[OPE-L:7229] Re: Marx on solving human problems

From: gerald_a_levy (gerald_a_levy@msn.com)
Date: Mon May 20 2002 - 19:51:15 EDT

----- Original Message ----- 
From: Jurriaan Bendien 
Sent: Monday, May 20, 2002 6:15 PM
Subject: Re: Marx on solving human problems

Hi Jerry,

Thanks for your comment. I argued previously that Marx's conception of history is that "the material conditions for the solution of the problem" must and do emerge before the great masses of the people ("humankind", not necessarily individuals) begin to grapple consciously with the problem in practice. Conversely, Marx repeatedly argues that particular problems (such as problems of theoretical political economy) could not be solved in a given era, even if individuals posed them, because the material conditions for solving them did not yet exist. Thus also for example the utopian socialists could conceive the idea of an egalitarian society, but were unable to show practically how such a society could emerge out of the given circumstances, precisely because those circumstances did not permit it, and that is why their ideas did not gain mass appeal. Marx's claim to have made socialism "scientific" indeed hinges on the idea that capitalist development creates the material conditions for socialism. Marx makes no claims about the inevitability of soci
alism, but he does say that the condition for the masses of people grappling with the problem practically is the existence of the material conditions for solving it. You can study this idea empirically by investigating the problems which preoccupied a society in a period of history, and the extent to which they were or could be solved, comparing the problems and solutions posed, with the material conditions of life existing at the time. 

I still think we do not fully agree about the importance of use-value in political economy, even although you now qualify your previous comments and make a more credible case. My point is that your view of capitalists being "indifferent" to (1) the particular use-value that a commodity fullfills and (2) the relative indifference to the particular commodity being produced, is wrong. This could apply only to speculators. Functioning capitalists can never be indifferent to these things, because they impact directly and immediately on sales and profits. You reply to this by saying that okay, they may be concerned with it, but only from the point of view of their private own profit motive. This still ignores however that the commodities must sell in the first place, and that in order to make a profit in the first place, the entrepreneur cannot be indifferent to the particular commodity being produced, he must choose something specific that will sell and will make a profit, and not just any old thing. I belabour this point a little, because I think the implications of it have often been ignored by Marxist theoreticians, generating a far too simplistic, caricatured view of capitalist behaviour. Likewise, the idea that capitalists are generally indifferent to the social consequences of their business decisions must also be qualified, precisely because those social consequences can also impact on profits and sales, and because capitalists are also social actors in a given society. We can agree that realising private profit is the "bottom line", but capitalist behaviour is motivated by much more than that, including factors which are not purely economic. This is especially true today, when some corporations have a turnover greater than the GDP of whole countries. 

I agree that the capacity to "think" the problem does not mean automatically being able to solve it, given a specific division of labour within the corporation. But I don't think Marx is committed to saying that, and anyway that is not what he is referring to when he says that "humankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it can solve". He is not talking about individuals but about collectivities, great masses of people, about humanity as a whole. And as I said previously a number of times, "can solve" or "practically able to solve" does not mean "will solve". The material conditions for practically solving the problem may exist, the awareness of the problem may exist, but that doesn't mean the problem will inevitably be solved. 

If however you consider that the quote from Marx we discussed is an unsubstantiated assertion, then you also cast doubt on the possibility and feasibility of socialist society. Then you are arguing more along the lines that capitalism, through its functioning, can generate problems which are in principle unsolvable for the human race, maybe making socialism impossible. I argue somewhat differently - I don't say there are problems which are in principle unsolvable, merely that the solutions which do exist are not necessarily and inevitably taken up. I would say the knowledge and resources to solve all the basic problems which humankind faces today do in fact exist, it is just that it does not follow from this, that they will necessarily or inevitably be solved.

As far as "revolutionary optimism" is concerned - of course any political leader needs to be an optimist, because he has to point the way forward and provide solutions, he must solve problems positively and not merely raise them. I am merely saying that "cultural pessimism" is not conducive to solving the problems that humanity faces positively. It is only conducive to policing what people may or may not do, to imposing more controls over human behaviour. 



This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Sun Jun 02 2002 - 00:00:07 EDT