August 20, 2004

Valid Insights?

A Question:

Kieran Healy writes:

...the horrors of Stalin don’t invalidate the fundamental insights of Marxists...

which reminds me of a question I have long wanted to ask: Just what are the fundamental (valid) insights of Marxism?

I ask as someone who is. I think, closer to "Marxism" than almost everybody else on the Berkeley campus. That is, I believe that in the process of going about the business of making, using, and consuming the things people need and want to continue their daily lives, humans enter into social and economic arrangements of production, association, exploitation, and exchange that form patterns and have consequences that none of them have willed, and that these arrangements of production, association, exploitation, and exchange--these "modes of production, as it were"--form the base, the soil in which the rest of society is rooted and out of which it grows. That is what Marx believed, and if I'm not the closest one to that position on the Berkeley campus today, people who are closer are very scarce on the ground.

But what valid analytical insights does Marxism draw and develop from this starting point? The "dictatorship of the proletariat" stuff is the worst political idea in human history save for perhaps Naziism. All the stuff about the labor theory of value and the transformation problem is unhelpful. The claim that any price system in which land earns rents and capital earns quasi-rents is ipso facto exploitative and unfair is simply completely wrong. The stuff about the Asiatic mode of production is wrong. The claim that the Orleanists represented commercial capital and that the Legitimists represented landed capital is wrong. The claim that the transition from the Roman Empire to medieval feudalism can be well-understood as some Hegelian dialectical thesis-antithesis-synthesis process is profoundly unhelpful, as is the claim that the transition from feudalism to modernity can be well-understood in Hegelian terms.

The writing of western European history as the rise, fall, and succession of ancient, feudal, and bourgeois modes of production is a fascinating project, but the only person to try it seriously soon throws the Marxist apparatus over the side, where it splashes and sinks to the bottom of the sea. Perry Anderson's _Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism_ and _Lineages of the Absolutist State_ are great and fascinating books, but they are not Marxist. They are Weberian. The key processes in Anderson's books concern not modes of production but modes of domination.

So can someone please come up with a short list--five one-sentence bullet points, for example--of the fundamental insights of Marxism considered as an analytical, intellectual enterprise aimed at understanding human history?

Posted by DeLong at August 20, 2004 06:55 AM | TrackBack | | Other weblogs commenting on this post

Here we go:

i) endogenous preferences(e.g. fetishism and alienation).

ii) class being defined as a discrete, rather than continuous parameter(many people can be workers, and of the same class, despite having different incomes), and having a dimension of authority and power.

iii) Historical change as driven by collective action of the masses, rather than just the actions of "great men". Also, institutional change is characterized as punctuated and sudden, rather than gradual.

iv)The idea that mutually beneficial exchanges can still be fundamentally unjust(e.g. violate principles of reciprocity)

v) The idea that ideas themselves are products of the material circumstances of their originators.

Posted by: Suresh on August 21, 2004 01:47 AM


What happened to the other comments? Some were god, worth rereading and reflecting.

Posted by: paulo on August 21, 2004 02:54 AM


That is, some were 'good'. god, as Marx made clear, was another issue.

Posted by: paulo on August 21, 2004 02:57 AM


Marx is a classic and belongs on the bookshelf together with all the other classics. I wouldn't take the work of Kant to be valid tout court and, in some respects, I'd take it to be rather perverse, but, nonetheless, the force of some basically Kantian points remains. (Personally, I think Wittgenstein critically liquidates and supersedes Kant in philosophy, were that not too Hegelian a formulation.) I think the fertility and limitations of Marx' work needs to be considered in roughly the same way, rather than being tranfigured retrospectively into "world-historical" accusations that belie both grief and hope. The demand for ahistorical validity, pace Marx, could only be issued by an academic (or a Kantian?).

Marx, for better and for worse, was a Hegelian of a sort, (as well as, an heir to that broader current of thought, so strange to Anglo-Saxon shores, usually called "German Idealism".) Marx' "materialist" critique of Hegel is a murky affair, (which largely proceeded through polemics with his fellow "Left Hegelians", such that, e.g., he did not have a critique of religion, but rather a critique of the critique of religion, from which he derived his conception of ideology, as a kind of "ghost-walking".) Hence, not only did he concretize the Hegelian subject-object dialectic, which originally was a primarily conceptual, thus "idealist", affair, into his conception of labor, which had originally an "expressivist" cast, which contrasted starkly with his later confrontation with real, material conditions of labor, giving his conception of "alienation" a bifurcated functionality, as at once originary and deterministic, but he tended to the laying on of Hegelian "speculative identities", such that, according to "dialectical law", the demise of the old order would have already incubated in its womb, through the very process of its demise, the emergent new order. With respect to the latter, the details, of course, are sorely missing, perhaps because of the belief that it is merely a logical matter concerning "determinate negation", or perhaps because of the Judaic prohibition on the worship of idols, including utopian ones, but that is the locus of the famous "dictatorship of the proletariat", which concerned an hysterically proclaimed "emergency situation", not a permanent condition. (Gramsci revised this as the "hegemony of the oppressed", which was not a euphemism, but rather a re-functioning of the concept, in the light of his understanding of what Marx' thought sorely lacked.)

