In an 1875 letter to Wilhelm Bracke, Marx would say that “Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes.” This is the living spirit of Marxist analysis – the emphasis is laid on real struggles, on the forms of social formation these struggles discover in their overturning, to a lesser or greater extent, of the current state of things. This is the essence of one of the most central ways in which Marx and Engels formulate what communism is – as they say in The German Ideology, “Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.”
The Purity Fetish outlook which permeates Western Marxism is fundamentally antagonistic to this living and open Marxist worldview (weltanschauung). It holds pure static ideas as sacred, and it consistently rejects reality when such reality desecrates its pure ideals. This is the essence of the purity fetish outlook – it is an incessant passing of judgement grounded on a superficial assessment of whether reality measures up to pure ideas or not.
Ideologically, it is deeply rooted in the traditions of Western philosophy, dating back at least to the Eleatic school 500 years before Christ. In this school, thinkers like Parmenides and Zeno would put forth the view that truth is unchanging, one, and indivisible. To accept change, contradiction, and a heterogenous understanding of totality would be to participate in the way of falsity and opinion.
With the exceptions of Heraclitus, Hegel, and Marxism, this form of thinking has dominated Western thought up to our day, and, in the Western Marxists, it takes various distinctive forms which, while sustaining the appearance of Marxist analysis, is devoid completely of its revolutionary substance. The diagnosis Engels gave reductive Marxists in an 1890 letter to Conrad Schmidt applies fittingly to Western Marxists – “what all these gentlemen lack is dialectics”.
When I first developed the concept of the purity fetish in October of 2021, there was primarily one form through which I observed the purity fetish manifesting itself in Western Marxism. If there is a common thread found in the Western Marxist tradition, it is its unwavering rejection of socialist experiments – especially those led by Communist Parties.
In the 1990s, following the overthrow of the Soviet Union, Michael Parenti had labelled them the adherents of “pure socialism,” because they imagine, as he argued, “what socialism would be like in a world far better than this one, where no strong state structure or security force is required, where none of the value produced by workers needs to be expropriated to rebuild society and defend it from invasion and internal sabotage.” Gabriel Rockhill called their brand of “critical theory” ABS theory, as in “Anything But Socialism” – their work, in direct and indirect forms, “ultimately leads to an acceptance of the capitalist order since socialism is judged to be far worse.”
The Western Marxists ignore the constant hybrid warfare, as Vijay Prashad labels it, under which the successful revolutionary projects have to construct socialism. They ignore the effects – especially for the experiments in the global South and East – that centuries of colonialism have had in keeping these areas poor and subjugated politically, economically, and culturally to the West. They ignore the colossal pressures, both historically inherited and contemporary, under which socialism is struggled for. And most importantly, they ignore how these pressures shape the parameters of embryonic socialist construction in these areas.
As I argue in the book,
Socialism is not ‘betrayed’ when, encountering the external and internal pressures of imperialism and a national bourgeois class, it is forced to take more so-called ‘authoritarian’ positions to protect the revolution. Socialism is not ‘betrayed’ or transformed into ‘state capitalism’ (in the derogatory, non-Leninist sense) when faced with a backwards economy it takes the risk of tarrying with its opposite and engages a process of opening up to foreign capital to develop its productive forces. The ‘authoritarian’ moment, or the moment of ‘opening up to foreign capital,’ are not an annihilating negation of socialism – as Western Marxists would have you believe – but the sublation of the idealistic conceptions of a ‘pure’ socialism, especially in its earliest stages.
A socialist Russia that had not taken the ‘strategic retreat’ towards Lenin’s New Economic Policy amidst the onslaught of the difficulties of ‘war communism’ (which were forced upon them following their invasion by fifteen countries, including the UK, the US, Japan, Italy, et. al.) would not have survived. Likewise, without the so-called ‘Stalinist’ collectivization, not only would the Soviet Union have remained unindustrialized and poor, but the Hitlerite forces would have been able to – as the West expected (and hoped) – trample over the ‘JudeoBolshevik’ menace, destroying the first worker state and the notion that working class people could, indeed, rule themselves.
