Saturday


Yesterday in Marxist Eschatology I wrote:

Marx is the greatest exemplar of a perennial tradition of human thought that has been with us from the beginning and which will be with us as long as civilization and human life endures. This tradition wasn’t always called Marxism, and it won’t always be called Marxism, but the perennial tendency will remain. There will always be individuals who are attracted to the perennial idea that Marx represents, and as of the present time Marx remains the most powerful advocate of these ideas.

While on my other blog in Marx and Fukuyama I wrote:

With Marx, we can identify a “bend in the road” of history at which point Marx might be proved right or wrong. For some people — wrongly to my mind — this point was identified as the end of the Cold War. To my mind, it is the full industrialization of the world’s economy. Thus Marx’s thesis has the virtue of falsification.

This calls for a little clarification, since if interpreted uncharitably it might be found contradictory for Marxism to be a perennial idea and to be falsifiable, since what distinguishes a perennial idea is that it is not falsifiable — at least, not in a robust sense of falsification.

Karl Popper was the philosopher who formulated falsifiability as a criterion of scientificity (I’m not certain he was the first, be he has definitely been the most influential in advancing the idea of falsifiability, especially in contradistinction to the logical positivist emphasis on the verifiability criterion), and he discussed Marx at some length. Here’s nice summary from one of Popper’s later works:

“As I pointed out in my Open Society, one may regard Marx’s theory as refuted by events that occurred during the Russian Revolution. According to Marx the revolutionary changes start at the bottom, as it were: means of production change first, then social conditions of production, then political power, and ultimately ideological beliefs, which change last. But in the Russian Revolution the political power changed first, and then the ideology (Dictatorship plus Electrification) began to change the social conditions and the means of production from the top. The reinterpretation of Marx’s theory of revolution to evade this falsification immunized it against further attacks, transforming it into the vulgar-Marxist (or socioanalytic) theory which tells us that the ‘economic motive’ and the class struggle pervade social life.”

Karl Popper, Unended Quest, “Early Studies,” p. 45

I should point out that I agree with Popper’s arguments, and that Marxism construed in the narrow sense that Popper construed it was falsified by the events of the Russian Revolution. Lenin’s “weakest link of capitalism” theory was instrumental in the reinterpretation of Marxism that Popper mentioned. Beyond Lenin, Mao made even more radical changes by shifting the focus from the industrial proletariat to the agricultural peasant. It is a testament to the extent to which the twentieth century was not fully industrialized that it was Maoism rather than Marxism or Leninism that was the form of communism that reached the masses during the last century.

However, I think that there is a species of Marxism that lies between Popper’s narrowly conceived Marxism and the vulgar Marxism reinterpreted in the light of apparent falsification, and this is a Marxism that has been generalized beyond the historically specific conditions of the Russian Revolution, and even beyond the Cold War, which had almost nothing to do with democracy or communism and almost everything to do with national rivalry and the great game of power politics.

I have called a generalized Marxism a species of Marxism, and herein lies to clue to the distinction between Marxism and a perennial idea in the strict sense. Marxism (of one variety or another) is a species that falls under the genera of collectivist political thought. The latter — collectivist political thought — is a perennial idea, and lies beyond falsification. It is neither true nor false, but an ongoing influence, just like its implied contrary, which is individualist political thought. Individualism also lies beyond falsification, and is neither true nor false but remains an ongoing influence in human affairs.

Most forms of capitalism are individualist in orientation, though not all: oligarchical capitalist societies (like medieval Venice) had little to do with individualism. Thus a generalization of capitalism does not always lead to individualism. A generalization of capitalism, depending on its subtle differences in tone of market activity from one society to another, may lead to individualism, but it may also lead to a profoundly hierarchical crony capitalism, or to some other socio-economic formation.

Speaking generally for ideas, and not just communism and capitalism, and indeed not just political and economic ideas but all ideas, the generalization of an historically situated and therefore specific idea usually leads to a perennial idea if the generalization is sufficiently radical. The generalization of capitalism may or may not lead to individualism, but it will eventually lead to some perennial idea which lies beyond falsification, whether that idea is patriarchalism or something else. The generalization of Marxism, I think, leads more directly to a perennial form of collectivist thought, which at its greatest reach of generality is scarcely distinguishable from a vague sentimental connection to others.

The species of Marxism that I have posited — midway between Marxism narrowly conceived and Marxism generalized to the point of a vague feeling of cooperative common cause — is falsifiable, but it is not falsifiable by experiment. It is only falsifiable by history. It shares this property with other theses in the philosophy of history. This is one of the fundamental distinctions between the natural sciences and at least some of the historical sciences: theses in some of the historical sciences are falsifiable, but they are not falsifiable on demand. One can only wait and see if they are eventually falsified. With the passage of time the inductive evidence of an unfalsifiable thesis in the philosophy of history increases, but is never confirmed. Thus the philosophy of history, contrary to most expectations, is the most science-like of the branches of philosophy.

