Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Crap Marxism 1: Base/superstructure

This post was inspired by a post by some Oxbridge Telegraph blogger criticising Owen Jones for something he said about Marxism. Marx's view, the Telegraph blogger writes, was "that all human relations are shaped by economics and that everything we do is measured in purely material terms reduced the individual to a pawn in a historic war between competing classes. You're not a person – you're either an exploiter or an alienated peasant." This is an ignorant stereotype of Marx's thought. But the Telegraph blogger claims he himself was once a Marxist. And that got me to thinking how the Marxism of many self-described Marxists is based on ignorant stereotypes of Marx's thought akin to those propagated by anti-Marxists.

The idea of the "base" and the "superstructure" is an example of this. Marx himself barely used the terms. (They come from a throwaway passage in the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.) Rather, they were elaborated after his death by the German and Russian thinkers who codified "Marxism" into a stultifying orthodoxy: Kautsky and Plekhanov, the two thinkers who were the main influences on Lenin, who in turn was the main influence on most people who later called themselves Marxist. The notion that the legal and political institutions of society can be seen as the ephemeral "superstructure" determined by the (really real) "economic base" is actually at odds with Marx's own views.

Although it was Marx's comrade Engels who began the project of codifying "Marxism", towards the end of his life he saw the danger in the drift to orthodoxy, writing to a friend:
According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. More than that neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless abstract senseless phrase.
Marx hubristically sought to develop the intellectual tools to calculate, with micrometric precision, changes in the forms of the production and reproduction of life (the complex whirl of movements signalled by the grossly inadequate word "base"). But he never suggested that the patterning of the rest of social life (the so-called "superstructure") could be read off from that. (Apart from in the most general sense, shared with liberals and conservatives, i.e. that parliamentary democracies tend to go with capitalism.)

Or, as the late Norman Geras put it: "between explaining everything and determining nothing, there are real determinants able merely to account for a great deal."

The dogma that "that all human relations are shaped by economics", though it is believed by some stupid self-described Marxists, falls into the category of "crap Marxism" that Marx would have run a mile from. 


Previous posts: Arrested materialism; Marxism in an age of waiting; The continued importance of class struggle; Hic Rhodus, hic salta; The necessity and insufficiency of Marxism today; Folk Marxism.


Waterloo Sunset said...

Isn't part of the issue that Marx's work is so varied, that you can find in it what you're looking for, if you're on the left?

The fact that he's influenced everyone from Red Action to the Communist Party to the International Communist Current would certainly seem to suggest that to me.

bob said...

Yes, that's true, and in that sense (as in so many others) Marx's works are like the Bible or the Talmud.

It means we should dismiss stereotypes of Marxism that cherry-pick bad stuff to dismiss the whole thing.

But does it mean that those of us who identify in some way as Marxist should perhaps be more relaxed about policing the borders and not indulge in indicting crap Marxism? Or that we need to accept that the struggle between different Marxisms (each perhaps equally valid in claiming the Marxist mantle, but many of them deeply crap, even poisonous) remains an urgent task?

Richard Armbach said...

Welcome to pseuds corner

Waterloo Sunset said...

I think we have to be careful with the cherrypicking argument. It easily leads to the "no true Scotsman" fallacy. We can't ignore the objectionable elements of Marx, even if that's not all there is. In the same way as, while there's a lot of stuff I still think is useful in Bakunin, that doesn't mean we can just push the fact he was a virulent anti-semite to one side. (Although I do think anarchists have generally come to terms with that more then most Marxists have come to terms with Marx and Engels' homophobia).

What I think we can insist on is that people who want to criticise Marxism specifically do so by looking at the arguments of Marx and Engels. While Trotsky was obviously inspired by Marx, a critique of Trotsky is just that, not a critique of Marx.

On your last point, I'm unconvinced. I have less of a dog in this fight then you; I find Marx useful but I'm not a "Marxist".

But to describe it as urgent arguably overstates its importance. While Stalinists are obviously cunts, how much relevance do they really have in the UK? Seeing the fight against them as a major priority is a bit incestuous.

At the end of the day, I'm mainly interested on the effects Marxism has on how people act on day to day struggle.

It's why I'm way less enamored of Geras then you. He always seemed like a "sleek little academic" to me. Marxism as academic discourse, as opposed to as a guide to action. As far as I'm concerned, unless your action is informed by theory and your theory is informed by action, it's just posing. No more political relevance then listening to Blur.

Alex Ross said...


I think there are two separate problems here -

1) That people (probably most of the "oragnised" far left) award the same sort of authority to Marxist texts as the Bible has for Christians or the Talmud has for religious Jews. Instead of "What Would Jesus do?" we have "What Would Marx do?" or "What Wold Lenin Do?"

I struggle to think of other political or philosophical movements (other than religious ones) where the authority of the text and bitter arguments over its most "authentic" meaning are so important.

I'd much rather just treat Marx's writings, and those it has inspired, as one set of arguments among others and "cherry pick" the bits that are useful or relevant (as Waterloo Sunset says).

(2) Then there is the point you make, that so much we hear about Marx comes from people who have never read or studied Marx himself. In my 7 years in the SWP (now a long time ago) I used to go round bragging about having read Marx, Lenin, Trotsky etc. as primary texts, whereas, in reality, I'd barely picked the books up and relied upon a crude version of Marxism that was filtered through the publications of the SWP CC. This pretense was easy to maintain, as I suspected that most other Swupies were doing the same thing.

It was only when I **had** to read Lenin and Trotsky (as part of my thesis) alongside critical accounts (e.g. Kolokowski) that I ditched any remnants of Leninism/Trotskyism very, very quickly...

Marx, I still find interesting in parts, but probably for very different reasons to the SWP and their ilk. E.g. I like the warm humanism of the Paris Manuscripts - precisely because it stands in such sharp contrast to the cold, instrumentalism of Leninist thinking.

bob said...

a. I am ashamed I've never heard of the No True Scotsman fallacy before. (I had to go to Wikipedia. ("For the practice of wearing a kilt without undergarments, see |True Scotsman|.") I will be using it from now on.

b. I think we can distinguish, though, between MORE core elements of Marxism (of Marx's own thought) and LESS core ones. Would Marx's or Bakunin's thought remain the same if we deleted the antisemitism, for example, or is there something about their respective core ideas that licenced the antisemitism?

c. Yes, "urgent" was a ridiculously hyperbolic word to use. There are much more genuinely urgent jobs than combating Stalinism. But I think that, while full-on Stalinism is more or less moribund, there is Stalinish stuff out there that still makes a big difference. You don't have to be Andrew Gilligan, for example, to think that the fact the Stalin Society has an overlapping executive with Stop the War is something that should concern us.

d. To some extent, it's true that Norm didn't bring too much of Marx to the day to day non-academic politics that he weighed in on regularly, but it did inform the moral critique that was the foundation of his day to day politics. I'm sceptical that we should ask a Norm (let alone a Bob) for "a guide to action", though - sounds a bit Maoist to me!

e. Alex, yes, Marx as religious authority: spot on.