Thursday, September 13, 2007

EP Thompson, Marx, and bad abstractions

[Warning: heavy stuff ahead! This is another exercise in the minutae of Marxology, not to mention Thompsonology, drawing on my PhD research. For something more enjoyable, you could always go here.]

Last Friday I blogged about some scholars who have tried to use Marx's late writing on non-capitalist societies to correct the misapprehension that the hairy guy was an apologist for unconstrained capitalism and imperialism. One of the first commentators to sense the significance of Marx's late work for arguments like these was British historian EP Thompson in his 1978 polemic 'The Poverty of Theory'.

'The Poverty of Theory' was intended primarily as an attack on the French structuralist philosopher Louis Althusser, and his followers in British universities, but it could not avoid being, in part at least, an exercise in Marxology. The Althusserians that EP Thompson was criticising in his essay had usually wrapped their arguments in close readings of key texts by Marx. Althusser's claim to have discovered the true path of Marx's career, and to have differentiated the 'scientific' and 'non-scientific' aspects of his thought, was perhaps the most inflammatory of the many inflammatory arguments in his calssic books For Marx and Reading Capital.

In the 1960s and '70s Marx's oeuvre seemed to be growing. A new generation was giving the 1844 Manuscripts the attention they deserved, and the Grundrisse was finally being widely translated and interpreted. Althusser's curt dismissal of the 1844 Manuscripts and the rest of Marx's early work, and his claim that not even Capital, let alone the Grundrisse, was 'fully' Marxist, struck many scholars and activists as a renewal of the attempts that the leaderships of 'official' Communist Parties had made to limit the reading and discussion of Marx in the bad old days when ‘comrade Stalin’ had set the parameters for Marxology. Even if he used intellectual rather than bureaucratic methods, Althusser seemed to many of his detractors to be determined to impose a single, inflexible interpretation of Marx on a new generation which had little time for the orthodoxies of the past, and to proscribe those parts of Marx's oeuvre which did not fit with his interpretation.

EP Thompson makes it abundantly clear throughout 'The Poverty of Theory' that he does not accept Althusser and his followers' claims to be 'completing' Marx's thought. It would be difficult for him to maintain such a stance without at least sketching his alternative view of the meaning of Marx's life and work. Thompson provides such a view in sections nine and fifteen of 'The Poverty of Theory'. These two sustained excursions into Marxology take up thirty-four pages, or about a sixth of the total text, and are complemented by remarks scattered through most of the other fifteen sections of 'The Poverty of Theory'. A pattern emerges when we examine the responses reviewers made to the Marxological sections of 'The Poverty of Theory'. Critics of Thompson's text have tended to make the interpretations of Marx a focus of their attacks. Supporters of Thompson, by contrast, have tended to pass over the Marxology, and discuss other aspects of 'The Poverty of Theory', like its eloquent defence of the art and craft of history, or the elaborate and occasionally amusing lampoons of Althusser and his theoretical progeny. Both defenders and critics of 'The Poverty of Theory' have made many references to the supposed unorthodoxy of Thompson's interpretation of Marx. More than a few commentators from both camps have decided that the essay is the work of an ex-Marxist.

Thompson's argument

Perry Anderson's book Arguments within English Marxism includes a chapter on the Marxological arguments in 'The Poverty of Theory'. Like the book to which it belongs, Anderson's chapter is a careful mixture of sympathy and firm criticism. Because Anderson’s discussion does a generally good job of summarising Thompson's dispersed and lengthy interpretation of Marx, and because his response to that interpretation mirrors the responses of many commentators, we can make it the basis for our a discussion of the Marxology of 'The Poverty of Theory'.

Anderson begins by suggesting that 'The Poverty of Theory' 'proposes a complete new account of Marx and of Marxism'. As Anderson notes, Thompson believes that Marx was the inventor of historical materialism, and that the goal of historical materialism is a 'unitary knowledge of society'. The 'charter' for historical materialism was set out in the 1840s, in texts like The German Ideology, The Poverty of Philosophy, and The Communist Manifesto. Those works were tremendously promising, but in the 1850s Marx wandered off the trail they had opened up. He had become 'hypnotised' by bourgeois political economy, and the result was the Grundrisse, a text that substitutes arid economic categories for the real world, and (mis)understands history as the faux-Hegelian self-unfolding of these categories, rather than as the product of the ideas and actions of real men and women. In the 1860s Marx partially 'corrected himself', in Thompson’s words, as the influence of the First International, the British labour movement, and Darwin's Origin of Species made him think in less economistic and less teleological terms.

