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Thursday, May 16, 2013

What about Marx?

At various points since the death of Karl Marx in 1883 his work has been regarded as a dead issue -- no longer relevant, too ideological, methodologically flawed, too rooted in the nineteenth century. And yet each of these periods of extinction has been followed by a resurgence of interest in Marx's ideas, as new generations try to make sense of the tough and often cruel social conditions in which they find themselves. What are the important dimensions of theory that Marx presented through his writings? And how can any of these be considered valuable in trying to come to grips with the global, capitalist, turbulent, unequal, violent world that we now inhabit?

We might say that there are a small handful of key theoretical frameworks that Marx advocated.

Materialism as a methodology for social science. Social change is driven by material circumstances, the forces and relations of production. This encompasses the property system and the ensemble of technologies present in a given level of society. Materialism denies that ideas and thought drive social change; so religion, patriotism, nationalism, and ideologies of patriarchy are epiphenomena rather than originating causes.

Emphasis on the primacy of property and class. Sociologists and historians want to explain processes of social change. Marx puts it forward that the economic interests created by the property system in a given society create powerful foundations for collective social action. Those who occupy positions of advantage within a given set of property relations want to do what they can to preserve those relations; and those who are disadvantaged by the property relations have a latent interest in mobilizing to change those relations. Persons who share a location in the property system constitute a class, and their interests are systematically different from those in other such positions.

A sketch of a theory of consciousness and culture. Institutions of consciousness and culture play a role in stabilizing and attacking the most important relations of domination in a society. Educational institutions, it is argued, prepare young people for their specific roles in society -- workers, managers, elites, sub-proletarians. So struggles over the content and form of the institutions of enculturation can be expected to be polarized along class lines. Less directly, Marxists like Gramsci have postulated that worldviews reflect life experiences; so elites create cultural worlds that are quite distinct from those imagined by subordinate groups.

A diagnosis of social ills including exploitation, alienation, and dehumanization of social relations. Exploitation has to do with the flow of wealth and material goods through the property system from producers to property-owners. Alienation has to do with the loss of autonomy and self-control that individuals have within a capitalist structure. Marx's distinctive addition to this idea is that this loss of autonomy has psychic consequences -- disaffection, lack of self-respect, depression. The dehumanization of social relations follows from the structure of the capitalist workplace -- workers and bosses, each related to the other through the workings of a command system. Wittgentstein got it right when he described the "slab" language game: the boss says "slab", and the worker produces a slab. There is nothing "I-thou" about this relation (Buber, I and Thou).

A theory of several distinct modes of production. Marx believes that history takes the form of a succession of separable and structurally distinct modes of production: ancient slavery, feudalism, and capitalism differ by the structure of the production system, the property system, and the technologies that each embodied. Marx's most extensive analysis of social formations is his treatment of the capitalist mode of production in Capital: Volume 1: A Critique of Political Economy and the writings that were posthumously edited and published as volumes 2 and 3 of Capital.

A common thread through these framing ideas is the perspective of critique: a critical intelligence trying to understand why modern society produces such human misery. But even from the perspective of critique -- the perspective that tries to diagnose and understand the systemic flaws of contemporary society -- Marxism leaves quite a bit of terrain untouched: gender relations, racism, nationalism, and religious hatred, for example. Marxism doesn't do a good job of explaining a regime of sexual violence (rape in India); it doesn't have much to contribute to the rise of fascism; it doesn't have resources for understanding Islamo-phobia and hatred. So Marxism is not a comprehensive theory of modern social failings; and we might say that its emphasis on economic conflict eclipses other forms of domination in ways that are actually harmful to our ability to improve our social relations.

Geoff Boucher takes up the issue of the continuing relevance of Marx in the contemporary world in Understanding Marxism. Here is how he opens the book:
Today, radical thinking about social alternatives stands under prohibition. According to defenders of the neoliberal transformation of every facet of human existence into a market, Marxism has failed…. Marx is dead; Marxism is finished -- and it must stay that way. (1)
But Boucher rejects this neoliberal consensus.
Marxism as an intellectual movement has been one of the most important and fertile contributions to twentieth-century thought. The influence of Marxism has been felt in every discipline, in the social sciences and interpretive humanities, from philosophy, through sociology and history, to literature. (2)
Here are the core reasons that Boucher offers for thinking that Marxism is still relevant in the twenty-first century:
  1. Marxism is the most serious normative social-theoretical challenge to liberal forms of freedom that does not at the same time reject the modern world.
  2. Marxism is the most sustained effort so far to think the present historically and to reflexively grasp thought itself within its socio-historical context. (2)
And later:
Marxism is a distinctively historical theory that normatively challenges liberalism in a way no other modern theory does. (3)
Much of Boucher's book contributes to one of two intellectual aims: to give a clear exposition of the most important of Marx's theoretical ideas; and to explicate the several "Marxisms" that followed in the twentieth century. The successive Marxisms take up the bulk of the book, with chapters on Classical Marxism, Hegelian Marxism, The Frankfurt School, Structural Marxism, Analytical Marxism, Critical Theory, and Post-Marxism. So the book provides very extensive explication of the theoretical ideas and developments that have grown out of the Marxist tradition.