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Marxist Eschatology

13 January 2012

Friday


Why do I keep writing about Marx? I have already discovered that repeatedly writing about Marx confuses people. Indeed, it confuses some people so completely that if you write a long, detailed criticism of some Marxian idea, those who don’t take the time to read or don’t have the capacity of understand simply assume you’re a Marxist because you’re writing about Marx. Why not get “Karl Marx” tattooed across my knuckles, then? It’s a fun idea. People who read me, but don’t read me closely, sometimes think I’m a Marxist, while people who see me but don’t look closely sometimes think I’m a John Bircher. Really. I was in a coffee house in a trendy part of Portland some years ago having a long and detailed conversation about logic with a friend, and someone asked us if we were from the John Birch Society. I guess it must have been due to our clean-cut looks and the moral earnestness of our discussion. I once asked one of my sisters why people often mistake me for a reactionary, and she said I wasn’t “flying the flag,” and that if I wore my hair in dreadlocks and dressed the part, people would probably think differently. I realized later how right she was.

For my part, I continue to write about Marx because Marx is the greatest exemplar of a perennial tradition of human thought that has been with us from the beginning and which will be with us as long as civilization and human life endures. This tradition wasn’t always called Marxism, and it won’t always be called Marxism, but the perennial tendency will remain. There will always be individuals who are attracted to the perennial idea that Marx represents, and as of the present time Marx remains the most powerful advocate of these ideas. And so it is necessary to grapple with Marx. I might even be willing to go so far as to say of Marx what Hegel said of Spinoza: To be a philosopher, one must first be a Marxist.

I have on many occasions written about the eschatology implicit in Marx, which is a pretty straight-forward secularization of pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die. Recently in Missing the point I used this famous phrase to describe the dead-end ritualism of mass labor under advanced industrialized capitalism, but it is just as true of Marx’s original vision. Some time ago I quoted a famous passage from Bertrand Russell to this end (Mythologies of Industrialized Civilization). This post was cited in a discussion on The Rational Responders web site. No one told me about the discussion; I found it by following the links back from hits to my post. Some seemed to agree with me, while others thought I got it all wrong, and Russell too.

It was one of the central features of Karl Löwith’s philosophy of history that modernity itself consists of a number of secularizations of originally theological concepts, and Löwith clearly implied that this rendered much modern thought essentially illegitimate. This implication was sufficiently clear that Hans Blumenberg wrote a long book, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, in order to rebut Löwith. Unfortunately, Löwith and Blumenberg are not well known in Anglo-American analytical philosophy, so their works are little discussed. Marx seems to slot in well with Löwith’s secularization thesis, but if secularization is a legitimate historical process, what’s the problem?

I just argued yesterday in Areté and Selection that the medieval world was the direct ancestor of modernity, and if this is indeed the case, then no one should be surprised that many modern concepts of our secular civilization are secularizations of medieval concepts derived from a primarily theological civilization. This is just what happens when a theological civilization gives way to a secular civilization. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, and I think that I will begin referring to that which preceded industrial-technological civilization as religio-philosophical civilization.

In any case, to get around to my main point of today’s post, I was thinking about Marx’s own conception of Marx’s communist millennium that would be a worker’s paradise in which:

“…nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”

Karl Marx, The German Ideology, Part I: Feuerbach. Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlook, A. Idealism and Materialism

Marx was careful to be vague about the coming worker’s paradise under communism partly because he didn’t want to held to any overly-specific predictions, and partly because he wanted to avoid being called a Utopian. In social science circles, to be called a Utopian is the end the discussion with one’s exclusion as a serious thinker. Marx knew it, dismissed other social theorists himself as utopians, and forcefully argued that communism would come about as a result of inevitable historical processes, not in order to fulfill our dreams of a more just social order in the future.

In other words, Marx’s conception of communism is closely parallel to the line I have consistently argued about the industrial revolution, and, by extension, globalization, since I have also argued that globalization is simply an extension of the industrial revolution — its continuation, and eventually, some decades hence, its completion and fulfillment.

The industrialization of the world’s economies has not come about because of utopian plans for a better, healthier, and more just society, and it did not come about as the result of the nefarious plotting of hidden powers who pull levers behind a curtain. The industrial revolution came about as an historical process that escalated due to a feedback loop of science, technology, and industry. This process is still incomplete. As the process continues its march around the globe — again, not as the result of utopian dreams or evil conspiracies — it creates what we now call globalization, as institutions that first appeared in Western Europe begin to appear elsewhere in the world. But the institutions are symptoms, not causes. People who see only the surface of things see the institutions of industrialized societies as the causes of changes; they are not the causes; these institutions follow from deep structural changes in economic organization.

I don’t think that Marx would have disagreed with me too strenuous only this, and I don’t think that he would disagree all that much with the next claim I will make. I have called the industrial revolution a macro-historical revolution, as it initiates a new stage in human history. There have only been two previous fundamentally distinct forms of human society, and these were hunter-gatherer nomadic societies, and settled agricultural societies. If communism had come about as Marx believed it would come about, then this too would have qualified as a fundamentally new form of human society, and communism would have inaugurated a new macro-historical division. The material conditions of life would have changed for the greater part of humanity. This is simply to put Marx’s idea in my terminology.

