Thursday, April 13, 2017

Marx, Marxists, Marxians … and (democratic) socialism

I do not think the following is generally true: “Economists who follow Karl Marx in adopting a labor theory of value or in other ways but do not share the political ideology of communism typically call themselves ‘Marxians’ to distinguish their views from the views of political ‘Marxists.’” This remark was but a small if not incidental part of a larger blog post by Michael Dorf (‘Advice to Conscientious Originalists: Rebrand’) and is probably not crucial to its main argument. Nevertheless, I felt compelled to respond both to this and a few related comments by Professor Dorf.

The Marxist economists I am familiar with, by and large, are at the same time “political Marxists” (and there are economists who are not afraid to learn and cite from Marx who are not avowedly ‘Marxist’ or ‘Marxian,’ like Amartya Sen), and those same (at once economic and political) Marxists do not believe the various “Communist Party-State regimes” of the twentieth-century that were nakedly authoritarian and thus in many respects anti-democratic (hence, for instance, the need to label your regime ‘the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea,’) could lay claim to being “Marxist” (the regimes themselves frequently preferred the epithet, ‘Marxist-Leninist’) in any meaningful sense (yes, it is true, that there were some self-described Marxists who came, for example, to a distressingly belated recognition of the horrors of Stalinism, or acknowledgement of the Chinese famine of 1959-1962, or the cruelties associated with the Cultural Revolution), as messianic historical determinism and authoritarian politics cannot accurately or charitably be ascribed to any halfway credible interpretation of Marx’s work in toto. These Marxists are often political in the wider sense that they identify, say, with the critique of capitalism and the ideals of socialism and communism, or cherish Marx’s writings on alienation and exploitation, or, like Jon Elster, hold views that are “true and important” that “can [be] trace[d] back to Marx,” including “methodology, substantive theories, and, above all, values.” In other words, Marx’s views (and sometimes his political work as well) has a significant and conspicuous effect on their own political views and actions related to same. The distinction between “Marxist” and “Marxian” is rather intended as follows: “a Marxian belief is one that can safely be attributed to Marx himself. A Marxist belief may also be a Marxian one, but not necessarily. A Marxist belief is one held by anyone, academician or political stalwart, who thinks or can persuade others that the belief in question is in accordance with Marx’s intellectual or political legacy.” As Paul Thomas also notes, “We have today a galaxy of different Marxisms, within which the place of Marx’s own thought is ambiguous.”

In short, I do not think the distinction between “Marxian” and “Marxist” is correctly characterized or canalized as arising out of “the need to distance oneself from real-world political communism.” To be sure, and especially in this country, the need to rhetorically distance oneself from being associated with or held retroactively responsible for (?!) “real-world political communism,” finds many of us on the Left (which may have liberal components but is not synonymous with ‘Liberalism’) refusing to speak in public fora of socialism simpliciter, compelled to add—what should be—the redundant adjective “democratic.” And yet around the globe, Marxists and Marxians alike well appreciate, with such luminaries on the Left as G.A. Cohen, Michael Harrington and Eric Hobsbawm that, in the words of the latter, more than “150 years after Marx and Engels’ manifesto [socialism] … is still on the agenda.” As to the probable or possible implications for Michael Dorf’s “admittedly imperfect analogy” (i.e., those different from the reasons he listed for why the analogy is ‘imperfect’), I’ll leave that to our esteemed professor and his devoted reader

Finally, I think the proposition that “the influence of Marxian economists on the real world is negligible,” is also not true (it may be partially or largely true of the Anglo-American world, but it is eminently arguable outside that provincial domain), especially (but not only) if one is able to assess this influence in “indirect” or second-order terms, and thus the willingness of economists and policy makers to be seduced by the appeal of Keynesian and neo-Keynesian ideas and the peculiar form of “New Deal” or “social security” capitalism (the golden years of which were from 1946 to 1973); and their demise suggesting the limits of Keynes’ legacy and the value of a Marxist approach (see, for example, the respective works of Meghnad Desai and Anwar Shaikh), or the singular historical and comparative achievements of social democratic welfare regimes. (None of this is to deny or ignore the impressive economic achievements of capitalism, achievements which Marx himself well understood before they came to full fruition.) Marxist economists and Marxists generally remind us that,

“by subordinating humanity to economics, capitalism undermines and rots away the relations between human beings which constitute societies, and creates a moral vacuum, in which nothing counts except what the individual wants, here and now. At the top, men sacrifice entire cities to profitability, as in the film Roger and Me, which shows what happened to the town of Flint when General Motors shut down its works. At the bottom, teenage boys kill others for their sheepskin jackets or fashionable trainers, as happens every day in New York. [….] Socialists are there to remind the world that people and not production come first.”

