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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