I have also argued that Marx’s theory has not really received its experimentum crusis, because the industrial revolution has even in our time not yet been completed. We cannot say that Marx was wrong in his essential argument until globalization has transformed the world entire into an industrialized economy, and then, under these conditions, no communist revolution occurs that expropriates the expropriators. People who still argue today about whether Marx was right or wrong, whether he has been refuted or validated by history, are missing the point: the conditions do not yet obtain under which Marx can be judged to be right or wrong. Thus Marxism must remain an open question for us if we are going to maintain our intellectual integrity.

Given, then, that the fulfillment of Marx’s prophecy is still a live option for history, I ought to count it among the macro-historical possibilities that I began to delineate in Three Futures, where I identified singularization, pastoralization, and extraterrestrialization as historical forces that could sufficiently transform the basic organization of human societies to the point that a new macro-historical division is defined by the transformation. I ought, then, to speak of four futures, except that I am working on another possibility that I hope to discuss soon, which would define five futures — or, better, five strategic trends that suggest transformation on the civilizational level if extrapolated to a sufficient degree.

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Friday


I have written several posts on human nature, such as it is (or isn’t), and even have human nature as a category. In a post simply titled Human Nature I considered the various views of Thucydides, Sartre, and John Stuart Mill. There I quoted several passages of Thucydides that are classic statements on human nature, I considered Sartre’s explicit skepticism, such that “there is no human nature that we can take as foundational,” and lastly I discussed Mill’s organic metaphor in which he compared human nature to a tree, “which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides.” More recently in Agents and Sufferants I returned to Thucydides to consider human nature in terms of its agency.

Yet more recently I have learned that distinguished anthropologist Marshall Sahlins has written a short book on human nature, The Western Illusion of Human Nature, with the wonderful subtitle, with reflections on the long history of hierarchy, equality and the sublimation of anarchy in the West, and comparative notes on other conceptions of the human condition. I don’t have a copy of this yet, so I am at the mercy of the reviews. The title makes it sound as though Sahlins is a human nature skeptic as thorough as Sartre, but a review says that Sahlins rejects a Hobbesian account of human nature as savage and violent in favor of, “the one truly universal character of human sociality: namely, symbolically constructed kinship relations.” I hope to read the book for myself, but this encounter with another suggestion of human nature skepticism provoked me to further thought.

In addition to several posts about human nature I have also repeatedly quoted a line from Marx, that is one of my favorites:

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, first paragraph

This Marxian reference to men making their own history ties in with my use of Ortega y Gasset’s line — Man has not an essence but a history — that I quoted in my Human Nature post. I think Marx would have agreed with this. Both Marx and Ortega y Gasset place man within history, and make human nature, if there is any, a function of history.

I realized a couple of days ago that one way to express this would be to say that human nature is a function of the human condition. And the human condition in turn is an historical reality. Thus we could paraphrase Marx as follows:

“Men make themselves, but they do not make themselves as they please; they do not make themselves under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

Further, we can observe that the human condition is a function of the longue durée. The longue durée, in turn, is an historical reality, or, rather, a way of looking at history. More importantly, the longue durée endures, but it is not permanent. The apparent rigidity of human nature — which for some recommends the idea, while for others is a reason to reject it — is a function of the human perspective. Given the perspective of the longue durée, human nature is not fixed, but is a function of the changing human condition. However, the human condition changes so slowly that from the perspective of the individual human being, it appears fixed and stable.

The human condition does change, and sometimes it changes dramatically. In The Atomic Bazaar: Dispatches from the Underground World of Nuclear Trafficking, which I just discussed a couple of days ago in The Poor Man’s Bomb, author William Langewiesche wrote, “The nuclearization of the world has become the human condition, and it cannot be changed.” (p. 13) I agree with this. The human condition was changed with the advent of nuclearization (which Karl Jaspers called, “the new fact”), because it represents the practical possibility of the suicide at least of civilization, and perhaps also of our species. This is an important development, and it is a changed aspect of the human condition that will, over the longue durée, result in a changed human nature.

In several posts in which I have distinguished what I have called the divisions of integral history, I have divided history not according to the customary distinctions of Western historiography, but according to primarily demographic concerns, based upon how the bulk of the human species lives. Another way to phrase this would be to say that the human condition was initially that of hunter-gatherers under the nomadic paradigm, which was followed by a human condition of subsistence farming under the agricultural paradigm, and has now become a human condition of mass industrial employment under the industrial paradigm. There is a sense, then, in which each of these primary divisions in the human condition would correspond with a human nature that emerges from these conditions.

Human nature, of course, even when conceived as a function of the human condition, is not monolithic. Small, incremental changes — changes like nuclearization — will make their contribution to a human nature substantially shaped by the institutions of industrialized society. There is room for variation, and even for incommensurable individuals existing within the same paradigm. The world, for all that it has shrunk, is still a very big place, and admits of individual and regional variation as certainly as it admits of temporal variation.

