[OPE-L] Mandel's dialectics

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@TISCALI.NL)
Date: Fri Mar 30 2007 - 11:39:40 EDT


Trotsky doesn't explicitly refer to "the subjective factor" as such although
Trotskyists do. The relevant article by Trotsky is "The curve of capitalist

The problem with the idea that economic conditions *cause* a certain
consciousness among people is that people themselves are part of these
economic conditions, and therefore few useful *general* causal statements
can be made, unless things are understood in their specificity. And that is
really precisely what Trotsky recommends. He does not say that a specific
economic situation directly *causes* a specific intellectual school of
thought, but rather that we can observe the co-existence of both, and then
the task is to explain why they co-exist, by studying the historical
interactions involved. But this requires integrating the response of people
to their situation in the analysis, and this response is not predetermined.

Towards the end of his life, Ernesy Mandel proposed a "parametric
determinism" in human history, which I have tried to explain simply here:

Karl Marx did not have any substantive theory of capitalist collapse as far
as I know. What he did suggest is that a capitalist economy is unable to
sustain the conditions for balanced economic growth, giving rise to
recurrent economic crises of increasing severity, heralding its eventual
demise. This is no small matter because according to the "price mechanism"
of official economics, as Lester Thurow observes,

"Theoretically, capitalism should not have business cycles at all. As demand
falls or rises, prices and wages, not output, should fall or rise. Supply
and demand should ensure that all of the productive factors that want to be
employed are employed. (...) However, markets, especially the labour market,
just don't seem to quickly and easily clear by lowering wages or prices.
Output adjusts more quickly than either wages or prices - exactly the
reverse of what should happen." (Thurow, The Future of Capitalism,
p. 213).

Capitalism I think collapses only if it becomes impossible to maintain
capitalist property relations for some reason, but that is unlikely to be
simply the outcome of an economic process. If for instance markets collapse,
this does not mean automatically that the institutions of private property
relations collapse altogether (cf. e.g. Argentina). Private property
relations collapse, only if it is no longer possible to enforce/secure
property rights, and if people seize property which does not legally belong
to them. But that is as much a question of power relations as anything else.

In New Zealand, the NZ Herald recently ran an interesting editorial,
commenting on a new book edited by Prof. Stephen Levine, "New Zealand as it
might have been":
The editorial concludes:

"The benefit of this exercise is to be reminded that nothing
in history was predestined, no decision was cast in stone and nor is it
still. Drastic corrections are always possible if need be. To recognise that
fact is to take responsibility for the course we have maintained. We are not
helpless products of our past, or carried along by currents we cannot
control. We can change the decisions of our forebears and if we do not it is
because they were right at the time and, all things considered, they are
still right. On balance, the country is better than it might have been."

From a Marxian point of view, this bends the stick too far in the direction
of subjectivist voluntarism, namely, as Marx commented, ""People make their
own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it
under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already,
given and transmitted from the past." This means that some things in history
are "predetermined" insofar as they constitute given, objective conditions
that cannot be changed and must be worked with, even although many other
things *can* be changed.

Ironically, the NZ Herald's conclusion that "On balance, the country is
better than it might have been" is precisely what doesn't follow from
(and is not entitled by) the perspective that "that nothing in history
was predetermined". Because if "nothing in history was predetermined"
then we simply cannot know or evaluate whether the country
could have been better or worse, and it might well have been, who

By fudging what can and cannot be changed, an ideological attempt is
made to reconcile people to the conditions of the present, and make them
take responsibility for it. Yet "we" cannot take responsibility for all
those conditions, precisely because "we" did not make them. So really
the argument achieves the exact opposite of what it aims at - by fudging
who is responsible for what, it tries to make people responsible for
things they cannot take responsibility for, rather than explicate what they
are responsible for.


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