Scientific and political writing of Paweł Krawczyk (

Why Marxists describe Marxism as “cryptic”?

I have recently stumbled upon quite a recent book, “The Oxford Handbook of Karl Marx”, which is yet another modern attempt to explain #Marxism to people who try to “read Marx” due to his “continued” or even “increased relevance” in the face of imminent “collapse of the world capitalism”.

Why do you need “handbooks” and “companions” for a 19th century theory claimed to be “as relevant as ever”? “The Oxford Handbook” admits:

For those wishing to better understand Marx’s work, the historical debates and traditions within Marxism, and the range of ways in which Marxist theory is being used for social science today, finding a point of entry can be daunting.

Maybe it's only the Oxford team who experiences some perceptive difficulties when reading Marx? But no, another popular handbook “A Companion To Marx's Capital” by David Harvey lulls the newbies through the “cryptic” passages only to eventually insist on just taking them as granted:

Marx here lays out fundamental categories in an a priori and somewhat cryptic, take-it-or-leave-it fashion that could do with elaboration. But I am also interested in getting you, as quickly as possible, familiar with the kind of close reading of Capital that is necessary if you are to understand it. Don’t worry, I will not continue at this level of intensity!

Harvey in his book uses the word “cryptic” exactly ten times and it's always about Marx assertions (“a mere four pages of rather cryptic assertions to lay out the fundamental concepts”, “Marx cryptically asserts”) that simply have to be accepted on their face value... “if you want to understand it”.

You really want do understand it, don't you? Or you want to look dumb among your Marxist friends?

Well, nobody wants to look dumb, except if the only way of understanding is to accept someone's “cryptic assertions” point-blank, is this really “understanding”?

And why is it “daunting”? “The Oxford Handbook” explains:

Marx developed a technical terminology that Marxists have found very useful (e.g., use-​value, exchange-​value, organic composition of capital, etc.) and a method of analysis (dialectical materialism), both of which can be difficult for the uninitiated to understand.

And here we get to the core challenge: you can't read Marx works without an “initiation”. Doesn't it apply to any science, which Marxism claims to be? No, at least not in the same sense: you can study modern economy, physics or computing starting from a very basic knowledge of mathematics. The concepts of “interest” (finance) or “energy” (physics) or “information” (IT) are described using mathematical terms. Most importantly, they are interchangeable, so you can speak of “year's interest on kilowatt-hours spent to process gigabytes of information”.

But that doesn't work in Marxism, for many reasons. For a technical analysis of the, well, “technical terminology” I recommend “The Logic of the Planned Economy: The Seeds of the Collapse” (1991) by Paul H. Dembinsky and “Main Currents of Marxism by Leszek Kołakowski.

My favourite however is the second one: the unique “method of analysis” or dialectical materialism.

Dialectical materialism

I have already written about this method before in my article Marxist dialectics as a instrument of self-delusion, but that was mostly focused on practical, historic examples of its application. “The Oxford Handbook” conveniently provides a tutorial on systematic application of dialectical method, which is composed of a number of steps and statements of “laws of #dialectics”.

Any open mind will approach them with curiosity and try to make any sense of these famous laws... which unavoidably end in a huge cognitive dissonance, because these laws go like this:

“Every thing is undergoing quantitative change of one kind or another, and at one speed or another”

Wait, is that it? Yes, that's about all.

There's a few more “laws of dialectics” and all of them display about as much of sophistication and depth as the one above. There's nothing more, no further secrets of universe hidden in the dialectic method! The best description I've seen so far was coined by a Polish philosopher and disillusioned Marxist Leszek Kołakowski:

The diamat [dialectical materialism] consists of assertions of various kinds. Some of them are banalities of common sense and contain nothing specifically Marxist. Others are philosophical creeds, unprovable and unsolvable by scientific means. Still others are simply nonsense. The fourth category includes assertions that can be interpreted variously and, depending on the interpretation, belong to one, the second or the third of the preceding categories.

