In an article in Fox Business, New York Post’s Isabel Vincent reports that Patrisse Khan-Cullors, a leader of the Black Lives Matters organization, has purchased a 1.4 million dollar home in an upscale Los Angeles enclave. Her real estate investments (Topanga Canyon is not the only one) comes in the wake of Khan-Cullors signing a multiyear deal with Warner Brothers. She is now fabulously rich. Vincent (and others) find this curious because Khan-Cullors is a self-described Marxist. Will Khan-Cullors soon preach what she practices? Or has she already been doing that?
Khan-Cullors’ Marxism would have to be self-described; I don’t see a materialist conception of history in the Black Lives Matter movement. I try to refrain from speaking for the dead, but I have closely studied the corpus of Karl Marx’s work and I feel safe in saying he would be horrified to see a corporate-backed race hustler laying claim to his legacy, parleying life-long sacrifices in the service of the proletarian movement into a multimillion dollar contract to misdirect segments of the working class.
I know what you’re thinking. But you’re wrong. That’s a misdirection play. The Communist Manifesto does not straightforwardly call for the abolition of the family. The Black Lives Matter manifesto, “What We Believe” (removed from their website, you can find it curated here), calls for “disrupt[ing] the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement.” Rightwingers pull this quote to condemn BLM as Marxist. But the line is only superficially leaning on the rhetoric of the Manifesto.
In Chapter Two of the Manifesto, Marx and Engels write, “Abolition of the family! Even the most radical flare up at this infamous proposal of the Communists. On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family, based? On capital, on private gain. In its completely developed form, this family exists only among the bourgeoisie. But this state of things finds its complement in the practical absence of the family among the proletarians, and in public prostitution. The bourgeois family will vanish as a matter of course when its complement vanishes, and both will vanish with the vanishing of capital. Do you charge us with wanting to stop the exploitation of children by their parents? To this crime we plead guilty.”
Marx and Engels are lodging a grievance. As they survey history, they see class-based existence progressively and systemically destroying traditional family and kinship ties among those who produce surplus and value in society, alienating women from men and children from their parents and turning them into instruments for supporting history’s succession of leisure classes and, especially in the context of the capitalist mode of production, facilitating commerce. Engels wrote an entire book on this theme titled The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, based on Marx’s unpublished analysis of Lewis Morgan’s landmark Ancient Society. (In the present essay, I elaborate Marx and Engels’ argument. For a detailed analysis of the BLM line see my Disrupting the Western-Prescribed Nuclear Family Requirement. What Does That Mean? A Lot More than You Think.)
At the time Marx and Engels were writing the Manifesto, the family had practically disappeared among the proletariat (“practical” here in its actual meaning, as in practice). Family only really continues its existence among and for the capitalist class, and in a perverse form; for the bourgeoisie are the personification of prevailing class power and thus their family form prevails (as well as their morality). The point of overthrowing capitalism and establishing a socialism that puts a nation (workers “of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie”) on the path to communism is not to abolish the family generally (or morality generally, etc), but to abolish the bourgeoisie family specifically, an action that will at the same time restore and raise up the proletarian family. Marx and Engels were committed to egalitarian relations between the sexes (which presupposes there are such things). They were feminists who saw class division as destructive to these relations.
When rightwingers and misguided leftists tell us that Marxist communism denies “eternal truths,” such as freedom and justice, that it seeks to abolish all religion, all morality, constituting these instead on a new basis, they apparently fail to see that these passages are in scare quotes or understand why they are in set off this way. Marx and Engels are mocking them. The passage in question: “‘Undoubtedly, it will be said, ‘religious, moral, philosophical, and juridical ideas have been modified in the course of historical development. But religion, morality, philosophy, political science, and law, constantly survived this change. There are, besides, eternal truths, such as Freedom, Justice, etc., that are common to all states of society. But Communism abolishes eternal truths, it abolishes all religion, and all morality, instead of constituting them on a new basis; it therefore acts in contradiction to all past historical experience.’”
The authors follow these passages with this (and this is the point): “What does this accusation reduce itself to? The history of all past society has consisted in the development of class antagonisms, antagonisms that assumed different forms at different epochs.” They continue, “But whatever form they may have taken, one fact is common to all past ages, viz., the exploitation of one part of society by the other. No wonder, then, that the social consciousness of past ages, despite all the multiplicity and variety it displays, moves within certain common forms, or general ideas, which cannot completely vanish except with the total disappearance of class antagonisms.”