However, one topic that Marx did expend his considerable philosophical rigor on was the historicity of his own thought, together with the historicity of thought in general. Hence he made clear that his accounts were derived from his engagement with his own historical contemporaneity and sought to lay the "foundations" for understanding that emergent historical reality and its unfolding dynamics. Whether he adequately accounted for pre-modern or Asiatic social formations,- (and what was the state of scholarship at the time, and who, what, when, and where would validity about such matters be decided or adjudicated?)- does not, per se, effect the "validity" of his account of 19th century "modernity/capitalism",- (both of which terms post-date Marx)-, nor does the question take account of the dependency of the former accounts upon the latter accounts, (let alone the issues of colonialism/imperialism that were no doubt on his mind, as an adjunct to the latter.)

But the Hegelian provenance of Marx' work also conditions the question of what kind of "validity" it could hold. Keynes famously quipped that Marx was just a minor Ricardan, which is true. But "Das Kaptital" was subtitled a "critique of bourgeois political economy". It was not intended as a straight-forward work of economic analysis, but rather its ultimate goal was to "abolish" economics, as concerned with the "realm of necessity", in favor of the "realm of freedom". In fact, Marx takes the work of "bourgeois" political economists, at their best, - i.e. primarily Smith and Ricardo-, as "valid", and points to their reliance on idealizations for their analysis, as at once functional and cognitively and socially normative. Marx' counter-analysis is intended to show that, while such norms and idealizations are really necessary to the functioning and development of the system they attempt to describe, in fact, the actual functioning of those norms invert the normative claims they make, while the system tends to deviate from its own functional requirements. This mode of criticism derives from Hegel's own criticism of the split between the "is" and the "ought", that is, the normative and the descriptive, and hence between the rational and the real. This is the standpoint from which Marx criticizes the "superstructure" of law and politics as ideology, which criticism is much more ambivalent than it is commonly taken for. But, still more to the point, this is the standpoint from which he takes up the LTV, which originated with Smith and Ricardo. The point was not to show, fundamentalistically, that labor is the source of all value, or even that labor is fundamentally subject to exploitation, (though, certainly, exploitation and domination are ingredient in the functioning of a capitalist economy). This is where Prof. DeLong's attribution of a claim the profit and rent are simply "wrong" is just a vulgarization, as if Marx did not understand the requirements of a reproduction schema and the role that profits play not just in the reproduction, but the expansion and improvement of capital stocks. Again, Marx' point is far more ambivalent. It is not labor, but the abstraction of labor-time that is the "source" or measure of "value". It is only when there is "free" labor, that is, when labor itself becomes a commodity, that the system of capitalist commodity production can fully take hold and be generalized into the organization of social relations and activities, such that the commodity-form becomes the reification of social relations and the stalking-horse of the promulagation of ideology. The LTV is deployed by Marx "phenomenologically", in the Hegelian sense, that is, as explicating the relationship between the life conditions and dispersed experience of society and its self-understanding and knowledge. It is the commodity-form, that is, the production of exchange-values for their own sake, from the ghostly remains of human, natural, and cultural use-values, perhaps even more than the imperative to reproduce "surplus-value", that would determine the advancing development of modern capitalist society, together with its ideological "mystification".

But, of course, all this is just water under the bridge. Now that we are all "post-modern" and understand ourselves as commodified personalities, whose only reality is that of communicative artefacts disqualified from validity, any concern with such a "phenomenology", let alone any human, natural, or traditional uses that are not incentivized by our reproduction, is merely quaint. But perhaps the answer to the question of what remains valid about the work of Marx is precisely here, in his conception of ideology as a real, because "necessary", illusion, a conception which descends genealogically from Kant's own critique of "transcendental illusion".