Despite the advances of the 1860s and the fact that it is considered Marx's magnum opus, Capital is for Thompson a 'mountainous inconsistency'. Tour de forces like the chapter on primitive accumulation are juxtaposed with the sort of arid, reductionist abstractions that filled the Grundrisse. Anderson puts it well when he says that Marx was guilty, in Thompson's eyes, of the 'extrapolation of the purely economic categories of capital from the full social process'. In other words, Thompson believes that Marx sometimes confuses capital with capitalism. The metaphor of base and superstructure contributes to this error, because it encourages the tendency to reduce the intricate ideological, cultural, political, and legal 'superstructures' of a society to mere epiphenomena of a simplified model of that society's economic system.

Anderson notes Thompson's argument that the elderly Engels became aware of the weakness in Capital and tried, in his famous Letters on Historical Materialism, to rectify the dogmatic schematism it was helping create in a generation of self-proclaimed Marxists. Unfortunately, the warnings in Engels' letters were not always heeded. In the twentieth century, according to Thompson, Marxist historians have resumed the quest for a 'unitary knowledge of society' that Marx began so brilliantly in the 1840s. In the process, they have discovered a crucial lacuna in Marx's ideas. Without an explanation for how the conceptual modes of production Marx discovered and the real 'historical process' actually correspond, Marxists have struggled to avoid either economic determinism, which reduces diverse societies to a few simple economic formulae, or a sort of hopeless particularism, which treats every society as unique, and struggles to make useful generalisations across time and space.

Thompson compares the absence in Marx's thinking to Darwin's inability to explain how mutations are transmitted during the process of evolution. Just as Mendelian genetics filled the absence in Darwin's thinking, so the Marxist historian's concept of 'human experience' has filled the gap in Marx's thinking. It is human experience which relates the conceptual models Marx created to the real world and its history. To understand human experience, though, it is necessary to go beyond the writings of Marx and Engels, and encounter the ethical, utopian socialism of William Morris. Morris' emphasis on the importance of culture, ideas, and ethics to the lives of individual humans and the movement of history is taken up, according to Thompson, in the work of twentieth century Marxist historians. The result is the crucial concept of human experience, which becomes a sort of mediation between the 'objective' world of economics and the 'subjective' life of the individual. In one of the more famous passages of ‘The Poverty of Theory’ Thompson explains that:

Experience walks in without knocking at the door, and announces deaths, crises of subsistence, trench warfare, unemployment, inflation, genocide. People starve: their survivors think in new ways about the market. People are imprisoned: in prison they meditate in new ways about the law.

Thompson insists that the shortcomings of Marx and Engels mean that Marxism as a science or 'high theory' must be rejected. Nor can the notion of a single Marxist tradition, which Thompson advanced in the 'Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski', be sustained. Althusser and his cohorts comprise one of many strains of a 'theological' and 'irrational' Marxism which is locked in mortal combat with the 'reasoning' Marxism that Thompson identifies with. Thompson's tradition is marked by 'open, empirical inquiry, originating in the work of Marx, and employing, developing, and revising his concepts'. Both tendencies, or traditions, can be traced back to Marx and his inconsistencies.

Anderson’s response

Perry Anderson thinks that the Marxological sections of ‘The Poverty of Theory’ represent the ‘most novel’ part of the whole essay. Thompson has produced 'a quite new reading of Marx's intellectual trajectory' because he privileges 'neither the early philosophical writings nor the late economic works, but instead accords central importance to the polemical texts of the mid-40s'. It is not hard to take Anderson's talk of the originality of Thompson's Marxology as a rather backhanded compliment. 'Novel' seems a proxy for ‘eccentric’, because Anderson's praise is followed by a series of attacks on the credibility of two key points in Thompson's argument.