What Boucher doesn't really provide is a clear rationale, based on contemporary sociology and history, for the conclusions he wants us to share about the continuing utility of Marxism as a framework for understanding the present and future. We don't get the reasoning that would support the affirmative ideas expressed above. The best rebuttal to the neoliberal triumphalism mentioned above is a compelling collection of sociological studies grounded in the perspectives mentioned above. Michael Burawoy's sociology of factories is a good example (e.g. Manufacturing Consent: Changes in the Labor Process Under Monopoly Capitalism). But this isn't an approach that Boucher chooses to pursue.

So what about it? Is Marxism relevant today? Yes, if we can avoid the dogmatism and rigidity that were often associated with the tradition. Power, exploitation, class, structures of production and distribution, property relations, workplace hierarchy -- these features certainly continue to be an important part of our social world. We need to think of Marx's corpus as a multiple source of hypotheses and interpretations about how capitalism works. And we need to recognize fully that no theoretical framework captures the whole of history or society. Marxism is not a comprehensive theory of social organization and change. But it does provide a useful set of hypotheses about how some of the key social mechanisms work in a class-divided society. Seen from that perspective, Marxist thought serves as a sort of proto-paradigm or mental framework in terms of which to pursue more specific social and historical investigations.


  1. This is a fantastic article. I agree with you on everything, with one exception: you say 'it doesn't have much to contribute to the rise of fascism'. I think this is completely wrong. Not only does it have much to contribute, I'd say a Marxian perspective provides *the* single greatest analysis for fascism. Walter Benjamin famously said "Every fascism is an index of a failed revolution", and (depending how widely you want to define 'fascism'), this is demonstrably true: Mussolini was a direct response to the turbulance of the 'Biennio Rosso' - two years of socialist industrial uprisings led by none other than Gramsci in northern Italy; Hitler was a response to the Great Depression and, at least in part, to the rise of the KPD. And if you stretch 'fascism' wider as a term, Pinochet was a response to Allende, and Franco was a response to the Spanish left (and ultimately, the Spanish Revolution). I think Trotsky's article 'What is National Socialism?' cannot go unmentioned on this topic:

    Besides that, this is a great article, and I agree with your conclusions whole heartedly. The 'proto-paradigm/mental framework' is the exact way I appreciate Marx. It's the famous coloured lenses metaphor: looking at the world through Marx's red-tinted lenses lets you notice things of immense importance that you might otherwise skip across.

    1. Following on with your comment, would it be a stretch to say that the current global experience ("neoliberalism," Tea Party/ultra right-wing in the US) is an "index" of the demise of communism?

    2. Hmm, it is without doubt a reaction to it - the spread of neoliberalism is a product of the capitalist optimism that followed the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and no doubt the absence of any actually existing alternative (however grim) strengthens the sense of inevitability that tends to inform modern politics. But I don't think it is an 'index' in the way Benjamin meant - at least not in the West. He meant that *within* a given society, social revolution will ever succeed (and become socialism of some sort), or it will fail, and be replaced with fascism, because the socialist labour movement will have to be crushed in order to guarantee it does not return, and the methods required to do this will not be ordinary or tolerable in a democracy.

      But there is no doubt a sort of dialectic between the failure of communism and the rise of neoliberalism. And actually, while neoliberalism is more a reaction to Keynesianism and profitability crises in the West, in Russia and China perhaps it can be construed as an index of failed revolution: the failure of those experiments to produce genuinely socialist societies led to a bureaucratic statism which was very easily twisted back into capitalist oligarchy (as Trotsky also predicted!)

    3. Isn't there also a non-economistic element? The Tea Party's particular brand of irrationalism and irresponsibility would probably be dampened considerably if there was an external enemy with not just ideological appeal, but lots and lots of tanks and missiles as well.

      The one prominent proto-Tea Party candidate in the national politics of the United States during the Cold War years, Barry Goldwater, went to a spectacular landslide defeat in the 1964 presidential election, and stock footage of mushroom clouds had a lot to do with it.

  2. I think you have it wrong on Marxist materialism. It's not a rejection of ideas and thought as drivers (both Marx and Engels wrote extensively on the influence of ideas - see Engels on the family, for instance). It's better understood as a rejection of "idealism" in the Hegelian and theological senses - that there are immanent non-material forces active in the world. This aspect of Marx is a commonplace now, but was not usual in the C19.

  3. Marx’s theory of profit

    I appreciate Mark’s willingness to post Dan Little’s article on “What about Marx?”. However, Little’s article says nothing explicitly about Marx’s theory of profit (or surplus-value), which I think is Marx’s greatest achievement.

