Thursday, March 10, 2011

The appeal of Marxism

A friend, who had served as a research assistant to a Marxist academic, recently observed that Marxists academics do not conduct research, they look for footnotes because they already know the answers. My friend’s pointed observation has a large degree of truth to it: the more overtly Marxist a piece of scholarship is, the more it tends to conform to this “looking for footnotes” pattern. (Even as a callow undergraduate, I quickly worked out that ‘A Marxist Critique’ meant proving that some X was not Marxist and then criticising it or them for it, providing an endless engine of easy publication “productivity”.)

Not that Marxists are alone in this. Much the same observation could be made of certain Catholic and Christian scholars. Indeed, any system of revealed or deductive analysis is prone to similar patterns. This particularly shows up in the tendency towards prediction of apocalyptic failure. Thus we get the Ever Sharpening Crisis of Capitalism of Marxism, the Looming Hyperinflation of many Austrian economics commentators, the Approaching Starvation Catastrophe of Malthusian pessimists and the Clear Moral Decay of conservative Christian (particularly Catholic) thought respectively as the failure of events to actually conform to the system of revealed/deduced truth is reconciled into a projected disaster that will provide The Final Proof. (Catholics and other religious critics have the advantage that they can more easily gloss existing patterns as [moral] catastrophes, since their criteria are supernatural rather than material.)

Considering that Marxism is a structure of analysis of social phenomena adherence to which within the Anglosphere is concentrated in academe (overtly Marxist political parties are highly marginal phenomena whose membership and recruitment is overwhelmingly via institutions of higher education) there is clear ground (i.e. a reason based on evidence and logic), and some clear motives, why someone might become a Marxist.

The ground is simple.

(1) Truth: that Marxism gives an accurate, or largely, accurate view of the world.

The motives are:

(2) Compassion: Marxism provides the best vehicle for improving the human condition. (I would include here revulsion against the dark sides of capitalism provided it is accompanied by genuine attention to, and engagement in, improving the human condition and is not just frozen rage and so covered by one of the following motives.)

(3) Status: Marxism expresses or elevates your status as a morally concerned person.

(4) Gnosis: Marxism gives a sense of having an understanding world that others lack: that is, it elevates your epistemic status.

(5) Alienation: Marxism provides a vehicle for expressing one’s rage and alienation from existing social conditions (such as, for example, colonial rule).

Now, I believe it is clear that, in crucial basic ways – such as its theory of value and of exploitation – Marxism is false. So, believing in Marxism because it is true is a mistake, because it is not. But I do not believe one can knowingly believe something one believes is false. That is, I believe that believing x entails believing that it is so that x.
One could adhere to something, in the sense of wielding it as a banner or identity, or following its rituals, without believing it is true. (Grahame Greene and Catholicism might be an example of this; much Roman public religion and ritual clearly was.) But that just makes it clear one has motives for adhering, rather than grounds (based on evidence and logic leading to conclusions or inferences about what is true) to do so.

One might believe x is true but fear that it is not, and erect various psychological defences to protect your belief in x and so block grounds to believe that x is not so. But you do that when you have motives for believing x regardless of any grounds to believe x based on evidence and logic. Provided one is not simply using Marxism as an identity in the way some religious adherents do about their faith, motives (2), (3), (4) and (5) rely, on believing (1), that Marxism is (essentially) true. But they also provide motives to block evidence or arguments that Marxism is (essentially) false.

But one will behave differently towards problematic evidence depending on which motives drive you. For example, Norman Geras’ paper on What It Means To Be A Marxist is a case of compassionate Marxism. The issues he struggles with are issues about Marxism and Marxists failing to work to improve the human condition and, indeed, making it much worse or being far too lenient on those who are doing so. Conversely, he clearly believes that supporting capitalism shows a lack of appropriate, or deeply flawed, compassion or moral concern. Clearly, I think he is wrong, and demonstrably so. Nevertheless, his motives are fairly clear, both from what he says here and the concerns that drive his blogging. (See, for example, this post on a Terry Eagleton review of an Eric Hobsbawn book.)

But it is also fairly clear that compassion is not the driving motive for most Western Marxists, particularly academic Marxists. We can tell this because Norman Geras is wildly untypical of contemporary or past Marxists. By which I do not mean that they lack his politics (though I mean that in part) but that they show little or no sign of wrestling with such concerns in other than a fairly perfunctory way at best (as Geras takes Eagleton to task over). The level of implicit or explicit apologism for various Marxist tyrannies (or even just anti-Western) tyrannies provide clear revealed preference that, whatever the expressed preference, compassion – in the sense of genuine attention to alleviating the suffering of others – is and has not been a dominant motive for believing in Marxism.

Which leaves (moral) status, gnosis (cognitive status) and alienation (hostile separation) as motives for believing in Marxism. Teasing them out individually is rather harder, as they tend to be mutually supporting. The more evil one characterises ‘capitalism’ (and its political cognate ‘imperialism’) as being, the higher moral status one’s opposition has, the more cognitively perceptive one can feel oneself to be (particularly to all that ‘false consciousness’ one can see all around one) and the more justified one’s feelings of alienation are.

Indeed, this is such a powerful matrix of supporting motives that it lives on beyond formal adherence to Marxism and provides a fairly standard network of outlooks for modern academic culture, especially in the humanities, arts and social sciences (though not so much in economics). In particular, the feeling that as an academic (particularly a tenured academic) one is distinctly morally superior to all those engaged in “vulgar” commerce is clearly a very powerful motivator. (A lot of the antipathy to economics – apart from straight envy at their higher capacity to earn consultancy fees – comes from the fact that it generates the “wrong” answers for such sense of anti-commerce superiority.) The notion that one’s intellectual, cultural or moral sophistication shows one to be better than “vulgar” or “amoral” merchants is a view which has a very long history, after all, extending back millennia.

The grandiose nature of Marxism gives it particularly strong appeal if one feels one lacks power and status (or, at least, has less power and status than one feels one ought to have). Hence its appeal to academics in general and intellectuals in colonial or autocratic societies in particular. (The grandiose nature of Marxism, and its appeal to status, gnosis and alienation, also makes it an excellent religion substitute, as long the fears that it is false can be kept at bay.)

Ultimately, Marxism has been a failure, and I do not simply mean in its propensity to produce murderous tyrannies (though I mean that in part). It has been a scholarly failure. It simply does not expand or grow in any useful sense. Marxist scholars who provide genuine intellectual contributions generally do so despite their Marxism, not because of it. The contrast with mainstream economics, for example, is painful. There is simply no equivalent of – to take just one example – the identification and application of the concept of transaction costs. But mainstream economics represents distilled engagement with evidence and logic. (Consider, for example, this selection of the top 20 articles published by the American Economic Review.) Marxism profoundly lacks that capacity to evolve and grow since it derives its essential identity from the writing of two men (Marx and Engels).

Marxism has some genuine strengths. It does generate some useful questions (though far less useful answers). As noted in my review of Earle’s book, its concern with the generation and use of economic surplus above subsistence makes it attractive to archaeologists and anthropologists. Alas, its misunderstanding of the role of labour, exchange and property severely limits its analytical utility.

Adherence to Marxism has been overwhelmingly based on motives, not grounds. Hence how much it has spread to disciplines other than economics and how little substantive Marxian economics there is. Such evolution as Marxism has undergone has been entirely about keeping up its ability to serve such motives, given that it does not serve for such unless adherents can maintain, whatever their fears, the belief that it is true.

But, whether in overt or covert forms, Marxism does serve such motives very well. It is in decline but one wonders if it will ever reach a point of too much failure: after all, so far no amount of failure has been too much.

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