Lucien Goldmann on dialectics and history

Lucien Goldmann made important contributions to French Marxist theory and philosophy in the 1960s. Unlike other luminaries like Althusser and Poulantzas, Goldmann took a cautious stance on the strongest claims of scientific certainty for the theses of historical materialism and Marx’s theory of capitalism. Instead, he placed more emphasis on the dialectical core of Marx’s theories — without assuming that Marxism provides a key to understanding the necessary unfolding of history and society. He interprets Marx’s thought in terms of the ideas of Hegel’s dialectics.

Particularly interesting is his 1970 book, Marxisme et sciences humaines. (Here is a digital edition of the book; link.) Key parts of the epistemological and metaphysical ideas in Goldmann’s philosophy of Marxism are also expressed in his essay “Is There a Marxist Sociology?” (link). This piece appeared first in 1957 in French and in an English translation in International Socialism in 1968. In this piece Goldmann considers the debates of the early twentieth century between orthodox Marxists and “ethical” reformist socialists — between those who believed that socialism was a scientific necessity and those who believed socialism would come about because the masses would come to see that it was the most just social order. Here is Goldmann’s summary of his assessment of these debates:

To sum up, what characterises these three fundamental positions (despite their differences, we are classing together Kautsky and Plekhanov) is that they all hold that Marxism implies an objective science distinct and separable from any value judgment, what might be called, to use Poincaré’s terminology, a ‘science in the indicative mood.’ On this point, the different trends of Marxist philosophy merely follow the scientism which characterised academic thought at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, by that very fact diverging from the dialectical tradition of the classical German thought of Kant, Hegel and Marx. The differences between these three positions consist in the fact that Vorländer, and with him a large number of thinkers who are partisans of explicit reformism, affirm correctly with Poincaré, that from a science in the indicative mood one can never derive any conclusion in die imperative mood, and thus there could be no ‘scientific socialism,’ since any taking up of a socialist position necessarily has an ethical basis. This position very rapidly became the ideology of a certain explicit reformist trend consisting primarily of some bourgeois democrats brought to socialism by taking seriously the demand for individual freedom for all men.

Goldmann’s own position favors the dialectical style of thinking often attributed to Marx’s thought, and he rejects the scientistic interpretation associated with orthodox Marxism. In this aspect he affiliates his thinking with that of Georg Lukács. Here is the intellectual swerve that Goldmann most appreciates in Lukács’s theories in History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics:

Lukács showed that if one accepted the idea of an objective science in the indicative mood, action could no longer be conceived except in terms of ethics or social technology; inversely, if one began with a conception of historical action as individual action, one could conceive it only in ethical or technical terms, and sooner or later, if one developed one’s thought consistently, one would arrive at the idea of an objective science of society. But it is precisely all these complementary concepts – sociology, objective science of social life, technical or ethical action – which seemed to him questionable and above all undialectical.

For him, what characterises historical action, is precisely the fact that it is not carried out by isolated individuals, but by groups who simultaneously know and constitute history. Therefore neither the group nor the individual who is part of it can consider social and historical life from the outside, in an objective fashion. The knowledge of historical and social life is not science but consciousness although it must obviously strive towards the attainment of a rigour and precision comparable to those achieved in an objective fashion by the natural sciences. Any separation of judgments of fact and judgments of value, and, similarly, any separation of theory and practice is impossible in the process of understanding history; the very affirmation of such a separation will have an ideological and distorting effect. Historical knowledge is not a contemplative science; historical action is neither social technique (Machiavelli) nor ethical action (Kant); the two constitute an indivisible whole which is a progressive awareness and the march of humanity towards freedom.

In my own treatment of Marx’s ideas in The Scientific Marx (1986) I argued that Marx did not make use of a dialectical method when it came to his social theories.

Here is my summary of my thinking about dialectics in Marx:

It is no doubt true that Marx’s mature works contain a certain amount of admittedly Hegelian language and concepts. Marx writes in Capital, “I openly avowed myself the pupil of that mighty thinker [Hegel], and even, here and there in the chapter on the theory of value, coquetted with the mode of expression peculiar to him” (Capital II, pp. 102-3). And in the same passage he speaks with approval of the dialectical method: “The mystification which the dialectic suffers in Hegel’s hands by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general forms of motion in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him it is standing on its head. It must be inverted, in order to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.” There is thus some fuel for the argument that Capital is not an empirical work but rather a work of materialist philosophy in the Hegelian mode. If these dialectical ideas ran deeply the charge would be compelling. In the following, however, I will argue that Marx is irreconcilably opposed to the use of dialectical logic as a method of inquiry in history or social science. At most the dialectical method represents a highly abstract empirical hypothesis about the nature of social change. I hope therefore to leave the way clear for an interpretation of Marx’s scientific method that is in basic agreement with orthodox empirical social science. When Marx goes to work on his detailed treatment of the empirical data of capitalism, he leaves his Hegelian baggage behind. (TSM 113)

Moreover, I note that Marx is sharply critical of Proudhon, in large part because of the appeal that Proudhon makes to the logic of the dialectical method:

Consider finally Marx’s critique of Proudhon’s political economy in The Poverty of Philosophy. This discussion is particularly important in the present context because Proudhon does attempt to base political economy on a dialectical method of inquiry and explanation, and Marx sharply rejects the possibility of such a science. “What Hegel has done for religion, law, etc., M. Proudhon seeks to do for political economy” (PP, p. 107). Marx describes Proudhon’s method in these terms: “If one finds in logical categories the substance of all things, one imagines one has found in the logical formula of movement the absolute method, which not only explains all things, but also implies the movement of things” (PP, p. 107). Thus Proudhon’s project is defined as an attempt to assimilate the categories of political economy to an abstract logical system derived from Hegel’s Logic, and then to derive the economic laws that can be deduced from this system. Marx’s commentary on this approach makes it plain that he thinks it entirely spurious as a technique of scientific inquiry. Here again Marx’s critique of dialectics as a speculative, a priori analytic tool is sharp and unforgiving. “The moment we cease to pursue the historical movement of production relations, of which the categories are but the theoretical expression, the moment we want to see in these categories no more than ideas, spontaneous thoughts, independent of real relations, we are forced to attribute the origin of these thoughts to the movement of pure reason. . . . Or, to speak Greek—we have thesis, antithesis and synthesis” (PP, p. 105). “Apply this method to the categories of political economy, and you have the logic and metaphysics of political economy” (PP, p. 108). (TSM 117-118)

So I argue that Marx does not embrace a philosophical method of knowledge discovery, but is instead highly attentive to the constraints of empirical and historical investigation. We need to discover how the social world is rather than how philosophy predicts it should be. And in fact, these commitments allow us to understand Marx’s famous comment about “standing Hegel’s method on its head”:

We are now able to interpret Marx’s celebrated remark that with Hegel the dialectic is “standing on its head. It must be inverted, in order to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell” (Capital II, p. 103). What is the rational kernel, and what is the mystical shell, of the dialectic? And in what sense does Marx “invert” Hegel’s method? It is Marx’s endorsement of Hegel’s view of the historicity of social institutions and their internal dynamics of change that leads him to speak with favor of the dialectical method. “In its rational form . . . [the dialectical method] regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion, and therefore grasps its transient aspect as well” (Capital II, p. 103). On my view of Marx’s meaning, the rational kernel of Hegel’s method is the empirical hypothesis that historical and social processes develop according to an internal dynamic, and that it is possible to provide a rigorous analysis and explanation of historical change based on knowledge of that dynamic. Moreover, Marx plainly accepts Hegel’s view that change in history proceeds through substantive contradictions. These theses characterize history as a law-governed process, and one whose changes develop as the result of internal contradictions. Thus the kernel of Hegel’s dialectic, on Marx’s view, is not methodological at all, but rather a revealing insight into the character of social reality. These theses are empirical hypotheses (albeit formulated at an extremely high-level).

The mystical shell of Hegel’s method, by contrast, is methodological—and perniciously so. It is Hegel’s belief that pure a priori analysis can allow him to discover the key to this internal dynamic. This assumption is the “logical mysticism” identified by Marx in the Critique of Hegel’s “Philosophy of Right,” and he emphatically rejects this philosophical method. Finally, the inversion Marx proposes requires that instead of beginning with ideas and attempting to reproduce the material world in thought, we must begin with the material world and attempt to arrive at ideas that adequately describe its real characteristics. “With me the reverse is true: The ideal is nothing but the material world reflected in the mind of man, and translated into forms of thought” (Capital II, p. 102). Thus Marx’s inversion of Hegel’s method is materialism; more exactly, it is a form of empiricism because it stipulates that knowledge of the material world may be acquired only through detailed, rigorous investigation of concrete empirical and historical circumstances. And what are the methods appropriate to this sort of investigation? They are the methods of empirical science. (119-120)

In 1986, then, I was of the opinion that the matter was open and shut: Marx was not a dialectical thinker. But I now see that there is another way of looking at these issues. If we take the ideas of change, contingency, historical conjunction, and dynamic social processes to be crucial for understanding the social world — as I do — then perhaps there is a version of “dialectical thinking” that does not bring along the apriorism that Marx clearly rejects, while at the same time capturing something important about history and social process. The determinism of “historical laws of motion” sounds suspiciously positivistic; whereas the idea of a set of social processes that interact conjuncturally and produce change in often unpredictable ways is more convincing as a description of real history.

