Why Read Marx Today? by Jonathan Wolff

From: Rakesh Bhandari (rakeshb@STANFORD.EDU)
Date: Sat Jul 05 2003 - 16:51:06 EDT

As Rao indicates, book not strong on the 'economics'.

From Frontline Volume 20 - Issue 14, July 05 - 18, 2003
India's National Magazine from the publishers of THE HINDU

A perspective on Marx


  Why Read Marx Today? by Jonathan Wolff; Oxford University Press,
U.K., 2002; pages viii + 236, 11.99 (hardback).

IN the midst of all the contentious debates of our times, there seems
to be a remarkable degree of consensus about the irrelevance of
Marxism. At least, this is what the corporate-dominated media and the
mainstream political discourse all over the world would have us
believe. To be acceptable in the current intellectual climate,
therefore, one must invoke Marxism only to excoriate its flaws and
followers. Critics of Marxism are never tired of deriding its
imperfections and pointing out its `failures' in the former Soviet
Union and other countries of the erstwhile socialist bloc. Except for
`moth-eaten' states such as Cuba and North Korea, apparently, the
world has jettisoned communism, a fact underscored by the recent,
acceptance of capitalism by China.

Given the overwhelming propaganda against Marxism, one could be
forgiven for assuming that Marx and his ideas are meaningless.
Besides, the post-Cold War generation of deradicalised and careerist
youth have little patience for ideologies, more so for what they
consider to be `discredited' ones. In this context, answer to a
question like `why read Marx today?' might seem axiomatic, that is,
that there is nothing to be gained by reading Marx. Yet, asked in a
spirit of enquiry, it seems to suggest that in spite of all that has
happened, Marx might not, after all, be redundant. Mercifully, there
are in our midst enough perceptive people who seem to share this
opinion. The barrage of criticism against Marxism fills them with
misgivings about Marx and his ideas. Nevertheless, they wonder how a
worldview that inspired so many people around the world could be so
completely devoid of merit. Surely, there must be something in Marx's
views that could still be of significance for our ti!
mes. Those interested in exploring what is living and what is dead in
Marxism will be delighted to find balanced perspectives on the topic
in Jonathan Wolff's WOLFF, a Professor of Philosophy at University
College in London and author of several books on political
philosophy, wrote this book based on the lectures he delivered over
the years in his course on Marxism. With the disciplined
disinterestedness of a philosopher, he has appraised the multifaceted
intellectual output of Marx and his social vision. In the first two
chapters, Wolff offers a broad overview of Marx's thoughts on
religion, historical materialism, labour and alienation, money and
credit, liberalism, emancipation and so on. In doing so, he
accomplishes two objectives at once. First, he provides a succinct
account of the debates and the ideological background of Marx's
period. Second, he elucidates the more abstruse aspects of Marx's
ideas through his apposite exegesis and explains how the seminal
thoughts o!
f Marx radically broadened the scholarly horizons of his age.!
  Thus, having established the necessary framework for assessing Marx,
Wolff goes on to examine critically the validity and usefulness of
Marx's ideas.

A major strength of the book is its intellectual rigour, a quality it
shares with the writings of Marx. Although writing on cerebral
issues, Wolff presents his views in an accessible manner. Steering
clear of high rhetoric, convoluted logic and intellectual
callisthenics - the stuff of polemical writings - he predicates his
critique on Marx's original writings and unobtrusively brings to bold
relief their strengths and shortcomings. Neither timid in his praise
nor shrill in his criticism, Wolff offers a nuanced evaluation of
Marx. He, for instance, is troubled by the `sweeping' and
`unsubstantiated' nature of Marx's grand theories and argues that we
must abandon them. Yet, he also generously pays tribute to Marx for
his rapier-sharp analysis of capitalism and describes him as `the
great-grandfather of today's anti-capitalist movement' (page 2).

Before analysing polemical issues of Marxian dialectics, in a brief
introduction to the life of Marx, Wolff rightly points out some
general reasons why reading his works would be a rewarding exercise.
As is well known, Karl Marx was a polymath, an intellectual colossus
whose scholarly interests were staggeringly eclectic. Even as a
youngster, he read voraciously and mastered poetry, the classics,
philosophy, economics, law, religion, literature and a number of
European languages. To give a sense of his prodigious intellect,
Wolff refers to a letter the barely 19-year-old Karl - then a student
of law in Berlin - wrote to his father. In it, Marx apprises his
father of the work he accomplished during the term. It included his
poetry, translations from classical languages, a 300-page
philosophical treatise on law, a dialogue unifying art and science,
readings on law and philosophy, and the entire opus of the German
philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Besides, during his s!
pare time, he, apparently, started teaching himself English and
Italian. Wolff also cites a memorable postscript to this letter in
which Marx writes: "Forgive, dear father, the illegible handwriting
and bad style; it is almost four o'clock. The candle is burnt right
down and my eyes are sore" (page 6). In terms of his intellectual
abilities, Marx, thus, was not just a person; he was a phenomenon. He
embodied the highest traditions of scholarship during his epoch. As
for a work ethic, Marx did not have one, he was the work ethic.
Evidently, savouring the writings of such a genius is, in and of
itself, a great joy. Whether or not his ideas are germane now, his
myriad writings and their intricate logic pose a tantalising
challenge to one's thinking, one that any intellectual worth his or
her salt would willingly accept.

