Marxismo

Jon Elster

  • Marx’s Politics by Alan Gilbert
    Martin Robertson, 326 pp, £16.50, August 1981, ISBN 0 85520 441 9
  • The History of Marxism. Vol. 1: Marxism in Marx’s Day edited by Eric Hobsbawm
    Harvester, 349 pp, £30.00, January 1982, ISBN 0 7108 0054 1
  • Dialectic of Defeat: Contours of Western Marxism by Russell Jacoby
    Cambridge, 202 pp, £15.80, January 1982, ISBN 0 521 23915 X
  • Analytical Foundations of Marxian Economic Theory by John Roemer
    Cambridge, 230 pp, £19.50, August 1981, ISBN 0 521 23047 0
  • Karl Marx: The Arguments of the Philosophers by Allen Wood
    Routledge, 304 pp, £13.50, January 1981, ISBN 0 7100 0672 1

Up to a fairly recent time it was the case that all good books on Marx were hostile, or at most neutral. Correlatively, all the books that espoused Marx’s views did so in a way that could only dissuade the reader who approached Marx with the same canons of scholarship and argument that he would apply to any other writer. What is called for is a blend of charity and scepticism. When choosing between interpretations of equal textual plausibility, priority should be given to the reading that makes best substantive sense or fits best with what Marx writes elsewhere. Yet charity stops here, for once one has arrived at an idea of what Marx was trying to say, his views should be evaluated according to the usual criteria of consistency, fertility and veracity. To extend charity from interpretation to evaluation was, and still largely is, a pervasive defect in writings on Marx by Marxists. It has led to Ptolemaic Marxism of various kinds, embodied in such phrases as ‘determination in the long run’, ‘relative autonomy’, ‘tendential laws’ and the like. To withhold charity even from interpretation has, of course, been the symmetric error of anti-Marxist writings, often perpetrated by ex-Marxist writers such as Karl Wittfogel.

Marxist scholarship, however, does not consist only of books on Marx. In history, philosophy and the social sciences there have been attempts to develop theories and explanations that are broadly speaking Marxist in inspiration, yet do not claim to be literal applications of views held by Marx. The only field in which these attempts have met with some success is history, where several generations of Marxist scholars have done much to shape our understanding of social and economic history. As for Marxist philosophy, up to very recently one could only concur with A. J. Ayer’s statement that there is no such thing. Within the social sciences, there has gradually developed a branch of Marxist economic theory that has shed the tendency to wishful thinking characteristic of much early work. Yet the work of, say, Morishima and Steedman has mainly tended to show that Marx’s most cherished theories, such as the labour theory of value or the law of the falling rate of profit, are false or useless. And with few exceptions I believe it fair to say that within the other social sciences Marxist theories have been vitiated by a conspiratorial-cum-functionalist attitude that makes it boringly predictable how any social phenomena will be explained.

This, clearly, was a depressing state of affairs for someone who, like myself, believed that Marx’s theories of exploitation, class struggle and dialectics, suitably modified and generalised, were crucial tools for, respectively, normative, explanatory and methodological purposes. Yet over the last decade the situation has, slowly, been changing. The most striking developments have occurred within philosophy. Analytically-trained philosophers have applied their tools to the Marxist theory of justice, the theory of collective action, and historical materialism. The outstanding work in this respect is the book by G.A. Cohen, Karl Marx’s Theory of History. Within economics there are some instances of Marxism making a positive contribution to economic theory, if not yet to our understanding of actual economies. But there is a long way to go before one can talk of the state I have described as a thing of the past.

Let me single out five sets of problems that throw some light on how Marxist studies came to develop in the way they did. First, there is Marx’s ambiguous attitude to Hegel, reflected in the strongly divergent views that later Marxists have held in this respect. As observed by Russell Jacoby, this also corresponds to a dual strain in Hegel himself – a tension between the Phenomenology of Mind and the Science of Logic. To embrace the latter has usually involved a commitment to a pseudo-scientific version of Marxism, in which one could get away with murder by invoking the distinction between the essence and the appearance, or – at a pinch – by denying the principle of contradiction. Of the present authors, Wood is the only one to present a sustained defence of this mode of reasoning, albeit in a diluted and therefore less absurd form.

