‘Are you really sure you want to eat that?’ she asked.

‘Why not?’ I said, pointing to the picture menu. ‘It looks like a delectable dish of tofu’.

‘Stinky tofu?’ she said. ‘Not many foreigners like it’.

‘How can I not eat stinky tofu?’ I said.

I was about to engage in what is arguably one of the most pleasurable experiences in China: a meal with a colleague from Fudan University’s Centre for the Study of Contemporary Marxism Abroad. Why so pleasurable? Apart from the food, it is because my colleague has one of the quickest and sharpest minds I have encountered in a very long time, often leaving me floundering. We share many interests, so we push each other to new thoughts, dipping and weaving in a free play of the mind.

We spoke of Ernst Bloch (1885-1977) and the metaphysics of Marxism; of Anatoly Lunacharsky (1875-1933) and God-building in the Russian Revolution; of revolutionary enthusiasm and calm analysis; and of vulgar Marxism and its dialectical form. All this turned out to be a knot more complex than at first appears to be the case. How so? That knot presents a series of overlapping but apparently irreconcilable oppositions. These oppositions begin with the warm and cold streams of Marxism, but then move on to include fiery passion and careful reason, subjective and objective conditions, and vulgar and ruptural approaches to the dialectic. Let me begin with the warm and cold streams, which will then enable me to engage with the other oppositions.

Lunacharsky and Bloch (who is many respects the heir of the former, even though he was not aware of Lunacharsky’s work) were both proponents of the warm stream of Marxism. By the warm stream I mean the importance of revolutionary passion, of the appeal to the emotions, of a political myth in which one can believe despite the most devastating of setbacks, of a Marxist metaphysics that is able to bring about an Aufhebung of religion. Both Lunacharsky and Bloch were responding to what may be called the cold stream of Marxism, in which rational analysis of the objective conditions of history was the key. All one needed was a greater knowledge of the objectively existing laws of history, especially of the phases of historical development, so that the path to revolution was clear. For Lunacharsky, who was a central figure in the Russian Revolution and to the Left of Lenin, the Second International was the embodiment of this approach, in which Hegel was a bad influence and in which his residue needed to be excised from Marx’s thought. Bloch too found this mechanistic approach troublesome – he had lived long enough to know a little of the Second International, but then also the resolute ‘history is one our side’ approach that continued to bedevil Marxism into the midst of the twentieth century.

So far, this is relatively straightforward: they want a more vibrant, warmer Marxism that touches the heart as well as the mind. They wish to restore the enthusiastic, subjective and moral dimension of Marxism. At this point, one may object: is this not the stuff of demagoguery? Does not such an approach leave one open to the traps of deploying specific techniques to fire up the emotions of the masses? That is, does not this approach leave one open to the charge of ‘vulgar’ Marxism, especially if we understand ‘vulgar’ in its Latin sense of ‘crowd’ and ‘common people’?

Now our knot of problems becomes much more interesting, for Lunacharsky and Bloch (and indeed the Frankfurt School and their inheritors) were profoundly suspicious of ‘vulgar’ Marxism. It all turns on what one means by ‘vulgar’. For them, vulgar Marxism is precisely the coldly rational Marxism I mentioned earlier. Here is the mechanistic, causal understanding of history, which may be broken down into carefully defined stages that lead inexorably to a socialist revolution. But vulgar also operates with the slogan of ‘the base is to blame’. The base or infrastructure provides the real and material cause of all that is; all that is of the superstructure – culture, philosophy, politics, religion, ideology – may be regarded as excretions or epiphenomena of the base. These two elements work smoothly together, for once you know the mechanisms of the base, once you know the socio-economic causes of all that is, you may be able to predict the course of history.

A further question needs to be asked: who is responsible for this vulgar Marxism? Given that it is the exercise of reason over the emotions, the use of cold theory, of calm and calculated analysis and discussion, vulgar Marxism is actually the domain of intellectuals. In other words, this type of Marxism is an intellectualist development.

Its obverse is the warm Marxism I mentioned earlier, the Marxism of emotional engagement, of powerful political myth, of the heart rather than the mind. At this point, the dialectic comes into play. The intellectualist, cold stream of vulgar Marxism is a version that flattens the dialectic inherited from Hegel. Here we find the triads of thesis, antithesis and synthesis; here is the Hegel of the progress of history in grand stages. The other Hegel is somewhat different. Now he becomes the proponent of a ruptural dialectic, one of breaks in continuity. Here subjective intervention creates history, over against the objective unfolding of history. This is the complex and sophisticated dialectic that enamoured Lenin so and was a major factor in formulating the revolutionary strategy that led to the success of the October Revolution.

So we have arrived at an unexpected juncture: vulgar Marxism is the simplistic, intellectualist tendency; ruptural Marxism is the sophisticated, complex dimension. On the side of the former may be gathered cold theory, the exercise of reason and the mechanistic understanding of the stages of history. On the side of the latter do we find warmth, myth, inspiration, and above all the revolutionary break.

Do we then take sides, preferring one or the other in light of our predilections? No, for both are actually part of, and necessary to, the dialectical Marxist tradition. I speak not of an Aristotelian golden mean, with a dose of sober theory functioning to dampen too much revolutionary ardour; or perhaps some fire and zeal in order to counter the killjoy rationalists. Instead, I speak of a dialectical tension between them, the one needing the other in order to make the movement viable. In this tension may be found the classic merger theory of the Erfurt Program of 1891: socialism at an organisational level is the merger of intellectuals and the masses, both of whom learn from one another and are changed in the process.[1] It was certainly not a process of some advanced intellectual lifting workers and peasants to a new level of consciousness.

In this tension may Lenin’s thought and practice be located, between a mechanistic vulgar Marxism and a deep awareness of the ruptural possibilities of the dialectic. Lenin often moves between one and the other, but at his most luminous moments the two are juxtaposed against one another. And here do we find Marx’s own thought (let alone that of Engels), who could outdo the best of the vulgar Marxist themselves in his formulations. At the same time, he was by no means unaware of the depths and complexities of a ruptural appreciation of the dialectic.

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