I'm Right, They're Wrong

If you follow me on Twitter, you might have noticed that I spent a good portion of the last week yelling at people about Karl Marx. The fight began because I tweeted something to the effect that, in Marx’s vision, a future society under socialism and eventually communism would be “abundantly more productive” than capitalism and that the “moral issues” that arise under capitalism would no longer arise. Then, a little later on, I tweeted that although many people today might prefer to focus on Marx’s humanist and literary side—his wonderful analyses of concrete politics and his evocative prose full of classic literary references—there’s also a side of Marx that aspired to the objectivity of the hard sciences, which is less easy to take today. Both of these notions got a sneering and condescending response from (mostly) academics, many of whom implied I had no idea what I was talking about, that increased “productivity” under socialism was not something that Marx really envisioned, and that Marx meant by science something much different than the sciences as we understand them today, and he did not really view historical materialism on analogy to one of the natural sciences.

With some notable exceptions, this was all done without much argument or evidence: it was supposedly obvious and I just didn’t get it. There was griping from the sidelines that I did not cite any texts, but just relied on tendentious summaries and how it seemed to me. Honestly, this all made me very angry and filled me with vindictive feelings towards my interlocutors and I intend to give vent to that spleen now. Now, you might say, “John, this is a little unseemly,” or even “cracked” or “obsessive,” but in my defense Marx himself was an infamous wager of petty feuds, so I believe this conduct is in keeping with his spirit. The strange thing about this whole dust up is that it is not a controversy at all: nothing I contended about Marx is really in the slightest bit controversial. It may be pedestrian, the modest result of an undergraduate education, but it’s certainly not without basis.

Let me just say, I’m an admirer of Marx’s writing; I consider him to be one of the essential writers on politics, history, and society, and would even say, in some qualified sense, that I’m a Marxist. But Marx lived and wrote in the 19th century, and, as Marx put it, ideas “are no more eternal than the [social] relations they express. They are historical and transitory products.” Thoughts are shaped by the societies in which they arose, by their class relations, and the dominant ideological themes generated by those class relations. The pretensions and hopes of the 19th century mind are not those of today, and while we might wish everything written then transferred easily and unproblematically to the present, it cannot be.


Let’s deal with the first claim I made. Dr. William Clare Roberts, author of Marx’s Inferno, disputed what I had written by saying that “abundance and productivity can’t solve socio-political problems” and “neither can moral transformation.” That may be so in reality, but I do not think it’s what Marx believed. Professor Roberts then went on to say that Marx did not think that productive power would necessarily massively increase under socialism—and then communism—to the point that it would create a “cornucopian” situation. To his credit, he engaged in actual argument and was not personally unpleasant, unlike many of his colleagues.

First of all, Marx clearly believed that the social organization of capitalism, with its class relations, was holding back or “fettering” productive power. As Marx writes in the “Grundrisse:”

Beyond a certain point, the development of the powers of production becomes a barrier for capital; hence the capital relation a barrier for the development of the productive powers of labour. When it has reached this point, capital, i.e. wage labour, enters into the same relation towards the development of social wealth and of the forces of production as the guild system, serfdom, slavery, and is necessarily stripped off as a fetter. The last form of servitude assumed by human activity, that of wage labour on one side, capital on the other, is thereby cast off like a skin, and this casting-off itself is the result of the mode of production corresponding to capital; the material and mental conditions of the negation of wage labour and of capital, themselves already the negation of earlier forms of unfree social production, are themselves results of its production process. The growing incompatibility between the productive development of society and its hitherto existing relations of production expresses itself in bitter contradictions, crises, spasms. The violent destruction of capital not by relations external to it, but rather as a condition of its self-preservation, is the most striking form in which advice is given it to be gone and to give room to a higher state of social production.

The capitalist mode of production, on the one hand, has engendered highly productive forces of production—industrial manufacturing with its massive coordination of the powers of labor and technology—but its social organization, its relations of production, ultimately come in to contradiction with its productive forces: the ownership and accumulation of capital become a vector for spoliation, waste, and destruction of capitalism’s own productive powers. Here is how the dialectic works: Socialism—with its cooperative and coordinated labor—is already implied in the content of capitalism’s forces of production, but held in check by the competitive and acquisitive form of capitalist society. For Marx, the inevitable tension between the forces of production and how society is organized is the motor of history. As he writes in The German Ideology:

At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or-what is but a legal expression for the same thing-with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution.