On a related note, anyone interested in the history and evolution of
ideas simply cannot ignore Marx. No social science discipline has
remained immune from his critical interventions. In fact, such is the
pervasive sway of Marxian thought that it has fundamentally altered
the trajectory of all the areas in which Marx wrote. As Wolff puts
it: "Marx's influence, in both theory and practice, is beyond
measure" (page 100). Furthermore, as is evident from his vast corpus,
Marx invariably rejected received wisdom; instead, he moved beyond it
by offering innovative explanations for social phenomena. Not just
that, he also provided creative solutions to the problems he had
identified. All of which means that even die-hard opponents of
Marxism have to grapple with his ideas one way or the other.

One of the areas in which Marx's intervention is truly promethean is
religion. He rejected the views of Hegel and modified those of Ludwig
Feuerbach, two leading thinkers whose thoughts were influential in
his time. Hegel argued that God created the world and He did so
because "God simply would not be God without the world" (page 15).
Feuerbach maintained that human beings created God in their own image
and hence urged people to forsake religion and embrace radical
humanism instead. Marx affirmed his contention and improved on it,
stating that we invent God and religion to find solace from our
miseries on earth. As Wolff points out, Marx also states that the
cause of our misery is alienation and that religion is an ersatz
solution to it. He claimed that in a communist society there would be
no alienation and hence no need for religion. Marx's innovation lies
in explaining why Feuerbach's thesis is true and how we can adopt it
to improve our lives.


Karl Marx

Perhaps because it is profoundly subversive, critics of Marxian
thesis on religion are a legion. They disagree with Marx's
characterisation of religion as the opiate of the masses and argue
that it is a narrow, essentialist perspective on religion. Similarly,
they reject Marx's argument that in class-divided societies, religion
is used to keep the working class on a leash. Wolff, like several
other scholars, faults Marx for his "portrayal of workers as the
unwitting dupes of a bourgeois conspiracy... " (page 103). His more
fundamental disagreement, though, is with Marx's views on why man
invents religion. While accepting Feuerbach's thesis that human
beings invented God, Wolff disputes that they did so to gain solace.
On the contrary, he avers: "(P)erhaps it has something to do with our
need to explain the world around us. Perhaps it answers some other
need that Marx ignored" (page 104).

Wolff does have a point. Marx's analysis does not exhaust all the
explanations for the origin of religion. Nevertheless, it is equally
true that religion is attractive because it tries to offer a powerful
antidote to the ineluctable features of life, namely, impermanence,
scarcity and contingency. Thus, globally, we notice that religion has
its most ardent followers in places where insecurity, indigence and
suffering reign supreme. Such was the intellectual acuity of Marx
that he not only recognised this fact but also provided a cogent
analysis for it by underscoring the umbilical connection between
alienation and religion.

As Wolff rightly points out, `a keystone idea' of Marx's early
writing is that "labour, or productive activity, is man's primary
form of engagement with the world" (page 104). Alienation from
labour, according to Marx, is a fundamental cause of misery on earth,
which, in turn, leads to the creation of religion. He identifies four
forms of alienated labour: alienation from the product, alienation in
productive activity, alienation from our species-being, and finally,
alienation from other human beings. Extending this line of argument
further, Marx held that in religious alienation "the human essence
becomes `detached' from human existence. We do not exercise our most
essential features; rather we worship them, in an alien form" (page
29). Regardless of the supposed inadequacies of Marx, one cannot deny
the enormous explanatory potential of his thesis. One notices, for
instance, that since alienation is most severe under capitalism,
capitalist societies tend to witness robust !
articulations of religion. In societies where cannibalistic and
predatory forms of capitalism flourish, we find that religious
fervour metamorphoses into fundamentalism. The popularity of the
Hindutva movement in India, the appeal of a pristine Islamic society
in several Arab and Muslim nations, and the massive resurgence of the
religious Right in the United States all attest the validity of
Marx's interpretation of religion.

MARX'S concept of alienation and its attendant ills constitutes a
cornerstone of his withering critique of capitalism. Wolff admits
that his account is "very impressive and contains much of enduring
worth" (page104). Yet, he points out that the notion of alienation
rests on certain questionable assumptions. For instance, Wolff argues
that since "certain aspects of alienated labour could be a feature of
any highly mechanised process", alienation could occur even under
communism (ibid.). Having made this point, he concedes that there is
a greater possibility of alienation under capitalism, arising from
the division of labour, particularly when it leads to de-skilling.
Interestingly, however, he remains sceptical about Marx's point that
such a possibility would not arise under communism on the grounds
that it is "untested". Wolff's more fundamental critique of Marx is
that he "does very little to tell us what non-alienation would be
like" (page 105). Indeed, Marx does not offer!
  a detailed explanation of "non-alienation" or, for that matter,
about the nature of "human emancipation", all at one place. Yet, a
careful reading of his huge corpus should give one a fairly good
sense of the meaning of these concepts.

