Marx for All Seasons
Marxism: For and Against.
by Robert L. Heilbroner.
Norton. 186 pp. $9.95.
This is an intriguing title: it arouses expectations of a judicious and balanced evaluation of the specific doctrines of Marx and Marxism from a scholarly and nonpartisan point of view. Unfortunately, there is a fundamental ambiguity in the way the author understands the terms “for” and “against.” They do not mean so much “true” or “valid” and “false” or “invalid” as for revolutionary change or against revolutionary change. But should not one’s attitude toward the revolutionary change urged by Marxism depend largely upon the truth or falsity of its major doctrines?
Heilbroner does not really convey his own position on Marxism when he says that it is “beyond that of total embrace or rejection.” Except for pious dolts or fanatics, could we not say this of any great thinker in human history—Plato, Kant, Kierkegaard? Who embraces or rejects them totally? I know of no reputable historian, regardless of his attitude toward revolutionary change, who totally rejects all of Marx’s views. The relevant questions are: which specific doctrines or propositions are valid, and to what extent?
Heilbroner defines Marxism in terms of four elements: (1) a dialectical approach to knowledge itself; (2) a materialist approach to history; (3) a social analysis of capitalism—Marx’s theory of value and surplus value; and (4) a commitment to socialism. This last element is confusing since it is not logically related to the other three. For Marx believed that his economic and historical doctrines were true regardless of whether one was committed to socialism. He held that they were as objective as the findings of natural science, valid regardless of anyone’s commitment.
Before assessing Heilbroner’s evaluation of Marx’s contributions one must say something of how he goes about his inquiry. Instead of testing Marx’s statements about history and economics in the light of the empirical evidence, he considers them in relation to what capitalism essentially is. “We read Capital not merely to discover how capitalism works . . . but to learn what capitalism is.” This essentialist approach is quite foreign to Marx’s outlook, as it is to every scientific analysis. What a thing, system, or process is cannot be unrelated to how it behaves. “By their fruits ye shall know them” and “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” are customary Marxist maxims. Not so for Heilbroner. “I find it imaginable,” he writes, “that the next century will declare Marx to have been completely mistaken about 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.” On this view, no matter what happens Marx is right! It is doubtful whether Marx or any sensible Marxist made such a claim, yet it pervades Heilbroner’s discussion of all the defining elements of Marxism.
1. According to Heilbroner, “a dialectical approach yields a rich harvest for the imagination but a scanty one for exact analysis.” How can it then enable us to distinguish between fantasies and truths? Marx speaks of the dialectic method, not of the dialectical vision or imagination, and rightly or wrongly, identifies it with the scientific method which he thought he was applying in his inquiry into the nature and development of capitalism. For Heilbroner, by contrast, the dialectic goes beyond ordinary scientific method by correcting its limitations, although it is not clear how it does that. He does not tell us what specific truths reached by the dialectic are beyond the reach of the ordinary empirical methods of scientific investigation, and how we know they are true. Are we dealing here with a doctrine of two truths, with the dialectic serving as the higher truth with all the awesome and noisome consequences illustrated in the history of Soviet physics, biology, and historiography?
“Dialectics,” Heilbroner writes, “seeks to expand the conception of the scientist’s work beyond the borders of a positivist approach.” The evil of positivism, in Heilbroner’s eyes, is its emphasis upon prediction. Prediction, of course, is not everything in science, but on any coherent philosophy of science a theory that makes false predictions cannot be true. Heilbroner is happy to cite some of Marx’s economic predictions that have been confirmed but is averse to considering the devastating implications of those that have been falsified. The dialectic functions in his thought to sustain the will to believe.
2. Even more unsatisfactory is Heilbroner’s discussion of historical materialism. The “mode of economic production” functions, according to him, only as a limiting condition on a culture (like oxygen?), and far from determining the legal, political, and religious institutions of society, as Marx clearly says, is itself determined by them. Heilbroner simply does not confront the evidence that, however it may have been in some previous periods, in the 20th century the political mode is more decisive for historical events than is the economic. On the theory of historical materialism how would one explain, for instance, the fact that the United States and Great Britain, with their capitalist modes of production, joined the Soviet Union, with its socialist mode of production, in a war against Nazi Germany, another capitalist power? How would one explain the October Russian Revolution and the emergence of a socialist economy in a country and under conditions in which, according to historical materialism, it would have been impossible? The answer is that, having seized political power, the Bolsheviks then built an economic base beneath it.
