What Marx Thought: A Reply to Daniel Arevalo

By | October 24, 2013

Back in August, I published an article outlining the ways in which we should—and should not—understand Marx.  In a piece last Thursday, Daniel Arevalo takes issue with my article, attempting to refute my arguments and provide his own, allegedly superior, interpretation of Marx.  Unfortunately, Arevalo deeply misunderstands both my main arguments and Marx’s thought.

Let me begin by noting the points upon which Arevalo and I are in agreement.  I agree that Marx was concerned primarily (though not only) with political change; that Marx had erroneous (though subtle) views on the family and on religion; that human beings can never achieve perfection (in this world); that human beings have a supernatural end; and so on.  I agree also that we cannot accept Marx’s thought as a whole—although we can, I would argue, accept many important aspects of it.

But while I agree with Arevalo in these respects, I disagree with him on many of the points that he makes in his piece.  Before addressing Arevalo’s salient criticisms of me and of Marx, a methodological note is in order.  Arevalo admits—twice—that I “seem better read in the secondary literature” than he.  Professed ignorance of the scholarly literature, however, does not deter this fearless exegete from boldly asserting that “Marx’s own words are clear enough to counter [my] central arguments.”  This is all well and good, but unfortunately Arevalo does not cite a single passage from Marx in his entire article.  Caveat lector.

My approach in this article divides into four sections.  In sections 1-3, I examine and criticize (what I take to be) Arevalo’s principal claims.  In section 4, I conclude with some reflections on the value of Marx’s thought.

In examining Arevalo’s arguments, let us now attend to the issue of Marx and empiricism.

1. Marx and empiricism

Arevalo “reject[s] the idea that Marx has been misunderstood or taken out of the context from which he was writing or that his important ideas are not the ones being addressed (and by extension criticized).”  He goes on to sketch the historical background to Marx’s writings, stressing their political aim.  With this sketch, I agree.  But, evidently referring to my avowed ignorance (and dismissal) of the “relevant empirical details,” Arevalo then accuses me of being “a little circular” in my reasoning: of saying, in effect, that I do “not know the relevant details, but [claim] that they are not important because [I] do not know them.”

This accusation displays a profound misunderstanding of my article.   My claim was that, since Marx was not doing empirical economics (but rather undertaking a metaphysical or “categorial” inquiry), “empirical” details therefore could not, in principle, falsify his doctrine.  This was the point of my reference to Aristotle’s biology.  But since the significance of this reference did not come across, consider another example.  It is not circular to argue that (i) I do not know all of the relevant physical details about the brain, but that (ii) such physical details could not, in principle, falsify the claim that the mind is not reducible to anything physical.  For although I do not know much about those details, I do know that they are, at the very least, physical details.  But it is just this knowledge—that those details are physical—that enables me to contend that those details cannot refute (on pain of a “category mistake”) the claim that the mind is not reducible to anything physical.  Similarly, to return to the case of Marx, the bare fact that I know that the details in question—details that have purportedly falsified Marx’s “core assumptions”—are empirical details enables me to contend that those details cannot, in principle, refute Marx’s key doctrines.  Which doctrines are these?

Primarily I had in mind Marx’s “labor theory of value”—the idea that it is “socially necessary labor time” that renders otherwise heterogeneous commodities equal in exchange under capitalism.  This theory rests on the venerable Aristotelian principle that there is a distinction between a power and the exercise of that power: a difference, say, between the capacity to walk and walking.  Yet this principle is denied, at least implicitly, by most empiricist philosophers and economists, who follow Hume in maintaining that “[t]he distinction, which we often make betwixt power and the exercise of it, is…without foundation.”1  Since value accounts for—and presupposes—the fact that commodities are “exchangeable,” denying the coherence of exchangeability thus rules out the idea of value.  Marx, of course, sharply criticizes this sort of view (e.g. in his discussion of Samuel Bailey in Theories of Surplus Value III.3.d or in Chapter 1 of Capital, Vol. I).  But whether or not we agree with Marx, it is clear that his theory of value is not the sort of thing that is susceptible to empirical falsification.  Since the theory of value depends upon the metaphysical distinction between powers and exercises of powers, it is only on metaphysical grounds that we can adequately reject (or accept) Marx’s theory.

Unfortunately, many of Marx’s empiricist critics fail to grasp this point.  As a result of this ignorance, there have flowed forth legions of arguments to the effect that, for instance, the laws of “supply and demand” or “prices” can ultimately explain why commodities exchange in determinate proportions.2  But these are no objections to Marx.  The only real objection to him is what is often implicit and unacknowledged in these arguments—namely, the rejection of the distinction between powers and the exercise of powers.  But that is a metaphysical, not an empirical, objection—which, of course, is my point.