So I’ll end with an interesting passage from Marxisme et sciences humaines that seems to bear on this question. This is a passage in which Goldmann refers to his own conception of “genetic structuralism”, an idea which in turn seems to capture his own view of dialectics:

Du point de vue historique, le structuralisme génétique est apparu, me semble-t-il, pour la premiere fois comm idée fondamentale dans la philosophie, avec Hegel et Marx bien que ni l’un ni l’autre n’aient employé explicitement ce terms. Il n’en reste pas moins que les pensées hégélienne et marxiste sont, pour la premiere fois dans l’histoire de la philosophie, des positions rigoureusement monistes, structuralistes et génétiques. A un niveau immédiat ce phénomene peut etre lié en partie au fait qu’avec Hegel et surtout avec Marx la philosophie moderne se detache progressivement des sciences mathématiques et physiques pour s’orienter en tout premier lieu vers la reflexion sur les fait historiques; il me parait important de constater que, loin d’etre une découverte tardive en sciences historiques et sociales, le structuralisme génétique est au contraire une des premieres positions elaborees par les penseurs qui se sont orientes sérieusement vers un essai de compréhension positive de ces faits. (21-22)

Or, in my poor translation:

Genetic structuralism is one of the first positions created for thinkers who are oriented towards an effort at a positive comprehension of these facts.

This seems to lie at the core of Goldmann’s view of how to resolve the debate between orthodox and reform interpretations of Marx: neither positivist science nor ethical pieties, but rather a view of history that envelopes individuals and groups creating their own histories, in circumstances not of their own choosing. And that process seems to be what Goldmann wants to identify as “genetic structuralism” and the outcome of dialectical historical concretization.

Merchant capital

Karl Marx was very interested in capital — an abstract concept referring to society’s wealth. And he was interested in the persons who owned and controlled capital — the capitalists. But the primary focus of his lifelong analysis was upon one particular species of capital, what he referred to as “industrial capital.” This is the form of wealth involved in the production process — factories, mines, railroads.  He had less to say about the aspect of capital that designated the exchange process — what he referred to as “merchant capital” and finance capital. This selective focus reflected one of Marx’s main historical opinions — the idea that history moves forward through the development of the “productive forces,” and that industrial capitalists (as well as the industrial proletariat) are the agents of this kind of economic change. Here is a brief description from Capital of the role of merchant’s capital in his analysis.

The reason is now therefore plain why, in analysing the standard form of capital, the form under which it determines the economic organisation of modern society, we entirely left out of consideration its most popular, and, so to say, antediluvian forms, merchants’ capital and money-lenders’ capital. The circuit M-C-M, buying in order to sell dearer, is seen most clearly in genuine merchants’ capital. But the movement takes place entirely within the sphere of circulation. Since, however, it is impossible, by circulation alone, to account for the conversion of money into capital, for the formation of surplus-value, it would appear, that merchants’ capital is an impossibility, so long as equivalents are exchanged; that, therefore, it can only have its origin in the two-fold advantage gained, over both the selling and the buying producers, by the merchant who parasitically shoves himself in between them. It is in this sense that Franklin says, “war is robbery, commerce is generally cheating.” If the transformation of merchants’ money into capital is to be explained otherwise than by the producers being simply cheated, a long series of intermediate steps would be necessary, which, at present, when the simple circulation of commodities forms our only assumption, are entirely wanting. (Capital I, Chapter 5)

According to the labor theory of value, only the expenditure of living labor into the production process of a commodity can create new value; so only industrial capital includes a process that creates new wealth. Merchant capital plays no role in the production process, and it is therefore historically unimportant — or so is Marx’s view in Capital.

If we now look back on European history from the sixteenth century to the twentieth century, this assessment seems badly wrong as an historical observation. Merchants and their companies played key roles in the establishment of a world trading system; they actively facilitated the race for colonies by the European powers; and often they played a quasi-military role in suppressing resistance by locals in distant parts of the world. So “merchant capital” and companies established for the purpose of international trade seem to have played a key role in the creation of the modern world system.

Robert Brenner undertook to provide a detailed historical account of the role of merchants and their organizations in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Merchants and Revolution: Commercial Change, Political Conflict, and London’s Overseas Traders, 1550-1653 (1993). This is a departure from Brenner’s important contributions to the agrarian changes associated with England’s agricultural revolution in the sixteenth century (link), and it is also a much more detailed historical study than his previous works. Brenner is interested primarily in two topics: first, how did commerce evolve in the sixteenth century in England, both nationally and internationally; what were the institutions, organizations, and individuals that emerged as vehicles for pursuing individual and corporate interests by large merchants? And second, how did the emergence of large merchant fortunes and companies interact with the politics of the English state during this early modern period?

To offer a historical analysis of commerce, it is necessary to have extensive commercial data. Appropriately, Brenner’s research depends heavily on good information about imports and exports throughout the period. Here is his compilation of London cloth exports 1488-1614:

So aggregation of voluminous historical economic data represents one important portion of Brenner’s historical research here. The other important part, however, is at the other end of the scale — detailed information about many of the individuals who played leadership roles in the commercial and political developments of the period.

Fundamentally the book is about the political power of the merchant class. Brenner makes the point that English commercial interests were deeply dependent upon English political and military strength in the competition for import and export markets.

English merchants found it feasible to establish the new trades in large part because of the weakening hold of Portugal and Spain over their commercial empires, as well as certain other favorable political shifts in the new areas of commercial penetration. Even so, they could successfully capitalize on the openings presented to them only because of the growing political, as well as economic, strength of English commerce and shipping in this period. (5)

The development of England’s colonies was particularly important for English merchants:

During the first quarter of the seventeenth century, English traders, for the first time, sought systematically to establish commerce with the Americas. Important City merchants had opened up the new trades with Russia, Turkey, Venice, the Levant, and the East Indies that highlighted the Elizabethan expansion, and in each case, had had recourse to their favorite commercial instrument, the Crown-chartered monopoly company. (92)

This meant, in turn, that great merchants had great political interests, both in terms of military policies of the Crown and in terms of the privileges and monopolies upon which their profits depended.  And much of Brenner’s narrative is a careful parsing-out of the deliberate and purposive political alignments sought out by the great merchants and their companies.

The Levant Company’s privileges were indispensable for its elaborate system of trade regulation and, in turn, for the reservation of the profits of the trade to a restricted circle of merchants. As members of a regulated company, the individual Levant Company merchants traded for themselves with their own capital, but were required to adhere to rules and policies set by the corporation’s general court. (66)

Political alignments were especially important during the century of conflict leading to civil war and revolution.

The political activities and alignments of London’s merchant community both expressed and helped determine the character of City and national conflict in the period leading up to the outbreak of the Civil War. From November 1640, London politics and national politics became ever more inextricably intertwined, and ovesears merchants played key roles at both levels…. Civil war became inevitable when City and parliamentary conflicts became fully merged through the consolidation of alliances between the City radical movement and the opposition in Parliament, on the one hand, and the City conservative movement and the Crown, on the other. (316)

An overwhelming majority of company merchants ultimately fell into one of these two allied political categories [of royalist supporters]. But it is difficult to be sure how they were distributed between them … because surviving evidence on the political orientation of large numbers of citizens is available only for the period beginning in July 1641. (317)

But on the other side:

The traders of the colonial-interloping leadership stood at the head of the City popular movement and played a critical role in connecting that movement to the national parliamentary opposition.  The new merchants’ continuing intimate ties with London’s domestic trading community (from which many of them had come) put them closely in touch with a City parliamentary movement that was overwhelmingly composed of nonmerchants. Meanwhile, their activities in the colonial field gave them pivotal links with those Puritan colonizing aristocrats who constituted a key component of the national parliamentary leadership. (317)

If we wanted a single phrase to summarize Brenner’s task in this work, it is the idea that much of England’s politics in the early modern period were influenced or determined by the demands of the commercial sector. The great merchants wielded great political power. And so we need to have a fine-grained understanding of these companies and their networks if we are to understand the coalitions and policies of the period. Contrary to the view put forward by Marx above, merchant capital and its associated actors and organizations were indeed a potent historical factor in modern history.

