A perspective on Marx

Published : Jul 18, 2003 00:00 IST

Why Read Marx Today? by Jonathan Wolff; Oxford University Press, U.K., 2002; pages viii + 236, 11.99 (hardback).

IN the midst of all the contentious debates of our times, there seems to be a remarkable degree of consensus about the irrelevance of Marxism. At least, this is what the corporate-dominated media and the mainstream political discourse all over the world would have us believe. To be acceptable in the current intellectual climate, therefore, one must invoke Marxism only to excoriate its flaws and followers. Critics of Marxism are never tired of deriding its imperfections and pointing out its `failures' in the former Soviet Union and other countries of the erstwhile socialist bloc. Except for `moth-eaten' states such as Cuba and North Korea, apparently, the world has jettisoned communism, a fact underscored by the recent, de facto acceptance of capitalism by China.

Given the overwhelming propaganda against Marxism, one could be forgiven for assuming that Marx and his ideas are meaningless. Besides, the post-Cold War generation of deradicalised and careerist youth have little patience for ideologies, more so for what they consider to be `discredited' ones. In this context, answer to a question like `why read Marx today?' might seem axiomatic, that is, that there is nothing to be gained by reading Marx. Yet, asked in a spirit of enquiry, it seems to suggest that in spite of all that has happened, Marx might not, after all, be redundant. Mercifully, there are in our midst enough perceptive people who seem to share this opinion. The barrage of criticism against Marxism fills them with misgivings about Marx and his ideas. Nevertheless, they wonder how a worldview that inspired so many people around the world could be so completely devoid of merit. Surely, there must be something in Marx's views that could still be of significance for our times. Those interested in exploring what is living and what is dead in Marxism will be delighted to find balanced perspectives on the topic in Jonathan Wolff's Why Read Marx Today?

WOLFF, a Professor of Philosophy at University College in London and author of several books on political philosophy, wrote this book based on the lectures he delivered over the years in his course on Marxism. With the disciplined disinterestedness of a philosopher, he has appraised the multifaceted intellectual output of Marx and his social vision. In the first two chapters, Wolff offers a broad overview of Marx's thoughts on religion, historical materialism, labour and alienation, money and credit, liberalism, emancipation and so on. In doing so, he accomplishes two objectives at once. First, he provides a succinct account of the debates and the ideological background of Marx's period. Second, he elucidates the more abstruse aspects of Marx's ideas through his apposite exegesis and explains how the seminal thoughts of Marx radically broadened the scholarly horizons of his age. Thus, having established the necessary framework for assessing Marx, Wolff goes on to examine critically the validity and usefulness of Marx's ideas.

A major strength of the book is its intellectual rigour, a quality it shares with the writings of Marx. Although writing on cerebral issues, Wolff presents his views in an accessible manner. Steering clear of high rhetoric, convoluted logic and intellectual callisthenics - the stuff of polemical writings - he predicates his critique on Marx's original writings and unobtrusively brings to bold relief their strengths and shortcomings. Neither timid in his praise nor shrill in his criticism, Wolff offers a nuanced evaluation of Marx. He, for instance, is troubled by the `sweeping' and `unsubstantiated' nature of Marx's grand theories and argues that we must abandon them. Yet, he also generously pays tribute to Marx for his rapier-sharp analysis of capitalism and describes him as `the great-grandfather of today's anti-capitalist movement' (page 2).

Before analysing polemical issues of Marxian dialectics, in a brief introduction to the life of Marx, Wolff rightly points out some general reasons why reading his works would be a rewarding exercise. As is well known, Karl Marx was a polymath, an intellectual colossus whose scholarly interests were staggeringly eclectic. Even as a youngster, he read voraciously and mastered poetry, the classics, philosophy, economics, law, religion, literature and a number of European languages. To give a sense of his prodigious intellect, Wolff refers to a letter the barely 19-year-old Karl - then a student of law in Berlin - wrote to his father. In it, Marx apprises his father of the work he accomplished during the term. It included his poetry, translations from classical languages, a 300-page philosophical treatise on law, a dialogue unifying art and science, readings on law and philosophy, and the entire opus of the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Besides, during his spare time, he, apparently, started teaching himself English and Italian. Wolff also cites a memorable postscript to this letter in which Marx writes: "Forgive, dear father, the illegible handwriting and bad style; it is almost four o'clock. The candle is burnt right down and my eyes are sore" (page 6). In terms of his intellectual abilities, Marx, thus, was not just a person; he was a phenomenon. He embodied the highest traditions of scholarship during his epoch. As for a work ethic, Marx did not have one, he was the work ethic. Evidently, savouring the writings of such a genius is, in and of itself, a great joy. Whether or not his ideas are germane now, his myriad writings and their intricate logic pose a tantalising challenge to one's thinking, one that any intellectual worth his or her salt would willingly accept.

