Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.



Total Pageviews

Friday, August 6, 2010


Herewith my effort to get a conversation going. As you will see, instead of plunging into hot button issues, I have tried to say something about the history of our modern ideological positions, and also about their underlying presuppositions.; What I say here won't look much like contemporary arguments about progressive or liberal or radical stances versus conservative or reactionary ones, but I am hopeful that by starting this way, I can encourage you to look more deeply at the underlying assumptions of your own convictions. I hope as well to be able to accomplish that for myself. At this point, I welcome both short comments and extended comments, which, if it seems appropriate, can be presented as guest posts. Let's see what develops.

Although the ideological positions with which we are all familiar have filiations with philosophical, political, and religious doctrines going back several millennia, in their contemporary forms, they all arose as reactions to the explosive development of capitalism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. No matter how detailed our scholarly knowledge of that period may be, it remains difficult for us today to recapture the feeling so common in the first part of the nineteenth century of a world that was, as the French say, bouleversé. Marx was quite right in describing capitalism as the most revolutionary force ever set loose in the world. Settled expectations, understandings, and practices were discarded and replaced with a brutality and rapidity that was unnerving. Nothing, not even the dramatic events of the French Revolution, altered the social landscape so thoroughly as did the expansion of capitalist modes of production and distribution. This is not at all to suggest that the previous centuries had been placid or static. Quite to the contrary. But capitalism reached into the market, the home, the church, altering collective understandings so rapidly that the expectations laid down in a person's childhood were drastically altered by the time that person reached adulthood.

Everyone -- economists, poets, novelists, politicians, workers, farmers -- was keenly aware of the changes taking place, and anyone who had any pretensions as a commentator on the passing scene had an attitude toward what was happening. Speaking broadly, there were four different responses to the upheavals, out of which emerged our modern ideological strains of thought.

The first response was to welcome the changes as a new world, in which old religious and aristocratic superstitions and irrationalities were being swept away by the clean, fresh air of reason, calculation, and individual liberty. The market was seen by these folks as a sphere of rational self-interest free of hereditary or customary constraints, all of which were viewed as forms of irrationality. The new capitalist order was thus the fulfillment of the promise of the Enlightenment, with its rejection of all traditions as forms of superstition. The Liberals, as the proponents of this reaction to capitalism came to be called, were well aware of the evils attendant upon the expansion of capitalism -- the urban slums, the social disruptions, the periodic crises of over-production and under-consumption -- but these were considered temporary by-products of a trend that was unstoppably positive. They were lingering irrationalities that would either be eliminated by the workings of market forces or could succumb to rational planning and adjustment.
Regardless of the personal attachment of this or that Liberal theorist to religious belief, the Liberal orientation itself to the world was clearly understood to be thoroughgoingly secular. Reason and self interest, not mystery and tradition and revelation, were the appropriate guides for individuals and for states. The Liberal response to capitalism found expression both in the theories of economists -- Smith, Ricardo, Mill, Jevons, Menger, Walras, and the rest -- and in the writings of philosophers and social commentators -- the Mills, father and son, and others. Although the term "liberal," like virtually every other term in this discourse, has been fatally confused and compromised, I propose at least in this initial setting of the scene to use it in this, its original acceptation.

There are several foundational assumptions that underlie the Liberal orientation or ideology and provide it with the premises of its arguments. First is the assumption that the natural state or condition of human beings is rational self-interest. Men and women are assumed to be capable of identifying their desires, their interests, and their purposes, and of making rational calculations of the ways in which best to satisfy those desires or interests, to pursue those purposes. Unless our minds are clouded by superstition, which is to say religion, or constrained by irrational traditions, or enfeebled by ignorance, we can be relied upon to choose wisely in deploying our resources to satisfy our desires and pursue our purposes.

