Excavating Marx

By Ryan Dau

Young Marx / Imgur

The Soviet Union is dead and gone, a failed experiment in social engineering and totalitarianism that has found an ignoble resting place in Trotsky’s “dustbin of history”. The People’s Republic of China, that great incubator of Maoism and collectivization, is running headlong into the open arms of free market capitalism. And, perhaps most significantly, the neoliberalism of Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and Robert Lucas has become the de facto, if not the de jure, socioeconomic policy of Western democracies. Karl Marx and his pronouncements are in a critical and ignominious retreat, but it is now that we need him more than ever.

Even among democratic socialists, this proclamation is guaranteed to raise eyebrows and drop jaws. Since at least the writings of Orwell, Marxism and Marxian economics have been viewed as a theoretical dead end by the Left; command economies in the Eastern bloc managed the trick of combining and exacerbating the worst elements of capitalism with the most barbaric methods of authoritarianism. Instead of ending the great contradiction of class struggle the Soviet model perfected it, creating a cabal of party apparatchiks even more ruthless, cynical, and exploitative than the Mellons and Rockefellers of the Gilded Age. Leninism, and its ideological apex Stalinism, fulfilled Rosa Luxemburg’s prognostication that a vanguard party would lead inexorably to dictatorship and political cultism.

In contrast, John Maynard Keynes’s seminal work The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, published in 1936, offered a viable alternative to Soviet communism. Economic downturns, instead of being what Marx viewed as indissoluble crises of the capitalist mode of production, were exposed as minor ignition failures in the engine of the market, curable through the even-handed administration of government spending through the avenue of public works projects. More importantly, macroeconomic stability could be ensured through the “automatic stabilizers” of the welfare state, ensuring a steady stream of expenditures into the broader economy.

Keynesian economics would reach its apogee in the Labour Party’s Beveridge Report, the progenitor of the British National Health Service as well as an assortment of public investment projects to rebuild the United Kingdom following the Second World War, and the Democratic Party’s New Deal, whose immediate legacy is the Social Security Act. Democratic socialists in Western Europe and North America exchanged Marx for Keynes, trading revolution for evolution and Blanquism for Fabianism.

Keynes, although a lifelong member of the now-deceased Liberal Party, unknowingly bequeathed to socialism one of its most vital intellectual lancets, namely the absolute crucifixion of classical economic thought and with it the putrescent ideologies of social Darwinism and laissez-faire capitalism. His call for the macroeconomic planning of market economies will always remain an important part of democratic socialism’s economic menu. However, Keynesianism utterly fails to provide a dissection of the capitalist mode of production; it takes market forces at face value and goes no further. For an exegesis of income inequality, the origins of profit, and the machinations of economic history, the democratic socialist needs Marx.

Marxism can be separated into its three constituent parts: description, prescription, and prediction. The descriptive, analytical component of Marxism is the most useful, and it is to this which we now turn.

Marxian epistemology and methodology is that of the European Enlightenment, specifically the heralding of the rationalism and empiricism of Descartes, Locke, and Spinoza and the rejection of the crude fideism of Aquinas, Augustine, and Pascal. Marx’s ontology is materialism, the rejection of the supernatural and the recognition of the scientific conceit that all the factors of reality which can be meaningfully said to exist are entirely physical. Marx’s method is that of the inverted Hegelian dialectic; instead of analyzing the contradictions of thoughts which influence reality (Hegelian idealism), one analyzes the contradictions of reality which influence thoughts (Marxian realism).

This is important for historical reasons if not philosophical ones. Prior to Marx the international working class movement labored under the onerous intellectual burden of utopian socialism; the writers Fourier, Owen, and Saint-Simon waxed poetic about a classless Eden without providing any positive program for translating this dream into a reality. Marx’s new scientific socialism gave the labor movement the tools with which it could properly critique and discuss capitalism, and it is from this system that modern democratic socialists inherit the valuable theses of the class struggle, the relative immiseration of the worker, surplus value as the midwife of profit, and the materialist conception of history. These are the pillars of the socialist program, all of which are owed to the beleaguered Karl Marx.

It is with the prescriptive and predictive capacities of Marxism that problems arise. Marx, whether intentionally or otherwise, was vague on the necessary steps to establish socialism and was equally opaque on what a stateless, communist society would look like. The most significant attempt to fill these political gaps was made by Lenin: the working class would be mobilized by a society of professional revolutionaries, socialism would consist of a planned economy, and the state itself would wither away with the eventual birth of a pure, untinctured communism. Even the most historically illiterate Leftist knows that this experiment ended in disaster, transforming Marxism from a philosophy into a dogma. Leninism, in short, despite its formal opposition to religion and its endorsement of state atheism, established its own secular faith. Its god was Marx, its saints were the patricians of the October Revolution, and its theology was Bolshevism. Marx’s great failure was to leave this question of practical policy open, and Lenin’s travesty was his attempted answer.

Marxism likewise falters in its capabilities for historical fortune telling. If one accepts the necessity of class struggle and with it historical materialism, along with the precepts of dialectical materialism, human history becomes infinitely explicable, albeit on an ex post facto basis. Significantly, however, predictions about the period of late capitalism have not, so to speak, “panned out”. Workers were not shut out of “bourgeois democracy” and achieved political representation through labor parties (so much for the proletariat revolution). These same parties then proceeded to humanize capitalism, declawing market forces while providing for a good deal of consumer sovereignty with a healthy amount of economic equality (so much for communism). Where revolutionary socialism did achieve power in the 20th century it was largely in economically backward agrarian nations and not, as Marx hypothesized, in advanced industrial countries. Indeed, as Karl Popper famously put it, Marx’s prediction of a communist overthrow of capitalist society is based on an unresolved tautology: the revolution will occur when the time is right, and the time is right when the revolution occurs. What’s more anti-empirical and anti-rational than that?

The prophylactics offered and the predictions given by Marxism and its political progeny Leninsm are abject disasters, and if I haven’t convinced you of this point already then I suggest you give The God That Failed a read. The analytical tools developed by Marx, however, are indispensable to the modern socialist movement. His resolute and unflinching atheist materialism, along with his championing of scientific methods of inquiry and thought, are the irreplaceable bedrock of democratic socialism, even if Marx himself failed to adequately apply these principles to every political exigency and philosophical quandary. If the progressive movement must get over its fear of the “S” word, then we must also shed our aversion to the “M” word.

Ryan C. Dau is a student of Oakland University studying economics and mathematics.

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