Gregor McLennan. Handbook of Social Theory. Editor: George Ritzer & Barry Smart. 2001. Sage Publication.
In this chapter I discuss Karl Marx’s major concepts and some of the continuing debates around them. These are grouped into three overlapping sections, dealing with Marx’s theories of history, his account of capitalism and class, and his philosophical or metatheoretical standpoint. Although several of Marx’s key arguments are now widely regarded as either defective or indeterminate, he remains a thinker of signal importance and fertility for contemporary social understanding. This is indicated by the strong ‘comeback’ that Marx has made, following the collapse of the Soviet bloc countries during 1989-91, when many people thought, rather superficially, that the last nail in his intellectual coffin had finally been hammered in. Instead, on a substantive level, Marx’s account of the basic logic and volatility of capitalist society looks as powerful as ever. As regards metatheory, the positivity and aspiration to integration that characterize Marx’s approach to social scientific understanding went entirely out of fashion during the 1980s, as a wave of ‘reflexivity’ and ‘deconstruction’ washed over critical social theory. However, once again, there is a fresh appreciation of Marx’s strengths at this level, partly as an antidote to widespread ‘negativity’ and excessive self-scrutiny on the part of intellectuals.
As with other aspects of his ideas, controversy surrounds Marx’s theories of human historical development, or ‘materialist conception of history.’ Did his reflections on history aspire to be anything as developed as a ‘theory’ or (even grander) a ‘philosophy’ of history? Commentators can be found on all sides, from the interpretation of Marx as an ‘ideological’ inevitabilist propounding a God’s-eye view of history’s inner meaning, to his imaging as someone who believed, to the contrary, that history has no logic in itself, but is rather constructed and reconstructed according to present political needs and struggles. Two expressions or phases of Marx’s thinking about history, nevertheless, are largely agreed upon.
Marx’s reflections on human ‘alienation’ (1843-4), constitute one of these phases. Hegel’s conception of the ‘dialectical’ movement of history was that of a contradictory but dynamic process in which the initial separation and antagonism of the different component ‘moments’ of Mind or Spirit are progressively overcome. Out of some apparently intractable tensions between the empirical and the conceptual, the finite and the infinite, the rational and the ineffable, Man and God, a spiral of encompassing developments in consciousness is posited, eventuating, in principle, in a complete higher fusion (= the ‘Absolute Idea’). Drawing on, but going beyond, Ludwig Feuerbach’s humanistic critique of Hegel, Marx inverted this schema in a materialist way whilst retaining something of its logical pattern. He objected to its religiosity, and derided Hegel’s politically reactionary attempt to overcome its impossible abstractness by identifying as its ‘expression’ the progress of the actual Prussian state. Accordingly, in works such as the Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right Marx sought to demolish the anti-democratic implications of Hegel’s theologically motivated political assertions, whilst in On the Jewish Question and journalistic work, he pursued the notion of emancipation beyond the attainment of liberal rights within civil society.
More generally, Marx interpreted available religious and political discourses as desperate expressions of the lack of human self-realization in the present state of society, a view spelled out in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. From limited beginnings as a collective and conscious labouring species, humanity undergoes a progressively ‘reified’ and ‘alienated’ existence. Modern civil society is represented here as an experience of profound estrangement, principally due to the generalization of commodity production, including labour itself, under industrial conditions. Men as workers are necessarily forced to be, and to feel, separated from the product of their own work activity, from each other and from their higher ‘species-being.’ Moreover, the laws, rights and citizen activities achieved under conditions of alienation, whilst offering an important bulwark against tyranny, are severely limited, and indeed partially obstruct further societal and personal growth. Communism, on the other hand, is presented as nothing less than ‘the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution.’ Communism marks ‘the positive transcendence of human self-estrangement’ and ‘the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature,’ ‘between man and man’ and ‘between freedom and necessity.’
Whilst ‘alienation’ is a powerful motivating idea, the ‘history’ that it conveys is possibly an over-moralized one, featuring something like the fall and redemption of Man’s creative labouring essence. Notwithstanding its moral and political force, the ‘alienation’ and ‘species self-realization’ scenario is, ironically, somewhat ‘idealist’ in character and simplistic in its implied application across the board. The German Ideology of 1845-6 provided methodological protocols at once more solidly materialist, and yet also more responsive to historical specificity. Marx and Engels declare that the proper ‘premises’ of historical analysis are not grounded in a concern for consciousness or self-realization, but rather in the empirical grasp of ‘real individuals,’ involved in ‘definite social and political relations,’ these relations being in turn based upon ‘the production of material life itself.’ From that viewpoint, not only are speculative accounts of Man’s essence and fate wrong, they constitute ‘mystification,’ illusory expressions of the very material life processes in which they are embedded.