Anderson argues that the 'unitary knowledge of society' that Thompson expects from Marx was simply not possible in the middle of the nineteenth century, when the human sciences were in their infancy and much of the world of political economy remained a mystery even to Marx and Engels. Had Marx tried to write the encyclopedic text that Anderson associates with the goal of a 'unitary knowledge of society', then he would have ended up with something like Kautsky's, rambling, speculative, rather pretentious The Materialist Conception of History, rather than the rigorous work of science that is Capital. Marx had to launch the project of historical materialism somewhere, and he chose the field of political economy, because historical materialism asserted that the economy played the ultimately decisive role in any society. The intense studies in political economy recorded rather artlessly in the Grundrisse were the foundation stone of the house of historical materialism:

To establish a secure notion of the ‘economic structure’ of society is not thereafter to preclude or compromise historical study of its cultural or political ‘superstructures’, but to facilitate it. Without the construction of a theory of the mode of production in the first instance, any attempt to produce a ‘unitary knowledge of society’ could only have yielded an eclectic interactionism.

Anderson also upbraids Thompson for his objections to the base-superstructure metaphor and the use of the concept of mode of production, unmediated by the concept of 'human experience', outside the discipline of political economy. Anderson feels that Thompson's objections are irrational, given that he (supposedly) accepts the 'determinate nature of the base of modes of production'. Anderson perceives that Thompson is afraid of the prospect of economic reductionism, but he insists that this is not a necessary consequence of using the concept of mode of production or the base-superstructure metaphor in a field like history. (In one of the best passages in Arguments within English Marxism, Anderson goes on to show that Althusser's notion of mode or production is compatible with Thompson's own work as a historian in Whigs and Hunters. )

Anderson’s misunderstandings

We have noted that Anderson gives a reasonable summary of Thompson's arguments about Marx, and that he outlines reservations that seem common amongst both admirers and critics of 'The Poverty of Theory'. But Anderson's case against Thompson's reading of Marx is redundant, because it rests on a misinterpretation of Thompson's concept of 'unitary knowledge of society'. Anderson takes 'unitary' to mean something like 'total' or 'comprehensive', and assumes that Thompson wanted Marx to follow The Communist Manifesto up with some sort of communist encyclopedia. (Anderson is quite correct, of course, when he says that such an undertaking would be quixotic; he is also justified in ridiculing The Materialist Conception of History, which nowadays reads less like a history and description of the world than a catalogue of the prejudices of Second International Marxism.)

What Thompson actually means by a 'unitary knowledge of society' is a knowledge that takes into account the diverse levels - ideological, political, cultural, economic - on which any society exists. Thompson has nothing against detailed investigations of a particular aspect of a society, but he insists that the subject under investigation should not be isolated in the sort of conceputal pigeonholes that the base-superstructure metaphor encourages. Thompson rejects the base-superstructure metaphor not because he rejects political economy in toto, but because he denies that the economy can be usefully analysed for long in isolation from 'superstructural' phenomena like culture and the law. When Thompson talks of a 'unitary knowledge of society' he is not naively expecting the impossible of Marx, but rather making an argument against the abstractions that Marx often chose to employ in the Grundrisse and in Capital.

We can grasp the last point more firmly if we remind ourselves of the nature of Marx's dialectical method of analysing and presenting his material. As Bertell Ollman has explained, Marx's dialectical method is based upon the abstracting of discrete elements of the very complex reality which surrounds human beings:

the role Marx gives to abstraction is simple recognition of the fact that all thinking about reality begins by breaking it down into manageable parts…Our minds can no more swallow the world whole at one sitting than can our stomachs…‘Abstract’ comes from the Latin, abstractere, which means ‘to pull from’. In effect, a piece has been pulled from or taken out of the whole and is temporarily perceived as standing apart…a focus is established and a kind of boundary set…

Anderson, of course, is suggesting that Thompson did not understand the sort of point Ollman makes here. According to Anderson, Thompson did not understand that Marx could not study 'everything at once', and had to abstract certain features of capitalism and its pre-history to write Capital. Other commentators on 'The Poverty of Theory' have levelled the same charge. In a long, angry essay called 'The Necessity of Theory', Paul Q Hirst accused Thompson of believing that 'Capital is doomed' because 'its method of analysis of economic relations through categories in abstraction contradicts the nature of historical research'. In his generally more positive response to 'The Poverty of Theory', Bill Schwartz convicts Thompson of the same mistake:

no-one can deny that problems exist in Capital, but what Thompson does is reject the text itself, in its totality...for the reason that it is built up out of abstractions...Abstraction itself is ahistorical [according to Thompson], as it disrupts the real historical process and is thus inherently reductionist.