A recent book by Stephen Bown, Merchant Kings: When Companies Ruled the World, 1600–1900, picks up the story of merchant capital from a different angle and with a very different level of resolution. Bown is particularly interested in demonstrating the active (and often violent) role that large merchant companies played in the development of the world trading system and the colonial relationships that emerged from the seventeenth century forward. Bown’s central focus is on the individuals and the companies that created the colonial world: Jan Pieterszoon Coen and the Dutch East India Company, Pieter Stuyvesant and the Dutch West India Company, Sir Robert Clive and the English East India Company, Aleksandr Baranov and the Russian American Company, Sir George Simpson and the Hudson’s Bay Company, and Cecil John Rhodes and the British South Africa Company.

Bown opens his book with the story of the Dutch efforts in the early seventeenth century to push English and Portuguese traders out of the East Indies (Indonesia).  The central actor of this story is an employee of the Dutch East India Company and an experienced naval admiral, Pieter Verhoeven. The narrative of Verhoeven’s assault on the Moluccas is a good place for Bown to begin, because it brings together the themes of armed violence and commercial interest that are the core of his book. Verhoeven’s instructions from the board of directors of the Dutch East India Company were explicit:

We draw your special attention to the islands in which grow the cloves and nutmeg, and we instruct you to srive after winning them for the company either by treaty or by force. (10-11)

Bown draws out a story of global competition between nations and trading companies that illustrates the brutality and self-interestedness of colonialism throughout the three-century period he traces. And the chief victims of this violence are non-European peoples from Indonesia to Alaska to South Africa. What the book doesn’t provide is what is so evident in Brenner’s book — a detailed understanding of the political and organizational relationships that underlay these military and commercial adventures.

Both books have something to add to our own efforts to understand big business in the twenty-first century. On the evidence offered here, business organizations — corporations and companies — have their own interests and agendas, and states have a great deal of difficulty in constraining them to the public good. This is obvious in the failures of large financial institutions to safeguard the interests of the public in 2008 — the harmful conduct of finance capital, but it was equally evident in the behavior of the Dutch East India Company or Brenner’s opening example, the Company of Merchant Adventurers. The hidden hand does not assure us that markets, commerce, and private interest will bring about the common good.

Marx and the physiocrats

An earlier post highlighted an interesting piece of Marx scholarship by Regina Roth, included in a Routledge collection of important articles on the history of political economy (link). Another article that is of special interest in the Routledge collection is “Karl Marx on physiocracy” by Christian Gehrke and Heinz Kurz (link). The illustrations reproduced above are taken from this article. The first is a diagram, in Marx’s own hand, of the process of simple reproduction developed in detail in Capital. The second is Marx’s pairing of this same diagram with Quesnay’s Tableau economique, suggesting Marx’s indebtedness to Quesnay and the physiocrats.

Gehrke and Kurz provide a highly detailed survey of the times and sources through which Marx studied the physiocrats, and the comments and questions that he raised in his working notebooks. They present the results of this analysis in two useful appendices to the article. In the primary text they focus on the most important question: to what extent, and in what specific ways, was Marx influenced by the physiocrats’ system?

They find two crucial parallels between Marx and the physiocrats: first, both present a view of a capitalist economy that originates in a theory of surplus value; and second, each presents a view of the economy in terms of a flow of value through various sets of hands. The tableau represent this flow visually and arithmetically, and Marx’s schemes of simple reproduction do so algebraically.

The foundation of modern political economy, whose business is the analysis of capitalist production, is the conception of the value of labour-power as something fixed, as a given magnitude — as indeed it is in practice in each particular case. The minimum of wages therefore correctly forms the pivotal point of Physiocratic theory. They were able to establish this although they had not yet recognised the nature of value itself, because this value of labour-power is manifested in the price of the necessary means of subsistence, hence in a sum of definite use-values. (TSV 1:45)

And in fact, the authors think this is fundamental for Marx’s advocacy for the labor theory of value:

To Marx the labour theory of value was not fundamental in the sense that it was considered ‘true’ independently of whether it served the purpose of providing a logically coherent foundation of the theory of income distribution. Marx endorsed the labour theory of value precisely because be was convinced that it would offer that foundation, that is, allow one to elaborate a logically unassailable theory of the general rate of profit. He held the physiocrats in high esteem also because it was another achievement of theirs which he thought had paved the way to the development of such a theory. The achievement under consideration is the Tableau economique. (62)

What defines the physiocrats for most of us — their view that the land is the ultimate source of all value — is for Marx just a minor error of analysis on their part, not a fundamental misconception. Gehrke and Kurz write in paraphrasing Marx:

Scrutinizing carefully the texts of Quesnay, Mirabeau and especially Turgot shows that any surplus product is finally to be traced back to agricultural surplus labour, that is, it has its origin not in the productivity of land, or nature, but in the ‘productivity’ of the agricultural labourer who produces more than he gets in the form of wages. (60)

Here is the thrust of the second point, the fundamental similarity of the tableau economique and Marx’s schemes of reproduction:

Quesnay’s Tableau economique shows in a few broad outlines how the annual result of the nation production, representing a definite value, is distributed by means of circulation in such a way that, other things being equal, simple reproduction, i.e., reproduction on the same scale, can take place’ (C 11: 363). Marx credits Quesnay with developing the Tableau in terms of ‘great functionally determined economic classes of society’ and with striking upon ‘the main thing, thanks to the limitation of his horizon, within which agriculture is the only sphere of investment of human labour producing surplus-value, hence the only really productive one from the capitalist point of view.’ (63)

What isn’t entirely clear is the authors’ analysis of influence and lineage of ideas. Did Marx’s own thinking about surplus value and reproduction derive in some way from the doctrines of the physiocrats? Or did he simply note a pleasing convergence between his own thinking and that of the earliest tradition of classical PE? The authors suggest that the former is the case:

We have seen how much Marx owed the physiocrats for the development of his own views on the laws of production, distribution and circulation governing a capitalist economy. This is the deeper reason why Marx spoke so respectfully of Dr Quesnay and the physiocrats. After all, les economistes were amongst the true forerunners of his own analysis which was in important respects but a metamorphosis and development of theirs. He appears to have been particularly fascinated by the fact that in the physiocratic system, as he saw it, the theory of quantities and growth and the theory of prices and distribution do have a common origin in the concepts of social surplus and production as a circular flow. Marx can indeed be said to have seen through the lens of the physiocratic writings the essence of the duality relationship between the two sets of variables emphasized by later theorists and particularly by John von Neumann . Hence it may be argued that there exists a direct lineage from physiocracy to modern formulations of the classical theory. (73)

But their own chronology suggests Marx had arrived at many of his key economic ideas before he carefully analyzed the physiocrats.

It is worth noting that the availability of digital versions of Marx’s manuscripts makes research on questions like this one immensely more efficient than it was in the 1990s when Gehrke and Kurz did their work. The online Archive of Marx and Engels provides digital access to many of Marx’s most important works (though not unpublished manuscripts), and it is possible for anyone interested in the role that a certain author or issue played in Marx’s thought to trace it quickly using the search functions available. For example, a quick search shows that there are ten mentions of “physiocrat” or derivatives in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (1844). And there are hundreds of such mentions in Theories of Surplus Value.

Marx’s thinking about technology


It sometimes seems as though there isn’t much new to say about Marx and his theories. But, like any rich and prolific thinker, that’s not actually true. Two articles featured in the Routledge Great Economists series (link) are genuinely interesting. Both are deeply scholarly treatment of interesting aspects of the development of Marx’s thinking, and each sheds new light on the influences and thought processes through which some of Marx’s key ideas took shape. I will consider one of those articles here and leave the second, a consideration of Marx’s relationship to the physiocrats, for a future post.

Regina Roth’s “Marx on technical change in the critical edition” (link) is a tour-de-force in Marx scholarship. There are two aspects of this work that I found particularly worthwhile. The first is a detailed “map” of the work that has been done since the early twentieth century to curate and collate Marx’s documents and notes. This was an especially important effort because Marx himself rarely brought his work to publishable form; he wrote thousands of pages of notes and documents in preparation for many related lines of thought, and not all of those problem areas have been developed in the published corpus of Marx’s writings. Roth demonstrates a truly impressive grasp of the thousands of pages of materials included in the Marx-Engels Gesamtaushgabe (MEGA) and Marx-Engels Collected Works (MECW) collections, and she does an outstanding job of tracing several important lines of thought through published and unpublished materials. She notes that the MEGA collection is remarkably rich:

A second point I want to stress is that the MEGA offers more material than other editions, not only regarding the manuscripts mentioned above but also with other types of written material. If we look at the material gathered in the MEGA we find examples of several different levels of communication. We may think of manuscripts on a first level as witnessing the communication between the author with himself and with his potential readers. On a second level, his letters give us notice of what he talked about to the people around him. And, on a third level, there is the vast part of his legacy that documents Marx’s discourse with authors of his time: his excerpts, the books he read and his collections of newspaper cuttings. (1231)

Here is a table in which Roth correlates several important economic manuscripts in the two collections.

