Bhaskar: Where Marx Went Wrong

Hans Ehrbar ehrbar at keynes
Fri Mar 10 10:46:29 MST 1995

In this posting I will cite a few sentences from Bhasar's "Dialectic,
the Pulse of Freedom", Verso 1993, where it is perhaps not immediately
obvious what he means, with my interpretation of what I think he
means.  It is a passage from pp. 344/5, where Bhaskar says where Marx
went wrong.  D> is Bhaskar's Dialectic:

D> The mystical elements within Marx's own positive dialectic
D> ... consist partly (a) in what he took over from Hegel in direct or
D> displaced form, and partly (b) in an excessive over-reaction to
D> Hegel or a neglect of valid Hegelian principles, procedures or
D> insights. To give an example of the former, actualist residues

Actualism is the view that the future is determined by the past (i.e.,
only the actual is real).  An example of such actualist residues:
Bhaskar discovered that Hegel and, following Hegel, also Marx
overemphasizes immanent contradictions as opposed to external
contradictions.  This is very relevant for today, because in my view,
the most stringent contradiction into which modern society is going to
run are the ecological limits of the earth.  This is, for a change, a
problem which will not arise along with the means for its resolution.

D> combined with ethical sociological reductionism

This is a reductionism which only sees the sociological dimension of
ethics, i.e., considers morality always to be a form of exercise of
power, and does not see that reality itself has "oughts" in itself
(Bhaskar elsewhere argues against the fact-value distinction).

D> to render him (and the majority of subsequent Marxists) impervious
D> to the need for a William Morris-type moment of positive concrete
D> utopianism to stand alongside Marx's negative explanatory critique.

Who is William Morris?  Perhaps the philosophers on this list can help
me here.  But here is what I think Bhaskar means: Marx thought that it
was only necessary to critique and overcome capitalism.  His refusal
to theorize socialism was based on the view that society will develop
it, we cannot foresee how, there is no use trying to guess the future.
This "society will develop it" is another actualist residue: Marx
underestimated the "openness" of social development to individual
intentionality.  In his Dialectic, p. 240, Bhaskar says that one of
the greatest sins of Hegel was his "every negation is a
determination."  Negating capitalism does not yet mean determining
socialism.  This implies that we need to theorize socialism, create
positive utopias for future society because the course of history
depends, among many other things, on where we are trying to steer it.
I see Bhaskar coming forward with some eminently reasonable strategic
conclusions based on a critique of philosophical errors which are so
pervasive that we non-Bhaskars no longer perceive them.

D> As an illustration of the latter one might take the way in which a
D> substitution of transformative for preservative dialectical
D> sublation led him (and future Marxists) to underestimate the
D> massive presence of the past.

He underestimated how much is usually preserved in a sublation, for
instance in the transition from capitalism to socialism.  One cannot
start socialist society from scratch but must much more take into
consideration where people are at.  This reminds me of a passage in
Bhasker's *Possibility of Naturalism*, 2nd. ed., p. 37 (first
ed. p. 47):

PON> This conception of the society/person connection thus implies a
PON> radical transformation in our idea of a non-alienating society.
PON> For this can now no longer be conceived as the immaculate product
PON> of unconditioned (`responsible') human decisions, free from the
PON> constraints (but presumably not the opportunities) inherited from
PON> its past and imposed by its environment.  Rather it must be
PON> conceived as one in which people self-consciously transform their
PON> social conditions of existence (the social structure) so as to
PON> maximize the possibilities for the development and spontaneous
PON> exercise of their natural (species) powers.

I could point to other places in Bhaskar which are interesting.
Others on this list have promised to post page numbers where Bhaskar
makes sense (Steve, was that you?).  Please do.

Hans G. Ehrbar                                    ehrbar at
Economics Department, 308 BuC                     (801) 581 7797
University of Utah                                (801) 581 7481
Salt Lake City    UT 84112-1107                   (801) 585 5649 (FAX)
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