Charges like these are not upheld by a careful reading of 'The Poverty of Theory'. Thompson does not reject Capital 'in its totality', and he does not convict Marx of failing to write an encyclopedia. Near the end of the Marxological discussion in section nine of his essay, he explains that Capital, while 'immensely fruitful as hypothesis', requires 'supercession' at the hands of contemporary historical materialism:

How could it be otherwise? To suppose differently would be to suppose, not only that everything can be said at once, but that immanent Theory (or Knowledge) found its miraculous embodiment in Marx, not fully mature to be sure (it had yet to develop to Althusser's full stature), but already perfectly formed and perfectly proportioned in its parts. This is a fairy story, recited to children in Soviet primary classes, and not even believed by them.

Thompson's ridicule of the idea that 'everything can be said at once' makes it clear that, to him at least, 'unitary knowledge' does not mean complete knowledge. And, far from dismissing dialectics and the method of abstraction at its heart, Thompson criticises his opponents for being insufficiently dialectical:

The eviction of dialectics from the Althusserian system is my own work as a historian I have...come to bring dialectics, not as this or that 'law' but as a habit of thinking...into my own analysis.

Insisting that 'the dialectic was not Hegel's private property', Thompson points to William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and to a related tradition of poetic and mystical writing, arguing that they influenced Marx, and should be read today by scholars of Marx. For Thompson, the static, ultra-structural quality of Althusserian thought is partly the convergence of a forgetfulness about dialectics. What Thompson is questioning in 'The Poverty of Theory' is not Marx's dialectical method, but rather the restricted range of the dialectical abstractions Marx employs in parts of Capital and in the Grundrisse. He believes that too many of these abstractions suffer from ‘stasis’ and ‘closure’, because they have separated human economic activity from the rest of human activity.

Thompson is quite correct when he writes that different parts of Capital employ quite different levels of abstraction. He appreciated the chapters which understood aspects of political economy by abstracting them as part of historical processes involving non-economic forces. Many commentators on Capital have noted the sudden and dramatic entrances that history makes into the text. Discussing the chapter on the length of the working day that occurs about halfway through the first volume of Capital, Anthony Brewer notes that:

A much larger and more dramatic canvas emerges [here]...the concepts here have not been given the same rigorous theoretical foundations as the strictly economic concepts used so far. The argument is much looser.

The chapter on primitive accumulation that closes volume one of Capital was one that Thompson admired for its fusion of political economy and history. By bringing together the concept of capital accumulation and the actual history of the enclosures in one abstraction, Marx provides a foundation for concrete historical investigations into the transition from feudalism to capitalism, modernisation, and urbanism. The moral outrage that marks his discussion of primitive accumulation would also have delighted Thompson. Yet there is, for Thompson, a tension present even in the best parts of Capital:

the history in immensely fruitful as hypothesis; and yet as hypothesis which calls into question, again and again, the adequacy of the categories of Political Economy.

It should be obvious that Thompson's objections to the base-superstructure model are intimately connected to his objections to the categories of ‘stasis’ and ‘closure’ that mar the Grundrisse and parts of Capital. Thompson opposes the model not because he is an idealist who thinks that the 'superstructure' fell from the sky, or because he resists the necessity to abstract discrete aspects of reality, but because he contests the possibility of usefully thinking about 'basis' and the 'superstructure' in isolation from one another. In 'History and Anthropology', the talk he gave in Emergency India on the last day of 1976, Thompson outlined the case against the basis-superstructure model:

However much the notion is sophisticated, however subtly it has on many occasions been employed, the analogy of basis and superstructure is radically defective. It cannot be repaired. It has an in-built tendency to lead the mind toward reductionism or a vulgar economic determinism, by sorting out human activities and attributes and placing some (as law, the Arts, Religion, ‘Morality’) in a superstructure, others (as technology, economics, the applied sciences) in a basis, and leaving yet others (as linguistics, work- discipline) to float unhappily in-between.

In 'The Poverty of Theory' the same argument is levelled at much greater length; Anderson does not grasp its terms, because he does not understand that Thompson objects not to abstraction per se, but to a certain type of abstraction.

