[OPE-L:7197] Re: Marx on solving human problems

From: gerald_a_levy (gerald_a_levy@msn.com)
Date: Thu May 16 2002 - 16:34:30 EDT

----- Original Message -----
From: "Jurriaan Bendien" <j.bendien@wolmail.nl>
Sent: Thursday, May 16, 2002 4:01 PM
Subject: Marx on solving human problems


 Thanks for your extensive comment. We are indeed "far apart", since I seek
 to defend what Marx refers to in his 1859 Preface as the "general
 conclusion" of his research in political economy which became "guiding
 principle of [his] studies", whereas you want to claim that it contains
 unsubstantiated assertion. I am arguing Marx did try to substantiate it,
 namely through (as he says himself) his research in political economy and
 ethnology which he carried out in previous years and continued
 intermittently until his death. Since that time a whole stream of Marxists
 have tried to substantiate it through empirical research. I could give you
 lots of references but lack the time for that, and anyway you must know

 Let us first of all return to what Marx actually says:

 "No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for
 which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of
 production never replace older ones before the material conditions for
 their existence have matured within the
framework of the old society.  Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only
such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always
show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions
for its solution are already present or at least in the course of

 Leaving aside squabbles about exact translation, it seems very clear to me
 that Marx says that the material conditions for the existence of new and
 superior production relations must mature within the old society before the
 old social order CAN perish (notice Marx does not say it WILL INEVITABLY
 perish). Marx says further that this is the REASON why "Mankind thus
 inevitably only sets itself such problems as it can solve".

 He is actually very explicit, adding "SINCE closer examination will ALWAYS
 show that the problem itself only arises ONLY when the material conditions
 for its solution are ALREADY present or at least in the course of
 formation". If the objective material conditions did not exist in the first
 place, at least embryonically, humankind could not even "think" the problem
 nor genuinely grapple with it.

 So, anyway, in the broad sweep of history,  you get the development of the
 material conditions, which, at a certain stage, cause a big conflict
 between the productive forces and production relations, and then you get
 the "ideological forms in which people become conscious of this conflict
 and fight it out". And this, as we know, takes the form of a struggle
 between different social classes which have different stakes in the

 Solving the conflict is possible, BECAUSE "the material conditions for its
 solution are already present or at least in the course of formation". It is
 a question of human consciousness adjusting itself to the new material
 circumstances which human labour itself has created. Marx does NOT say at
 all however, that human consciousness will INEVITABLY adjust to the new
 material circumstances. He only says that the material (objective)
 conditions for the solution of the problem already exist. BECAUSE those
 necessary material conditions exist, it is POSSIBLE to solve it, and in
 THIS sense humankind only sets itself only those problems which it can
 solve. The human species does not pose its problems in a vacuum, but in a
 definite material context which even shapes the way in which problems are
 posed in the human brain.

 The validity of this "guiding principle" is something which you can
 empirically and scientifically investigate. You can take up Marx's
 invitation and study social transformations, distinguishing carefully, as
 he recommends, between "the material transformation of the economic
 conditions of production" and the "ideological forms" in which this
 transformation is reflected in human consciousness.

 Now I regard this as the ABC of the materialist conception of history, and
 I do not see why you, as the propietor of a Marxist mailing list, should
 have such a problem with this and indeed call this idea an "unsubstantiated

 I will happily admit that we cannot know for certain whether "past trends
 will continue into the future". Nevertheless we must extrapolate, which is
 what Marx does. But Marx is not stupid - he is only putting forward a
 research HYPOTHESIS which became a "guiding principle for his studies".
 Scientific investigation of human societies must start somewhere, and Marx
 tells us how he thinks we should start. We can of course make his guiding
 comments for scientific inquiry into a full-fledged "philosphical theory of
 human history" like Gerald Cohen, but that is not what Marx had in mind.

 Marx did not say "go and make yourself a general philosophical theory of
 history". In fact when people tried to do this, Marx said that "I am not a
 Marxist". Marx was only saying, here you have an approach, a guide, now go
 and study the historical facts and demonstrate thereby the validity of the
 approach, see if it works. And I think many scholars have shown its
 validity, even although their findings should also lead us to modify and
 improve on Marx's approach and findings.

 For example, Marx's own concept of the Asiatic mode of production doesn't
 really seem to be very valid. Note however that Marx says "in broad
 outline, the Asiatic, ancient, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of
 production may be designated as epochs marking progress in the economic
 development of society". In other words he is saying "this are roughly
 speaking what the progressive phases in economic development were", but
 this still needed to be investigated further. He makes no claim about
 inevitable stages of history, nor about linear historical progress.

