Marx’s package/marxism is definitely a brilliant achievement but it belongs to an earlier era when naive scientism ruled along with physicalist reductionism and people still thought that sciences along the lines of newtonism physics could be wrought for any given subject matter, including sociological and historical subjects. You cannot create a science of history based on causal theories aping Newton.
There was actually a revolt against this in the Kantian corpus and even the Romantic movement. But Marx was determined to be the founder of a scientific discipline along the lines of hard science and the result was the clunky edifice of historical materialism with its economic slant. The end result looks impressive to some, but literally hundreds of critics have protested the result, and many have protested the way in which economics matched with reductionist scientism claims the mantle of a scientific subject, believing in which is then a prerequisite for socialism. What a disaster. Small wonder revolutions on the left have all failed. And those critics started early, even in the later nineteenth century. The entire reign of marxism has been among the true believers who have never looked critically at the subject and take the whole thing on faith. At this point, although the faithful still cling to the subject and graduate from courses indoctrinated in a set of fallacies of theory, the left has to move on. Added to all this is the issue of dialectical materialism which made a set of fallacious causal theories compete with a crackpot version of Hegel’s thinking on triads and dialectic.
In a way this applies onto to the claims for science and the theoretical aspect of historical analysis: if you set aside ‘theories’ of history and economic fundamentalism you can adapt a great deal of what Marx did empirically in the areas of class, and theory as ideology. Note that marxism itself is an ideology disguised as theory. The idea is that the claim that something is science will induce belief, and that actually worked in the era of the second international but the whole game was in decline even as bolshevism got underway. And it rapidly became obvious that the whole package was an incomplete void with empty labels like ‘socialism’/’communism’ that were an invitation to social systems even worse than the capitalist.
Marx did not invent socialism but his domination of the field ended up making the subject a kind of marxist monopoly. It barely dawns on anyone that you don’t have to take the marxist version on faith. It would be far better to start from scratch taking up some of the valuable parts of marxism as relevant but leaving historical materialism behind. Productive force determinism is such an archaic theory that it is puzzling it got off the ground, even in the nineteenth century. Values, ethics, free agency, and consciousness disappear in a frankenstein theory of the modes of production. Even a cursory study of history shows this economic fixation is wrong. And then the whole thing is set to denounce as ‘utopian’ any attempt to do the subject right as the clunking economic obsession is claimed as science. The result is that the left has long ceased to know what it is talking about. That said, a great deal of simple empirical observation has often been a cogent side line, as long as it doesn’t get turned into theoretical historicism. Frankly the so-called utopians won the argument finally, although the issue is not utopian, but a practical effort to consider/design social systems that are functional social systems with free agents, values, ideas of freedom, and practical social recipes rather than deterministic predictions of causal systems.
The problem is shared by economists in general who try to produce scientific models based on advanced math, all of it basically the differential equation which is not suitable for economics. Calculus was designed for physics, and every branch of physics has a new variant. But economists, especially the neo-classical ones, presume to study whole economic systems as a set of laws mimicking newtonian formulas. The results are a set of fallacies. So the issue of theory and ideology is a common disease.
In general theories of history have always failed in the sense of trying to find historical laws based on causal reasoning: the whole subject recoils from this approach because history resembles a story with free agents rather than a mechanical system with causal mechanics. Kant gave plenty of warning of the whole problem but then Hegel, whether rightly or not tried to undo Kant with a system that was a hard to evaluate and certainly wasn’t suitable for founding socialism. It was an exploration of the future of religion perhaps, a part of the Reformation, a very tricky and perhaps failed attempt to answer Kant. But the reign of hegelianism, what to say of newtonianism, completely confused a whole generation and the result was a reaction that ended up in the wilds of scientism in an attack on idealism, which was still another fallacious confusion. Physics adopts the idealist mathematics of abstract forms and studies subjects in a materialistic context with that idealist toolkit. The attempt to banish idealism was totally misguided. What on earth happened in the generation of Hegel to Marx/Darwin/scientism? All these kids just fell off their bikes. And the realm of quantum mechanics suggests the whole materialist interpretation is too limited, a surface phenomenon, just as Kant’s thinking might have suggested.
The remedy then is to be wary of fake sciences: we don’t need a scientific sociology to create socialism. We need to create a praxis that studies what futures it intends and the resulting assumptions historical free agents who act in terms of values. The whole history of the marxist left and its succession shows the way its adherents thought in terms of abstractions they forbade themselves to define and the result failed in all cases because they had no idea what they were doing even as they thought historical inevitability would solve all their problems. The result was that the hopeless junk of figures like Stalin actually came to be thought of as communism. Amazing.
But in reality the definition and construction of a socialist or communist is not so arcane: it is a practical effort that takes into account the issues of democracy and authority, practical economic systems beyond hair-brained theories, the nature of markets and possible substitutes, and, since we think in terms of communism, the question of private property. That’s hard, but the terms of discussion are not so hard: they are practical. The marxist legacy confuses because it got some things right, supposedly: the issue of private property, descriptive histories of capitalist economics: these it wishes to replace. By all means, but not on the basis of bad theories or a few cliches about planning. I think that in fact the older left was right about revolutionary options and the question of private property. But they made a mess of the result, and as a result many have recoiled into social democratic niceties. To replace private property with state ownership is not going to work: it creates a new bourgeoisie of one-party thugs.
At least it is clear that revolutionary options are not so simple and that marxist thinking even as it honorably upheld revolutionary expropriation was not equal to the task of a revolutionary social foundationalism. Not surprising. But the left has to invest in a new thinking cap to bring back to life the future option of a new society. It is not enough to champion the abstraction ‘socialism’, create a revolutionary moment and then proceed with a one-party claque promoting state capitalist bureaucratic solutions to the undefined terms of the starting point. The older marxist left in this sense will never get a second chance, and yet will dominate all other efforts to start over.