You may argue there's nothing wrong with the “undergoing quantitative change” statement — but that's precisely the definition of truism, that Kołakowski is talking about:

Among the claims that are common-sense clichés are such 'laws of dialectics' as saying that everything in the world is somehow connected or that everything changes. These claims are not disputed by anyone, but their cognitive and scientific value is negligible. (...) Phenomena in the world are interconnected, but the problems of scientific analysis of the world lie not in how to take this all-connectedness into account — for this is precisely impossible — but which connections to single out as important and which to omit. On this, in turn, Marxism-Leninism has only to offer the saying that in a chain of phenomena there is always a 'main link' to be grasped. This saying, it seems, means only that in practical behaviour certain links between things are, depending on one's aims, important and others unimportant or less important. It is also a trivial truth of common sense, devoid of cognitive value, since no rules follow from it to establish a hierarchy of importance of relationships for any particular case. The same applies to the saying that “everything changes”; only empirical statements that describe individual changes, their nature, pace, etc., have cognitive value. The saying made philosophical sense in Heraclitus' time, but soon descended into the order of common wisdom known to everyone.

Bertell Ollman, who authored “The Oxford Handbook” chapter on “dialectical method” does seem to capture the core problem of religious approach to the method, yet he clearly presents dialectics as the most powerful analytical tool of all times:

Most methods are meant to apply to only one or at most a few of our problems, but there is at least one method that applies to almost everything, and that is dialectics. It is this vast range and what is required to cover so much territory that gives dialectics its special status but also makes it so difficult to explain, and so easy—​for friends and foes alike—​to distort.

Once you know what really are the “laws”, it's not hard to understand how Soviet biological frauds Trofim Lysenko. Olga Lepeshinskaya and others happily used dialectical method in their works, as it allowed them to deliver an incoherent stream of falsehoods and sylogisms mixed with politically correct references to Marx, Engels, Stalin etc under the guise of “scientific method”. A short sample from Lepeshinskaya's 1950 speech, where she was proving emergence of living cells from inorganic material while bashing “idealistic genetics”:

In our country there are no longer classes hostile to each other, and the struggle of the idealists against the dialectical materialists still, depending on whose interests it defends, has the character of a class struggle. Indeed, the followers of Virchow, Weismann, Mendel and Morgan, who speak of the invariability of the gene and deny the influence of the external environment, are the preachers of the pseudo-scientific stuff of the bourgeois eugenicists and of all perversions in genetics, on the soil of which grew the racial theory of fascism in the capitalist countries. The Second World War was unleashed by the forces of imperialism, which had racism in its armoury.

The whole speech is such a vicious hodge-podge of logical fallacies, mixing biology with capitalism, imperialism, racism, blaming and shaming of political opponents, and countless appeals to authority of the saints: Marx, Engels and ultimately Stalin:

The development of the cell is quite new! Virchow and modern biologists believe that every cell is from a cell. But Engels says something completely different: “The cellless begin their development with a simple protein lump, pulling and retracting in one form or another pseudopodia, — with a monera” (F. Engels. Dialectics of Nature, p. 245. Gosudolitizdat, 1948). (...) Engels defines life as “...the mode of existence of protein bodies, the essential point of which is the constant exchange of substances with the external nature surrounding them, and with the cessation of this exchange of substances life also ceases, which leads to the decomposition of protein” (F. Engels. Dialectics of Nature, p. 244).

If we now return the the Harvey's rather puzzling passages on how you need to accept Marx's “cryptic assertions” — no pressure of course, that's only “if you want to understand” them — that was one of the most common tricks in the world of “dialectical thinking”. If took Harvey's offer for granted, you haven't actually understood anything but your brain has been already rewired: you accepted the new meaning of the word “understand”, and a dozen of other well-established terms that have a very special meaning in Marxism.

Marx is never wrong

What I find very interesting is the attitude of modern Marxists towards the criticism directed at their start's theories. Marx is never wrong — Marx, at worst, could have been “misread”. It's your fault, not Marx's. In most cases, of course, this happens to those “uninitiated”, but can also happen to those who spend their lives on reading Marx.