Perhaps, then, Marx is best regarded as an open-minded, empirical historian and sociologist rather than a philosopher of history as such? In that case, his ‘materialist conception of history’ would simply be a heuristic tool, not a substantive doctrine. Marx sometimes presents himself that way, and his materialism at times is very generously conceived: it is the material ‘life-process’ as a whole that is being highlighted, a process in which men [sic] are actively, not passively, engaged. This strand in the discussion squares nicely with the activist and practical emphasis emerging from Marx’s reflections in theTheses on Feuerbach at around the same time. Overall, though, Marx’s perspective has to be judged as a prospective theory of society and history as a whole. The priority given to the production of the ‘means of life’ in understanding social organization and consciousness amounts to more than simply ‘correcting’ the excesses of idealism, as some cautious supporters have maintained. More plausibly, Marx is engaged on the ambitious business of ‘expounding the real process of production’ in order to explain ‘the basis of all history,’ ‘its action as State’ (forms of consciousness, religion, philosophy, morality etc. etc.), so that ‘the whole thing … can be depicted in its totality.’ The way in which the material basis of a society is produced is associated with definite ‘social forms of intercourse,’ and together these account for the character of the political and ideological ‘superstructure,’ including the role that dominant ideas play in the rationalization of ruling class advantage.
Marx’s 1859 ‘Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’ summarizes the ‘guiding principle’ of his studies at the time of The German Ideology, and in this text, notoriously, historical materialism is expressed in sharper terms still, resulting in what is often designated ‘productive forces determinism.’ In this, the productive forces of a society (materials, technological capacity, level of knowledge, organizational ‘energy’) seem to provide the driving force for change in the social relations of production (property forms, appropriation of surplus product, class divisions, labour regimes). In combination, the forces and relations of production (= ‘mode of production’) account for the character and direction of the ‘whole immense superstructure.’ Across history, a relatively small number of modes of production have appeared, each having its own logic of social relations: in the Preface, Marx mentions the Asiatic, Ancient (slave), feudal and capitalist modes, but we must add from other writings a tribal communist mode, and of course a future advanced communist society. Marx envisages these generically distinctive modes of production and forms of social life as forming a definite sequence in time, and they develop into one another (during ‘eras of social revolution’) because of the inability of the prevailing social relations to cope with the developmental potential of the productive forces. This scenario is also present in the Communist Manifesto of 1848, and it underwrites Marx’s greatest work, Capital, too, though in a more muted way. On the one hand, capitalism shows a relentless tendency to generate greater productive capacity; on the other hand, it is constitutively unable to use its technological breakthroughs for the good of society as a whole—by ending economic exploitation, ensuring less toil and enabling more creative work for all. Sooner or later, this fundamental contradiction is impossible to contain within the prevailing relations of production.
There are several important questions about the status of ‘productive forces determinism.’ The two main issues are: did Marx actually hold any strong version of this theory; and, how valid or credible is it, with or without Marx’s endorsement? Neither question can be tackled properly without a great deal of specialist discussion, but a reasonable summary would be that productive forces determinism is invalid, and that although in many passages, Marx does appear to articulate the strong thesis, in other passages, and in his more substantive political writings, he undermines it again. The formula for ‘mode of production’ is often slippery, perhaps deliberately so. Thus, productive forces are sometimes rendered not as technological potential per se, but as ‘social forces of production’ and ‘productive powers,’ and indeed in one or two places the forces seem to include not only the relationship of ‘man to nature’ but also of ‘men to each other.’ Another vital ambiguity lies in whether Marx placed work relations in the labour process, or the division of labour generally, within the productive forces, or as part of the relations of production, or somewhere in between the two. The relations of production, for their part, are also incompletely defined by Marx, sometimes coming out as forms of property ownership, sometimes as control over the production process, and sometimes more vaguely as ‘forms of social intercourse.’
Apart from the definition of the component elements of the mode of production concept, there is the issue of the relationship between them. Marx is often accused of technological determinism, but it is doubtful that he saw the primacy of the forces of production in straight causal terms, as ‘determinism’ implies. Even his ‘tough’ formulations on this speak of the ‘correspondence’ between forces and relations, or the ‘connections’ and ‘coupling’ between them, rather than the forces being depicted as a separable and prior effective agency. Accordingly, the relationship has been reframed as a functional one, with a number of conceptual and empirical conundrums emerging around this in the literature. These concern the problem of distinguishing between valid and spurious functional explanations, and between causal mechanisms and the functions they are purported to fulfil. Under the rubric of functional explanation, the relations of production come into being because they promote the development of the productive forces. But if these elements are co-present and mutually functional, could the thesis not be reversed, so that certain productive forces come and go according to whether they promote or ‘fetter’ the maintenance or intensification of the relations of production themselves? And anyway, what exactly is being ‘promoted’ above all else in productive forces functionalism: is it the current level of the forces, or their potential use as they presently stand, or their rate of growth, or their optimum possible development, or something else? There is no decisive answer to this, either in Marx or in his sophisticated interpreters.
A further issue is that when Marx comes to explaining and describing major historical episodes, his accounts sometimes seem to favour the primacy of the forces, sometimes the primacy of the relations. For example, the fundamental technical change associated with the industrial revolution is portrayed as occuring within an already established capitalist social structure: no leadership role for the productive forces there. On the other hand, the transition from feudalism to capitalism, like the projected transition from capitalism to socialism, is to be understood as the result of impossible social contradictions stemming from the productive forces bursting through outdated property relations. Even in this latter case, though, it might be appropriate to see Marx as trying to establish the necessary but not sufficient conditions for modal transformation, because in all his accounts, class capacities and class action (which are coterminous with the social relations of production) play a crucial role in historical outcomes. The famous rousing line in the Communist Manifesto ‘the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles’—would make little sense otherwise.
