Tuesday, April 6, 2010

About Marx, Marxism and Leninism

This extends comments I made here and here.

In response to a dissection of a speech by Karl Rove defending “enhanced torture techniques”, the following comment was made:
… am I a simplistic and lazy Marxist if I say the relentless slavery to the demands of capital in these discourses is a necessary and screamingly sufficient reason for dismissal?

To which I responded: Yes.

Consider the levelling simplicity of the quoted comment. Whose capital? How defined? Is there only one set of such demands? Is there only one way such putative "demands" can be satisfied? What are the mechanisms of transmission that lead to the observed variety of views?

There are so many problems with Marxism (in any form) it is hard to know where to start. But the complete denial of the reality of politics involved—politics as a way of dealing with diverse interests and perceptions—is precisely why Marxism has such an appalling record when put into any sort of practice. For such a ludicrously mechanical view of politics must dismiss all the weary learning about how to manage the reality of politics it so completely fails to acknowledge.

It is not serious analysis to categorise politics (particularly as specific a policy issue as “enhanced interrogation”) as responding to the demands of “capital”, it is category-mysticism passing itself off as analysis. In the context of debate over “enhanced interrogation techniques”, one merely has to look at the history of torture in the common law to see what utter nonsense such simplistic “analysis” is.

But that levelling simplicity is, of course, central to the appeal. It is so simple anyone can do it: and with such a minimal burden of knowledge and research effort too. Determine the “class”, apply the “analysis” and, hey presto!, the “conclusion” follows. One that provides both a cosy sense of cognitive superiority (“I know how things really work”) and moral superiority (“I am not motivated by such vile thinking”).

Such analysis has the particular appeal to an academe that can parade how virtuously "not commercial" it is: all the more virtuous the more really, really, evil commerce (maleficent capital and capitalism) is.

As a system of analysis, Marxism explains almost nothing well. That people often act out of self-interest is hardly news. Reducing such self-interest to "class" or "profit" is puerile, as any perusal of the history of Leninism itself amply demonstrates.

An analysis of American politics that holds that corporate interests automatically trump union and public sector interests is equally puerile, especially given that public employment has increasingly become a device for enriching a privileged caste at the expense of the general public.

The class analysis of Marxism does not work, as class does not order human behaviour in the way it claims. In particular, it confuses common (as in similar) patterns of action with common (as in collective) action, so fails to grip reality. Firms could not exist if capital was not in competition with capital and labour was not in competition with labour. (Indeed, the power of unions rests on excluding labour competition, aka ‘scabs’.)
What Marxism does is provide a "sophisticated" form of theomachy (the belief that social events are determined by powerful hidden forces—unless one is one blessed with appropriate gnosis) coupled with a belief in the absolute value of one's ultimate goal and a vindication to wage a war against people as-they-are in the name of people as-they-are-deemed-to-ought-to-be. 
Doing so while also feeding the academy's widespread anti-commercial prejudices. There is nothing "accidental" about the history of Marxism, or why it is one of those "exploded systems" that, as Adam Smith denounced more than two centuries ago, live on in academe after vanishing elsewhere.

The labour theory of value is nonsense, and murderous and tyrannical nonsense at that, since the notion of "one true class" has exactly the same oppressive and murderous implications as "one true sexuality", "one true race", "one true religion" etc. What Marx’s labour theory of value says, after all, is that all those participants in the economic process who are not providing labour are exploitative parasites who can be dispensed with: indeed, ought to be dispensed with. The oppressive and murderous implications of that are perfectly obvious and have been played out in country after country. For such people are not only dispensable, they are vile exploiters and barriers to the creation of the “final society”.

This problem is inherent in Marxism’s Hegelian roots. Hegel held that the contradictions of metaphysics are a correct picture of a reality with contradiction at its heart. Hegel taught that reality reflects ideas that are in endless contention as thesis leads to antithesis leading to synthesis leading to a new thesis and so on. These ideas are manifested in civilisations which are thus in endless, and profound, conflict. Such that, in Hegel’s words, the state “… is the march of God through history”: a march that is, as Gilson notes, is “strewn with ruins” for, as Hegel tells us:
This military class is the class of universality.
The class through which history is violently resolved with maximum metaphysical pretension. A universe of contradictory strife hovering on a climactic resolution: one can see that Marx is indeed a disciple of Hegel—a philosophy of profound violence with no higher truth to restrain it than its commitment to the final synthesis. This is revolutionary as ubermensch who is beyond morality and history, because they transcend both, with the workers cast as the “universal class” but even more universal, for they will be the only class left.

Of course, if the State is such a metaphysically heroic entity, it can be so heroic in all sorts of causes. Including manifesting the will of the volk in history, seeking lebensraum: resources clear of ethnic obstructions just as Marxism sought resources cleared of class obstructions.

Marx and Engels had a view of masses of their fellow humans as “dispensable” that goes right back to the beginnings of their career:
The next world war will result in the disappearance from the face of the earth not only of reactionary classes and dynasties, but also of entire reactionary peoples. And that, too, is a step forward.
A view, one notes, that is a ethnically-exterminating as anything in the Nazi vision.

This all based on a theory of exploitation that relies on playing (inconsistent) games with the concept of labour. Since the underlying economic analysis is nonsense, attempting to put it into practice ends up with seriously dysfunctional economies where economic roles that are not admitted to be legitimate are performed (badly) by complex bureaucracies that evolve into semi-hereditary engines of privilege. Not as some “perversion” of the ideology but following quite directly from its patterns and structure, from its logic.

It is truly amazing to have people teach Marxism, a philosophy all about the logic of history, and yet claim that the history of Marxism does not reveal its logic.

