laws of Marxist economic theory are monumental errors, according to Kolko.

Ambition of leaders, always a political problem, was one also in the socialist movement, as Kolko shows. These leaders and their ambitions manipulated the socialist movement and Marxist economic theory to serve too often nefarious ends. The consequent authoritarianism was another spike in the coffin of the socialist movement, and also became the cause of others.

Capitalists think if they refute socialism they thereby prove the superiority of capitalism. One should not think that Kolko’s rejection of socialism is ipso facto his affirmation of capitalism. On the contrary, here as in the rest of his opus, Kolko is stern and exhaustive in the seriousness with which he inventories the problems that capitalism visits on the world. Socialist and capitalist theory are not two poles, elucidates Kolko, but only two peculiar economic models, both of which have, for reasons some common, some different, produced cataclysm.

Kolko’s book is flawed with several blemishes such as suspect assertions, particularly questionable economic and mathematical ratios and equivalences and their relative extrapolation over varying time lags. Kolko indulges a slight repetitiveness that is however, more strength than weakness, in that it captures nuance and comprehensiveness more than it indicates a lack of imagination. Kolko’s thought veers on eurocentrism. Mao is underrepresented. These flaws aren’t worth dwelling on in the context of the magnitude of Kolko’s vision and exegesis. Lenin gets in-depth treatment. What Kolko lacks on the occasional scientific lapse in proof — which standard especially in economics is often anyway more subjective — he makes up for in profundity and the deep-felt humanity of a trenchant scholar.

At this historical juncture, writes Kolko, our false and failed starts are less dangerous to our survival than apathy and the status quo. It is on us to effect change; else momentum will carry toward its inexorable end. Kolko’s prescriptions are foremost, universal demilitarization and disarmament. He recommends taxing the rich to fund prodigal public spending.

After Socialism is about thinking about the human condition, its problems and their potential solutions. With only a few miscues, every sentence is chock full of insight, and deep, yet subtle, analysis. Kolko’s repeated explicit and implicit allusions to the problems we face, and their threat to the survival of the species and planet, along with his austere reasonableness, border on the artistic only because they’re more precisely scientific. After Socialism is thusly a contribution to the process of thinking and clarity that Kolko also designates as remedies to our social ills. It is, thereby, a contribution to humanity.

Tracy Phillip McLelland is an activist and pro bono (or if not freelance) writer living in Chicago. Tracy can be reached at Read other articles by Tracy Phillip, or visit Tracy Phillip's website.

3 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Gary Lapon said on September 4th, 2007 at 2:06pm #

    To save me the time of crafting a response to this:

    I would also recommend checking out Paul D’Amato’s book “The Meaning of Marxism,” which might clarify Marxism for you as not deterministic or unyielding, but in fact incredibly (at its core, and by necessity) flexible and adaptable.

    A variety of regimes (Stalin, Mao, etc.) have (mis)used Marxism as an ideological tool to gain the support of the downtrodden and the left, but this does not mean that their pseudo-socialism is the inevitable result of the application of Marxism to organizing. To claim that would be to fall prey to the same sort of determinism that Kolko falsely ascribes to Marx. Using Kolko’s method, perhaps we should define “freedom” and “democracy” as equivalent to the ideology of George Bush, and then claim that any attempt to achieve either will result in brutality and oppression, so we must reject these ideals as idealistic.

    “Kolko’s prescriptions are foremost, universal demilitarization and disarmament. He recommends taxing the rich to fund prodigal public spending.” These are great ideas, but they cut at the very heart of capitalism. Those who control the wealth produced by the working class do not participate in the production of that wealth, so they need militaries to protect their ill-gotten dough. They will not be eager to disarm, and will not disarm as long as they remain in power. Similarly, the rich (in other words, the ruling class) are not going to allow themselves to be taxed to any great extent unless they are forced to. So the question is, who takes power in order to achieve these and other goals, to run society to meet human needs? Marx’s contribution was to demonstrate the potential for the working class to take power and do just that, and it is still very much relevant today.

  2. sudhir kumar said on December 23rd, 2007 at 1:43am #

    what do you mean by marxism

  3. Leann Schneider said on March 24th, 2008 at 7:11pm #

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    The Skull and Bones Society