But Prof. DeLong does hit the sore spot, probably inadvertently, with his reference to Max Weber, another over-ambitious German pedant, who, as a result, left behind a fragmentary oeuvre, partly in response to Marx' challenge. The point is not that Weber and Marx have long since been brought into various "syntheses", such that they conjointly determined our intellectual heritage, our "effective history", or that it is not possible to separate them any more than one could separate Kant from Hegel- (of course, one can, just as one can perform surgery on Siamese twins; the question is whether it always is wise to do so.) The problem is that Marx began his career as a Marxist through a critique of Hegel's political thought, his "Philosophy of Right". Marx claimed that it offered a "false" idealist reconciliation of the real alienations/contradictions of modern bourgeois society through the agency of the state, whereas such alienations/contradictions were rooted in the socio-economic structure of society and could only be overcome through a real transformation of that structure, to which the state and the political were relatively epiphenomenal: Marx' "revolution" was a socio-economic one. But not only was Hegel thoroughly versed in and his thought fundamentally informed by Smith and Ricardo, probably unbeknownst to Marx, but his theory of the state, for all its incidental absurdities, was fundamentally an attempt to come to terms with and provide a means for reconciling the emergent, highly differentiated condition and structure of modern society, including, not least, its tendency to structurally reproduce relative poverty. In this context, alienation, passing over into otherness, for Hegel, was not just a negative phenomenon, but a positive good, as providing an essential condition both for the formation of individuals and for the political sphere of common public deliberation necessary for coping with the differentiated condition of social modernity. Marx, to my mind, is to be given credit for having taking the side of the vast majority of the politically and socially excluded laboring masses throughout the 19th century. But the point of origin of his thought left a lacuna in his basic thought and an aporia in his conception of "revolution": the status of the political and the role of the state. Not only does the state, qua sovereignty, have a separate origin in violence, domination, and exploitation from the organization of material production, but it also institutes a separate dynamic in the formation and resolution of social conflicts. The failure to conceptualize the "autonomy" of the political in his thought is, to my mind, Marx' Achilles heel. As a result he failed to anticipate: 1) the extent of the role of war and nationalism in modern history, 2) the rise of fascism, 3) the Leninist theory of the Party as a "solution" to his own aporia of revolution, and 4) the Keynesian/welfare-state compromise in ameliorating the instability of capitalist accumulation/class conflict. But in the light of the persistence of 1, the defeat of 2, the dissolution of 3 and the weakening of 4, I think that it is absurd to say that there is nothing to be gleaned of heuristic value from the work of Marx, in the face of an unconditional demand for "validity".

Marx, in one of his rare, more lucid than normal moments, once wrote that, if the revolution failed, as it were, to materialize, society would enter into a state of "civilized barbarism". No talk of the revolution being "inevitable" there. It was clearly a deliberate allusion to Vico. So it's back to Vico, everybody. Welcome to the world of civilized barbarism, y'all!

Posted by: john c. halasz on August 21, 2004 07:01 AM


Hmmm. In case Brad fails with the backup files, I'll repost my reply here--the length may have had something to do with the software problems.

(Warning: long post).

Sigh. I gave up regular contributions to this website because I had better things to do with my time than bash trolls like Thomson or Bahner (at least they have some responsiveness and reflexive thought, whereas Spidle is hopeless). Brad must be bored, as this last post seems like trolling in his own blog. Ok, I'll bite, though I should know better.

Here are the requested bullet points, which were mainly not drawn by Marx himself, but can be obtained from a straightforward look at last century’s history through the eyes of what he wrote:

* There is a tendency over the long term for the rate of profit to fall, but far from being the nemesis of capitalism, it is one of the driving engines as to why capitalism creates so much material wealth as a system. Mass production and automation do tend to push down profits over the long term, in part but not wholly because machinery/tools have to be bought for their whole lifetime rather than on a temporary basis, but this downward push only spurs capitalists to look for new products (i.e., new market niches in common parlance) which can be profitably developed. The growing diversification of products soon makes mass production (Fordist) technologies obsolete, and creates new methods of production which must necessarily be more labor-intensive and have a lower organic composition of capital, to use Marx’s term. The tendency of the rate of profit to fall is thus superseded even as it creates a larger profusion of material wealth, though how this wealth is distributed is another matter.

* Political parties and coalitions certainly are not completely subservient to the economic classes (e.g., corporate CEO’s) which finance them, but they are certainly influenced in that respect. Politics cannot therefore be analyzed without reference as to the self-interest of those classes which exercise influence over such coalitions. For example, to try to look at the Bush adm. policies without reference to the interests of Halliburton, Enron, as well as the 6+ digit recipients of property income is to engage in an incomplete analysis.