Arevalo also raises the issue of Marx’s “conclusions about the future nature of Capitalism.”  How do these hold up?  To answer this, we need to get clear on the character of those conclusions.  As I wrote in my previous article, Marx was no determinist.  Consider, for instance, “the general law of capitalist accumulation,” which is, in a way, the culmination of Marx’s argument in Capital, Vol. I:

The greater the social wealth, the functioning of capital, the extent and energy of its growth…the greater is the industrial reserve army [roughly: unemployed workers].  The same causes which develop the expansive power of capital, also develop the labour-power at its disposal…The more extensive, finally, the pauperized sections of the working class and the industrial reserve army, the greater is official pauperism.  This is the absolute general law of capitalist accumulation.  Like all other laws, it is modified in its working by many circumstances, the analysis of which does not concern us here.3

There is no hint of determinism in this passage.  That the progress of capitalist accumulation will lead to greater “pauperism”—and unemployment—may be a general “law” in the economic system, but it is by no means a guarantee; it may, that is, be a law in absolute terms, but not relative to particular circumstances.  One should think of it more as a “tendency.”  (A tendency, in fact, is what Marx calls another of his infamous “predictions” in Capital, Vol. III: the tendency of the general rate of profit to fall.4)

Marx was quite aware that the real world is messy and complex, but he also realized that “in order to portray the laws of political economy in their purity we are ignoring these sources of friction.”5  Those laws may indeed have predictive power, other things being equal.  But of course, in reality, other things are not always equal: external factors may slow down, stop, or even reverse the operation of economic laws.  Even if we grant that Marx’s “predictions” have not come true (although some scholars, like Ernest Mandel, would strongly contend that they have), it is easy to point to many such external factors that Marx could not have foreseen: the oil industry, the “digital age,” the rise of fiat money, finance capitalism, and so on.  But even if, on the basis of what Marx did know, capitalism did not in fact develop as Marx predicted, that is no reason to abandon Marx’s theory altogether; one might simply modify it in various ways—as, say, the Marxist theories of Lukács, Luxemburg, and Lenin all differ.

2. Marx on human nature

On the subject of human nature, Arevalo makes two salient claims.  First, he states that Marx “did not understand that human nature is not malleable.”  Second, he asserts that “Marx believed not only that human nature was not individualistic, but—like Hegel—that humanity was most human when it suppressed its individuality for the sake of the collective.”  Both of these claims, however, are severely misguided.  I shall address them in turn.

(i) It is true that Marx thought that human nature was “molded” differently in different societies.  But he did not deny that there was such a thing as “human nature” that persists through its social transformations.  Illuminating, on this point, is a passage from Chapter 24 of Capital, Vol. I.  In his critique of Bentham’s utilitarianism, Marx says:

To know what is useful for a dog, one must investigate the nature of dogs…Applying this to man, he that would judge all human acts, movements, relations, etc. according to the principle of utility would first have to deal with human nature in general, and then with human nature as historically modified in each epoch.6

This passage gives us a clear picture of Marx’s conception of human nature.  Human nature does not change essentially,7 but it is, however, “modified” in various epochs; different societies allow human nature to express itself differently.  This seems to me to be quite a reasonable view.8

(ii) For Marx, human nature is social.  Taking up Aristotle’s famous formulation, Marx writes in the introduction to the Grundrisse that “[t]he human being is in the most literal sense a zôon politikon, not merely a gregarious animal, but an animal which can individuate itself only in the midst of society.”9  But from this it does not follow, for Marx or for Aristotle, that individuals must “suppress” their individuality for the sake of the “collective.”  In fact, Marx characterizes communism as a society that liberates the free expressive activity of individuals.  As he writes in the German Ideology,

in a communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.10

This depiction of communism is rather fanciful, of course.  But plainly it does not support Arevalo’s absurd interpretation.