Secondly, much confusion has been generated by the twin errors of treating Marx and Engels either as identical in all respects or as radically opposed in their philosophical outlook. An instance of the first fallacy is provided by Chapter Three of Alan Gilbert’s book, titled ‘Chartism and Marx’s Second Revolutionary Strategy’, yet almost exclusively concerned with Engels. The history of the second fallacy is traced by Jacoby, with particular emphasis on the little-known Italian opposition to Engels around the turn of the century. A useful treatment is that of Gareth Stedman Jones, in his contribution ‘Engels and the History of Marxism’ to the volume edited by Hobsbawm. This issue is linked to the first, since those who embrace the Science of Logic also tend to hold that the views of Marx and Engels on dialectics were identical. Wood, for instance, claims that with respect to the dialectics of nature, the attempt to drive a philosophical wedge between Marx and Engels ‘has no basis whatsoever’. The claim, however, is true only if the dialectics of nature is so defined as to exclude the philosophy of mathematics. In some of the most reckless pages of Anti-Dühring Engels invokes the mysterious fraction 0/0 as proof of the power of dialectics to get something for nothing, showing by his argument that he understood little of the calculus. Marx was far more careful. He wanted to bring out the rational form of the calculus in which it can dispense with contradictions, whereas Engels invoked calculus to prove the reality of contradictions.

Thirdly, the teleological strand in Marx’s thought was prolonged, disastrously, by many of his followers. Marxists have tended to explain social phenomena either by their short-term role in maintaining capitalism or by their long-term function of bringing about its demise – in either case without providing the mechanism that alone could make such contentions plausible. John Roemer and Allen Wood both confront this problem, with radically different conclusions. Roemer argues that functional explanations are inadequate, and that social behaviour and institutions must be explained by providing microfoundations. This involves espousing methodological individualism, an option that inexplicably seems to be abhorrent to many Marxists. Wood, on the other hand, offers a defence of teleological reasoning, though I shall argue that it does not succeed.

Fourthly – and this is, in a way, a consequence of the preceding observation – Marxists have devoted an inordinate interest to what we may call negative explananda – the events that could have occurred, but didn’t. Jacoby develops the idea of ‘class-unconsciousness’, which is said to be the ‘product of historical forces and institutions’. Gilbert observes, absurdly but correctly, that ‘without socialist organising in the countryside, many peasants blamed urban republicanism and not Napoleon for their misery’ – invoking, in fact, one non-event to explain another. And he carries the moralising teleology even further when he refers to the ‘insufficiently thorough rejection of racist divisions’, instead of just ‘racism’; or to Chartism’s ‘failure to oppose divisions between English and Irish workers’. I am not saying that negative explananda are never of interest, but I do believe that the fact that Marx predicted the occurrence of a certain event is not in itself sufficient to make its non-occurrence an interesting fact. Nor is the non-realisation of a tendency a fact worthy of explanation unless the tendency is well-grounded in a causal mechanism. Marxists have all too often postulated unsupported tendencies, and then concentrated their efforts on explaining why they are not realised, emulating the man who pointed to the absence of lions in England as proof of the efficacy of his lion deterrent.

Lastly, the fate of Marxist theory has been closely linked to that of Marxist political practice. Jacoby argues that Marxists such as Bettelheim and Althusser have too closely tracked current political events, though his argument is spoiled when he goes on to say that Althusser’s self-criticism is a ‘commercial strategy ... marketed by the engineers of the planned obsolescence of thought’. Hobsbawm, in his chapter on ‘Marx, Engels and Politics’ in The History of Marxism, shows that the founders themselves were quite opportunistic in this respect, since ‘the complexities of Europe left endless room for inconclusive speculation and debate’ about what was and what was not historically progressive. Unlike Hobsbawm, Gilbert sees a positive virtue in this opportunism, which he solemnly calls ‘a dialectical resiliency or flexibility that an economic determinist conception at its best only faintly caricatures’. One is left to wonder whether a faint caricature is better than a strong one.