Marx’s inconsistencies aside, productive forces determinism is generally held to be either false or undemonstrable in any strong formulation. This is the consensus, at least, amongst even Marxist historians, since there are too many notable counter-examples. Moreover, the idea that technological and scientific powers have an independent momentum throughout history, to which social relations must adapt, relies upon a dangerously narrow view of how human rationality expresses itself in circumstances of scarcity and conflict. Indeed, if Marx really held to this perspective, he would have to be deemed in thrall to the kind of ‘transhistorical’ philosophy of history that he spent much energy attacking. At the same time, though, it is incontestable that his ‘mode of production’ conception requires some kind of directionality if it is to be seen as a theory of history in any substantial sense at all. It is vital to see here that the assertion of inevitable tendencies persisting through time does not commit us to a foregone conclusion about what must inevitably happen, all things considered. That is why contemporary Marxists who do not advocate ‘strong’ historical materialism continue to put effort and skill into defending ‘broader’ or ‘weaker’ versions.
Capitalism and Class Analysis
Marx placed capitalism in historical perspective as one of a series of (transient) socioeconomic formations, but it was not just one of a series. The analysis of capital and the prospects for class struggle within and beyond it were his primary concerns. Marx read capitalism as an economic system characterized by the production and exchange of commodities. Crucially, human labour power itself is a commodity under capitalism, freely bought and sold on the market. Labour is ‘free,’ but there is a dark irony about this. On the one hand, workers are able to offer their labour to, or withdraw it from, any particular employer, and so any labour market exchange is one struck between autonomous people, legally recognized as such. On the other hand, workers have been forced to be free, first, because the very availability of masses of labourers to work in capitalist enterprises was largely the result of the expulsion of rural labourers from their former lands and livelihoods. Marx graphically summarizes his account of this process in Capital, Volume I: The history of the peasants: ‘expropriation is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire.’ Secondly, moreover, the working class or proletariat under mature capitalism has no choice but to sell its labour power simply in order to live, whereas capitalists do not.
According to Marx in Capital, Volume III, it is ‘the specific economic form in which unpaid surplus labour is pumped out of direct producers’ that determines the relations of production in a given mode, ‘the relationship of rulers and ruled.’ How does this mechanism work under capitalism? The value of a commodity is determined, as Marx sees it, by the amount of socially necessary labour time that goes into its production. But assuming that commodities exchange at their values, it is something of a mystery as to how profit actually arises, and difficult to say that anything particularly unfair or disadvantageous is going on when the buyers of commodities, including capitalists, come away from the exchange process with whatever gains they have transacted. This appearance of coherence and apparent fairness in exchange Marx dubbed ‘the fetishism of commodities’: people are mesmerized by the seeming objectivity and authority of The Market, and are inclined to be stumped by the question of how capital is generated and accumulated. Marx’s answer was that profit arises not in commodity exchange at all, but in the production process itself, and in pursuing this he makes a decisive distinction between labour power and actual labour performed. The capitalist buys the labour power of the worker, whose value is determined by the labour time necessary to reproduce it, as measured by the average bundle of subsistence goods required, but sells the labour product. The product is of a higher value because the working day is typically longer than the time needed to reproduce the labourer’s capacity to work, and so the extra labour contribution in the typical day’s work represents surplus value. Surplus value is realized in market sale, producing profit. Marx has many bitingly witty passages in which he caricatures the individual capitalist as ‘Mr. Moneybags,’ but this is what he terms a ‘personification’ only, because actually he sees capitalism as a system, driven by an impersonal logic of accumulation and ‘expanded reproduction’ rather than by personal greed or conspicuous consumption.
Capitalist firms do not operate in isolation: there are other firms seeking to make profits and they operate in particular industrial sectors, across which average rates of exploitation and average rates of profit are formed. In conditions of capitalist competition, there will be an initial tendency to seek market advantage through the extension of the working day, but this cannot continue indefinitely. Instead, gains are made through introducing greater intensity within the labour process, improving the productivity of labour. Marx sees this process in terms of the ‘rising organic composition of capital,’ which names the steady increase of constant capital (plant, machinery = ‘dead labour’) in relation to variable capital (actual ‘living labour’). But since it is only labour/variable capital that imparts value to other commodities, and in so doing creates surplus value—the source of profits—it follows that the rate of profit tends to fall, because variable capital is persistently diminishing as a proportion of total capital. Here is one of Marx’s central ‘contradictions’ of capitalism. It is not true that Marx sees it as heralding, in itself, the complete breakdown of capitalism, because the total amount of surplus value (and therefore profit) might increase even if its proportion relative to fixed capital diminishes. Several other ‘counter-tendencies’ are also identified by Marx.
But the tendency of the rate of profit to fall does cause endemic volatility and crisis. In order to stay ahead or catch up, capitalists are driven to enhance productivity and reduce labour, with the result that more and more is produced, and periodically large numbers of workers are ‘shed.’ Eventually, too much productive capital is in play, and too many goods go unsold; firms go out of business altogether, and fixed capital may even have to be destroyed, all in likely social conditions of widespread hardship, class conflict and social unrest. On the other hand, with capitalists having cut back on orders for capital stock, and producing fewer commodities, the organic composition of capital within the sector will reduce, and there will be fewer firms around to take advantage of the associated rising rate of profit. A recovery ensues. In this way, Marx sees capitalism lurching from upswing to downturn, and from crisis to crisis. But these will progressively worsen: capital is, over time, concentrated in fewer and fewer big firms; higher levels of the productive forces progressively characterize the production process, so that each crisis is playing dice with more sophisticated and expensive resources; and each crisis increases the chances that workers will come to see that the irrationalities and exploitativeness of capitalism are intrinsic to it as a socioeconomic order. They will then unite to create a better one, one that is thoroughly cooperative and non-exploitative.