Careful study of these thousands of pages of manuscripts and notes is crucial, Roth implies, if we are to have a nuanced view of the evolution and logic of Marx’s thought.

They show, first of all, that Marx was never content with what he had written: he started five drafts of his first chapter, and added four fragments to the same subject, each of them with numerous changes within each text. (1228)

And study of these many versions, notes, and emendations shows something else as well: a very serious effort on Marx’s part to get his thinking right. He was not searching out the most persuasive or the simplest versions of some of his critical thoughts about capitalism; instead, he was trying to piece together the economic logic of this social-economic system in a way that made sense given the analytical tools at his disposal. Marx was not the dogmatic figure that he is sometimes portrayed to be.

There are many surprises in Roth’s study. The falling rate of profit? That’s Engels’ editorial summation rather than Marx’s finished conclusion! By comparing Marx’s original manuscripts with the posthumous published version of volume 3 of Capital, she finds that “Engels inserted the following sentence in the printed version [of Capital vol. 3]: ‘But in reality […] the rate of profit will fall in the long run’ ” (1233). In several important aspects she finds that Engels the editor was more definitive about the long-term tendencies of capitalism than Marx the author was willing to be. For example:

Therefore, Engels continued, this capitalist mode of production ‘is becoming senile and has further and further outlived its epoch.’ Marx did not give such a clear opinion with a view to the future of capitalism, at least not in Capital. (1233)

She notes also that Engels was anxious about Marx’s unwillingness to bring his rewriting and reconsideration of key theses to a close:

Shortly before the publication of Volume I of Capital, Engels worried: ‘I had really begun to suspect from one or two phrases in your last letter that you had again reached an unexpected turning-point which might prolong everything indefinitely.’ (1247)

The other important aspect of this article — the substantive goal of the piece — is Roth’s effort to reconstruct the development of Marx’s thinking about technology and technology change, the ways that capitalism interacts with technology, and the effects that Marx expected to emerge out of this complicated set of processes. But this requires careful study of the full corpus, not simply the contents of the published works.

To understand Marx’s views on technical change, his whole legacy, which is also comprised of numerous drafts, excerpts, letters, and so forth, must be considered. (1224)

In fact, the unpublished corpus has much more substantial commentary on technology and technical change than do the published works. “In Capital terms such as technical progress, technical change or simply technology turn up rarely” (1241).

Roth finds that Marx had a sustained interest in “the machinery question” — essentially, the history of mechanical invention and the role that machines play in the economic system of capitalism. He studied and annotated the writings of Peter Gaskell, Andrew Ure, and Charles Babbage, as well as many other writers on the technical details of industrial and mining practices; Roth mentions Robert Willis and James Nasmyth in particular.

The economic importance of technical change for Marx’s system is the fact that it presents the capitalist with the possibility of increasing “relative surplus value” by raising the productivity of labor (1241). But because technical innovation is generally capital-intensive (increasing the proportion of constant capital to variable capital, or labor), technical innovation tends to bring about a falling rate of profit (offset, as Roth demonstrates, by specific counteracting forces). So the capitalist is always under pressure to prop up the rate of profit, and more intensive exploitation of labor is one of the means available.

In the discussion in the General Council [of the IWMA], Marx argued that machines had effects that turned out to be the opposite of what was expected: they prolonged the working day instead of shortening it; the proportion of women and children working in mechanized industries increased; labourers suffered from a growing intensity of labour and became more dependent on capitalists because they did not own the means of production any more …. (1246)

So technology change and capitalism are deeply intertwined; and there is nothing emancipatory about technology change in itself.

Institutional designs for progressive reform

One place where Jon Elster’s philosophical thinking intersects with empirical social science is in the field of institutional design. This involves an important question: What features of institutional design can be identified as having beneficent features of operation when exercised by normal groups of individuals?

This topic has cropped up several times in Elster’s career. One important instance is the work he highlighted about alternatives to market society in Alternatives to Capitalism (Jon Elster and Karl Ove Moene, eds., 1989).  Here is how Elster and Moene put the point in their introduction:

Capitalism — actually existing capitalism — appears in many respects to be an ugly, irrational, wasteful way of organising the production and distribution of goods and services…. Five of the essays in the present volume discuss whether there could be alternatives to presently existing capitalism other than central planning. Could, for instance, central planning be tempered by the market, or capitalism tempered by planning? (1-2) 

So the core questions that arise here are these: Are there workable alternatives concerning the coordination of work and the management of property that work better than laissez-faire capitalism and wage labor? And what does “better” mean in this context? A partial answer to the “better” question might go along these lines: we want workable institutions that better embody equality and self-control than an unregulated market. “Workable” means “reasonably efficient and productive”, and self-control means something like “shop floor self-determination.”

It is important to be specific about the normative aspects of institutional design. In order to assess the goodness or badness of an institution, we need to have specific virtues that we hope it will fulfill. Here is the list of virtues that Elster and Moene identify for basic economic institutions:

We discuss some of the main normative criteria that are relevant to a comparison of different economic systems. These include static efficiency (including full employment), dynamic efficiency, self-realisation, participation, community, quality of preferences, stability, economic freedom, and income distribution. (3)

These desiderata need to be spelled out more fully. Static and dynamic efficiency as well as stability have to do with the economic performance of a set of institutional arrangements when populated by normal human beings. Are resources allocated across productive activities in an efficient way? Is labor productivity high? Do the institutions encourage high-quality production? Self-realization, participation,  economic freedom, and community are all normative goals we may have for basic social institutions. Do the institutions provide ordinary human beings the opportunities they need to fulfill their human talents and aspirations? Do the institutions provide opportunities for all participants to take part in the decision-making processes of the institution? Do these institutions afford individuals a broad range of choice in terms of how they conduct their lives?  Do the specific arrangements of the institutions promote trust, solidarity, and mutual respect among the persons involved in them? Quality of preferences has to do with the effects these institutions have on the formation of the goals and desires of the individuals involved. Do the institutions help to cultivate an appetite for what J. S. Mill described as the higher pleasures — a preference for Pushkin over push-pin? And income distribution is a feature that has both normative and empirical characteristics; highly unequal distributions may undermine stability, and they may also undermine self-realization and participation.

One alternative economic institution that is considered in detail in the volume is workers’ cooperatives — systems where the cooperative owns the capital of the enterprise and democratic rules of decision-making permit cooperative members to define work rules and income distributions. Karl Ove Moene explores this institutional variant in his contribution. Here is how Elster and Moene introduce the idea of a cooperative in the introduction:

What is a cooperative? The answer to the question might seem obvious: A cooperative is a firm in which the workers own the means of production and have full control over all economic decisions. Yet the answer, as it stands, is ambiguous and incomplete. It fails to capture the variety and complexity of existing cooperatives. (22)

A more complete and differentiated taxonomy of cooperatives is needed, since variations in institutional design can have very large consequences for the behavior of the overall institution. Here are some of the ways that cooperatives vary in the historical record:

  • Full ownership by workers or just workers’ control over decisions? (22)
  • Equal ownership rights or stratified ownership rights? (24)
  • Shop-floor democracy for all workers, or professional management team selected by the workers? (24)
  • Static business environment or rapidly changing business environment? (27)
  • Large firms or small firms? (27)
  • Production process that permits high/low level of monitoring by other workers (27)

Elster and Moene suggest that these variations of internal design and external business and technical environment make a large difference to the effectiveness of cooperative firms.

Elster and Moene argue that the workers’ cooperative alternative needs to be carefully evaluated with respect to the desiderata mentioned here.  They argue that this evaluation needs to be comparative, and it needs to proceed along two tracks — observation of the actual experience of such institutions, and application of economic theory to the fundamentals of the institutional arrangement. The economic theory of cooperatives is weak, in their assessment, but there is a fair amount of empirical data about how they work. And the empirical data is favorable to cooperatives. “The empirical literature suggests, but far from unambiguously, that cooperation and participation increase productivity” (29). They cite studies documenting lower turnover of the labor force, lower rates of absenteeism, and no strikes (29).

