How I Am A Marxist

I wrote a piece before explaining why I do not endorse liberal politics or philosophy. One thing that came out of that was lots of people requesting I say something more positive. If I am not a liberal then what am I? Well I think the answer is Marxist, so I will take some time here to explain what I mean by that. Initially I thought this would also involve arguments for my view but this is already far too long. So as it stands I will just spell out the sort of things I agree to in virtue of being a Marxist (or, rather, the things that make me a Marxist in virtue of agreeing to them) and save for a later date discussion of why I think thy are true and how they contrast with liberal political thought. I will spatter illustrative links throughout though to sources that would follow up on or exemplify the connected ideas.

So what do I mean by Marxism? I am probably less fussy about this than some out there but I think we can list some core doctrines usually associated with Marxism and then say it's a kind of cluster concept -- if you believe enough of these and make them central enough to your approach to politics then gradually you shade into being more Marxist than not. What, then, are these core concepts?

(Thanks and shout out to Rory Kent and Nikhil Venkatesh for helping me out with this! Neither would agree with all or even much of this, to be clear.)

The Primacy of Class: there is some sense in which of all social relations, the most explanatorily important is the one whereby humans stand in a socially determined relationship to the goods and tools they need to perpetuate their own existence. So, e.g., it is very important indeed to explaining the structure and behaviour of hunter gatherer bands that in such groupings each tends to make and possess their own tools, and the application of those tools to the environment's typically available are usually not able to provide much surplus beyond what is necessary for subsistence. That fact about people in those groups is to be given some sort of explanatory primacy for many theoretical purposes.

Historical Materialism: the amalgamated capacity of people to produce given the tools and knowledge available to them represents the productive capacity of a society - this productive capacity combined with a fairly minimal notion of the incentives faced by people in that society (they don't want to starve, they on average in general tend to prefer comfort to misery, etc) will explain the economic form the society takes, and from this various ideological self-justificatory-stories. 

E.g. if in a region the productive capacity exists just enough to create a surplus necessary to sustain a warrior band so long as some people are kept at near subsistence level then we can expect a few effects. First, societies which develop this warrior band will tend to conquer those which did not exploit the productive capacity to the full and so this social form will come to dominate. Second, slave labour is highly likely to develop as the warriors will want to opt out of back breaking miserable labour and have the capacity to coerce their miserable victims into the undesired status. Third, the sagas and self-justifying-stories of this society will be ones in which the strong must govern or shelter the weak, while the weak gratefully serve up the means of a comfortable life to their martial betters. This is of course very crude and totally made up -- but you get the idea.

Mode of Production: Marxists typically think you can taxonomise different ways in which class societies operate according to the dominant "mode of production". This is basically how in a given region and era the technology, as well as legal and social institutions, come together to lead to certain patterns of commodity generation and distribution. So if in a society the population can only be sustained by most working on agriculture for just-above-subsistence level recompense while a warrior elite consume excess to allow themselves to bulk up and adorn fancy armour, there one has a feudal mode of production. This mode of production will predictably generate certain highly inegalitarian patterns of distribution, will show relatively slow levels of technical development, and so on, because there are strong constraints on what can be achieved within such a social form.

Dialectics: a famously much contested term. Broadly speaking the thought that there is a kind of order to events, or the way various social forces will interact and co-cause events, that may be seen in advance and used to explain and predict things. In particular this order involves the clashing of opposed forces, and the resolution of their conflict depending on the balance of power available to involved parties - inevitably giving way to new conflicts as the status-quo-post turns out to generate its own opposed forces. 

An example of the thought being something like: the martial landed aristocracy of feudal era Europe required a trade infrastructure to maintain their supply lines and ensure access to the goods they were accustomed to. But given the kind of capital investment this required at the time (ships, armed guards for convoys, etc) and the length of time one had to wait for payoffs to investments this required a merchant class of considerable wealth. This merchant class thus had accumulated wealth while feeling constrained within a social form that gave heavy legal and informal preference to the martial aristocracy. This led to social conflicts wherein at first the merchant class were only able to win some concessions (say the ability to buy their way into titled status being recognised). But as technology developed and suddenly the differences in wealth between the landowning aristocracy and the capital-heavy merchants became comically imbalanced in the merchant's favour, the returns on capital spiralling up as they did, the balance of power shifted. Sea-faring technologies and improved navigational skill opened up new markets and new peoples and places to exploit. Even more so as weapons technology developed to a point wherein the near invulnerability a well armoured knight had enjoyed when faced with poorer combatants simply vanished. As such conflicts between the aspirant merchant class and the old gentry began to tip more and more in the former's favour, until eventually across Europe the whole social order that had favoured the martial aristocracy was overturned and replaced with one favouring the capital owning merchant class.