Both the dynamics of capitalism, and the emergence of any alternative to it, are couched by Marx in terms of tendencies, not necessities. This renders his theories more flexible than they often appear. For some readers, this is very annoying: Marx is making rather God-like pronouncements on the structure and future of capitalism, and banking on the raised consciousness of those who will replace it, yet it is not clear just what kind of evidence will ever justify this expectation. For supporters, there is no real problem here, and signal advantages. Social scientific explanation, they would say, is always partial, incomplete and ‘diagnostic’ in character—it provides the basis for investigation and action rather than proof. And there is no doubt that out of just a few central theses, Marx generates a massive research programme, full of political and ideological consequences of the greatest interest and significance. Warfare and welfare states, colonialism and imperialism, the relentless commodification of everything, the shift from production-based workforces to service-based labour, the psychology of uncertainty and agitation, the proletarianization of the middle class and the increased knowledge base of key productive workers—and much more—can all be tackled using Marx’s conceptual and normative apparatus; and they can hardly be explained satisfactorily without it.
Still, there are major interpretative problems surrounding Marx’s analysis, not the least of which concerns ‘class’ itself. Surprisingly, Marx wrote very little of a definitional nature about class. Famously, Engels, as editor of Capital, Volume III, noted simply that ‘here the manuscript breaks off’ after just a few paragraphs in which Marx, finally, began to address this elemental question. One conundrum concerns the nature of the working class itself. If the major classes of a society are the exploiters and exploited within a given mode of production, then the strict ruling on the proletariat is that it comprises only those workers who produce surplus value, the entire basis of exploitation in capitalism. But on this account, especially under the conditions of increasing labour productivity that Marx says are also definitive of capitalism, the proportion of a population that directly produces surplus value is bound to diminish steadily. This process is borne out of course by empirical trends, leading many sociologists to see Marxism as utterly outmoded. Under a ‘labour market’ definition, however, Marx’s vision of progressive class polarization, with an ever-larger number of proletarians, can still be sustained. The key thing is that workers have to sell their labour power, whilst capitalists do not. But the cost of this broader approach is that Marx’s special stress on the production of surplus value needs to be played down, and we need to be comfortable about including in the broad working class anyone who is not able to live reasonably on proceeds wholly derived from other people’s efforts. This will be the vast majority of the population, including high-level professionals and managers as well as the more routinized ‘middle class.’
The broad definition of the proletariat is defensible, but just like an excessively narrow definition, it does seem somewhat perverse in its sociological consequences. In Marx’s account, bourgeoisie and proletariat are intrinsically opposed to one another, yet also symbiotically tied together, such that any other groups and classes within capitalism (petit bourgeoisie, landlords, speculators) can be understood only as subsidiary to that primary relationship. This ‘relational’ conception has, periodically, been deemed superior to ‘descriptive’ and ‘hierarchical’ conceptions which home in on the almost infinite number of sociologically significant distinctions of income, occupation and status that exist amongst empirical individuals. However, if we can include almost everyone in the working class, and if this is the most important thing about them, then a great deal of sociological interest is sidelined by Marxian class theory, and meanwhile there may be little empirical indication of ‘situational’ or ‘activist’ commonality across the ranks of the total ‘collective worker.’
There are various ways of striking a middle way between the narrow and broad definitions of class. Especially, effective control over the means of production can be added to criteria of surplus value creation and property ownership. Indeed, some would interpret effective control as the essential content of capitalist ‘possession.’ This might be particularly important given the trend in capitalism (which Marx noted) away from individual total capital ownership and towards joint stock companies, pension fund investment and the ‘managerial revolution.’ A more recent contribution says that productive assets include not only large-scale ownership of means of production, but also lower-level ‘property’ such as credentials and skills. These forms of endowment can be used by some workers to take material advantage of less well endowed workers, whilst both remain to varying degrees jointly exploited by large-scale capitalists. Such amendments retain the concepts of exploitation, class and profit, but in a diluted or compounded form, thus claiming some kind of endorsement in Marx’s own work, but looking more adequate to the perceived divisions of interest and identity within contemporary stratification processes. Overall, most Marxists, including Marx, use some mixture of property, labour market situation and reward, and power/control over and within the production process to try to defend or reconstruct the basic proposition that socioeconomic class is the primary form of social division.
Neo-Marxist ingenuity and breadth is required in another pivotal area of Marxian class analysis, namely the theory of value and surplus value. True, there are still Marxist economists, skilled in advanced mathematics, who are trying to ‘crack’ one persistent problem, namely, the difficulty of showing just how labour values translate into market prices. But apart from this ‘transformation problem,’ Marx makes other assumptions which have been thoroughly challenged, especially since they are presented in such an a priori fashion. For example, he assumes that all the complex, combined and variably skilled labour tasks that characterize work under capitalism can be calculated in terms of their ‘common denominator,’ simple average labour time. The counter-argument is that this equation just cannot be computed, and that there is no independent reason for its plausibility. Similarly, Marx takes it for granted that there is a strict equivalence of exchange values in the buying and selling of commodities, but again it is far from obvious that this takes place, even hypothetically. Finally, critics have had enough of Marx’s theses that only human labour creates value, and that labour value alone must stand as the measure of commodity exchange. In principle, they say, any other commodity could play this measuring role: it is a romantic anthropological vision, not a ‘scientific’ discovery as such, that compels Marx to foreground labour’s unique socioeconomic status.