Numerous other passages may be cited.  In the Grundrisse, Marx characterizes communism as the “free exchange among individuals who are associated on the basis of common appropriation and control of the means of production.”11  In Capital, Vol. I, he refers to an “association of free men, working with the means of production held in common.”12  And of the truly “human” (not money-mediated) relationships that will arise in communism, Marx writes, in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, that “[e]very one of your relations to man and to nature must be a specific expression…of your real individual life.”13  Contrasted to this is the dismal world of capitalism, of “political economy”: “[t]he less you are, the more you have; the less you express your own life, the greater is your alienated life…Everything which the political economist takes from you in life and in humanity, he replaces for you in money.”14 Capitalism, for Marx, is what turns workers into slaves of a collective, mere cogs in a vast industrial machine.  (What is a factory, after all, but small-scale socialism?)  It is communism that establishes freer, more humane relations of production, and that enables human beings to realize their end as “political animals.”  This is why Marx uses “communism” and “humanism” interchangeably in the Manuscripts.15

3. Communism and history

This brings us to the issue of “actually existing” communism.  Abandoning his earlier method of looking to Marx’s “words,” Arevalo now proposes to look to the “real world.”  “I have always held,” he states, “that political philosophy is best tested in the real world when the theory becomes praxis.”  And in this case, on his view, the “real world” demonstrates clearly that Marxism has failed: “every single attempt at establishing a Marxist state has failed spectacularly.”

There are two major problems with this view.  First, Arevalo simply assumes—without argument—that the USSR, Communist China, etc. were in fact adequate embodiments of “Marxism” or “communism.”  The trouble is that communism differs completely from a so-called communist or Marxist state, such as the USSR.  The USSR was merely a preliminary stage on the way to communism; communism would eventually involve, in Engels’s well-known phrase, the “withering away” of the state.  Or, as he puts it elsewhere, the “society which organizes production anew on the basis of free and equal association of the producers will put the whole state machinery where it will then belong—into the museum of antiquities, next to the spinning wheel and the bronze ax.”16  Thus, by Marxists’ own lights, the USSR and similar countries did not embody “communism,” but were rather transitional states on the way to communism.

Second, more problematically, Arevalo conflates “Marxism” with the thought of Marx.  But it was a principal contention of my previous article that these ought to be sharply separated.

Even if “communist” states in the 20th century were adequate embodiments of “Marxism,” one might still deny that they were adequate embodiments of Marx’s thought.  In fact, I adhere to just this position.  Since Arevalo offers no justification for his assumptions, I shall put forth simply three brief considerations.  (i) Engels, as editor of the final two volumes of Capital, systematically distorted Marx’s thought through tendentious editing, a fact closely studied by George L. Kline in “The Myth of Marx’s Materialism.”17  In addition, “historical materialism” and “dialectical materialism” were inventions of Engels, terms that Marx himself never used.  (ii) Many key Marxian texts—such as the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and the German Ideology—were discovered and published only after the Russian Revolution and therefore could not have been taken into consideration in the founding of the USSR.  These texts, importantly, provide a more humane picture of communism.  (iii) Already in Marx’s day, political agitators were beginning to rally under the banner of “Marxism.”  But Marx separated himself sharply from these, and in fact once declared: “All I know is that I am not a Marxist.”18

It is worth commenting here on the subject of revolution.  Arevalo advances two claims: first, that Marx held violent revolution to be necessary in achieving communism; and second, that the revolution is not a one-time affair, but “cannot end, because humans die and new ones must be given their class consciousness.”  But both of these claims are simply false.  With regard to the first, Marx certainly did not think that violent revolution was necessary.  In a speech delivered in Amsterdam on September 8th, 1872, Marx states that, although “in most countries on the Continent the lever of our revolution must be force,” the “institutions, mores, and traditions of various countries must be taken into consideration, and we do not deny that there are countries…where the workers can attain their goal by peaceful means.”19  Concerning the second point, Arevalo fails to understand that, after the transition to communism, classes will no longer exist—by definition. 20  But that means that class consciousness would no longer be necessary—or even possible.

4. The value of Marx

As we have seen, Arevalo paints a misleading picture according to which Marx’s thought is antithetical to Christianity.  On this view, Marx and the history of Marxism may teach us many important things—say, that the attempt to realize utopia is bound to fail—but we have nothing (or very little) positive to learn from Marx in the way of economics, political theory, ethics, and so forth.

Now, I agree with Arevalo that we cannot accept Marx’s thought as a whole.  His teachings on religion and the family, in particular, are quite misguided.  But this does not prevent us from learning, and accepting, a great deal from Marx.  For at least two reasons, we have much to learn from Marx.  First, although Marx made no room for God, Marx’s thought has deep Christian roots.21  As a variant of Hegel’s variant of Christian theology, “Marxism” has the character, not of something directly opposed to Christianity, but of a Christian heresy.  Like every heresy, to be sure, it prioritizes some aspects of the truth at the expense of others.  But this does not negate the fact that Marx’s thought indeed possesses important truths.