This is meant to illustrate dialectical explanations at work. Social changes (merchants being able to buy their way into power, the transition from feudalism to capitalism) were explained by the contradictions of a previous social order (a feudal system governed by a martial landowning elite requiring wealthy supply-chain-handling middle men whose interests did not always align) generating conflicts, and as the productive forces began to make certain possibilities available the balance of power shifted and so the resolution of those conflicts came more and more to favour one party until they were able to win a decisive victory. At that point a new status quo was established (broadly speaking: liberal capitalist states) and it too would generate its own contradictions.

The Labour Theory of Value: I mention this because even though the theory was never thought to be distinctively Marxist, rather an instance of Marx behaving like a classical economist, it has historically been so much associated with Marxists. In fact I think it is both a mistaken theory and a mistake to associate with Marx, but first let's go through the idea.

At first blush the labour theory of value seems like a theory of price, to whit: the price of a good is to be explained by the amount of socially necessary labour time required to bring that good to market. It answers questions like: why is your fancy iphone more expensive than a packet of crisps? Well because the supply chains, heavy equipment, specialised labour, sheer mass of skilled labour, etc etc, necessary to bring that iphone to the point where you could purchase it are simply much vaster and more complex than the equivalent necessary to grow, fry, and salt the potatoes in your crisps, as well as package them in the plastic. So far so good.

Except the theory as such is subject to immediate and kind of obvious counter-examples. Note how the price of shovels goes up when a snow-storm is anticipated even though the anticipation of a snow storm has done nothing to change the socially necessary labour time involved in producing those shovels. Hence sophisticated proponents of the theory are/were (as far as I can tell) universal in asserting that despite appearances and some loose talk it is not a theory of price, it is a theory of value, which is related to but distinct from price. 

Now it turns out that Marx actually agreed that the labour theory of value faced problems beyond that. The widespread belief that he endorsed it coming from the structure of his work, wherein he initially took on board the labour theory of value as a starting assumption and only as an end result of detailed analysis was to dismiss it as too simplistic - this widely influential recent essay discusses the matter well. Simplified version of his objection being: for economic value to exist at all one needs in place a whole set of institutions of governance and trade and exchange, as well as social relations delineating how pies are to be divided. Their character will vastly affect (because in part they constitute) the value of commodities. Labour power alone does not suffice to congeal into economic value. 

So far I am with Marx! But Marx was not a value sceptic, he simply thought a more complex theory was needed. What I suspect underlies the felt need for this notion, and what I think it gets right, is the desire to clearly distinguish between use and exchange value. The thought being that price in a market does not adequately capture commodities' actual utility and value to human life. This is quite right, but I am not sure we need a complex theory of value to be able to assert as much. It is already idiomatic that some people know the price of everything and the value of nothing, and that suggests a common rough and ready appreciation of the distinction. Contemporary Marxology expends much energy on what exactly this value thing is, and what Marx thought it was. For my part, I am not particularly invested in any theory and (perhaps mistakenly) am yet to see why this particular component is really necessary.

The Theory of Exploitation: this idea is sometimes expressed normatively and other times more as just a persuasive definition. The theory says that the degree to which a group is subject to economic exploitation is the size of the gap between how much workers produce through engaging in labour for a firm and the share of revenue they take home in the form of their paycheques. 

Marxists have been especially interested in how this kind of exploitation can be more or less opaque in a given social structure. So in a simplified image of feudal life the peasants of a given town do the work of sowing and reaping and storing the grain in a house. Then some people on horses with crossbows turn up and take away a ten percent of that as the tithe to the local lord. In this social form it is just obvious that a certain portion of the labour performed by the peasants, as concretised in the resulting grain, is crudely appropriated by their social betters. Whereas a wage relation in a capitalist economy, the thought goes, makes this much less plain - one doesn't work on the assembly line to make a certain amount of chairs, sell those off, then give the proceeds back to the capitalist minus your wage. Instead you agree to a wage in advance and do not actually see the revenue come in and get divided, so at no point is it simply obvious that what the workers get back is less than they collectively generated.

Note the exploitation relationship is pretty key to another core concept, that of domination. This is the idea that the only way one group could get away with doing that to another is if they enjoyed some pretty hefty advantages, the ability to coerce, compel, or swindle them somehow. The reason many Marxists are so interested in theories of Republican freedom on the one hand, and ideological hegemony on the other, is essentially part of working out what such domination amounts to and how it might be perpetuated.