Marx’s class theory, and his ‘anatomy’ of capitalism, thus face serious objections. However, whenever social theorists discuss anything in terms of capitalism and class, and whenever they look up from their texts to try to appraise the state of the world as a whole, their debt to Marx is usually very evident. Accordingly, the effort that has gone into trying to reformulate Marx’s theories—perhaps in a far ‘broader’ way than he would like—is not simply a gestural or religious quest to save the Master’s reputation at all costs. Particularly important in this regard, since it generates the greatest number of accusations of conceptual breakdown, is the explanatory relation of socioeconomic class to political, cultural and ideological phenomena.
I have already intimated that Marx was neither a determinist, nor an ‘inevitabilist’ when it comes to connecting ‘superstructural’ features to ‘basic’ ones. Had he been, then questions of politics and ideology would have been much easier to deal with, one way or another. The problem for interpretation today is rather that of the ‘relative autonomy’ of politics and culture in terms of its degree of influence by the state of the relations of production. Many social scientists accept that there is some kind of broadly functional connection or elective affinity between economic imperatives and other aspects of social existence. The issue is: can we generalize consistently about the causal direction and empirical appearance of these ‘connections’? Marx’s own political and cultural writings are not decisive in this matter. At first, he seemed to imagine capitalism as relentlessly impoverishing the working class, to the point where some kind of revolutionary change would have to occur ‘spontaneously.’ The role of the state in this scenario is simply one of maintaining capitalist interests: ‘the executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie,’ as the Manifesto puts it. As for ideology, the German Ideology insists that ‘the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.’ Here, no doubt, the connections between base and superstructure, capitalism and social life, are too tightly drawn, though when regarded as summative hypotheses rather than an intended representation of the detailed facts, there is surely little to feel aggrieved about. At any rate, Marx was always optimistic about humanity’s ability to ‘solve’ the problems it posed for itself, and about the way in which an apparently stable social equilibrium breaks down. Capitalism especially—the Manifesto again—produces ‘uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation,’ and so creates a culture in which ‘all that is solid melts into air.’ It is very unlikely, then, that Marx would have regarded people’s class locations as configuring their forms of life and thought in every respect, or that the political and ideological realms would straightforwardly fulfil the functions that capitalism sets for them in principle. Thus, after about 1850, Marx explored without qualm the possibility that major concessions could be wrung out of the state, thereby improving the situation and consciousness of the working class, and taking the ultimate ‘battle of democracy’ forward.
Marx conducted a series of sustained analyses of French politics after 1848, in which we can see both a degree of ‘reductionist’ intent, and yet also the detailed undermining of any simple reductionism. In these studies, the actions of prominent individuals, the French state and a whole range of political groupings are framed as variously expressing essential class interests, themselves figured as part of the long, inexorable social revolution of the nineteenth century as a whole. Political and ideological strategies on the surface, Marx implies in the Eighteenth Brumaire, do little more than track the subterranean workings of the ‘old mole’ of history itself. Yet at the same time, these metaphors are conceits, and even if taken theoretically, they operate at an extremely general level. Ultimately, it is the complex and ‘conjunctural’ way in which Marx handles the interconnections amongst a large range of groupings, class fractions and forms of consciousness that stands out. The question then imposes itself: if there is no necessary connection between basic and superstructural elements, and no direct manifestation of the primacy of economic relationships within the cultural and political spheres, then how can Marxian class theory be maintained? It is important to point out that this issue can be pressed from a radical as well as a conservative standpoint. Indeed, from political leaders such as Lenin and Gramsci through to postmodern cultural thinkers, the idea of base determining superstructure has itself been regarded, precisely, as a conservative, not an emancipatory image. At a time when some commentators are perceiving a dramatic ‘cultural turn’ in society and theory alike, an outright ‘superstructuralism’ has developed today, with ideas and identities seeming to be primary in relation to socioeconomic materialities.
That attitude, whatever its merits, represents the abandonment rather than the modification of Marxism’s theoretical core. In response, Marxists could rail against the absurdly ‘radical’ sense of contingency and plurality that such culturalism leads to, and specifically bemoan the loss of a materialist sense of the logic of capitalist society at a time when the latter finally pervades the entire globe. This latter point is polemically effective, because few critical theorists who challenge the primacy of class deny the power of global capital, or even dispute that there are deep and increasing inequalities in society today which are evidently class-related, even if they are not always class inequalities as such. The problem then becomes one of relating together people’s various identities and situations rather than posing ‘class’ identities monolithically against other ‘cultural’ identities, as both ‘vulgar Marxists’ and ‘post-Marxists’ tend to do. One suggestion here, which I think could be Marx’s own, is that whilst, of course, people must be recognized as having and pursuing various cultural identities, their lives and aspirations remain profoundly shaped and constrained by the fact that they have to earn their living as workers, under capitalism. This simple fact generates considerable commonality of situation and interest amongst otherwise different groups, a commonality that is consistently played down—mostly unconsciously, sometimes deliberately—by the workings and ideologies of capitalist institutions. Completing his train of thought, Marx offered a proposition that continues to be intellectually intriguing as well as normatively inspiring: that only in a classless society can the positive differences amongst otherwise equal and free persons be fully recognized and celebrated.