It will not have escaped the notice of the reader that, of the books under review, that of Alan Gilbert is the one that appeals least to me. In addition to being badly written and overlaid with shrill political overtones, the book is fatally flawed in its central thesis, which is that Marx’s analysis of political events before and after 1848 evolved as he added ‘auxiliary statements’ to his basic theory. The notion of auxiliary statements is taken from Hilary Putman, who uses it in the sense of a simplifying assumption, as when in the calculation of the motion of the Earth round the Sun we assume that there are no other heavenly bodies. Gilbert, however, appears to use it in a totally different sense – that of an ad hoc hypothesis which is added to a theory when it fails to predict correctly. His account of the development of Marx’s thought amounts to an analysis of the changing ad hoc assumptions Marx had to invoke in order to explain why certain events turned out differently from what he had anticipated. Within the philosophy of science there is a well-established term for theories of this kind: a degenerating research programme. I do not think, however, that Marx’s political writings in these years can be seen as attempts to analyse scientifically the balance of the class struggle: they were part of an effort to change that balance. Now Gilbert might say that this ignores the dialectical unity of theory and practice, to which the only answer seems to be: Nice work if you can get it. When writing about current events you may influence them, so that what you predict does, in fact, come about, or so that events evolve in a direction you desire: but only by sheer accident can you achieve both of these goals simultaneously.

Russell Jacoby has set out to write a study of the ‘reception’ of Marx, Engels and Hegel by later Marxists: i.e. of the changing and conflicting interpretations that cloaked much of the political struggle in the Second International and later. His book contains much information about writers and tendencies now largely forgotten. Some of them may well deserve resurrection, but Jacoby hardly gives us any reason for thinking so. His book is curiously devoid of substance. The history of ideas becomes a battle of abstractions, as if nobody ever discussed specific problems where the abstract ideas can be seen to make a difference for analysis or for action. For instance, his discussion of Russian Hegelianism and Marxism contains no reference to what was perhaps the dominant theme of these debates, that of ‘the advantages of backwardness’. Elsewhere, a great many names are mentioned, with an inordinate number of references, yet without any coherent analytical focus. The book is marred, moreover, by a self-consciously elegant style that after a while gets on the reader’s nerves. In this respect, it is the total opposite of Gilbert’s book, and the two may well be put alongside each other as exemplars of two styles of Marxism that tend to feed upon each other – the crude activist and the self-conscious aesthete are one another’s best justification.

The first volume of The History of Marxism, dealing with the founders of Marxism, is a translation of an Italian work compiled some years ago. It is a very uneven book, and at its rather high price I would not recommend it to the reader. The two substantial contributions by Hobsbawm – in addition to his Preface and his bibliographical chapter – are both very good. I like the suggestion he throws out that ‘the Marxian transformation of socialism’ would perhaps have been impossible within the main bourgeois countries, i.e. England and France – another variation, perhaps, on the theme of the advantages of backwardness. In his chapter on ‘Marx, Engels and Politics’ he convincingly argues against the attempt to read into Marx and Engels our current preoccupation with organisational questions. His contributions are consistently well-informed and well-argued. Other useful contributions include that of Stedman Jones, mentioned earlier, and a piece by Georges Haupt on the history of the notion of ‘Marxism’ as a doctrine. The other pieces appear to me either rambling, insubstantial or outdated. In particular, Maurice Dobb’s chapter on ‘Marx’s Critique of Political Economy’ is not a good guide to the best current understanding of Marx’s theory. He argues that ‘the main relations in price-terms, however they appear, are capable of being derived from the value-magnitudes, and hence can be treated without any logical contradiction as determined by the latter. If they can be, then the analytical structure of Capital apparently stands.’ But this argument is invalid: since the value terms are derived from the technical coefficients and the prices can also be derived directly from the latter, it makes no sense to say that the prices are ‘determined’ by the values.

Allen Wood has produced what is probably the best general work on Marx as a philosopher. This, however, is not very high praise, since other similar books are of uniformly low quality. Wood is very good on alienation, less good but highly stimulating on Marxism and morality, and rather weak on historical materialism, philosophical materialism and dialectics. In some cases, the weakness of this treatment derives from that of the texts which he is interpreting. It is difficult to make a coherent view out of Marx’s ramblings on materialism, naturalism and realism. I do not see how one could improve much on Wood’s attempt, but what it shows is probably only that it is not worthwhile. But I want to say a bit more about the other parts of his work.