Far from seeing the family as a mere social construction in the modern sociological (i.e. postmodernist) sense, Marx and Engels both believed that the family was one of the foundational elements of human social relations. Necessary social relations have two purposes: in the first place to reproduce individual individual existence; in the second, to produce offspring and develop them in the context of family and community. Production and reproduction are the essentials of life. The second is imperative for propelling the species into the future. And it depends on the first. This is true not just for the human animal but for all animals. It must be remembered that Marx and Engels accepted the science of natural history. They were Darwinists in that domain. They build on to Darwin (before Darwin was known to them) an account of the social history of the human species. They show that the historically concrete form the family takes is shaped by the manner in which history is made—and history is made in the welter of material production. The crooked to be set straight is the injustice of humanity losing control over self and family with the emergence of social class and the ideological structures which conceal it. This is Marx’s theory of alienation. Marxism is a complete thought.
To thoroughly grasp Marx and Engels point, therefore, one must read the Communist Manifesto with a global understanding of Marx’s conception of human society, in which it is recognized that there is, as the product of natural history, an original sexual division of labor that underpinned the family structure in the context of democratic and egalitarian society. This is the initial position. With the emergence of social class and the state and law, human being becomes alienated from his species-being, women became alienated from and subordinated to men, women and children became property, and thus the natural division of labor based on sex was transformed into exploitative gender relations specified concretely with successive modes of production, each with a development driven by internal contradictions in the forces and relations of production ascertainable using the method of historical materialism. The mission of the proletarian is to get the world back to the initial position but at a higher technological level of development, where necessary labor is eliminated (or minimal) and we all enjoy the freedom and leisure now enjoyed by the bourgeoisie. This means the species must control the family, not abolish it.
Postmodernism doesn’t merely bury Marx’s straightforward theory under a pile of rubbish. It has nothing really to do with Marx’s materialist conception of history at all except to appeal to its name. Postmodernism is an idealist philosophy. Marx was a materialist. Rightwing thinkers like Jordan Peterson, and even center-left thinkers like James Lindsay, while getting the critique of identity politics superficially right, get the deep core of the New Left wrong because they fail to grasp the difference, a failure that allows them to continue supporting bourgeois arrangements. There is no evolutionary line from the New Left to historical materialism. It’s a clean break. Or, precisely, a return to Hegelianism. Marx stood Hegel on his feet. The New Left stands Marx on his head. That breaks the wrong chain.
Perhaps nobody gets Marxism more wrong that Khan-Cullors and her comrades. Deploying neologisms like “cisgender” and “trans-antagonist,” the Black Lives Matter manifesto does not identify the alienating social and ideological structures of class division and corporate power as obstacles to overcome but rather identifies as problems the natural and material facts of sex and family. Blacks Lives Matter is an expression of nihilism. As such, it piles on more layers of alienation, an ideology ideal for reproducing capitalist exploitation in the era of corporate power. That this quasi-religious doctrine is embraced by millions of workers is a spectacular propaganda achievement, a testament to the power inhering in possessing a monopoly over the ideological means of production.
Returning the question of personal gain in the name of social justice, Vincent reports that “Khan-Cullors, 37, signed a multi-platform deal with Warner Bros in October, although it is not clear how much she is paid by BLM since their finances flow through a complex web of for-profit and nonprofit corporate entities.” I have blogged about this on Freedom and Reason (see Corporations Own the Left. Black Lives Matter Proves it; What’s Really Going On with #BlackLivesMatter.) Warning: dig into those entities at the risk of bring accused of conspiracism and racism. They mean to keep Marxists from a serious critique of Khan-Cullors and her collaborators. Critical theory is for them, not for us, because for them it isn’t critical at all.
The bottomline? Black Lives Matter is not a proletarian movement. It’s an elite ruse to divide the working class. It doesn’t take humanity to the justice of the original state of existence, to our democratic and egalitarian origins; rather, it brings us to a new state in which there is no justice, the state of corporate governance and technocratic control. It is preparing a generation for life as serfs in a neo-feudalist global order, an order replete with a new aristocracy. Khan-Cullors and her ilk are part of that aristocracy. Her preachments help make possible her practice.