On a related note, anyone interested in the history and evolution of ideas simply cannot ignore Marx. No social science discipline has remained immune from his critical interventions. In fact, such is the pervasive sway of Marxian thought that it has fundamentally altered the trajectory of all the areas in which Marx wrote. As Wolff puts it: "Marx's influence, in both theory and practice, is beyond measure" (page 100). Furthermore, as is evident from his vast corpus, Marx invariably rejected received wisdom; instead, he moved beyond it by offering innovative explanations for social phenomena. Not just that, he also provided creative solutions to the problems he had identified. All of which means that even die-hard opponents of Marxism have to grapple with his ideas one way or the other.

One of the areas in which Marx's intervention is truly promethean is religion. He rejected the views of Hegel and modified those of Ludwig Feuerbach, two leading thinkers whose thoughts were influential in his time. Hegel argued that God created the world and He did so because "God simply would not be God without the world" (page 15). Feuerbach maintained that human beings created God in their own image and hence urged people to forsake religion and embrace radical humanism instead. Marx affirmed his contention and improved on it, stating that we invent God and religion to find solace from our miseries on earth. As Wolff points out, Marx also states that the cause of our misery is alienation and that religion is an ersatz solution to it. He claimed that in a communist society there would be no alienation and hence no need for religion. Marx's innovation lies in explaining why Feuerbach's thesis is true and how we can adopt it to improve our lives.

Perhaps because it is profoundly subversive, critics of Marxian thesis on religion are a legion. They disagree with Marx's characterisation of religion as the opiate of the masses and argue that it is a narrow, essentialist perspective on religion. Similarly, they reject Marx's argument that in class-divided societies, religion is used to keep the working class on a leash. Wolff, like several other scholars, faults Marx for his "portrayal of workers as the unwitting dupes of a bourgeois conspiracy... " (page 103). His more fundamental disagreement, though, is with Marx's views on why man invents religion. While accepting Feuerbach's thesis that human beings invented God, Wolff disputes that they did so to gain solace. On the contrary, he avers: "(P)erhaps it has something to do with our need to explain the world around us. Perhaps it answers some other need that Marx ignored" (page 104).

Wolff does have a point. Marx's analysis does not exhaust all the explanations for the origin of religion. Nevertheless, it is equally true that religion is attractive because it tries to offer a powerful antidote to the ineluctable features of life, namely, impermanence, scarcity and contingency. Thus, globally, we notice that religion has its most ardent followers in places where insecurity, indigence and suffering reign supreme. Such was the intellectual acuity of Marx that he not only recognised this fact but also provided a cogent analysis for it by underscoring the umbilical connection between alienation and religion.

As Wolff rightly points out, `a keystone idea' of Marx's early writing is that "labour, or productive activity, is man's primary form of engagement with the world" (page 104). Alienation from labour, according to Marx, is a fundamental cause of misery on earth, which, in turn, leads to the creation of religion. He identifies four forms of alienated labour: alienation from the product, alienation in productive activity, alienation from our species-being, and finally, alienation from other human beings. Extending this line of argument further, Marx held that in religious alienation "the human essence becomes `detached' from human existence. We do not exercise our most essential features; rather we worship them, in an alien form" (page 29). Regardless of the supposed inadequacies of Marx, one cannot deny the enormous explanatory potential of his thesis. One notices, for instance, that since alienation is most severe under capitalism, capitalist societies tend to witness robust articulations of religion. In societies where cannibalistic and predatory forms of capitalism flourish, we find that religious fervour metamorphoses into fundamentalism. The popularity of the Hindutva movement in India, the appeal of a pristine Islamic society in several Arab and Muslim nations, and the massive resurgence of the religious Right in the United States all attest the validity of Marx's interpretation of religion.

MARX'S concept of alienation and its attendant ills constitutes a cornerstone of his withering critique of capitalism. Wolff admits that his account is "very impressive and contains much of enduring worth" (page104). Yet, he points out that the notion of alienation rests on certain questionable assumptions. For instance, Wolff argues that since "certain aspects of alienated labour could be a feature of any highly mechanised process", alienation could occur even under communism (ibid.). Having made this point, he concedes that there is a greater possibility of alienation under capitalism, arising from the division of labour, particularly when it leads to de-skilling. Interestingly, however, he remains sceptical about Marx's point that such a possibility would not arise under communism on the grounds that it is "untested". Wolff's more fundamental critique of Marx is that he "does very little to tell us what non-alienation would be like" (page 105). Indeed, Marx does not offer a detailed explanation of "non-alienation" or, for that matter, about the nature of "human emancipation", all at one place. Yet, a careful reading of his huge corpus should give one a fairly good sense of the meaning of these concepts.

