Marxism’s Anniversary, Long Live (a piece of) Marxism!

Article from New Politics Symposium: The Relevance of Marxism on the 150th Anniversary of The Communist Manifesto, Winter, 1998

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the 150th anniversary of The Communist Manifesto is that, well, who cares? The answer is: nearly no one. More, nearly no one would care about Marx’s birthday or Lenin’s, or about the birthday of the Russian, Chinese, or even Cuban revolutions (in the industrialized west, anyhow), or about any other related event one might propose to celebrate—say Das Kapital’s birthday, for example, whenever that might be.

The reason is certainly the crumbling of the Soviet Empire, but this just raises a new question. Given that the Soviet Empire was a dungeon, why did its fall – a good thing as in the phrase "one down, one to go" — shove Marxism down history’s memory hole? Is the correlation between dictatorship, ecological decay, social homogenization, and many other vile features of Soviet history, on the one side, and the body of thought labeled Marxism and Marxism Leninism on the other side, an unfair rap? Should the court of intellectual evaluation find Marxism and Marxism Leninism innocent of responsibility for the Soviet debacle? Or, if there are damning connections, is there nonetheless a baby to preserve while discarding the bath water in these ideologies? More extreme, as post modernists argue, could the problem be the very fact that Marxism and Marxism Leninism are ideologies? Should we dispense with all attempts to explain history beyond singular descriptions? Should we entirely forego trying to envision the future—deciding not only that the Soviet model was a horror, but that any visionary model is doomed to a similar fate by the very nature of looking forward beyond our range?

To answer these questions, one has to carefully evaluate Marxism as a theory of history and particularly economics, and Leninism as a view of how to overcome capitalism putting in its place socialism, communism, the dictatorship of the proletariat, etc. Over the years Robin Hahnel and I have spent considerable time doing this. Here I can only summarize the conclusions we have argued in depth and detail elsewhere:

1.      Marxist dialectics at its best is an overly obscure methodological reminder to think holistically and historically; at its worst it’s a philosophically absurd drain on creativity and range of perception.

2.      Historical Materialism’s main claims are denied by history. Its lesser claims are not entirely wrong, but when "real existing people" utilize the concepts of historical materialism they inexorably arrive at an economistic and mechanical view of society, systematically under-valuing and mis-understanding social relations of gender, political, cultural, and ecological origin and import.

3.      Marxist class theory has disguised the importance of the coordinator (professional-managerial or technocratic) class and its antagonisms with the working class and with capital, and has in this way long obstructed class analysis of the Soviet, Eastern European, and Third World non-capitalist economies, and of capitalism itself.

4.      The Labor Theory of Value misunderstands the determination of wages, prices, and profits in capitalist economies and turns activists’ thought away from a needed social-relations view of capitalist exchange. The dynamics of the workplace and market are largely functions of bargaining power and social control, categories essentially ignored by the labor theory of value.

5.      Marxist crisis theory, in all its variants, distorts understanding of capitalist economies and anti-capitalist prospects by seeing intrinsic collapse where no such prospect exists and orienting activists away from the importance of their own organizing as the basis for change, that is far more promising.

6.      Regarding visions of desirable societies, Marxism is particularly obstructive. First there is Marxism’s general taboo against "utopian" speculation. Second, Marxism presumes that if economic relations are desirable other social relations will fall into place. Third, Marxism is permanently confused about what constitutes an equitable distribution of income — "from each according to ability to each according to need" is not a viable economic guide (it is utopian and curtails needed information transfer) and "from each according to work and to each according to contribution to the social product" is not a morally worthy maxim (it rewards productivity, including genetic endowment, beyond effort and sacrifice). And fourth, Marxism approves hierarchical relations of production and command planning as means of allocation.

7.      Marxism’s injunctions regarding economic goals taken cumulatively amount to advocating what we call a coordinator mode of production that elevates administrators, intellectual workers, planners, etc., to ruling class status. This Marxist economic goal uses the label socialist to appeal to workers, but does not structurally implement socialist ideals (much as the political goal of bourgeois movements uses the label democratic to rally support from diverse sectors, but does not structurally implement democratic ideals).

8.      Finally, Leninism is a natural outgrowth of Marxism employed by people in capitalist societies, and Marxism Leninism, far from being the "theory and strategy for the working class," is, instead, by its focus, concepts, values, and goals, the "theory and strategy for the coordinator (professional-managerial, technocratic…) class."