‘Science’ and Methods in Marx
As well as developing scenarios of social order and historical change, social theorists invoke or presume conceptions about what sorts of things exist (ontology), and about the legitimacy of the type of knowledge they are producing (epistemology). Projects which are avowedly critical of reigning intellectual and political orthodoxies, as Marx’s was, tend to be particularly self-conscious of these epistemological and ontological dimensions, seeking radically to revise our very understandings of social knowledge and being as part of changing our views about the way society is structured. But there is a difficulty in coming to terms with Marx’s philosophical position, because he was an anti-philosophical philosopher: he distrusted the systematic presentation of abstract general concepts, when separated out from substantive and political argumentation. Not only was stand-alone philosophy idealist in that sense, it quintessential embodied the condition of alienation, in that creative ideas take on an apparently transcendent life of their own, an eternal thing-like status, separated off from the concrete human needs and activities in which they are rooted. Consistent with this attitude, Marx’s more particular philosophical preferences tend to be found embedded within his substantive investigations and critiques, or expressed in pithy occasional ‘theses.’
It makes sense to approach Marx’s meta-theories ‘negatively,’ in terms of their nonconformity with alternative philosophical traditions. One of the most obvious contrasts in this respect is with the empiricist strand in the social sciences. Crudely, empiricism refers to the idea that all knowledge stems from sensory perceptions of reality, and that when our observations are marshalled in a disciplined and cumulative way, then ‘the facts’ of the world present themselves to us as both palpable and indubitable. Theories in science certainly provide interpretative hypotheses that help make sense of the facts, but it is the facts that are ‘sovereign,’ since theories are to be judged successful or not by reference to the data of observation. Now Marx’s works exhibit a healthy respect for ‘the facts,’ and he enthusiastically absorbed a wide range of dry empirical ‘data’ in the course of his studies. More programmatically, The German Ideology tells us that it is only ‘empirical observation’ that can bring out ‘the connection of the social and political structure with production.’ Yet this is misleading, since Marx’s strategy in that text and elsewhere was clearly to chart a path between the fallacies of idealism on the one hand—‘the imagined activity of imagined subjects’—and those of empiricism on the other-the ‘collection of dead facts.’ Indeed, Marx deeply objected to the passive and individualized conception of human intellectual activity that is presumed in the empiricist notion that external sensory information directly impresses itself upon the tabula rasa of the mind. If the form of appearance of things, he announced in Capital, Volume III, coincided with their essence, there would be no need for science.
Positivism is sometimes regarded as an extreme version of empiricism, and so it is perhaps even less likely that Marx could be associated with that philosophical outlook. However, this is not right. It is true that positivism is more rigorous than empiricism in general, but whereas empiricism is often portrayed as healthy commonsense philosophy, positivism involves a principled commitment to ‘science.’ This commitment expresses itself in the greater role that theory plays in positivist conceptions of knowledge-formation. Also, positivism develops as something of a cultural campaign: to articulate and praise the image of ‘objective’ science in modern Western society, so that the dangers of irrationality, superstition and ignorance can be progressively eliminated. These two central tenets of positivism are closely linked, because all science, including social science, is thought to reveal a unified method, one which pursues general causal laws as expressed through observed empirical regularities.
Aspects of Marx’s thinking are congruent with positivism. In The German Ideology Marx and Engels express the Comtean sentiment that ‘where speculation ends begins real, positive science.’ Philosophy then ‘loses its medium of existence’ and becomes, at most, the ‘summing up of the most general results’ of substantive knowledge. In addition to this marked hostility to metaphysical understanding, Marx also presents a view of humanity which pictures it as continuous with the natural world. Hence his emphasis on the process of production as the way in which societies survive and thrive in their struggle with nature. This naturalism is reinforced by Marx’s striking suggestion that only with the onset of advanced classless society will we be able to talk of humanity’s emergence from its ‘prehistory.’ And a central feature of that transition is the harnessing of science and technology in the reduction of human toil. In terms of methodological protocol, Marx delivers several ringing pronouncements about the way in which the historical laws and inner dynamics of capitalist society work themselves out ‘with iron necessity,’ and clearly he saw the achievement of his own work as having uncovered a large part of these deep workings. It is thus hard to get around Marx’s tough ‘objectivism’ in relation to how the social world operates, and his resounding critiques of bourgeois pseudo-social science as ideology make little sense without this claim to science on his part.
