Tony Judt on twentieth-century Marxism

Tony Judt was especially astute when it came to linking history and intellectuals. One strand of thought in his collection of essays, Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century, is a critical engagement with several twentieth-century thinkers associated with Marxism (and sometimes anti-Marxism), including Althusser, Kołakowski, E.P. Thompson (briefly), Raymond Aron (briefly), and Eric Hobsbawm. With the exception of Kołakowski, Judt’s perspective on these thinkers is negative, usually because of their failure to honestly reckon with the crimes of Stalinism (Althusser, Hobsbawm). And there is often a disparaging tone to his rhetoric.

In the case of Althusser Judt’s tone and critique are especially harsh. He portrays Althusser as an ignorant pundit rather than a serious philosopher, he finds Althusser to be contemptible for his efforts to gloss over the crimes of Stalinism, and he has complete scorn for Althusser’s “structuralism” as an explication of Marx’s theories. On Althusser’s ignorance of history and philosophy:

He seems to know nothing of recent history (among his howlers is an indictment of the “Polish fascist” Pilsudski for starting World War II). He appears only late in life to have discovered Machiavelli and other classics of Western philosophy, and he even admits to a skimpy and partial acquaintance with Marx’s texts (something one might have inferred from his published work). He is also unsophisticated to the point of crudity in his political analysis. He seems to have learned nothing and to have forgotten nothing in the last twenty years of his life. Thus there is much talk of “the hegemony of bourgeois, imperialist capitalism”; and he is dismissive of the dissidents of the Soviet bloc (“cut off from their own people”) and contemptuous of writers like André Glucksmann for “putting around unbelievable horror stories of the Gulag.” Those words were written in 1985! (p. 113)

Judt believes there is no content to Althusser’s “theory of structural practices”. And this shortcoming dovetails with the issue of Althusser’s failure to confront Stalinism:

This subjectless theory of everything had a further virtue. By emphasizing the importance of theory, it diverted attention from the embarrassing defects of recent practice. In such an account, Stalin’s crime was not that he had murdered millions of human beings, it was that he had perverted the self-understanding of Marxism. Stalinism, in short, was just another mistake in theory, albeit an especially egregious one, whose major sin consisted of its refusal to acknowledge its own errors. (p. 108)

I am inclined to agree with Judt’s assessment of Althusser’s structuralism. My own assessment in The Scientific Marx (1986) of Althusser’s structuralist Marxism was negative as well:

A second important example of this “theoretist” approach to Capital can be found in structuralist Marxism, particularly that of Althusser and his followers. In this case, instead of an economic interpretation of Marx’s system, we find an effort to describe Capital as a general theory of the “structures” that define and animate the capitalist mode of production. For example, Hindess and Hirst hold that Capital is fundamentally an abstract theory of the capitalist mode of production that derives the “logic” of the system from the concept of the mode of production. Here too the aim is to portray Capital as a unified set of theoretical principles, with the rest of the work being treated as illustrative material or derived consequences. This account shows the same predisposition identified earlier to construe Capital as an organized theoretical system, and the same reductionist necessity to downplay those portions of the work which cannot be easily assimilated to the theoretical model. (Scientific Marx, 17)

Judt’s discussion of Leszek Kołakowski gives special attention to Main Currents of Marxism: The Founders – The Golden Age – The Breakdown and is much more favorable. 

It is quite impossible to convey in a short review the astonishing range of Kołakowski’s history of Marxist doctrine. It will surely not be superseded: Who will ever again know—or care—enough to go back over this ground in such detail and with such analytical sophistication? Main Currents of Marxism is not a history of socialism; its author pays only passing attention to political contexts or social organizations. It is unashamedly a narrative of ideas, a sort of bildungsroman of the rise and fall of a once-mighty family of theory and theorists, related in skeptical, disabused old age by one of its last surviving children. (132)

Judt believes that Kołakowski arrives at a fundamental insight about the role of Marxism in 20th-century history — the propensity of his followers to regard Marx’s writings as total theories encompassing both the present and the future. These forms of dogmatism laid the seeds of the totalitarianism of Communism as a political-economic system:

Solving the problems of mankind in one stroke; seeking out an all-embracing theory that can simultaneously explain the present and guarantee the future; resorting to the crutch of intellectual or historical “systems” to navigate the irritating complexity and contradictions of real experience; saving the “pure” seed of an idea or an ideal from its rotten fruit: Such shortcuts have a timeless allure and are certainly not the monopoly of Marxists (or indeed the Left). But it is understandably tempting to dismiss at least the Marxist variant of such human follies: Between the disabused insights of former Communists like Kołakowski and the self-righteous provincialism of “Western” Marxists like Thompson, not to speak of the verdict of history itself, the subject would appear to have self-destructed. (136)

Judt also provides an extensive discussion of E.P. Thompson’s polemic with Leszek Kołakowski:

The “Open Letter” was Thompson at his priggish, Little-Englander worst: garrulous (the letter runs to one hundred pages of printed text), patronizing, and sanctimonious. In a pompous, demagogic tone, with more than half an eye to his worshipful progressive audience, Thompson shook his rhetorical finger at the exiled Kołakowski, admonishing him for apostasy: “We were both voices of the Communist revisionism of 1956. . . . We both passed from a frontal critique of Stalinism to a stance of Marxist revisionism. . . . There was a time when you, and the causes for which you stood, were present in our innermost thoughts.” How dare you, Thompson suggested from the safety of his leafy perch in middle England, betray us by letting your inconvenient experiences in Communist Poland obstruct the view of our common Marxist ideal? (p. 136)

This portrait has much of the rhetorical excess from which Judt’s polemical essay “Clown in Regal Purple” (link) suffers in regard to Judt’s treatment of Charles Tilly (link), and seems to reflect intellectual animus as much as substantive critique. A clear indicator of the animus: after discussing Kołakowski’s response to Thompson, Judt writes a few lines later: “No one who reads it will ever take E. P. Thompson seriously again” (136). That is a bit hard, given that few historians would doubt the importance, rigor, and enduring insights of Thompson’s most important work, The Making of the English Working Class (link). 

Judt believes that Marxism was historically important in the twentieth century, but its importance was largely destructive. Judt believes that Marxism gave rise to social and political theories that led fairly directly to Communist totalitarianism. So he argues that it is of more than academic interest for us to try to understand the nature of Marxist thought throughout the first half of the century.

Marxism is thus inextricably intertwined with the intellectual history of the modern world. To ignore or dismiss it is willfully to misinterpret the recent past. Ex-Communists and former Marxists—François Furet, Sidney Hook, Arthur Koestler, Leszek Kołakowski, Wolfgang Leonhard, Jorge Semprún, Victor Serge, Ignazio Silone, Boris Souvarine, Manès Sperber, Alexander Wat, and dozens of others—have written some of the best accounts of twentieth-century intellectual and political life. Even a lifelong anti-Communist like Raymond Aron was not embarrassed to acknowledge his undiminished interest in the “secular religion” of Marxism (to the point of recognizing that his obsession with combating it amounted to a sort of transposed anticlericalism). And it is indicative that a liberal like Aron took particular pride in being far better read in Marx and Marxism than many of his self-styled “Marxist” contemporaries. (137)

Marxism was important, Judt believes, because it gave a unified narrative that ordinary engaged people could understand about how society might move forward to a more just future.

The Marxist project, like the older Socialist dream which it displaced and absorbed, was one strand in the great progressive narrative of our time: It shares with classical liberalism, its antithetical historical twin, that narrative’s optimistic, rationalistic account of modern society and its possibilities. Marxism’s distinctive twist—the assertion that the good society to come would be a classless, post-capitalist product of economic processes and social upheaval—was already hard to credit by 1920. But social movements deriving from the initial Marxian analytical impulse continued for many decades to talk and behave as though they still believed in the transformative project. (138)

Most importantly, Marxism highlighted the features of contemporary capitalist society that were most visible and repellent to ordinary people: exploitation, alienation of ordinary life, inequality, and the indignities of class. However, for a number of years, the Marxist narrative appeared to be refuted by the postwar expansion in the standard of living, the accessibility of public education, and health and welfare protections.