The Missing Marx

The false moves in Anderson's argument are connected to a small but telling omission from his summary of Thompson's account of Marx's career. Anderson gives a great deal of attention to Thompson's praise for the 1840s texts and criticisms of the 'classic' works of political economy, but he ignores Thompson's suggestion that in his last decade Marx reconsidered some of the Grundrisse and Capital, and retreated from the 'whirlpool' of political economy that had threatened to swallow him. Thompson writes that:

I have argued that Marx himself was, for a time, trapped within the circuits of capital – an immanence manifesting itself in ‘forms’ – and that he only partly sprung that trap in Capital…How far Marx himself ever became fully aware of his imprisonment is a complex question…we should note that Marx, in his increasing preoccupation in his last years with anthropology, was resuming the projects of his Paris youth.

These brief sentences are intended to draw attention to the vast amount of energy that Marx expended studying pre-capitalist and semi-capitalist societies during the last decade of his life. Thompson's reference to these late and still relatively obscure labours plays a cruical part in the account he offers in 'The Poverty of Theory' of the development of Marx's thought. As I noted in last Friday's post, a succession of scholars who have followed Thompson have shown that the late Marx abandoned the dangerous faith in capitalism and colonialism apparent in works like The Communist Manifesto, and from the sharp focus on political economy of the Grundrisse and Capital. In his last decade, Marx emphasised as never before the cost of industrialisation and other features of capitalist 'progress', insisted on the importance of the state, ideology, and other 'superstructural' factors to the growth of capitalism, and argued that pre- and semi-capitalist countries could achieve socialism without having to move through a 'stage' of capitalist development. The result was a series of rich but unfinished texts which both complement and revise the arguments in Capital.

Without the reference to the late work, Thompson might easily seem to be taking a quite negative view of the course of Marx's career. If Capital is the endpoint of that career, then Thompson's unfavourable comparisons of Capital to some of the works of the 1840s might suggest that Marx's was a story of a promise lost in the ‘whirlpool’ of political economy. When the reference to the late Marx is considered, though, then Thompson seems to be saying that Marx reached a sort of nadir in the 1850s with the Grundrisse, then recovered some of his balance and scope with Capital, and then, his detour into political economy over, resumed the quest for the 'unitary knowledge of society' that the 1840s had promised. If his career took this shape, then Marx made an implicit but profound self-criticism, and perhaps even took a view of the Grundrisse and Capital not entirely dissimilar to the one Thompson advances.

By ignoring Thompson's reference to Marx's post-Capital work, Anderson misrepresents Thompson's entire account of Marx's career. It is no surprise that commentators who have deemed 'The Poverty of Theory' an exercise in post- or anti-Marxism have also ignored the reference to Marx's late work.

The account of Marx’s thought in ‘The Poverty of Theory’ took some time to exert an influence over other Marxist scholars. As we noted earlier, the reaction to reviewers was either to highlight the supposed weakness of Thompson’s Marxology or else, if they were favourably inclined toward the rest of The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays, to pass it over in silence. Eventually, though, Thompson's words began to exert an influence. Franklin Rosemont’s important essay on Marx's late work included a frank acknowledgement of the significance of Thompson's arguments:

The most insightful commentary on these Notebooks has naturally come from writers far outside the mainstream - "Marxist" as well as academic. Historian, antiwar activist and Blake scholar E. P. Thompson, in his splendid polemic, The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays, was among the first to point out that "Marx, in his increasing preoccupation in his last years with anthropology, was resuming the projects of his Paris youth."

The tribute Rosemont pays is well deserved. With the benefit of a quarter century of scholarship by a succession of advocates of Marx’s late work, we can see the full meaning of the account of Marx’s career that Thompson gave in ‘The Poverty of Theory’. Most importantly, we can see the relationship between Thompson’s criticisms of Capital and his endorsement of Marx’s late work. Thompson’s view that the concepts in much of the Grundrisse and parts of Capital needed to be broadened to take in history and the ‘superstructure’, his insistence on the necessity of investigating the uniqueness of individual societies and events, and not subordinating them to the prescription of some universal history, and his inveterate opposition to economic reductionism have all been echoed in the work of a series of Marxologists. The reading of Marx that Perry Anderson and many others considered eccentric and obviously mistaken has proved remarkably resilient.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

But what was the point of it all if not to change the world?
Which Marx has changed the world, and which Thompson?

4:25 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

At first reading I saw this: "Like the book to which it belongs, Anderson's chapter is a careful mixture of sympathy and film criticism"

"Ah, the subtle academic diss!", thought I. But I re-read it, since I hadn't heard people criticize Anderson for film criticism before.