However, it is doubtful whether these positivistic sentiments can be taken as a subscription to any sort of systematic positivistic philosophy, though some later ‘orthodox’ Marxists-beginning with Engels—moved further in that direction. For Marx, whilst human beings were, as material creatures, subject to various natural laws, it was also part of their very nature to be more than merely natural-material beings. Human existence involves the kind of consciousness and social labour which enable people, collectively, to manipulate and even counteract the regimes of purely natural necessity. For that reason, without denying the applicability of natural scientific methods and results across many domains, Marx is primarily interested in accounting for, and surpassing, historical and social ‘necessities,’ and these operate in ways which do not match any strict positivist understanding. For one thing, historical laws in Marx are not ‘universal’ laws: they pertain to particular domains or aspects of social life that are limited and transitory. Secondly, they operate as ‘tendencies’—Marx makes no assumption that social laws express themselves as causal regularities. His sort of laws, then, can be neither analysed nor ‘confirmed’ through the observational or experimental categories of the natural sciences. Rather, social theory has to rely upon ‘the force of abstraction’ alone, as the Preface to Capital, Volume I puts it. Thirdly, social laws operating as tendencies encounter, and sometimes intrinsically generate, counter-tendencies, with no a priori assumption that the designated principal tendencies are bound to prevail. The tendency of productive forces to develop and the tendency of the rate of profit to fall are examples of this relative open-endedness.
Today, the philosophical label which typically combines a general naturalism across the sciences with acknowledgement of the particularity of the objects and methods of social sciences is known as ‘critical realism,’ and not surprisingly Marx has been claimed as belonging to that camp. Marx’s assertion in Capital, Volume III that ‘all science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and essence of things directly coincided’ has often been taken as a prime expression of his commitment to realism. Realists see both the natural and social worlds as comprising a multiplicity of domains governed by essential tendencies and mechanisms operating through strings of complex interactive processes. Unlike positivists, realists have no expectation that—in the kind of ‘open systems’ characteristic of the complex sciences—these inner workings can be easily or regularly observed, nor do they regard causation, as positivists do, as clearcut dependencies between separable entities and events. Rather, there exists a wide range of relationships, concatenations and syndromes amongst particular things and processes. Realism, in this sense, can be construed as an update of ‘dialectical materialism,’ an older term used to describe Marx’s ontology and epistemology. From his early writings in the 1840s, Marx rejected idealist notions that ‘reality’ is constituted by human consciousness: the world was independent of mind, he believed, and had an intractable material character. However, Marx also regularly inveighed against vulgar materialists, who conceived reality as thing-like, static and overwhelming. Instead, Marx clearly had a view of reality—whether social or natural—as essentially processual, requiring ongoing human deciphering through active engagement with it.
Realism has persistently come under fire from a ‘pragmatist’ direction. Realism talks floridly about the essential processes and mechanisms in the world, but its anti-positivism renders these unobservable and unrealized, and its sense of complex causation rules out any definitive depiction of them. But if this is so, how do we ever know what is really ‘essential,’ and how do we even know that the world is indeed ‘deeply’ structured by these nominal generative mechanisms? The history of science and humanity, after all, tells us precisely that what one epoch might regard as indubitably real and essential, the next one overturns in its thinking and practice. The very presumption that is built into realism—that we can know and show at a given point how ‘reality in itself’ is ‘essentially’ constituted – therefore comes into serious question. And intriguingly, Marx himself provides some supportive ammunition for scepticism here. Famously, in his Theses on Feuerbach, Marx rejected ‘contemplative’ theoretical solutions of problems featuring the abstract ‘reality’ status of thought and its objects. ‘The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.’ Rather, the issue of the truth, which is one of ‘reality and power,’ is ‘a practical question.’
Marx’s pragmatism, like the philosophical pragmatism that has sprung into life again in recent years, can be taken in different directions. One of these remains firmly realist, because whilst Marx is saying that truth and reality are operational only in terms of our practical agenda, the latter, when successfully fulfilled, can reasonably be taken as yielding reliable indications of the nature of all kinds of independent structures. Alternatively, Marx has been understood as saying that we must forget questions of ultimate truth and reality, since their natures always present themselves in a humanly mediated form. All we have, and all we need, are ‘local’ and practical forms of knowledge. This is a non-realist view, but it is not necessarily anti-realist. But there is also an anti-realist line of pragmatist argument, and at a pinch Marx can sometimes be aligned with this. The point is that our understandings of nature, the past, society, etc. are not only framed within, but are actively constituted by, discourses that are constructed so as to satisfactorily resolve certain theoretical and practical problems that we face.
Influential ‘Western Marxists’ such as Gramsci and Lukács held views akin to this radical discursive pragmatism, and the question is: Can Marx himself, with all his scathing dismissals of ‘absolute idealism,’ be signed up for this kind of constructionist outlook? To some extent he can. In the 1857 Introduction to the Grundrisse, Marx tells us that he is looking back on the past sequence of modes of production from the point of view of the categories we need to understand present capitalist society. Analogously, we are interested in the anatomy of the ape from the point of view of the clues we might retrospectively pick up concerning the functioning of Man. Marx thus suggests that we look back at the charms of Greek art, for instance, in the way that grownups reflect upon their childhood expressions. These can never be authentically retrieved as such, and we know this, being interested in this reflective process only if it can teach us some ‘lessons’ about the way we are now.