* Individual capitalists compete over their ability to influence policies of the state, which can, of course, be used to increase their own profits by providing monopoly markets, areas with new resources, etc. Coalitions of capitalist often influence different political parties (e.g. Wall Street finance being more influential with the Democrats, Petroleum and energy more influential with Republicans). Sooner or later, the lack of democratic accountability which this competition engenders leads to either institutionalized or under-the-table corruption and to government being controlled by a clique of capitalists who, rather than attempting to maintain the long-term stability of the world economy (a la Clinton), are willing to sacrifice this stability for the sake of short-term self-interest (aka Bush and company, who know full well that there will always be a group of Kerry/Rubin do-gooder fools to repair the damage that their own policies create in foreign policy, the financial sphere, etc). However, these self-interested, stability-sacrificing policies have on at least one occasion led to total catastrophe (WWI and its aftermath).

* Both to secure their class position against working-class challenges as well as to obtain ascendancy over other (read: foreign) capitalists, capitalists tend to encourage political movements which distract attention from their own control over the state and seek to focus hostility towards some shadowy external or internal enemy. This not only helps to explain anti-Semitism (of both the Hitler and Bin Laden varieties) and fascism, but also nationalism, the competition for colonies and spheres of influence, etc.
I had previously thought that the rise of multinational capital would eliminate this particular problem, but the U.S. government under Bush (influenced by corporations like Halliburton and Bechtel which are mainly U.S. based) has provided at least a temporary exception.

* A social system that wishes to maintain democracy, social stability, and prevent future crises and near crises (caused by short-term minded, self-seeking leaders such as Bush and company) has to be one in which the capitalist class process is abolished in favor of socialism. This does not mean central planning, communism, and whatnot, but it does mean that the huge inequality of wealth and income present in economies like the U.S., and only partially corrected in European welfare-state economies, has to be eliminated, most likely by a social movement whose goal is to (1) abolish absentee ownership of business enterprises, (2) give ownership rights to all active employees in a firm, (3) give local communities as well as the central government the power to regulate the activities of business enterprises, (4) maintaining individual political rights (including private property in consumption goods) while returning to strictly proportional representation in government (i.e., abolishing the principle of $1 = 1 vote at the heart of both corporate governance and political influence) Can such goals be accomplished peacefully? I hope so, but don’t hold my breath.

Whew. These insights are not so difficult to dig up from Marx and Engels’ writings, so I suspect either Brad disagrees with them in some profound way or simply fails to see them. This is because most of the criticisms of Marxism he makes below are either irrelevant or are actually straw men created by critics of Marx with an axe to grind (though of course, the axe of a Rand or a Solshenytsin would be forged in profound personal experience).

"The "dictatorship of the proletariat" stuff is the worst political idea in human history save for perhaps Nazism."

If I remember correctly, Marx used this term not more than a dozen times, and it was Lenin and co. who gave it its significance. Soviet and Maoist communism are one possible interpretation of what Marx wrote. Historically, of course, communism was/is a worse catastrophe than the Nazis because most of its followers took the viewpoint (which Marx rejected) that everything about capitalism is awful and therefore everything that is the opposite of modern capitalism must be good. Only Lenin seemed to realize otherwise, but the only good thing about capitalism, he thought, was the factory system, which was actually an aspect rather than a cause of capitalism’s progressive role in history. Completely wrong. So the USSR and China under Mao ended up as societies in which medieval scholasticism ruled at the intellectual level, oriental despotism was the order of the day in politics, and pharaonic grand projects by default became poor substitutes for real economic development. But none of this can be blamed on Marx just because he wrote down the term
“dictatorship of the proletariat a few times” and defended the Paris Commune in print.

As for his occasional use of the term, I think the 20th century experience actually vindicates Marx. Every socialist government ever elected has either had to scale back its program so as to leave enterprises in private hands, if not unregulated, or has been overthrown. Perhaps because I was born in Chile, I’ve grown accustomed to thinking of a “democratic transition to socialism” as a fool’s paradise. At some point, capitalists and their supporters in the armed forces will step in to end such a democratic experiment, and the only way a class transformation can be accomplished is by violent means, not dissimilar to the American civil war.

“All the stuff about the labor theory of value and the transformation problem is unhelpful.