Anyway, I came here for the EP Thompson, as I wrote before, and here it is. Also, it was good to see a link to the illustrations for Poverty of Theory, since one can imagine Thompson's historian mindset remembering an appropriate primary source volume of diagrams of machines.

5:21 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What about the quality of the impact of a text on the world?

I wish that Marx's 1853 stuff on India wasn't used as a justification for colonialism by many nineteenth and early twentieth century socialists, and I wish it wasn't being used right now by people like Francis Wheen and Christopher Hitchens.

When a few of Marx's earlier imperiocentric texts are being used by apologists for the US's War of Terror, it's important to champion his later self-criticisms. I wrote a lot about this last year - use the search engine for this blog and check out the post Peculiarities of the Pro-War Left, for example.

'a careful mixture of sympathy and film criticism'

Oops. I think Anderson did write some music criticism - he preferred the Stones to the Beatles! - under a pseudonym for the NLR in the '60s, though.

What's your take on EPT Nathaniel?

11:48 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would say that the impact of Thompson's texts on the world is almost nil. Could even be minus, as a diversion from the real world.

As for Marx's early texts who cares what people like Hitchens say? Even Galloway told him to get knotted which sounds good to me.

Thompson is so far from understanding what Marx was up to it is embarrasing to have to explain why.

Did Thompson ever read Hegel I wonder.

Marx never had a unilinear view of history. He didnt start with a list and tick the modes off as he went, and then remember to go back for a visit in his dotage.

The method of Capital (which is outlined in the intro to the Grunrdrisse) is to abstract out the essence of Capital and only then arrive at any conception of pre-capitalist and post-capitalist modes from the residue.

I wonder if Thompson (or Anderson) ever read Rosdolsky's Making of Marx's Capital. He could have saved us all the embarrassment.

2:38 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

James Heartfield on "The Late Marx"

2:59 am  
Blogger maps said...

The problem is that can Hitchens et al can cite Marx's 1853 articles on India or the first section of The Communist Manifesto in support of the view that capitalism and imperialism can be progressive. It's there in black and white.

The proper response to critics of Marx's early work's imperiocentrism is not to deny that Marx ever made any mistakes.

I don't want some eighteen year old who has just been on his first political demonstration because he hates what the US military and the corporations it defends to come home, pick up The Communist Manifesto, read the paean to capitalism there, and decide Marx was on the wrong side.

Nor do I want Maori activists to continue to dismiss Marx as a dead white imperialist because of the practice of some Kiwi Marxist groups and the words of texts like the Manifesto.

I want critics to recognise that Marx later corrected the imperiocentric views in The Manifesto and developed a powerful vision of a multilinear history and a politics that is based on more than a Faustian wager on the progressive nature of capitalism.

Of course Marx used the method of abstraction, and of course Thompson knew this. The question Thompson asked was: were the abstractions in Capital always the most useful kind? As early as 1868, when he wrote to Engels of his discovery of pre-capitalist forms persisting in Germany, Marx was looking to expand some of the abstractions in Capital to take in more of the world. I can't go any further without repeating the points in my post.

Rosdolsky doesn't get us anywhere because he doesn't even discuss the period or the texts I've been discussing. He was writing before almost any of the late work of Marx had been published, and when the discrepancies between Marx's and Engels' versions of volume two and three of Capital were not known, and in any case he was discussing The Grundrisse, not the period after the first volume of Capital was published.

1:02 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Maps - I intend to comment on this but I literally have difficulty reading off a screen -my glasses being bifocal and the close up being at the bottom of them so I have elevate my head and - sounds funny (o.k. one should elevate oneself!) - but I get very tired - so I will print it off as if often do.

I am certainly interested in this discussion - not sure whether Socialism can ever be a reality... but today I was reading about Strindberg and discovered he got interested in politics because of the Commune - now my History is not too good - and I had mixed up the (Paris) commune with the French Revolution of I didn't realise how important that commune was - Marx saw it (as far as my Wikipedia article tells me!) as very important) - so the 'but' means that the possibility of Socialism coming about got another tick. It seems that many aspects of that Commune demonstrated the possibilities of working class and
(for that phrase perhaps read "all people") cooperation and democracy at work (as did various stages of various other revolutions or 'socialist-ical changes' right to the present).