Marxism, as the Polish historian Andrzej Walicki—one of its more acerbic critics—openly acknowledges, was the most influential “reaction to the multiple shortcomings of capitalist societies and the liberal tradition.” If Marxism fell from favor in the last third of the twentieth century, it was in large measure because the worst shortcomings of capitalism appeared at last to have been overcome. The liberal tradition—thanks to its unexpected success in adapting to the challenge of depression and war and bestowing upon Western democracies the stabilizing institutions of the New Deal and the welfare state—had palpably triumphed over its antidemocratic critics of Left and Right alike. A political doctrine that had been perfectly positioned to explain and exploit the crises and injustices of another age now appeared beside the point. (140)

But — as Judt recognizes in the final few pages of the essay on Althusser — twenty-first century capitalism persists in presenting humanity with many of the same crippling problems that Marx identified in the nineteenth century: staggering inequalities, extensive deprivation for working class and underclass men and women, and alienating forms of daily life. The seemingly unbridled power of corporations to have their way in the market and in public policy makes the language of civic equality seem hollow. And we now know the terrible potential of right-wing extremist movements — whether National Socialism in the 1930s or right-wing nationalist populism in the 2000s — to mobilize mass support for dictatorship and repression. The stability of liberal democracies is no longer assured; authoritarian leaders like Orban, Erdogan, and Trump have demonstrated their willingness to smash democratic institutions and norms. 

Judt argues that intellectuals and social change have always gone hand in hand; intellectuals help us think about the future and how to create a pathway of progress to better circumstances for humanity. Judt plainly rejected the notion that Marxism could play that role. But in the current moment, we have a deficit of convincing intellectuals and broad social movements that might help us envision and secure a more egalitarian democracy. We urgently need broad and appealing visions of a more palatable future for all members of society. Where are the social thinkers who will speak for progressive liberal democracy? Rejecting “Marxism” cannot be extended to intolerance of creative thinking by a range of democratic socialist theorists. Social democracy, democratic socialism, and non-Marxist socialist thought are broad and important ideas in our current context. Are there socialist thinkers in the past who gave greater attention to individual freedom and wellbeing whose work repays a rereading (for example, Alexander Chayanov, murdered by Stalin in 1937 (linklink))? Do contemporary thinkers like Erik Olin Wright and others associated with the Real Utopias project have important contributions to make in the current setting (link)? We need progressive public intellectuals who can speak to the disaffected in contemporary society; otherwise, the Orbans and the Trumps will pursue their politics of division and hate, and will determine our futures in quite ugly ways. (Quite a few earlier posts have addressed this problem — for example, linklinklink.)

(For what it is worth, the Democracy Index estimates that the most democratic nations in the world are Norway, Iceland, Sweden, New Zealand, Finland, Ireland, Denmark, Canada, Australia, Switzerland. Significantly, the Nordic countries make up five of the top ten nations on this list — nations that have adopted strong versions of “social democracy” as a foundation for their social contract. This too is part of the progressive tradition of thought within which Marx did his work.)

Kołakowski on Stalinism and reform

A recent post featured the evolution of the thought of Zygmunt Bauman. There I mentioned a comparison with his Warsaw contemporary, Leszek Kołakowski, and suggested that Kołakowski’s break with Stalinism was earlier and more profound than Bauman’s. I am not able to find a full-length biography of Kołakowski, but his history parallels that of Bauman. He was born in Radom, Poland, in 1927, and in 1939 had personal and tragic experience of the Nazi invasion of Poland. And, like Bauman, he was expelled from Poland in 1968 and spent much of the rest of his career in the west (at Oxford, in Kołakowski’s case, and at Leeds, in Bauman’s case). Here are a few lines from Steven Lukes’ biographical statement on Kołakowski in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:

After the Nazis invaded Poland, Kolakowski’s father was arrested by the Gestapo and later executed. His remaining family found refuge in a village in eastern Poland where Kolakowski’s secret, largely solitary education was aided by teachers from the Polish underground. … Kolakowski had embraced Communism as the Russians drove the Germans out of Poland, thinking it promised a better world of equality and freedom, but he then moved away from Soviet-style Marxism and became increasingly influential on the younger generation of Poles as a leading voice for democratization and reformed Communism, or what came to be called ‘revisionism’. This led to his expulsion from the university, constant police surveillance, the banning of his publications, and his departure for the West. (link)

Here is a document written in 1971 that expresses the depth of Kołakowski’s critique of Polish Communism. In this piece Kołakowski published a short but profound critique of Stalinism as a system, “In Stalin’s Countries: Theses on Hope and Despair” (link). This short essay appeared in Paris in its Polish version in 1971, and was published in Paris in Politique Aujourd’hui in July-August 1971. The essay is highly valuable as an indication of the nature of the reformers’ critiques in Poland of the rigidities of Stalinist Communist systems. It is written clearly and cogently, reflecting Kołakowski’s talent as a philosopher and a writer. And it presents the case for the possibility of change in Poland and other Communist dictatorships.

Kołakowski begins his account by rehearsing the reasons that some believe that reform of Soviet-style Communism is impossible:

Stalinism, in the strict sense — that is, the bloody and cruel tyranny of an individual — was the most perfect material embodiment of the principles of the system: later transformations, and particularly the considerable relaxation of terrorism as practiced by the government, although important for the security of individuals, have not in any way changed the despotic nature of the regime, any more than they have limited the specifically socialist forms of oppression and exploitation. (2)

But notice the rhetorical strategy that Kołakowski adopts: he presents the extreme views of the most severe critics of the Soviet system first, and offers commentary. And, he notes, the extreme view rules out reform entirely: change control of the economy or information, and you destroy the foundations of communism. Therefore communism cannot be reformed or changed; its despots will never relinquish power over even the most minor issues. But Kołakowski himself does not take this view:

Now, my opinion is that this thesis is not correct, and that to defend it amounts to [adopting] an ideology of defeatism rather than a revolutionary appeal. I base my conviction on four general principles: first, we are never in a position to define in advance the limits of the capacity for change… of any social organization; and experience has not at all demonstrated that the despotic model of socialism is absolutely rigid. Secondly, the rigidity of a system depends in part on the degree to which the men who live within that system are convinced of its rigidity. Thirdly, the thesis which I am challenging is based on an ideology of “all or nothing,’ characteristic of men formed in the Marxist tradition; it is not in any way supported by historical experience. Fourthly, bureaucratic socialist despotism is pervaded by contradictory tendencies which it is incapable of bringing into any synthesis and which ineluctably weaken its coherence. (7-8)

Kołakowski’s optimism concerning the possibility for change within “despotic socialism” (but, one might reasonably argue, within Franco fascism as well) is the willingness of individuals and groups to think and act differently from their prescribed roles. Individuals can resist in a variety of ways, and their resistance, in a long and slow tempo, can lead to profound change.

This is why resistance to oppression and exploitation — within the system of Soviet despotism — takes place in the worst social conditions. No class of exploiters in history has ever had such extensive power at its disposal. But if this concentration of power is a source of strength, it also conceals weaknesses, as the whole post-Stalinist history of communism testifies. (9)

If I speak of a reformist orientation, it is in the sense of a faith in the possibility of effective pressures that are partial and progressive, exerted in a long-term perspective, that is, the perspective of social and national liberation. Despotic socialism is not an absolutely rigid system; such systems do not exist. (16)

What system does Kołakowski himself favor? It appears to be a form of democratic socialism, rather than either despotic socialism or liberal capitalism:

It is probable that, if they had the freedom to choose, the majority of the Polish working class and intelligentsia would opt for socialism, as would the author of this article. For socialism — that is to say for a sovereign national system which involves control by society over the utilization and development of the means of production and over the distribution of the national income, as well as over the political and administrative organization, working as an organ of society, and not as the master which rules over society in the guise of “serving” it. (18)

This paragraph entails democratic socialism as the favored ideal (not liberal capitalism), because it places the people in control of economy and government. And it rules out the arbitrary and despotic use of power that was universal in Poland, the USSR, and the rest of the Soviet bloc.