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Sunday


John_Edward_Christopher_Hill

A few weeks back I wrote a post in which I mentioned the influence of Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down had had on my thought (this was The Agricultural Paradigm). A few days later R. C. Richardson, emeritus professor of history, University of Winchester, Wrote “The Canon: The World Turned Upside Down by Christopher Hill” and Christopher Thompson responded to this on this Early Modern History blog (now apparently closed to the public, but his comment on Richardson appears on the THE website). I wrote about Hill again in Unintended Timeliness, and Nick Poyntz of Mercurius Politicus also wrote an appreciation of Hill. I was interested to note that these diverse contributions from diverse individuals were then all linked at the History News Network under the title A Christopher Hill Symposium.

I have continued to think about Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down, especially this paragraph from Christopher Thompson:

The World Turned Upside Down graphically illustrates the problems inherent in Hill’s analysis of the events of the 1640s and 1650s. The groups that excited his interest — the Levellers, Diggers, Ranters, Fifth Monarchists, etc — were and are important for their ideas but had minuscule support. Their activities and views were anathema, so far as we can tell, to the bulk of the populations of England, Wales and the rest of the British Isles. There was never any possibility of the societies of these islands being persuaded of the rectitude of their radical or sectarian claims. Indeed, the regimes of the post-1646 period depended on military force to remain in place because they lacked the consent of the bulk of the populations whose religious and political views were fundamentally conservative. For this reason, the English Revolution could not be consolidated at any stage.

This struck a nerve with me, but at first I didn’t really know why, except for the obvious (and probably correct) claim that the ideas of Hill’s early modern radicals were marginal at best and had no broadly-based social support. I just realized yesterday, however, that this stands in negative correlation to some claims that I made some time ago in The Nation-State: A Sketch of its Origins. In that post I wrote concerning early modern political philosophy:

The emergent practices of the early modern nation-state were felt to require a theoretical justification. Early modern political theory was, at least in part, a reaction against the feudal fragmentation of Europe… One political philosopher after another extolled the virtues of absolutism, and the difference between their doctrines was a matter of detail in the formulation of absolutism. Later modern political theory in the Enlightenment was, in turn, a reaction against the absolutism celebrated by their predecessors. With the rise of absolutist nation-states came a degree of order that the middle ages did not possess, but it also inaugurated an epoch of state repression — repression of ethnic, linguistic, religious, and cultural minorities, repression of individuals, repression of dissent — novel forms of repression not conceived before the birth of the absolutist nation-state.

Of course, there were philosophers of the stature of Hobbes who were absolutists, but radical in another sense than the radicalism of the egalitarian doctrines celebrated by Hill. Hobbes’ materialism scandalized many in his day, although reading Hobbes today he doesn’t come across as any kind of radical, but that is only because the intervening lapse of centuries has produced unprecedented radicalisms and scandals. Hobbes only seems to lack radicalism in hindsight.

Philosophical reputation is an inscrutable and unpredictable thing, and not unlike poetic reputation. A philosopher can be famous in his day, his works widely circulated and the topic of much topical debate, and then, not long after his death, he falls out of favor and becomes the exclusive concern of antiquarians, his name only heard in lectures and seminars. On the other hand, a philosopher like David Hume, who gained wealth and fame as an historian but who was virtually unknown as a philosopher in his own time, now dominates philosophical discussion and stand among the names of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, and Kant as one of the great philosophical figures of his time.

Hobbes was well-enough known in his time that he was among the six who received advance copies of Descartes’ Meditations and drafted a set of objections. Hobbes is also remembered as a classic political philosopher today, so Hobbes bridges the gap between being known in his own time and being known to posterity. In this, he is an unusual figure. There are many more unknown and obscure philosophers than there are well-known philosophers, and fewer still who are known to both their fellows and to posterity.

Because of Hobbes’ materialism the established powers of his time kept their distance for him, ideologically speaking, but other writers — even relatively abstract philosophers — who said things that flattered powerful and wealthy patrons (or their presumptive ideological commitments) found their careers advanced. I wrote about this in my Variations on the Theme of Life (section 753):

Official philosophy.—There was a time when the refutation of skepticism was seen as a service to the state. Thus James Beattie was given a royal pension of two hundred pounds sterling per year for having written against Hume.

To which I appended the following footnote:

Such support has not disappeared, but has changed its appearance; today, this kind of largess comes instead in the form of research grants given to respectable academics by respectable institutions.

As we noted above, Hume was scarcely even recognized as a philosopher in his day, but writing against his corrosive skepticism was sufficiently interesting to the established powers that it won Beattie a generous pension. Philosophical theories, and the writers of philosophical theories, prosper or suffer in the degree to which they support or criticize those who hold political, military, or economic power. This is nothing other than the old Marxist distinction between economic infrastructure and ideological superstructure.

In this forum I have had many occasions to invoke the Marxist distinction between economic base and ideological superstructure, which I prefer to call economic infrastructure and ideological superstructure. I took the trouble today to look up the text that is usually cited as the source of this distinction, and here it is:

In the social production which men carry on they enter Into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material powers of production. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society — the real foundation, on which rise legal and political superstructures and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production in material life determines the general character of social, political, and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.