Unhelpful for what? The only purpose of the LTV is to define exploitation and to explain the circumstances in which there may be a tendency for the rate of profit to fall. The transformation problem is about as important as a scholastic debate about whether angels can sit on pinheads. Marx only wrote chap. 9, vol. 3 of Capital to show that the LTV is compatible with the idea that free capital flows tend to result in equal rates of profits between industries, which is of trivial importance in the scheme of things. Probably the main reason why so much hype occurs over the transformation problem is because Marx’s critics interpret the LTV as a full-fledged alternative to the neoclassical theory of individual price determination. It was never intended to be used in this way and cannot be used in this way.

“The claim that any price system in which land earns rents and capital earns quasi-rents is ipso facto exploitative and unfair is simply completely wrong.

Land rents are not exploitation, but simply a redistribution of surplus value in Marx’s theory. As for capital, well, to use Lady Thatcher’s language, there is no such thing as capital. Capital is not a thing but a social relationship. Certainly machinery and tools contribute to production and surplus value, and finance creates the conditions for production to take place profitably. But capital as a social relationship uses various institutions, the law and property rights most noticeably, to enable one group of individuals to appropriate surplus value even if they have not made any actual contribution to its production. To say that this appropriation is
“exploitation” and “unfair” is something that a neoclassical economist would say is a normative judgment that is independent of the theory itself.

“The stuff about the Asiatic mode of production is wrong.

No argument there, but then again Marx and Engels wrote relatively little about Asia and had few historical sources. Not that this is of much importance.

“The claim that the Orleanists represented commercial capital and that the Legitimists represented landed capital is wrong.

The Eighteenth Brumaire is old hat, and I don’t think Marx could have been so simple-minded as to believe that a political party is driven heart and soul by the wishes of those who finance it. But it is just as foolhardy to believe that the French commercial capitalists did not have more influence with Louis-Philippe and Guizot than with the supporters of the ancien regime. Whether it’s Whigs vs. Tories, Republicans vs. Democrats or Populares vs. Optimates, it is almost self evident that one economic class tends to have more influence in one party compared to another, if only because the other party favors policies that are antagonistic to its class interests.

“The claim that the transition from the Roman Empire to medieval feudalism can be well-understood as some Hegelian dialectical thesis-antithesis-synthesis process is profoundly unhelpful, as is the claim that the transition from feudalism to modernity can be well-understood in Hegelian terms.

Thesis-antithesis-synthesis is not a complete description of how Hegel analyzed historical processes, nor did the term originate with him. And thesis-antithesis-synthesis cannot be reduced ad absurdum into slavery-revolt-feudalism as if economic classes are the only determinants of history. If one wants to start with a thesis, one needs a thorough description of as many relevant economic and non-economic aspects that characterized Roman society. In that sense “thesis” can only be used correctly to mean “what society is now”. And antithesis means “what are the social (not logical) contradictions in the current social system?” The interesting part of social science comes in attempting to answer this question, not in asking it, which must be done by anyone who claims to have a brain.

“The writing of western European history as the rise, fall, and succession of ancient, feudal, and bourgeois modes of production is a fascinating project, but the only person to try it seriously soon throws the Marxist apparatus over the side, where it splashes and sinks to the bottom of the sea.

Only if the person believes that Marx was a vulgar and ignorant economic determinist, who thought of production as an exogenous variable and every other social process as endogenous. It is one thing to say that society cannot be understood without reference to its material economic base. It is another (and totally unjustified) matter to assert that the economic base determines everything else, either without feedback or in the last instance. One has to remember that Marx and Engels were writing at a time when serious analysis of history had only begun, and when most history was still taught as being the outcome of the length of Cleopatra’s nose or Caesar’s bouts of epilepsy. Marxism’s interest in the material conditions of production is not exclusive, but was then an attempt to counteract the curse of looking at history as the plaything of great men, which had been the approach of most historians since Plutarch.

Ok, enough verbiage. All the above is my own reading of Marx (and Engels, to a lesser extent). Also, Marx suffers from being thought of as a bad economist, even though the pure study of markets at a micro-level was something he was never interested in, and his sketchy theory of economic crises was a byproduct of his interest in capitalism as a social system, and not a direct interest in itself. Marx and Engels will suffer for a long time for having had the Leninist/Maoist interpretation of their work being imposed on Eastern Europe/USSR/China with such atrocious consequences. Perhaps they deserve this. However, those of us who see the Bush administration specifically, and pro-business government corruption in general, as symptoms of the world economy’s current problems rather than as a root cause would do well, I think to go back to their writing, as antique as it might seem.

Posted by: andres on August 21, 2004 10:26 AM


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