Marx's vision of communism and its eventual triumph rests crucially on his materialist interpretation of history. He argued that the development of productive forces was the pivot around which history evolved. Since capitalism, with its inherent limitations, inhibits the development of productive forces beyond a point, Marx maintained that it will, inevitably, be replaced by communism. Wolff questions Marx's thesis and accuses him of making this claim repeatedly without providing reasons. His point is that every economic system, including communism, will eventually fetter the development of productive forces. Wolff is also not convinced by the Marxian notion that communism is growing within the womb of capitalism. When "lots of things are growing in the womb of capitalism", why does Marx zero in only on potentially communist forms of economic analysis, he asks (page109). Likewise, Marx's trenchant analysis of capitalism and its ever-worsening crisis and his theory about the falling rate of profits make no impression on Wolff. "Why shouldn't it be capitalism that lasts for ever, gently adapting itself to the developing productive forces?" (page 110). He avers that this is happening already and hence dismisses the law of falling rate of profit. Wolff, unfortunately, does not bother to provide evidence for his assertions.

The gravamen of Wolff's disquisition is that there are significant flaws in Marx's theory of history. Marx, apparently, was wrong in predicting the demise of capitalism and the emergence of communism. By laying too much emphasis on labour and production, he allegedly ignored the point that human beings have other needs too. Wolff also points out that Marx predicted the arrival of communism in 1843, several years before he developed his theory of history. Thus Marx, apparently, forged a theory to suit his prediction; his vision of communism was not predicated on his theory. Although seemingly true, this is a debatable point requiring more comprehensive research.

WOLFF'S criticisms are not entirely new or well-substantiated. Although interesting, they would be more credible if he had engaged Marx's views in a more elaborate manner. On several occasions, one is confused by what seems like equivocation. For example, Wolff applauds Marx for his "grand vision" and credits him for having transformed our understanding of history. He also concedes that, to a large extent, economics is at the root of history. Yet, Wolff is reluctant to endorse the Marxian analysis of capitalism. Perhaps, he has solid reasons for doing so. Whatever they are, the reader is not privy to his insights. It is ironic that Wolff, who accuses Marx on several occasions of providing "little details on specifics", and of being "infuriatingly vague", exposes himself to similar charges.

One contestable point Wolff makes is about the Marxian theory of surplus value. He dismisses the theory and questions the validity of the labour theory of value as well. Again, he blames Marx for providing "no good reason" to believe that these theories are true (page114). Wolff declares that there is no basis for the Marxian thesis that labour is the source of all value and profit. Besides, "(o)nce the theory is formulated in mathematical terms, it turns out that there is nothing special about it" (page 115). In defence of his claim, Wolff points out that not all goods contain labour. To wit, in real economies, there are several goods whose prices the labour theory of value cannot seem to explain, such as Picasso's sketches which "took seconds, but are worth tens of thousands of pounds" (page 114). If Wolff's contention is correct, how can he account for the generation of profits, in general? He candidly admits: "I'm not sure. Perhaps by taking advantage of opportunities that are not available to or seen by everyone" (page 116). About the only saving grace of Marxian economics, according to Wolff, is that it explains "how people in the developed economies exploit the people elsewhere with whom they trade" (page 117). Wolff's cursory and sweeping criticisms leave the reader with the sense that he could, perhaps, benefit from carefully re-reading copious arguments Marx offers in support of his economic theories.

Lastly, as one can imagine, if the theory of surplus value is baseless and workers are not exploited, obviously, communism cannot but be riddled with imperfections. Wolff cites several inadequacies from what resembles a neo-Hobbesian perspective. In his view, even if achieved, Marxian communism cannot survive for long as "we are naturally selfish" (page 119). Also, without the market and the profit motive, people will just not have the incentive to work. It is a trifle surprising that Wolff, who sees a lot of merit in Marxism, should recycle such trite criticisms. One point he makes is relevant, though. Marxism has a "limited ecological perspective" as it seems to be premised on the notion that the resources of the natural world are inexhaustible.

All told, this book makes for interesting reading. A more rigorous analysis of Marx's views backed by unassailable evidence would have enhanced its value. Regardless, Wolff deserves credit for initiating a debate on the ideas of one of the giants of the Western intellectual tradition.

Badrinath Rao is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Asian Studies at Kettering University in Flint, Michigan, United States.

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