26 September 2011

Marxism: Books To Read And Questions To Answer

I’ll be studying Marx and Marxism some time in the nearish future, so I want to take a few notes in preparation. First of all, I’ll have to get myself a good programme of study. I read bits and pieces when I was young, when I was pretending to be a revolutionary communist, but I never went very deep and have now forgotten most of it. Here’s what I’m thinking of reading:

Marx & Engels
Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 by Karl Marx
The German Ideology by Marx and Engels
Socialism: Utopian and Scientific by Friedrich Engels
Capital by Karl Marx
Grundrisse by Karl Marx
Anti-Dühring by Friedrich Engels

Philosophical Background
Hegel by Frederick Beiser
Fundamental Problems of Marxism by Georgi Plekhanov
Marxism and Philosophy by Karl Korsch

Interpretations & Developments
Essential Works by V.I. Lenin
History and Class Consciousness by György Lukács
Alienation by Bertell Ollman
Marx’s Concept of Man by Erich Fromm
Marxism and Freedom by Raya Dunayevskaya
Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx’s Method by Bertell Ollman
Works on dialectics by Evald Ilyenkov
Marx and Human Nature by Norman Geras

For Marx by Louis Althusser
Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses by Louis Althusser
Althusser by Gregory Elliott
The Poverty of Theory by EP Thompson

Overviews and Introductions
Karl Marx by Allen Wood
Various works by Nikolai Bukharin

Finance Capitalism by Rudolf Hilferding
Law of Accumulation and Breakdown of the Capitalist System by Henryk Grossmann
The Theory of State Capitalism: The Clock Without a Spring by Ken Tarbuck
The Inconsistencies of “State-Capitalism” by Ernest Mandel
The Making of Marx’s Capital by Roman Rosdolsky

The Bolsheviks Come to Power by Alexander Rabinowitch
The Russian Revolution by Rosa Luxemburg
The Contradictions of Soviet Society and other work by Hillel Ticktin
What was the USSR? on
Lenin by Lars T. Lih

Critiques of Marxism
Listen, Marxist! by Murray Bookchin
The Open Society and its Enemies by Karl Popper
Criticisms of the LTV by the Austrians and others
The Economic Calculation Problem by the Austrians
Marxism, Freedom and the State by Mikhail Bakunin

Enlightenment, Universalism and Modernity
Though not specifically about Marxism, this issue is make-or-break for any kind of socialism.
Dialectic of Enlightenment by Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno
The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity by Jürgen Habermas

Reassessments and New Directions
The Death of the Subject Explained by James Heartfiled
Considerations on Western Marxism by Perry Anderson
Spectres of Marx by Jacques Derrida
Ghostly Demarcations by Derrida, Eagleton, Jameson, Negri


There are several questions and problems that repeatedly occur to me. A list might serve as a good guide to study, so here it is, rough-and-ready:

Question: In history, what determines what? What is the role of the individual in all this?
Provisional answer: Economic determinism is a horrible misinterpretation of Marx’s conception of history, and the structuralist obliteration of the individual loses the central passion and preoccupation of Marx: human freedom and practice. “Men make their own history”.

Question: Related to the question above, how important is the base-superstructure stuff, and how should we understand causality in Marx?
Provisional answer: Base-superstructure feels so clunky as to be in conflict with Marx’s organic, dialectical understanding of society and history, and his own historical and journalistic analyses of specific events, which show an appreciation of contingency and individual action.

Question: In what way is Marxism scientific?
Provisional answer: I suspect that it’s a mistake to think of it in terms of modern physical science, which is based on observation and experiment, and largely on reductionism. It’s more likely that Marx and Engels used Wissenschaft to mean something like systematic investigation.

Question: How should we make sense of Marx’s materialism?
Provisional answer: Well, for one thing, I don’t think it seeks to reduce human life and thought to biology.

Regarding the above questions, note the following from the Theses on Feuerbach

The chief defect of all materialism up to now … is that the object, reality, what we apprehend through our senses, is understood only in the form of the object of contemplation; but not as sensuous human activity, as practice; not subjectively.
The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself.

