[OPE-L:7203] Re: Marx on solving human problems

From: gerald_a_levy (gerald_a_levy@msn.com)
Date: Fri May 17 2002 - 10:08:43 EDT

Re [7l97]:

Hi again Jurriaan.  You wrote:

>  Thanks for your extensive comment. We are indeed "far apart", since I
>  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
>  have tried to substantiate it through empirical research. I could give
>  lots of references but lack the time for that, and anyway you must know
> this.

I wasn't challenging the "general conclusion" in its entirety, *only* the
*specific*  assertion that  "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
formation."    Marx did not attempt to substantiate *this* assertion,  in
the "Preface"  to _A Contribution to the Critique of  Political Economy_
or elsewhere [?],   and he -- as far as I know -- did not conduct
research on that claim.  Nor have a "whole stream of Marxists"
attempted to justify that claim.

>  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.

How would you propose empirically and scientifically investigating the
*specific* claim that we have been discussing (namely that "Mankind
thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve")?  Note
again the claim of inevitability which suggests not only past history but
also that only tasks which are capable of being solved will be posed *in
the future*.

>   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
>  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
>  human history" like Gerald Cohen, but that is not what Marx had in mind.

This wasn't stated as a "research hypothesis", it was stated -- as you
remark elsewhere" as a general *conclusion* of his studies.  Yet, as stated,
this "conclusion" is only an assertion.

> He makes no claim about
>  inevitable stages of history, nor about linear historical progress.

Right, but he does make a claim about inevitability in the quote at issue.

>  You claim that "The issue as conceived by individual capitalists is how
>  obtain the maximum rate of profit... Towards this end, they are generally
>  indifferent to the particular use-value that a commodity fullfills". In
>  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
>  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
>  persuade consumers to buy their wares, praising their use-value. They
>  research how consumers actually use the product, so that they can adjust
>  their production and sales accordingly. This is a very, very simple fact
>  capitalist economic life, and how you can deny it baffles me.

I don't think we disagree on this point -- I guess I must not have made my
point with sufficient clarity.  Of course, individual capitalists are
concerned with the use-value of the commodities that they produce.  They
are concerned about this for the rather obvious reason that for surplus
value to be realized (=actualized) the commodity must be sold.   I was
trying to make the following point:  individual capitalists are indifferent
to the "particular use-value that a commodity fulfills" to the extent that
they are not focused on the specific use-value that is received by
consumers _unless_ it is in connection with the realization of surplus
value.  Thus, they could not in general care less how consumers end
up using their products  -- they are only concerned with profit.
Similarly, individual capitalists -- because their focus is on obtaining
the highest  possible *individual* rate of profit -- are generally
indifferent to the social consequences of their decisions.  There is
nothing that I view as controversial in the above.  Capitalists aren't in
business to satisfy specific needs and wants -- from this perspective
they can be assumed to be relatively indifferent to the specific nature
of the commodity produced. Thus -- whether they employ workers
who produce linen, nuclear power,  cosmetics, armaments, health
care, or recycling services --  their concern is  only profit.  This
relative indifference to the particular commodity being produced is
a necessary assumption -- which corresponds to a material reality
-- in the process that leads to the formation of a general rate of
profit and prices of production.  The  above is even recognized in
mainstream economic theory -- although  they would express the
issue differently: e.g.  in social welfare theory with the concept of
"externalities".  The way in which this issue is resolved in mainstream
theory is with a particular conception of the *state*: i.e. a
perspective that holds that the state is a class-neutral body which
seeks to maximize public welfare.  Of course,  Marxists  view the
state in a very different way.  I  would like to connect this more to
a point that Hans was trying to make  in [7l96] but I'll have  to think
about his post some more.

In any event, as I tried to explain in [7l72], when you consider the
*actual* ways in which research is done and decisions are made within
contemporary  corporations, there is *no*  necessary reason to suppose
that those who are knowledgeable about a problem  have the capacity to
"think" the solution. Indeed,  there is a *division of labor*  among
scientists  and researchers imposed by capital and decisions about
*what* to research are made not by the  researchers themselves
necessarily but by and for capitalists or their representatives in the labor
process (managers).

>  As regards the quote from Marx about "the forces of production turning
>  forces of destruction", my attention was drawn to it by an essay by
>  Mandel, "Marxismus und OEcologie", in his book "Karl Marx: Die
>  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.

That is a very good point.  I agree with Mandel (as you summarized his
position.)  Consider what he was saying:  at the time that technologies are
diffused, "we" -- as well as the corporations themselves -- may have little

understanding of the effects.  This was *exactly*  a point that I was
trying to make in this exchange with you.

