Aspects of Marxism – Some Critics Criticised

Critics of Marx rarely agree as to actually what they disagree about in respect of his doctrines. Take for example two recent critics J. Plamenatz, Fellow of Nuffield College and R. N. Carew Hunt. J. Plamenatz in his book German Marxism and Russian Communism, does not even grant historical materialism the status of an hypothesis let alone a theory of social development, (pp 172/3.) Although unmindful of this he tells us later, “historical materialism is an hypothesis much better forgotten while those who support it have nothing more to say in its favour than what the Marxists have said.”

On the other hand R. N. Carew Hunt in his work The Theory and Practise of Communism says (p. 42), “The economic factor for all social institutions and particularly for their historical development has exercised a profound influence and all modern writers are indebted to him (Marx) even if they do not know it.” He adds, “any return to pre-Marxist social theory is impossible.”

There is also a difference of emphasis in their respective evaluation of Marxian economics. Thus J. Plamenatz (p.113), same book, says “Marx’s analysis of Capitalism, though seldom free from obscurity sometimes illogical and often mistaken is nevertheless impressive,” on the other hand, R. N. Carew Hunt in The Theory and Practise of Communism (p. 61), quotes with apparent approval Keynes’s dictum, “Capital is an obsolete text book . . . not only scientifically erroneous but without interest or application for the modern world.”

So among critics of Marx, “yer pays yer money and yer takes yer choice,” a choice so wide and varied as to constitute an embarrassment rather than an exercise of the critical faculties. Thus for the price of one book you may gather that Marx was a mental, even if mistaken, giant. Another book may present him as a sort of intellectual pigmy—on stilts. You can also learn that he was a kind of humanitarian watchdog or from an opposite angle that he is the “big bad wolf” of the class struggle concept. He has even been called the father of sociology, a title which R. N. Carew Hunt says he well deserves. On the other hand he has been regarded by many acid critics, of whom J. Plamenatz might be included, as a victim of Hegelian dyspepsia which kept repeating all through his writings. If the reader has perused a number of books criticising Marx and is a little confused and dissatisfied then he can try asking the publishers for his money back or take to reading Marx himself. What a pity Marx could not, in reply to “What did Marx really mean, by the critics” have penned “What do the critics really mean by Marx.”

After this, one might be faintly surprised to learn that R. N. Carew Hunt regards Capital as a very great book and one of the most important ever written (p. 62). As to why it is a great book the author is vagueness itself. Mr. Carew Hunt cannot, however, praise without faint damns. Marx, it seemed, on his intellectual voyage did not quite know where he was going, consequently he lost his bearings and by accident discovered something. Just like Columbus who, having lost his route to India, chanced upon the New World. Mr. Carew Hunt also offers a curious clue as to why he thinks Capital is a very great book. He quotes Mr. Edmund Wilson to the effect that the principles of “capital” “are derived solely from the laws of human selfishness which are as unfailing as the laws of gravitation.”

This is nonsense. How could Marx hold that man in changing the world change themselves and yet believe at the same time in a fixed pattern of human behaviour based on laws of human selfishness expressed as self interest? Indeed for Marx individual motives whether selfish or otherwise, are too complex and obscure even for the individual himself to adequately understand; too fluctuating and tending to cancel each other out, to offer a reliable index to social change. Only the resultant effect of the behaviour of individuals under given objective conditions can be studied and correlated with key factors of the social environment in order to reveal the historical significance of human activity. Even to say that individuals have an interest in self-preservation does not mean a biological adaption to “Nature red in tooth and claw” or a series of sudden impulses and desires actuated by urgent immediacy. Like other interests, self-preservation operates through a complex, socially mediated environment. While it may serve to make individuals highly responsive to social pressures and changes it cannot explain the historically specific activities and interests of men. The key to understanding such activities and interests is not to be located in fixations like self-preservation or self interest but in the social structure and class character of the society in which men live.

The concept of self interest as a social dynamic belongs not to Marx but Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism which sought to give a corporate expression for private interests and pleasure in the maxim of “The greatest happiness of the greatest number.” Such a view served, however, as an apology for Capitalist society because it disregarded the fact that Capitalism was a system based on exploitation and chose to believe that there was some common utility to which all human interests and welfare could be equated and that the existing social relations are the most advantageous and commonly useful to all.

Utilitarianism may be said to be the official social theory of bourgeois society. Its content is essentially anti-social. Its view is an atomistic one. While individuals may jostle with each other in the mutually advantageous hurly-burly of every day life they nevertheless remain self-sufficient units, indivisible and impenetrable. As Marx pointed out, on this theory the egotistic individual is the abstract ideal of bourgeois society. It was John Stuart Mill who gave Utilitarianism an extra coat of humanitarian gloss. While the Fabians with one or two characteristic touches incorporated it into their political philosophy. It has also passed into current economic culture where, according to certain marginal productivity economists, a “natural law” tends to give capital what capital creates, and to labour what labour creates. So every unit of production, we are assured, exploits every other unit and à la Bentham a good time is had by all.

