Let us assume for the sake of argument that recent research had disproved once and for all every one of Marx’s individual theses. Even if this were to be proved, every serious ‘orthodox’ Marxist would still be able to accept all such modern findings without reservation and hence dismiss all of Marx’s theses in toto – without having to renounce his orthodoxy for a single moment. Orthodox Marxism, therefore, does not imply the uncritical acceptance of the results of Marx’s investigations. It is not the ‘belief’ in this or that thesis, nor the exegesis of a ‘sacred’ book. On the contrary, orthodoxy refers exclusively to method. It is the scientific conviction that dialectical materialism is the road to truth and that its methods can be developed, expanded and deepened only along the lines laid down by its founders. It is the conviction, moreover, that all attempts to surpass or ‘improve’ it have led and must lead to over-simplification, triviality and eclecticism.
—Lukács, “What is Orthodox Marxism?” (1919)
“There is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.”
—Marx, Preface to the French Edition of Capital, Vol. 1 (1872)
What other body of thought could say that their every conclusion can be dead wrong without implicating how they got there? “Nevermind that our most cherished claims are in ruins,” our collective marxist self-assuredly smirks.
“We’ve got a system.”
Why is it that academics come to such fragmentary, deflationary conclusions about the Marxian canon? The mathematically literate and innumerate alike regard Marx’s value theory and crisis theory incomplete at best, mathematically bunk at worst, and—in any case—locked into an archaic bourgeois logic. The specter of the “transformation problem” haunts any attempt to use Marx’s theory as written, should one attempt such a fetishistic folly. There are many answers to the ghost of transformation, but they are mutually exclusive.
Historians, sociologists and anthropologists cannot systematize a Marxian theory of history or class without collapsing into whether Marx projects what he intends to critique—capitalist categories—onto the european past and inappropriately onto the non-european world. Every attempt to extend Marx’s insights appears to recreate the problem of making contemporary relations out to be eternal, even if Marx himself is frequently spared from this criticism.
What we can say about history seems to dig us even deeper. The historical context for socialism and its momentum have dissipated. The workers’ movement Marx identified as the proletariat’s vehicle for liberation has all but disappeared—even though the scope of the proletariat within worldwide capitalism has expanded. When the labor movement existed as an historical actor, it was compelled by structure and circumstance to execute counter-revolution as often as revolution. Every attempt at a proletarian transitional state towards a classless society ended in atrocity, disaster, and expropriation that almost always prefigures capitalism—even North Korea has a donju road unfolding before it.
While marxists throughout the twentieth century busied themselves with apologizing for or brushing off these developments, the wide-eyed utopians we once could count on to draw up our blueprints and quixotically model the possibility of communal life have abandoned us for more subsumed libertarian horizons.
This might be mitigated if marxists could discuss the severity of this situation with one another. Yet no honest interrogation of our tradition appears to be in the cards. Marxists—a scene composed chiefly of teachers and grad students—insist on talking past each other to rehash elaborate schemas from sacred commentary. Cooperating on a systematic attempt to make these theories understandable, scrutable, or compatible seems out of reach.
For an illustration of the problem: can you argue against the claims made in the first paragraph? Are you literate in economic theory, linear algebra, cultural anthropology, comparative political science, German philology, and the plethora of other disciplines that have become necessary to engage in the defense or the attack for these debates within—and without—marxism? How would you be able to judge if any of this was true—or useful? Textual exegesis and empirical data have their place, as do the analytical and dialectical methodological traditions. That is, when they are not reduced to hand-waving motions in desperate reverie to avert communication.
The panicked insistence that marxism is “a science” is straightforwardly bankrupt, and its claim to having a unique methodology appears now more than ever as special pleading at best and turning marxism into an instrument of mystifying class domination at the worst. Nominal marxism is many methodologies, and while some are internally consistent, almost none are consistent with one another. Such competing methodologies and historiographies cannot be said to be scientific in any unified sense. Nothing remains of marxism’s claim to critique at the root of things—”radically”—other than sophistry toward contradictory extremes on any manner of subject.
Even this “ruthless critique” has been sufficiently abstracted from a communist context, where the methodological specificity of critical theory can be leveraged as a seemingly radical critique in any field whatsoever and without any pretense of offering a glimpse beyond capitalism. What is out of the question is the possibility that marxist thought might be coherent enough to be true regarding any subject on which Marx wrote.
“It was thenceforth no longer a question whether this or that theorem was true, but whether it was useful to capital or harmful, expedient or inexpedient, in accordance with police regulations or contrary to them. In place of disinterested inquirers there stepped hired prize-fighters; in place of genuine scientific research, the bad conscience and evil intent of apologetics.”
—Marx, Postface to the Second Edition, Capital, Vol. 1 (1872)
Anyone who lays claim to this burdensome tradition must have approached it by process of elimination, and—it must be assumed—a normative commitment to classless society. Positivistic claims with political implications are always suspect, but none more especially as those that read our further atomization and domestication as prefiguring communism. Most importantly of all, marxists have annihilated both the scientific standing and the moral high ground of communism by conflating ethics and science.
Yet marxism is nothing if not an emancipatory philosophy of science: a rational interrogation of the supposed necessity of class society, capitalism, wage-labor, the state and its borders. Even if we admit ethical commitments towards remaking the entire world that resemble nothing so embarrassing as justice, as ineliminable from marxism is its insistence that a belief in how the world should be will never be enough. We have to argue to the best of our abilities that communism is not only desirable but possible.
In order to do so, we must set aside the neurotic cornucopia of debilitating leftist skepticisms: the common sense that There Is No Alternative, the shoddy scholarship of one million hardened Party Men and undisciplined wishful thinkers, an unending fishbowl of ideology from which no grasp of the truth is possible, a dialectic of enlightenment where instrumental reason is destined to consume its siblings, an epistemic jail where all relevant problems are intractable, the suspicion that all thought is domination-in-waiting, and so on.
Yet we must hang onto two of our suspicions as guiding principles: that our communist commitments may allow us to entertain hopeful absurdities in a religious fashion, and that both opponents and exponents of marxism are heavily incentivized to pass off weak or distorted interpretations of texts and theories. In that spirit, we cannot pretend to grasp the full philosophical truth of things, but instead we must find ways to prove the importance and truth of a new scientific socialism on normal epistemic grounds. Only on the level of reintegrating marxism with libertarian and democratic impulses must we engage in myth-healing, to begin to wash the blood of innocents from the hammer and sickle and scrape away the rust. Otherwise, our task is primarily heuristic and not hermeneutic: more problem-solving than grand interpretation.
In that spirit, the ineliminable role of textual interpretation in reviving the marxist research program should take on a pluralistic tone. Which interpretations of texts are consistent and plausible? How do these interpretations cohere with available data? Theories of value, crisis, history, imperialism, social change, human behavior, and explanation should be lovingly extracted, compared, and reconstructed from Marx and marxists in whatever academic or autonomous settings we can get our hands on. From this angle, even attempts to recover “the rational kernel within [Hegel’s] mystical shell” in what Marx called his own “dialectical method” should be articulated and evaluated—just not with the traditional kids’ gloves and wizard hats.
The incentives of the academy are unlikely to line up with communist priorities, so our emphasis in the ivory tower should rest in deepening our commitment to understanding the normal practice and the strongest critiques of scientific norms in a given discipline. We are unlikely to master more than one as individuals; we must seek each other out, find ways to collaborate, and share our hard-won expertise with the world in rigorous and accessible ways.
Whether we valorize every Marxian thesis is neither here nor there. Can we sustain any form of communist commitment by rational means whatsoever? That is our research question.