Also in The German Ideology, Marx makes clear the powers of industry and their labor-saving and productivity-increasing nature, are themselves necessary conditions for human liberation:

…slavery cannot be abolished without the steam engine and the mule and spinning-jenny, serfdom cannot be abolished without improved agriculture, and that, in general, people cannot be liberated as long as they are unable to obtain food and drink, housing and clothing in adequate quality and quantity. “Liberation” is a historical and not a mental act, and it is brought about by historical conditions, the [development] of industry, commerce, [agri]culture, the [conditions of intercourse]

As for my original post, where I said socialism and eventually communism would be “abundantly more productive than capitalism,” I was told Marx did not think any such thing. Well, let’s take a look at the passage I had in mind from Marx’s “Critique of the Gotha Program,” written to the leadership of the German Social Democratic Party in 1875:

So, Marx clearly envisions an endpoint where “productive forces have…increased” and “cooperative wealth [flows] more abundantly.” As you can see, he also writes, “the narrow horizon of bourgeois right” would be “crossed in its entirety.” This is what I had mind when I wrote that the “moral problems issues that arise under capitalism” would “no longer exist.” According to Marx, all the spiritual products of a society, its ideology—its cultural values, norms, moral conceptions etc.—flow out of its productive needs and social organization:

Morality, religion, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking.

Marx writes in The Communist Manifesto, for the revolutionary proletarian, “Law, morality, religion, are to him so many bourgeois prejudices, behind which lurk in ambush just as many bourgeois interests.” That is not to say that there are not complexities and tensions in Marx’s texts about the nature of morality. Marx’s disgust for capitalism and desire for a new society is often put in explicitly moral terms and perhaps it cannot avoid being put in such terms. And sometimes the notion of ideology as a whole is given a greater or lesser degree of independence from the productive base of society. But my point was, that, for Marx, the morality of the future society will not be the morality of the present day. As Engels later put it,

…as society has hitherto moved in class antagonisms, morality has always been class morality; it has either justified the domination and the interests of the ruling class, or, ever since the oppressed class became powerful enough, it has represented its indignation against this domination and the future interests of the oppressed That in this process there has on the whole been progress in morality, as in all other branches of human knowledge, no one will doubt. But we have not yet passed beyond class morality. A really human morality which stands above class antagonisms and above any recollection of them becomes possible only at a stage of society which has not only overcome class antagonisms but has even forgotten them in practical life.

In other words, as I said, the moral issues that arise in capitalism would no longer exist.


Another big contention arose when I claimed that Marx viewed his own thought on analogy to or even an extension of the natural sciences. I was told that I did not understand what Marx meant by “science” and that science in the 19th century was much different than it is today. As different as the 19th century was, it certainly had a robust conception of determinism: this was the world of Newton, and more contemporaneously, of Darwin. And Marx wrote his doctoral dissertation on the atomism of Epicurus and Democritus.

The fact of the matter is from time to time Marx appears to have believed he was discovering laws of social development that—at the very least—were analogous to, but could also literally be taken to be, natural laws. I’m not saying that this natural scientific conceit characterizes the entirety of Marx’s corpus—elsewhere Marx subordinates the development of natural science to the development of society—,but it is nonetheless present in his work. In the preface to volume 1 of Capital, Marx defines the “the ultimate aim of this work” as being “to lay bare the economic law of motion of modern society.” He writes his “standpoint” is one in “which the evolution of the economic formation of society is viewed as a process of natural history.” He speaks of “the natural laws of capitalist productionthat work “with iron necessity towards inevitable results.” In chapter 2 of Capital, Marx writes, “In the form of society now under consideration, the behavior of men in the social process of production is purely atomic. Hence their relations to each other in production assume a material character independent of their control and conscious individual action.” Or in chapter 25: “As the heavenly bodies, once thrown into a certain definite motion, always repeat this, so it is with social production, as soon as it is once thrown into this movement of alternate expansion and contraction.”

Anyway, you’ve all indulged me for long enough. In conclusion, I’d just like to say that my reading here is not in any way definitive or final, but it is a reasonable one that is born out by the texts in question. It’s level one stuff, which has to be dealt with to move on to more interesting and contemporary questions. I believe Marx’s pretensions to natural science may fail, but that in itself does not necessarily consign his work to the flames. Nor do we necessarily have to be believe in the notion that a communist society will abolish scarcity for all time and resolve all the outstanding political and moral questions of history. There is much to be learned even when we do not take seriously these particular conceits. Or maybe even if we do take them seriously. It might be fruitful and interesting to take the scientific side of Marxism as something outlined by Marx, but yet to be accomplished, as an open “research programme,” to borrow from the philosopher of science Imre Lakatos. This was the point of the tweet to begin with: — to get people to consider what is so radical, strange and distinctive about Marx as a thinker, what it is that makes him still fun to read and compelling in the 21st century. Enjoy your weekend.