The second underlying assumption is that laisser-faire capitalism is the rational way to organize an economy and society. Previous forms of economic organization -- feudalism, slavery, guild production -- are simply failures to achieve rationality. Hence, the end of historical development [although they did not put it this way] was assumed to be the complete displacement of all other forms of socio-economic organization by capitalism. A social problem could only be understood by the Liberal mentality as a consequence of incomplete or inadequate instantiation of laisser-faire capitalism, and the solution to any problem was therefore the further extension of capitalism into spheres of activity not yet rationalized.

Not everyone was as optimistic about the new socio-economic order coming into being. Many serious commentators took a look at the wreckage of traditional society and saw only disaster. The long-established hierarchies of society were under attack. "New men" were becoming rich and powerful in a generation, without any of the traditional respect for those of good birth and proper upbringing. The transformation of the urban landscape was merely the physical reflection of a much deeper assault on the authority of the landed gentry. In France, a violent revolution had destroyed the most glorious monarchy in all Europe. In England, the transformations were less terminal, but no less irrevocable for all that. The Liberals might survey the social scene and see the bustle and ordered disarray of a construction site. But others saw only the chaos of an earthquake.

The commentators who took a less optimistic view of the radical changes around them sought desperately to conserve as much as they could of the old, familiar way of life. Some, especially in the earliest days, actually thought it was not too late to call the entire business to a halt and return to earlier and better forms of society and economy, but that hope soon faded, and so these proponents of conservation, or Conservatives, were prepared instead to settle for a slowing of the pace and a rejection of the more elaborate schemes for social transformation being put forward by the Liberals.

Along with their horror at the wreckage of society as they knew it, the Conservatives advanced a fundamentally different conception of the role of reason in human action. They had great respect for institutions that had survived over centuries, however little they conformed to a Rationalist's theoretical plan. The British Parliament, the Roman Catholic [or Anglican Catholic] Church, the relations of lord to servant, the traditions of marriage, property, the Army -- these had stood the test of time, and embodied in them was the immemorial wisdom of generations of men and women who, through their enactments and reenactments of familiar patterns of behavior, tested ways of being and doing and arrived at arrangements that worked.

Far and away the best statement I know of this Conservative perspective is to be found in the writings of the British 20th century philosopher Michael Oakeshott. If you have never looked at his collection of essays, Rationalism in Politics, I strongly recommend it to you. Read the title essay and an essay called "Rational Conduct." I do not want to try to summarize Oakeshott's argument here -- it would take me too long. The core of it is this: Oakeshott attacks Liberalism at its foundation. The Liberal's conception of rational action, he says, is not misguided, or politically unworkable, or prone to lead to bad consequences. Its fault is much deeper than that. Liberalism tells us to act in a way that is literally impossible, because it fundamentally misconstrues the nature of reason, of deliberation, of choice, and of action. From the many delicious passages in those two essays, let me quote just one, to convey something of Oakeshott's style:

"The mind of the Rationalist ... impresses us as, at best, a finely-tempered, neutral instrument, as a well-trained rather than as an educated mind. Intellectually, his ambition is not so much to share the experience of the race as to be demonstrably a self-made man. And this gives to his intellectual and practical activities an almost preternatural deliberateness and self-consciousness, depriving them of any element of passivity, removing from them all sense of rhythm and continuity... His mind has no atmosphere, no changes of season and temperature....With an almost poetic fancy, he strives to live each day as if it were his first, and he believes that to form a habit is to fail." [Rationalism in Politics, pp. 2-3, published in 1962.]

A third response to the upheavals and transformations wrought by capitalism was to embrace the assault on superstition and tradition, but to reject the claims of the unfettered free market. A number of French and English critics of early capitalism tried, both in their writings and in experimental small communities, to devise more humane, less destructive, more rational ways of arranging social and economic affairs. Proudhon, Saint-Simon, Fourier, Owen conjured plans of rational communities in which neither the depredations of industrial labor nor the irrationalities of market failures would inflict unnecessary misery on ordinary working men and women. These thinkers shared with the Liberals a rejection of superstition and a celebration of reason, but they recognized the inadequacies of an uncontrolled laisser-faire capitalism, and sought to replace it with central planning. Marx and Engels called them Utopian Socialists, and ridiculed their schemes as unconnected with a grasp of the real nature of capitalism.