Also worth highlighting is Elster’s own contribution to the volume, “Self-realisation in work and politics: the Marxist conception of the good life” (127 ff.). Here Elster takes issue with several foundational premises of the pro-capitalist argument as a normative position: “(a) The best life for the individual is one of consumption … (b) Consumption is to be valued because it promotes happiness or welfare, which is the ultimate good” (127). Against these comsumerist ideals, Elster argues for the importance of self-realization — the full and free development of one’s talents and aspirations, to a reasonable extent. He contrasts self-realizing activities (mastering the piano) with activities of pure consumption (eating a tuna sandwich at your desk) and drudgery (sweeping the streets for forty years). This is plainly a normative position: a life involving self-realization is better than a life of consumption and drudgery. And it has a long pedigree, from J. S. Mill and J. J. Rousseau to Kant to Sen and Nussbaum. What Elster adds to the tradition is important, though: the idea that our ideal of personal fulfillment and a good human life is in fact a key element of the matrix by which we should evaluate alternative institutions.

This is a very interesting volume, for several reasons. The individual essays are very good, by experts like G. A. Cohen, Alec Nove, and John Roemer as well as Elster and Moene. But even more interesting is the shock value of its topic in the neo-liberal environment in which we have found ourselves for the past twenty years or so. To have serious scholars making careful, rigorous efforts to explore and evaluate “alternatives to capitalism” is very surprising in today’s environment; and yet the essays were written as recently as the late 1980s. Plainly there was practical and political interest in the topic of alternatives to capitalism in those years that has largely disappeared in today’s discourse. This suggests that somehow serious progressive thought has been muffled for the past twenty years. It is time to resurrect it.

What about Marx?

At various points since the death of Karl Marx in 1883 his work has been regarded as a dead issue — no longer relevant, too ideological, methodologically flawed, too rooted in the nineteenth century. And yet each of these periods of extinction has been followed by a resurgence of interest in Marx’s ideas, as new generations try to make sense of the tough and often cruel social conditions in which they find themselves. What are the important dimensions of theory that Marx presented through his writings? And how can any of these be considered valuable in trying to come to grips with the global, capitalist, turbulent, unequal, violent world that we now inhabit?

We might say that there are a small handful of key theoretical frameworks that Marx advocated.

Materialism as a methodology for social science. Social change is driven by material circumstances, the forces and relations of production. This encompasses the property system and the ensemble of technologies present in a given level of society. Materialism denies that ideas and thought drive social change; so religion, patriotism, nationalism, and ideologies of patriarchy are epiphenomena rather than originating causes.

Emphasis on the primacy of property and class. Sociologists and historians want to explain processes of social change. Marx puts it forward that the economic interests created by the property system in a given society create powerful foundations for collective social action.  Those who occupy positions of advantage within a given set of property relations want to do what they can to preserve those relations; and those who are disadvantaged by the property relations have a latent interest in mobilizing to change those relations. Persons who share a location in the property system constitute a class, and their interests are systematically different from those in other such positions.

A sketch of a theory of consciousness and culture. Institutions of consciousness and culture play a role in stabilizing and attacking the most important relations of domination in a society. Educational institutions, it is argued, prepare young people for their specific roles in society — workers, managers, elites, sub-proletarians. So struggles over the content and form of the institutions of enculturation can be expected to be polarized along class lines. Less directly, Marxists like Gramsci have postulated that worldviews reflect life experiences; so elites create cultural worlds that are quite distinct from those imagined by subordinate groups.

A diagnosis of social ills including exploitation, alienation, and dehumanization of social relations. Exploitation has to do with the flow of wealth and material goods through the property system from producers to property-owners. Alienation has to do with the loss of autonomy and self-control that individuals have within a capitalist structure. Marx’s distinctive addition to this idea is that this loss of autonomy has psychic consequences — disaffection, lack of self-respect, depression. The dehumanization of social relations follows from the structure of the capitalist workplace — workers and bosses, each related to the other through the workings of a command system. Wittgentstein got it right when he described the “slab” language game: the boss says “slab”, and the worker produces a slab. There is nothing “I-thou” about this relation (Buber, I and Thou).

A theory of several distinct modes of production. Marx believes that history takes the form of a succession of separable and structurally distinct modes of production: ancient slavery, feudalism, and capitalism differ by the structure of the production system, the property system, and the technologies that each embodied. Marx’s most extensive analysis of social formations is his treatment of the capitalist mode of production in Capital: Volume 1: A Critique of Political Economy and the writings that were posthumously edited and published as volumes 2 and 3 of Capital.

A common thread through these framing ideas is the perspective of critique: a critical intelligence trying to understand why modern society produces such human misery. But even from the perspective of critique — the perspective that tries to diagnose and understand the systemic flaws of contemporary society — Marxism leaves quite a bit of terrain untouched: gender relations, racism, nationalism, and religious hatred, for example. Marxism doesn’t do a good job of explaining a regime of sexual violence (rape in India); it doesn’t have much to contribute to the rise of fascism; it doesn’t have resources for understanding Islamo-phobia and hatred.  So Marxism is not a comprehensive theory of modern social failings; and we might say that its emphasis on economic conflict eclipses other forms of domination in ways that are actually harmful to our ability to improve our social relations.

Geoff Boucher takes up the issue of the continuing relevance of Marx in the contemporary world in Understanding Marxism. Here is how he opens the book:

Today, radical thinking about social alternatives stands under prohibition. According to defenders of the neoliberal transformation of every facet of human existence into a market, Marxism has failed…. Marx is dead; Marxism is finished — and it must stay that way. (1)

But Boucher rejects this neoliberal consensus.

Marxism as an intellectual movement has been one of the most important and fertile contributions to twentieth-century thought. The influence of Marxism has been felt in every discipline, in the social sciences and interpretive humanities, from philosophy, through sociology and history, to literature. (2)

Here are the core reasons that Boucher offers for thinking that Marxism is still relevant in the twenty-first century:

  1. Marxism is the most serious normative social-theoretical challenge to liberal forms of freedom that does not at the same time reject the modern world.
  2. Marxism is the most sustained effort so far to think the present historically and to reflexively grasp thought itself within its socio-historical context. (2)

And later:

Marxism is a distinctively historical theory that normatively challenges liberalism in a way no other modern theory does. (3)

Much of Boucher’s book contributes to one of two intellectual aims: to give a clear exposition of the most important of Marx’s theoretical ideas; and to explicate the several “Marxisms” that followed in the twentieth century. The successive Marxisms take up the bulk of the book, with chapters on Classical Marxism, Hegelian Marxism, The Frankfurt School, Structural Marxism, Analytical Marxism, Critical Theory, and Post-Marxism. So the book provides very extensive explication of the theoretical ideas and developments that have grown out of the Marxist tradition.

What Boucher doesn’t really provide is a clear rationale, based on contemporary sociology and history, for the conclusions he wants us to share about the continuing utility of Marxism as a framework for understanding the present and future. We don’t get the reasoning that would support the affirmative ideas expressed above. The best rebuttal to the neoliberal triumphalism mentioned above is a compelling collection of sociological studies grounded in the perspectives mentioned above. Michael Burawoy’s sociology of factories is a good example (e.g. Manufacturing Consent: Changes in the Labor Process Under Monopoly Capitalism). But this isn’t an approach that Boucher chooses to pursue.

So what about it? Is Marxism relevant today? Yes, if we can avoid the dogmatism and rigidity that were often associated with the tradition. Power, exploitation, class, structures of production and distribution, property relations, workplace hierarchy — these features certainly continue to be an important part of our social world. We need to think of Marx’s corpus as a multiple source of hypotheses and interpretations about how capitalism works. And we need to recognize fully that no theoretical framework captures the whole of history or society. Marxism is not a comprehensive theory of social organization and change. But it does provide a useful set of hypotheses about how some of the key social mechanisms work in a class-divided society. Seen from that perspective, Marxist thought serves as a sort of proto-paradigm or mental framework in terms of which to pursue more specific social and historical investigations.

Historians of Past and Present


image: “Historians of Past and Present,” National Portrait Gallery, London


A recent article on J. H. Elliott in the New York Review of Books includes a very striking portrait of the founders of the British history journal, Past and Present. The painting includes Eric Hobsbawm, Rodney Hilton, Lawrence Stone, and Keith Thomas (standing); and Christopher Hill, J. H. Elliott, and Joan Thirst (seated). The journal has been an incredibly important platform for some of the best social history being written from its founding in 1952 through the present, and it is very striking to see these pathbreaking historians all depicted together.

The journal was founded post-war by a group of historians who were Marxist and often members of the British Communist Party; but the journal itself maintained an intellectual independence from doctrine and party that allowed it to cultivate genuinely important historical research. As Hill, Hilton, and Hobsbawm put the point in the 1983 essay mentioned below, “In our dealings with Party or Group we were quite explicit in establishing that the journal was independent, and would accept no policy instructions” (5).