Similarly, a less ‘authoritarian’ treatment of the Batista goons after the Cuban revolution would have opened the window for imperialism and national counter-revolutionary forces to overthrow the popular revolution. A less ‘authoritarian’ Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) would not have survived the hybrid warfare waged on it by the US empire (and its NATO lackeys), who killed twenty percent of their population during the war and who have strangled their country with one of the most aggressive sanction regimes in the world for 70 years straight.
The ‘authoritarianism’ that the Western Marxist’s purity fetish condemns is in every instance a necessary component to protect a revolution’s sovereignty and socialist democracy. But, since they treat ‘authoritarianism’ and ‘democracy’ abstractly; failing to ask: ‘democracy for which class?’ and ‘authoritarianism against which class?’ – they are unable to see the necessary role ‘authoritarianism’ against imperialism, and against the national classes which collaborate with imperialism, plays in securing a richer, broader, and more developed form of socialist democracy for the common people.
The Western Marxists’ purity fetish makes them immune to seeing socialist construction as a process, one which will, undoubtedly, develop contradictions which will in time be likely overcome.
A paradox arises in the Western Marxists sacrosanct abstract ideals: namely, while real socialism is always too impure to obtain their support – these same “Marxists” won’t hesitate to endorse, directly or indirectly, capitalist-imperialism in its attempts to undermine both socialist experiments and non-socialist experiments that exists outside of US imperialism’s spheres of influence. As Alan Freeman and Radhika Desai write in their recent dossier calling for a global anti-imperialist left, “it no longer makes sense to describe [the current Western left] as ‘Left’,” since they are, at their core, partisans of the Western imperialist states.
This form of so-called Marxism, grounded on the purity fetish outlook, has been for decades an indispensable component of bourgeois hegemony. Their theorist’s role as left-wing delegitimizers of socialist and anti-imperialist states has earned them the part of being tambourines enhancing the tune of mainstream media’s war drums. They are, as I’ve labeled them in the book, the agents of a controlled counter-hegemony – the radical recuperators, as Rockhill calls them, that absorb any and all dissenting attitudes in the masses into their compatible left, leaving capitalist-imperialism fundamentally unchallenged.
At its core the purity fetish Marxists express a form of that which Georg Lukacs called “indirect apologetics:” their superficial repudiation of capitalism – when conjoined with their rejection of real socialism – is one of the most effective ways of affirming the dominant capitalist mode of life. They accept, at least in practice, Churchill’s dictum about capitalism being the worst system except for all the other ones. For them bourgeois liberal democracy is, like the world Leibniz’s God has created, the best of all possible worlds. This makes it the ideal form of controlled opposition; an opposition that buys fully into Thatcher’s TINA (there is no alternative), and hence, will never substantially oppose the existing order, for it considers the alternative far worse. As Keti Chukhrov describes it, their key function is in the “radicalization of the impossibility of exit.”
As the general crises of capital are intensified by what John Bellamy Foster has called the “two forms of exterminism: [namely,] nuclear war and the planetary ecological emergency,” it becomes indispensable for Marxists to struggle against this purity fetish outlook. It is a worldview which not only obstructs the acquisition of truth, but vacillates from simply being revolutionary futile to being an indispensable material and ideological force for the conservation of the dominant order.
In the US the purity fetish takes an additional two forms which I would like to briefly bring up. In each case, again, it prevents the acquisition of truth and the development of a revolutionary movement.
There is a strong current on the left, both in social democrat and in communist spaces, that views the Trump voting part of the working class as constituting a ‘fascist’ threat. These workers are seen as a contaminated basket of deplorables, in the words of comrade Clinton, who are unfit to be organized.
As someone who has spent their whole organizing life in the Midwest, the area of the country most densely populated with pro-Trump workers, these sentiments are far from true. But even if they were, even if this was the most backward part of the working class, what is the point of communists if not precisely to lift the consciousness of workers – regardless of their ideological starting point? Would we not just be preaching to the choir if we expected the working class to already meet all the pure standards of our “enlightened” social consciousness? The task of communists is to organize along class lines, not ideological ones, and to raise the consciousness of workers – regardless of their ideological standing – to socialist class consciousness.
As Gramsci would put it, the task of the communist is to find the kernels in the masses’ incoherent worldview which could be rearticulated towards socialism. Patronizing attitudes towards the masses makes this task impossible. One must learn from the masses in order to guide them towards socialism. The educator, as Marx noted, must themselves be educated.