And then there was Marx, whose response to the phenomenon of capitalism was complex and nuanced. Although Marx was, au fond, committed to the rationalist of the human experience, he came to believe that capitalism was deeply mystified, with the result that the surface appearance of rationality in the market concealed very deep irrationalities, both institutional and individual. He argued with great power and insight that capitalism itself is internally irrational, and hence cannot be the economic foundation for a truly human society. Against the superficial individualism of Liberalism, the mysticism of Conservatism, and the feckless unfounded optimism of Utopian Socialism Marx set his call for the supercession of capitalism by a fundamentally different economic and social order, Socialism. But this project, he was convinced, could only be accomplished when capitalism had developed sufficiently to make such a supercession technically possible and when the working class had organized itself sufficiently to seize control of the means of production.

I have written a great deal about what I think was right and wrong in Marx's analysis and prescription. Those who are interested can read two books: UNDERSTANDING MARX and MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, and a paper, "The Future of Socialism," which can be found on line by Googling. I call myself a Marxist because I remain persuaded, despite the inadequacies of some of Marx's arguments and the failure of some of his forecasts, that his understanding of economy and society is deeper than that of anyone else I know, and because I share his commitment to collective action by the disadvantaged classes of society.

Well, that ought to be enough to get something going. If not, I will go back to commenting on the passing scene.


Aliyah said...

Thanks for this introduction!

Can you clarify the over-all structure?

You say there are 2 assumptions behind Liberalism.

A(1) = the natural state or condition of human beings is rational self-interest;

A(2) = laisser-faire capitalism is the rational way to organize an economy and society.

From what you say, it sounds like Socialism (Utopian and Marxist) accepts A(1) but rejects A(2). Is that right?

Conservatives on the other hand, reject A(1). Do they accept or reject A(2)? It seems like modern Conservatives accept A(2).

Finally, do Liberals really make A(2) as a separate assumption, or might they think A(2) follows from A(1)?

Sorry if these are naive questions. I just want to be really clear about what you think are the relations among these 3 positions.

Thanks for starting this discussion. I myself incline to Liberalism, but am very interested to hear what can be said in favor of all three positions.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

That is actually a very helpful analysis and series of questions. You are dead right about liberalism. Utopian Sociaiism acceots A1 but rejects A2. Marx's relationship to A1 is much more complex as I intimated. Consevratoves originally rejected A2 [hence the long anti-capitalist tradition in the Catholic Church, for example], but modern Conservatives have really not known what to make of capitalism. They really ought to be quite suspicious of it, especially because it is a secular system of economic and social relations that destroys traditional institutions. One of my reasons for beginning this way was to expose some of the inner contradicitons in modern Consefrvativism [and also modern Lioberalism and Progressivism, as it happens].

Some Liberals think A2 follows from A1 [see Ayn Rand, for example], but it doesn't really.

Thank you for plunging in.

Angus said...

I have one comment and one question, both of which may be gun-jumpingly off-topic. The comment is that much modern libertarian high theory amounts to doubling down on the two classical liberal presuppositions you identify. So an axiom of Ludwig von Mises's "praxeology" (and, thus, Austrian economics) is that humans are invariably rational and self-interested (any human action therefore "reveals preferences"). From this a priori truth (and he takes special pains to insist it is an a priori truth) von Mises purports to deduce the rationality of laissez-faire capitalism.

