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20.8.04

What Has Marx Done For Us Lately?

I'm no Marxist, but I'm surrounded by them here at Clark. It's always interesting to see politically center/left criticisms of Marxism (as opposed to the positivist and postmodernist ones), because they seem to be addressing a theory with such different emphases than the Marxism I usually encounter. Take this article, linked to by Abiola Lapite. It goes through Marx's main predictions (in more detail than the usual "there hasn't been a revolution, and Marx didn't forsee the Nazis" summary judgement) and finds them all more or less wanting.

Modern-day Marxists, on the other hand, put little emphasis on Marxism as a predictive tool. A cynic would say that's because the evidence is rather embarassing. Marx himself seems to have generally been in agreement with the school of thought promoted today by the functionalists that society can be studied as an object in the same way that the natural sciences study their respective objects. You simply observe and derive predictive laws about your field. What the article refers to as the "strong" version of historical materialism (which modern Marxists would label "vulgar Marxism") is well-suited to this type of view. Social change is driven by the development of the forces of production, and society's knowledge of itself is a mere ideological superstructure with no causal power against the economic base.

The opposing view points out that social science is a reflexive enterprise, because its results become part of the object of study (i.e., society learns the results of social science and bases future action on that knowledge). This makes a society a slippery object of study, and social science becomes as much about critique as it is about explanation. Perhaps because of functionalism's affinities with bourgeois liberal thought, modern Marxists have signed on to the reflexivist project. It's not a move without textual support, given Marx's pithy statement in his early Theses on Fuerbach that "the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it." The stronger your reflexivism -- and Marxists often hold a very strong version, in order to more adequately highlight the ideological failings of bourgeois functionalists and positivists -- the less possible it is to make any useful predictions about the future. What Marxists do instead is focus on finding points of attack for oppressed people and social movements.

Whatever the merits of Marxism as such (and I'm sometimes hard-pressed to identify what is uniquely Marxist in a lot of modern self-labeled Marxism, besides a tendency to blame capitalism for all our ills and to claim Marx as the source of whatever fuzzy and irrelevant ontological claims one is making), there are some interesting things that have come out of some of the Marxist writing that I've read. Take for example my reaction to this bit in the aforementioned article:

Capitalism developed spontaneously and organically from the spread of commerce. Nobody planned it and it did not need an all-embracing ideology, whereas socialism was an ideological construction. Ultimately, capitalism is human nature at work—that is, man's greediness allowed to follow its course—whereas socialism is an attempt to institutionalize and enforce fraternity.


It has been Marxist writers who have pointed out to me the way that capitalism* was planned -- not in the kind of detail that the Soviet bureaucrats aimed at, but planned nonetheless. To get off the ground, capitalism required the forcible and premeditated enclosure of private property, carried out in England at the behest of the incipient sheep barons. The integration of colonial posessions into the capitalist system was likewise a deliberate installation of capitalism. For example, Britain imposed cash-only taxes on its African posessions in order to break down traditional economic systems and force people into the wage labor market, while in India they implemented a selective mix of protectionism and free trade in order to goose enterprises based back home. The ideology driving this was not as doctrinaire as Leninism, but it existed, rooted in the classical liberalism of Locke, Smith, and Mill. As for capitalism being human nature at work, Marxists have made much of the fact that the behavior of capitalist entrepreneurs, workers, and consumers is historically specific and learned. To describe it as simply humans' greedy nature unleashed is a bit of ideological apologetic that ignores the complicated set of norms of trust and proper behavior that allow capitalism to function.

*Though it should be noted that Marxists and libertarians tend to speak past each other when they use the words "capitalism" and "socialism." To Marxists, whatever system we have in place now is the essence of capitalism -- any government interference, no matter how extensive, is regarded as part and parcel of what the system requires. Libertarians, on the other hand, would reserve unqualified use of the label "capitalism" for a Hayekian utopia. Socialism, meanwhile, is to a modern Marxist a sort of nebulous something else. It's certainly not what the Soviets had, which Marxists describe as a sort of ultra-capitalism (on the theory that if capitalism is oppressive, then the oppressiveness of the Soviet regime is evidence that it must be capitalistic). Libertarians, of course, are only too happy to agree with the USSR that it was a socialist country.

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