Can Marxism be rescued?

Alan Ryan

  • An Introduction to Karl Marx by Jon Elster
    Cambridge, 220 pp, £5.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 521 32922 1
  • Making sense of Marx by Jon Elster
    Cambridge, 556 pp, £32.50, May 1985, ISBN 0 521 22896 4
  • Analytical Marxism edited by John Roemer
    Cambridge, 321 pp, £27.50, March 1986, ISBN 0 521 30025 8

The relationship between philosophy and Marxism has always been an awkward one. ‘Philosophy stands to the study of the real world in the same relationship as masturbation stands to real sexual love,’ said Marx himself. Was this a dismissal of all forms of philosophy, or only of the overblown Idealism of Hegel? Would he have been equally dismissive of pragmatism or empiricism; would Pierce or Mill have received the same short shrift? Marx was unwilling to waste time on such questions. The philosophical and methodological remarks scattered through his major works are scrappy, undeveloped and not entirely consistent; they take a poor second place to what he conceived of as an empirical inquiry into the logic of capitalist society and the sociology and politics of its supersession, and they leave wide open the question of what positive role he saw for philosophy.

Engels was more ready both to assert that Marxism had abolished philosophy, which from now on could only be a ‘resumé of positive science’, and alternatively (or inconsistently) that it possessed a philosophy of its own. This was the materialist dialectic which revealed some general laws permeating both the natural and the social world, such as the famous ‘law of the transformation of quantity into quality’. Lenin, Kautsky and a host of successors went further. Either they felt that Marxism’s status as science had to be philosophically underpinned, or they felt the need to supplement the brutal determinism of ‘scientific socialism’ with a philosophical demonstration that the socialist future was not merely inevitable but desirable.

Until very recently, neither activity was couched in an idiom which appealed to orthodox analytical philosophers. The ‘philosophical’ Marxism of Lukacs and Gramsci rested on revisions of Hegel and Croce; it is debatable how Marxist the Frankfurt School have ever been, but their debts to Hegel and dislike of empiricism leave no room for argument. The French contempt for Anglo-Saxon empiricism meant that philosophical Marxism in France divided its allegiances between Existentialism and Structuralism. The Anglo-Saxons were not so much contemptuous as puzzled: whatever it was that was going on in Paris didn’t look much like philosophy. The cautious ‘ordinary language’ philosophers of the Fifties and early Sixties found Sartre ‘interesting’ in the same way they might have found an avant-garde novelist interesting; the few who thought him interesting as a philosopher and moralist were then hard put to it to see how he supposed himself to be a Marxist. The rebarbative and authoritarian prose in which Althusser announced that Marx had been a structuralist and anti-humanist aroused in most Anglo-American philosophers a puzzled anxiety at best.

It must be remembered that this mutual incomprehension was only true of the ‘professional’ philosophical reaction; it reveals as much about the diversity of post-war philosophy as about the gulf between Marxism and analytical philosophy. Modern linguists, literary theorists, some dissident social scientists, were much more open to these European influences; that they made so little headway elsewhere merely proved what an ‘establishment’ enterprise academic philosophy was. The New Left Review from its earliest days attempted to break down the barbarian indifference with which British universities regarded the European Left. But even in the pages of the NLR it was long taken for granted that Marxists and analytical philosophers could hardly be on speaking terms. If Marxism was a science, it was a science of a new kind whose insights were unamenable to the empiricist obsession with verification and falsification. Moreover, it was an article of Marxist faith that Marxism adjusted both its findings and its methods to ‘the real movement of things’. Marxism was inherently progressive, both intellectually and politically. Analytical philosophy, whose model of intellectual virtue was physical science, could make no sense of the dialectic, and had nothing to say about a discipline which focused on the novel and the fluid. Its stance was intrinsically unprogressive, concerned only to rationalise existing understandings of the world.

Karl Popper’s violent assault on Hegel and Marx was one more contribution to mutual animosity. Popper’s philosophy of science is in fact Kantian, not empiricist or positivist: but this has always mattered much more to him than to his critics. It was sufficient for the opponents of analytical philosophy that The Open Society and its Enemies and The Poverty of Historicism were all of a piece with his ‘falsificationist’ philosophy of science and that both savaged Marxism as intellectually, morally and politically disastrous. Popper argued that absurd scientific pretensions led inexorably to the closed society and the totalitarian state. Marx and Lenin were the heirs of Plato’s philosopher-kings, demanding the right to build utopia on the wreckage of bourgeois liberalism. Marxists who dismissed Popper’s attacks as far-fetched or misconceived concluded that Marx could not expect a fair hearing from Anglo-American philosophy.

‘Analytical Marxism’ answers that charge. Its essential purpose is to show that much – or most, or some – of what is central to Marxism stands up to critical inspection. This isn’t simply a matter of translating an esoteric knowledge into empiricist terms; its adherents have no time for Parisian high fashion or Frankfurtian obscurity. What is worth learning from Marx can be stated clearly, and defended in the plainest prose. Lest that give the impression that Jerry Cohen, Jon Elster and John Roemer see themselves as Marxists first and philosophers second, it must at once be said that their work is remarkable for the unflinching way in which they throw out whatever won’t pass a dispassionate scrutiny. Elster’s Making sense of Marx has been attacked by its Marxist critics as an exercise in showing that Marx mostly doesn’t make sense. Cohen’s Karl Marx’s Theory of History is subtitled ‘A Defence’,[1] but even when it appeared nearly ten years ago, he was committed only to the bare plausibility of Marx’s claim that social change is to be explained by its function or purpose and, more specifically, that it occurs ‘in order to’ promote the development of the forces of production. Since then, he has steadily given ground to his critics – among the most tenacious of whom has been Jon Elster. Cohen has largely stood by his interpretative claim that Marx explained social change in functional terms, but he now agrees with Elster that such explanations are indefensible. If he is a Marxist at all, he isn’t by his own standards an orthodox one.

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[1] Oxford, 1978.

[2] Steven Lukes’s Marxism and Morality (1985) is much the best brief discussion of this paradox.

[3] The first and most comprehensive of these was A General Theory of Exploitation and Class by John Roemer (1982).

[4] Since this raises the question of what, if anything, I think better, I ought to mention Richard Miller’s Analysing Marx (1985).