Making Sense of Marx

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This last is dependent on the vicissitudes of the class struggle, and is related to, but not mechanically determined by, the medium and longterm fluctuations of the industrial reserve army of labour. This enabled him to speak of the value of labour power, a phrase that would be devoid of meaning if the workers could spend a given wage on many different bundles that, even if they do add up to the same price, need [?

On the other hand, this procedure also prevented him from securing a firm foundation for the labour theory of value in the Ricardian interpretation. Everything is wrong here. It is, therefore, different from wages, which are just the values better: market prices oscillating around values of one particular commodity: the commodity labour power. In the second place, wages are not, for Marx, direct expressions of the value of labour power in the same way that market prices are not direct expressions of prices of production; the law of supply and demand does intervene in their determination.

Independently of fluctuations in the value of labour power, wages can go up when there is full employment and rapid economic growth rapid accumulation of capital. They can go down when there is massive unemployment and economic stagnation low level of accumulation of capital. This occurs independently of any changes in the bundle of consumer goods bought by money wages.

Third, like all value, the value of labour power is a social, and not an individual, phenomenon. It is determined by the average productivity of labour in the consumer goods industries length of labourtime put into the production of these goods , independently of the way in which each working class family divides up its income between different wage goods and services.

But such an assumption is both logically and historically inconsistent. And then the struggle unfolds to have the money wages include the capacity to purchase what were formerly luxury goods in addition to previous wage goods. It is, therefore, a moot point whether one calculates all these aggregates in labour time, in gold equivalents or in paper money, provided one uses the same measuring rod consistently for particular wage goods and for the aggregate value or production prices or market prices of the commodity labour power.

Small discrepancies between these aggregates will cancel each other out in the long run i. Today, in many countries, this occurs in a conscious or semi-conscious way through industry-wide or nation-wide collective bargaining tomorrow it will start occurring internationally too. The value costs of reproduction of labour power does not change if one worker or even one hundred thousand workers, except in a very small country radically changes the product mix of his consumption packet, becomes a food faddist or a vegetarian, a smoker or a non-smoker, a tee-totaller or an alcoholic.

It does change when, as a result of a successful struggle by the labour movement, the workers succeed in incorporating, for example, paid holidays or free health services or motorcars, in the annual average wage. But this rejection of the materialist dialectic has a boomerang effect upon Elster himself. Merchants and money-changers bankers have been doing that for thousands of years in the most different of civilizations. Innumerable treatises have been written on the way to divide and reinvest profits, from the Talmud to learned contributions by Roman senators, Chinese sages and Muslim philosophers.

Indeed, Marx was quite right when he pointed out that it is the very nature of money-capital to be constantly bent upon money accretion. And it cannot grow in value without at least partial reinvestment of profits i. The real problem concerned social and political relations between the owners of money-capital and the different pre-capitalist ruling classes. Owners of money-capital perforce lived in constant fear of confiscation in one way or another by these ruling classes if they ostensibly accumulated too much capital, or became visibly too rich; hence their natural reaction of hiding part of their wealth or of transforming it into landed estates; hence also their refusal to reinvest part of their profits; and hence, both as a result of real confiscations and of the reactions to the threat of confiscation, the generally discontinuous and therefore limited nature of reinvestment of capital accumulation.

Only when the relationship of socio-political forces changed, when real and durable guarantees against expropriation were achieved, did discontinuous reinvestment accumulation of capital become continuous and could the capitalist mode of production definitively emerge. In the fifteenth century, banker Jacques Coeur could still be expropriated by an ungrateful King Louis XI, whose wars for the unification of France he had financed.

In the sixteenth century, Emperor Charles V of Spain, Austria and the Low Countries, not to mention the Americas, could no longer expropriate the Antwerp and German bankers who financed his wars. Likewise, Elster cannot explain satisfactorily the historical chain of events leading first to the emergence of ruling classes and later to the production of surplus value by the modern proletariat i.