Kołakowski also has a view about the future of the Soviet bloc (as of 1971):

In spite of the military power of the Soviet empire, and in spite of the invasion of Czechoslovakia, the centrifugal tendencies within the “bloc” cannot be contained, and the corrosion of nationalism will continue to erode a structure which has lost the cement of ideology. (19)

His essay ends with a call for a free Poland:

Our own dignity entitles us to proclaim aloud the old words: “liberty,” “justice” and “Poland”. (20)

This essay was written in 1971, only three years after the March 1968 protests in Warsaw that led to Kołakowski’s and Bauman’s expulsion from Poland. But notice as well: it was written only about a decade before the rise, and eventual success, of the Solidarity movement in Gdansk and other Polish cities, leading ultimately to the fall of Communist government in Poland. And the centrifugal tendencies that Kołakowski describes within the Soviet bloc led eventually to the collapse of despotic socialism throughout Eastern Europe. So in many ways Kołakowski was pretty close to the truth about the coming several decades in Poland and Eastern Europe. What he did not anticipate is the next chapter: the turn to nationalistic, far-right government in Poland, Hungary, and other former-Soviet bloc nations. But, as Hegel said, “the Owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the coming of the dusk.” (Here is a very brief description of Alain Touraine’s 1981 research in Gdansk on the Solidarity movement (link), and his account of the pathways through which worker non-violent resistance resulted in fundamental change in Poland.)

As I attempted to do in the case of Zygmunt Bauman, it is intriguing to ask how history, life experience, and academic influences combined to create the intellectual world of Leszek Kołakowski. Much of Kołakowski’s work was focused on the history of philosophy, the meaning of religion, and the ideology and deficiencies of Marxism. (His greatest book is his three-volume work, Main Currents of Marxism: The Founders – The Golden Age – The Breakdown.) Is there any evidence in his academic work of the imprint of the experience of war, genocide, murder, and authoritarian rule? His decades-long engagement with the topic of Soviet-style dictatorship plainly reflects his own experience as a brilliant Polish intellectual in the post-War period and high-ranking Communist Party member. He understood the nature of Soviet-style authoritarianism. But — like Bauman — there is little in his work that involves deep reflection on Nazism, genocide, anti-Semitism, ordinary evil-doers, and the use of terror by totalitarian states to achieve their ends. (Here he stands in contrast to Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.) And yet Poland stands at the heart of the Bloodlands described so vividly by Tim Snyder. So we seem to confront a puzzle: why were both these brilliant intellectuals, both leading professors in the Polish academy, both children of the 1920s — why were they both somehow reluctant to reflect on the horrors confronted by Polish Jews from 1939 to 1945?

Avineri on Marx as social democrat

Shlomo Avineri is one of the interpreters of Marx’s thought for whom I have had a great deal of respect since the publication of Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx in 1968. (I also greatly admire his book on Hegel’s political philosophy, Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State.) Avineri has recently published Karl Marx: Philosophy and Revolution, and this book constitutes a very useful contribution to the question of Marx’s relevance to our current situation in the twenty-first century. (Here is an earlier post that attempts to assess Marx’s continuing relevance; link.)

The recent book is presented as a fairly brief intellectual biography — an account of the influences and preoccupations through which Marx’s intellectual framework took shape. (A side theme is the role that Marx’s family history of Jewish identity may have played in his own development.) In many ways the current book covers much of the same ground as the earlier Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx — the background in Hegel’s political philosophy, the conception of human beings as homo faber, the idea of the proletariat as the universal class, the “dialectic” of capitalist development, the limits of revolution, even the skeptical view Marx took of the Paris Commune. In effect, one might look at the current book as an updated and streamlined edition of the earlier book. But the current book has a liveliness and readability that distinguishes it. And crucially, the current book is quite explicit in its most striking claim: that Marx is a much more measured and nuanced theorist of socialism and proletarian emancipation than he is usually thought to be. Marx is fundamentally a social democrat and gradualist. Consistent with the intellectual and political interest of twenty-first century readers who want to find a source of new and non-dogmatic ideas on the basis of which to rethink the failures of our contemporary world, Avineri presents Marx as just such a thinker.

In a nutshell, Avineri argues in Karl Marx: Philosophy and Revolution that Marx is not the rigid and uncompromising “revolutionary” activist that he has often been understood to be — both by supporters and critics. “What is usually called ‘Marxism’ is what Engels decided to include in the corpus and the way he interpreted it” (kl 81). Rather, according to Avineri, Marx’s key idea, and the key motivating impetus of critique of modern capitalist society, is the idea of emancipation. And Avineri argues that this is, most fundamentally, an affirmation of radical Enlightenment values that were deeply thwarted in the nineteenth century. Here Avineri makes a complicated and crucial point. Marx’s social location as the son of Jewish parents — and therefore himself a Jew — was not a defining fact for the young Karl Marx (according to Avineri); Marx rarely referred to his Jewish identity. But what was defining was the double earthquake in nineteenth-century Europe, first of the political emancipation of the Jews in the Rhineland following its absorption by France in post-revolutionary France, and then the reversal of this emancipation in 1814-15 when the Rhineland returned to Prussian political control according to the terms of the Congress of Vienna. Revolutionary France was the first European country to emancipate its Jewish citizens, granting them equal political and civic rights. So the Jews of the Rhineland experienced a short two-decade period of emancipation and equal citizenship, followed by a return to juridical and social discrimination. 

After some deliberations, the Prussian authorities in the Rhineland revoked Jewish emancipation and imposed on the Jews in the newly annexed territories the status of Jews in Prussia proper. The major principle, following the precepts of what it meant to be a Christian state, implied that Jews could not be in a situation of authority over Christians: they could not serve as lawyers, judges, civil servants, teachers in schools or universities. In other words, the Rhenish Jews were de-emancipated, thrown back to where they—or their parents—had been a generation ago. (5)

Marx was born in 1818; so this social and political trauma was fresh in the experience of his parents, including the forced conversion to Christianity reluctantly accepted by his father. And Avineri believes that this experience created a unique kind of alienation for a generation of well-educated Jewish intellectuals from this region — including Marx.

In the years between 1815 and 1848 one can discern a deep feeling of alienation and consequent political radicalization among members of the Jewish intelligentsia in the Rhineland and the emergence among them—much more than among the more quietistic Jewish communities in Prussia proper—of radical politics; some did convert under that pressure, but this did not make them more supportive of the system imposed on them; others, while distancing themselves from orthodox Judaism, did try to maintain their Jewish identity in one way or another. (7)

The most striking element of Avineri’s interpretation of Marx’s evolving position is what he takes to be Marx’s preference for a gradual and non-violent transition to a kind of social democracy.

In a significant but somehow neglected passage in Das Kapital, Marx argues that in England there is a distinct possibility for the working class to reach power peacefully, not only because of the extension of the suffrage, but also due to various aspects of factory and social legislation, adding that “for this reason … I have given so large a space in this volume to history, details, and the results of English factory legislation.” (140)

The grounds of this view can be found in Marx’s rejection of Jacobinism and the Terror in the French Revolution.

In a surprising critique of the Jacobins, Marx argues that the Reign of Terror was itself a testimony of the failure of Jacobin politics because of their wrongheaded fascination with classical Rome, encapsulated in Saint-Just’s call to “Let revolutionary men be Romans” or his nostalgic complaint that, since the Romans, “the world is a void, and only their memory fills it and prophesizes liberty.” This to Marx is not only empty romanticism but would also be responsible for the Jacobins’ shift toward terrorism: the Roman republican tradition focused exclusively on political arrangements in the state, whereas modern societies have to grapple with the tension between civil, bourgeois society and the political realm—an issue totally unknown in Roman history. … any attempt to use force when conditions are not ripe for internal change are doomed to the tragedy—and cruelty—of the Jacobin terror. (61)

The closing sentence of this passage can be read as a firm rejection of the impulses that led to the cruelties and intransigence in pursuit of “revolution” of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao.

Also important in Avineri’s view of Marx’s development as an advocate for revolution is the new direction Marx took following the failures of the revolutions of 1848. In place of the bold and sweeping view of the future for proletarian revolution outlined in the Communist Manifesto, Marx articulates a more nuanced and historically contextualized conception of “class” in his writings of the 1850s. In The Class Struggles in France, for example, Avineri finds this change of perspective:

The detailed study from 1850 suggests a very different picture of a complex, multilayered society, where many conflicting interests crisscross each other, bringing about shifting coalitions among multiple groups and subgroups and thus impeding the emergence of a clear-cut, polarized class warfare. (109)

And in the 18th Brumaire Avineri finds that Marx accords much greater complexity to the relationship between economic interests and political power:

He admits that the relationship between economic interests and political power is much more complex and not as simplistic or linear as he himself had maintained in the Manifesto.

