[Marxism] Troubled times

Haines Brown brownh at hartford-hwp.com
Mon Nov 20 13:41:05 MST 2006


Interesting but troubling post. Since you touched upon some issues of
concern to me, I hope you don't mind my reflecting upon them.

> The reason I posit this time frame of "a few to several decades" is
> because "history" does not exist. It is a reification of the results
> of the activity of real human beings. And my time frame is the time
> frame of the conscious political activity of human beings.

Possible, but very unlikely. A reductionist view of history that
represents it as nothing more than the net effect of the actions of
social atoms (individuals) is embraced by very few historians (some
leave out the historical agent, which I don't agree with either).

The word "history" can mean several things, and I recommend caution in
making a bold statement that history does not exist before you have
specified which meaning you have in mind. For example, some historians
would insist that "history" is simply a narrative of events (what
students call "one damn fact after another"), and while there may be
problems with that approach, in these terms history surely does exist.
> History presents as something external and alien to us because the
> conditions and results of our own actions are hidden from us. Just
> like the greatest creation of human beings, society, presents itself
> as something alien, external, even hostile because we do not
> understand it, even though it is nothing more than the ensemble of
> social relations in which we are the actors, the
> protagonists. History is nothing more than what we do yet it seems
> entirely external to our will and intentions.

The notion that society is merely the sum of individuals is a
reductionism that is not at all popular these days among historians,
social scientists and natural scientists. So if you presume such a
view, I believe you are obliged to justify it, for otherwise your
readers will dismiss your argument out of hand; most will be
instinctively hostile to reductionism.

You assume, but do not explain, why our actions are mystified. If
society is not real, to put it in your terms, certainly there can be
no systemic effect that would transform our actions into something we
no longer recognize. They would always remain transparent, no more, no
less, than what observational data would suggest.

> Marxism was meant to be by its creators as first and foremost a way
> of understanding society, our place in it and the results of our
> actions, especially concerted, collective action.

Not my understanding. Didn't Marx say the object is to change the
world, not just understand it? A theoretical understanding is a
conceptual tool that arises from our own experience and that of
others, which offers an explanation of why things are as they are so
that our actions might have effect. If, as you suggest, social wholes
are merely handy inferences and not realities, I don't see how one can
be expected to gain an understanding of what does not exist. Beyond
that, I don't understand how people can make wise choices in life
other than an egoistic willfullness.

> People do make history, but not just as they please: they do it on
> the basis of conditions and relations inherited from the past and
> with possibilities circumscribed by those established
> circumstances. All the money in the world can't restore feudalism,
> and we say its age is past, but in reality because the social
> conditions that made it possible, and in turn were built on material
> means and conditions of production, no longer obtain, no longer
> exist.

How can we talk about "relations of production" as a constraint upon
the historical process unless we also assume that such an unobservable
theoretical object is real? Unobservables such as causal relations,
processes, events, etc., are considered real by some scientists who
for that reason are called "scientific realists". Scientific realism
stands opposed to empiricism, which treats unobservables as only
useful mental constructs that we infer from phenomena. That is, for
example, you can't in principle engage in a reduction of theory to
a more basic explanation, such as is carried out by statistical
mechanics (and arguably by dialectical materialism).

> Your reification of an uncaring, all-powerful "History" essentially
> guts Marxism of this, its HUMAN, subjective materialist soul in
> order to preserve it as a quasi religious doctrinne.

Not to belabor a point I already made, but does not Marxism embrace
the idea that a social or economy system can exhibit behaviors that do
not reduce to the actions of individuals? For example, what is a "mode
of production"? A chimera, merely a reification of theoretical

As for the relation of national states, nationalism, and imperialism,
if I understand you correctly, what you say may be true, but it misses
altogether what I take to be a fundamental fact, which is the
connection between the nation state or nationalism, and the
bourgeoisie. After all, the nation state was the creation of the
bourgeoisie, and, as you point out, the exploitation of people by a
capitalist state can bring into being and stimulate national
development in the hands of the bourgeoisie.

Yes, there is some connection with the modern working class. For one
thing, the modern nation state requires the existence of a "citizen
body", which refers to people who stand in the same legal position,
share obligations to the state, benefit somewhat from it, and to some
extent identify with it. The modern working class in this respect has
the same relation to the state as the petite bourgeoisie. However,
that does not obviate the difference between them. I won't elaborate
the point here, but the state itself and the relation of the working
class to it, including nationalism, do not even begin to make sense
unless viewed in terms of class.

