Readers will no doubt appreciate that I am using a good/bad/conclusion format to this review as perhaps there is no thinker other than Hegel for whom it is so fitting. I will preface this by stating an immense problem in reviewing Marx, that it is very hard in modern discourse to separate his influence from that of his followers, and that a certain orthodoxy within those followers (to be fair, largely derived from Marx's arguments) adds a certain pernicious element to any invocation of his ideas. Nonetheless, Marx was an important thinker and has a certain amount to offer discussions today, and I have been fortunate to be exposed to two very non-traditional (either non-Communist or anti-Communist) Marxist thinkers, Wilhelm Reich and Sukarno, who have helped me see a different side to his theories than I might have otherwise.
I would highly recommend in general that people read Wilhelm Reich's "Mass Psychology of Fascism" and Sukarno's "Nationalism, Islam, and Marxism" to get a different view of where the tools that Marx pioneered can be taken outside the lineage of the Communist movement.
Marx pioneered two important tools for historical exploration and argument which are broadly useful by people of various political and philosophical views. These are historical materialism and the historical dialectic. These are important tools for the understanding of history, whether or not one is a Marxist, and they offer a prelude to some of the developments elsewhere.
Historical materialism is the study of the history of a society through the study of how production, distribution, and consumption of material goods occurred. It does not require philosophical materialism to make use of. It is merely the study of the history of a society through the study of the development of that society's economy. As such it puts economic history in the center, along with material culture, and attempts to relate other aspects of society and culture to material culture and economics.
While historical materialism is necessarily incomplete and cannot form a complete view of history itself, it is an important perspective because human life depends upon material culture, and consequently this has an important role in understanding the daily needs that give rise to various historical shifts.
The second important tool that Marx pioneered was the application of Hegel's dialectic to the study of history, under the term "historical dialectic." In this view, one can understand historical shifts as being attempts at the synthesis of pre-existing social contradictions. In other words, one sees contradictions in a society (Hegel's thesis and antithesis) which reverberate until in transformation, a synthesis is reached which provides new contradictions. For example, one might look at the shift towards same-sex marriage in the US as an attempt to address underlying contradictions in views regarding family structure.
The historical dialectic also foreshadows later thinkers like Jacques Derrida who (probably through other paths) saw the inherent contradictions in society or in the thoughts of thinkers as the key to understanding.
As applied to an understanding of the inherent contradictions of Capitalism, Marx has a good deal of insight to offer as well, as a critic though not a perfect one. In fact one may see the heavily regulated capitalist economies of the United States and Europe as representing different syntheses of 19th century Capitalism and the contradictions in it that Marx identifies. Neither one went to the full sense of socialism as he seems to envisioned it however, in part because we can never be sure we understand all of the inherent contradictions of an economy or society.
While Marx's pioneering tools are important and broadly useful, many of the political arguments that Marx makes strike out in problematic directions. These are totally understandable as the product of someone who had clearly studied the development of Capitalism, still suffer from a rather incomplete picture of what happened and what those contradictions are. As a result the march towards socialism and communism is entirely overstated. Although he saw the shift as inevitable, from a basic perspective of historical dialectics, this depends on what the actual contradictions in society and the economy are, and these vary a great deal from place to place.
In the early days of capitalism there were many wealthy economists (including contemporaries of Adam Smith) who expressly and openly advocated class warfare against the poor, as a means of keeping them industrious. Marx basically took this as a piece of the production contradiction in Capitalism (that would lead to overproduction crises, a topic also dealt with by folks like Keynes so in no way limited to Marx or Marxist thought) and between this and other problems would require workers to organize and pave the way towards socializing means of production. Marx argued that workers would eventually win any class struggle and therefore class struggle was the way forward for workers. In contrast some other thinkers from other approaches (like Hillaire Belloc) thought any apparent victory for workers would actually be a substantive defeat and therefore class struggle should be avoided and transcended as instead of fought.
The emphasis on conflict effectively forces Marx into advocating for a very specific approach to worker empowerment, namely revolutionary socialism on the premise that a strong state will guarantee worker protections (something workers effectively rely on in a Capitalist order since other means of support tend to be eroded).
This approach is of course not the only one possible. There are costs of socialism that Marx overlooks, and more. This is because Marx was deeply invested in the narrative of progress and therefore saw Capitalism as a step in line with that progress. His belief in linear progress shaped the way he saw history in this regard. The solutions of the past are things to move away from. The future will be a linear projection from the past. Collapse in complexity can't happen because societies evolve greater complexity, etc.
Marx is neither the prophet nor the demon his is usually made out to be. He was a pioneering thinker in some areas of social theory, and the tools he pioneered are generally applicable. The problems are almost always in the directions he takes the argument, not in the methodology he introduces to make the argument possible.
Some of the most interesting Marx-inspired societies bear little surface resemblance to socialism or communism and only passing resemblance to Capitalism as we know it. In Indonesia, for example, 70% of the population is self-employed and the poor generally live better than the poor live in the United States in terms of functional necessities (food, shelter, etc). Other Marxian theories (Wilhelm Reich's "Work Democracy") support a much weaker state than traditional socialism. But these break from Marx's thinking in important ways.
However, the problems with Marx's thinking are almost entirely due to his modernist leanings. If one takes away from his approach what one might call the arrogance of the age (the idea that one stands at the pinnacle of history and that the age that follows will as well), his contributions are far more positive. In the end even where Marx is wrong, he tends to force one to think and this is the most important trade of any historical thinker.
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About the reviewer
Chris Travers (einhverfr)
I live in a haunted house Beneath a tall and mighty tree With my wife Mia and my sons Wilhelm and Conrad Where I write software and carve runes It is a … more
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