Tuesday, June 23, 2015

it's too soon to bury Marx

In April last year I published a critique of Marxism, on this blog (The Core Problem With Marxism) and also on reddit, which made sense to me. There was some worthwhile discussion on the reddit thread.

My views were based on a combination of ideas, that marxism was:
  • based on an overblown idea of what science, as in "scientific socialism", could achieve, that marxism was a form of historical or dialectical determinism
  • monist (one True Way) rather than pluralist
  • based on the idea of freedom that recognised necessity
  • based on a belief that Marx / Marxists supported a fact-value dichotomy in their analysis, that facts are objective and values subjective
I went on to argue that these ideas in combination (scientism or scientific determinism + monism + necessity + fact-value dichotomy) opened the door to a deterministic-totalitarian politics in which ethics and democracy were sidelined. I acknowledged that Marx had made important (magnificent) contributions such as his analysis of Political Economy in Capital, but that the combination of the above concepts had led to an overly deterministic trend in analysing how the world worked.

What was I really on about? My thinking was that marxism wasn't doing any better than some form of pragmatic realism with a human face as developed by philosophers such as Hilary Putnam. And that other authors, moral philosophers such as Martha Nussbaum or Iris Murdoch, had done a better job of developing ethical theory than anything in Marx's writings. Marx's alleged neglect of ethics was central to my thinking here. In the reddit thread I said:
"I think we have to turn to authors who have delved deeply into ethical issues to get a handle on these questions. Not Marx but John Rawls, Hilary Putnam, Iris Murdoch, Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum would be my recommendations here"
I now think my critique was inadequate, as applied to Marx. I would now say that my critique may well be valid when applied to the "average marxist", the typical communist party / grouplet or to the practice of marxism in Stalin's Soviet Union but not valid to an understanding of Marx himself. The problem is not Marx but the average Marxist and in this particular case me being an average Marxist.

I'm interested and have been influenced by critiques of marxism by very smart people who have tried it out and had bad experiences. This includes the reflections by Hilary Putnam, Hannah Arendt and Iris Murdoch in particular. See the reference list below. I still think these authors are very smart but perhaps they are reacting more to their experiences with the average Marxist or average communist party rather than a deep understanding of Marx himself. That is the best explanation I can come up with at the moment. Marx in his own lifetime said that he was not a marxist after witnessing a dialogue between some of his supporters.

When I study other pro marxist authors such as Bertell Ollman, Patrick Murray and Terry Eagleton they argue for an interpretation of Marx which refutes my critique.

In looking back now I think it was healthy to challenge marxism in the way I did since it did apply to some of the practice and thinking, including my own at times, of those who describe themselves as marxist. But the subsequent challenge to justify my critique led me to further study of more of Marx's original writings as well as the above mentioned interpreters. In turn, this led to the realisation that my critique was based on insufficient depth of understanding of what Marx was really on about.

  • Marxism is developed by Marx as a science but his idea of science is not anything like what we regard as science today. I think Bertell Ollman argues convincingly that Marx adhered to a philosophy of internal relations and makes other points about Marx's method which are new to my understanding.
  • A theory of possible and probable historical developments through contradiction (and other methods of analysis) is not the same thing as One True Way historical determinism. There remains a larger question of whether Marxism is a monist or pluralist outlook about which I remain uncertain. For now, I still go along with Hilary Putnam's comment that emergent properties of thought (mental states) such as loving, hating, desiring, believing, judging, perceiving, hoping can't be reduced to the physical. We are stuck with this dualism. (Brentano's problem).
    "I am, then, a dualist, or, better, a pluralist. Truth, reference, justification - these are emergent, non-reducible properties of terms and statements in certain contexts. I do not mean they are not supervenient on the physical; of course they are. My dualism is one not of minds and bodies, but of physical properties and intentional properties. It does not even yield an interesting metaphysics." (Three Kinds of Scientific Realism, In Word and Life, 493)
  • Freedom is the recognition of necessity. That principle remains valid but would not be interpreted in a mechanical fashion if we get the nature of Marx's science and history right.
  • Marx never supported a fact-value dichotomy. This was more an issue that developed from Hume and the British empiricists. With Marx facts and values were built into his descriptions of society from the beginning. His ethics develop along with those descriptions. It is true that Marx was impatient with utopian socialists who focused more on the power of argument and ideas than the real social clash of material interests, that is a different issue than my incorrect allegation that Marx supported a fact-value dichotomy.
Much more needs to be said on all of these issues (the nature of science, monism / pluralism, freedom and necessity, facts and values) and other related issues.

What are the practical implications? Simply that well intentioned reform movements as developed by such admirable people as Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum ought to be supported but nevertheless are quite limited in terms of the real task of developing a movement that can effectively challenge and overthrow the real problem: capitalism.

Kerr, Bill. The Core Problem with Marxism
Weissberg, Alex. Conspiracy of Silence (1952)
Putnam, Hilary. How Not to Solve Ethical Problems (essay 12). In: Realism with a Human Face (1990)
Putnam, Hilary. Words and Life (1994)
Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. (1951)
Arendt, Hannah. On Revolution (1963)
Murdoch, Iris. Existentialists and Mystics (1997)
Ollman, Bertell. Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx's Method.
Ollman, Bertell. Alienation: Marx's Conception of Man in Capitalist Society (1971)
Patrick Murray. Marx's Theory of Scientific Knowledge (1988)
Terry Eagleton. Why Marx Was Right (2011)
Nussbaum, Martha. Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach (2011)

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