Alienation and Flourishing: another of the more normative ideas associated with Marxism. Here the thought is that as creatures we have certain ways of life within which we would flourish. Typically Marxists think of this as one in which we can throw ourselves wholeheartedly into (often shared) projects that we value and genuinely identify with our activities, feeling a sense of connection to both the process and output of our work -- that it expresses our genuine desires, reflects our will, and is what we would want to have spent our time upon. Note here the emphasis on the collective - our desires, what we would want, etc. Flourishing on Marxist views is importantly communal and based in solidarity, it's about how we come together to enable, co-constitute, and give aid and support, helping one another live.

To be able to engage in such activities regularly as a matter of course is to flourish. (What if someone really just loves mass murder, you ask? In a society that actually promotes flourishing people will not tend to develop such anti-social desires, Marxists rather optimistically answer.) We are alienated when the way we spend our time, our life's work and our day to day activities, are not expressive of our actual desires or will, and the output of our work does not appear to us as something we wholeheartedly can endorse as ours, but is in fact... well, alien, other, somehow distanced and abstracted from us. Spending one's working days in alienating and alienated labour said to be the typical state of a labourer under capitalism. 

The Dictatorship of the Proletariat: while famously reticent about saying what comes next and how we get there, one of the suggestions that stuck with Marxists is the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat. For Marx this was modelled on a rather strange amalgamation of Roman military catastrophes and the behaviour of the Paris Commune. The thought is that during the transition out of capitalism there would be a sort of emergency government by working people who captured the state and ran it in line with their own interests. This was not intended to be a permanent state of affairs (just as the Roman military dictator was supposed to step aside and restore the normal constitutional order once the emergency that prompted their appointment was over) but rather a process of winding down the state all together. As I have said Marx personally seems to have much admired the intensely democratic Paris Commune, but this idea has somewhat (in)famously been adapted to the of a revolutionary vanguard party acting qua representatives of the workers in administering their dictatorship. Hmm.

The Theory of the State: why would the state wind down you ask? Well because many Marxists have a certain theory of the state according to which it is the organised expression of the dominant class, the means by which they can coordinate and see their shared interests realised. Since the working class will ultimately seek (so Marx thinks) to create a society without class distinctions, they have no need for a state in the long run. When there is no dominant class it needs no coordination.

This attitude to the state, the conviction that it is a means by which the ruling class express their will, is often generalised into a theory of institutions more broadly. There is a general distrust of powerful bodies that presently dominate social life - after all, for them to occupy the role they do, they must have been able to make their peace with capital's domination somehow. Likewise the stories they come up with, the ideologies and so called moral codes, are all held under suspicion. As are the people telling those stories.. This of course goes for academics too, and so I am at risk of disappearing in a puff of self-refuting logic.

Anti-Utopianism: finally and perhaps most (in)famously there is a general tendency among Marxists to be wary of utopian thinking. Suspicious of working with high flung ideals far removed from the actual world and its grubbiness, suspicious of starting up ideal societies within the husk of the old world and hoping moral suasion would see them spread, suspicious of deontic idealistic political pronouncements rather than strategic responses to the present balance of power, suspicious of setting up "cookbooks for the future" wherein the perfect society is detailed at length by someone who has only ever lived in a bad society. It is expressed in many ways, but the overarching theme is one of keeping one's ear to the ground, not getting lost too much in abstractions. This one makes it very hard to survive in analytic philosophy let me tell you.

Now put simply the sense in which I am a Marxist (-Luxemburgist, as it shall turn out) is because I find most of these ideas plausible and some of them are central to my worldview. I think in terms of the taxonomy of modes of production, I agree with the primacy of class and historical materialism as explanatory theories, I think the theory of exploitation and attendant theorising about domination capture normatively vital features of our social life, I think we have so arranged things that people do not flourish as they could and this is deeply regrettable, and I believe worker power over the means of production is a vital to amending this.

Now, even besides the Labour Theory of Value I demure on some points. For instance I do think dialectical thinking is a good way to frame social explanations and a good heuristic for understanding how a system will change. Begin by thinking to yourself: ok what are the various groups and forces involved, how are they arrayed, what power and resources do they have to bring to bear, what can they compromise on... and so forth. But I think dialectics is often overhyped in Marxist circles, and when I read things like Engels claiming that dialectics is basically just another law of nature because of <vague analogies one can draw to bio-physical phenomena> I mostly just roll my eyes. Another point of disagreement I encounter is that often dialectics is given a more Hegelian read - while I have less problem with that (I was fascinated by Pippin's account here) ultimately I just don't really see a use for the more distinctively Hegelian elements in understanding the material world. 

