With the possible exception of Jesuschrist, Karl Marx is among the most influential thinkers of all times. What does it mean to be a Marxist? I often quote a paragraph that is in Jon Elster’s “Introduction to Karl Marx”:
“If, by a Marxist, you mean someone who holds all the beliefs that Marx himself thought were his most important ideas, including scientific socialism, the labor theory of value, the theory of the falling rate of profit, the unity of theory and practice in revolutionary struggle, and the utopian vision of a transparent communist society unconstrained by scarcity, then I am certainly not a Marxist. But if, by a Marxist, you mean someone who can trace the ancestry of his most important beliefs back to Marx, the I am indeed a Marxist. “”
I have similar feelings. For most of my trajectory as a social scientist I have been on the neoclassical economist, orthodox, hard believer in quantitative research organized by standard microeconomic principles. This is not, in my view, in contradiction with a set of core ideas that I use in my daily thought process to make sense about the world. I will name three which I think are particularly useful. I do not claim that these are essentially “Marxist”, or faithful to Marx’s version of them, but in my personal case they have a strong Marxist root. How can I reconcile this with my commitment to social science orthodoxy?
I present no references, and many arguments should be nuance, but I am trying to keep this post readable.
The materialist interpretation of history. History is driven by changes in the modes of productions, that is, in the capacity of human society to generate resources that are driven to their consumption and reproduction. In other words: it is all about technology. This is core to textbook models of economic growth, in technology and factor accumulation typically play a central role.
Many changes that are often understood as guided by human agency, or ideas, usually reflect large changes in technology and demography. My personal favorite, because it contrasts with standard views of the phenomenon, is the economic rise of women. Female equality is, perhaps, the key historical event of the last century.
Contemporary research in gender economics (from Barbara Bergmann to Claudia Goldin) have found that the liberation of women from the domain of domesticity is driven by a set of changes in technology. The technology of producing market goods and services, to the extent to which a society in which the service sector concentrates a large part of employment can hardly keep women in the world of domesticity. The rise of electrification and domestic appliances reduced the amount of time necessary to keep a home running drastically, and made the traditional specialization of women in home labor obsolete. The emergence of contraceptives, and the pill, drastically changed sexual norms and gave women control over their life cycle, allowing them to engage in longer careers. Eventually, these changes led to a change in the bargaining power of women, to demographic changes, which in turn were translated into changing values about the role of family and lifestyles.
This view is not one that Marx himself held, but the role of the unexpected effects of changes in technology is a classically Marxist one. The story is to be sure more complex, of course, but the reasons that made these changes possible in the postindustrial world, and not elsewhere are not casual. They are rooted in their historical nature, where “historical” is meant to reflect “material conditions”.
The economic critique of politics and class struggle. As a political economist, this is my bread and butter: most political conflicts are, in fact, expression of distributive conflicts. Political institutions are forms of splitting the pie. Political ideologies express interests, especially class interests.
One dimension is just an expression of the materialist interpretation of history. The nature of politics, democracy, equality or dictatorship are historical products, that reflect material conditions. It is hard to make sense of civil society without thinking about special interest; equality is known to be a pre-requisite for the stability of democracy.
More interestingly is the critical perspective. Many political phenomena and many justifications of pluralism are often seen as reflecting contrasting views of what is good or fair. Routinely, political scientists discuss “identities” or “ideologies” as being important factors. Consider the case of ethnic conflict: national or ethnic identities are often seen as being constitutive of politics. As a Marxist political economist, I have always understood that nationalism (and non-class cleavages) is a bourgeois construct, whose function is to limit the extent of class-conflict. Similarly, ideas about fairness or discussion about policy more often than not reflect equilibria and position in the class structure.
This suspicion against institutions and ideas as being the reflection of class conflict or class aspirations, with roots in the state of modes of production and historical trajectories- is an originally Marxist idea- one that political scientist do not think often enough about.
The critique of bourgeois society. The message of the enlightenment, of XIX century bourgeois revolutionaries, was one of emancipation. Democracy and personal choice were taken to the front page, and men and women were declared to be the masters of their lives. These are the political ideas which, in principle, are supposed to be at the center of out societies and constitutional texts. Tradition and gods were declared obsolete as the source of moral authority by progressives.
Yet, we Marxists have always suspected that this presumed emancipation which was intended to be brought to all segments of society was not at all. While market economies probably are a second best, societies based on private property and the idea of meritocracy embody substantial forms of servitude and alienation. Family links and other forms of archaic social reproduction perdure all along economic life. Individuals are indoctrinated to have quiet lives, acquire consumer durables and coopt family members and friends to their position of power. Superstition, religion, Stata users, ethnic and national identities and other forms of human alienation are far from abolished. Social hierarchies are far from abolished but only covered under a false sense of order. Exploitation is naturalized and legitimized by the idea that exchanges are mutually consensual.
More importantly: these are not bugs of bourgeois society. They are pillars of its functioning. Market exploitation is necessary to preserve creative incentives; hierarchy is a central feature of all capitalist organizations (bureaucracies and firms), and critical sources of inequality, such as the choice to form families with the partner of your choice and the right of parents to transmit their advantage to their children through education and inheritance still considered a central right of the liberal order.
That said, I personally believe that bourgeois society generates a reasonably free, and moderately fair environment, especially compared to most known alternatives. I have no nostalgia for the USSR and no mercy to the Thoreau vegan left who think Putnam is a legitimate source of inspiration. It might be argued that radical attempts to question the principles of capitalist society may lead to much worse outcomes, or be incompatible with liberalism or democracy. I agree. However, accepting the market, the family, hierarchy, and the logic of “meritocracy” as working social principles in the absence of an alternative is very different to celebrating them as embodying some type of virtue, full accomplishment of “free choice”, or presenting them as being the expression of some natural order.
Many of these ideas can and should be nuanced. I will leave nuance for the book that sits in one of the shelves of the library of Babel.