Marx, Karl, A Contribution to The Critique of Political Economy, translated from the Second German Edition by N. I. Stone, Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company, 1911, Author’s Preface, pp. 11-12

So, there you have the locus classicus of the distinction, and it remains a useful idea today, however much Marx’s other doctrines have suffered in the intervening years. There is much more that can be said on this head, and in fact many subsequent philosophers have developed this theme in extenso (Antonio Gramsci, for example). Needless to say, as a Marxist, Christopher Hill would have been well familiar with this distinction.

Christopher Thompson, as quoted above, wrote about the radicals celebrated by Hill, “There was never any possibility of the societies of these islands being persuaded of the rectitude of their radical or sectarian claims.” With this claim I explicitly disagree. There was a possibility, but it was a possibility that remained unactualized due to contingent circumstances. It is not that people don’t have ideas that conflict with the economic infrastructure, but that patronage is distributed accordingly as one flatters that infrastructure, while punishment is meted out to those who defy it. Christopher Thompson presented radical thought as essentially repugnant to an essentially conservative outlook of the greater part of the population, and I do not dispute this, but I do not think that it is the whole story.

Peasant populations are notoriously conservative; they distrust foreign ideas at least as intensely as they distrust people from foreign villages, and the greater the distance, generally speaking, the greater the distrust. But peasant peoples are also generally uneducated and exposed to very little of the world. When they become educated, and achieve some exposure to the wider world, they are quite likely to identify with doctrines that express the content of their lives, and the content of their lives was largely one of one-sided and often onerous oppression by lords and landlords.

When radical ideas have been free to circulate among oppressed people, and no systematic measures are taken by elites to extirpate or punish these views, they often spread widely and rapidly. There are a few cases (admittedly, not many) when full scale revolutions have emerged from such influences.

England was not the only place in the early modern period to experience of great ferment of ideas and ideologies. The Protestant Reformation on the continent involved widespread proselytizing of a spectrum of religious doctrines of varying degrees of radicalism. In the case of the Peasant’s War, largely led by Thomas Munzter and denounced by Luther (the recipient of protection by German princes), these radical doctrines led to an uprising of peasants that had to be put down militarily. Radical doctrines among German peasants, then, had plenty of intrinsic traction, and only failed in the long run because no peasant force could stand against trained and armed elites: the peasants knew farming, while their aristocratic landlords knew fighting, so it wasn’t much of a contest.

For us it can only be a thought experiment to imagine what doctrines might have had a wide appeal among pre-industrialized agricultural laborers if ideas had enjoyed free and unrestricted distribution, if the peasantry had some rudimentary education, and if alternatives to the doctrines sanctioned by elites had not be violently suppressed through military force. Yet are enough traces and exceptions in the historical record to suggest that, even if radical doctrines might not have universally appealed, they would have had some appeal, and indeed I think that we can safely speculate that radical doctrines, under other circumstances than those that did hold in fact, would have enjoyed a representation among peoples at that time roughly proportional to that which they enjoy today.

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Wednesday


marx4

Red is the universal symbol of socialism, communism, and Marxism, but it could just as well be green, for collectivist sentiments will always remain evergreen; they represent a perennial form of thought that will always find expression in every age. While the particular form that collectivist thought takes in a given era is specific to that era, it is a perennial tendency of thought and will in every era exhibit perennial properties. Since Marxism is a particular form of a perennial feature of thought, it can be expected to be historically viable. (There is a general principle implicit in this general claim, but I will leave this for another time.)

Since the nineteenth century, Marx has been the primary source of collectivist thought, and Marx will continue to be the primary representative for collectivist thought probably for some centuries to come. Not until another thinker of comparative stature emerges in the coming centuries to re-formulate a powerful collectivist vision on a level with that articulated by Marx will Marx himself be superseded.

The continuing relevance of Marx is attested to in last Saturday’s Financial Times, in which a review by Tony Barber of three books (The Rise and Fall of Communism by Archie Brown, The Frock-Coated Communist by Tristram Hunt, and Marx by Vincent Barnett) was titled Red Alert: Communism has long been discredited — but is there still mileage in the theories of Marx and Engels?

While with the end of the Cold War it became fashionable to speak of Marx being discredited or “proved wrong,” just as today, in the wake of the present financial crisis, it has become fashionable to dust off the tomes of Marx and seek their renewed relevance to the world situation, these twin events — the end of the Cold War and the present financial crisis — ought to have no special claim on our theoretical understanding other than the fact that they are important events that happened to have occurred during our life time. Other events will certainly occur in the future that will make Marxism seem more or less relevant, just as events have occurred in the past that made Marxism seem more or less relevant. The personal perspective on history is a kind of distortion, and one must work against being too much swayed by the events of one’s own time.

In my Globalization and Marxism I argued that Marxism has still not received its experimentum crusis, and may in fact never be subject to a crucial experiment that could decisively and definitively determine the truth value of Marxism’s most fundamental propositions.

