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Marxism: Inclusive or Reductive?

Upon reading Karl Marx’s Capital for the first time many are surprised by its inclusive nature. Instead of the anticipated focus on economics the reader finds themselves immersed in philosophy, history and literature together with many other references. This is not only a reflection of the author’s well-known reputation as a polymath but it also reminds us that all disciplines are dependent, to a lesser or greater degree, on each other. But how can we reconcile this with the received notion of Marxism as a reductive political theory; that in the final analysis all social relations are dependent on the mode of production?

This may well be one of the reasons that Karl himself was sure that he was not a Marxist. But if a philosopher or historian was to exhaustively give you an account of a social phenomenon without reference to the relevant contemporary economic structure (as some still attempt to do) many of us would feel it to be incomplete at best and misleading at worst. This is primarily what socialists mean when we say we’re Marxists or that we’re using a Marxist analysis; the attempt to see through prevailing ideology and expose the underlying economic relationships that create such intellectual superstructures. This seemingly reductive technique has alienated many intellectuals who like to defend their own sectarian esoteric disciplines by reference to the intellectual division of labour. They reject any attempt to suggest that the multiplicity of theories and philosophies can have a common origin. So is there a contradiction inherent within Marxism between inclusiveness and reductionism?  

When a Marxist speaks of ideology they mean something much more extensive than merely a set of explicit ideas. We refer to the ‘normalisation’ of political and moral values. For instance most people accept the principal of production for profit as a ‘normal’ relationship between people engaged in industry. Socialists point to the ‘abnormality’ of a relationship based on the exploitation of one human by another. Because it has become an unquestioned relationship most economists fail to see its underlying exploitative nature. Without the benefit of a Marxist perspective they can never fully understand economics. Some propagandists are aware of this and for them the infamous phrase of Dr Goebbels that: ‘If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it’ seems as true as it ever was. This is not to say that all studies in economics since Marx have been pointless but they are incomplete without his contributions.

Another feature of the relationship of exploitation within capitalism is called alienation. This occurs because of the lack of control the individual feels during their productive life. The great joy of creative production is replaced by a monotonous set of increasing targets and goals presided over by a ‘boss’ who makes the decisions in the name of profit. The resulting depression and emotional exhaustion will be presented to a doctor who will fail to see or fail to act on the basic underlying inhuman relationships that create such alienation. So again, in the absence of a Marxist analysis psychology and medicine must inevitably fail the individual in terms of their mental and physical health.

We can see that in the absence of a penetrating political analysis both the disciplines of economics and psychology are impotent. We can make a similar case for history, philosophy, sociology etc. (probably all of the ‘humanities’ within which, this author at least, includes the ‘social sciences’). Having made the case that many disciplines are incomplete without the insights available via the Marxist perspective, can we also say that Marxism itself would be weakened without the inclusion of at least some of the discoveries made by these other disciplines?

Could it be that rather than providing alternative explanations for social development they are, in fact, complementary parts of the same whole – at least potentially, once they’re stripped of ideological prejudice. The intellectual division of labour has served to disguise the real focus of study. This division, in its turn, serves the ideological purpose of preventing access to the truth. It is not that Marxism is reductive but that philosophy, economics, psychology, history, anthropology etc. are unaware that their goal is the same as Marxism – the understanding of, and the liberation from, the causes of human suffering. Many of humanity's intellectual pursuits have this political nature and Marxism represents the first structural understanding of this simple fact. Seen in this light the intellectual sectarianism and inter-discipline competition we perceive today is utterly absurd.

This may seem to most people to be an unduly idealistic view of the motivation for intellectual endeavour but Marxists reject the idea that the belief in human potential is rooted in delusional ideals. We are well aware that many are motivated by greed, status and sometimes by pure curiosity alone but this is rarely the whole story of those who make the significant discoveries. To look at it another way, as said earlier, it is apparent that all disciplines are dependent on each other. How could it be otherwise since global human culture represents an integrated whole? Any attempt to compartmentalise knowledge entirely must inevitably end with error and confusion.

Marx may well have rejected the label ‘Marxism’ for the reasons outlined above. It seemed absurd to him that the interdisciplinary study of human development should be compartmentalised into a sectarian ideology bearing his name. We only use the phrase today to emphasise the contrast it represents to contemporary approaches in the study of politics. It is one of the great ironies of history that through the political ignorance of many of those who have proclaimed his name during moments of political turmoil it has become identified with absolutism and dogmatic reductionism.