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Monday, May 9, 2016


Once again, there has been a flurry of interesting comments while I was away, mentally, struggling with a new book on Marx [early days – we shall see whether it has life.  At this point all I have is a Preface, less than 3000 words.]  Here is a question from TheDudeDiogenes:

“I just read this quotation from an interview with philosopher Allen Wood (via Prof. Brian Leiter's blog), and wondered if you had any thoughts in response, Professor Wolff:

"Marx is thought of as an implacable foe of capitalism. But go back and read the first section of the Communist Manifesto. Notice how it contains a paean of praise for the way capitalism and the bourgeoisie have both enriched the human powers of production and also enabled us to see with clear vision the nature of human society and human history. It has taken me a long time to realize where I most disagree with Marx. His assessment of capitalism is far too favorable. He took its instability, inhumanity and irrationality to be signs that it was a merely transitional form, which had delivered into humanity’s hands the means to a much better way of life than any that have ever existed on earth. Marx could not bring himself to believe that our species is so benighted, irrational and slavish that it would put up with such a monstrous way of life. He thought that it was inevitable that people would find a better way. We now see that this was not so. Capitalism has not proven to be a transitional form, a gateway to a higher human future. Capitalism now seems more likely a swamp, a bog, a quicksand in which humanity is presently flailing about, unable to extricate itself, perhaps doomed to perish within a few generations from the long term effects of the technology which seemed to Marx its greatest gift to humanity. Capitalism has proven to be a far more terrible system than Marx could ever bring himself to imagine. Those who are so deluded as to find something good in it, or even feel loyalty toward it, are its most pitiful victims."”

Wood is of course correct that Marx views capitalism as a revolutionary force unleashed on the world, but I think he makes the mistake [common to many writers] of construing Marx as a moralist.  What is more, Wood is, I believe, simply misreading Marx when he says:  “He took its instability, inhumanity and irrationality to be signs that it was a merely transitional form, which had delivered into humanity’s hands the means to a much better way of life than any that have ever existed on earth. Marx could not bring himself to believe that our species is so benighted, irrational and slavish that it would put up with such a monstrous way of life. He thought that it was inevitable that people would find a better way.”  Marx did not take capitalism’s instability, inhumanity, and irrationality as signs that it was merely a transitional form.  That is the kind of rootless abstract moralizing that he rightly condemned when he encountered it in the writings of those he called “Utopian Socialists.”

Marx was indeed wrong in his analysis of the forces at work in capitalism that would lead to socialism – I have written about this at length in my essay, “The Future of Socialism.”  [On]  But not because he somehow underestimated capitalism’s awfulness or our willingness to put up with it.  Were he alive today, Marx would encourage us to study capitalism as it now is [very different from the capitalism of Marx’s lifetime] and to discover the forces at work within it that are changing it [once again, something I tried in a small way to do in that essay].  He would ask whether there are developments within capitalism that could conceivably be the early structural formation of a system of social relations of production different from, and perhaps even preferable to, those of capitalism.  He would also ask us to figure out what we could do to seize on those developments and build on them a movement for change [whether revolutionary or evolutionary – Marx was open to both.]

I understand that his words spring from a deep despair, but Wood is wrong to write in this moralizing way about the “benighted, irrational and slavish” nature of “our species.”  Those are the words of a moralist of a preacher, not of a hard-headed social analyst in the style of Marx.


s. wallerstein said...

Independent of whether Wood reads Marx rightly or not, is it justified to call him a "preacher"?

A preacher is not only one with strong moral beliefs, but also one who proselytizes those beliefs excessively, who tries to push those beliefs on others. By the way, the words "irrational" and "slavish" can be used descriptively as well as normatively and thus, calling someone "irrational" and "slavish" is not necessarily moralizing.

Michael said...

Could you say more about why it's wrong to see Marx as a moralist, or what you mean by that term? I ask, because it seems that there is a moral component in the critique of capitalism (ex. "exploitation is wrong") that doesn't seem to be completely out of touch with a materialist analysis of capitalism.

Michael said...

Also, you may agree more with this, from later in the 3AM interview: "Marx himself had no solutions to these problems. His object of study was capitalism itself. He left it to others to find the way beyond capitalism to a higher form of society. He saw his role as giving them as accurate a theory as he could of how capitalism works, which would also show them the reasons why it needs to be abolished and replaced by a freer and more human form of society. Clearly no working class movement ever came about that was able to do what Marx was hoping for. We totally misunderstand both his aims and his contribution if we try to read into Marx some anticipation of either the modest successes or the disastrous failures of those who later thought they were acting in his name. Marx’s writings still have something to teach us about capitalism. They have little or nothing to teach us about any alternatives to it. Anyone who had read them knows that. The problem is that many who reject Marx do not read him, or read him only by bringing prejudices to their reading that prevent them from understanding him."