“The Oxford Handbook” uses this argument rather frequently, for example quoting one respected researcher who “80 years ago” (as they emphasise) patronised the critics of long dead philosopher that “The Manifest is a cryptic and epigrammatic document and therefore easily misread”. He's talking about one of the fundamental documents, “The Communist Manifesto”, which was targeted at the broadest audience and for the whole century was the defining document for the communist goals and methods.

Yet, according to the modern Marxists, you are apparently not expected to simply read what Marx and Engels have written in their own words, in the context of their 19th century. Furthermore, you are neither expected nor allowed to analyse their writings using logic or confront it against empirical evidence. You are expected to apply the very special “method of analysis”, available to chosen ones, otherwise you won't be able to “understand” its “correct meaning” as imagined by today's Marxists who desperately want it to remain it “increasingly relevant” even when Marx's postulates are “cryptic” in today's context.

How is that different from 20th century scientology terminology as invented by L. Ron Hubbard, rather universally perceived as pseudo-scientific and sectarian? As Hubbard explains:

It was found that many old words in the field of philosophy, when used, conveyed to people an entirely new idea. The exactness of Dianetics and Scientology required a more precise approach. This approach was achieved by special naming with an eye to minimal confusion with already supposed or known phenomena.

And in the Scientology literature you can actually find excuses identical to those of the modern “explainers of Marxism”:

The only reason a person gives up a study or becomes confused or unable to learn [Scientology] is because he or she has gone past a word that was not understood.

Interestingly, in a rather funny coincidence (?) both”The Oxford Handbook” and Hubbard use the phrase “technical terminology” for their obfuscating use of common terms. Harvey's passage on “accepting critical assertions if you want to understand them” could be just as well written by Hubbard too.

Why is that? There's a very good reason for such obfuscation: while Marxism has been originally declared a proletarian science, it's the opposite of it. In the early days of Bolshevik revolution it was common for an engineer or a mason (both using maths and geometry in their work on daily basis) to stand up on a party meeting and say “excuse me, comrade, but this simply doesn't add up”.

Marxism as an elitist philosophy

Here's exactly where dialectics comes handy, as it allows you to twist meaning of literally everything in order to prove anything, and this is how you end up with a minority party calling themselves “bolshevik” (“the majority ones”), executing fellow Socialist Revolutionary party and anarchists. Ultimately, with dialectics, you end up in the familiar world where “war is peace; freedom is slavery; ignorance is strength”, and I have given more real-life examples in my article Marxist dialectics as a instrument of self-delusion.

With dialectical method, any common conceptual framework or set of fundamental value which could be used to say “wait comrades, we have diverted too much” loses any sense, because now any level of diversion can be dialectically excused. And ultimately the only way of auditing the compliance of the system with its own values is to refer to a higher authority, which will provide one dialectical interpretation today, but it may provide a completely opposite interpretation tomorrow. The only thing you are expected to do is to accept each of them at any given moment without asking questions.

Now, here's the best part: because everyone stands accused of ignorance and lack of sufficient “initiation” required to properly “understand” the special “method”, no criticism is fruitful because any criticism can be evaded. You can't even argue with Marx's written words, because you have, of course, “misread” them!

And Harveys of our times will conveniently explain what Marx truly meant by overlaying his 150 years old “cryptic assertions” on today's context. Have you ever argued with Jehowa's Witnesses?

Once thing is evident in the modern Marxist literature is a rather desperate desire to keep Marxism somewhat afloat — not because it's an useful or precise tool for explaining modern world, but because it's one of the last “grand theories” (literal terms used by “The Oxford Handbook”). And behind the promise of simplicity that comes bundled with these “grand theories” unfortunately comes a requirement for complete immersion in its sectarian language in order to “understand” and, most importantly, switch off any safety brakes most humans have in the form of critical thinking, life experience, mathematics and logic.

But these are required in order to accept Marxism's “simple” solutions: like eradication of a whole class of a society.

Paweł Krawczyk