An increase in the productivity of labour only leads to the possibility of a surplus emerging and to the possibility of exploitation, Elster argues on p. But that is not the real chain of events in the emergence of class society. Increased productivity of labour eventually led to a real surplus e. That is precisely what class rule is all about, in the final analysis.

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The only alternatives were to revolt or to run away. That they often did. Class rule plus surplus production could be consolidated only inasmuch as these reactions became only minor, marginal and periodic ones. In addition, Elster repeats one of the most worn-out arguments against the theory of surplus-value by raising the following question:.

Obviously and tautologically, profits are possible only because workers do not consume the whole net product In the case of a slave or a serf, the process is crystal clear. The fact that in the case of a wage-earning industrial worker it is obscured by all kinds of successively intertwined money transactions and market relations makes its discovery more difficult. In order to deny the substance of that theory, one would either have to deny that the workers do add value to that of machinery and raw material, or that the value they add is divided between capital and labour i. This has never been successfully demonstrated.

The fact that the surplus product surplus value produced by the working class could be used for different purposes is totally irrelevant to the two key questions: Who actually produces it? And who actually appropriates it? Dialectical determinism as opposed to mechanical, or formal-logical determinism, is also parametric determinism; it permits the adherent of historical materialism to understand the real place of human action in the way the historical process unfolds and the way the outcome of social crises is decided. Men and women indeed make their own history. The outcome of their actions is not mechanically predetermined.

A deep historical crisis of a given society can end either in the victory of the revolutionary class or in a common decline of all social classes e. That is what happened in antiquity. That is what could happen again today. Marxism rejects such a fatalistic view of history, a view to which Elster and the Kautskyan Second International are much nearer.


Neither Hitler nor Stalin was an inevitable product of historical developments. Nor were their victories inevitable. They came as the end result of chains of actions and reactions, in which the absence of action by certain social forces played key roles. But no less great although much less acknowledged by historians is another responsibility, so strongly stressed by Rosa Luxemburg: that of leaving the victorious Russian revolution deliberately isolated and torn by war between December and autumn This is not seen by Marx as simply linear, but always as self-contradictory.

It is also seen not as synchronic, but rather as diachronic. What appears as progressive in the short run could be retrogressive in the long run; the reverse is also possible. Everything is always a matter of a concrete analysis of a concrete process, not of metaphysical or logical generalities and abstractions.

Is such an attitude contradictory and illogical? Not if one accepts the dialectical i. Indeed, if one is not misled by sentimentality, one will readily admit that even from the point of view of the individual slave, it is preferable to be a slave than to be killed outright as a prisoner of war or even eaten up, which was often the case in the transition period between clan communism and slave society.

One will likewise admit that serfdom was a better fate for the producer than slavery. The positive consequences for society as a whole of free Greek citizens being able to devote much of their time to political and social affairs, because slaves produced their livelihood, are obvious to all non-sentimental observers.

On the contrary: by revolting against slavery and serfdom, they in turn advanced human progress in a double sense.

Making Sense of Marx -

They forced the rulers to look for more sophisticated forms of exploitation, including technological progress which came about partly as a result of a scarcity of manpower, i. They also established a conscious ideological and political tradition of uncompromising struggle against all forms of oppression and exploitation, without which the drive of the modern proletariat for a classless society would be incomparably more difficult.

And he ends that passage of his book with a scorching indictment:. Their intellectual shortcomings, though serious when measured by intellectual standards, are of little import compared to the political disasters they can inspire.


It is true also that in other parts of this book, Elster contradicts himself on this subject. The source of this misrepresentation is not dishonesty on the part of Elster, but ideological prejudice and pseudo-logical dogmatism i.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, This new series jointly published by Cambridge and Editions de la Maison des Sciences de rHomme is "intended to exemplify a new paradigm in the study of Marxist social theory. For Elster's purpose is to reconstruct Marx's thinking in "modern" terms, to show among other things that "Marx's views on technical change, exploitation, class struggle and belief formation retain an importance beyond the value they may have as instances of the Marxist method" 3.