Avineri also gives a good deal of attention to Marx’s rejection of historical determinism and the idea that there is only one path of historical development. He emphasizes Marx’s view, consistent from early to late, that social change must be understood in its particular social context, and that there is great contingency in historical change. Avineri seems to believe that this sensitivity to historical context is one result of Harx’s critique of Hegel’s philosophical methods: rather than looking for a philosophical theory that explains history, it is necessary to look to historical circumstances to explain change. Avineri provides a very interesting discussion (178) of several drafts of Marx’s letter to Vera Zasulich (link) in which Marx denies that his theories have definitive implications for the course of Russian social and political development. (For further discussion of the Zasulich correspondence see an earlier post here.)

Avineri also argues for a reassessment of Marx’s view of the Paris Commune in 1871 (a theme he develops in the 1968 book as well). He describes the published version of The Civil War in France as an official report from the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA), and a document that is tailored to the radical working class orientation of IWA; whereas Avineri documents that the drafts that Marx prepared prior to publication of the piece are much more measured, nuanced, and critical. In particular, Avineri argues that Marx viewed the Commune’s rebellion as both ill-conceived and primarily “petty-bourgeois” rather than proletarian:

Yet there is a fundamental difference between the drafts and the final published essay. In the drafts Marx tries to identify the social structure of the Commune and its political aims, and concludes that it was basically a lower-middle-class affair, with scant proletarian input. …

Marx’s drafts clearly and unequivocally identify the rising of the Commune with its petty-bourgeois leadership, and note in great detail the immediate circumstances of the insurrection. During the growing tension between the provisional government in Versailles and the Commune, which controlled Paris, Versailles proclaimed a provisional moratorium on all outstanding bills of payments and rents. The aim of this moratorium was obvious—to get the support of the lower middle class, mainly in Paris, for Versailles, and for a time it worked. The moratorium was to expire on 13th March 1871, and representatives of Paris middle-class associations tried to press for its extension, but the provisional government in Versailles under Thiers refused. Marx recounts that between 13th and 18th March more than 150,000 demands for payment of bills and rents were reactivated, and then on 18th March the insurrection of the Commune broke out. Marx goes on to note that the demand for a further, or definite, extension of the moratorium—obviously an interest of lower-middle-class groups—continued to figure as a major plank of the Commune. The drafts also contain further analysis of the social structure of the Commune leadership, pointing to its petty-middle-class composition. (155)

Avineri finds these same doubts about the Commune expressed by Marx in a letter to Leo Fränckel, a central committee member of the IWA and leader of the Commune, during the final days of the suppression of the uprising (155). Avineri’s view is unequivocal:

Marx never retreated from his view that the Commune was not a socialist uprising and that, by implication, it had set back the chances of the working-class movement in Europe. Ten years later, in a letter of 22nd February 1881 to the Dutch socialist Ferdinand Domela-Nieuwenhuis, Marx reiterated his view that a socialist government can come into power only if conditions enable it to take all possible measures necessary for transforming society radically, and then, referring to the Commune, added: 

“But apart from the fact that it was merely the rising of a city under exceptional conditions, the majority of the Commune was in no way socialist, nor could it be. With a modicum of common sense, however, it could have reached a compromise with Versailles useful to the whole mass of the people—the only thing that could have been reached at the time. The appropriation of the Bank of France alone would have been enough to put an end with terror to the pretensions of the Versailles people, etc.” (161)

This demystification of Marx’s view of the Commune is important because of the iconic role that the Commune played in the drama and rhetoric of Communist rhetoric throughout much of the following century. The heroic proletarian nature of the Commune and Marx’s important role in its origins are both defining myths of the Communist narrative; but Avineri demonstrates that they are fundamentally incorrect.

So what was Marx’s view of “proletarian revolution” in the final decades of his life? In Avineri’s view, it was a fairly moderate view that urged the party of the proletariat to find non-violent, non-terrorist avenues to political power. Avineri offers a great deal of evidence to support this interpretation. For example, he highlights Marx’s speech to the IWA in Amsterdam in 1872, when the IWA was deeply divided between the anarchists (Bakunin) and socialists (Marx):

The speech is a powerful insistence on the need to gain political power but also expresses a highly pluralist approach to the question of how gaining political power would come about—through violent revolution or through peaceful means, shocking the anarchists by maintaining that in some significant cases orderly electoral politics might be the handmaid of socialism. “The workers must one day conquer political supremacy in order to establish the new organization of labor. … But we do not maintain that the attainment of this end requires identical means. We know that one has to take into consideration the institutions, mores [Sitten] and traditions of the different countries, and we do not deny that there are countries like England and America, and if I would be familiar with your institutions, also Holland, where labor may attain its goal by peaceful means.” (163)

Here we find Marx the social democrat — an advocate for proletarian revolution who recommends seizure of power through a gradual process of legal and peaceful means. And it is important to underline, as Avineri does, that this is not the counsel of despair following the failures of 1848 and 1871, but rather a fundamental view of Marx’s, that social change is not a putsch. “A movement based on terror, intimidation, and blackmail will ultimately produce a society based on these methods as well” (165). Here is Marx’s rebuttal to Bakunin’s philosophy in Statism and Anarchy and his derisory term, barracks communism:

What a wonderful example of barracks communism! Everything is here—common pots and dormitories, control commissioners and control offices, the regulation of education, production, consumption—in one word, control of all social activity; and at the same time, there appears Our Committee, anonymous and unknown, as supreme authority. Surely, this is most pure anti-authoritarianism! (165)

Avineri supports this reading of Marx’s analysis of the Paris Commune with several relatively little-known statements by Marx in 1867 following enactment of the Second Reform Act in Britain that reinforce this preference for a peaceful transition to socialism:

It is possible that the struggle between the workers and the capitalists will be less terrible and less bloody than the struggle between the feudal lords and the bourgeoisie in England and France. Let us hope so. (167)

and:

In England, for example, the way is open for the working class to develop their political power. In a place where they can achieve their goal more quickly and more securely through peaceful propaganda, insurrection would be a folly. (167)

Avineri is a remarkably learned reader of Marx, and a lucid interpreter. The distance is great between his interpretation of Marx as a principled advocate of a peaceful transition to power by the proletarian majority and Marxist orthodoxy since Engels. And yet Avineri’s case is deeply informed by a close reading of a broad swath of Marx’s writings throughout Marx’s career. It is moreover consistent with Marx’s famous statement — “If that is Marxism, then I am not a Marxist!”. Rather, Marx displays a sociological imagination that reflected a nuanced, historically minded theorist, constantly aware of the contingencies and contextual differences of historical settings. Further, Avineri makes a powerful case for believing that Marx regarded a strategy of violent seizure of power as deeply self-defeating. Unlike Communist orthodoxy since Lenin, Marx did not believe that successful social and political transformation could be achieved by fiat, force, and ruthless party discipline; in a word, he rejected the premises of Soviet-style communism. And given the crimes that have been committed in the name of revolution in the past century and a half, that is a good thing.

(Bruce Robbins’ review of the book in The Nation (link) is well worth reading.)

Did Marx invent “class conflict”?

Marx offered several theories of the modern world that he observed around him in mid-nineteenth-century Britain that have influenced much of turmoil that ensued in the following century and a half — theories about the “capitalist mode of production,” about the role that class conflict plays in historical change, about the determinants of the actions of the state. These themes are expressed in Capital, and in the The German Ideology and The Communist Manifesto decades earlier. So one might imagine that these are theoretical constructions of Marx’s imagination, a particular way of interpreting the social realities that he observed. The Right blames “Marxism” for discontent among many citizens in western democracies. Marx was a “radical,” and his radical vision of conflict and exploitation guided his narrative about the nature of modern capitalist society. Adam Smith had one vision of the emerging modern society, Thomas Carlyle had a different one, and Marx had a yet another. The reason working people are discontent, according to the Right, is that there’s too much Marxism around, too many critical theories that provoke conflict.