 I do not believe in "scientism" or the idea that science can solve all our
 problems, and I never said I did. But I am not in favour of banning science
 because some scientists did more harm than good.

 You claim that "The issue as conceived by individual capitalists is how to
 obtain the maximum rate of profit... Towards this end, they are generally
 indifferent to the particular use-value that a commodity fullfills". In my
 opinion, this is just FALSE.
Admittedly, capitalists would not normally produce of product if they
 didn't think it was going to make a profit adequate to their requirements.
 But in the real world of business, capitalists are vitally concerned with
 the "use-value" of their commodity. Why is that ?

 Well, the main reason is that the commodity MUST SELL. If the consumer
 recognises no use-value in the commodity, the commodity does not sell and
 the capitalist doesn't realise his profit. Therefore, in the real world,
 capitalists pay R&D people to make the commodity as "useful" as possible,
 and to investigate what consumers want to buy. They also pay advertisers to
 persuade consumers to buy their wares, praising their use-value. They even
 research how consumers actually use the product, so that they can adjust
 their production and sales accordingly. This is a very, very simple fact of
 capitalist economic life, and how you can deny it baffles me.

 As regards the quote from Marx about "the forces of production turning into
 forces of destruction", my attention was drawn to it by an essay by Ernest
 Mandel, "Marxismus und OEcologie", in his book "Karl Marx: Die aktualitaet
 seines Werkes" (ISP Verlag, 1984). This essay was originally published in
 Dutch as a response to the report of the Club of Rome (more specifically
 the Mansholt Report) in 1972. Mandel actually made the point then - among
 other things - that implementing technologies which can have effects that
 we cannot oversee is irresponsible, and that we may be justified in
 rejecting them, until such time as it is better known what the effects of
 using it really are.

 You make a similar point, and I think that is perfectly valid. But you
 don't need to be a "Green" to make that point, and it is quite another
 thing to put the clamps on scientific experimentation because of "possible"
 or "imagined" dangers for which nobody can present a shred of good
 evidence. Should we abandon research into nuclear fusion which aims to find
 safer ways to produce a lot of energy that we can make electricity with ? I
 don't think so. I am against exploding nuclear bombs and against nuclear
 fission plants generating waste problems, but I don't think we should
 abandon research.

 Well perhaps my remark about "all we can do in huddle together a bit in
 communes and so on" was unfair to the Greens. I admit I was momentarily
 distracted from my argumentation. Notice however I talked about the
 irrationalism if not mysticism of SOME Greens, which doesn't mean ALL
 Greens. I actually visited and lived in communes as a youth, but what was
 striking was how the problems of capitalist society which the commune
 dwellers sought to escape from reasserted themselves within their communes
 anyhow. I was a member of what was, to my knowledge, the first Green party
 in the world, the New Zealand Values Party, in 1978. The leader at the
 time, Tony Kunowski, got disgruntled with the party and left to become a
 banker. I left too, but that was more because the "zero-growth" society
 which the party advocated had been achieved in New Zealand, generating
 unemployment and social problems to which the party did not really have an

 It is a funny thing that you bring up the question of classes and class
 analysis, because the Greens actually do not score very well there at all.
 Many of them are quite happy these days to work together with bourgeois
 governments and fight wars in Afghanistan and Yugoslavia etc. Many of them
 are anti-working class, anti-socialist and pro-imperialist. If you want to
 work with them, believing what you believe, you ought to "pick your Greens"
 carefully, that's all I can tell you.

 I do not propose to discuss whether or not the Greens enjoy life, this is
 not relevant to my argument and in any case it is perfectly possible to be
 a cultural pessimist seeking to put clamps on human behaviour, and still
 enjoy life. Some people seem to enjoy being cultural pessimists... do you
 fall in that category ?

 You are quite right in the sense that applying new technology can sometimes
 lead to disasters for humankind which were not anticipated. But does that
 mean that we should stop experimenting and trying things out ? In some
 cases, maybe. The very fact that disasters happen is a powerful warning to
 us. But it is another thing to leap from there to visions of doom, despair
 and gloom and general pessimism about the power of human beings to solve
 their problems. We socialists know that the "Genie" is already "out of the
 bottle", and has been for a long time. We can soberly take stock of that,
 but it should not be cause for despondency. That's not productive.

 Did you know that many of the world's biggest cities are built on fault
 lines ? One big earthquake and millions die under the rubble. That is the
 way it is. But if you were to study how quickly those cities can often be
 rebuilt, you would be amazed. With modern monitoring techniques, we can in
 fact predict the quakes to a considerable extent, and thus save human lives
 as well !



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