Other times my disagreements will be one of interpretation, albeit they can be politically vital. For instance implementing the vanguardist read of the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat has, I think, led to Marxist regimes becoming thuggish oligarchies governed in their own interests by a distant and corrupt managerial bureaucracy. I more or less entirely agree with Luxemburg's criticisms here and here. Far from being a means of protecting socialist states from counter-revolutionaries, capitalist re-capture, or opportunist seizure; vanguard parties of socialists have in fact been the means by which all these prospered. Concentrate power in a few people or one party and you have just made it that much easier to capture and subvert. And even where they are not captured, they are still by their nature cut off from mass democracy, poised by their nature to see ordinary people as natural enemies not yet to be trusted, and all too liable to resort to terror tactics against their own population to get their own way. Much that is shameful in the history of Marxist political practice is due, I believe, to the identification of the dictatorship of the proletariat with the dictatorship of an individual or small clique.

Instead the dictatorship of the proletariat is properly conceived as complete control of political and economic forces by the public en masse. This however is at best a mediocre slogan. I am not even sure what it would amount to! For what it is worth I am much inspired by ideas like these. But whatever it is it must be genuinely democratic with room for free dissent and exchange of ideas, and it cannot wait, cannot come after a period (transitional, they promise!) wherein a learned and benevolent few push forward the grateful masses. In Luxemburg's words from an earlier linked text:

But socialist democracy is not something which begins only in the promised land after the foundations of socialist economy are created; it does not come as some sort of Christmas present for the worthy people who, in the interim, have loyally supported a handful of socialist dictators. Socialist democracy begins simultaneously with the beginnings of the destruction of class rule and of the construction of socialism. It begins at the very moment of the seizure of power by the socialist party. It is the same thing as the dictatorship of the proletariat. 

Marx's admiration for the highly democratising Paris Commune was, I think, in this regard on point. Besides that I might think of Red Vienna and to a lesser but real extent Allende's Chile as embodying something like the sort of Marxist democracy I would like, and I look with some inspiration to the council democracy movements that have come before me. 

(All of these regimes, one notes, were soon crushed militarily by the enemies of socialism and replaced by murderous reactionary regimes that did untold damage to the world. To be fair to the vanguardists this is precisely what they warn will happen with my preferred mode of doing things, and it is not like I have an immediately satisfactory answer to the worry.) 

Finally, I should say I am not quite as anti-Utopian as many in the tradition. I appreciate the cold hard strategic look at the world, and likewise am suspicious of political programmes that concentrate more on high flung ideals than questions about who shall get how much of what, and how that what was produced in the first place. But I sometimes say of myself that I am probably more digger than dialectical, ultimately motivated by a sentimental hope that this world was made a common treasury for everyone to share. It is quite possible this is simply a weakness of mine, but so it goes.

An oil painting image of a crowd walking into a rising sun. Their figures are indistinct but we can see they are waving red flags.


  1. great post. i find myself agreeing with a lot of it, yet i wouldn't call myself a marxist. marxism has always seemed to me more than a bit "over-fit" to the "data" of pre-20th century european history, and is harder to use as a guide to the more recent history or to other parts of the world that marx & engels weren't as focused on. i find historical materialism, the theory that "the productive capacity of a society ... explain the economic form the society takes" (as you nicely summarise it), hard to square with the diversity of political economic institutions among similar countries encountered in the 20th and 21st century. the social democracies of northern europe, china's blend of markets and planing since 1980, latin american populism, north v.s. south korea, singapore where 4 in 5 people live in houses owned by the government--it's a bit hard to believe these are all somehow determined by productive capacity and minimal incentives. maybe those can explain, like, 20% of the variation, but more than that? furthermore, as economic historians have documented, the industrial revolution came extremely close to happening in china in the 13th century. had this occurred (rather than the great divergence we got in its place), i don't know that the standard marxist story could provide a very satisfying account (one important difference being that government-run firms played a large part in economic production during the Song Dynasty). this isn't a unique knock on marxism; many aspects of neoclassical economics are likewise over-fit to certain "stylized facts" of the early-to-mid 20th century advanced economists. beyond historical materialism, it's not so clear to me how the concept of alienation applies to a lot of the work done today in advanced economies, where labour is primarily employed by the service sector rather than in production, and when a non-negligible share of workers are self-employed. there are certainly still many bad jobs, and something in capitalism seems to induce an ennui above and beyond the disutility of toil, but "alienation from the product of your labour" is increasingly unsatisfying as a description of what that ennui consists of.


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