My question is this. I have noticed that another presupposition of some strains of classical liberalism (I've spent some time marinating in contemporary libertarianism, so that's what's on my mind) is that there is (almost) no such thing as too much anxiety about monopolies on coercive power. This is coupled with an austere conception of what counts as coercive power (the ability to do violence does, the ability to manipulate, or present morton's forks, does not), and is given its bite by a paranoid rhetoric (Murray Rothbard was a master of it) that is descendant of the excesses of the rhetoric of Walpolian, and pre-revolutionary American, opposition thought (in which, for example, one was a "slave" if one could be subjected to the arbitrary whim of a foreign sovereign). (I should add that this rhetoric is about the only piece of the American revolution that libertarians can claim, without distortion, to have inherited! And libertarians are well aware that it's their inheritance - Rothbard proposed naming the Cato Institute after Cato's Letters, which were as fine an example of polemical opposition Whig thought as one can find.) Anyway, my question is when, and why, did the anxiety (I think) I've located at the heart of (radical versions of) libertarianism enter the zeitgeist? Is it an ex post rationalization of the classical liberal commitment to laissez-faire capitalism, or vice versa?

Finally, just because it's fun, here's a (necessarily) ham-handed example of paranoid rhetoric in the Rothbardian style ( A representative sample: "To underscore the fact that it is some level of drinking that is being criminalized, government sets up these outrageous, civil-liberties-violating barricades that stop people to check their blood – even when they have done nothing at all. This is a gross attack on liberty that implies that the government has and should have total control over us, extending even to the testing of intimate biological facts. But somehow we put up with it because we have conceded the first assumption that government ought to punish us for the content of our blood and not just our actions."

Chris said...

Professor Wolff,
Great summary.

I wanted to open the discussion by cutting straight to A1, since so much follows from that. A1 seems to me to be a contrived myth that tells us almost nothing certain about homo-sapiens, but guarantees in one way or another broad stroke coercion. If it were true that homo-sapeins are desire seeking, self-interested, creatures. This tells us nothing of what those desires are, and what their interest are. One mans interest is another's vice. Since we can't be certain what people are even self-interested towards, or what they desire, establishing rationalism as a basis seems tenuous.

If one takes A1 as granted, the prescriptions that follow, be they A2, or a b2, or even a c-z2, are all going to be inherently coercive, and repressive, if A1 is in fact a fantasy.

Anarchist, such as myself, Kropotkin, Chomsky, Goldman, and even Foucault tend to acknowledge this. Foucault even wrote several detailed works of how the term rationalism came to oppress "irrationality," in a rather frightful manner. This can be demonstrated amongst the 'mentally unstable,' and homosexual community (until recently).

Finally, it seems to me that all the market structures that follow from A1 revolve around a guaranteed, and inevitable, destruction of our land base and natural resources. That of course is not rational from my rational point of view. Furthermore, they are all contingent upon that desire for more affluence, accumulation, and consumption. Although these features are ubiquitous around us now, I do not believe them to come from our natural desires; or else one will have a hard time accounting for much anthropology.

As Hume warned of rationalism, roughly phrasing here: "tis not contrary to reason to prefer the death of all than scratching my finger."

Arbitrista said...

I think your beginning point is a good starting position, but I'm a little comfortable by how dichotomous the categories are. Specifically, there is a strong social democratic strain on the left that doesn't seem to fall entirely within either the anti-capitalist or laissez-faire camps, and certainly isn't conservative. Most of contemporary liberal theory in the states (Rawls, Nussbaum, etc.) don't seem to have a place in your typology. On the more practical plane, I don't think that most American-style liberals would reject all three of those basic conceptions. Or would you argue that they are simply attempts by liberals to accommodate the Marxist/leftist critique?

Chris said...

Aren't most contemporary liberals - and by this I'm thinking American Democrats/Liberal party - are Keynesian. They still want a strong capitalist market structure, and actually want government intervention to gurantee the markets stability, with human prosperity as a side effect? In that case they still borrow heavily from A1 and A2, and add in A3: Rational Government intervention to maintain A2!

David Pilavin said...

A very interesting discussion!

I have 2 remarks:

1. You decided not to distinguish between Conservetives and Reactionaries [or radical Conservatives] -- and that is understandable.

You decided to distinguish between Marx and other socialists -- and that too is understandable .

But bundling Conservatives with reactionaries on the one hand, all the while distinguishing Marx from amongst the Socialists on the other hand -- now that is already asymmetrical.