But is this the right way of thinking about the matter? I don’t think so. It puts the poet of modernity first, with imagination and rhetoric, and the concrete social processes and contradictions second. But that gets the story backwards. Ideas, including ideas about social relations among different groups in society, have had a role in historical development in the two-plus centuries of economic development since Mr. Watt turned on his steam engine. But the real history was written by actors and groups, considering and framing their own struggles, and seeking to maintain their footing in a changing world. These actors were often illiterate, poor, and disadvantaged. But they brought their own practical understanding to their situation in the social world; they brought social identities, they brought moral frameworks, and they brought practical skills of action and interaction to their struggles to secure their livelihoods and dignity.

Consider the brief sketches that Charles Tilly offered in 1978 of “collective action” in early modern Britain in From Mobilization to Revolution. Here Tilly has described two “riots” by ordinary villagers in 1765 against the establishment of new “houses of industry” (poorhouses where the poor were compelled to work for food).

The confrontations at Nacton and Saxmundharn acted out pervasive characteristics of eighteenth-century conflicts in Great Britain as a whole. While David Hume and Adam Smith worked out the relevant theories, ordinary Britons fought about who had the right to dispose of land, labor, capital, and commodities. Attacks on poorhouses, concerted resistance to enclosures, food riots, and a number of other common forms of eighteenth-century conflict all stated an implicit two-part theory: that the residents of a local community had a prior right to the resources produced by or contained within that community; that the community as such had a prior obligation to aid its weak and resourceless members. (3)

And these protests were not guided by “revolutionaries” in the background; neither were they inarticulate cries of protest against changes they could not understand. Rather, these ordinary villagers recognized well the actions that were being taken against them, and they came forward to resist.

Not that the fighters on either side were mere theorists, simple ideologues, hapless victims of shared delusions. Real interests were in play. The participants saw them more or less clearly. At two centuries’ distance, we may find some of their pronouncements quaint, incomprehensible, or hopelessly romantic. In comfortable retrospect, we may question the means they used to forward their interests: scoff at tearing down poorhouses, anger at the use of troops against unarmed crowds. Yet in retrospect we also see that their actions followed a basic, visible logic. The more we learn about eighteenth-century changes in Great Britain, the clearer and more compelling that logic becomes.

The struggle did not simply pit different ways of thinking about the world against each other. Two modes of social organization locked in a battle to the death. The old mode vested power in land and locality. The new mode combined the expansion of capitalist property relations with the rise of the national state. Many other changes flowed from that fateful combination: larger-scale organizations, increasing commercialization, expanded commercialization, the growth of a proletariat, alterations of the very texture of daily life. The new mode won. The world of the moral economy dissolved. But when ordinary eighteenth-century Britons acted collectively at all, usually they acted against one feature or another of this new world. On the whole, they acted in defense of particular features of the moral economy. (4)

Tilly’s interest in this book is a familiar one that recurs throughout his long career: analyzing the historical details that provide sociological insight into the processes of “mobilization and rebellion” when men and women find themselves in circumstances that are existentially threatening for themselves and their families. And yet, Tilly understood what Marx sometimes did not: that it is not true that “workingmen unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains.” In any real historical situation (except perhaps the Warsaw ghetto during the uprising, or with Spartacus in Thrace) the potential rebels always have something to lose; mobilization and rebellion are always risky and costly. Mobilization and rebellion require explanation.

Here Tilly provides a very compact description of Marx’s theory of class as Marx works it out in his analysis of the politics of the 1848 revolution in France:

If that is so, we might pay attention to Marx’s mode of analysis. Implicitly, Marx divided the entire population into social classes based on their relationships to the prevailing means of production. Explicitly, he identified the major visible actors in the politics of the time with their class bases, offering judgments of their basic interests, conscious aspirations, articulated grievances, and collective readiness for action. Classes act, or fail to act. In general, individuals and institutions act on behalf of particular social classes. (There is an important exception: in analyzing Louis Napoleon’s seizure of power, Marx allowed that those who run the state may act, at least for a while, in their own political interest without reference to their class base.) In analyzing readiness to act, Marx attached great importance to the ease and durability of communications within the class, to the visible presence of a class enemy. When Marx’s political actors acted, they did so out of common interests, mutual awareness, and internal organization. (13)

So, no, Marx did not invent class conflict. Marx was not the inventor of class conflict or the spark who ignited a motivation to find a pathway to fundamental change in the relations of power and property that govern the lives of ordinary people. Rather, he was the John Snow of early capitalism, the scientist who worked out which pump handle was giving rise to the cholera of fundamental inequality. As that timeless philosopher, Bob Dylan, put it, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Marx was the weatherman, not the weather. E.P. Thompson put the point vividly in The Making of the English Working Class: class was “made” through concrete historical experiences, and conflict was an unavoidable component of this making; link.

Who, then, is the actual author of “class conflict”? The modern world, with its economic relations governed by a system of property guaranteeing various extremes of inequality, and no guarantee that a humane social contract will emerge protecting the life interests of all parties — this is the circumstance that invented class conflict. There are powerful, pervasive features of our economic system that generate and deepen inequalities. The only check to this process is the organized strength of ordinary men and women, demanding a fair share of social cooperation, and all too often this countervailing force has not been sufficient. Social democracy  is a solution (linklinklinklink) — provision of extensive prerequisites of a decent human life to every individual (education, healthcare, access to a job); full and equal rights of political participation, real equality of opportunity, use of progressive taxation to ensure that everyone benefits from economic cooperation — and yet social democracy has been unconscionably hard to sustain in western democracies.

And in case anyone thinks that this is just an antiquarian question, relevant to Nacton and Saxmundharn in 1765 but not to Detroit, Atlanta, or Seattle today — just consider the devastation created by the current pandemic for people all over the country who are on the disadvantaged side of the buffet line: disproportionately without healthcare, disproportionately represented in “frontline” positions in the coronavirus pandemic, disproportionately forced to return to work in unsafe conditions or lose what slender entitlements they currently possess, disproportionately represented in the lists of sick and dying, … This is class conflict in our contemporary world. And the genuinely important question for Chuck Tilly’s successors is this: what kinds of mobilization are possible in 2020 to address the appalling inequalities of power, property, opportunity, and wellbeing our society has created? How can ordinary working people achieve and maintain the social democracy (link) that alone promises to fulfill the compact of the equal freedoms and human fulfillment of all people?

My program of research, circa 1976

image: philosopher at work

My Ph.D. dissertation in philosophy was written between 1974 and 1977 and was accepted in 1977. The topic was Marx’s theory of science as embodied in Capital, and it was one of the early attempts to join an analytical philosophical perspective with careful study of Marx’s ideas. The title of the dissertation was Marx’s Capital: A Study in the Philosophy of Social Science. Given the focus and approach of this work, it might be described as a very early contribution to analytical Marxism. Gerald Cohen’s pivotal Karl Marx’s Theory of History appeared in 1978, Elster’s Making Sense of Marx appeared in 1985, and my Scientific Marx appeared in 1986. More than forty years later I now find it somewhat interesting to see how a young graduate student formulated the task of approaching Marx’s theories in a new way, and perhaps it will be of interest to some readers of Understanding Society as well. The dissertation proposed a different way of attempting to understand Marx, and it also proposed a different approach to developing the philosophy of social science — an approach that gives greater attention to the details and history of social-science research. 