There is one element of this piece of intellectual history that I continue to find particularly intriguing. This has to do with the relationship between intellectual honesty and political conviction.  How is an historian’s work (or the work of a social scientist or philosopher) affected by his or her political convictions? Intellectual honesty seems like a straightforward thing: we want scholars to pursue their findings as the facts and inferences guide them. We want them to help us understand how the world works, based on their best reading of the evidence. We don’t want them to “spin” events or processes into alignment with their political ideologies or commitments. So how did this work for the historians of Past and Present and for Communist historians who were not part of the journal like E. P. Thompson? 
One part of the answer seems clear: these historians chose their topics for research based on their intuitions about the drivers of history, and these intuitions were certainly bound up in their political commitments and passions. So when Hobsbawm focuses on “Machine Breakers” (1952) or Soboul on “Robespierre and the Popular Movement of 1793-4” (1954) or Rodney Hilton on “Freedom and Villeinage in England” (1965) or E. P. Thompson on “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd” (1971), the topics they study have an obvious relevance to their political passions. But what about their findings? Are they able to see the aspects of their stories that are unexpected from a classical Marxist point of view? Is history “gnarly” and unpredictable for them? And are they honest in laying out the facts as they found them? Having read each of Hobsbawm, Soboul, Hilton, and Thompson with a certain degree of care over the years, my belief is that they meet this test. Certainly this is true for Thompson; the originality of his classic book, The Making of the English Working Class, is precisely to be found in the fact that it is not a cookie-cutter theory of class. Instead, Thompson goes into great detail, based on a rich variety of primary sources, about the sources of identity that working people in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries created for themselves. These historians are not doctrinaire in their findings, and they honestly confront the historical realities that they find.

One way of getting a feeling for the journal is to look at its contents. The topics included in the first ten years of publication of Past and Present cover a broad range of historical subjects. Here are some exemplars from the first decade:

Out of this list a number of themes recur: for example, underclass life, revolution, class, and economic history. These topics reflect the theoretical and political interests of the founders and the editors of the journal, and they served to encourage a substantial volume of additional research along these lines in the years that followed. Many of these essays have proven to be a classics in their genres.

Two interesting articles were published in the journal in 1983 about its own history (link). The first was by three of the founding editors of the journal, Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, and Eric Hobsbawm. And the other was by Jacques Le Goff, the then-editor of the equally important French history journal, Annales.  These two essays offer very interesting snapshots into the role that the journal played in British history through the mid 1980s.

Hill, Hilton, and Hobsbawm emphasize the intellectual independence of the journal from its inception. This independence derived from the commitment of the board of editors: “It has been the collegiality of the Board which enabled us to know each other, to formulate a consensus about the sort of history we wanted to encourage — irrespective of ideological or other divergences within the Board — to establish policies and perspectives for the journal, however tacitly and empirically, and to establish a flexible continuity of policy” (12).

Jacques Le Goff also addresses the Marxist orientation of the journal in his 1983 contribution in these terms:

Never having had any prejudice against Marxism, provided it was open and undogmatic, I was totally able to accept a publication in which there was certainly an element of Marxism but which gave no impression of being subject to a dogma, still less to a party. (14)

Le Goff emphasizes the importance of the intellectual impetus that Past and Present created for historians everywhere. He draws attention to the annual conferences that the Past and Present Society organized, and the importance of many of these discussions for further developments in historical research.

Past and Present has been a leading forum for a particularly dynamic field of historiography in its six decades of publication. Its pages have highlighted the importance of social and economic history; the concrete history of social classes; the dynamics of revolution; the role that technology played in ordinary life in medieval and modern times; the key roles that agriculture and rural life played in early modern history; and underclass social life. These are themes that have a great deal of salience for a Marxist interpretation of history.  But what is displayed in its pages, from beginning to the present, is rigorous, critical history — not Marxist dogmas about the working class, the peasantry, or the inevitability of social revolution.

(Here is a rational discussion of Hobsbawm’s political affiliations in the Guardianlink. And here is a diatribe against Hobsbawm’s insufficient commitment to Marxism in the International Marxist Tendencylink. This lengthy piece presents an alternative interpretation of Hobsbawm’s life and work. Harvey Kaye provides extensive discussion of these figures in The British Marxist Historians. Also interesting is Michael Scott Christofferson’s French Intellectuals Against the Left: The Anti-totalitarian Moment of the 1970s.)

Marx’s critique

Marx was a critic above all else. His most comfortable intellectual stance was criticism — most of the subtitles of his works involve the word “critique”. He was, of course, a critic of other thinkers –Proudhon, Smith, Bakunin, for example. And here, the key to criticism is the unearthing of indefensible intellectual presuppositions. But even more importantly, he was a critic of the society he observed around him. The key here is to uncover systemic features of a given society that are fundamentally inconsistent with important human values. His earliest social criticism took its aim at the German society he inhabited in the 1830s and 1840s. But it is his critique of modern capitalist society that is the most enduring, and this critique took shape through his observations of the society and economy of Great Britain in the 1850s and 1860s.

I think that Marx’s critique of 19th-century capitalist society can be summarized in three words: exploitationdomination, and alienation. These are simple ideas, but they invoke large and somewhat separate theories. The first has to do with economic relations in capitalism, in which one group extracts wealth from the work of another group. The second has to do with political relations in which one group has the power to compel subordination on the part of another group. And the third has to do with consciousness and the social psychology of the members of capitalist society.

You might say that it is the work of Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1 to address the first set of questions. Capitalism depends on free labor and freedom of property; it depends on a system of free exchange; so how can exploitation take place? The exploitation inherent in slavery or feudalism is apparent in the formal legal and political relations of those regimes: slaves and serfs are compelled to transfer part of the product of their labor to the masters through a juridical regime enforcing inequality. But how does this work in the system of free exchange in capitalism? Marx’s answer, briefly, is that the privilege of ownership of the means of production allows owners to set the wage at a level that permits the creation of a profit; this profit is a form of surplus value.

Marx’s political writings, and his writings about power within capitalism, are less systematic. But in his writings about French politics and the revolution of 1848 he expresses some of his ideas about how domination works through a political system (Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis BonaparteThe Civil War in France: The Paris Commune). And in Capital he offers a vivid description of the social power wielded by the capitalist (link).

On leaving this sphere of simple circulation or of exchange of commodities, which furnishes the “Free-trader Vulgaris” with his views and ideas, and with the standard by which he judges a society based on capital and wages, we think we can perceive a change in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae. He, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his labourer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but — a hiding.

Marx’s writings about alienation are among his earliest writings. The most systematic exposition occurs in The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, where he describes the social consciousness associated with the “modern” factory system. The worker is separated from the product; he is separated from the process; and he is separated from his own essence, his creative capacity for invention and creative labor. Here are a few representative passages (link).

We proceed from an actual economic fact.

The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and size. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates. The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things. Labor produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity – and this at the same rate at which it produces commodities in general.

This fact expresses merely that the object which labor produces – labor’s product – confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labor is labor which has been embodied in an object, which has become material: it is the objectification of labor. Labor’s realization is its objectification. Under these economic conditions this realization of labor appears as loss of realization for the workers[18]; objectification as loss of the object and bondage to it; appropriation as estrangement, as alienation.[19]

All these consequences are implied in the statement that the worker is related to the product of labor as to an alien object. For on this premise it is clear that the more the worker spends himself, the more powerful becomes the alien world of objects which he creates over and against himself, the poorer he himself – his inner world – becomes, the less belongs to him as his own. It is the same in religion. The more man puts into God, the less he retains in himself. The worker puts his life into the object; but now his life no longer belongs to him but to the object. Hence, the greater this activity, the more the worker lacks objects. Whatever the product of his labor is, he is not. Therefore, the greater this product, the less is he himself. The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labor becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently, as something alien to him, and that it becomes a power on its own confronting him. It means that the life which he has conferred on the object confronts him as something hostile and alien.

Estranged labor turns thus:

(3) Man’s species-being, both nature and his spiritual species-property, into a being alien to him, into a means of his individual existence. It estranges from man his own body, as well as external nature and his spiritual aspect, his human aspect.

(4) An immediate consequence of the fact that man is estranged from the product of his labor, from his life activity, from his species-being, is the estrangement of man from man. When man confronts himself, he confronts the other man. What applies to a man’s relation to his work, to the product of his labor and to himself, also holds of a man’s relation to the other man, and to the other man’s labor and object of labor.

In fact, the proposition that man’s species-nature is estranged from him means that one man is estranged from the other, as each of them is from man’s essential nature.

The estrangement of man, and in fact every relationship in which man [stands] to himself, is realized and expressed only in the relationship in which a man stands to other men.