Is it only due to your being Marxist or are there profounder reasons?

Now, it is true that Marx' "response to the phenomenon of capitalism was complex and nuanced", as you write, but the same could be said of any great thinker from the period -- belonging to any of the aforementioned camps. Isn't it?

But you wisely avoid stumbling over minutiae - lest we would not see the forest for the trees. After all - that is the whole point of an overview.

So what makes Marx special?

2. A rather tangent remark:

I am rather amazed/amused by the fact that in the US, "Liberal" means almost the opposite of what it means in the rest of the world - and the same goes for "Libertarian"...

Noumena said...

This is an interesting basis for a typology, but let me second and develop Arbitrista's point. I want to claim that the `foundational assumptions' you've identified here are either not foundational or are not assumptions. That is, either (1) they are not taken to be central, key, essential, or in some other sense very, very important to the given political philosophy or (2) they are not simply assumed, but instead are either (2a) based on further considerations or (2b) are the object of an overlapping consensus among those who hold the given political philosophy.

It's easiest for me to defend this claim with respect to liberalism and some version of A2, so I'll do exactly that here. :-) (And thanks for the notation, Aliyah!)

(1) Other than libertarians, anarcho-capitalists, and similar relatively small and uninfluential political movements, there are no defenders of true laisser-faire capitalism any more. The sort of liberal that's called `liberal' or `progressive' in the US defends an extremely complicated descendent of capitalism, one in which the state directly runs some aspects of the economy (almost all roads, most of the educational system), heavily regulates other aspects while leaving the means of production in private hands (food safety and quality, banking and finance), and only occasionally intervenes in still others (publishing, tourist trinkets, clothing). To the extent that liberals are still committed to capitalism, it's either not laisser-faire capitalism or this isn't a very strong commitment.

(2a) The history of political philosophy suggests that, even when liberals were committed to (laisser-faire) capitalism, this commitment wasn't an assumption. Locke, Kant, Nozick, Bentham, Mill, &c., all spent a great deal of time, effort, and ink and paper arguing for laisser-faire capitalism, appealing to a wide variety of further premises -- natural law for Locke, deontology for Kant, a synthesis of the two for Nozick, utilitarianism for Bentham and Mill.

(2b) Overall, then, the history of political philosophy suggests that while liberals may be said to agree on (some form of) capitalism as an important part of their political philosophy, they disagree on the reasons why capitalism is so important. In Rawls' terminology, these liberals all agree on the same political conception (capitalism), but neither as a shared assumption nor on the basis of a shared comprehensive conception. It's therefore the object of an overlapping consensus, again in Rawls' sense. (That last move may be too hasty -- I don't recall the exact definition of overlapping consensus off the top of my head.)

English Jerk said...

If I understand you and the other commenters correctly, there should be four possible political positions based on the affirmation or denial of premises A(1) and A(2):

Liberalism (Mill): [+A(1), +A(2)]
Socialism (Marx): [+A(1), -A(2)]
Neo-conservatism (Kristol?): [-A(2), +A(2)]
Conservatism (Oakeshott? Burke?): [-A(1), -A(2)]

One thing that, it seems to me, gets squeezed out here is any (roughly) left-wing position that denies A(1). For example, Kropotkin emphatically denies both A(1) and A(2), arguing among other things that “mutual aid” is a natural characteristic of higher organisms, but it would be very strange to call him a “conservative” in any sense. And, more generally, anyone who thinks that categories like “rationality” or “interest” are constitutively social will end up denying A(1), but it seems perfectly possible to do so and still to be a socialist (in the sense that people like Marx and Bakunin used the word).

One other general quibble: your historical overview seems reasonable to me and broadly accurate (except maybe the odd suggestion that Proudhon favored “central planning”). But I wonder why it’s desirable to frame the issue in historical (rather than, say, purely conceptual) terms? Might doing so filter out possibilities we’d want on the table?

Also, isn’t it “laissez-faire,” with a “z”? Not that it matters much, but it always strikes me as a bit funny that it’s an imperative.