    I think Marx’s theory of profit has very impressive explanatory power regarding wide-ranging important phenomena in the historical development of capitalist economies. Marx’s macro theory of profit is able to explain conflicts over wages, conflicts over the length of the working day and the intensity of labor in the workplace (i.e. conflicts over how much value added is produced by labor), endogenous technological change, increasing concentration of capital, increasing income inequality, trends and fluctuations in the rate of profit over time, endogenous causes of economic crises, etc. (For more on the explanatory power of Marx’s theory of profit, see this paper which I wrote in response to an empirical appraisal of Marx’s theory by Mark Blaug, the eminent historian of economic thought: “Marx’s Economic Theory: True or False? A Marxian Response to Blaug’s Appraisal”, in F. Moseley (ed.) Heterodox Economic Theories: True or False? (Elgar, 1995); available here:[1995]%20MARX'S%20ECONOMIC%20THEORY.pdf)

    In Little’s post, exploitation is mentioned and briefly described as “the flow of wealth and products”. However, it is not clearly stated the conclusion that workers are exploited in capitalism is derived from Marx’s labor theory of value and surplus-value.

    Also, “workplace relations” are mentioned in Little’s post in a list of important aspects of Marx’s theory that are still important in capitalism today. I presume that “workplace relations” means conflicts between capitalists and workers over wages and working conditions and the intensity of labor, etc. However, it is not mentioned that the conclusion that there are these inherent conflicts in capitalism between capitalists and workers follows again from Marx’s labor theory of value and surplus-value.

    The wide-ranging explanatory power of Marx’s theory of profit is especially impressive when compared to the marginal productivity theory of profit (or interest) which has insoluble logical problems and little or no explanatory-power.

    Fred Moseley
    Mount Holyoke Collegte

  4. Great post! Being an Indian, I can confirm that rapes in India and the treatment of women in general in India are a direct consequence of the theory of materialism and primacy of property and class. It is caused by a patriarchal, caste based society.

  5. Anyone doubting the power of Marxian analysis and the continuing influence of Marx should become familiar with Michal Kalecki, who anticipated Keynes but was unrecognized at the time since he wrote in Polish. Later he traveled to Sweden, then England where he taught at LSE and Cambridge, influencing Piero Sraffa, also a Marxian, and Joan Robinson, and emerging the Post Keynesian tradition, which is now a major contender to neoclassical economics, New Keynesianism, and Austrian economics. In fact, some Post Keynesian acknowledge the influence of Marx and Marxians over Keynes, and they reject interpreters of Keynes like John Hicks ISLM model so dear to Paul Krugman and the Keynesian-neoclassical synthesis of Paul Samuelson. Since Marx is still persona non grata and association with him a career killer for Western academics, his influence is often not attributed public or minimized. But this is becoming less the case now that it is obvious that the mainstream approach to economics and economic policy has failed and its proponents are strongly resisting reconstruction. So don't count Marx out yet.

  6. "Since Marx is still persona non grata and association with him a career killer for Western academics..." Where is this happening? In my experience as a grad student of some years at an albeit smallish Canadian university, Marx is still going strong- my profs love talking about him (although they tend to say "Marxian" rather than "Marxist", which rhymes with "Martian"- which probably proves your point....) I spent a whole chunk of last semester studying marx as a part of my "Intro. to Hist. Anthro. " course, and his name pops up in just about every other article. Marx may have become irrelevant in mainstream politics and public life (more's the pity), but at least in my corner of academia, he's a very important figure- and not just in Hist. classes either.

    1. Are you familiar with the departmental purge at Notre Dame, where one one of the few heterodox economics departments in the US was all but obliterated. Fortunately, ("Marxist") Prof. David Ruccio has tenure. See Deirdre N. McCloskey, "Notre Dame Loses," Eastern Economic Journal 29 (2, 2003): 309-315.

      I think that your point about the replacement of Marxian for Marxist does prove the point to some degree, perhaps revealing the need to distinguish between drawing on aspects of Marx that may still be relevant from Marxism as "communism."

      One can agree with certain aspects of a previous thinker without accepting everything person wrote or advocating for it. We have to distinguish Marx as political activist, proto-sociologist, and economist,since he made contribution to all of these fields that stand on their own.

      One can reject the political activism while drawing on his economic and sociological insights that are still relevant. For example, Marxian economist Michael Perelman reports that mainstream economists admit the relevance of power in economic analysis privately but eschew it publicly. See Michael Perelman, "The Power of Economics vs. The Economics of Power"

      Marx aside, economists still haven't acknowledged sociologist C. Wright Mills and his groundbreaking book, The Power Elite, even though it was published in the mid-Fifties. That is telling, if not damning.

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  8. prof premraj pushpakaran writes -- 2018 marks the 200th birth year of Karl Heinrich Marx!!!

  9. I really don’t understand the infatuation with Karl Marx. Every time his teachings have been implemented, they have been met with devastating consequences. It’s like we become blind and ignorant to what happens when Marxist theories are implemented. I suggest we quit beating our heads against the wall and let Marxism die once and for all.