Each of these theories highlights a different dimension of the social reality of modern society, in Marx’s worldview. Each implies a positive theory of a good society; it is one that emphasizes a kind of human equality, and a positive view of society as an environment that enables the full development of each as a condition of the full development of all. So equality and the fullness of human flourishing are the underlying values.

Finally, there are systemic connections among the three areas. It takes power to sustain an exploitative system; so exploitation and domination are interlinked. A specific group of individuals are privileged by both systems; and Marx has a subtle view of the ways in which the propertied classes wield power through a group of power specialists. Alienation, finally, is a predictable consequence of the circumstances of life created by the social relations of exploitation and domination. There is the alienation of the worker; but there is also the alienation of the consumer and the voter, each carried along by a system of activity that frustrates real human engagement and satisfaction.

Does any of this seem relevant in the contemporary world? The inequalities we see in the current economy certainly suggests the idea of exploitation of someone; wealth is being created and a large proportion of it is flowing to a small privileged group. Power is visibly concentrated in contemporary society — whether it comes to legislation, regulation, or the influence of the media. This implies a degree of domination on the part of a small segment of society — a “ruling elite”. And few would doubt that there seems to be a growing sense of value-less-ness in contemporary society — a condition strikingly like what Marx described as alienation. So it certainly seems timely for all of us to sharpen our critical skills and help figure out what we need to do to create the foundations of a more just and more humanly satisfying social order.

This is a short posting about a large subject. Is it possible to argue that these few paragraphs capture the heart of the view? Could Marx have formulated his key ideas in a posting in the New York Herald Tribune? Essentially, I’d like to argue yes. Much of Marx’s work takes the form of detailed discovery of the facts that make this case and an unconvincing effort to formulate a mathematical economic theory, the labor theory of value. But what is probably of the greatest value today are the dimensions of social criticism outlined here, not the economic theory.


Marx an analytical sociologist?


In an earlier post I gave a brief sketch of the emerging field of analytical sociology, and summarized its foundations around three premises: microfoundations, rational social actors, and causal mechanisms.

Marx is often thought to be a “structuralist” thinker, highlighting large social processes and entities such as the mode of production, the economic structure, and social class (for example, by Althusser and

Balibar in Reading Capital). However, I argued in The Scientific Marx (1986) that a careful examination of Marx’s economic writings reveals something quite different. I argued, first, that Marx embraced the idea that social explanations require microfoundations.

Marxist social science commonly has advanced macro explanations of social phenomena in which the object of investigation is a large-scale feature of society and the explanans is a description of some other set of macro phenomena. Some Marxist social scientists have recently argued, however, that macro explanations stand in need of microfoundations: detailed accounts of the pathways by which macrolevel social patterns come about. These theorists have held that it is necessary to describe the circumstances of individual choice and action that give rise to aggregate patterns if macroexplanations are to be adequate. Thus to explain the policies of the capitalist state it is not sufficient to observe that this state tends to serve capitalist interests; we need an account of the processes through which state policies are shaped and controlled so as to produce the outcome. (127-28)

Consider now a second issue underlying the call for “microfoundations” for Marxian explanations: the gap between the interests of a group as a collective and the interests of the individuals who comprise the group. (John Roemer refers to this as the “aggregation gap.”) “Rational-action” explanations depend on identifying an individual’s interests and then explaining the person’s behavior as the rational attempt to best serve those interests. The model is often extended to account for collective behavior of groups as well…. However, Mancur Olson and others have made it plain … that it is not sufficient to refer to collective interests in order to explain individual behavior. (129-30)

In both cases the objection being advanced to macro-Marxism is grounded in a recognition that there are no supraindividual actors in a society. (131)

After examining several examples of Marx’s most important explanations, I conclude that his arguments conform to the requirements of the microfoundations principle. His most characteristic explanations proceed from reasoning about the actions of typical individuals within capitalist institutions to an effort to aggregate these individual choices up to the level of larger collective patterns.

Second, I argued that Marx’s explanations were almost always grounded in an analysis that highlighted rational individual decision-making. But Marx differed from the perspective we would now call “public choice theory” in that he gave much greater attention to the historically specific motives and values of the actor.  Marx highlighted what we might now call “political psychology” of the actor — the socially specific ideas, motivations, and ideologies that the actor acquired through ordinary experience of capitalism. So there is a developed “action theory” present in Marx’s writings.  It is a theory that gives prominence to means-end rationality.  And it gives attention to the social specificity of the actor as well.

Here is how I described Marx’s assumptions about the actors within capitalism in TSM:

Marx’s accounts depend on an examination of the circumstances of choice of rational individuals. Marx identifies a set of motivational factors and constraints on action for a hypothetical capitalist and then tries to determine the most rational strategies available to the capitalist in these circumstances of choice…. A second part of this model of explanation involves an attempt to determine the consequences for the system as a whole of the forms of activity attributed to the typical capitalist at the preceding stage of analysis. (141-42)

But Marx has a nuanced and socially specific conception of the actor:

Against both these positions — the nonsocial individualism of political economy and the uncritical holism of speculative philosophy — Marx puts forward an alternative position. On this account the socialized individual is the ultimate unit of analysis in social explanation. “Individuals producing in society — hence socially determined production — is of course the point of departure” (Grundrisse 83)…. On this account society is not a freestanding entity, and social relations exist only through the individuals who stand within them. At the same time, however, individuals exist only within particular sets of historically given social relations. Consequently, social explanations must begin with a concrete conception of the individual within specific social relations.” (150)

These assumptions about social actors conform fairly well to the assumptions incorporated into analytical sociology.

And third, I argued that Marx offered causal mechanism explanations based on an analysis of what I termed the “institutional logic” of a particular social setting. So various features of capitalism are explained as resulting from rational actors situated within a particular set of institutions. These accounts serve as descriptions of the social mechanisms through which capitalist dynamics take place.

Marx attempts to work out the institutional logic of these capitalist institutions. What distinctive features of organization and development are imposed on the capitalist economy by its defining structural and functional characteristics? What are the “laws of motion” of the mode of production defined by these conditions? We may call this an institutional-logic analysis of social regularities, and it is significantly different from the construction of theoretical explanations in natural science. Such an analysis is concerned with determining the results for social organization and development of an entrenched set of incentives and constraints on individual action. (34)

Marx’s interest in discovering and elaborating the social mechanisms that drive social processes is found within his theory of historical materialism as well.  In TSM I argue that Marx’s claims about causation between levels of the social and economic structures of various modes of production are best understood as “mechanisms” explanations.

In order to understand fully this view of the relation between the economic structure and noneconomic phenomena, it is necessary to describe the mechanisms through which the lower-level structures constrain or filter superstructural elements. The filtering may occur through a variety of mechanisms, both intended and unintended. (56)

This account of Marx’s implicit theory of social explanation — microfoundations, rationality, and mechanisms — reproduces Coleman’s boat (Foundations of Social Theory).  The institutions and structures of capitalism create a local environment of choice for individual capitalists and workers, and their behavior aggregates to a macro-outcome of interest (for example, the falling tendency in the rate of profit). This is a “logic of institutions” argument in a specific sense. The institutions (property relations) create an environment of choice in which actors pursue specific strategies, and these strategies aggregate to a certain kind of macro-level outcome. These are the “laws of motion” of the capitalist mode of production, in Marx’s terms. And it is a mechanisms-based explanation in a specific sense as well. Marx is deliberately seeking out the social mechanisms through which the institutional setting produces a set of macro-outcomes, through their influence on the behaviors of the actors. The Scientific Marx offers a handful examples of these aggregative explanations. The point here is that this logic conforms very well to the framework of thought associated with analytical sociology.

There is one additional point of convergence between the methods I identified in Marx’s writings in 1986 and the current doctrines of analytical sociology. I argued that the covering law model of explanation and the deductive-nomological model of justification did not work at all well in application to Marx’s reasoning. The reason? Because the covering law model assumes that explanatory warrant proceeds from laws and regularities, whereas the heart of Marx’s explanations rests upon the discovery of particular social processes and mechanisms.

Do Marx’s explanations conform to the subsumption theory? … There are statements of lawlike regularities in Marx’s explanations, but these statements are somewhat trivial…. The real weight of the argument lies elsewhere: in the particular details of the circumstances of choice in which capitalists find themselves, and in Marx’s reasoning from these circumstances to patterns of collective behavior. (152) [Or in other words, he seeks to uncover the social mechanisms of capitalism and their aggregative dynamics.]

The process of discovering an institutional logic is not merely one of working out the deductive consequences of the theory; it is rather discovering new aspects of the social process. These aspects are perhaps “implicit” in the original theory, but their discovery is a substantive one, not a mere deductive exercise. (153)

Here too there is a strong affinity between Marx’s theory of science (as I interpreted it in 1986, anyway) and the philosophy of social explanation developed within analytical sociology.

