Dipping a toe in the sea of Marxist theory

I’ve just finished reading Peter Singer’s volume on Marx in the Very Short Introduction series. I’m a little embarrassed at having read something that’s so obviously a set of cliff notes, but at the same time I do think there’s a place for introductory volumes; books that are designed for someone who just wants to know a little. And as someone who’s had a book on Marxist economics sitting on their shelf for several years (without getting into it), it’s helpful to have a gentle introduction.

Karl Marx (courtesy of Wikipedia)

The big guy himself.

Singer does a fantastic job. The piece is easy to read, but you feel as though you understand the general outlines of some of Marx’s most important ideas. And sure – there’s a thousand other books that are out there with more information, and pages and pages of detail, context, subtlety and nuance that you’re missing out on – but that’s why you’re reading the introductory volume.

Singer covers a lot of ground – a little biography, a little context on the intellectual climate before and when Marx was writing, and then a quick skim through some of Marx’s key ideas, as drawn from different works. He wraps up with an assessment of Marx’s work, noting the specific predictions Marx made that haven’t come about (a subsistence wage for workers, the collapse of capitalism, and an increasing income gap between workers and capitalists). But he also highlights Marx’s significant contributions:

  • the first being a valuable critique of what’s conceived of as freedom in a capitalist society (which to my mind sounds a lot like the difference between positive and negative freedom).
  • the second is a new conception of human nature, as something heavily influenced, if not determined, by the underlying economic relationships.

Marx’s theory that human nature is not for ever fixed, but alters in accordance with the economic and social conditions of each period, holds out the prospect of transforming society by changing the economic basis of such human traits as greed, egoism, and ambition.

From there he goes on to the essential and unsurprising critique, that Marx’s conception of how human beings function was flawed. There’s an excellent passage he presents that’s worth quoting at length. Marx is writing in the margins of a piece by Bakunin, creating a faux dialogue:

Bakunin: Universal suffrage by the whole people of representatives and rulers of the state – this is the last word of the Marxists as well as of the democratic school. They are lies behind which lurks the despotism of a governing minority, lies all the more dangerous in that this minority appears as the expression of the so-called people’s will.

Marx: Under collective property, the so-called will of the people disappears in order to make way for the real will of the co-operative.

Bakunin: Result: rule of the great majority of the people by a privileged minority. But, the Marxists say, this minority will consist of workers. Yes, indeed, but of ex-workers who, once they become only representatives or rulers of the people, cease to be workers.

Marx: No more than a manufacturer today ceases to be a capitalist when he becomes a member of the municipal council.

Bakunin: And from the heights of the state they begin to look down upon the whole common world of the workers. From that time on they represent not the people but themselves and their own claims to govern the people. Those who can doubt this know nothing at all about human nature.

Marx: If Mr Bakunin were familiar just with the position of a manager in a workers’ co-operative, he could send all his nightmares about authority to the devil. He should have asked himself: what form can administrative functions take, on the basis of this workers’ state – if he wants to call it that?

At some point I’d like to read more, but I’m not sure where to start (if there was an area that this little book fell down for me, it was in the ‘further reading’ section). At some point in the future I’d like to get my hands on something well written on more contemporary Marxist theory.


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