Excerpts from Introduction to Little dissertation, 1977

This thesis is an essay in the philosophy of social science. It is an attempt to address Marx’s social theory as an important episode in the history of social science, and to try to uncover in detail its implicit standards of rational scientific practice. Marx advances the social and economic theory of Capital in the spirit of an objective theory in social science with empirical content and justification. That theory purports to explain certain fundamental facts about the capitalist mode of production, and it has stimulated a tradition of research in social science which is active and productive today.{1} It is therefore important to try to discover the epistemological and methodological characteristics which define it, or in other words, to discover in detail the standards of empirical rationality which underlie its scientific practice. How does it define its subject matter? What sorts of explanations does it advance? What assumptions does it rest on concerning the nature of social explanation? What sort of empirical justification does it advance?{2}

My investigation has consequences for two fairly independent families of questions. First, it is relevant to the question of the ultimate significance of Marx’s work. There is controversy in the Marxist literature concerning the relation between the early Marx and the later. Some critics (like Althusser) assert that only the theory contained in Capital represents the mature Marx, whereas the earlier writings are mere juvenilia.{3} Others argue, on the other hand, that the most significant contributions which Marx makes are contained in the early and middle writings– the theory of alienation, historical materialism, and the philosophical concept of socialism–and that Capital represents an unfortunate excursion into positivism and scientism.{4} We will be able to contribute to a better assessment of the relative merits of these opposing positions if we are able to determine in’ detail the scientific significance of the theory articulated in Capital.

Secondly, this essay is relevant to broader concerns in the philosophy of social science more generally. One of the most fruitful tools brought to the philosophy of science in the past two decades has been the application of the methods of the history of science to research in the philosophy of science.{5} Historically minded philosophers of science have shown–particularly in the natural sciences– that the analytical theory of science may be significantly enriched and tested through detailed attention to case studies in the history of science. These philosophers of science have reconsidered the distinction between description and prescription in the philosophy of science, and have sought to produce theories of science which conform more closely to the actual practice of scientific research. The outcome of such studies has frequently been of great significance to questions in analytical philosophy of science (questions like the nature of explanation and the character of empirical justification, for example). It has also cast some doubt on the principle of the unity of science, at least as an a priori assumption, for detailed case studies of different sciences have suggested that there are.important differences in the practices of these sciences, I will argue below that this historical approach is of particular significance for the future development of the philosophy of social science. Consequently, case studies of the sort I now advance will be of great use in furthering the condition of the philosophy of social science in general. In the next few pages I would like to discuss these two lines of significance of my research in somewhat greater detail.

Marx’s Significance

Marx’s writings encompass a wide range of intellectual activities — philosophical critique, historical analysis, political economy, political commentary. Nonetheless, these disparate activities show a remarkable constancy of direction and pattern of development. Marx’s attention is directed throughout his active career to the problem of comprehending· modern society and its peculiar inadequacies for full human development, what changes from his early contributions to the fully mature position in Capital is chiefly the view he takes concerning the proper method of acquiring such understanding. Marx begins his career as a professional philosopher, trained in the critical dialectics of post-Hegelian Germany. At this stage his social theory is a form of philosophical critique; it is an attempt to diagnose modern society from an abstract and philosophical perspective. This stage of his thought is continuous with Hegel’s social theory in the Philosophy of Right, in method if not in substance, This period includes the Critique of Hegel’s Doctrine of the State and On the Jewish Question as well as lesser articles.

Marx soon transforms this form of philosophical criticism into a methodology for social knowledge which leaves the purely philosophical realm. This transformation begins in the critique of Hegel, where Marx first begins to criticize Hegel’s ”logical mysticism”, or his tendency to try to explain social phenomena solely on the basis of the categories of pure reason. Marx urges in the place of this logical mysticism a methodology for social analysis which turns rather upon concrete historical and empirical investigations rather than purely speculative philosophical critique. This line of thought begins with Marx’s observation that Hegel’s social theory is too abstract, non- historical, and speculative; and it culminates in a full- fledged commitment to concrete historical and social research as ·a method for understanding society. This transformation marks the second stage of Marx’s development as a social theorist: it culminates in the full statement of the principle or historical materialism as a method for social theory in the German Ideology. On this method, if we are to understand the most important characteristics of society, it must be on the basis of detailed empirical and historical research, not philosophical speculation.

Having once posed the question of understanding society in terms of the method of historical materialism, however, Marx is drawn inexorably into a more and more detailed study of history and the most advanced form of social science, political economy. This study leads in turn to the formulation of Marx’s. own analysis of capitalism, Capital, in which he advances an attempt to provide an objective and scientific analysis of the structure and development of modern capitalist society. This represents the third stage of the development of Marx’s distinctive approach to social analysis. Here Marx undertakes a sustained and scholarly attempt to -provide a science of the capitalist mode of production. What has changed from the beginnings of this process of development to its nature form in Capital, however, is not the objective, Marx is still committed to comprehending the essential characteristics of modern society and the nature of its inadequacy as a context for full human development. But now his method is historical, empirical, and scientific rather than speculative and philosophical. Philosophical criticism has been transformed into critical social science.

Capital, then, is the result and culmination of a long process in which Marx constructs a method of inquiry for social theory. It is advanced as an exercise in social science. It is deliberately based upon a method of inquiry securely grounded in historical and empirical research; and it purports to be an objective and scientific theory of the real characteristics of the capitalist mode of production. In Capital Marx attempts to explain the basic structure and historical dynamic of capitalism, and he expects the hypothesis he advances to be evaluated according to the standards of science. His commitment to objectivity and scientific rationality is unequivocal. Social explanation must be objective, empirical, and historically informed, this conviction lies at the heart of his criticisms of Hegel’s method, of Proudhon, and of vulgar political economy, and it defines his criteria of’ successful social analysis.…

It is now possible for me to state the aim of my thesis quite precisely: I would like to uncover the implicit theory of science which underlies Marx’s argument in Capital. Capital consists of a complex and extended argument by which Marx attempts to establish a basic hypothesis and show how it explains certain fundamental facts about the capitalist mode of production. This argument implicitly defines a particular set of standards of empirical rationality, it embodies a concept of explanation, justification, and subject matter or social science which underlies and informs the detail of the argument. In this thesis I want to extract as sensitively as possible the details of this conception.

The significance of the thesis can be stated just as succinctly. Having unraveled the theory of science which underlies this particular example of a social science, it will be possible to return to the more abstract and analytical theory of science with a fresher and richer view of what categories and questions are most significant for social science. This thesis, therefore, becomes part of the raw material necessary for the broader enterprise of constructing a theory of science which is adequate to social science.

In what follows I will observe a fairly simple division of labor in attempting to reconstruct Marx’s implicit theory of science. I will focus on three questions: What is Marx’s a theory of, or more generally, what are the principles and assumptions which define its problematic, subject matter, and basic structure? Secondly, what sort of theory is it: a what is the logical structure of the theory? And thirdly, how is it justified: what sort of concept of evidence and the relation of evidence to theory does it rest upon? By answering these questions, we will have established the basic characteristics of Marx’s empirical practice: his conception of explanation and subject matter, the logical structure of his theory, and his concept of empirical justification.

Marx’s ideas about government

Marx had something of a theory of politics and somewhat less of a theory of government. The slogan “the capitalist state serves as the managing committee of the bourgeoisie” represents the simplest version of his view of the state. He generally regarded government and law as an expression of class interests.

That said, Marx was not much of an organizational thinker. He had literally nothing to say about the workings of real governments — the British state or the French state, for example, and nothing to say about the ministries and bureaus through which the affairs of government worked. When he mentioned politicians in any European country it was as particular individuals rather than as functionaries. And yet it is crucial to understand government — including nineteenth century European governments — as bureaucracies organizing the flows of revenue, regulations, information, and coercion. Marx added essentially nothing to this task.

What Marx most likely would have asserted is that the existence of bureaucracy in government is a second-order factor, and that the main event is the existence and use of political power through the tools of state action. How precisely this is implemented was not of scientific interest to Marx, and he believed he had a more fundamental understanding of the orientation and workings of government. This is his view that political power derives from class privilege and state organs act in support of class interests.

