Heretical thoughts on Marx

Recently I have had some heretical thoughts, particularly in light of my increasing interest in Soviet history. The summary: What if Marx isn’t the unsurpassable horizon of the critique of capitalism? It seems to me that there are a lot of intellectual blind alleys in Marx’s economic theory, most notably the labor theory of value and the idea of use value vs. exchange value. (I can already anticipate people responding that they’re so tired of bourgeois ideologists pointing to those aspects of Marx’s thought — but maybe those things are constantly critiqued because, you know, they’re actually pretty questionable?)

The problem with both of those concepts seems to me to be the quest for some kind of “objective” value underlying the mystifications of capitalism. It also seems to me that the Soviet attempt to build a consciously directed economy based solely on use value was a reasonable way to respond to Marx’s theory — and I don’t think anyone views that system as a model for the future, with good reason.

This is not to say that Marx’s work isn’t incredibly valuable in other respects or that Marx shouldn’t remain an indispensable point of reference on the left. Nor is it to say that we must either take or leave Marx as a whole — obviously there’s a lot that we can make use of that isn’t directly dependent on the reference to an “objective” value that capitalism is screwing up. Perhaps we should just admit that Marx was at his best when he was furthest from his self-image as a hard-headed empiricist asserting the claims of objective reality against bourgeois mystification, strip his work for parts, and take responsibility for our own critique of capitalism without engaging in a kind of scholastic attempt to “save” our authoritative figure.

14 thoughts on “Heretical thoughts on Marx

  1. You might enjoy, if you haven’t already read, Gareth Stedman Jones’s chapter on Marx and the Young Hegelians in the recent Cambridge History of Nineteenth Century Political Thought, which narrates a (to my mind) quite plausible story about why Marx’s critique of political economy ended running into some of the difficulties it encountered, from the turn of the 1870s and afterwards.

  2. Not to burst your heretical bubble (were you an orthodox Marxist until this morning?) but all of the things you are suggesting have been done, many times, in many contexts, since Marx’s death, repeatedly. What you propose to do is basically a summary of historical interpretations of Marxism. Where are the mysterious Marxists who are trying to “save his authoritative figure”? Who among them suggests that Marx is “unsurpassable horizon of the critique of capitalism”?

    PS. Labor theory of value – not Marx’s discovery, I thought it was long established by now.

  3. Perhaps we should just admit that Marx was at his best when he was furthest from his self-image as a hard-headed empiricist asserting the claims of objective reality against bourgeois mystification

    The alternative route is common enough, too—the idea that Marx was at his best when he was closest to a hard-headed empiricist sarcastically debunking bourgeois mystifications, and that all of his most ambitious concepts were failures. I haven’t read the Steadman-Jones chapter Chris mentions, but there’s also some historical sociology that makes an interesting comparative argument about the cultural roots of some of the conceptual problems surrounding labor as a commodity—Biernacki’s Labor as an Imagined Commodity, for instance, though in his case it’s also a kind of rescue effort.

    So I think your intuition’s basically right, though as Mikhail says there is an inevitably enormous body of work that tries to work its way through the project it suggests. This seems a little much from Mikhail, though:

    Where are the mysterious Marxists who are trying to “save his authoritative figure”?

    Sartre didn’t make his remark for nothing. Those people can be found in any comment thread where someone starts talking about the labor theory of value or the falling rate of profit or what have you.

    PS. Labor theory of value – not Marx’s discovery, I thought it was long established by now.

    All the classical economists subscribed to some variety of the LToV. Now that I have incanted its name (Transformation Problem, Come Forth), we probably just have to wait for the thread to fill up with worked examples in linear programming involving corn.

  4. Though Mikhail might have put it a bit less acerbically, there is plenty of Marxist theory which help solve the gaps in Marx without engaging in scholastic readings of the old chap. I mean, someone like David Harvey’s books are riddled with bits where he notes that Marx basically missed some pretty vital stuff about urbanism and geography. Which why its good Marxism is a tradition of analysis, not the work one dude produced who changed his mind a fair bit throughout his career.