Indeed, socialists today are here to make imperative the ideal if not idea that people are capable of living lives worthy of (self-realizing in the Marxist sense) human beings: “not just in comfort, but together, and in dignity” (Eric Hobsbawm) 
Addendum: absolutely none of this has anything whatsoever to do with “rebranding.”

References & (and a select list of) Further Reading:

  • Bahro, Rudolf. The Alternative in Eastern Europe. London: NLB, 1978.
  • Blackburn, Robin, ed. After the Fall: The Failure of Communism and the Future of Socialism. London: Verso, 1991.
  • Bottomore, Tom, ed. A Dictionary of Marxist Thought. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2nd ed., 1991.
  • Bourguignon, François (Thomas Scott-Railton, tr.) The Globalization of Inequality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.
  • Carver, Terrell, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Marx. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
  • Cohen, G.A. History, Labour, and Freedom: Themes from Marx. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
  • Cohen, G.A. Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  • Cohen, G.A. Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defense. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, expanded ed., 2000 (1978).
  • Cohen, G.A. If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re so Rich? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.
  • Cohen, G.A. Why Not Socialism? Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.
  • Desai, Meghnad. Marx’s Revenge: The Resurgence of Capitalism and the Death of Statist Socialism. London: Verso, 2002.
  • Drèze, Jean, Amartya Sen and Athar Hussain, eds. The Political Economy of Hunger. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1995.
  • Eagleton, Terry. Why Marx Was Right. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011. 
  • Eatwell, John, Murray Milgate, and Peter Newman, eds. The New Palgrave: Marxian Economics. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1990. 
  • Elson, Diane, ed. Value: The Representation of Labour in Capitalism. New York: Verso, 2015 ed.
  • Elster, Jon. Making Sense of Marx. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
  • Elster, Jon and Karl Ove Moene, eds. Alternatives to Capitalism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
  • Esping-Andersen, Gøsta. The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. Oxford, UK: Polity, 1990.
  • Esping-Andersen, Gøsta. Politics Against Markets: The Social Democratic Road to Power.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985.
  • Goodin, Robert E. Reasons for Welfare: The Political Theory of the Welfare State. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988.
  • Goodin, Robert E., et al. The Real Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  • Harrington, Michael. Socialism: Past and Future. New York: Arcade/Little, Brown & Co., 1989.
  • Harvey, David. Limits to Capital. London: Verso, 2006 ed. (first ed., 1982).
  • Hobsbawm, Eric. How to Change the World: Reflections on Marx and Marxism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.
  • Luntley, Michael. The Meaning of Socialism. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1990.
  • Milanovic, Branko. The Haves and the Have-Nots: A Brief and Idiosyncratic History of Global Inequality. New York: Basic Books, 2011.
  • Nussbaum, Martha C. Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.
  • O’Connor, James. The Fiscal Crisis of the State. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1973.
  • Offe, Claus. Contradictions of the Welfare State. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1984.
  • Offe, Claus. Disorganized Capitalism: Contemporary Transformations of Work and Politics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985.
  • Prashad, Vijay. The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South. London: Verso, 2012.
  • Przeworski, Adam. Capitalism and Social Democracy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
  • Przeworski, Adam and John Sprague. Paper Stones: A History of Electoral Socialism. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1986.
  • Roemer, John, et al. (Erik Olin Wright, ed.) Equal Shares: Making Socialism Work. London: Verso, 1996.
  • Saad-Filho, Alfredo. The Value of Marx: Political Economy for Contemporary Capitalism. London: Routledge, 2002.
  • Schweickart, David. Against Capitalism. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996.
  • Shaikh, Anwar. Capitalism: Competition, Conflict, Crises. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
  • Therborn, Göran. The Killing Fields of Inequality. Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2013.
  • Wolff, Richard D. and Stephen A. Resnick. Contending Economic Theories: Neoclassical, Keynesian, and Marxian. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012.
  • Wright, Erik Olin. Interrogating Inequality: Essays on Class Analysis, Socialism and Marxism. London: Verso, 1994.
  • Wright, Erik Olin. Envisioning Real Utopias. London: Verso, 2010.


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