> Simplistically latching on to a few statistics to "prove" that the
> working class AS A CLASS will do the Lazarus thing and come back
> from the dead is something I've been exposed to for three-and-a-half
> decades. We need to examine WHY it didn't happen, and especially
> look at it "from below," how socio-economic conditios present to
> various layers of the working class, BEFORE spewing out more "facts"
> about "ruling class attacks" and how this makes a great getting up
> day "inevitable."

I'm not sure of the thrust of this, but to the extent it means not
just that the working class has been in doldrums for a while, but that
under capitalism it is unlikely to ever revive, I couldn't disagree
more. There are a lot of issues here, and I won't bore you by trying
to catalog them, but you need to offer at least some argument if that
is indeed your thesis.

> Any and all of these things *might* happen. But they might not. And
> the experience is that they DID NOT happen the last few dozen times
> they were said to be on the horizon.

> (Just to avoid any possible misunderstanding: I do believe the
> evidence for climate change is overwhelming. What I challenge is the
> idea that OF NECESSITY this will mean an insoluble SOCIAL crisis for
> the system.)

What you say is true. But the point is not to explain why a unified
and progressive class movement has failed to materialize, but why it
_must_ materialize in some form, sooner or later. That is why we
conventionally look at the capitalist system in terms of its
contradictions. A contradiction makes revolution both possible and
necessary. If this does not happen, then a) one abandons thinking in
terms of contradictions (of Marxism) and joins the bourgeoisie, b) one
does some theoretical work to redefine the contradiction and its
relation to the whole, or c) one comes up with an auxiliary hypothesis
that explains why the expected outcome did not take place. People have
adopted each of these tactics. Only the first represents a betrayal of
our class.
> To go back to the beginning, about history and human agency. The
> REASON it is important that we develop a better "theory" about how
> the system actually works is precisely as a guide to
> action. "Classical" class-reductionist Marxism, even with national
> and gender question "plug-ins" has not proven to be a sufficiently
> powerful framework for analysis and understanding.

Marxism's making class primary is _not_ an example of
reductionism. The reason is that Marxism does not employ an empiricist
definition of class (a group of people sharing certain features), but
defines it as a _process_ that includes a causal relation (a group of
people sharing a causal relation to a source for their potential
development - a relation of production) and the empirical specifics
that constrain that causal relation. Empirical specifics constrain
class relation rather than define it. Because a class in Marxist terms
unites a set of empirical qualities with a causal relation, it links
the empirical specificity of the part and the whole system in what we
see as process. By definition this process can't be reduced without
collapsing it.

While I'm hostile to any rethinking of Marxist theory, the suggestion
that class be expunged from it strikes me as bizarre! After all,
Marxism is the only ideology that is specific to the modern working
class. If class is downplayed, Marxism becomes a philosophy of the
human condition, mere armchair speculation, not a product of working
class experience and a weapon in its arsenal in the struggle for

I'm not ignoring your suggestion that Marxist regimes have prospered
by entering into an alliance with national movements. I just want you
to know that this reader, anyway, is not at all convinced. Even if we
were to agree on what working class development means (in contrast to
the power or stability of a working-class led state institution), and
even if we were to agree on a rough generalization that in the 20th
century, working class political struggle has depended upon its
association with the petite bourgeoisie, that would not have any
significant implications for theory (Marxism), but only for our
tactical decisions.

I understand that you feel classes should not be the central category
upon which one builds theory. There are other very significant social
divisions around which people can and have mobilized, and nationalism
also represents a social force that can not be underestimated.

However, the issue is not whether Marxism can be developed toward
greater empirical sensitivity so that these social and ideological
factors might be taken into account. Undoubtedly it always can. But
the very essence of what Marxism is not addressed by this point. An
empiricist theory depends on empirical sensitivity to historical
factors, and truth is a function of empirical accuracy and
universality, but Marxism is not an empiricist science. It depends not
only on empiria, but a well-founded grasp of the unobservable inner
mechanisms of change, such as class contradictions. That is, Marxism
is distinguished by its effort to _explain_ phenomena rather than
simply infer laws from their observation. Let me suggest that
explanation empowers creative action; inference or so-called covering
law "explanation" can only facilitate adaptation.

Marxism is first and foremost the consciousness of the modern working
class that arises from its participation in production. It might be
nothing more than a crude "let's get 'em" attitude; it can be the
organizational knowledge, skill and talent necessary for the working
class to become a historical force. It can also be a scientific
understanding from a working-class perspective of the world in which
we live that serves its class interests. Marxism can take almost any
form and have any specific content, but the one thing it can't do
without without becoming something else is its representing the
outlook of the modern working class. 

Haines Brown KB1GRM    

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