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.

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