Second, we can learn much from Marx not only as Christians, but also as Aristotelians and Thomists.  Marx was, after all, strongly influenced by Aristotle—partly through the mediation of Hegel and Schelling, but mainly through his own careful study of Aristotle’s texts.  Aristotelian themes, as I argued in my previous article, resonate throughout Marx’s work.

A question arises, however.  If Marx was an Aristotelian, what do we have to learn from him that we cannot get from simply reading Aristotle?  The main reason that we should read Marx is this.  Since Aristotle did not live under capitalism, his writings on political economy, though insightful, are limited by his historical situation.  This fact hinders, for instance, his attempt to formulate a theory of value.  What Marx provides us with, then, is an Aristotelian way of thinking about capitalism as a specific mode of production: in his theory of value, in the economic “laws” that he discovers, in his account of the history of capitalism, and so on.

In order adequately to understand the society in which we live, we need to return to Marx—but to a Marx who is in dialogue with Aristotle and Aquinas.  This is, in fact, what Alasdair MacIntyre has recently urged us to do.  In his epilogue to What Happened in and to Moral Philosophy in the Twentieth Century, MacIntyre writes:

What therefore neither [Marxists nor Thomists] took seriously was the thought that Marx’s narrative of how human beings had come to misconceive their own nature, relationships, and powers presupposed not one of the liberal post-Enlightenment conceptions of human nature but something much closer to Aristotle’s conception and, that is to say, something uncomfortably close to Aquinas’s. Yet, if this is so, dialogue between these very different voices is badly needed, dialogue that acknowledges the need of each to learn from the other and the depth of some of their disagreements. It is a dialogue that would draw upon the significant work already done on Marx’s often unrecognized Aristotelian commitments, most notably by Scott Meikle.22

Two reasons, MacIntyre notes, make the need for this kind of dialogue urgent:

First, both in philosophy and in everyday life the currently dominant conceptions of human nature and human agency disguise and mislead. They therefore need to be challenged and undermined by a philosophical critique that is able to draw upon both Thomism and Marxism. Second, we need a better characterization than we now have of the predicaments generated by the ethics, politics, and economics of advanced modernity, so that, for example, in our reflections on the role and function of money in our lives we learn to think in terms that are at once economic and moral, terms that enable us to integrate thoughts from Aristotle, Aquinas, and Marx—and also from Simmel, and others—into a single critique.23

In our resistance to modernity, we need not only an adequate philosophical account of human nature and its telos, but also a sociological account of the nature of capitalist society and of the theoretical and practical distortions that it has engendered.  Aristotle and Aquinas can, of course, provide us with the philosophy.  But for the sociology, we must look—above all—to Marx.

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  1. A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge (Oxford, 1946), p. 171.  This is cited in Scott Meikle, Aristotle’s Economic Thought (Oxford, 1995), p. 114. 

  2. Many such critics are also under the impression that, for Marx, value and price are independent variables, that value unilaterally determines price, and that one could, if equipped with the right information, determine ex ante how much labor is “congealed” in some commodity.  This is utterly wrong, however.  Value does not determine, but is “expressed” in, price; and the value of a commodity does not exist prior to its being sold on the market, but is rather “realized” through that exchange.  This is clear from Chapter 1 of Capital, Vol. I.  Excellent treatments of this issue may also be found in Diane Elson, “The Value Theory of Labour,” in Value: The Representation of Labour in Capitalism (CSE Books, 1979), pp. 115-80; and in Duncan K. Foley, “Marx’s Theory of Money in Historical Perspective,” available here

  3. Capital, Vol. I, transl. Ben Fowkes (Penguin, 1976), p. 798. 

  4. Marx also calls it the law of the tendency of the general rate of profit to fall; but this does not affect my general point. 

  5. Capital, Vol. I, p. 1014. 

  6. Capital, Vol. I, p. 759, n. 51. 

  7. This claim would in fact be incoherent: essences cannot change, though individuals can. 

  8. Marx claims, in the Theses on Feuerbach (VI), that “the human reality is no abstraction inherent in each single individual.  In its reality it is the ensemble of social relations.”  This does not contradict my view, however.  Alasdair MacIntyre writes: “To regard individuals as distinct and apart from their social relationships is a mistake of theory…The human essence is not given by considering the properties of individuals in isolation.  ‘In its reality it is the ensemble of social relations.’  And of course what Marx means by ‘the ensemble’ in this aphoristic utterance is not entirely clear.  What is clear is that human beings who genuinely understand what they are will have to understand themselves in terms of their actual and potential social relationships” (“The Theses on Feuerbach: A Road Not Taken,” in The MacIntyre Reader, ed. Kelvin Knight (Notre Dame, 1999), pp. 228-9). 