Pointing to social democracy (the merging of socialism with liberalism) as an alternative Marxian path is otiose, since there is a clear history to social democracy: the socialist element declines while the liberal element increases over time due to the brute reality that socialism does not work. Subject to the selection processes of competitive politics (both in internal elections and with competing jurisdictions), the dysfunctional (socialist) elements of social democracy get increasingly abandoned over time as they are found not to work.

Academic theorists, isolated from the consequences of their ideas except as status markers, may either ignore this, explain it away or sneer at it but the lessons are clear for those with eyes to see.

But one of the big problems with Marxism is precisely the way it encourages a crippled epistemology (pdf). Consider this quote from a philosopher who teaches Marx at university:
But if there's one thing that we ought to have learned from Marx, it is that bourgeois ideology tends to be totalizing and, hence, none of us are entirely free of its distorting effects. And so, even as I attempt to chip away at and unscramble some of the bourgeois misconceptions above, I must also remain attentive to my own bourgeois blind spots.

I hate this sort of thinking. It is essentially an open invitation to develop contempt for one's "unenlightened" fellow citizens. That societies and cultures have operating presumptions that are deeply embedded is obviously true. But that is a very different notion than this "suffocating blanket" concept of systematic delusion and malign power over perception and understanding.

Such an analysis of social cognition also naturally generates a crippled epistemology by discouraging (or even blocking) openness to inconvenient evidence. Rather than thinking people might have good reasons—grounded in how things are—for thinking as they do, it is an open invitation to dismiss any inconvenient views as “bourgeois ideology”. That is, as a form of delusion: a diagnosis that cuts one off from a huge amount of information about social reality.

A problem in teaching Marxism to student is
... their identification of Marxism with Soviet and Chinese practice
But Soviet and Chinese practice have something to do with Marxism. Indeed, they, in fact, express the underlying logic of operationalising Marxism pretty well, as discussed above. The "Lenin was a bad Marxist" and "it just hasn't been tried properly" are defensive justifications rather than hard-headed analysis.

Radical change in the society-transformed sense may not be impossible: but the record is pretty clear that it is a bloody (literally) bad idea: not least because it presumes a knowledge of the working of society that is both profoundly arrogant and profoundly wrong.

It is also inherently tyrannical. If one “knows” the end of society, the end of history, how things should be “objectively”, then one can dispense with consulting the general public on the way through. Along with Marxism’s dismissal of ordinary human cognition, such an outlook naturally leads to the dismissal of politics (in the Aristotelian sense) noted above, and with it all the human learning about such politics and the dangers of politics: as it dismisses human learning about so much.

Marxism is a form of “objective” teleology, and all such is inherently dismissive of human agency (this is true of Thomism as well as Marxism): with consequences that have been repeatedly played out in the oppressions that flow from the notion that “error has no rights” because human action and cognition is held to be legitimate only if it serves the designated morally trumping ends.

An example of Marxism’s dismissal of inconvenient human cognition is provided vividly in Marx’s attitude to Jewish identity:
Once society has succeeded in abolishing the empirical essence of Judaism – huckstering and its preconditions – the Jew will have become impossible, because his consciousness no longer has an object, because the subjective basis of Judaism, practical need, has been humanized, and because the conflict between man’s individual-sensuous existence and his species-existence has been abolished.
The social emancipation of the Jew is the emancipation of society from Judaism.
People do not get to define themselves: Marxism gets to define them. The attempt to insulate Marx from the negative features of Marxist history simply does not work.

Marxism is based on a profoundly mistaken analysis of economic activity. One that allows dramatic dismissal of the remarkable achievements of market societies as inherently “exploitive” in the name of a self-satisfied “vision splendid” by its adherents. Marxism has an underlying logic that the attempts to operationalise it in fact express revealingly. The attempts to “quarantine off” that profoundly revealing experience is (as we can see in this amusing lecture on the legacy of Adam Smith versus the legacy of Karl Marx here) a contemptible reaction to massive human suffering: a mirror of Marxism’s dismissal of inconvenient human achievement and inconvenient human cognition.

Dismissals that lead directly to its profoundly oppressive record, as all criticism or disagreement can be dismissed either as delusion or as blocking the great transformative goal or both. A goal that also leads to Marxism-in-practice’s profoundly oppressive record as it is so morally trumping it has been taken, again and again, to justify any action deemed to further its achievement. Including re-instituting slavery and serdom.

Even the leadership worship one sees in Leninist states flows naturally from this teleological cognitive arrogance, for if the role of the revolutionary state is to be the agent of History, if social transformation comes from having the correct policies correctly implemented, then of course the leadership—as the central instrument of this process of transformation—must epitomise and embody this profound cognitive and moral understanding. The leadership-worship of the Kim Family Regime is just an extreme manifestation of an inherent tendency. As is, of course, the treating of Marx himself as a secular prophet.

What Marxism has going for it—apart from its offer of profound gnosis—is the epitome of the politics of grand, transformative “good intentions”. Since academics are not actually responsible for making anything work in the world (even the consequences of their teaching are born by their students, not them), still less do they have to live with the consequences of their idea, they are naturally strongly inclined to the politics of grand “good intentions” as—being insulated from responsibility of making things in the world work—their intentions can be “purer” and “grander” than anyone else’s. Hence the wish to insulate the grand intentions of Marxism from the horrors of its implementation: such self-indulgent self-exculpation is not, however, worthy of a moment’s respect.

Marxism as a system of thought is not a distillation of history. It is, in a profound and pervasive sense, a flight from history as-it-is into a delusion about history as-it-is-deemed-to-be.

Marxism is a philosophy to be studied for its effect on history and as a warning. It is not a philosophy to be respected, let alone followed.

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