In further support of the ‘non-realist’ Marx, we can recall Marx’s presentation of his theoretical work as the critique of prevalent categories, especially those of the political economists. Marx, perhaps, was not so much providing an account of social reality, so that it could be compared favourably with mistaken bourgeois categories. Rather, he was engaging in a kind of immanent and therapeutic deconstruction of bourgeois categories, which, actually, he believed were never ‘illusory’ as such, but part of a certain type of practical engagement within capitalist social relations themselves. This construal of Marx’s method has been labelled in different ways, as a kind of ‘immanent’ critique, as a kind of revolutionary ‘idealism,’ and as the ‘philosophy of praxis.’ As with rival readings of Marx’s metatheoretical outlook, these versions can neither be demonstrated conclusively nor ruled out of court.
Conclusion: Marx, ‘Marx,’ and the Multiple Marxes
Marx is back, and for good reason. But Marx is not ‘back’ in any straightforward way. For one thing, it is Marx rather than Marxism whose strengths are being appreciated anew: his diagnosis of ceaseless capitalist dynamism and instability; his prescient sketches of globalization and colonialism; his marvellous rhetorical variety and skill, his synthetic, interdisciplinary range; his formidable sense of rigour and his diamond-like political insistency. Here it is the individual Marx that is being (re)canonized – quite properly in a sense, but with the effect that the systematic and generalized aspects of a world-view are being reduced to the admired personality traits of their author, or to a few classic ‘texts’ for revered consumption only. Secondly, there is no longer one single, definitive canon, but a proliferation of them—there is even a venerable post-structuralist canon of canon-deconstructors. In our case, it is interesting to reflect how a gradual separating-out of sociology from sociological theory or general social theory produces rather different canonical lists, with Marx himself probably figuring as a stronger fixture within the latter than the former. Inevitably, these discursive formations change their character and emphasis as time passes, and their canonical figures will vary accordingly.
Thirdly, although we might think that it is high time that Marx’s intellectual personality was allowed to speak for itself now that Official Marxism is gone, ultimately this is a naive view. From the earliest days of the tradition, Marx has been known and debated as ‘Marx,’ whether as constructed by Engels, Bolshevism and Stalinism, or as heroically depicted through embittered and dogged opposition to that dominant historical filtering. Accordingly, no anti-orthodox or revisionist reconstruction of Marx today—for example, that he was really a radical democrat or libertarian rather than a state centralist, or that he intimated a ‘capitalist road to communism’ rather than a transitional revolutionary regime, or that he was a methodological constructionist rather than a realist—none of these interpretations can fail to be a retrospective appraisal of the legend, governed by the discursive and political fortunes of Marxism over time and in the present.
The conclusion suggests itself that we are dealing with an ineradicably textualized ‘Marx,’ whose identity and significance are heavily governed by our own intellectual problems and political priorities, which are different from those of Marx. This line leads us not only from Marx to ‘Marx’ but on further to the idea of Multiple Marxes, for there is arguably no way of deciding, or necessarily wanting to decide, how all these inputs can be calibrated. The strength of this approach to Marx as unstable and ‘produced’ is that it confronts the question of pluralism. In our globalized and multicultural times, the suggestion that there is no singular, essential condition of existence, identity or method in terms of which we can forge a univocal social metaphysics or politics, has really taken root, and for good sociological reasons. Academically, this means that, across the board, we need to be ultra-sensitive to the dangers of false closure, dogmatic ‘essentialism’ and ethnocentric bias. Marx, by contrast, given the more ‘monistic’Zeitgeist of his time, might have seen things very differently. So quite plausibly, these gaps in mood and appraisal can only be closed up on the basis of personal, contingent readings, none of which can claim any greater general adequacy than any other.
Yet, whilst salutary in many ways, such an argument borders on gratuitous defeatism. It underestimates, for one thing, Marx’s own significant grappling with problems of pluralism; problems of reconciling difference and unity in both theory and practice. Relatedly, the postmodern line exaggerates how comfortable current consciousness—intellectual or lay—is with any consistent or ‘rampant’ pluralism: most people, on most issues, still want to draw some kind of line when it comes to the acceptable range of programmes or interpretations. Even to argue that Marx is Multiple involves a singular effort to delegitimate readings which argue for a different, more unified Marx. Finally, it is important to remember that a properly historical perspective – and we have learned this as much from Marx as anyone—can have the effect of tempering as well as stimulating our sense of what is genuinely novel and plural about our current situation. That we happen sometimes to feel that our kind of pluralism and situation is entirely new does not necessarily mean that the world today, duly considered, is any more intrinsically complex or undecipherable than in other epochs, that there are no substantial overlaps with previous epochs, or that previous theoretical categories have suddenly become entirely inapplicable.
In Marx’s day as in ours, then, the challenge is how best to achieve integrative theoretical solutions out of manifest empirical diversity. Indeed, this would appear to be the very raison d’être of sociological theory itself. Emblematically, this is what fuels the ever-interesting question of the relationship between Marx’s project and that of Weber. Marx, conscious of pluralist pressures rather than ignorant or dismissive of them, remains the theorist most undauntedly—and in many ways still most persuasively—in pursuit of a singular (if complex) account of the logic of the social in modern times. Without something like the latter as its goal, sociological theory would seem to have no rationale, other than as a form of contemporary moralism or anchorless description. Weber, on the other hand, well aware of the seduction and even necessity of powerful conceptions of societal logic, insistently reminds us that there are in principle always a number of such ‘logics,’ and that they all face a number of contrary empirical and evaluative considerations. We have not moved altogether beyond that matrix of debate, whether in general sociological theory or in the understanding of particular perspectives, such as Marx’s own.