So it looks as though Marx’s analysis of capitalist society — at least as it is reconstructed in The Scientific Marx — falls squarely within what we would now call “analytical sociology” with a commitment to microfoundations, mechanisms, and socially constituted purposive actors. What a surprise!

Marx on a global wage


What is the longterm tendency in the wage for relatively unskilled labor?  In the United States we’ve been thinking about this problem in the past three decades in the context of “outsourcing” and the flight of manufacturing jobs to low-wage countries. Moderate- and high-wage industrial jobs have left the country in large numbers.  In the 1970s and 1980s apparel manufacture largely left the US for Latin America and Asia, and in the 1990s and 2000s heavy manufacturing jobs (in the auto industry in particular) were widely perceived to have fled to Asia.

What are the effects of these global shifts in manufacturing for the wage in all countries?  It turns out that Karl Marx had some remarkably prescient ideas about this question in the 1860s that still seem important today.  Here are some markedly current observations from Marx’s Capital (link) on the wage in a competitive international context:

A writer of the 18th century, often quoted already, the author of the “Essay on Trade and Commerce,” only betrays the innermost secret soul of English capitalism, when he declares the historic mission of England to be the forcing down of English wages to the level of the French and the Dutch. [37] With other things he says naively: “But if our poor” (technical term for labourers) “will live luxuriously … then labour must, of course, be dear…. When it is considered what luxuries the manufacturing populace consume, such as brandy, gin, tea, sugar, foreign fruit, strong beer, printed linens, snuff, tobacco, etc.” [38] He quotes the work of a Northamptonshire manufacturer, who, with eyes squinting heavenward moans: “Labour is one-third cheaper in France than in England; for their poor work hard, and fare hard, as to their food and clothing. Their chief diet is bread, fruit, herbs, roots, and dried fish; for they very seldom eat flesh; and when wheat is dear, they eat very little bread.” [39] “To which may be added,” our essayist goes on, “that their drink is either water or other small liquors, so that they spend very little money…. These things are very difficult to be brought about; but they are not impracticable, since they have been effected both in France and in Holland.” [40] (Capital I, chap. 24)

And the footnote amplifies:

[40] Today, thanks to the competition on the world-market, established since then, we have advanced much further. “If China,” says Mr. Stapleton, M.P., to his constituents, “should become a great manufacturing country, I do not see how the manufacturing population of Europe could sustain the contest without descending to the level of their competitors.” (Times, Sept. 3, 1873, p. 8.) The wished-for goal of English capital is no longer Continental wages but Chinese.

In other words, Marx’s view in 1867 was that there is an inevitable competitive pressure on British firms (high wages) to seek out manufacturing locations in other countries where labor costs are lower; and, of course, this movement brings competitive downward pressures on the domestic manufacturing wage.  So the British manufacturing wage falls as low-wage European competitors (eventually Chinese competitors) are able to produce commodities at lower unit cost.  This has a long-term global result: the unskilled manufacturing labor market becomes global, and the wage approaches a global equilibrium that is significantly lower than the present.

One thing is striking about this observation in 1867 is the reference to China.  Mr. Stapleton’s observations in 1873 were highly speculative; China was a century from becoming a great manufacturing country.  But Marx’s eye was focused on the long-term patterns; and he (and Mr. Stapleton) correctly noted the inherent logic of global competition for low-wage labor.  The long-term result, apparently unavoidably, is that production processes that involve low-skill labor will be involved in a rapid race to the bottom, leading to an equilibrium wage across nations that is barely sufficient for subsistence.

Another major force operating on the level of the wage for unskilled labor that Marx emphasizes is the rapid introduction of technology and innovations enhancing labor productivity — leading to a reduction in the demand for labor and putting more downward pressure on the wage.  Writing after the American Civil War about English cotton manufacture, he writes:

The instrument of labour strikes down the labourer. This direct antagonism between the two comes out most strongly, whenever newly introduced machinery competes with handicrafts or manufactures, handed down from former times. But even in Modern Industry the continual improvement of machinery, and the development of the automatic system, has an analogous effect. “The object of improved machinery is to diminish manual labour, to provide for the performance of a process or the completion of a link in a manufacture by the aid of an iron instead of the human apparatus.” [119] “The adaptation of power to machinery heretofore moved by hand, is almost of daily occurrence … the minor improvements in machinery having for their object economy of power, the production of better work, the turning off more work in the same time, or in supplying the place of a child, a female, or a man, are constant, and although sometimes apparently of no great moment, have somewhat important results.” [120] “Whenever a process requires peculiar dexterity and steadiness of hand, it is withdrawn, as soon as possible, from the cunning workman, who is prone to irregularities of many kinds, and it is t)laced in charge of a peculiar mechanism, so self-regulating that a child can superintend it.” [121] “On the automatic plan skilled labour gets progressively superseded.” [122] “The effect of improvements in machinery, not merely in superseding the necessity for the employment of the same quantity of adult labour as before, in order to produce a given result, but in substituting one description of human labour for another, the less skilled for the more skilled, juvenile for adult, female for male, causes a fresh disturbance in the rate of wages.” [123] “The effect of substituting the self-acting mule for the common mule, is to discharge the greater part of the men spinners, and to retain adolescents and children.” [124] The extraordinary power of expansion of the factory system owing to accumulated practical experience, to the mechanical means at hand, and to constant technical progress, was proved to us by the giant strides of that system under the pressure of a shortened working-day. But who, in 1860, the Zenith year of the English cotton industry, would have dreamt of the galloping improvements in machinery, and the corresponding displacement of working people, called into being during the following 3 years, under the stimulus of the American Civil War? A couple of examples from the Reports of the Inspectors of Factories will suffice on this point. A Manchester manufacturer states: “We formerly had 75 carding engines, now we have 12, doing the same quantity of work…. We are doing with fewer hands by 14, at a saving in wages of £10 a-week. Our estimated saving in waste is about 10% in the quantity of cotton consumed.” “In another fine-spinning mill in Manchester, I was informed that through increased speed and the adoption of some self-acting processes, a reduction had been made, in number, of a fourth in one department, and of above half in another, and that the introduction of the combing machine in place of the second carding, had considerably reduced, the number of hands formerly employed in the carding-room.” Another spinning-mill is estimated to effect a saving of labour of 10%. The Messrs. Gilmour, spinners at Manchester, state: “In our blowing-room department we consider our expense with new machinery is fully one-third less in wages and hands … in the jack-frame and drawing-frame room, about one-third less in expense, and likewise one-third less in hands; in the spinningroom about one-third less in expenses. But this is not all; when our yarn goes to the manufacturers, it is so much better by the application of our new machinery, that they will produce a greater quantity of cloth, and cheaper than from the yarn produced by old machinery.” [125] Mr. Redgrave further remarks in the same Report: “The reduction of hands against increased production is, in fact, constantly taking place, in woollen mills the reduction commenced some time since, and is continuing; a few days since, the master of a school in the neighbourhood of Rochdale said to me, that the great falling off in the girls’ school is not only caused by the distress, but by the changes of machinery in the woollen mills, in consequence of which a reduction of 70 short-timers had taken place.” [126]

(Capital I, Chapter 15)

The note is important as well:

[126] l. c., p. 109. The rapid improvement of machinery, during the crisis, allowed the English manufacturers, immediately after the termination of the American Civil War, and almost in no time, to glut the markets of the world again. Cloth,’ during the last six months of 1866, was almost unsaleable. Thereupon began the consignment of goods to India and China, thus naturally making the glut more intense. At the beginning of 1867 the manufacturers resorted to their usual way out of the difficulty, viz., reducing wages 5 per cent. The workpeople resisted, and said that the only remedy was to work short time, 4 days a week; and their theory was the correct one. After holding out for some time, the self-elected captains of industry had to make up their minds to short time, with reduced wages in some places, and in others without.

So is there any way out for the worker?  Is there any scenario where ordinary working people can earn a moderate to high wage and corresponding standard of living?  There is, through education and skill.  The only way of maintaining a high wage for workers is on the basis of a given workforce possessing the ability to accomplish production tasks on the basis of non-generalized knowledge and skill.  When labor is a commodity that is interchangeable in Karnataka, Guangdong, and Detroit, the wage will approach something like a low-level equilibrium.  But when workers are able to add exceptional value to the process through their skills, talents, and knowledge, they will share in that productivity in the form of higher wages and a higher standard of living.

This observation converges with several themes already discussed in earlier postings: the attractiveness of the “high-skill” alternative to mass manufacturing that is highlighted by Chuck Sabel (link), and the current urgency that we should all feel about making sure that all young people have the opportunity to complete a tertiary degree (link).




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