Marx's vision of communism and its eventual triumph rests crucially
on his materialist interpretation of history. He argued that the
development of productive forces was the pivot around which history
evolved. Since capitalism, with its inherent limitations, inhibits
the development of productive forces beyond a point, Marx maintained
that it will, inevitably, be replaced by communism. Wolff questions
Marx's thesis and accuses him of making this claim repeatedly without
providing reasons. His point is that every economic system, including
communism, will eventually fetter the development of productive
forces. Wolff is also not convinced by the Marxian notion that
communism is growing within the womb of capitalism. When "lots of
things are growing in the womb of capitalism", why does Marx zero in
only on potentially communist forms of economic analysis, he asks
(page109). Likewise, Marx's trenchant analysis of capitalism and its
ever-worsening crisis and his theory about the !
falling rate of profits make no impression on Wolff. "Why shouldn't
it be capitalism that lasts for ever, gently adapting itself to the
developing productive forces?" (page 110). He avers that this is
happening already and hence dismisses the law of falling rate of
profit. Wolff, unfortunately, does not bother to provide evidence for
his assertions.

The gravamen of Wolff's disquisition is that there are significant
flaws in Marx's theory of history. Marx, apparently, was wrong in
predicting the demise of capitalism and the emergence of communism.
By laying too much emphasis on labour and production, he allegedly
ignored the point that human beings have other needs too. Wolff also
points out that Marx predicted the arrival of communism in 1843,
several years before he developed his theory of history. Thus Marx,
apparently, forged a theory to suit his prediction; his vision of
communism was not predicated on his theory. Although seemingly true,
this is a debatable point requiring more comprehensive research.

WOLFF'S criticisms are not entirely new or well-substantiated.
Although interesting, they would be more credible if he had engaged
Marx's views in a more elaborate manner. On several occasions, one is
confused by what seems like equivocation. For example, Wolff applauds
Marx for his "grand vision" and credits him for having transformed
our understanding of history. He also concedes that, to a large
extent, economics is at the root of history. Yet, Wolff is reluctant
to endorse the Marxian analysis of capitalism. Perhaps, he has solid
reasons for doing so. Whatever they are, the reader is not privy to
his insights. It is ironic that Wolff, who accuses Marx on several
occasions of providing "little details on specifics", and of being
"infuriatingly vague", exposes himself to similar charges.

One contestable point Wolff makes is about the Marxian theory of
surplus value. He dismisses the theory and questions the validity of
the labour theory of value as well. Again, he blames Marx for
providing "no good reason" to believe that these theories are true
(page114). Wolff declares that there is no basis for the Marxian
thesis that labour is the source of all value and profit. Besides,
"(o)nce the theory is formulated in mathematical terms, it turns out
that there is nothing special about it" (page 115). In defence of his
claim, Wolff points out that not all goods contain labour. To wit, in
real economies, there are several goods whose prices the labour
theory of value cannot seem to explain, such as Picasso's sketches
which "took seconds, but are worth tens of thousands of pounds" (page
114). If Wolff's contention is correct, how can he account for the
generation of profits, in general? He candidly admits: "I'm not sure.
Perhaps by taking advantage of opportunities th!
at are not available to or seen by everyone" (page 116). About the
only saving grace of Marxian economics, according to Wolff, is that
it explains "how people in the developed economies exploit the people
elsewhere with whom they trade" (page 117). Wolff's cursory and
sweeping criticisms leave the reader with the sense that he could,
perhaps, benefit from carefully re-reading copious arguments Marx
offers in support of his economic theories.

Lastly, as one can imagine, if the theory of surplus value is
baseless and workers are not exploited, obviously, communism cannot
but be riddled with imperfections. Wolff cites several inadequacies
from what resembles a neo-Hobbesian perspective. In his view, even if
achieved, Marxian communism cannot survive for long as "we are
naturally selfish" (page 119). Also, without the market and the
profit motive, people will just not have the incentive to work. It is
a trifle surprising that Wolff, who sees a lot of merit in Marxism,
should recycle such trite criticisms. One point he makes is relevant,
though. Marxism has a "limited ecological perspective" as it seems to
be premised on the notion that the resources of the natural world are

All told, this book makes for interesting reading. A more rigorous
analysis of Marx's views backed by unassailable evidence would have
enhanced its value. Regardless, Wolff deserves credit for initiating
a debate on the ideas of one of the giants of the Western
intellectual tradition.

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