How (Not) to Understand Marx

By David Pederson
August 28, 2013

karl-marxOver at Super Flumina, I responded to a question about the nature and value of Marx’s thought.  A slightly revised version of my response appears below.

1. Haven’t all of Marx’s core assumptions been proven empirically wrong?

Whether Marx was “empirically wrong” on all of his core assumptions, I will leave to one side—not only because (a) that’s a contested point, (b) capitalism has developed in ways that Marx couldn’t foresee, and (c) I don’t know the relevant empirical details, but also mainly because it’s irrelevant to the most important insights in Marx’s thought.

What most critics of Marx—paradigmatically Eugen Böhm-Bawerk—simply fail to recognize is that he is engaging in a fundamentally different type of inquiry than “economists” are. Roughly, the relation of Marx to economists is analogous to that of Aristotle to biologists: just as the findings of modern biology in no way affect Aristotle’s idea of, say, form in living beings (although, of course, some of Aristotle’s empirical details were way off), so also do the findings (whatever these may be) of economics in no way affect Marx’s idea of, say, social “form”—e.g. value. (The first chapter of Capital vol. 1—on “the commodity”—is thus in essence a metaphysical investigation into the properties of commodities. Following Aristotle’s lead in Nicomachean Ethics 5.5, Marx seeks to answer the question: What properties must heterogeneous things have in order to be commensurable in exchange?)

At stake here is the debate over “methodological individualism”—whether or not all social phenomena can be explained purely by reference to individual actions. It is greatly to Marx’s credit that—the interpretations of certain “analytical Marxists,” like G.A. Cohen, notwithstanding—he did not subscribe to a merely individualist or empiricist or atomist approach to understanding society. This is not to say that individual elements don’t factor into his account; they certainly do. Thus, for instance, Marx’s “labor theory of value” doesn’t exclude, but in fact presupposes that utility drives exchange; he would simply reject that this is a complete explanation. (On the general relation of Marx to Böhm-Bawerk’s—and more generally “Austrian”—critiques, a good place to start is Kay’s article on pp. 46-66.)

I won’t go into detail here about what precisely that approach is—i.e. the “labor theory of value” (or, as Diane Elson more aptly calls it on pp. 115-80 in the previous link, the “value theory of labour”). Maybe that theory is ultimately right; maybe it’s not. (For a defense of a (non-Marxist) version of the theory, see Chs. 1-3 of Kevin Carson’s Studies in Mutualist Political Economy.). But, in any case, 99% of criticisms of it misunderstand the nature—specifically, the level of generality—of the approach that Marx is taking; far from being refuted, his doctrine on value has mostly just been misconstrued.

Value aside, however, there are many other parts of Marx’s work that are worth taking seriously: his theory of commodity fetishism, his description of primitive accumulation, his account of the struggle between man and machine in the factory, his analysis of the various potentials for capitalist crises, his description (in his essay on “Alienated Labor”) of the alienation of man under capitalism, the great moral force with which he indicted 19th century bourgeois society, etc.

(Of course, there is also a lot of silly stuff in Marx—above all in his views on religion. (Although, contentiously, one could well accept—which I do in part, though only in part—Marx’s idea that religion is a social “opium,” and yet deny that this affects in any way the truth of Christianity.  For an illuminating treatment of Marx on religion, see Denys Turner’s piece in the Cambridge Companion to Marx.) In this case, at least, he was certainly wrong about the “empirical” details.  (It’s worth noting, though, that—as Turner points out—neither Marx nor Engels was in favor of suppressing religion.)  And in his vision of what “communism” would look like—which he didn’t really elaborate on much—Marx certainly left something to be desired.)

2. The thought of many “Marxists” is quite intellectually crude.  Why should Marx’s own thought be any better?

Marx’s thought must be sharply distinguished from “Marxism.” The latter is largely an invention of Engels (and others after him), who turned what was for Marx a mode of analysis—of critique—into a general ontology, which became codified, in the Soviet Union, into the absurd doctrines of “histamat” and “diamat” (abbreviations of “historical materialism” and “dialectical materialism”), with their technological determinism.  (George L. Kline’s “The Myth of Marx’s Materialism” shows, in great detail, the ways in which Engels heavy-handedly “edited” the last volumes of Capital and, wittingly or not, systematically distorted Marx’s thought. As the title indicates, Kline’s article also clearly demonstrates that Marx was no materialist in the ontological sense—or, in any case, no more than Aristotle was.)