The chapters on alienation argue that there are two distinct (although related) forms of alienation in a capitalist society: the frustration of human self-actualisation and the domination of social conditions over their creators. Wood asserts, furthermore, that frustration should be defined in objective rather than subjective terms, as ‘the discrepancy between what human life is and what it might be’. I am quite sympathetic to this view, but I would like to point to some problems inherent in it that Wood does not discuss. First, the view has the somewhat counter-intuitive implication that men can become more alienated without undergoing any change in their actual conditions – viz. if the productive powers of society increase so as to expand the potential for self-actualisation. Secondly, if alienation is defined as a lack of a sense of meaning, rather than a sense of a lack of meaning, it would appear to be an obstacle to political action rather than, as suggested by Wood, a motive for it. And finally, I am a bit puzzled by the relation between exploitation and historical materialism: I shall have more to say about this.

Wood’s treatment of historical materialism is rather weak, and I advise readers to turn instead to G. A. Cohen’s book. Although his basic argument is quite similar to Cohen’s, it lacks any attempt to provide an epistemological foundation for the functional explanations that, for Cohen and Wood, are at the heart of historical materialism. Unlike Cohen, Wood implausibly argues that functional or teleological explanations have no causal foundation, without noticing that his ‘tendencies’ thereby become indistinguishable from ‘the life force’ and other disreputable entities one had thought were now buried for good. An important application of the functional mode of explanation involves explaining the relations of production in a given society by their impact on ‘the growth and employment of the productive forces’. Again I have three queries.

Wood on other occasions says that the growth of the productive forces is largely independent of the relations of production, which are at most required to ‘accommodate’ the growth. Next, he is systematically ambiguous as to whether growth or employment of the productive forces is the central variable, neglecting to take into account that some institutional arrangements such as the patent system may have a favourable impact on the former and yet be a fetter on the latter. And he seems to confuse two senses in which capitalism can ‘fetter’ a potential that would be more fully developed under communism. First, with respect to a given set of productive forces, capitalism fetters the self-actualisation that they make possible; secondly, capitalism fetters the growth of the productive forces themselves. There is a choice to be made here, which Wood does not confront: did Marx believe that communism would come about because the workers would want to fill the gap between actual and possible self-actualisation, or because they would desire to close the discrepancy between actual and potential growth of the productive forces? He might well have held both views, but it would in any case seem imperative to keep them distinct from each other, as Wood fails to do. Probably he has stumbled over an ambiguity in the term ‘development’, which may refer both to the development of ‘humanity’s essential powers’ for a given set of productive forces and to the development of these forces.

Wood is well-known to Marxian scholars for some important and provocative articles in Philosophy and Public Affairs, arguing in effect that there is no sense in which one can speak of a Marxian morality or theory of justice. Now Marx may well himself have believed that he had no moral theory, but I do not think the theory of exploitation makes sense without imputing to him some moral principles. Wood defines exploitation non-morally, as the coercive extraction of a surplus without any reciprocal contribution by the coercer. This, however, goes against Marx, who believed there could be exploitation even in such cases as international trade, when both parties gain from the exchange. Moreover, how can one characterise the wage system as exploitative unless one believes that the capitalist lacks a moral entitlement to his capital? Finally, Wood does not confront the fact that Marx, in The Critique of the Gotha Program, advocates ‘To each according to his needs’ as a principle of distributive justice that can be used to evaluate the defects of inferior principles, such as ‘To each according to his contribution’, not to speak of the principles that govern income distribution under capitalism.