If the purity fetish leads one to reject organizing the 40 percent or so of workers which voted for Trump, this paralyzes the class struggle at a time when conditions couldn’t be riper for its development. If this is true of those on the ultra-left who ‘cancel’ the Trump part of the working class because it fails to meet their pure standards of what enlightened social consciousness workers must have before being organized, it couldn’t be more true of those fringe elements which see all non-indigenous workers as “settlers.”
The second unique form the purity fetish takes in the American Marxists can be found in their assessment of their national past. The dialectical worldview (both in Hegel and in Marxism) rejects the idea of an unchanging, pure, ahistorical universal, and instead urges that universals are necessarily tied to historically conditioned concrete particulars. Universals are always concrete – that is, they exist and take their form through the particular.
What does this tell us about socialism? Well, simply that there is no such thing as abstract socialism. Socialism is a universal which cannot exist unless concretized through the particular. In every country it has taken root in, socialism has had to adapt itself to the unique characteristics of the peoples that have waged and won the struggle for political power. In China this has taken the form of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics; in Cuba this has meant incorporating José Martí and the anti-colonial traditions into socialist construction; in Venezuela this has taken the form of Bolivarian socialism; in the Plurinational state of Bolivia this has taken the form of combining Marxism with the indigenous communist traditions which have been around for centuries; in the continent of Africa this has taken the form of Pan-African socialism, and so on. In each case the struggle has been, as Georgi Dimitrov had already noted in 1935, “national in form and socialist in content.”
In various parts of the U.S. left, the purity fetish outlook has obscured this historical lesson, and made rampant the phenomenon which Dimitrov called national nihilism. Our people’s history is reduced to slavery, settler colonialism, imperialism, and all the evils of capital and the state. In doing so, they reject drawing from their national past to give form to socialist content. Far from the ‘progressivism’ they see in this, what this actually depicts is a liberal tinted American exceptionalism, which thinks that the struggle for socialism in the US will itself not have to follow this concrete universal tendency seen around the world, where socialism functions as the content which takes form (i.e., concretizes) according to the unique circumstances in which it is being developed.
This has prevented the U.S. left from genuinely learning from its progressive history and connecting with its people. It makes impossible the task of rearticulating the kernels of progressive thought in our people’s common sense towards socialism. It prevents the American Marxists from understanding their national past dialectically – as a social totality in constant movement propelled by its immanent objective contradictions. Because our national past is impure, the purity fetish Marxists make the task of learning from our progressive struggles – from Douglass to Du Bois and Winston – impossible; these figures and the movements they were attached to are held to be – in a form of Left-wing McCarthyism – anti-American.
The anti-communist myth we fought against last century has been accepted in this one, namely, that America and the American people are on one side and socialism on the other, with an unbridgeable gap in the middle. The acceptance of this McCarthyite nonsense has been thanks to the development of the purity fetish within a greatly debilitated communist movement that was left wandering in the dark after the overthrow of the Soviet Union.
But times have changed. And so can we.
Today, as the younger generations of Americans face – for the first time in history – living standards worse than their parents; as 60 thousand people continue to die a year because they do not have health insurance; as 60% of Americans are a lost paycheck away from joining the 600 thousand homeless wandering around in a country with 33 times as many empty homes as homeless people; as 34 million Americans, including one in eight children, experience hunger in a country which throws away 40% of its food supply; as stagnant wages and inflation have working class American struggling to make ends meet; as failed proxy wars and global dedollarization kicks in – demonstrating with undoubtable clarity the moribund character of US capitalist-imperialism; as, in short, it becomes clear that neither the people nor the ruling class can continue in the old way – signifying the objective revolutionary conditions of our historical moment – the purity fetish today stands as the primary barrier preventing the development of the subjective conditions for a revolutionary movement.
We must overcome the purity fetish outlook before it obliterates our ability to overthrow, in a timely manner, our demented ruling class that is pushing the world to the precipice of nuclear Armageddon in the name of sustaining their global hegemony. These enemies of humanity are wobbling, but, as Lenin said, they will never fall if not toppled over.
Carlos L. Garrido is a philosophy teacher at Southern Illinois University, editor at the Midwestern Marx Institute, and author of The Purity Fetish and the Crisis of Western Marxism and Marxism and the Dialectical Materialist Worldview.