A Marx Allergy

Feb 25, 2021

If you are allergic to, let’s say peanuts, you would always carefully check the packaging of the food you buy: does the factory use them? Can there be traces in the sauce? After an unpleasant experience that might have involved a trip to the hospital or an EpiPen, you would want to avoid a repeat performance.

This is almost the exact attitude of the Russian intellectual elite towards even a whiff of critical theory. Imagine growing up with endless rows of Lenin’s works in the book cabinets of your history teacher and being forced through Marxist and Leninist dialectics at university, not to mention scientific atheism or the mantra “religion is the opium of the people”. After Glasnost’ and the abolition of article 6 from the Soviet Constitution on the “guiding and leading” role of the Communist Party, the intellectual pendulum swung right, and it swung hard. All the “bourgeois” and forbidden intellectual currents came back, including some unsavoury kinds: the likes of Dugin brandish their Evola and Guénon, not to mention a Haushofer or Mackinder. 

Lenin’s quote that “Marx’s scholarship is almighty because it is true” haunts the dreams of plenty a social scientist from the Post-Soviet space. There is no wonder that once you were allowed to shed that blue (Lenin) and burgundy (Marx and Engels) ballast from your library, you would never want to revisit it. The notion of class, although fully internalised by the Russian population, is met at best with an eye roll. Yet try mentioning “commodification” or “oppression”, and a majority of the liberal crowd will start sharpening their virtual pitchforks and have slippery slope arguments mudslide onto you. “Never again” is a slogan for socialism and to an extent it is understandable that having lived through a long bout of strict ideological Marxist-Leninism you would not want a repeat performance. 

A Marx allergy could also partially account for the Russian (even liberal oppositional!) distrust towards the BLM protests. The older crowd might still remember how they were forced to protest for Angela Davis, read about the (true!) horrors of segregation or the decolonization struggles in Africa. Unfortunately, however, even morally right issues such as decolonization have become just another avatar for the Soviet era. I am bracketing the issue of race here, even though it’s important, but the BLM protests are largely seen as socialist and, with the Russian public being allergic to Marx, to put it mildly, unappealing. Moreover, even Russian liberal intellectuals dismiss elements of post-colonial analysis and are convinced that the subalterns – like the Cherokee nation that asked Jeep to rename one of their car models – can only speak what the intellectuals tell them to. It looks like the Marx allergy extends to Spivak… 

Or, take a look at the Biden coverage on Russian mainstream media and his perception among the Russian opposition. Obviously nothing compares to Trump, but apart from accusing Biden of senility (shoutout to Fox News!), both pro-Kremlin media and prominent liberal opposition figures made sure to emphasise his supposed socialist chops and appeal to those who just want handouts. When describing the Biden victory celebration, channel Rossiya specifically mentioned that it was “racial and sexual minorities” who revelled the most. It was meant as a dig, of course, but just a little sprinkle of Marxism would show that it is those who are marginalized and oppressed in the current power structure who would be happy about the change in that power structure. 

Too bad that even a sprinkle of critical theory often causes a gag reflex.

+ posts

Elizaveta Gaufman is Assistant Professor of Russian Discourse and Politics at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. She is the author of "Security Threats and Public Perception: Digital Russia and the Ukraine Crisis"