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Steiner, Brenner and Neo-Marxism: The Marcusean Component

[Norm’s note: for anyone who might be interested, and as a counterpoint to Adam Haig’s piece below, here is a link to “Objectivism or Marxism” (2006) and one to Marxism without Its Head or Its Heart (2007), two of the three polemics written by Steiner and Brenner, and to which Adam alludes.  To my mind, all interesting reads.]

By Adam Haig
2 January 2009

World Socialist Web Site

As a supporter of the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI) who has been following the political and philosophical charges of Alex Steiner and Frank Brenner, the author of this paper is interested in addressing their embrace of critical theorist Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979). While the said opponents of the ICFI present their ideas as Marxism and Trotskyism, their thought is more in line with the attempts of numerous middle-class intellectual radicals who have tried to innovate Marxism with cultural theory. These figures range widely from Theodor Adorno to Slavoj Zizek. The author’s formal background is in literary and cultural studies, academic fields in which the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory has been influential and where it has undergone various theoretical hybridizations.


On November 9, 2008, Alex Steiner, a political opponent of the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI), published a public statement on his Permanent Revolution website denouncing David North’s three-part series, “The Frankfurt School vs. Marxism: The Political and Intellectual Odyssey of Alex Steiner,” and Ann Talbot and Chris Talbot’s addendum, “Marxism and Science.” These documents were written in response to earlier articles by Steiner and his political associate, Frank Brenner. Steiner charges that the North and Talbot works are “ad hominem,” “dishonest,” “lies,” “half-truths,” “a smear campaign,” and “armchair psychologizing.” [1]

The ICFI maintains that Steiner and Brenner, who left the Workers League (the predecessor of the Socialist Equality Party) thirty years ago, have drifted into the anti-Marxist orbit of the petty-bourgeois Frankfurt School of Critical Theory and that they cannot be regarded as Marxist-Trotskyists. This is not demonization, but a well-grounded assessment of their theoretical and political conceptions. Their polemics—e.g, “Objectivism or Marxism” (2006), Marxism without Its Head or Its Heart (2007), and “On the Vulgar Critique of Vulgar Materialism” (2008)—betray an eclectic radical intellectual tradition that is decisively non-Marxist in political and philosophical orientation.

Steiner and Brenner’s perspective is an emphatic rejection of the materialist conception of history, which ascribes a decisive and determining role to objective socioeconomic processes in the development of social consciousness. Like many petty-bourgeois ex-Marxists, they are convinced that the central issues of revolutionary consciousness relate to individual psychology and sexuality. Deeply skeptical about the possibility of mass revolutionary radicalism being produced by the objective crisis of capitalist society, Steiner and Brenner argue that the revival of socialist consciousness requires the allure of Utopia. [2]

These conceptions are not original. There is too much authority invested in the academic neo-Marxist Frankfurt School, in general, and Herbert Marcuse, in particular, and too little acknowledgment of the distortive and disorienting political-philosophical trajectory and outcome of this petty-bourgeois radical intellectual tendency, as seen in such writings as Marcuse’s demoralized and demoralizing Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (1955) and One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (1964). Steiner and Brenner, to be sure, do invoke other critical theorists, such as the psychoanalysts Erich Fromm and Wilhelm Reich. That, however, does not strengthen but rather weakens their case.

One of the arguments Steiner and Brenner make is that despite the incompatibilities of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory with orthodox Marxism, not everything by the critical theorists is worthless. That is beside the point. The question is whether or not Frankfurt School critical theory is Marxism. The turn to the neo-Marxist (or, perhaps more accurately, pseudo-Marxist) tradition becomes a justification for anti-Marxist revisionism when Steiner and Brenner unoriginally invoke the concept of Utopia and when they embrace Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization. Fundamentally, they dismiss Leon Trotsky’s important political admonishment in Results and Prospects (1906) that genuine Marxists have no business summoning Utopia.

Chapter seven, “The Prerequisites of Socialism,” begins, “Marxism converted socialism into a science, but this does not prevent some ‘Marxists’ from converting Marxism into a Utopia,” and ends, “If socialism aimed at creating a new human nature within the limits of the old society it would be nothing more than a new edition of the moralistic utopias. Socialism does not aim at creating a socialist psychology as a pre-requisite to socialism, but at creating socialist conditions of life as a pre-requisite to socialist psychology.” [3] Trotsky was well informed of the subjective idealist tendencies of his day, and his writings anticipate the psychodynamic Utopianism that Steiner and Brenner appropriate from Herbert Marcuse.

Eros and Civilization and Marcusean method

Eros and Civilization by Herbert Marcuse is a non-empirical work in speculative “depth psychology” that has no grounding in therapy or clinical observation. Based on Sigmund Freud’s tentative “metapsychology,” Marcuse reasserts Freud’s instinct and sex-based libido theory and conjectural notions of Eros, the death instinct and the primal father. Marcuse is not concerned with “psychoanalysis itself” nor with the “technical discipline which psychoanalysis has become,” but with the “philosophy of psychoanalysis.” [4]

Marcuse defends orthodox Freudianism, reinterprets Freud’s pessimistic conclusions in Civilization and Its Discontents (1929) in Utopian terms, and believes that psychoanalysis is sociological in its substance and that “no new cultural or sociological orientation is needed to reveal this substance.” That is an excuse for sociological ignorance. Marcuse adds, “Freud’s ‘biologism’ is social theory in a depth dimension.”[5] These were not original views when they were published in 1955. Thirty years before Eros and Civilization, the Trotskyist critic Aleksandr Voronsky wrote an essay titled “Freudianism and Art” in which he outlined the Marxist position on the problem. Steiner and Brenner completely ignore this work in their polemics. Noteworthy is Voronsky’s observation on the sociologization of Freudianism:

“As long as Freud’s psychoanalysis is limited to an investigation of the psychology and even the psychopathology of . . .

[. . .}

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