So we can see why with the demise of the Soviet model, allegiance to Marxism and Marxism Leninism might also wane, since these ideologies were indeed aimed in their principles, concepts, thought, and vision (though not the deepest aspirations of many of their advocates), at this model. So, what’s the problem? Out with the model, out with the theory and strategy seeking it. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

Well, yes, but only to a point. When theories fail in explaining reality or guiding practice, they do need to be corrected or jettisoned. And, in the case of Marxism and Marxism Leninism, the faults are basic to the underlying concepts so that correcting them is not just tinkering with the system. That is, after dispensing with dialectical materialism, historical materialism, the labor theory of value, the limited understanding of class, Leninist strategy, and the (Soviet- or market-based) Marxist model, we would say that whatever you do next you won’t have enough left of what was there before to retain the old name. So, yes, it is time–actually way past time–to get on with something new.

But, when theories fail in explaining reality or guiding practice, it does not follow that every claim they make, every concept they offer, and every analysis they undertake must be jettisoned. Quite the contrary, more likely much will resurface as still valid (though perhaps recast somewhat) in any new and better intellectual framework.

And this is the frustrating problem for those of us who, over the years, have in a principled manner combated the economism and other inadequacies of Marxism. Now that people are finally eager to move on — oh no, there goes that baby down the bath drain! Because for all the inadequacies of Marxism, the theory got two things very right: First, private ownership of the means of production is inevitably alienating and exploitative. And second, allocation via markets must be abolished if we are to achieve a desirable economy.

Yet many who call themselves radical political economists have somehow forgotten these two important lessons. And since any radical political economy that no longer understands these fundamental flaws of capitalism is doomed to oblivion, this is a very serious problem. Unless it is corrected, "radical political economy" will cease to be radical and join non-radical institutionalism as another minor intellectual opponent of the neoclassical mainstream.

Capitalist profits (based on private ownership of the means of production) are not morally justifiable. At a point in time "the economy" is capable of producing a surplus of goods and services beyond those necessary to reproduce all inputs used, that is, "the economy" is potentially productive. It is potentially productive because of the cumulative effects of innovations dating back to prehistory, but the important point is that this potential productivity is, for the present generation, a public good. It belongs no more to one person or group than another. It is our common economic inheritance. Under capitalist rules, to convert this potential productivity into an actual social surplus, capitalists must permit workers access to the means of production and workers must toil under capitalist management. Capitalists then accrue part of the social surplus from those who exert and sacrifice to produce it by exploiting the leverage capitalist ownership of the means of production grants them. Bargaining power conveyed to them by their property rights allows capitalists to take the social surplus as profit. In contrast, morality-based claims on the economy’s productive potential arise only from personal sacrifice toward increasing or manifesting society’s productivity potential, or, in other words, only from work, something not part of capitalists’ job description.

Whether one calls the result the "fundamental Marxist theorem" or the "fundamental Sraffian theorem" is secondary. What is primary is that profits come from exploiting workers and that capitalists accrue them by power, not effort and sacrifice. So those who countenance a "positive" role for a private sector in a sought after new economy or who praise the virtues of "mixed economies" could benefit quite a bit from "rereading" Marx. Of course, they can get this insight elsewhere as well, which is fine. What isn’t fine, however, is jettisoning the insight that private ownership of the means of production is an abominable economic structure on the idiotic grounds that the insight is part of Marxism and we must now, finally, do better than Marxism does.

But the tendency to go "soft" on private ownership is relatively minor in scope and impact compared to the contemporary economists’ stampede to embrace markets, wherein an astonishing proportion of radical political economists have opted to join the international, conservative, free market jubilee. For example, in the debate over what constitutes a desirable economy — illogically unleashed by the crises of Soviet style economies — there are basically four schools of thought advocating, respectively: 1) public enterprise market models, 2) mixed economy market models, 3) centrally planned models and 4) democratic or participatory planning models. Marx would no doubt be surprised that the majority sentiment among modern day Marxists lies with the first two schools. Sentiment is so strongly supportive of market visions, in fact, that among Marxists there is a more active debate between different versions of market models than between markets and planning.

