Criticizing present-day Marxism


Victor Onrust analysed present day marxism. He is particularly dissatisfied with the economical analysis that currently is being promoted.

For me, present-day Marxism is exemplified by the most eminent Michael Roberts as a Marxist economist and by the no less eminent Peter Thomas for the philosophical and ideological side of Marxism. To a large extent I can value their contributions to the Marxist analysis, though I have some pressing unanswered questions regarding economics.

Now, analysis is only one side of Marxism and both observe that it’s necessary “to change the world”. And while they update the analysis, this can’t be said for the political, strategic ideas, which still uncritically rests on notions like proletariat, class struggle, revolution and abolishment of the capitalist relation of production. Thus paying no or little attention to the failure of these strategies in the past 150 years and the fundamentally changed  composition and position of the working class(es), which makes such strategies even more unlikely to be successful. This, though Thomas’ excellent book on Gramsci points to many issues in these strategies.

This goes back to fundamental flaws in Marx. The first one is that Marx’ only solution to “capitalism” was its abolishment. In his analysis he shows an important flaw of capitalism is that capital is privately owned. It is this fact that creates the unwanted permanent drive for accumulation, i.e. unlimited “growth”. But according to Marx labor versus capital is the main contradiction of capitalism that should be resolved by its abolishment. On the other hand, Marx shows that the handling labor as any other resource on the market is the strength of capitalism, bringing about the unequaled development of the forces of production and the invention of a lot of innovative products. One wonders how this asset can be preserved when abolishing capitalism.

Even nowadays, with the tremendous computational capacity available, I doubt if replacing the market with planning will work out OK. I think that the market — properly managed — is vastly underestimated as a democratic mechanism allowing huge freedoms to its participants that can’t be replaced by planning, even democratic planning. For freedom there must be slack, room for aberrations, errors, trials. So there always should be a fund created by surplus-value to handle these freedoms without causing the demise of the organization or subject. And this way some kind of capitalist enterprise is necessary, albeit in true social ownership that can’t be transferred by inheritance or by individual trading.

The second flaw in Marx thinking is a philosophical or ideological one. It is the idea that total equality of men is possible and should be pursued, as is most clearly expressed in the communist manifesto This is in contradiction with any kind of life, and social organization, a society, should be seen as a living thing. All living things show internal differentiation. A differentiation that is also hierarchical to some extent. For social organizations hierarchical differentiation becomes more necessary as the number of people working together in division of labor increases. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” doesn’t look as equality at first sight but presupposes an equal and sufficient insight of each individual in his abilities and needs, because as soon as others are allowed to judge this power relations and hierarchy are inevitable. And then the question arises how the ones “truly” able to assert their own and other abilities can arise from the undifferentiated mass. In short this ideal is ahistorical and can at best be seen as some “heavenly” state that may never actually come into existence. And certainly not by a revolution followed by a dictatorship of the proletariat.

The third flaw is the idea that the proletariat could be the driving force to resolve the contradiction between labor and capital, by way of revolution or otherwise. Maybe in the days of Marx this idea had some credibility, under present conditions it seems further away than ever that “the working class(es)” will come into any form of organization that can curb capitalism (i.e. ending private ownership) let alone abolish it. Of course some forces could destroy it but I think that will throw us all back to the middle ages.

The fourth flaw is the teleological aspect of Marx theories. Though “symptomatic reading” (Althusser) may reveal that ultimately this is not the case — history is a process without a subject — there are many instances in Marx’ writing where the coming of the socialist order is inevitable. Unfortunately there is no guaranty that all ends well. Or is this fortunate? Because then there is really something to fight for.

This article was previously published on Harde Woorden