  9. Grundrisse, transl. Martin Nicolaus (Penguin, 1993), p. 84. 

  10. The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (Norton, 1978), p. 160; my emphasis. 

  11. Grundrisse, p. 159. 

  12. Capital, Vol. I, p. 171. 

  13. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, transl. Martin Milligan (Prometheus, 1988), p. 140. 

  14. Ibid., p. 119. 

  15. An excellent treatment of Marx’s views on human nature may be found in David J. Depew, “Aristotle’s De Anima and Marx’s Theory of Man,” in Marx, ed. Scott Meikle (Ashgate, 2002), pp. 133-87. 

  16. Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State; see here

  17. In Marx, ed. Scott Meikle, pp. 27-72. 

  18. I note in passing that Arevalo, at various moments, conflates at least seven distinct things: (1) Marx’s thought, (2) Marxism, (3) Marxist states, (4) Marxian communism, (5) non-Marxian communism (6) socialism, and (7) Utopian socialism.  Some of these distinctions I have already brought to light.  Given the complexity of the conceptual and terminological thickets in which Arevalo entangles himself, however, I shall not pursue the matter further. 

  19. The Marx-Engels Reader, p. 523 

  20. “[C]lasses will necessarily disappear,” says Engels. See section 20

  21. It is sometimes said—as Arevalo does say—that communism or socialism is “atheistic.”  This is true, in a way, but Marx’s real position is subtler: “Atheism…has no longer any meaning, for atheism is a negation of God, and postulates the existence of man through this negation; but socialism as socialism no longer stands in any need of such a mediation” (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, p. 113). 

  22. What Happened in and to Moral Philosophy in the Twentieth Century: Philosophical Essays in Honor of Alasdair MacIntyre, ed. Fran O’Rourke (Notre Dame, 2013), p. 479. 

  23. Ibid., pp. 479-80. 

  • Locke

    Section 3 is a one huge “No true Scotsman” fallacy. Yes, Communism is a conclusion not a beginning. But the failure in all the attempts is surely indicative that the sociological conclusions as well as the political ones of Marx were unworkable and unrealistic for them to fail time and again.

  • John Médaille

    Thank you for this really excellent article. It is difficult today to talk about Marx rationally without being accused of being a communist. But I think it no accident that the man who is, arguably, our leading Thomist started out as a Marxist.

  • Hotsky Trotsky

    Locke, you are incorrect. Section 3 is not a “no true scotsman” fallacy, because it supposes an standard external to the judgment of the one posing the question: namely, whether the USSR adhered in the slightest to Marx’s writings is an empirical, not theoretical question. And, plainly (as literally any historian or political scientist of the Cold War will tell you), it did not. Marxist-Leninism (via Stalin, as recent biographies have demonstrated) appends a number of vital qualities to Marxism, including a new interpretation of the role of revolutionary terror, an addendum to the formation of the proletariat and the role of capitalism in its own demise, a support of Marxist-nationalism as a counterweight to imperialism (also a Lenin innovation), and (not least!) the principle of “Socialism in one country”, the foundation of a distinctly (Russian) Soviet patriotism. And, in addition, while the Soviet Union met an ignominious demise, it did so on uniquely Soviet terms having to do with the structure of the Soviet bureaucracy (an inheritance of the tsarist empire) and Soviet economic strategy, and little-to-nothing to do with Marxist economic theory. China, for what it’s worth, provides a similar (though more interesting) case of adaptation to local circumstances with its own “Marxism with Chinese Characteristics” model. Anyways, to wit (and to borrow from G.C.), it is not that Marxism has been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.

  • Bardamu

    Locke nails it with yea old “No true Scotsman.” Our author must have felt a bit queazy about this–having provided in notes a long list of Marxist scions that are not Marxist. To clarify, by “Marxist” I mean what Marxist believed–not those other quasi-Marxists, of course.

    What immediately strikes me as problematic is this. Marxist is supposedly a theorist absolved of empirical evidence at odds with his principles. If so, why should we give Marx any import due to his time of birth?

    Mr. Pederson in my words: “Just because we see things contrary to Marxism doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Marx is important because he saw things Aristotle didn’t see.”

    Me:”What?”

  • http://www.hancaquam.blogspot.com PNP, OP

    Bardamu, “Marxist is supposedly a theorist absolved of empirical evidence at odds with his principles. If so, why should we give Marx any import due to his time of birth?”

    Perfectly stated.

    Fr. Philip Neri, OP