Marxism is a political movement, a philosophy and an economic theory. Many facets are contained in the idea of Marxism, and sometimes not even Marxists agree on what those facets are or how they should be interpreted. Karl Marx was a prolific writer, and not always systematic or clear. Interpreting just his writing is a lifetime of work. What if we include Engels, Lenin, Trotsky or others? In the century and a half since the beginning of Marx’s influence, many have tried to be his successor and no one agrees on who, if anyone, the true successor was.
One of the best professionals to analyze Marxism is Robert Heilbroner. His background is economics, but he dabbled in philosophy, too. He had a strong appreciation for the works of Marx, saying his philosophy “affords a crucial insight into the historical and social predicaments of our lives”, but was ever the skeptic. [Heilbroner: 25] If anyone was going to offer a fair and balanced picture of the Marxist system, it was Heilbroner: he was not one to blindly endorse it or to categorically denounce it. He knew that almost any system had good and bad qualities, and he sifted through Marx to find them. Thus he can rightly claim to be “for and against” Marxism simultaneously.
This essay will be brief, as it merely summarizes Heilbroner’s book “Marxism: For and Against”, which is itself a short book. Eventually, it may be combined with one of the many other Marxism-related essays on this site. Until then, enjoy.
One strength of Marxism is its ability to critique capitalism and state bureaucracies. Heilbroner insists that “all Marxists would claim that the state is generally used to defend the interests of the ruling class.” [Heilbroner: 67] Money protects money. If money gets someone into power, the power will then likely be used to help those with the money. Not only do those brought into power then “owe” the financiers, but if they want to see the money keep flowing in, they have to appease the ones holding the purse.
In general, Marxists view history differently than non-Marxists do, because they see it as a class struggle. Of course, not all history is merely class struggle — that would be too simple. But when reading non-Marxist historians, we find that “class struggle tends to be ignored, glossed over, or denied”. Those struggles are seen even less when examining contemporary society, despite such a theme being “valid and constructive”. [Heilbroner: 75] Class struggles won by the lower class brought us the end of child labor, a 5-day work week, a 40-hour work week, health and safety protections for our food, air and water. Class struggles won from above bring us financial crises by relying too strongly on the market. To assume that how a struggle today plays out does not affect us tomorrow is naive. Which, again, goes back to the role of money and politics: which class a politician favors changes the world for the better or the worse.
Heilbroner is blunt in his support of Marxism critique of capitalism:
“I find it imaginable, although unlikely, that the next century will declare Marx to have been completely mistaken as to the future course of capitalism; but as long as capitalism exists, I do not believe that we will ever be able to declare that he was mistaken in his identification of its inner nature.” [Heilbroner: 94-95]
Capitalism has as its goal increased output rather than increased pleasure. “Everyone knows that machinery is not created to maximize the sheer pleasures of work, but to maximize output.” [Heilbroner: 116] That may seem obvious, but we do not question if this is right. We believe that the goal is to make machines more efficient so that a man can increase his output and therefore increase profit. We do not stop to ask: would it not be better if these efficient machines increased supply for the comfort of all? Marx said in volume one of Capital:
“This boundless drive for enrichment, this passionate chase after value, is common to the capitalist and the miser, but while the miser is merely a capitalist gone mad, the capitalist is a rational miser.”
There is a fine line between capitalism and greed, and far too often the line is crossed. It is one thing to strive for a better life for yourself and your family, but another thing entirely to prevent others from doing the same when you are fully capable of assisting them. Traditional Christianity preached helping the poor and considered greed (or avarice) a “deadly sin”. Today, the line between Christian and capitalist is blurred.
Marx also accurately predicted that “one capitalist always kills many”. By this, he means that as companies buy out other companies, those who were once on top, are now back in the hierarchy. Also, when one store moves in to town, two other stores may go under (such as Wal-Mart and other “big box” stores are said to do to “mom and pop” stores). A capitalist’s profits always result from another’s loss. He predicted the “rise of large-scale industry, the internationalization of capital, the continuous squeeze of technology on employment” and more. [Heilbroner: 129]
There are also benefits to the dialectical view of reality (see below) that will “help clarify our knowledge of the world”, and the “materialist view of history” that “will enrich our understanding of the past and of the present, as long as the processes of production play a powerful role in human affairs and exert such enormous influences over the stratification of society.” [Heilbroner: 173] As mentioned about with class struggle, no other way of looking at history exposes these aspects of reality.
Heilbroner maintains that having a dialectical approach to philosophy is troubling because “there is no single established meaning for dialectics”. [Heilbroner: 30] Socrates practiced dialectics, as did Hegel. When studying Marx, we often hear that he followed Hegel’s philosophy, but ultimately turned Hegel on his head. Hegel had a view of dialectics that we often simplify as “thesis, antithesis. synthesis”. Marx also followed this pattern. Interestingly, neither of them used these terms — that honor goes to the lesser-known Fichte.
As a science, dialectics is flawed. More precisely, “a dialectical approach yields a rich harvest for the imagination, but a scanty one for exact analysis.” [Heilbroner: 46] Dialectics works well for social sciences, but less well for the physical world. While it is easy to theorize about what happens when a “thesis” meets its “antithesis”, you cannot break this down into any sort of formula or logic. The variables are far too complex to guess what a large population of people, for example, will do. “Ambiguity, the bane of positivism, is the very essence of dialectics.” [Heilbroner: 57]
Expressed yet another way, “Dialectics seeks to tap levels of awareness that defy the syntaxes of common sense and logic.” And, “Dialectical statements may be as valid or important as those of common sense or logic, but their meanings are poorly communicated at the level of what we call rational explanation.” [Heilbroner: 58] That is to say dialectics has its place in discourse and fleshing out ideas, but when put to the test, it is hard to prove. So, in terms of strict philosophy or economics, dialectics does not hold up to the test.
While expressed positively above, it should be noted that the materialist interpretation of history has flaws. “The intermingling of nonmaterial activities with material ones, the suffusion of ideational elements throughout the body of society, the inextricable unity of ‘social’ and ‘economic’ life, make it difficult to draw boundaries around the material sphere.” We not discount “the influences of law and politics, religion and ideology” when assessing history. [Heilbroner: 84] Viewing history as a series of class struggles is useless, but not the total picture. An individual may act one way or another for different reasons — they may oppose their own economic interest to act in a religious interest, for example.
The end results of Marx’s predictions have also not come to pass, and likely will not any time soon. “Not a single proletarian revolution has occurred in any industrialized capitalist nation.” Quite the opposite. After sinking into the Great Depression — the key moment for revolution — “capitalism emerged from World War II with rediscovered vitality.” [Heilbroner: 127] The path of history now seems to suggest that reforms will keep capitalism in check rather than allowing for it to get out of hand and foment revolution.
Heilbroner believes that “such a resurgence of capitalism was not foreseen by Marx himself”, and he “probably did not expect capitalism to last far into the twentieth century.” [Heilbroner: 128] Now in the twenty-first, even the most devoted Marxists likely believe that capitalism will outlive them.
The Bottom Line
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Heilbroner, Robert L. Marxism: For and Against W. W. Norton and Company, 1980.