Chris said...

Keep in mind English Jerk, the 'liberalism' of Mill is different than the liberalism of Smith, of Paine, and of Keynes. The closer one gets to present history, the more liberals desire government intervention! So as I remember right, Mill wanted a bit more government intervention than Smith, and Keynes more than both.

English Jerk said...


Agreed. But for consistency's sake, we should probably stick to using "Liberal" in the sense that Dr. Wolff specified in his original post (where it seems to include both positions that have more statist tendencies and positions that have more anarchist tendencies). I'm guessing that the reactionary statist position that, in the US these days, calls itself "liberal" will be discussed in more detail once the historical account is settled.

周志v豪 said...


J.Vlasits said...

Dr. Wolff,
Thanks for this great starting post. I have a few questions, however, regarding a more underlying assumption that might be shared by multiple groups. The most important one that I can think of is methodological--liberals and Marxists seem to be committed to the possibility of a "social science" in a way that I'm not sure either of the other two are. This I take to be a product of the enormous confidence in science after Newton. The victory of atomism seems to me extraordinarilly present in the work of Smith and before him Hobbes (although in very different ways). Smith, for example, took much of his lead from the French physiocrats and Hobbes from (Cartesian?) mechanism. They saw human beings acting as material beings, propelled by forces. I read this same sort of analysis also coming from Marx (who I believe wrote his dissertation on Lucretius and Epicurus? I could be wrong about that), whose philosophy of history and economics seem to assume the possibility of some kind of materialist reduction.
This methodology seems to me to raise a number of really tough questions about both of these ideologies. Is something being left out in their analyses? If they drop it, are they still viable theories and if so, how might they change? What is the impact of these theories on how we ought to conceptualize, for example, agency (which I think is conspicuously missing from many of these reductive ideologies)? How might considerations of, for example, the first person conscious perspective, alter what we think of as "rational"?

David Pilavin said...

I see that you have not replied yet to the comments, so I allow myself to make another remark:

You write:
"it..[is] difficult for us today to recapture the feeling..of a world that was.. bouleversé."

You are right, of course. But I could try to propose an analogy that would make this sentiment relevent to our times:

An English gentleman of the 19-th century grew up with certain expectations of how the world in general should be and how his life should be in particular.

For example, he expected that prestigious positions in Law, the Army, the Church etc. would be open for him and bring with them a certain social status and a certain income that together would guarantee a certain "quality of life".

However, by the time he matured, he would inevitably discover that those positions were either much harder to get than they were for his forefathers and/or that they carried with them much less prestige and/or income. In short, his quality of life was much less than expected.

Now, of course, objectively speaking, he was still far better off than 95% of his countrymen, but we all know that one's happiness has a lot more to do with the relation of one's actual state with one's expected state than with the relation of one's state with the state of others. After all - most of us are not particularly joyous about the fact that we do not suffer the deprivations that people in Rwanda etc. suffer...

Now, this gap between expectations and reality has to do with the fact that our expectations of life are shaped by literature, the media, etc. - in short, by culture. And culture, in its turn, is an inherently conservative affair. After all, the books were written in the past, History occured in the past and so on. If I remember correctly, it was Gadamer who defined culture as "the presence of the past in the present" [or something like that]

If we take, for example, our conception of what is it to be "normal" in this or that respect, and then conduct a statistical survey of the actual state of affairs existing in those spheres, we may be surprized that most people are really "abnormal". But how can this be? After all, isn't the statement "most poeple are normal" analytic? Well - here, ambiguity takes its toll - as "norm" could be understood in both a prescriptive sense and in a descriptive one. It is this ambiguity that motivates many to be like "most people" - i.e. like what most people think most people are.

Now, the world continues changing in a quick pace nowdays too. Much that was the (truly) common practice 40 years ago is not such anymore. But our stereotypes and expectations still conform to this outdated "norm", and we are frustrated when the world is not what was promised to us..