Marx’s thought is in fact infused by a non-relativist idea of justice, makes metaphysical claims, and is non-deterministic (“necessity” in the development of societies must be understood in the same way that e.g. plants develop “necessarily”: contingent factors can thwart their development, but if they do develop into mature form, it will be “no accident” that they do so). The same, however, cannot be said of (most of) his misguided followers. In this way, I agree entirely with the statement of Alasdair MacIntyre: “to be faithful to Marxism”—or, I would say, to Marx—“we have to cease to be Marxists.”

3. What’s the right way to understand Marx, if not according to the “official” Soviet interpretation?

Crucial to an adequate—non-“Marxist,” in the sense above—understanding of Marx’s thought is to grasp the deeply Aristotelian, rather than merely Hegelian, dimension to his work. The great pioneer here is, without a doubt, Scott Meikle—who also happens to be the best authority on Aristotle’s economic views (expounded in numerous articles and in his wonderful book, Aristotle’s Economic Thought).

Meikle’s magnum opus on this subject is Essentialism in the Thought of Karl Marx. In it, he connects Marx’s analyses in Capital (and elsewhere) with Aristotle’s analyses of social and economic development in the Politics and Ethics, and with Aristotle’s broader metaphysics; shows how the idea of “value” as a social “form” is a fruitful aid to historical explanation (he adverts here to the work of G.E.M. de Ste. Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, which shows how Marx’s framework explains the developments of ancient Greek society (this book has the good fortune of being both unabashedly Marxist and taken seriously by non-Marxist historians)); provides a clear and sensible interpretation of Marx’s often-misunderstood “dialectic”; and so on.

It is fairly uncontroversial that the early Marx was quite influenced by Aristotle—e.g. Marx in fact wrote the first German translation and commentary of Aristotle’s De Anima, as well as a partial translation of the Rhetoric, and, while seeking employment as a professor (before he left academia), he intended to write a book on Aristotle against the then-influential (idealist) interpretation of Adolf Trendelenburg; his ethical vision in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 is broadly Aristotelian; his criticism of Hegel’s ontology (embedded within his critique of Hegel’s doctrine of the state) is from the perspective of Aristotelian metaphysics; and (as MacIntyre argues) the Theses on Feuerbach are ultimately intelligible only in Aristotelian rather than Hegelian terms.

The task, however, is to show that—contrary to Althusser, notably—there is not a break, but rather a continuity between Marx’s more plainly Aristotelian and philosophical earlier works and his later, more political-economical works.  This is the task that Meikle undertakes in Essentialism in the Thought of Karl Marx—and in other places, such as in his article in the Cambridge Companion to Marx.  (Another relevant paper of his—which shows how Marx differs importantly from David Ricardo, to whose thought Marx’s work is frequently assimilated—is the one that he delivered at the 2007 Marx & Philosophy Society conference.)  Meikle, however, hasn’t been the only one to uncover the Aristotelian dimension in Marx.  Also very insightful in this respect is—among other authors—James Daly.  Focusing principally upon ethics, in Marx: Justice and Dialectic, Daly shows that Marx was no “immoralist” (as Allen Wood holds), but rather adhered, however implicitly, to an objective idea of justice, one close to the scholastic tradition of natural law.  (Incidentally, it was MacIntyre who first put me on to Meikle’s and Daly’s work, which he regards very highly.)

4. What would a Catholic Marxist look like?

Rather like Alasdair MacIntyre, perhaps.  Or—though she is, alas, only an “almost Catholic”—Simone Weil. (Weil is, I think, one of the sanest writers on Marxism: she clearly recognizes that there are many difficulties (or, at least, “gaps”) in Marx’s work, but she also recognizes that that work is immensely insightful and that nothing better, really, has been produced. She also rightly recommends that Marxists attend to the works of precisely those thinkers that they “very foolishly” rejected: Proudhon and the anarchists.) To speak of “socialism” or “communism” in a broad sense, Herbert McCabe and Jacques Maritain—see his delightful, if utopian, essay, “A Society without Money”—come to mind.  (Now, it’s true that, in “A Society without Money,” Maritain does reject “communism,” but (a) it’s the atheism of Soviet “communism” that he primarily rejects and (b) he holds that, on purely economic grounds, communism is superior to capitalism.  Therefore, if there could be a communism that’s not atheistic—a communism quite different from that in the USSR—Maritain, it seems, would have no objection to it.)  Of course, when most people hear “Catholic Marxist” the first thing that they are liable to think of is Liberation Theology. This ought to be rejected, however—not because it’s bad politics or economics, but because it’s bad theology.