The mistakes of individual Marxists

Louis N Proyect lnp3 at columbia.edu
Mon Jan 30 09:14:02 MST 1995


On Sun, 29 Jan 1995, Justin Schwartz wrote:

"Marx himself insisted on scientific criticism (see the preface to
Capital, vol. 1) of his own ideas, which indeed he never completed
developing. If he was right about this, and he was, then amendment and
improvent is part of Marxism."

"Many tarditional Marxist views have been subjected to careful scrutiny
and historical test and been found wanting. The Labor Theory of Value is
widely rejected even by Marxist economists."

"Marx's advocacy of a wholly planned economy is, if not discredited, then
rendered deeply problematic by the planning failures of the Stalinist model
and the Mises-Hayek critique of planning."

Louis Proyect:

Look, Justin, all this talk about "science" is a little silly.
Marxism is not physics. It's a mistake to picture Marxists as men and
women in white coats in a laboratory somewhere trying to achieve
breakthroughs in the same way that scientists have made breakthroughs
in nuclear physics for example. Einstein posited some laws and then
researchers in the field were able to split atoms in a laboratory and
proved the theory empirically.

This simply doesn't obtain in Marxism. The Labor Theory of Value is
not something like Newtonian physics that's been superceded by
Sraffian economics. People like yourself and Steve Keene can't prove
anything, all you can do is state your opinion. For every formula you
put forward, someone like Fred Moseley puts forward an alternative
formula. (By the way, I'm disappointed that you took a leave of absence
from the list before you had a chance to respond to comrade Moseley's
devastating rebuttal to you on this topic. You're usually never at a loss
for words.)

You seem to be confusing the mistakes or incomplete understanding of
Marxist thinkers  with flaws in the basic theory itself. For example, take
the degeneration of the USSR. I think its utterly foolish to look to Mises
or Hayek for clues to understanding Stalinism. Your best bet is to
consult Trotsky's "Revolution Betrayed" or even a novel like Victor
Serge's "The Case of Comrade Tulayev" which is based on the events
preceding the Moscow show trials. Trotsky, for all of his sectarianism,
was one of the few genuine Marxist thinkers not corrupted by Stalinism
in the 1930's. The method he used was basically similar to the method
of the "18th Brumaire" or "Class Struggles in France". But the
Thermidor he analyzed was the thermidor of a bureaucratic elite, not
the French bourgeois state.

If Trotsky had an incomplete understanding of the USSR, then the
problem is not with the Marxist method but with Trotsky's inability to
be omniscient or clairvoyant. He was working with the material he had
at hand. He made an important mistake in his understanding of
Stalinism. He believed that the bureaucracy would fight to preserve
collective property relations at all costs since its power and privileges
was tied up with state ownership of the means of production. As it has
turned out, the Soviet bureaucracy has been more than happy to
accomodate itself to capitalism. This does not show that Marxism as a
theory is faulty, it simply demonstrates that individual Marxist thinkers
are capable of mistakes. The solution, of course, is better application of
the Marxist method. In other words, you're better off consulting Boris
Kargalitsky rather than the "Road to Serfdom".

I think academic Marxism, or post-Marxism, or whatever you want to
call it has a lot in common with the "theory" industry that has taken
over the literature departments of places like Duke and Yale. Instead of
approaching and appreciating literature in and for itself, we have a
whole generation of literary scholars arguing over Saussure, De Man,
Harold Bloom et al. "Theory" is abstracted from living literature and is
pursued in Mandarin fashion by professors trying to distinguish
themselves from the pack. (Am I going to hear from Jon on this one!)

The same malaise grips the academic Marxists. They are preoccupied
with "theory" but have little regard for the underlying material reality.
Would one look to a Frederic Jameson in order to understand the
dilemmas facing Nelson Mandela? Unlikely.

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