Originally posted on December 3, 2003.
For understandable, if philosophically frivolous, reasons the collapse of the Soviet Union has been taken—especially in popular culture (including popular "intellectual" culture, such as the blogosphere)—as signalling the defeat of Marx qua philosopher. (The mock interview with Marx that was making the rounds of the blogosphere awhile back gave expression to this kind of view.) Marxism had, after all, been so long associated with the Soviet Union, that that system’s collapse was taken to coincide with the collapse of its putative intellectual foundations. Of course, this association is, from a philosophical point of view, a non-sequitur. (Indeed, the Soviet Union arguably collapsed for Marxian reasons: bureaucratic central planning clearly fettered the development of the forces of production, and thus was eventually supplanted by nascent market forms of production and distribution. But the truth of that hypothesis doesn't matter in this context.)
Even putting aside silly objections, though, there is still a pressing question about what really is living and what dead in Marx's philosophy? (In this regard, I once again strongly recommend Jonathan Wolff's Why Read Marx Today? [OUP, 2002].) In recent years, there has been what I call a "moralizing" tendency in Marx scholarship--a tendency to abandon the manifest causal-explanatory ambitions of Marx's actual philosophical practice (Marx was a good naturalist!), in favor of developing the implicit normative theory in Marx's writings. Marx never engaged explicitly in normative theory, and for a simple reason: he concluded, correctly I think, that it would have no impact on practice. (Richard Posner, a closet Marxist on this issue, has made the same argument more recently, for example in The Problematics of Moral and Legal Theory [Harvard, 1999].) My view is that Marx stands or falls on the success or failure of his causal/explanatory project, and so the question what is living and what is dead in Marx is equivalent to the question what is living and what is dead in the causal/explanatory project (and the predictive claims flowing from it) that was Marx's central work?
We must start from the now commonplace observation among scholars that many familiar Marxian predictions--e.g., the labor theory of value or the theory of the falling rate of profit--are simply false, while certain philosophical assumptions--e.g., about the teleological structure of history, or his conception of human nature in terms of species-being--seem hard to square with his naturalistic scruples, since no successful scientific methods or empirical results have given them robust support.
But what is equally striking is the accuracy of many of Marx’s best-known qualitative predictions about the tendencies of capitalist development: capitalism continues to conquer the globe; its effect is the gradual erasure of cultural and regional identities; growing economic inequality is the norm in the advanced capitalist societies; where capitalism triumphs, market norms gradually dominate all spheres of life, public and private; class position continues to be the defining determinant of political outlook; the dominant class dominates the political process which, in turn, does its bidding; and so on. (The article, above, includes citations to supporting evidence.)
Particularly important, in my view, remains the Marxian theory of ideology, which predicts that the ruling ideas in any well-functioning society will be ideas that promote the interests of the ruling class in that society, i.e., the class that is economically dominant.
By the “ruling ideas” we should understand Marx to mean the central moral, political and economic ideas that dominate discussion in the mass media and in the corridors of power in that society. The theory is not peculiar to Marx, since the “classical realists” of antiquity like the Sophists and Thucydides advanced essentially the same theory: the powerful clothe their pursuit of self-interest in the garb of morality and justice. When Marx says that, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas” (The German Ideology) and that, “Law, morality, religion are to [the proletariat] so many bourgeois prejudices, behind which lurk in ambush just as many bourgeois interests” (The Communist Manifesto), he is simply translating in to Marxian terms the Sophistic view “that the more powerful will always take advantage of the weaker, and will give the name of law and justice to whatever they lay down in their own interests” (that's WKC Guthrie's gloss on the Sophistic view).
In the United States, for example, a majority of the population favors abolition of the estate tax—what the ideologues of the ruling class now call a “death tax”—believing that it affects them, and that it results in the loss of family businesses and farms. In fact, only 2% of the population pays the estate tax, and there is no documented case of families losing their farms or businesses as a result of the tax’s operation. Examples like this--in which the majority have factually inaccurate beliefs, that are in the interests of those with money and power--could, of course, be multiplied. Does this just happen by accident?
We still might demand, of course, an explanation for why the ruling class is so good at identifying and promoting its interests, while the majority is not? But, again, there is an obvious answer: for isn’t it generally quite easy to identify your short-term interests when the status quo is to your benefit? In such circumstances, you favor the status quo! In other words, if the status quo provides tangible benefits to the few—lots of money, prestige, and power—is it any surprise that the few are well-disposed to the status quo, and are particularly good at thinking of ways to tinker with the status quo (e.g., repeal the already minimal estate tax) to increase their money, prestige, and power? (The few can then promote their interests for exactly the reasons Marx identifies: they own the means of mental production.)
By contrast, it is far trickier for the many to assess what is in their interest, precisely because it requires a counterfactual thought experiment, in addition to evaluating complex questions of socio-economic causation. More precisely, the many have to ascertain that (1) the status quo--the whole complex socio-economic order in which they find themselves--is not in their interests (this may be the easiest part); (2) there are alternatives to the status quo which would be more in their interest; and (3) it is worth the costs to make the transition to the alternatives—to give up on the bad situation one knows in order to make the leap in to a (theoretically) better unknown. Obstacles to the already difficult task of making determinations (1) and (2)—let alone (3)—will be especially plentiful, precisely because the few are strongly, and effectively (given their control of the means of mental production), committed to the denial of (1) and (2).