Thursday, September 01, 2016

Why Marxism refuses to die

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Michael Heinrich starts his book (above) with reasons we should still be interested in studying Marxism.
"“At the beginning of the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it seemed as though capitalism had ultimately and globally triumphed as an economic and social model to which there was no alternative.

“Although there had always been many on the left who did not see a desirable alternative to capitalism in Soviet “really existing socialism,” such distinctions no longer seemed important. To most people, a society beyond the capitalist market economy appeared only as an entirely unrealistic utopia. Instead of protest, accommodation and resignation reigned.

“But it was also - and in particular - the 1990s that showed that capitalism, even after its apparent “final victory,” continued to go hand in hand with processes of crisis and immiseration; and Kosovo, Afghanistan, and the first war in Iraq showed that wars in which the developed capitalist countries were not only indirectly, but indeed very directly involved, were by no means a thing of the past.

“All this was taken up in different forms by the new “counter-globalization” movement and other social movements and made the point of departure for critique. Initially, these critiques were focused on single issues and posed limited demands that remained within the framework of the system. Furthermore, the critiques often rested upon a simple black-and-white moralism.

“However, throughout the course of these conflicts, fundamental questions kept being asked: about contemporary capitalism’s mode of operation; about the connection between capitalism, the state, and war; and also about what kinds of changes are actually possible within capitalism. Leftist theory became important again.

“Every transformative practice assumes a particular understanding of that which exists. If, for example, we demand the introduction of a Tobin tax (that is, the taxation of currency transactions) as a crucial means for the “taming” of a capitalism “unleashed”, then this implies a certain theorization of the importance of financial markets, about tamed or untamed capitalism - whether or not these assumptions are made explicit.

“How contemporary capitalism functions is not an abstract, academic question.”

Let me continue the point with an analogy. The practitioners of feudalism conceptualised their society as three Great Estates: clergy (the First Estate), nobility (the Second Estate), and commoners (the Third Estate). A monarch, ruling by divine right, oversaw everything.

One might have observed in the interstices of society small-scale artisans employing a few people, usurers lending money, and merchants importing scarce luxuries. But these would not seem essential to the overarching 'structure' of society.

A feudal 'sociologist' might well assume the future to be like the past. The future king arbitrates between future groups of nobles; the church acts as power-broker and society's ideologist, while the commoners (peasants and artisans) work for a pittance and pay for it all. It's all sanctioned by God and how could it change - even in principle?

In actual history, the commoners lost their lands and became proletarians while the merchants, usurers and lower gentry transformed themselves into capitalists. Revolutions duly followed.

What was wrong with our feudal sociologist's theories? By being 'structuralist' they assumed the feudal order of things as axiomatic. But there are no structures, only people doing essential things in relation to each other in defined ways.

Marx talks about the forces and relations of production (and exchange).


Modern (bourgeois) sociologists similarly pre-suppose the forms of social organisation of capitalism. They're baked into the theories - economics being a case in point.

But if you're interested in whether capitalism is the last word on human social organisation, you can't do that. You have to step back and understand capitalism as just another form of human social behaviour. If people systematically behaved differently, capitalism would vanish like mist in the morning, as did 'communism' in the few short years following 1989.

That wouldn't happen, of course, unless there was a powerful, revolutionary fervour to do things differently: capitalism would have to fail the masses big time, and there would have to be a viable alternative to reorganise to.

For more than a century, Marxists have believed that capitalism contains in its mode of reproduction fatal and terminal contradictions, and that the socialist form of society - consciously planned by the masses - was a far superior, non-commodified mode of production.

But the empirical evidence for both these theses is hard to find. Marx may well have had the right kind of analysis (focus on human social relationships, not mythical 'structures') but was his specific analysis and vision correct?

Georg Lukács famously argued that a Marxist was someone who followed Marx's method, not someone who had to agree with all of Marx's historically-bounded results, hypotheses and suggestions.

I don't know if capitalism is 'the end of history', but I am sure it's a profound question for any human being thinking about how to make the future a better place.

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