The M word: It’s time to take Marx beyond ‘Marxism’
Following my last blog there were a few comments referring to how the Green Party must avoid being ‘Marxist’ and how left wing polices will only appeal to the dreaded ‘Marxists’. This got me wondering who the ‘Marxists’ are. After all, Marx famously stated “If anything is certain, it is that I myself am not a Marxist.”
Marx was committed to using science to burn away the mysticism of obscurantist beliefs, so it seems a great tragedy, that his name has been repeatedly hijacked to both legitimise various dogmas he never endorsed and delegitimise his true legacy. As G.A Cohen points out it is a shame that the socialists that followed Marx did not follow him in referring to his work as scientific socialism. ‘Isms’ exist for classifying dogmatic sets of beliefs, held to be self evidently true. For example, Catholicism and Protestantism.
Marx’s work was the opposite of this; it was a set of theories created from a process of applying the most advanced social science to the human condition as Marx understood it. Marx played a central role in the creation of what is now sociology. As well as having a massive impact on a whole set of other social sciences.
This is similar to how Galileo founded what went on to become physics. This being the case, it follows that asking someone if they believe in Marxism is as nonsensical as asking a physicist if they subscribe to Galileoism. Galileo like Marx and all theorists was correct up to a point about some things and incorrect about others.
Being a Marxist, then, cannot mean subscribing to a certain set of dogmas, if used at all, it can only in any faithful sense refer to someone concerned with the application of the most advanced social science to the emancipatory project of replacing capitalism with a more humane social system.
Cohen along with John Roemer and John Elster founded a group known as the No Bullshit Marxists. Bullshit being encapsulated by the idea that ‘Marxism’ contains within itself, its own dialectical method; which is more real and superior to ‘bourgeois science’. This is of course nonsense. If Marx’s work is to have any value beyond simple rhetoric, then it must be able to stand up to analytical and empirical critique.
Dialectics are clearly false: not everything has a direct opposite with which it combines to create a synthesis. Marx suggested this in saying that he had uncovered the same rules in economics as Darwin had in biology i.e. evolutionary not dialectical laws. Dialectical thought can be a useful way to conceptualise something but it pales in comparison to the rigours and power of modern analytical philosophy.
Further bullshit is the Labour Theory of Value (LTV) – the idea that embedded labour is the source of value. In the 1850s LTV was taken as fact by mainstream economists and thus Marx followed suit in using it to develop his theory of exploitation. But contemporary economics has proved, beyond doubt, that LTV is incorrect. This is because LTV should result in more labour intensive industries being more profitable; as there is a greater potential pool of labour which can be exploited, however, there is no empirical evidence that this correlation exists. Marx would surely, have recognised this flaw if he had the power of modern economics or 150 years of hindsight at his disposal.
But there is still much value in many of Marx’s insights; however, these insights must be wedded to the corner stone’s of modern social science: analytical thought, empirical investigation and a reflexive approach. When combined in this way many of Marx’s theories can maintain great utility. Whether the use of analytical philosophy by Cohen to develop and defend restricted historical materialism, the use of modern economics by John Roemer to develop a theory of exploitation not reliant on LTV, or the use of modern research techniques by Stuart Hall to develop theories of ideology.
Some self declared followers of ‘Marxism’ argue that such theorists are revisionists, but this is exactly the point; all theory must be revised in the face of fresh evidence, otherwise it becomes dogma. This is why ‘Marxism’ has always done Marx a disservice and should be retired from the lexicon of the left. But those who see no value in the work of Marx are throwing the baby out with bathwater, ignoring many insights which are still pertinent today, for example the role of class, alienation and exploitation.
In fact, if the Marxian tradition is the employing of science to further emancipation, then surely Bright Greens are the real inheritors of the Marxian tradition; it’s time to take back that inheritance and take Marx beyond ‘Marxism’.