Question: Alienation. What’s it all about and how does it apply today?
Provisional answer: No short answer for this one, but I have to question if Fromm is right when he says we are more alienated today than in Marx’s time. It seems to me that I have more options, am more engaged with the world and have more time to be creative, than my great great grandfather, because I do not suffer drudgery and poverty as he did.

Question: Is there room for the spiritual in Marx?
Provisional answer: For sure – so long as we don’t associate it necessarily with religion. I reckon the spiritual is central to Marx’s concepts of man and freedom. Religion, on the other hand, is alienated spirituality.

Question: Does socialism entail that everything ought to be planned? For example, I love cities, and the more unplanned the better. Is this in conflict with my socialism?
Provisional answer: Not at all, because the planning of production, services and development does not entail the planning of everything in society. Socialism ought to seek freedom above all else, and it seems clear that our free organic unplanned activity often produces the best results in many areas of life. From what I can tell, Marx never said otherwise.

Question: How is left socialism distinguished from fascist socialism? That fascism has socialist roots, and that many of the Nazis were anti-capitalist, still seem to be unmentionables. When socialists say, “oh, the Nazis had nothing to do with socialism. The name 'National Socialism’ is a historical accident – now let’s move on”, this is wishful thinking and does violence to history. There is significant overlap, which does not become insignificant just because fascism and capitalism accommodated themselves to each other and found each other useful.
Provisional answer: Emphasis on democracy, individual liberty, equality, internationalism and reason (should) distinguish our socialism from any of those fascist varieties. Everything that is repugnant and reactionary in fascism stems from a rejection of these. Therefore, any good left-wing socialist must be a defender of the Enlightenment. But here I’ll need to take account of Roger Griffin’s Modernism and Fascism. More specifically, Marxism, or a body of theory incorporating the thought of Marx, should set left-wing socialism apart from the ugly excrescences of romanticism that went by the name fascist. Last but not least, we should take account of the class character of the movements: marxism, communism and other left-wing socialisms are working-class, whereas fascism, if it is socialist at all, is a socialism without the proletariat. Nazism’s base of support was among the middle class, and was, despite the early rhetoric, enthusiastically supported by big capital. In terms of socialism as normally understood, then, it was not socialist at all.

Question: To what extent was Marx an Enlightenment thinker?
Provisional answer: Very much so, and he took it all the way, unlike the liberals, who sat back on their laurels and used the ideology of Enlightenment not to further human emancipation (its true force) but to defend bourgeois society. The fact that he attacked liberal ideology should not blind us to his underlying commitment to progress, and his downplaying of the individual is a direct attack on the naive liberal notions of freedom and equality rather than a rejection of the importance of the individual as such.

Question: How does Marx’s labour theory of value stand up?
Provisional answer: This is a hard one for me, because I’m very ignorant of economics. But I’ll stick my neck out and say the theory stands up pretty well. It makes intuitive sense to me, and I’m suspicious of claims that it is outdated, or has been rendered useless by developments in capitalism. Many of the criticisms of the LTV are misunderstandings and begin from the wrong questions. But really I don’t have much of an idea so far. To be quite honest I cannot foresee ever reaching a satisfactory position on this question, owing to the amount of reading in economics that I need to do – not something I relish.

Question: What is the importance of Marx’s theory of exploitation and what are we left with without it?
Provisional answer: This depends largely on how I answer the question above. As yet, my instinct is that we need not depend on it.

Question: Is radicalism dangerous? Are socialism and fascism motivated by the same utopian urge to change the world at all costs, despite the evidence that such efforts always fail? Should we not just let things play out peacefully, without rocking the boat? (This is Roger Scruton’s position.)
Provisional answer: This is a conservative, and complacently relativist, argument for doing nothing about injustice and oppression. The powerful, dangerous and oppressive people and groups don’t often give up without a fight.

Question: Marx vs Bakunin and Marx vs Anarchism: was Bakunin right to criticize Marx’s emphasis on the party? Can we trace the undemocratic, bureaucratized nature of the Soviet Union back to Marx’s politics (if not to his theory)?
Provisional answer: Maybe, but it is difficult to see how change can be effected without such central authority. This line of reasoning can then lead to the pessimistic conclusion that maybe Scruton is right: radical emancipatory change is not possible and is never popular. Is it worth the risk?