Needless to say, as proponents of participatory planning, we can only wish that some of our colleagues who used to suggest that we needed to apply ourselves more vigorously to the study of Marx, would take their own advice. In the (earlier) words of Frank Roosevelt, a recent convert to market socialism himself, "Marx, the greatest socialist thinker we have had so far, was adamantly opposed to allowing any role for markets in socialism: `Within the cooperative society based on common ownership of the means of production, the producers do not exchange their products,’ he said in his Critique of the Gotha Program (1875). And Engels concurred: `The seizure of the means of production by society puts an end to commodity production… which is replaced by conscious organization on a planed basis.’ Anti-During (1878)." In our opinion, whether he was the "greatest socialist thinker" or not, Marx took what Roosevelt calls "the abolitionist position" regarding markets with good reason. And if our colleagues enamored of markets can break their free market spell more effectively by rereading Marx and Engels than by reading current day critics, we do not hesitate to prescribe the antidote of their choice.

While only some of our opposition to markets derives from Marx, he provided more than a good start. Again, we are use Frank Roosevelt’s formulation of five reasons Marx opposed markets.

1.      Markets inexorably lead to social inequality and class divisions — hence to domination, exploitation, alienation.

2.      Because decisions regarding output rates are taken by individuals or firms without any social coordination a market economy will tend to be unstable… thus failing to utilize its human and material resources consistently over time, i.e. waste.

3.      Markets gradually turn everything into a commodity and thus corrupt and undermine social morality and community.

4.      When commodity production (i.e. the market) is the dominant way of organizing economic activity in a given society, human relationships will necessarily be characterized by alienation. Production for use is the necessary foundation for fully human relationships.

5.      Reliance upon the market mechanism for coordinating economic activities prevents a society — and the individuals in it — from achieving freedom in the fullest sense of the word.

While Frank Roosevelt would like to convince himself otherwise, every one of these objections to markets is as sound, if not more sound today than when Marx formulated them over a hundred years ago. To these liabilities, in addition, we would add a number of others, including, briefly, environmental inadequacies, private effect exceptionality, and both the absence of reasonable structures for expression of preferences and the inexorable bending of preferences in an individualist manner. We would also note that regarding point (1), the class division that markets create is not that between capitalists and workers (engendered by private ownership of the means of production) but that between what we call coordinators and workers, a feature of central planning as well.But, in any event, regarding the body of work written by Marx and all subsequent Marxists, our conclusion is no different from anyone else’s! If we concentrate on the right passages Marx and chosen representatives of the Marxist heritage will have a positive (though limited) role to play in the future of radical political economy. If we focus on the wrong passages, however, Marxology will be counterproductive.But what about the last set of questions we noted at the outset of this article? That is, what about the critique of Marxism that says its faults derive from the fact that it is ideology or vision per se? This view is, to put it bluntly and briefly, a well meaning insight run amuck. Why is the view "well meaning"? Well, when most post modernists and others (for example, those who suffered the boot of Bolshevism in the Eastern Bloc) argue against developing a framework to understand history or to put forth a vision that we might aspire to attain, they are rebelling against the hubris and authoritarianism of sectarianism. And opposing sectarianism is good, to be sure. What’s "amuck" about the view? It goes from rejecting excessive confidence in our analyses and projections, and, particularly, arrogance in stomping out alternatives, to rejecting the very idea of having analyses or projections at all. Again, to overuse the metaphor – there goes the baby with the bath water. Surely the solution to bad analysis and bad vision is better analysis and better vision – not none of either. And surely the solution to arrogant assertion of analysis or vision is openness to diverse perspectives and a good process for comparing and learning from options, not curtailing all options apriori.

To reject thinking about history with an eye to discerning patterns that help us understand our place and our options, and to reject envisioning better institutions that give us norms for valuation now and aims to aspire to by our practice, is to literally de-brain ourselves. An amazing proposal! Yes, if one could show that the acts of thinking, of looking for patterns, of envisioning, etc., whether all together or each separately by their very nature caused those engaging in them to inexorably become Stalinist thugs, the post modernists would have a case. But this is utter nonsense, which is why no post modernist or other proponent of the "no theory, no vision" stance has ever even bothered to try to make such a case. The Marxism problem is not solved by jettisoning everything that Marx and/or Marxists have ever thought or said. Nor is it solved by jettisoning the agenda of trying to understand history or to envision a better future and aspire to create it in light of our thoughts about it and our values and experiences as we proceed. No, the Marxism problem is solved by doing better, and if there is anything that respects the best of the Communist Manifesto, or Marx’s own birthday, or the publishing of Das Kapital, or any other event you care to name in this pantheon, getting on with doing it better is that thing.


The author, Michael Albert, works on Z Magazine, the Z Media Institute, and Z’s online operation named ZNET. He hosts a forum on ZNet, as do Noam Chomsky, Katha Pollitt, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Howard Zinn, for those interested in discussing this article or other matters.

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