Friday, November 23, 2007

Thoughts on Marx

How many people completely swallow the ideas of a philosopher or thinker? I am a great admirer of many thinkers: Foucault, Wittgenstein, Freud, Lacan, Derrida, Barthes, Nietzsche, Saussure, Gramsci, Deleuze, Guattari, Sartre, Heidegger--and Marx himself. However, I don't accept the ideas of any of them as some "absolute truth". I value them insofar as they are able to help me struggle with intellectual problems I have in my life. What would it mean anyway to be a "Wittgenstinian" or a "Lacanian"? One takes certain insights from different thinkers and one is often grateful for their very diversity. The problem with Marx is a quasi religious one: he is the founder of a secular faith and it is considered bad form to use his ideas piece-meal--"accept these ideas as the truth or leave them alone" seems to be the message from both the left and right of the political spectrum. However, as we become more historically distanced from the horrors of Stalinism/Leninism and Maoism, perhaps it is easier to view what was stimulating in Marx. As a way of living together Marxist-communism has clearly failed and surely it is only a matter of time before China also abandons communism. In these circumstances, Marx can cease to be the new prophet of the apocalypse and become simply a 19th century social philosopher who sometimes had interesting ideas.

So what is still relevant in Marx today? Certainly not his idea of the historical dialectic: this cumbersome, quasi religious "deus ex macchina" has been discredited in a thousand different ways and is hardly worth referring to in serious terms: though it should be remembered that Engels "dumbed down" a lot of Marx's ideas after his death (including this one). Nevertheless, many of his ideas remain stimulating. For example, his view that most of what happens in the power structures of a society is hidden from view remains striking, as does his idea that those who hold power will do absolutely anything to hang onto it. Even his historical materialism, though wrong in itself, has helped us appreciate that ways of living in society are not static, but are always changing according to the economics of production. Marx also remains inspirational to those who seek a more egalitarian way for masses of people to live together in the technological age. His "discovery" of surplus value may have been spurious in the end, but it did bring attention to the fact that the less a capitalist paid his workers the higher his profits would be (and that it was therefore in his interests to keep wages down to around subsistence level). Indeed, perhaps we have Marx to thank for the ways in which capitalism adapted its procedures in the later industrial age to start giving a fair wage to the manual workers. At least in part, employers were responding to very real fears that Marx's prediction of working class revolution could actually take place. We might go on to say that our modern tendency to look for deeper structures in societal and governmental networks owes a lot to the work of Marx. Today we are all a lot more doubtful and cynical about the workings of government and society than people were even a hundred years ago. Finally, there has been the positive influence of Marx on so many modern thinkers. Gramsci immediately comes to mind whose concept of "hegemony" was developed directly from Marx's oblique comments on economic base and superstructure. Post WW2 French philosophers like Foucault, Deleuze, Sartre, Althusser and Derrida were clearly influenced by Marx's ideas--especially in their studies of "transgressive behaviour" and the deeper structures that lie behind a superficial surface discourse.

I hope that the age of Marxism is over and that now we can begin to appreciate the contribution to humanity of Marx the thinker.


Anonymous Socialist Worker said...

Let's keep the red flag flying!

12:35 PM  
Blogger ely said...

Very balanced!

1:36 PM  
Anonymous engels said...

What about the workers?

6:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are right. Marx was a great social thinker and his insights should be incorporated into our intellectual model...Of course, the truth is that it already has been!

4:56 AM  

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