    Its interesting to note that, say, Negri has junked the labour theory of value, precisely because it was tied up with the capitalism of Marx’s time and isn’t valid in post-Fordism, leading some to also say he has junked Marxism.

    Personally though I find aspects of it problematic, I do think the use-value versus exchange value is a useful distinction. Like most conceptual tools, its has its flaws, but it is basically useful in political discourse. Though Baudrillard’s critique of it is a good read – which is basically saying that “use value” – something we can get to outside of mystification – is itself a mystification!

    As an autonomist I naturally laugh at the transformation problem – ha! Though I believe Andrew Kilman has basically attempted to argue that it is a false problem and people better read in this stuff think it is basically convincing.

  5. Can you do without the distinction between use value and exchange value? Well, neoclassical economics can’t; also, anybody paying money for anything they actually want to use in some way. Looking at use value as an “objective foundation” is a bit off because use value is necessarily subjective.

    LTV is one of those theories that hasn’t really shown itself to do anything useful, but where all the critiques of it you ever hear are also laughably bad. I’m not sure what to conclude from that other than that economic theory is diseased, which we knew already. A lot of Marxists, perfectly smearable as orthodox if one wants to, have written some very good economic history, though, so.

  6. If Marx’s critique of political economy is “the unsurpassable horizon of the critique of capitalism”, this means the positions Marx thereby advanced cannot be rejected by any consistent critic. This is to say these positions follow from commitments we already have (or that we should have) and that we therefore are obliged to accept them as well. If you believe this is not the case, then what specific issues due you take with Marx’s argument? You mention a few elements that you consider to be questionable, and they are elements that, as Mikhail noted above, have indeed been questioned before.

    Have you been persuaded by one or several of these criticisms (and if so, which?), or are your concerns original? Either way, some of us orthodox Marxists would appreciate you make them explicit. Having a bad feeling is a fine way to begin a critical engagement, but accepting the consequences of valid criticism (rejecting major components of Marx’s work) without actually doing the critical work seems at least as questionable as anything Marx said.

    While there are certainly some (inevitably too many) dogmatic Marxists out there who accept the validity of his critique because they consider him to be an authoritative figure, there are (I hope) as many if not more who consider him to be an authority BECAUSE they have found the positions he advocates to be correct through genuine reasoning. And thus rejoinders to criticism made on Marx’s behalf do not necessarily come from an irrational place; it is at least as likely that the criticism can be found to be insufficient to undermine Marx’s argument on a rational basis. I haven’t yet seen a criticism of Marx’s critique that hasn’t been ably dismissed by the better Marxist theorists. So if you do side with one of those past criticisms, I’d like to know which one, so that I can either direct you to what I believe is a sufficient argument to reject it, or to consider the criticism myself and research the responses to it. If the criticism is original, I’d like to try to address it myself. Not because Marx is my Great Leader but because I happen to think there are good arguments to accept his position.

    P.S. I’m not sure what you mean when you say that the attempt by the Soviet Union to “build a consciously directed economy based solely on use value”, or as I’d put it, an economy in which the means of production are owned in common, controlled democratically, and employed in production for human need, is not a “model for the future”. Of course not, it was a model for the past! It was an attempt to develop a socialist economy given the material and social conditions in Russia, as well as the rest of the world, a century ago. Whether one thinks the failure of that system was due more to internal or external factors, it would be senseless to argue that such a system should be implemented today, given the vastly different circumstances. (I do think many self-professed Marxists are quite senseless in this regard.)

    The Soviet ‘system’ never even came close to implementing actual socialism; it certainly never did away with exchange-value, as you seem to suggest. Rather, it was an attempt (or really a whole history of attempts) to bring society to a point where socialism would be possible. Given the great difference in context that we face, we by no means should rely on the failed strategies of the Soviet Union, as we face a very different road to the same desired outcome. Those strategies, whether they were a “reasonable way tor respond to Marx’s theories” or not, would not constitute a reasonable response were they blindly reemployed today.

  7. I know this is going to sound unsatisfying, but I’m going to throw out the “this is a blog post” defense. No, this post is not a rigorous critique of Marx, nor does it ground itself in the literature, etc., etc., etc. It is unreasonable to ask that of me, given the genre and setting of this piece of writing.

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