A couple of days ago in Marcuse on the Post-WWII settlement I mentioned Marcuse’s post-World War Two reflections on Marxism and the probability (or lack thereof) of proletarian revolution and what Marcuse called “orthodox Marxism” (of which he apparently considered himself a representative).

The “33 Theses” referenced in the above-mentioned post makes for fascinating reading, and I hope to return to this work by Marcuse in future posts. Marcuse takes the post-World War Two condition of Europe as his starting point, and at that point it is apparent that he already at that time considers orthodox Marxism to be defeated (or, at least, not a force to be reckoned with at that time in history). The Soviet Union at that time, even for orthodox Marxists, did not seem to present any hope for leading the vanguard of worldwide proletarian revolution.

Several of the pieces in Marcuse’s Technology, War and Fascism, Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse, Volume One, are similarly prescient; his orthodox Marxism has not impaired the rigor and objectivity of his scholarship. There is much to be learned here, still today, as there was much that could have been learned from it in Marcuse’s time that would have made the “Red Scare” that much less scary. But this is a large topic that cannot be adequately treated with an extemporaneous remark like that.

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Globalization and Marxism

7 December 2008


Redeeming a promissory note

In Yesterday’s Marxism Lite I quoted the eminent Marxist historian Hobsbawm from a BBC radio interview as follows: “Globalisation, which is implicit in capitalism, not only destroys the heritage and tradition but it is incredibly unstable, it operates through a series of crises, and I think this has been recognised to be the end of this particular era,” ( “Marx popular amid credit crunch” 20 October 2008).

Eric Hobsbawm

Eric Hobsbawm

I remarked in a note that this quote deserves a fuller exposition, so now it is time to redeem in gold the promissory note. And although I can’t do justice to all that is implied in this single sentence, I can at least make some remarks, perhaps redeeming the note in silver if not gold.

Sentimental forms of exploitation

Hobsbawm mentions the destruction of heritage and tradition wrought by globalization, and this has been a perennial theme of Marxism. In one of the many famous passages from the Communist Manifesto, Marx writes:

“The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors’, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom – Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation. ”

One doesn’t ordinarily think of Marx as a sentimentalist, but here Marx sounds as though he prefers the “feudal, patriarchal, idyllic” relations of the pre-industrial past to “callous cash payment”, and that exploitation veiled by religious and political illusions is a better thing than exploitation that is “naked, shameless, direct, brutal.” While this would be a good place for a digression on Freud concerning the future of such illusions, we will leave this for another time (another promissory note to redeem). Of all people, Marx sounds closest to Edmund Burke in this passage, even down to the metaphor of nakedness and the implied comfort of illusions; perhaps the resemblance is intentional, an allusion, as Marx had no doubt read Burke. But one would scarcely be more surprised to find Marx quoting de Maistre.

Edmund Burke and Karl Marx tête-à-tête in prose

Edmund Burke and Karl Marx tête-à-tête in prose

Edmund Burke, in his Reflections in the Revolution in France, similarly expressed himself on sentimental forms of exploitation thus:

“All the pleasing illusions which made power gentle and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the super-added ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns and the understanding ratifies as necessary to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.”

One can immediately perceive the parallelism of this from Burke with the above quoted passage from the Communist Manifesto; not only the references, but even the rhythm and cadence, are similar. This sentimental side of Marxism, apparently tolerant of feudal exploitation so long as it is modestly draped in moral rhetoric, illustrates the lengths to which Marx (and his followers) will go to make a point, but it is a mere distraction from the more significant content of Hobsbawm’s above quote.

The development of the heretofore undeveloped world

For much of the twentieth century the political left engaged in ostentatious hand-wringing over the conditions in poor countries around the world. This hand-wringing was best exemplified in dependency theory, which held that poor countries were being “underdeveloped” (instead of simply being “developed”) as part of a nefarious capitalist scheme to keep them poor. Now, some of these countries are no longer poor; certainly, many are no longer as poor as they once were. Countries like India and China have begun to industrialize, and their industrialization is changing conceptions of economic development, international relations, and indeed civilization itself.

Globalization is nothing but the long-awaited development of the undeveloped and underdeveloped world. That globalization is attended by much lamentation and gnashing of teeth in both the developed and in the un- and underdeveloped world is in itself a demonstration that globalization is no respecter of persons and is as blind as justice. The peoples of the developed world complain that jobs are being “exported” to the industrializing nation-states, while the peoples of industrializing nation-states complain about the conditions of industrialization, notwithstanding the fact that industrialization in the twenty-first century is a very different beast than industrialization in the nineteenth century.

If any political entity not affiliated with the left attempted to obstruct globalization, they would be accused of attempting to keep poor countries poor, just as when any political entity in the US points out the counter-productive character of attempting to protect politically visible jobs (by singling out particular industries for protection) such an entity can expect to be pilloried by those claiming to speak on behalf of workers.