Most of Marx’s ideas about the state and government were formulated during the years surrounding the revolutions of 1848. Here are a few important passages from Marx’s writings in the 1840s and 1950s. This is the full passage about the “managing committee of the bourgeoisie” from the Communist Manifesto:

Each step in the development of the bourgeoisie was accompanied by a corresponding political advance of that class. An oppressed class under the sway of the feudal nobility, an armed and self-governing association in the medieval commune: here independent urban republic (as in Italy and Germany); there taxable “third estate” of the monarchy (as in France); afterwards, in the period of manufacturing proper, serving either the semi-feudal or the absolute monarchy as a counterpoise against the nobility, and, in fact, cornerstone of the great monarchies in general, the bourgeoisie has at last, since the establishment of Modern Industry and of the world market, conquered for itself, in the modern representative State, exclusive political sway. The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie. Marx and Engels,Communist Manifesto

And here is his account of the establishment of the French “bourgeois republic” following the Revolution of 1848:

Upon the bourgeois monarchy of Louis Philippe, only the bourgeois republic could follow; that is to say, a limited portion of the bourgeoisie, having ruled under the name of the king, now the whole bourgeoisie was to rule under the name of the people. The demands of the Parisian proletariat are Utopian tom-fooleries that have to be done away with. To this declaration of the constitutional national assembly, the Paris proletariat answers with the June insurrection, the most colossal event in the history of European civil wars. The bourgeois republic won. On its side stood the aristocracy of finance, the industrial bourgeoisie; the middle class; the small traders’ class; the army; the slums, organized as Guarde Mobile; the intellectual celebrities, the parsons’ class, and the rural population….

The defeat of the June insurgents prepared, leveled the ground, upon which the bourgeois republic could be founded and erected; but it, at the same time showed that there are in Europe other issues besides that of “Republic or Monarchy.” It revealed the fact that here the BOURGEOIS REPUBLIC meant the unbridled despotism of one class over another. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, p. 10, 11

The view here is perfectly clear — Marx describes the Republic of 1848 as the naked expression of the economic interests of the bourgeoisie, imposed on the whole of society through control of the state.

The epoch between December 20, 1848, and the dissolution of the constitutional assembly in May, 1849, embraces the history of the downfall of the bourgeois republicans. After they had founded a republic for the bourgeoisie, had driven the revolutionary proletariat from the field, and had meanwhile silenced the democratic middle class, they are themselves shoved aside by the mass of the bourgeoisie, who justly appropriate this republic as their property. This bourgeois mass was ROYALIST, however. A part thereof, the large landed proprietors, had ruled under the restoration, hence, was LEGITIMIST; the other part, the aristocrats of finance and the large industrial capitalists, had ruled under the July monarchy, hence, was ORLEANIST. The high functionaries of the Army, of the University, of the Church, in the civil service, of the Academy and of the press, divided them selves on both sides, although in unequal parts. Here, in the bourgeois republic, that bore neither the name of BOURBON, nor of ORLEANS, but the name of CAPITAL, they had found the form of government under which they could all rule in common. Already the June insurrection had united them all into a “Party of Order.” Eighteenth Brumaire, p. 18

Significantly, Marx’s analysis of the few crucial years of French political history between 1848 and 1851 focuses entirely on segments of the propertied classes who vied for power in the National Assembly. Landowners want X, small owners want Y, large industrial owners want W, financiers want Z; and the individuals and parties representing these segments compete for power. And the actions of government reflect the goals and strategies of the strongest parties. Here is Marx’s description of the crucial manipulation of the Constitution’s election rules for the election of a president:

The law of May 31, 1850, was the “coup d’etat” of the bourgeoisie. All its previous conquests over the revolution had only a temporary character: They became uncertain the moment the National Assembly stepped off the stage; they depended upon the accident of general elections, and the history of the elections since 1848 proved irrefutably that, in the same measure as the actual reign of the bourgeoisie gathered strength, its moral reign over the masses wore off. Universal suffrage pronounced itself on.May 10 pointedly against the reign bourgeoisie; the bourgeoisie answered with the banishment of universal suffrage. The law of May 31 was, accordingly, one of the necessities of the class struggle. On the other hand, the constitution required a minimum of two million votes for the valid election of the President of the republic. If none of the Presidential candidates polled this minimum, then the National Assembly was to elect the President out of the three candidates polling the highest votes. At the time that the constitutive body made this law, ten million voters were registered on the election rolls. Eighteenth Brumaire, p. 39

And, significantly, Marx describes this period of government as representing a coalition of two major groups of property owners, landed property and manufacture:

The parliamentary republic was more than a neutral ground on which the two factions of the French bourgeoisie— Legitimists and Orleanists, large landed property and manufacture— could lodge together with equal rights. It was the indispensable condition for their common reign, the only form of government in which their common class interest could dominate both the claims of their separate factions and all the other classes of society. As royalists, they relapsed into their old antagonism: into the struggle for the overlordship of either landed property or of money; and the highest expression of this antagonism, its personification, were the two kings themselves, their dynasties. Hence the resistance of the party of Order to the recall of the Bourbons. Eighteenth Brumaire, p. 54

But the INDUSTRIAL BOURGEOISIE also, in its fanaticism for order, was annoyed at the quarrels of the Parliamentary party of Order with the Executive. Thiers, Anglas, Sainte Beuve, etc., received, after their vote of January 18, on the occasion of the discharge of Changarnier, public reprimands from their constituencies, located in the industrial districts, branding their coalition with the Mountain as an act of high treason to the cause of order. Although, true enough, the boastful, vexatious and petty intrigues, through which the struggle of the party of Order with the President manifested it self, deserved no better reception, yet notwithstanding, this bourgeois party, that expects of its representatives to allow the military power to pass without resistance out of the hands of their own Parliament into those of an adventurous Pretender, is not worth even the intrigues that were wasted in its behalf. It showed that the struggle for the maintenance of their public interests, of their class interests, of their political power only incommoded and displeased them, as a disturbance of their private business…. Business being brisk, as still at the beginning of 1851, the commercial bourgeoisie stormed against every Parliamentary” strife, lest business be put out of temper. Business being dull, as from the end of February, 1851, on, the bourgeoisie accused thee Parliamentary strifes as the cause of the stand-still, and clamored for quiet in order that business may revive. Eighteenth Brumaire, p. 58-59

Again, we find the same idea of the managing committee of (dominant factions of) the propertied classes.

This is a particularly reductionist interpretation of politics. It suggests a thoroughly mechanistic relationship between class interests and the actions of the state. Politicians are the creatures of various propertied interests, and their actions are dictated by their patrons. But towards the end of the Eighteenth Brumaire Marx gives a nod to the complexity and size of government:

This Executive power, with its tremendous bureaucratic and military organization; with its wide-spreading and artificial machinery of government — an army of office-holders, half a million strong, together with a military force of another million men— ; this fearful body of parasites, that coils itself like a snake around French society, stopping all its pores, originated at the time of the absolute monarchy, along with the decline of feudalism, which it helped to hasten. The princely privileges of the landed proprietors and cities were transformed into so many attributes of the Executive power; the feudal dignitaries into paid office-holders; and the confusing design of conflicting medieval seigniories, into the well regulated plan of a government, whose work is subdivided and centralized as in the factory…. Napoleon completed this governmental machinery. Eighteenth Brumaire, p. 69

This clearly presents a topic for study: how does this “machinery of government” work? What is the social ontology of the ministries, offices, and agencies of government? Further, Marx raises a point that Nicos Poulantzas eventually characterizes as the “relative autonomy of the capitalist state”:

Nevertheless, under the absolute monarchy, during the first revolution, and under Napoleon, the bureaucracy was only the means whereby to prepare the class rule of the bourgeoisie; under the restoration, under Louis Philippe, and under the parliamentary republic, it was the instrument of the ruling class, however eagerly this class strained after autocracy. Not before the advent of the second Bonaparte does the government seem to have made itself fully independent. The machinery of government has by this time so thoroughly fortified itself against society, that the chief of the “Society of December 10” is thought good enough to be at its head a fortune-hunter, run in from abroad, is raised on its shield by a drunken soldiery, bought by himself with liquor and sausages, and whom he is forced ever again to throw sops to. Hence the timid despair, the sense of crushing humiliation and degradation that oppresses the breast of France and makes her to choke. She feels dishonored. Eighteenth Brumaire, p. 70

According to this passage, the government of Napoleon III has a degree of autonomy from the propertied interests of his period. “The machinery of government has by this time … thoroughly fortified itself against society.” This idea too points to a more sophisticated understanding of the “machinery of government.” This opens the door to a more nuanced theory of politics, including the possibility that other groups in society (environmentalists, workers, right-wing nationalists) may position themselves in ways that have substantial effect on the actions of government.

