Karl Marx turns up in the most unlikely places. Two and a half decades after most US and European public intellectuals gleefully announced Marx’s ideas henceforth irrelevant, The Wall Street Journal offers a surprisingly measured discussion of his thought under the title The Most Worldly Philosopher (10-1&2-2016). The author, Jonathan Steinberg, an emeritus fellow of Cambridge and professor at the University of Pennsylvania, closes with: “Marx left a legacy of powerful ideas that cannot be dismissed as an obsolete creation of a vanished intellectual climate…” and that stimulated “...the growth of Marxist parties and the millions who accepted that ideology over the course of the 20th century. That was worldly philosophy indeed.”
I would like to believe that the WSJ editors, who displayed the following banner over the full-page article, are enjoying a droll moment in this pathetic electoral season: “The oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class are to represent and repress them.” The welcome quote, attributed to Marx by Lenin (more likely a paraphrase of Engels), is never permitted into the conversation by our lesser-of-two-evil friends who screech every four years that this is the election that changes everything.
Professor Steinberg uses the opportunity afforded by a review of a current book on Karl Marx by Gareth Stedman Jones to share some of his own views on Marx. And, judging by some of his attributions to Jones’ book, that’s a good thing. Stedman Jones, like so many of his academic contemporaries, once counted himself a kind of Marxist, but only while Marx remained in fashion. With changing times, identities quickly fall in line, a sorry reflection on the integrity of the discipline of the humanities in academe. It’s no wonder that few students are fighting for a humanities-rich curriculum.
While no follower of Marx’s ideas, Steinberg shows a healthy respect for them and a willingness to differ with them honestly; there are no Black Book of Communism tallies of the “victims” of Marx’s ideas; no denigration of the personal lives and morality of Marxists; and no paeans to the glory of capitalism that one would expect in The Wall Street Journal.
Steinberg offers a collection of challenges to Marxism that, while neither new nor original, have been at the core of many intellectual critiques:
The so-called “transformation problem.” Steinberg writes that “Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, one of the main figures in the Austrian School of economics, declared that it [Marx’s Capital] failed to produce ‘a satisfactory theory of the relation between values and prices’...” The period after Marx’s death, after the publication of volume three of Capital, coincided with the decline of classical political economy and the rise of economics based upon formal and mathematical reconstructions of immediate economic relationships and a grounding of market relations in psychological dispositions and attributed individual choices.
Many Marxists (including Engels), perhaps overly impressed with the professed rigor of the new economics, took up the challenge, constructing “proofs” of the quantitative relation between Marx’s value calculations and real-world prices. That debate between “proofs” and “counter-proofs” continues to obsess academic Marxists to this day, particularly among those trained in bourgeois economics.
But Marx sought only to demonstrate a reasonably approximate quantitative relationship between commodity values and commodity prices. Values and prices are like the contrast between shared moral standards (values) and a common legal system (real-world jurisprudence); it is not necessary to show a formal derivation or rigid correlation between a moral value and a counterpart law in order to know that one is grounded in the other. Indeed, it would be absurd to argue that legal systems are not decisively shaped by underlying moral codes, but rather that they have a remarkable independent existence based solely upon judicial whimsy or individual preference. Arguing in this fashion is the legacy of a discredited positivism.
The search for a rigorous proof that prices can be derived from values is a scholastic exercise that occupies academics, but is of little relevance to the Marxist project. That values underlie prices is as certain as the belief that the moral prescription against unwarranted killing is the basis for all laws against murder. Imagine, in the same vein, that the scientific status of psychology were shackled to a formal demonstration of the relation between psychological dispositions and physical behavior. Psychology as a discipline would disappear. And if Böhm-Bawerk and his foolishness were heeded, Marxism as a science might disappear as well!
The so-called “immiseration thesis.” Steinberg writes: “In 1899 even Eduard Bernstein, one of Engel’s closest colleagues, attacked the so-called immiseration theory, which claimed the working class was destined to get poorer and the concentration of industry greater.”
Professor Steinberg, like Bernstein and others, misinterpret Marx on this point. In Capital, Theories of Surplus Value, and Wage-labor and Capital, Marx is unequivocal: “A notable advance in the amount paid as wages presupposes a rapid increase of productive capital… Therefore, although the comforts of the laborer have risen, the social satisfaction which they give has fallen in comparison with these augmented comforts of the capitalist, which are unattainable for the laborer, and in comparison with the scale of general development society has reached… Since their nature is social, it is therefore relative.”[my italics]
Marx clearly sees workers’ misery as relative to the advances of living standards in higher reaches of society. When productivity advances, working class living standards may advance as well, though less so, relative to the gains of the capitalist class. The immediate period after the Second World War was one such time when productivity advances brought a general, but unequal rise in the standard of living. Liberals and social democrats celebrate this era as the golden age of capitalism-with-a human-face, conveniently ignoring the relative impoverishment of the working class, the increase in the exploitation of workers.
