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22.3.04

A Thought About Marxism

Though I have only a passing acquaintance with this element of Marxism, it seems that classical Marxist thought takes two contradictory positions on the revolution. The basic idea of the revolution is that eventually capitalism will create a huge proletariat and motivate it to rise up. With the bourgeoisie destroyed, the proletariat will fashion a just communist society on the basis of their shared class interest. Since the resulting society is just (i.e. non-contradictory), the dialectical process of history will come to an end.

On the one hand, communism is thoroughly rooted in capitalism. The revolution doesn't just do away with capitalism, it transcends it. As bad as capitalism is, Marx saw it as serving a necessary historical function in conquering scarcity and nature by developing industrialization and innovation. With that task accomplished, the revolution could then appropriate the fruits of capitalism and use them for communist ends.

On the other hand, the revolution is said to provide a clean slate. The idea of a clean slate is necessary to explain why communism would be different from previous historical phases (capitalism, feudalism, slave economy). Previous phases had internal contradictions arising out of their historical development, which generated the conditions for their own downfall. Communism, on the other hand, was to be a classless and permanent social arrangement. The proletariat had to be washed clean in the blood of the revolution, so to speak.

These two directions have spawned two divergent elements of more recent Marxism. Some Marxists seem to have emphasized the connection to capitalism, leading them to place their hopes in a more evolutionary development (Dick Peet, for example, was accused at the AAGs of having become a Keynsian welfarist rather than a Marxist radical. I'd say Habermas has been led out of Marxism entirely). This is perhaps a more realistic approach, especially considering that previous endogenous transitions in economic form were more evolutionary than revolutionary.

Second would be the eco-catastrophists. They forsee (and perhaps grimly welcome) a collapse of capitalism that truly wipes the slate clean. There's little they'd like to salvage from capitalism because they see capitalism's major products -- industrialization and high population -- as inherently unsustainable. They ridicule attempts to deal with capitalism's crises through capitalist products (e.g. technological solutions to environmental degradation). After the catastrophe (not really even a revolution anymore) we can start over from scratch. To judge from what I've read of his most recent pessimistic work, David Harvey seems to be leaning in this direction.

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