Saturday, October 20, 2007

Liberal Anti-Marxism Annoying

Apparently young American liberals still feel obligated to take ignorant cold war stands. Here's Ezra Klein, in a post positioning himself as more reasonable than either extreme:
"Any Marxist will tell you that 'real' Marxism was never tried. That said, just about every time something called Marxism was tried, it traveled down much the same course, and failed in much the same way. "
Perhaps, I'm not the one to comment, since I neither consider myself to be a Marxist nor do I disagree with Klein's take on American conservatives.

It is simply untrue that "every time something called 'Marxism' was tried", it failed. Eduard Bernstein was called a Marxist "revisionist" - this was not a compliment by the communists. Bernstein's argument was important in the development of the Second International's line. And this version of Marxism is still being implemented in western Europe.

I also wonder what it means to "try" Marxism. The last of Marx's theses on Feuerbach is, famously:
"The philosophers have only interpreted the world differently, the point is, to change it."
The world still needs transforming. One finds few formulae in Marx, however, for what to do after the revolution*. Marx's longest work is more about analysis of existing society than unfounded designs of some far-distant future society. In the afterword to the second German edition, Marx notes that in Capital he is not "writing recipes (Comtist ones?) for the cookshops of the future." Perhaps some of Marx's analysis is still worth retaining.

Here's one part of Marx's analysis to consider:
"The general conclusion at which I arrived and which, once reached, became the guiding principle of my studies can be summarized as follows. In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or - this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms - with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure." -- Karl Marx, Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy
I do not see how the horrors of Stalinism or the 1989 collapse of "actually existing socialism" can invalidate the above general conclusion. In fact, that collapse would rather seem to illustrate Marx's conclusion.

* Caveat: Marx is probably most explicit on the design of post-revolutionary society in The Civil War in France and in the Critique of the Gotha Programme. It is in the latter, that Marx's makes his distinction between post-revolutionary socialism, in which laborers receive their proceeds in proportion to their contribution, and "the higher phase of communist society", in which
"society [can] inscribe on its banners: 'From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!'".
Lenin draws on this distinction in his State and Revolution and in his attacks on the "renegade" Kautsky.


Anonymous said...

Well, any starving person living under a bridge in the USA could as readily argue that just about every time something called capitalism has been tried, it has failed. But starving people living under bridges rarely get to write political philosophy or history, regardless of their capabilities.

We should also not forget that Marx's analyses and prophecies altered the very reality he was describing -- ie, that they became self-denying prophecies. Enlightened supporters of capitalism, such as Benjamin Disraeli, Teddy Roosevelt and FDR, reacting to Marx and Marxism, did their best to soften the sharper edges of raw capitalism in their own class's self-interest. said...

Great post, Robert. I'd call myself a Marxist, or at least Marxish, and I agree with your conclusions. As you know there's plenty of common ground between Marxian and post-Keynesian economics.

Anonymous said...

Well, as an anarchist I would argue that the basic point made is correct -- when Marxist parties have seized power, the results have not been as Marx would have liked.

In terms of Leninism, that quickly became the dictatorship over the proletariat and the economy was just state capitalism.

In terms of social democracy, that quickly became reformist and resulted in the saving of capitalism, not its abolition.

I would also note that Bakunin (and those who followed him, like Kropotkin and Malatesta) predicted these outcomes decades before they came to pass. They argued that the state was an instrument of minority class rule and could not be used by the working class to transform society in their own interests.

Instead, they had to build a new world based on federations of workplace and community assemblies, born from the struggle against capitalism and statism (e.g., trade unions, communes, etc.). That vision was, in part, confirmed by the experience of the Paris Commune and the Russian soviets, both of which forced Marxists to change their politics to incorporate their lessons (although not sufficiently).

Saying that, some Marxists have learned the lessons. And so it would be remiss of me not to mention libertarian marxists like Paul Mattick, Anton Panneokeok, Harry Cleaver and other council communists and autonomists who are close to anarchism. Cleaver's essay on Kropotkin is well worth reading, if you are interested in the links.

Now, recognising that anarchists got it right does not mean that Marx should be rejected out of hand. Bakunin recognised that Marx contributed significantly to socialist politics and economics.

I think Chomsky got it right when he rejected Marxism as a religious concept but noted that Marx made important contributions to our understanding of the world and how capitalism worked.

To dismiss Marx because of the failings of Marxism would be a mistake -- just like turning Marx's politics into Marxism to begin with! Sadly, some anarchists do precisely that -- but many do not, luckily.

I would recommend section H of An Anarchist FAQ for discussion of the issues involved. But, then, I would do :)

An Anarchist FAQ

Robert Vienneau said...

The idea of a self-denying prophecy is interesting.

Thanks, Mike. The label "neo-Ricardian" was invented by some Marxists who asserted that followers of Sraffa are not Marxists. I don't think this a point worth arguing about. I keep on thinking I should comment on Keynes on your blog, but find it work to organize my thoughts. Besides, I am also reading Paul Davidson's new book on Keynes.

Iain, is Lenin's Left-Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder treated in one of the questions? Maybe there should be an explicit question, just as there is for one Engel work and for Lenin's State and Revolution.

blackstone said...

I would like to draw on what the anonymous poster was saying about anarchism, council communism, etc. First i would like to point out the difference between libertarian socialism and authoritarian socialism.

Most libertarian socialists do not accept China, USSR or the Soviet bloc as communist nor socialist. One of the key features that a socialist society must contain is to be egalitarian and participatory.

Michael Albert said this in the book Looking Forward

"This would ring true if the label "socialist" applied, but Soviet, Chinese, and Eastern European leaders lied when they called their economies socialist. Henry Kissinger and the New York Times lied about this as well, and Western Marxists like Heilbroner have been either deceived, foolish, or also lying. Socialist values - assuming that by this we mean egalitarian and participatory values - have never characterized any of these countries. People who fled East Germany in the Winter of 1989 had never experienced egalitarianism, so how could they be rejecting it? Workers in Poland have never managed their own economic lives, so how can their bankrupt economy prove that if workers did manage their own lives everything would fall apart?"

As the anonymous user said, what existed was a dictatorship over the proletariat and not a dictatorship OF the proletariat. The difference is huge. The former is authoritarian and is leads to restoration of capitalism, the latter is the transitional stage to communism.


I love your blog, keep up the good work. I am going to add more economic posts to my blog soon!

Robert Vienneau said...

Certainly some on the left criticized the Soviet Union from the earliest days of its existence. Pointing out such traditions is a different answer to Klein than I was trying to formulate.

By the way, that I only have that Sharpe article, mentioned in a previous post, in a dead tree form. So I could not email you a copy if I wanted to.