Industrialization before revolution

Many are the economists and political theorists who have rightly observed that Marx maintained that industrialization was a necessary preliminary to communist revolution. Marx himself was lukewarm about the enthusiastic Russian reception of Das Kapital, because Russia, being not yet industrialized and lacking an industrial proletariat, was not primed for revolution like heavily industrialized Western Europe. Lenin made some revisions to Marx and attempted to legitimize revolution in Russia from a Marxist theoretical perspective. Mao later went much farther, and made the obviously non-industrialized Chinese peasant the basis of his revolutionary movement. If Marx was right, and we can take him at his word, the communist revolutions in Russia and China were premature revolutions, and had Marx seen them he might well have predicted their failure.

If, as I have stated above, globalization is nothing other than the extension of the industrial revolution to regions of the world previously untouched by it, and if Marx was right that communist revolution must emerge from the industrialized armies created by the factory system, then globalization must precede any genuine communist revolution. Hobsbawm said that globalization is implicit in capitalism, but he might just as well have said that globalization is implicit in Marxism. In other words, Marx may yet be right, and he may yet be proved right at some distant point in the future, but the conditions under which Marx might be proved right (or wrong) have simply not yet obtained.

Marxism and its experimentum crucis

It is easy to imagine a point in time when all the world is industrialized, and Africa has followed in the footsteps of Asia’s present capitalist development (and, in a sufficiently warm world, Antarctica as well). At such a point in history, the world entire would be ripe for revolution, as financial crises today that are limited to the industrialized and developed world would at that time involve the whole world. When industrialization is world-wide, the mechanisms employed today to stabilize developed economies may no longer function and we could yet see escalating crises of the kind predicted by Marx. But this has not yet happened; it cannot happen until the world has industrialized, and the process by which the world is industrialized is globalization.

So, Marx may yet be proved right. But there is a twist. Depending upon the direction that history takes, Marx’s theories may never be tested properly because the conditions under which they could be tested may never obtain. Firstly, and most obviously, if the world never fully industrializes, the conditions under which communist revolution ought to take place will never obtain; hence, Marx’s theory can never be exposed to its experimentum crucis. Secondly, and (in my view) more interestingly, if human civilization establishes itself off the surface of the earth, and industrialization has the indefinite extent of known space into which to expand, the potential infinity of the human future will defy any “complete” industrialization, and hence, again, the conditions needed to test Marx’s theory the way he himself interpreted it may never obtain. An “open” future can never converge on an historical totality of industrialization, therefore the conditions under which communist revolution can take place and be successful would be pushed further and further into an indefinite future, never to be realized.

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Marxism Lite

6 December 2008


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Perhaps instead of speaking of “Marxism Lite” I should frame my views in terms of “zombie Marxism,” for it seems that the spectre of Marx, hovering over Europe this past century, is to be disinterred from his tomb at Highgate Cemetery, propped back on its feet, reanimated, and made to walk stiffly to and fro so that all the world may gawk at this stupor mundi. More than a month ago the BBC website ran the story “Marx popular amid credit crunch” (20 October 2008) noting an uptick in sales of Das Kapital. The publisher is quoted as saying, “There’s a younger generation of academics tackling hard questions and looking to Marx for answers,” and the eminent Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm is also quoted from a BBC Radio 4 interview: “Globalisation, which is implicit in capitalism, not only destroys the heritage and tradition but it is incredibly unstable, it operates through a series of crises, and I think this has been recognised to be the end of this particular era,” (1)

I find myself thinking about Marx again not so much because of the current financial panic, but rather because I am currently listening to Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography, by Francis Wheen. In fact, I have already listened through it once entirely, but as with most audio books that I take in, I will listen to it at least two or three times to make sure I get the full benefit of the text. A second “reading” often makes plain that which escapes a first reading. The author is apparently of the same mind as Hobsbawm as regards the value and veracity of Marx’s work. Indeed, I heard the author, Wheen, interviewed on the radio recently, making the same conclusions regarding Marx and the present financial crisis that where of the substance (in so far as there was any) of the BBC story.

While it is obvious from the tone of the work that Wheen is an uncritical Marxist sycophant, the more damning charge is that Wheen has failed to do honor to Marx by treating him rigorously and objectively. Such “Marxism Lite” apologetics ultimately do more damage to Marx the thinker than any number of diatribes from the John Birth Society, because a real critique would appreciate Marx’s insights at their true value, and not at an artificially inflated (or deflated) value.

A clear-eyed and clear-headed exposition of Marx would take Marx at his word (or rather at his words, as his corpus is vast) and consider his essential doctrines both in the light of subsequent experience and subsequent political and economic theory. This Wheen fails to do. There are some matters concerning which Marx was unambiguously wrong, and other matters on which Marx was right, and equivocating on this score is simple dishonesty.

Among Marx’s fundamental doctrines, ideas that we find time and again throughout his writings, we must include the labor theory of value, the impoverishment of workers, the maintenance of a reserve army of the unemployed, the latter leading to the factory system itself creating “industrial armies” of the organized proletariat, the prediction of escalating financial crises that become more severe with time, financial crises leading to greater concentration of capital and greater monopolies, and ultimately the expropriation of the expropriators by the mobilization of said industrial armies.