Matt said...

If this analysis of Wood as presenting a "moralized" reading of Marx is right (I'm not sure and don't want to spend the time to try to work it out myself) it's pretty interesting, since, in the early-80's fights about whether Marx should be read as supporting substantive values like justice and morality, Wood was on the side of those who said he did not, in opposition to people like G.A. Cohen, who argued that Marx's arguments depended on the idea that capitalism was unjust in our normal sense. I'm unsure if this shows Wood as having changed his idea, or if the interpretation given here is perhaps not the right one.

A deeper question, one I'd been meaning to ask, is how this stuff relates to the (pretty strong, I think) case made by people like Bowels and Gintis on the one hand, and John Roemer, on the other, that Marx's account of exploitation can't work on its own, because, from the technical presentation given, any factor in production can equally count as the "exploited" factor. I'm not an expert, but the presentation seems pretty good to me, in both Bowels and Gintis and Roemer. Roemer, at least, thinks this shows that we need a moral theory showing that the treatment of labor is substantively unjust, and that without this, Marx's view doesn't go anywhere. (At least, that's how I understand his account.) It seems like a pretty important issue to deal with, but one that takes us away from "standard" Marxism in some important ways.

Chris said...

I don't agree with Wood's reading of Marx on numerous points, but it's definitively false that Wood reads Marx as a moralist:

For proof of this read his Routledge book on Marx, his recent book 'The Free Development of Each', and also The Marxian Critique of Justice:

If you see moralism in his reading, it's Wood explicitly inserting it. His aware it's not Marx's.

David E. said...

Mr. Wood actually wrote:

"Marx could not bring himself to believe that our species is so benighted, irrational and slavish..." and then goes on to explain what Marx DID believe, which was that the working class, humans in general, would approach things with more logic as their standard of living and education increased.

While Marx may have miscalculated, I'm not sure we can infer that Mr. Wood himself believes the worst about humanity.

Matt said...

Chris - do you happen to know if Wood revised his position on this in his 2nd edition of his book on Marx (in the "Arguments of the Philosophers" series)? I only have the first edition (and have read only parts of that, as well as some other relevant papers by Wood) and do not know how his views might have changed as of the 2004 2nd edition. (It's possible that his view hasn't change in any respect relevant to this question, but I do not know.)
(Sadly, this is a series of books that is really over-priced!)

Charles Pigden said...

IF recollection serves, Wood is close to depicting Marx as an error theorist (which what I think he was). I have just ordered the second edition of his Marx book so we shall see.

Unknown said...

Marx was a moralist. All humans are moralists. Hume was right--we all gild and stain our reality with our values. And some values (Marx's, yours, mine) are better than others.

Chris said...

No I don't think he changed his mind on anything moral, ethical, or justice related in the 2nd edition. I had an amicable e-mail exchange with him 3-4 years ago, and he hadn't changed his mind on any of the issues so far discussed.

For what it's worth, I've always preferred Andrew Collier's book on Marx:

Wood's is good. I just disagree with him in too many places, and I agree with Collier about everything haha.

Matt said...

Thanks, Chris.

DANIEL said...

Here is Richard Arneson's take on these questions...

Ian said...

I'm not clear on why Marx has to be either a hard-headed social analyst or a preacher. It seems clear to me that much of the work before Capital takes the form of the textbook jeremiad. The younger Marx's rhetorical mode is often what Douglass calls in the Fourth of July speech "scorching irony." I find it difficult to imagine that this mode is based on anything other than the kind of moralism Wood is accused of. Here is a longer excerpt from Douglass' speech:

"At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation's ear, I would, to day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced."

He disavows "convincing argument" in favor of "scorching irony" as if the two were mutually exclusive. Of course, the speech is very much a convincing argument on many levels. Just as Douglass positions himself rhetorically as "unable" to deliver such irony precisely as he does it, the claim of clear-headed social analysis as anathema to moral concerns found in the Marx of Capital does not in any way preclude or obviate moral concerns.

In my view while it is right to consider Marx an economist, it is wrong to consider him a scientist of any stripe. This seems an obvious claim but too often we forget that not only is dialectical materialism not a hard science but that Marx's critique of capitalism is not strictly social science either, at least in the modern sense of data-driven social science. While Marxist analysis doesn't necessarily require normative claims, it seems incontrovertible that Marx's corpus is chock full of sublimated moral claims. To read Marx without acknowledging such is to--as someone once wrote--to not be very good readers of The German Ideology.