And here, at last, I come to the example that I promized in the beginning:

We all [or most of us, at least] expected as a matter of course, as children, to have a stable nuclear family and a stable work place when we would grow up. didn't we? And how many people actually have that, nowdays? Not many. But still, being divorced or single in an advanced age is considered a problem and so is a lack financial stability. Isn't this the little conservative voice in each of us talking?

Excuse the length - I was pouring my frustrations unto the screen...

JP said...

Robert, I assume you will be defending a Marxian view here. The main problem that I, and I assume some others, have with such a view is the labour theory of value. If at all possible it would be good if you could explain why you believe it (if, indeed, you do). Do you buy the Marxian 'objective commensurability' argument for LTV? Or do you have some other reason for it?

I assume this is discussed in your books, but if there is any way you can give some idea of why you take it seriously, I would appreciate it if you do so here.

Chris said...

Off of JP's comment, I was curious if Marx's concept of exploitation had ever suffered a serious refutation, or if it still holds true, or if it's more of a subjective claim where one side sees it as exploitation, the other as progression, and either way can't be proved/disproved.

J.Vlasits said...

Chris, I've always considered Marx's term exploitation is the objective measure of the difference between the profit and the cost of labor. There does not seem to be much room for subjectivity here, as far as I can tell. This is, I think, a technical term that doesn't necessarilly correlate perfectly with the everyday concept.

Chris said...

J.V, I understand that it's the difference between the cost and profit, but the word exploitation does have rather moral underpinnings.

Scott said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Scott said...

I would really appreciate it if a left-anarchist—such as yourself to pick a random example—could clarify what the word “capitalism” means. Many days and nights perusing the blogosphere and relevant literature have made it pretty clear that a lot of senseless talking past one another is done because people don’t agree on the meaning of the word “capitalism”.

To my knowledge, the word “capitalist” was first used by Marx (maybe Proudhon?) to refer to an owner of capital. But this definition is ambiguous at best and equivocatory at worst. Why is a socialist someone who believes in socialism, a communist someone who believes in communism, but a capitalist someone who owns capital?

As far as I know (correct me if I’m wrong, you are the Marx scholar and I am not), Marx’s usage of “capitalism” referred to a social system in which capitalists held power not only through their vast private concentrations of wealth but also thanks to the vital role played by the state in not only helping them accumulate their material wealth but by also ensuring their monopolies.

Interestingly, there is currently an ongoing debate within the libertarian (in the Anglo American sense) community on whether or not to oppose “capitalism” (see here and here). For this and other reasons, these types of thinkers increasingly prefer terms like “free marketers” or “market anarchists” to “anarcho-capitalists”. Adherents of this school of thought support what they call “free markets” and oppose “crony capitalism” and “corporatism”. The problem is that many people use the latter two terms and “capitalism” interchangeably.

Conversely, the term “socialism” means different things to different people. For some, only a society with no private property could be correctly called “socialist”. On the other hand, one can imagine an economy dominated by worker-controlled firms and other democratically run institutions in which property rights are respected and market mechanisms are still at work. Some might call this “market socialism” whereas others would decry such a term as oxymoronic. Others tend to think of socialism as “state control” of the means of production which is most certainly not synonymous with “public control” of the means of production. Even avowed socialist contemporaries like Benjamin Tucker and Karl Marx almost certainly meant different things by the word “socialism”.

I could tell you what I take capitalism to mean but for purposes of clarity in this and future discussions it would be more logical for you to do so. Perhaps we can get to the definition of “socialism” in later discussion.

Scott said...

Sorry, the links didn't go through in my original post.

You can find them here:

and here:

Arbitrista said...

Chris: Marx's labor theory of value/definition of exploitation has been the subject of intense argument. There have been writers relatively recently who've tried to revive it, but generally it's seen as a significant problem with Marxism.

Liviu said...

I don't know how much old marxian historian hEric Hobsbawm is read nowadays in America, but his excellent overview of the long xix century(age of revolution,capital, empire) offers a good background to what proffesor Wolff is saying.