Philosophers with no clothes: A Review of ‘The War Against Marxism’


This book is refreshing and long overdue. It has two main qualities. First, it dares to call out some of the fashionable idols of academic Marxism and critical theory–including Theodor Adorno, Louis Althusser, Chantal Mouffe, Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Zizek–for being obscurantist on the one hand, and often deeply misleading on the other. Second, it explains and defends the philosophical basis of revolutionary Marxism in a very clear and combative way.

The stakes are high. The issues McKenna addresses are mainly theoretical, but far from abstract. They concern how people experience capitalism, the significance of class and the potential for anti-capitalist resistance. They even raise the question of our ability to understand society at all.

McKenna’s thesis is that many of the leading intellectuals associating themselves with Marx over the last decades have not just obfuscated Marxism, but attacked its essence. As a result they have had a deeply corrosive effect on the left in the universities, and by extension on the wider movement.

In chronological order, his targets include members of the Frankfurt School of critical theory, Althusser and his ‘structuralist Marxist’ followers, some of the big names of leftist literary theory, and the pin-ups of ‘post-Marxism’. Divorced from any real movements, these theorists, he argues, have in different ways stripped Marxism of all that is antagonistic, contradictory and dynamic. The results have been disastrous. McKenna dissects each of these tendencies in detail, and I can only point to some highlights and key themes here.

The benighted masses

Hinting at bluntness to come, the book’s first chapter is titled, ‘Why the Founding Fathers of the Frankfurt School Should be Considered anti-Marxist.’ The Frankfurt school developed a ‘cultural Marxism’ in the 1930s which became influential after the Second World War. Its most influential protagonists, Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer, argued that the mass culture that was developing around them was brainwashing the masses and was the key to understanding capitalism’s staying power. McKenna quotes a typical passage by Adorno and Horkheimer about Hollywood cinema:

no scope is left for the imagination. Those who are so absorbed by the world of the movie–by its images, gestures, and words–that they are unable to supply what really makes it a world, do not have to dwell on particular points of its mechanics during a screening. All the other films and products of the entertainment industry which they have seen have taught them what to expect; they react automatically (pp.23-4).

As McKenna points out, despite Adorno and Horkheimer’s pretentious and opaque writing, (‘its esoteric, incomprehensible idiom is meant to illustrate to the reader that they are dealing with the type of thought which can only be grasped by a glittering and select intellectual elite’), the point they were making was quite simple. They argued that commodification and mass production of culture were blinding people to their real predicament. It wasn’t just that the culture produced by the expanding entertainment industry was promoting capitalist values. Few Marxists would disagree with that. Their argument was that the new techniques of production were inherently mystifying. As they put it:

The stunting of the mass-media consumer’s powers of imagination and spontaneity does not have to be traced back to any psychological mechanisms; he must ascribe the loss of those attributes to the objective nature of the products themselves, especially to the most characteristic of them, the sound film (p.23).

As McKenna argues, this is an elitist approach, and, despite its influence amongst some calling themselves Marxists, it has nothing to do with Marxism. Commodification does have an impact on working-class consciousness, but this is not because of the mass production of culture, which will be an essential part of any socialist society, but because of the commodification of labour power.

As Marx explained, and the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács further elaborated, the commodification of workers’ labour makes exploitation appear as the mere exchange of equivalents–a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work–when it actually involves the robbery by the capitalist of a portion of unpaid labour. As McKenna says, this was for Lukács, ‘the essence of reification, the moment when social relationships appear in the guise of things’ (p.29).

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