Anonymous said...

Wood says that Marx thought the *instability* of capitalism--not its moral deficiency-- would create the (objective) conditions for its dissolution. This is not a moralistic criticism. Anyone who knows the first thing about Allan Wood's interpretation of Marx would know that he has flatly rejected an interpretation of Marx's criticism as aimed at the injustice of capitalism. So it's almost shocking to see Wood read as a moralist. I also fail to see what's moralistic in Wood's claim that Marx underestimated the adaptive expectations of the oppressed to their systematic domination. It's an empirical claim. It seems that Brian Leiter has been led astray by this blog entry too. I hope it's corrected.
Rakesh Bhandari

Brian Leiter said...

I am certanly aware of Wood's scholarship on Marx, from which I have greatly benefitted. But in the interview, and in his own philosophical outlook, Wood is a moralizer.

s. wallerstein said...

"Moralize" generally has the connotation of "self-righteousness" and "tiresome preaching". Not all moralists moralize. Wouldn't Wood be a moralist rather than a moralizer?

Brian Leiter said...

This is news to me about the supposed "connotations" of moralizer!

s. wallerstein said...

The first definition that I get with Google:

There's a book, Freud, the Mind of the Moralist, by Philip Rieff and Susan Sontag.
Wouldn't you change the meaning of the title if you titled it, the Mind of the Moralizer?

Brian Leiter said...

Indeed you would! But what I said is that Wood in the interview is offering a moralizing reading of Marx in the sense I discussed in my Hermeneutics of Suspicion paper. interests me less!

Anonymous said...

Again I don't think it's moralizing to say that Marx underestimated the adaptive expectations of the oppressed proletariat. It's an empirical claim that may lead to nihilism and certain kind of moralistic desperation. But if we rejected the empirical claim about adaptive expectations because we do not like the moralistic desperation it leads to, that would in fact put moral considerations in charge of critique. I think Leiter and Wolff are the ones coming across as moralistic here.
Rakesh Bhandari

Hugh Manaty said...

Are we supposed to conclude that a guy that says this

“It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of Philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, it has set up that single, unconscionable freedom -- free trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.”

doesn't have any sort of moral assessment of the thing he's describing?

If you prefer Capital

within the capitalist system all methods for raising the social productiveness of labour are brought about at the cost of the individual labourer; all means for the development of production transform themselves into means of domination over, and exploitation of, the producers; they mutilate the labourer into a fragment of a man, degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, destroy every remnant of charm in his work and turn it into a hated toil; they estrange from him the intellectual potentialities of the labour process in the same proportion as science is incorporated in it as an independent power; they distort the conditions under which he works, subject him during the labour process to a despotism the more hateful for its meanness; they transform his life-time into working-time, and drag his wife and child beneath the wheels of the Juggernaut of capital. But all methods for the production of surplus-value are at the same time methods of accumulation; and every extension of accumulation becomes again a means for the development of those methods. It follows therefore that in proportion as capital accumulates, the lot of the labourer, be his payment high or low, must grow worse. The law, finally, that always equilibrates the relative surplus population, or industrial reserve army, to the extent and energy of accumulation, this law rivets the labourer to capital more firmly than the wedges of Vulcan did Prometheus to the rock. It establishes an accumulation of misery, corresponding with accumulation of capital. Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole, i.e., on the side of the class that produces its own product in the form of capital.

This doesn't mean Marx is offering a moral theory of capitalism and Wood is obviously not offering a moral theory. But it's hard to see how Wood suggesting there is some normative slant in Marx (especially with respect to favoring certain human aspirations or potentials over others) gets Marx wrong.

That element is partly what makes Marx so good. Marx would be as dull as dishwater without it. I

Can we make sense of Marx by assuming he didn't think (a) some outcomes are better for humans than other ones and (b) he generally expects us to prefer those that are better for us? I suppose Marx could merely be describing the way we tend to think. However, Wood is merely referring to what he thinks Marx's view on that is--and then explaining why things didn't go that way.

Unknown said...

Marx's critique of capital is free of moralization simply because of the very nature of the thing analyzed. His critique of capitalism is highly moralized; it would be less compelling if it wasn't. When Wood says Marx's "assessment of capitalism is far too favorable," I think he loses sight of this distinction (capital/capitalism).

Marx was (perhaps too?) enamored with the power of capital and its technological dynamism, its ability to create wealth, etc. It was, ultimately, however, Marx's under-estimation of the power of capital that has prevented capitalism from transitioning. So long as the power of capital continues to outpace/outflank/silence/subjugate the horrors of capitalism, the transition will not occur. Collapse, as Wood points out, is more likely.