Here is Robert Paul Resch’s description of Poulantzas’s theory of relative autonomy in Althusser and the Renewal of Marxist Social Theory (329-330):

Poulantzas also seeks to explain how the capitalist state directly serves the interests of the capitalist class while being formally separated from the economy and from the direct control of the capitalists. Poulantzas’s concept of the capitalist state is premised on its relative autonomy with respect to the economy and the fact that “it is this autonomy which, as a constant invariant, regulates the variations of intervention and non-intervention of the political in the economic, and of the economic in the political” (Poulantzas 1973, 143). The general concept of a class state, Poulantzas reminds us, does not require that the state be the direct instrument of the dominant class but only that it legitimize and reproduce the conditions and relations of domination and exploitation by which the ruling class is constituted. In capitalist social formations these conditions are defined by the existence of surplus value and the irresistible impetus to accumulate it that occurs when private property exists and labor power is completely commodified. Furthermore, in capitalist social formations, the members of the dominant class are in economic competition with each other, and their competing interests render them incapable of governing directly or with unanimity. Their only common interests, Poulantzas concludes, are that the exploited class be politically fragmented and that the existence of propertyless laborers “free” to sell their labor power be perpetuated.

Poulantzas argues that the peculiar characteristics of the capitalist mode of production do not require a state that directly represents the economic interests of the ruling classes; rather, they require a state that represents their political interest. However democratic a capitalist state may appear to be, Poulantzas maintains that it always functions as “the dominant class’s political power center, the organizing agent of their political struggles” (Poulantzas 1973, 190). The state accomplishes this function by redefining agents of production, distributed in classes, as political subjects, distributed as individuals. The result is an effect of “individual isolation” that is then projected back, via the legal system, from the political realm into the economy to mask the existence of class relationships. The capitalist state is both the source and guarantor of the “rights” of isolated political subjects and thus of its own function of representing the unity of these isolated relations, that is, the body politic of “the people” and “the nation.” In other words, “the state represents the unity of an isolation which because of the role played by the ideological, is largely its own effect. This double function of isolating [individuals] and representing [their] unity is reflected in the internal contradictions in the structure of the state” (Poulantzas 1973, 134).

(Rereading The Eighteenth Brumaire creates a little bit of a sense of what Marx was getting at when he wrote in the first sentence of the essay that “Hegel says somewhere that all great historic facts and personages recur twice. He forgot to add: ‘Once as tragedy, and again as farce.'” The lawlessness and recklessness of the current US president resonates with Marx’s narrative of Napoléon le petit, in Victor Hugo’s phrase.)

First generation anti-positivism: Wellmer

In Critical Theory Of Society (1969) Albrecht Wellmer announced a critique of positivist assumptions in the study of society. Proceeding from the perspective of critical theory and especially Horkheimer and Adorno, Wellmer denounced the embrace of positivism by “bourgeois” social science. But perhaps more surprisingly, he addresses this critique to Marx’s system as well.

Probably Horkheimer himself offered the most impressive statement of the Frankfurt school’s estimate of its own function and importance when, in his article on traditional and “critical” theory, he joined issue with bourgeois science and its objectivist misconception of its own nature. The essay shows clearly that the confrontation between critical, Marxist and traditional “bourgeois” science had hardly moved by then into the vague realm of methodological abstractions; to the extent that the debate was concerned with methodology, critical theory was more inclined to view it as the mere reflection of actual social conflicts. (10)

The main thrusts against positivism consist of the claim that positivists look at social arrangements as purely objective and factual; whereas they require interpretation.

Apart from strict behaviorists, social scientists would in general no longer dispute the fact that access to the measured or observed

data

of their field of study is obtained through the medium of communication. but, they opine, the role of interpretations finishes with its provision of a means of access to the data, and perhaps also of a heuristic value for the discovery of explanations; in addition, they would claim for their science the methodological status of a natural science, and therefor of a science entitled, with the aid of universal laws, to explain and predict unusual phenomena. (35)

And positivism assumes that value perspectives can be filtered out in the perception of facts; whereas critical theorists maintain that perspective is inseparable from perception. (Proletarians see the social world differently from the bourgeois.)

So what is “critical social science”? To start, it is hermeneutic, according to Wellmer: it has to do with the interpretation of meanings in social action.

It has already been shown that explanatory sociology is always interpretative sociology as well; and that an interpretative sociology cannot be merely a subjective sociology of the interpretation of meaning. It is also clear now that the empirical content of social scientific theories is peculiarly proportional to the historical concretion to which they attain. (38)

Further, critical social science is fundamentally responsive to historical context. So hermeneutic interpretation cannot be extracted from its historical context.

So much of the specific content of a certain historical period enters into the basic theoretical assumptions and the framework of reference used for categorization, that its hypotheses cannot be transferred without violence to more distant socio-historical situations. (36)

This point parallels the post-positivist view that observation is theory-laden; but it goes beyond that by postulating that social observations are framed by conceptual systems that are themselves historically specific.

Third, critical social science rests on a recognition (even more explicit in Habermas) that knowledge and interest are interwoven:

Already apparent is the changed relation of theory and practice that exists for a critical social theory derived form a practical interest in cognition. Critical theory is derivable from a notion of the “good life” already available to it as part of the socio-historical situation it subjects to analysis; which, as the notion of an acknowledgement of each individual as a person by each other individual, and as the idea of a non-coercive communal human life of dialogue, is a draft meaning of history already fragmentarily embodied in a society’s traditions and institutions. (41)

The tension between the Frankfurt School and orthodox Marxist theory is evident here, because Wellmer’s critique of “bourgeois social science” is extended to Marx himself.

The critique of the objectivism of Marx’s philosophy of history was directed at a latently positivistic misconception, which, according to Habermas’s thesis, arises from the part played by the concept of labor. (67)

“Objectivism” here means the stance of the social researcher to regard the social as “given”, not subject to interpretation. And Wellmer argues that there is a strand of Marx’s thought that does precisely that. Marx’s materialist theory of history — “history consists of a dialectic of change driven by conflict between the forces and relations of production” — leaves no room for the radical interpretivism that Wellmer favors. Crudely, Marx in the German Ideology and Capital is not at all interested in the ideas that men and women have, but rather the objective system of social relations that underlies their actions and interactions. Even arguments that Marx makes about ideology, false consciousness, and fetishism of commodities takes the form of demystification — dissolution of the system of false consciousness rather than interpretation of how these representations relate to the workings of the social order. Consciousness plays no role in the dynamics of history. And in fact Wellmer believes that this stance plays a self-defeating role in Marx’s system:

The union of historical materialism and the criticism of political economy in Marx’s social theory is inherently contradictory. (74)

What Wellmer favors for social theory is expressed here:

This means that critical theory does not wish to replace an ideological consciousness with a scientific consciousness, but — of course by means of empirical and historical analyses — to assist the practical reason existing in the for of ideological consciousness to “call to mind” its distorted form, and at the same time to get control of its practical-utopian contents. Ultimately, therefore, critical theory can prove itself only by initiating a reflective dissolution of false consciousness resulting in liberating praxis: the successful dissolution of false consciousness as an integrative aspect of emancipatory practice is the proper touchstone for its truth. (72)

So Wellmer’s “critical theory of society” is criticism all the way down: critique of the assumptions about knowledge, action, and social relations that underlie both bourgeois social science and large swathes of Marx’s own theoretical framework. In place of orthodox “empiricist” ideas about empirical confirmation and “hypothetico-deductive method”, he advocates the “hypothetico-practical model of validation. Those theories which unfold into a basis for human liberation are for that reason rationally preferable to those that do not. Rather than theory and observation, Wellmer’s philosophy of science rests on a view of theory and praxis, or theory and liberation.

However, it is difficult today to interpret this series of observations as a serious and credible approach to social science epistemology. It offers suggestive ideas about what is involved in making sense of a given historical-social reality. But it gives little guidance about how to evaluate various theories and interpretations.

(The choice of Millet’s painting “Peasants planting potatoes” is apt for a discussion of Wellmer’s philosophy of social science. The painting represents a set of “facts”; but we cannot say what facts these are without substantial interpretation, and various interpretations are possible. The painting might be regarded as a small piece of critical social theory all by itself, with a gesture towards social reality, a depiction that can be understood as a system of domination, and a call for liberation.)

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.