Such a theory of individualism fails to see the unbreakable social links which bind man to man. Just as it failed to see that it was the complex myriad interrelationships of the division of labour which gave individuals their status and privilege, and not their own unaided merit. Marx himself did not deny the role of the individual in society. What he denied was the alleged “rights of individuals” as expressed in a social philosophy. He revealed that Capitalism was a society which brought about a social alienation but. less than any other man, would he have attributed this to some inflexible behaviour, in the form of self-interest as universal and pervasive as the law of gravitation. Indeed, it was Marx’s peculiar contribution to our intellectual inheritance to reveal this alienation as the outcome of the separation of the vast majority from their instruments of production, and the conversion of their productive energies into a commodity. The anti-social consequences of Capitalist society, where the law of value constitutes the real planning authority, has its font, not in the hearts and minds of men, but in the character of the social organisation in which they live.

For Marx the future of man pointed, not to a mythical harmony established by the competitive free play of self interest, but to the social control of all those agencies necessary for man’s well being. Class divided society, Marx thought, impoverished the real content of individuality, only Socialised humanity, he believed, would change the form and enrich the nature of human personality and make it a social value accessible to all. Nor, as is alleged, do Marxists explain specific ideas as facile rationalisations of an underlying motive of self interest. It recognises ideas as powerful agencies through which men conduct their social struggles, and in which they often sincerely believe. Marxists do not underestimate the role of ideas in history. They refuse, however, to accept ideas at their face value. Ideas, they contend, can only be significantly understood by revealing their integral connection with men’s interests and needs. That is why historical ideas cannot be severed from material interests. Historical materialism thus explains, better than any other theory, why in the course of history some ideas have succeeded and others failed. Why some have been accepted and others rejected. For Marxists, ideas are not powers within themselves; they only become effective as instruments of social change when they are tied to powerful historic class needs. Behind the conflict of social ideals there is always a conflict of group economic interests.

Men have many interests, none of which can be isolated from each other, but if we want to know which interest has predominated in the course of history, then analysis shows it is class economic interests which have been crucial in modifying or revolutionising the social situation.

History, Marxists claim, is not the story of individuals with fixed pattern behaviours, but the record of the economic conflict of social classes and, with it, the rise of some and decline of others. Because an individual cannot think or act on his own behalf it is only in and through these social classes that his social outlook, traditions, and allegiances, are moulded. From this it follows that a dominant social group will systematise its ideas and attitudes in seeking to preserve the social situation which serves their needs. Just as other groups in accordance with their aims and interests will seek to modify, or radically alter, existing conditions. Each ruling group proclaims, however, that it speaks, not for itself but on behalf of the community.

Social classes have no reference to an abstract economic man pursuing the path of self interest, but grew out of the development of socially organised production If the investigation of history starts with men’s needs it can be shown that these needs are socially produced and therefore socially mediated. From these needs there develops the sub-division of labour which in turn brings about different and various vocational activities and productive functions. It is from this historical productive structure that individuals acquired status and privilege, which crystallised into social classes.

Because human history is social history the motives of the single “self” are never determining factors in social development. Since the passing of primitive society history has been class history and the behaviour of individuals, class conditioned. Moreover, men are born into a set of class relations independent of their individual wills, i.e., as master or slave, lord or serf, Capitalist or wage worker, which limit their scope and action. The scope and action of members of a class are even more significantly limited by the overall and constant pressure of their existing needs resulting from economic conditions, the outcome of which results in a common pi and activity. Because the common economic activity which members of a class engage in produces an aggregate effect, it does not follow that such activity is reducible to the individual behaviour of members of that class. The motives actuating an individual might not be primarily economic, but his consideration and conduct are moulded by the interests of the group to which he belongs, and without whose support little could be effected. Class interests and the opposition between class interests centre around the ownership of the productive resources.

Because variations in individual motives are compensated for in any large aggregate activity, it produces a net effect different from the anticipated end result of each individual action. By correlating this average behaviour with crucial factors in a given social environment we are able to give a significant account of the society in which we live.

Marx never sought to make the individual the sole responsible agent for the society of which he is a part. This did not prevent him from protesting against the anti-social consequences of the class ownership of the productive resources and the anti-social nature of the class behaviour associated with it. While he never held the Rousseau belief which saw man as an essentially noble animal he never wavered from the view that the vast majority were capable of transforming the dehumanised character of extant society into something truly human. Far from believing in an invariant pattern of human behaviour, he proclaimed, “all history is a modification of human nature.” Mr. Carew Hunt’s attempt to foist on Marx the notion of an abstract economic man is laughable. He is typical of a long line of critics who have not read Marx so much as to have read what others have read into him.

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