>  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
>  or "imagined" dangers for which nobody can present a shred of good
>  evidence. Should we abandon research into nuclear fusion which aims to
>  safer ways to produce a lot of energy that we can make electricity with ?

Yes.  So long as that research is conducted by corporations or the
capitalist state we should.  btw, as a historical note, that 'research into
nuclear fusion' has often simply been a cover for military research
undertaken by the state directly or paid for to corporations by the

A small personal example:

When I was a Junior in High School taking a class in Oceanography, we
went on a field trip to a small inlet near the [infamous] Millstone Nuclear
Power Plant in Waterford, CT.   You couldn't see the water in the inlet
because the surface of the water was filled with layer upon layer of dead
fish who had been killed by "thermal pollution".  I.e. the discharge of
water from the power plant had raised water temperature which resulted
in the deaths.

Of course, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has had all kinds of
"research" over the years. But, that research is intended to *promote*
the nuclear power industry.  The possible impact of nuclear power plants
on local fish species was not considered (or, if it was, they never informed
the public about it.)

> I am against exploding nuclear bombs and against nuclear
>  fission plants generating waste problems, but I don't think we should
>  abandon research.

I think that research should be abandoned and I think that should be an
important political demand.

>  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
>  Many of them are quite happy these days to work together with bourgeois
>  governments and fight wars in Afghanistan and Yugoslavia etc. Many of
>  are anti-working class, anti-socialist and pro-imperialist. If you want
>  work with them, believing what you believe, you ought to "pick your
>  carefully, that's all I can tell you.

Yes, that is true for many Greens.  For many other Greens it is not true.
In a number of countries, for instance, left anarchists are participants in
the environmental movement. Indeed, some participants (like J.B Foster
and OPE-Ler Paul Burkett) are Marxists.

>  . Some people seem to enjoy being cultural pessimists... do you
>  fall in that category ?

No, I don't consider myself to be a 'cultural pessimist'.  From my
perspective,  *both* pessimism and optimism must be rejected.  Some
Marxists (like the late James P. Cannon) believed in something called
"revolutionary optimism".  I do not think that such a perspective can be
justified from a materialist perspective even if it might make some
rank-and-file members feel better about their activism.

>  You are quite right in the sense that applying new technology can
>  lead to disasters for humankind which were not anticipated. But does that
>  mean that we should stop experimenting and trying things out ?

No. But, "we" are not necessarily the ones who are experimenting and trying
things out. Within a capitalist society "we" are often systematically
excluded  from this.  Thus, "we" only knew about the nuclear bomb after
Hiroshima. "We" don't really know what capital and the state are
experimenting on and trying out.  Indeed, it makes me shudder to think
about that question.

>We socialists know that the "Genie" is already "out of the
>  bottle", and has been for a long time.

For some reason, I couldn't think of the literary metaphor that I really
intended: it concerns something which unleashed can't be contained again.

 >  Did you know that many of the world's biggest cities are built on fault
>  lines ?

True. A number of nuclear power plants in the US are also built on fault
lines.  Moreover, the designers, corporations, and the government knew
about that before those plants were built.

> 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
>  fact predict the quakes to a considerable extent, and thus save human
>  as well !

I think you are overstating the state of knowledge about earthquakes.
We really have very little cumulative knowledge and the monitoring
techniques often fail to really give warning before an event.  Consider the
subject of  meteorology.  Consider all of the billions of dollars and other
currencies spent annually on meteorological forecasting. Consider all of
the scientific devices, satellite tracking systems, and computer simulation
models.  Yet,  how often are forecasts for the tomorrow's weather shown
to be inaccurate?  (Indeed, an argument can be made that a knowledgeable
person who  observes changes in barometric pressure and cloud formations
can be able to at least as accurately predict tomorrow's weather.)  How
often are those meteorologists able to predict the formation and track of
hurricanes?  Of  course,  humanity knows much more about natural forces
today than it did  in Marx's time.   Yes, there is so very much that we
don't know. Indeed, we can not even be able to comprehend *how much*
we don't know. And  there is every reason to believe that so long as we
have capitalism we will continue not to know so very much about science
and nature. Indeed, isn't this just another way of recognizing that "from
forms of  development of the productive forces these relations turn into
their fetters"?

In solidarity, Jerry

PS to Hans on [7l96]:    In your paragraph that began "By the way",
you seemed to be making a couple of points. One point I agree with is
that Marx didn't think that winning the 8-hour-day would require the
abolition of capitalism (indeed, he along with the First International was
a participant in the international struggle for the 8-hour-day.) However,
in the sentence that you wrote that ends with "l800s" you seemed to be
asserting that Marx recognized that the abolition of capitalism was not
possible in that (his own) century.  Is that what you intended?  If so,
please explain.  Thanks.

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