However, for most of the last four decades, the impoverishment of the working class has been both relative and absolute, with workers’ standards of living stagnant or declining. Thus, we are living in a period even more dire, more miserable than Marx’s prediction.
The engine for the relative impoverishment of the working class is the growth of what Marx called the “reserve army of the unemployed” (unemployment), a process that diminishes the bargaining power of labor as a result of a readily available and desperate labor source. This pressure on working class standards of living has been muted dramatically in our time by the mass incarceration of potential workers (vastly over represented by minorities) throughout the last decades. While the mass imprisonment of over two million people forcibly reduces the potential unemployment (“reserve army”) and its accompanying pressure on wages and benefits, it represents recognition by the ruling class of the explosive, even revolutionary possibilities of many young, rebellious people without hope of employment in the late twentieth-century de-industrialized economy. Thus, they have been kept out of the “reserve army” through imprisonment.
Historical materialism. Professor Steinberg is perplexed by Marx’s view that the socio-economic conditions within which people are immersed largely determine the parameters of their behavior. Or as Marx so simply and more eloquently put it in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” Steinberg quotes the more cryptic, but concurring statement to the same effect in the preface to Capital.
But, Steinberg ponders: “When, if ever, would workers know what was happening to them? If the preface to “Das Kapital” is right-- that humans act out laws of economics without awareness or intent-- how will the system change?”
The Professor confuses the recognition of historic processes with surrender to fatalism.
As the quote from the Eighteenth Brumaire affirms, workers will change the system when the historically evolved socio-economic conditions are ripe, and not before. The nineteenth-century English Luddites fought fervently, but futilely against capitalism’s devastation of their living conditions. But nascent industrial capitalism emerged with the vitality to crush a sincere movement associated with the old order. Twenty-first century capitalism, like the order clung to by the Luddites, is the old order, a decaying, untenable system carrying on a successful, but doomed struggle against its demise. Marx argued that as the system exhausted its potential, the socio-economic conditions sufficient for the workers to overthrow it would also arise.
It is precisely when the conditions for revolutionary change are apparent that workers may “know what is happening to them.” To insure that workers understand and seize the revolutionary moment, Marx-- and especially Lenin-- emphasized the need for a revolutionary party, a party of Communists. That party will bring forward the ideas of a new order.
Marxist Humanism. Professor Steinberg alludes to the “vast literature” on what has come to be called “Marxist Humanism.” Spurred by the publication and popularization of Marx’s early, unpublished notebooks (Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844), many leftists fashioned an idealized Marx believed to be the embodiment of liberal values. At the height of the Cold War, anti-Communist leftists embraced the tentative thinking of a youthful Marx-- a Marx three years removed from his graduate degree, filled with social reformism, still new to the working class movement and only recently seriously studying political economy-- and represented it as the true Marx.
Central to the “humanist” turn was the key concept of “alienation,” a term that Marx borrowed from Feuerbach. For the young Marx, the term served as a provisional expression marking the social distances standing in the way of individuals achieving their “nature.” As a crude philosophical tool, the concept cried out for the elaboration and refinement realized by the mature Marx. Historical materialism replaced the veiled teleology of “species-being.” Concepts like “class” and “exploitation” replaced the vagueness and generality of “alienation.” As Dirk Struik explains: ‘When we study Marx’s exposition [in the Manuscripts] in detail, we find the beginning of his mature analysis of capitalist society…” [my italics] Only the beginning!
But many writers, like Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse, grasped the opportunity to shape “alienation” into a class-free concept serving as an expression for every form of social separation-- from the most trivial offense to the most dreadful cruelties. Liberals heralded the new Marxism since it elevated the ennui of the pampered bourgeoisie to the level of the greatest injustices of class and race. Accordingly, the capitalist exploitation nexus was lost in a sea of social alienations. Today’s politics of the personal owes much to this contorted, unbridled abuse of the concept of alienation.
The Marxism of “the millions who accepted that ideology over the course of the 20th century,” as Professor Steinberg so felicitously put it, was not the Marxism of misspent youth or failed romance, but the Marxism of low wages, brutal working conditions, and bloody wars. Inspired by the mature Marx, the struggle against these conditions and for a new social order was true “Marxist humanism.”
These and other criticisms of Marxism-- based sometimes on honest mistakes, more often upon willful distortion-- remain a constant to be challenged. But that is surely a tribute to the timeless relevance of Marxism.