One of Elster's main theses is that Marx introduced into the social sciences a "three-tiered" explanatory scheme, moving from O causal explanations of belief states through 2 intentional explanation of individual actions in terms of these states to 3 causal explanation of aggregate actions in terms of individual actions. Marx's special contribution is that he tried though often unsuccessfully to explain unintended consequences of actions.

Another of Elster's theses is that Marx's "Hegelianism" is of little value, and in fact may have prevented Marx from carrying both his social-scientific and his revolutionary projects to their logical limits. According to Elster, there are two distinct methodological orientations in Marx's writings. These are on the one hand methodological individualism, and on the other, methodological collectivism, consisting of two closely connected but slightly different ideas, functional explanation and dialectical deduction.

Copiously citing texts from the Neue RheinischeZeitung through the Theoriesof Surplus Value, Elster shows how Marx switched back and forth between or among these methods. In Capital vol. The "law of the falling rate of profit" is explained by discrepancies between the intentions of individual capitalists pursuing technical innovations for labor-saving, and the unintended net effect on capitalists as a whole as displaced labor contributes to a "crisis in underconsumption.

Marxism , Karl Marx , Politics and economics , Political theory , , , , Philosophy , Political philosophy. The relationship between philosophy and Marxism has always been an awkward one. Was this a dismissal of all forms of philosophy, or only of the overblown Idealism of Hegel? Would he have been equally dismissive of pragmatism or empiricism; would Pierce or Mill have received the same short shrift? Marx was unwilling to waste time on such questions. The philosophical and methodological remarks scattered through his major works are scrappy, undeveloped and not entirely consistent; they take a poor second place to what he conceived of as an empirical inquiry into the logic of capitalist society and the sociology and politics of its supersession, and they leave wide open the question of what positive role he saw for philosophy.

Lenin, Kautsky and a host of successors went further.

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Until very recently, neither activity was couched in an idiom which appealed to orthodox analytical philosophers. The French contempt for Anglo-Saxon empiricism meant that philosophical Marxism in France divided its allegiances between Existentialism and Structuralism. The rebarbative and authoritarian prose in which Althusser announced that Marx had been a structuralist and anti-humanist aroused in most Anglo-American philosophers a puzzled anxiety at best.

The New Left Review from its earliest days attempted to break down the barbarian indifference with which British universities regarded the European Left. But even in the pages of the NLR it was long taken for granted that Marxists and analytical philosophers could hardly be on speaking terms. If Marxism was a science, it was a science of a new kind whose insights were unamenable to the empiricist obsession with verification and falsification.

Marxism was inherently progressive, both intellectually and politically. Analytical philosophy, whose model of intellectual virtue was physical science, could make no sense of the dialectic, and had nothing to say about a discipline which focused on the novel and the fluid. Its stance was intrinsically unprogressive, concerned only to rationalise existing understandings of the world. Popper argued that absurd scientific pretensions led inexorably to the closed society and the totalitarian state.


Its essential purpose is to show that much — or most, or some — of what is central to Marxism stands up to critical inspection. What is worth learning from Marx can be stated clearly, and defended in the plainest prose. Since then, he has steadily given ground to his critics — among the most tenacious of whom has been Jon Elster. Cohen has largely stood by his interpretative claim that Marx explained social change in functional terms, but he now agrees with Elster that such explanations are indefensible.

Making Sense of Marx

Mill and John Rawls as much as on Marx himself. All societies where private property exists are built on forced labour; in all class-divided societies the surplus product is ausgepumpt from the producers to the exploiters. Marx created the theory of surplus value to explain how it was that forced labour existed under capitalism, and how intangible value, rather than corn or cattle, was ausgepumpt from the industrial worker. We deplore exploitation because we approve of freedom and justice. For Cohen, the superiority of Marx over Hegel lies in the fact that Hegel was only a philosopher of history.