The mistakes of individual Marxists

Justin Schwartz jschwart at
Mon Jan 30 20:22:03 MST 1995

On Mon, 30 Jan 1995, Louis N Proyect wrote:

> 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.

Tell it to Karl: it was his word. Or, if you want to be picky, his word
was Wissenschaft, but it's the same thing. He says in the preface to
Capital that the work on ecobomics he did there could be carried out with
the precisionb of natural science, unlike analyses of the superstructure).
OK, he overstated his case, but the point is that he thought he was doing
empirically grounded (no apologies to the "anti-foundationalists" out
there), testable, explanatorily important scientific theory. And he was
right, that's what he was doing.

> 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.

Why assume that all science is like nuclear physics? And what do you think
physics is like anyway?  BTW, relativity theory was confirmed long before
nuclear fission was accepted by physicists, and that research wasn't
inspired or implied by Einstein's results.

There's lots of science that's not amenable to laboratory
testing--evolutionary biology, for example, which Marx himself
acknowledged as relevantly analogous to his own work--he wanted to
dedicate Capital, vol. 2, to Darwin, and Darwin refused because he was
afraid it might have atheistic tendencies; Engels invoked the analogy in
his eulogy at Marx's grave.

> 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.

I'm not a Sraffian, but are you saying that nothing could count against
Marx's value theory and in favor of Sraffa's or someone else's? What, is
it a matter of religious faith? Marx at least thought it was a scientific

 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.

So are we to conclude from the fact that there is debate that therefore no
party to the debate can be right or wong or more justified than anyone
else? Steve and I and others can raise problems which, if applicable and
serious, should lead people to reject the LTV. Fred can reply--you seem to
have thought persuasively--that the problems are not real or are
answerable. The situation is no different than in physics or any
intellectual endeavor. Since the cxlaims are argued and defended, they are
not mere stateements of opinion and their acceptibility is not a matter of
taste but of cogency in the reasoning.

 (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.)
Sorry I missed it. Maybe someone can post it to me.

> You seem to be confusing the mistakes or incomplete understanding of
> Marxist thinkers  with flaws in the basic theory itself.

Au contraire. I am still, after all this, a Marxist. But "the basic
theory" is a somewhat indeterminate object. After all some Marxist has
maintained just about anything, and since anything includes inconsistent
claims, they can't all be right. I was discussing Marx himself, whose
views I do not regard as coterminous with the basic theory, if there is
such a thing, or indeed as fully consistent. I was just pointing out that
there are problems, perhaps answerable--in my post I didn't prejudge the
issue--which require development, augementation, and perhaps correction of
Marx's views. Since he wasn't God, this should be no surprise.

 For example, take
> the degeneration of the USSR. I think its utterly foolish to look to Mises
> or Hayek for clues to understanding Stalinism.

Actually I look to Mises an  Hayek not to explain Stalinism, show
trials, etc., but to explain the failures of Soviet centralized planning.
For your interest, Trotsky, who never read M&H as far as I know, explained
those failures in terms that could have been cribbed from them in his 1932
article. "The Soviet Econbomy in Crisis." Hayek liked that piece and
quoted it.

 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

Whatever that might be.

 but with Trotsky's inability to
> be omniscient or clairvoyant.

But Marx hads this ability?

 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.

Trotsky may have made mistakes in his treatment of Stalinism, but the one
you attribute to him wasn't one of them. In The Revolution Betrayed he
advanced the hypothesis that the bureaucracy would tend to secure its
privileges by reprivatizing state property and restoring capitalism. This
turns out to have been prescient. Deutscher makes fun of Trotsky's ide
here, but Deutscher was wrong. Trotsky's analysis derserves careful

 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".
Well, I like Kagarlitsky, and I regard The Road to Serfdom as Hayek
regarded it, as a bit of a potboiler. As a political theorist, Hayek isn't
a patch on Hayek as an economist. His articles on the calculation debate
are a fundamental contribution to Marxist theory. Not that they were
intended that way, of course.

> I think academic Marxism, or post-Marxism, or whatever you want to
> call it

Not at all the same thing. P-M is academic, but not Marxist. Academicx
Marxism is not a school of Marxist thought, unlike, say turn of the
century Russian Legal Marxism or Austromarxism or Western Marxism or the
Frankfurt School, or Althusserianism (structural Marxism), or my own
tendency, analytical Marxism. Its just a reflection of the fact that a lot
of Marxist theorists make their living as professors. That wasn't a crime
against the working class, last time I checked. I'd like to do it again
myself someday.

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.
Don't ask me about Jameson. He's too many for me. But look here: a lot of
Marxists in the academy do the sort of work I sisssct you might like:
Michael Burawoy, with his detailed shopfloor studies of the politics of
production. Erik Wright--you probably wouldn't like him; he's into high
powered statistics, but you want empirical concreteness, he got it. Ralph
Miliband, regrettablt no longer with us., Leo Panitch. Hell, I did an
analysis of the last days of perestroika you might like: it's in Socialist
Register 1991. However, there all all different levels of analysis that
have to be done. Some of it is foundational work (I'm saying that to be
provocative) on basic concepts: is the LTV defensible, etc. Then there are
mid-range theories: where is capitalism going? E.g. Mandel's Late
Capitalism stuff (which, by the way, Jameson endorses). Then there is
detailed work on particular problem: what about investment policy in the
new South Africa? These kinds of work are complementary, not mutualky

If there is a kind of theoretical work you don't find interesting, don't
do it. Do the kind you do find intetersting. But don't assume that just
because you aren't interested that it isn't interesting, or what people
who are interested in it are class traitors or something like that.

I too am worried that Marxist theorists, inside the academy or out, are
cut off from a vital labor. much less socialist movement. I don't know
what to do about this. I have been asking for ideas: I'll do it again.
What should we, who are interested in Marxist theory and in socialist
practice, do with our theoretical work here and now? Proyect says: write
Monthly Review level articles on particular issues reflecting some more or
less orthodox perspective. I say that's fine as far as it goes, but
Monthly Review hasn't taken the world by the throat, alas. What else?

--Justin Schwartz


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