Wood concludes with four chapters on ‘The Dialectical Method’ that are distinctly disappointing, given the high standards that he follows elsewhere. The impact of this part, together with the part on historical materialism, is to reduce or dilute what Marx believed to be his distinctive contributions, to just another instance of 19th-century organic thinking about society. Having said earlier that ‘materialist explanations are teleological explanations,’ he now adds that dialectics is the study of organic wholes and of organic development. Materialism and dialectics both collapse into organicism. Moreover, Wood not only interprets Marx in this way, but goes on to defend Marx thus interpreted. My own view is totally different on both counts: I believe that both materialism and dialectics meant something different to Marx, and that the organicist remnants in Marx are the least valuable part of his thinking. Wood trivialises the dialectic into statements about the general interrelations of things, and the tendency of things to change because of their inner tensions. It is all very vague and general. I believe there is some muddle as well, since Wood depicts change both as opposed to stability and as produced by a tendency. Now if a tendency is to be something beyond the mysterious life force alluded to earlier, it must be a process with dynamically stable properties, as exemplified by a ball rolling in a valley that slopes towards the ocean. To explain a process of change by a tendency is to say that the change is stable. This, however, is only an internal criticism of Wood’s view. Much more important is his neglect of that aspect of Marx’s dialectic that stems from Mandeville’s ‘private vices, public benefits’, from Adam Smith’s invisible hand and Hegel’s ruse of reason: the idea that men, while acting according to their self-interest, are led collectively to bring about something different altogether.

John Roemer’s study is both a consummation of the negative work done by a generation of Marxist economists, and a contribution to new foundations for Marxian economics. No one can read this book and go on believing that Marx showed prices to be determined by labour values or that profit-maximising capitalists will behave in a way that brings about a fall in the average rate of profit. This, however, we already knew. To his positive tasks Roemer brings two qualifictions, to my knowledge not united in any other writer.

First, he has a very good understanding of the underlying intuitions of Marxist economic thought, as distinct from Marx’s – often unsuccessful – attempts to translate them into a formal theory. Secondly, he knows a lot about (non-Marxist) general equilibrium theory. In addition, he has a gift for exposition that helps the non-mathematical reader to understand what is going on, at least most of the time. The book has the rare virtue of being simple as well as profound.

Roemer consistently derives aggregate features of the capitalist economy from the rational behaviour of individual economic agents. This is against the grain of the Marxist tradition, which on the whole has embraced a methodological collectivism that feels no obligation to provide micro-foundations. Many writers, for instance, refer to the ‘interest of capital’ as an explanatory variable, even when the behaviour to be explained has no obvious benefits for the individual capitalist. Roemer rightly objects to this procedure: ‘It may be in the interests of capital as a whole to maintain discriminatory wage differentials for black and white workers of equal productivity, but why should the individual profit-maximising capitalist respect this differential when he or she can increase profits by unravelling the differential – that is, by hiring only black workers at a slightly higher wage than they are receiving under the racist regime?’ The importance of this attitude, as distinct from an emphasis on ‘tendencies’ and ‘organic wholes’, can hardly be overestimated.

Roemer’s positive contributions are of three kinds. First, he explores at some length the conditions for equilibrium in a capitalist economy, including such non-standard features as imperfect competition and variable utility functions for workers. Secondly, he raises a series of important questions about technical change under capitalism, with special emphasis on the interaction between working-class combativity and choice of technique. Here, incidentally, he makes an error when suggesting that the wage rate (an index of working-class combativity) should depend continuously on the set of input-output coefficients used in production. True, working-class consciousness is shaped in part by the structure of the work process, and differently-structured work processes will usually have different input-output coefficients: but there is no reason to believe that the impact of the structure is mediated by these coefficients, as seems to be required for the continuity assumption to make sense. And finally Roemer constructs an elegant typology of different kinds of crisis that can arise in a capitalist economy: profit squeeze crises, realisation crises and fiscal crises.

I cannot help feeling, however, that the ingenuity and the freshness of mind that Roemer brings to these problems are worthy of a more important task. He offers miscellaneous models and clarifications rather than a coherent view. Clearly, in writing this book, Roemer has taken Marxist economic theory as he found it and tried to make the best of it that could be made, rather than forget the tradition and start from scratch. From the concluding chapter it appears that he himself is aware of this need for a more radical departure. In particular, he argues that the division of society into classes should not be taken for granted by Marxists, but rather demonstrated as a theorem on more basic assumptions about individual behaviour. This program has already been carried out in a couple of recent articles, and Roemer also refers to a forthcoming book, A General Theory of Exploitation and Class. As far as one can judge from the samples now available, this will prove a milestone in the development of Marxist economic theory. In the meantime, readers who want to be brought up to date on Marxian economics should turn to the book under review, which supersedes all earlier expositions.