Neither does Heilbroner judge the theory of historical materialism in the light of the emergence of the democratic welfare state, the rise of fascism, or the recurrent strength of nationalist sentiment, all completely unanticipated by the theory. He ignores completely the role of personality in history. Even Leon Trotsky admitted before he died that without Lenin there would have been no October Revolution—and, one can add, probably no Mussolini in Italy or Hitler in Germany because, among other reasons, the Bolsheviks split the working-class resistance to fascism. One can recognize and applaud the heuristic value of the theory of historical materialism in historical inquiry and reject, on the basis of the evidence, the current claims to its validity.
3. Surprisingly, in the light of modern economic theory with which he is quite familiar, Heilbroner accepts without qualification Marx’s theory of value and surplus value, admitting at the same time that it is an “unprovable proposition.” He does nothing, however, to meet the standard difficulties that call it into question. On Marx’s theory, in an industry in which there is intensive use of labor (a window-cleaning firm, for example) there should be a higher rate of profit than in an industry in which highly developed technology is used (a power plant). Yet a more or less uniform rate of profit prevails. Heilbroner brings in the market to explain that the prices of production must diverge from the true values of the commodities produced. This makes value irrelevant to any specific question of price and what determines it, and to the rate of profit in any specific industry.
Although willing to credit Marx for successfully predicting “the rise of large-scale industry, the internationalization of capital, . . . and the centralization of capital”—which are not necessarily implied by the theory of surplus value and can be explained independently—he dismisses phenomena that invalidate even more important predictions of Marx like the progressive impoverishment of the working class, the disappearance of the middle class, and the growing reserve army of the unemployed. Heilbroner’s treatment of the “immiseration” of the working class is scandalous. He cannot deny that with respect to “the material conditions” of life, workers today are far better off than in Marx’s time, but he artfully suggests that in some non-material way the workers are no better off—the factory robs labor of “its human rhythm and meaning.” Nothing is more obvious than that Marx, in speaking of the growing “mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, and exploitation” of the workers, was addressing the quality of life of the English proletariat of his own time. Who can honestly deny the tremendous difference in the quality of life of the English working class in Marx’s time—when their life expectancy was (according to Marx himself) seventeen in Manchester, fifteen in Birmingham—and their life today?
Under the guise of a balanced inquiry, Heilbroner has given us an apologia for Marx’s main tenets. Where the evidence is overwhelmingly against Marx, he tempers his criticism to make the error appear minor. Thus, nothing is more central to Marx’s political philosophy than his view that the state is the executive committee of the dominant economic class. The theory, strategy, and even tactics of current Communist theory depend on this false notion. But to Heilbroner it is merely an “incautious” statement.
Where Heilbroner departs from Marx is at the point of Marx’s perennial appeal. Marx was a fighter for human freedom, for whom socialism meant not an abridgement of the political and cultural freedoms of bourgeois society but their expansion. Heilbroner’s view is that “it is unlikely that a socialist civilization will be fundamentally interested in what we call liberty. . . .” He may be right But that was not Marx’s view.
Heilbroner keeps referring to the “Marxist” regimes of Cuba and other Communist and Third World countries, but never asks what makes them Marxist, aside from their self-characterization. Are they dictatorships of the proletariat? However the term is conceived, Marx never identified the dictatorship of the proletariat with the dictatorship of a party, and a minority one at that, over the proletariat and the entire population. Heilbroner can hardly be unaware of this. In his view, however, Marx’s commitment to human freedom and his faith in the prospects of a democratic society are utopian fantasies. Even so, moral and intellectual hygiene would require that he use the term Marxist with greater precision. One cannot escape the impression that in writing about Marx he is fearful of giving offense to the “Marxists” of today’s radical, anti-democratic Left.