Question: Related to the last question, how are we to understand Stalinism, both its nature and its early development?
Provisional answer: It seems that Marx doesn’t help us here, so we need to look at subsequent – and not necessarily Marxist – theories of power and the state.

Question: What is the difference between libertarian Marxism and anarchism? Can an anarchist embrace dialectical materialism and Marx’s economic analysis but reject his political conclusions (seizure and wielding of state power, etc), and still call himself an anarchist?
Provisional answer: I don’t have much of an idea, but I do think that anarchism depends far too much on either liberal or romantic notions of freedom. Also, power is a much more important category than it is for Marx. This might amount to a rejection of both dialectical materialsm and Marx’s focus on the mode and relations of production. The trouble is, without Marx’s depth of insight anarchism looks very thin and naive.

Question: Is the class struggle still relevant, and is the proletariat still the class that will change the world?
Provisional answer: I think this where Marx has become most irrelevant. Capitalism has changed too much for us to see everything in terms of class struggle. The proletariat did not change the world and has now either ceased to exist, or has ceased to exist as a political force. There is perhaps now no reason to think that radical human emancipation along socialist lines can be effected by the working class (whatever that is), at least in the developed countries.

Question: Or has the proletariat just been moved to the poorer countries?
Provisional answer: Some Marxists say that while there is no proletariat, and no class conscious working class, in the developed countries, advanced capitalism these days finds its proletariat in the developing world. Is this a correct Marxist economic analysis, or is it more just a way of hanging on to the prospect of proletarian revolution? The development of capitalism in the West shows that the proletariat can become transformed and absorbed into the system rather than becoming ever more antagonistic and revolutionary – and perhaps there is no reason why this should not eventually happen worldwide. But what then?

Question: So what do the various Marxists of today say counts as the proletariat today, if anything? And what is the “working class”?
Provisional answer: There seems to be a great variety of answers. How do these differences correspond to their options for change?

Question: Maybe in the long run we are headed for socialism anyway, gradually and organically, and all the violent revolutionary activity was a waste of time and life?
Provisional answer: Well, it’s interesting that some claim that the freedoms and political changes that were secured by the French Revolution probably would have happened anyway, as they happened more gradually in other countries. But Scruton’s just have a cup of tea political philosophy is always effectively reactionary, and history is made by ambitious people doing things, making the best of their situations. Seen as a struggle for freedom, history’s violence demonstrates how division (national and class) begets violence, and how powerful and ruthless have been the various kinds of ruling class, more than it demonstrates the excesses of progressive radicals.

Question: Is it important to wear the label “Marxist”? How much of Marx’s specific statements can we reject and still call ourselves Marxists?
Provisional answer: It might not matter, but because Marx’s system is a total one, and was not meant to be set in stone, we do not disqualify ourselves from Marxism by using his method to look at things afresh. But the history of misinterpretations that go by the name “Marxist” might be a good reason to drop the name, and concentrate on what is good in Marx.

Question: Why does emancipation through political action require theory?
Provisional answer: Reading Adorno, we might wonder how such difficult philosophy is relevant or useful. This is a big question, but a good starting point might be in Peter Singer’s Very Short Introduction to Marx, which describes how Marx saw revolutionary action partly as a way of solving the problems of philosophy: the two go together and inform each other.

Question: What is to be done?
Provisional answer: It could be that Marx’s time has come and gone, and we now lack a good critique of our present conditions, a model of society to replace capitalism, and, in the absence of a working class with its own political agenda, an agent of change. Maybe revolutionary socialism needs to be put on hold, in favour of defending democracy and civil rights. BUT...

Question: People were saying the same forty years ago. What is different now?
Provisional answer: Today it’s not just that the working class is not politically conscious: it has been defeated. At the same time, mainstream ideology has absorbed many of the preoccupations of the left, such as gay rights, feminism, racism and the language of egalitarianism. But in the process, these ideas have lost their progressive edge, and sit alongside – or even depend on – cultural particularism and conservative ideologies such as environmentalism, both of which are inimical to the future of socialism. Thus, those in power can happily turn left because socialism is no longer threatening, and those on the left proper, while still imagining themselves to be radical, do not realize that their ideology is no longer progressive, and is in fact becoming a conservative ideology in the hands of a new bourgeoisie.

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