If there is any one feature that vitiates Marx’s work more than any other, it must certainly be Marx’s use of the labor theory of value. No serious economics in our time bothers with the labor theory of value. It is quite simply outmoded. It is not “out of fashion”; it has been superseded by a superior theory of value. Classical political economy struggled with the problem of value, and Marx was part of that struggle, as were Adam Smith, Ricardo, Malthus, and the Mills. Once the theory of diminishing marginal utility was formulated, there was no longer any need for the labor theory of value, and economics moved on to other problems.

Can Marx be faulted for his use of the labor theory of value? Can anyone be held intellectually liable for not making a breakthrough? In Marx’s case, I think he can be faulted. Both Marx and his supporters up to the present day have made a point of saying that he was the best read man in political economy of his time. But several over economists working around the same time independently hit upon the theory of diminishing marginal utility. William Stanley Jevons first presented a paper outlining the theory in 1862. Karl Menger published his version in 1871, and Walras in 1874. Marshall, who didn’t publish his magnum opus until much later, had been thinking about marginal utility for decades. Besides these explicit statements of the theory, there were many antecedents that the interested reader is invited to research. All of this occurred during Marx’s working life, and he chose not to inform himself of these developments.

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I do not doubt for a moment that a version of Marxism could be formulated employing the theory of diminishing marginal utility, but the fact that not only did Marx not do his, all his expositors and commentators down to the present day have continued to reiterate his labor theory of value, however Byzantine it becomes. But there is a reason for this willful obscurantism. Marx and the Marxists want to employ a labor theory of value because they want to maintain that the worker does not get the full value of his labor, and that he is “swindled” out of the surplus value he creates. And what is the “full value” of anyone’s labor? The very idea abounds in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.

But this, at least, is certain: if a man tells me that he can manufacture just as good a computer from vacuum tubes as anyone can assemble from integrated circuits because a vacuum tube can accomplish any switching task as well as a transistor, then I know that man is a fraud. Whether he is seeking to deceive others or is simply deluded on his own account is another question entirely.

Another perennial Marxist doctrine that deserves examination is the development of class consciousness among the proletariat. This is of particular interest because it not only interested Marx, but every generation of Marxists to the present. The contemporary left makes much of the idea that elite classes possess class consciousness while the workers do not seem to possess anything similar. Chomsky in particular takes a keen delight in quoting the business press to illustrate what he takes to be class consciousness among the wealthy and the business class, pointing out the lack of similar class consciousness among workers, with a sotto voce implication that worker class consciousness has been suppressed or discouraged.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is pure garbage. The working class does possess class consciousness, but it is unrecognizable as such by the intellectuals who presume to speak on behalf of the workers. Marx was never a member of the working class. Chomsky certainly is not part of the working class. And such men as these can never understand the working class. And the class consciousness of workers is not expressed through unions either. In their day, unions performed a valuable function in obtaining basic protections for workers. Now such protections are no longer negotiated industry by industry, but are written into law and are the object of inspection and enforcement in all industrialized countries. The union movement has been weakened by its own runaway success.

There is a quite funny scene in the Italian film Caterina in the Big City (2003), when in a class discussion of skinheads and squatters a student stands up to assert that all the communists are rich and have degrees and are doctors, lawyers, and directors, while the common working people are rightists disenfranchised by the system. It is both true and surreal. As we all know, many a truth is spoken in jest.

Caterina in the Big City (2003)

It would not be difficult to document the class consciousness of workers. A well-formulated sociological study backed by extensive interviews, the questions of which were formulated with the assistance of people who were not career academics but who had actually (like me) spent their lives performing wage labor would be sufficient to at least bring out the outlines of the worker’s attitude to his world and the place of workers within it. Again, one thing is certain: that class consciousness does not express itself as a desire to overturn the system in which the workers earn their living, and it does not express itself through revolutionary action. One must be pragmatic to make a living working in an industrialized society, and pragmatic people know that reform, and not revolution, is what improves lives across the board.

Wheen’s book avoids hard questions such are posed by the above considerations, instead opting to emphasize the outrage and the indignation that have always won Marx an audience with the angry and resentful who feel they are entitled to more than they have. It is sad, but predictable. Marx’s “big ideas” have, to date, proved to be plainly wrong and are only kept in circulation by devoted disciples who are not interested in the truth or in improving the lot of mankind, but in perpetuating an ideology. Nevertheless, Marx deserves our respect as a thinker, and if the edifice he spent his life constructing cannot be inhabited today, many of its stones can be used in new construction.

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Note:

(1) This quote from Hobsbawm deserves a fuller exposition, but I hope to come back to this later as it doesn’t fit in with present concerns.

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Note added later: Francis Wheen, the author of the above mentioned book commented on my Historical Causality, taking offense at my having called him an “uncritical Marxist sycophant” (which, I will admit, is rather strong language). I eventually (much later) responded to Wheen’s comment in A Flagon of Vinegar.

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Another note added later: in note (1) above I suggested that I would return to the Hobsbawm quote used in the text; I have done so in Globalization and Marxism.

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