Marxism and philosophy

Marshall Feldman MARSH at
Fri Jan 27 09:30:05 MST 1995

>Posted on 27 Jan 1995 at 09:43:07 by TELEC List Distributor (011802)
>Marxism and philosophy
>Date: Fri, 27 Jan 1995 08:52:22 -0500 (EST)
>From: Louis N Proyect <lnp3 at>
>To: marxism at
>Reply-To: marxism at
>Somehow much of the discussion about Marxism and philosophy,
>including the recent exchanges over "foundationalism" seems, if
>you'll excuse me, rather academic.

I think Louis is right, so I'd like to outline why I've been drawn into this
nexus.  In my own field, urban planning, intellectual culture had diverged
in two directions over the past 10-20 years.  In one area, urban theory,
political economy and scientific realism seems dominant, although there
are certain ambiguous threads that might possibly be outside this domain.
Urban theory attempts to explain & interpret how cities (and more generally,
human settlements) develop.

The other thread can be found in what we call "planning theory."  Basically
this attempts to understand & prescribe how people plan.  This subject
includes everything from Bacon & Comte, broad scale political theory, etc.
down to narrow studies of what professional planners do, how they are
effective, how they use knowledge, etc.  Over the past 5 years or so a
view referred to as "critical pragmatism" has come to dominate this area.
Although CP (critical pragmatism, not THE CP Louis talks about) draws
heavily on Habermas, it often focuses on communications and rhetoric, leaving
broader political economic questions out of the picture.  For example,
one often cited study of electric power planning in Chicago shows that
an opinion survey of Chicago business was used rhetorically in a struggle
over privatization of the Chicago electric system.  Thus, the author concludes,
planners don't use surveys as social scientists but rather as political tools.
In all this critical analysis of "communicative action", however, the tacit
acceptance by all parties in the debate of Chicago's bourgeousie's
power to move out of town is never brought up.  Hence, the survey proports to
show that Chicago's businesses will leave if the city takes over the
electric power system, while proponents of municipalizing electric power
challenge the survey's legitimacy.  No one -- including the "critical
pragmatist author who writes up the case study -- ever asks, "how is it that the
business community has this power in the first place."

So, to the extent that academic discourse structures our political culture,
I see "critical pragmatism" as potentially very dangerous.  First because
it diverts our attention from the material structures that govern our lives.
Second because it provides an intellectually acceptable liberal alternative
to the strongly marxist political economy that enjoys a fairly hegemonic
status in urban theory.  Third, because it can make the claim (even if it
is empty) that it is "pracitical" because it deals with real problems and
provides real answers to these problems (my alternative of expropriating
Chicago's business community would hardly fly even in Mayor Washington's

Now, within the pragmatist community there is a left and right wing, with
the leftists saluting Habermas and the right, Nozack (sp?).  Rorty, who
calls himself a pragmatist, is NOT a marxist: he's an arch conservative

   Rorty, Richard. 1983. Pragmatism without method. Pp. 250-73 in _Sidney Hook:
      Philosophy of Democracy and Humanism_, ed. Paul Kurtz (Buffalo:
      Promethius Books)


  McCarney, Joe. 1982. Edifying discourses. _Radical philosophy_ 32 (Autumn):

Incidently, while I'm giving citations, the one I forgot yesterday is:

  Maki, Uskali. 1988. How to combine rhetoric and realism in the methodology
    of economics.  _Economics and Philosophy_ 4: 89-109.


But confronted with the question of how to square this with the political
economic emphasis in urban theory, the planning theorists point to Rorty
and others for philosophical justification while taking professional
urban planning non-critically as an empirical starting point (i.e. they
hope to improve planners' practice, but they don't question the institutions
of professional urban planning or, more generally, the capitalist state).

So, I would argue that these philosophical issues are implicated in a
powerful ideology.  A few years ago I worked on a comprehensive plan
advisory committee for the town I live in, and the professional planner
there used a somewhat vulgarized version of the "communicative action"
view of planning to dismiss all questions about things like economic
equity, child care, etc. as being illegitimate issues for the local
government. Of course, we never got to questions like who will control
the means of production.  So there is a practical/political dimension

Sorry if the discussion thus far hasn't made that clear.

Marsh Feldman
Community Planning                      Phone: 401/792-2248
204 Rodman Hall                           FAX: 401/792-4395
University of Rhode Island           Internet: marsh at
Kingston, RI 02881-0815

"Marginality confers legitimacy on one's contrariness."


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