But a short (for me) comment on what I have read...Thompson looks a very interesting character. Widely read and with wide interests and knowledge clearly. I don't know anything of Althusser - I want to read - I only partly read Thompson's book on the English Working Class.

BTW Quite by chance I saw Thompson's book about Blake -it looked very thorough - in the central library today. Blake of course wasn't a "Marxist" but he was interesting and certainly was opposed to certain negative aspects of (e.g. Milton;s thinking or the thinking of Christian thought at the time -) he postulated a more human universe than the rather harsh, patriarchal, 'mainstream' Christian-Judaeo one...

The fundamental concepts of Marx still are valid [but the need for wider knowledge and the other social sciences and science itself to contribute to a larger or deeper philosophical concept for a progressive society is a reality - of course there will never be any "perfect" or totally comprehensive or "correct" system] but I am not so sure that he was wrong to say capitalism etc were not progressive stages.* This is open. After all we seem "trapped in history". (James Joyce). Not much (fundamentally has happened - in advancing Socialism (or in changing the nature of Capitalism - (it seems that) by definition it cant really change) - except that Imperialism has dominated the world more thoroughly and more widely (mainly using the export of capital - big loans of cash etc) - also of course it is showing its own weaknesses - but that is for more discussion.

*But this begs the question of teleology and or whether and what "progress" is or if it can happen and so on.

7:26 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

"But what was the point of it all if not to change the world?
Which Marx has changed the world, and which Thompson?"

We all change the world or are changing it. (If it is not just an intellectual game - which it partly is I suppose - after all it is kind of (almost insoluble!) problem: "how to change the world"). Games may or may not have a point... or any "useful" results of such complex games maybe serendipitous.

It is the manner and degree and direction of that change that is the question - & your point here certainly has some validity -

People can either over or underestimate the influence they have on world events - but even if you send say $20 a week to Africa or wherever to World Vision or march down street to protest war, or write a (political social or other) polemic of some kind, you are 'changing the world and the various texts do 'change the world' what extent is (again)the question and of course these texts must be constantly questioned by the left (as much as by the right or others -the middle?). Everyone.

There is - thus - perhaps - hope.

7:39 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Maps - I managed to read this via Word - your PhD is looking to be very interesting when it is finished.

This kind of theoretical examination was mostly absent with the Marxists (perhaps I mean the ones who advocated action all the time and so on such as Bill Lee (he didn't like theory much) - but Frank Lane and others were pretty strongly into theory as well as action and a fellow I knew called Charlie Baker - who had almost the whole of Marx's works and more in his memory! ) I knew in the late 60s and nearly 70s when I was in active politics.

The "hippies" , anarchists nad others and and other liberals - som e were smart but most were pretty waffly and useless (into drugs etc which none of our lot were (PYM) into (a lot were but the official line was anti drugs) - and I wasn't myself) - but many of the (so-called hippies/students) were very active and read (usually) quite widely so - while they were not Marxists lot of the they were all pretty well informed... the leaders of progressive politics were - many of them were students from reasonably well to do homes (as I was) - idealists - then the Progessive Youth was more working class - but at one stage it attracted a lot of -well great "mix" - the PYM at one stage had hundreds of members - - the problem was the rather limited grasp of theory and ideas by the leaders (backed by the Communist Party)- usually so called "working class" - the main push from a mix of better educated working class and so called middle class and others who may have actually been from the families of parents who were big time capitalists for all I know.

Shadbolt was virtually a one man band - a great orator and activist & very brave and always getting beaten up by the cops etc but an individualist - but no (manifest) politics except that of protest etc

Good stuff by you here in any case.

Re theory - there was some interesting stuff going down and there was Progressive Books (just off Queen Street) where I got my copy of Marx (a compilation with a lot of Capital in it) and Lenin and Mao, Che Guevara (I had a book by him for years but never read a page of it - just carried it around!), and other books - we used to meet there and yak with Len Parker who ran the shop others who may not know - Len more recently staged a long rent strike. Quite heroic and determined.

Another book I read in those days was 'Rape of Vietnam' by H G Slingsby. My son has read it more recently - couple of months ago. Also 'Red Star Over China' by Edar Snow and 'China Shakes the World' by Jack Belden (US sailor/journalist who "jumped ship" to get into China also well as study of Chu Teh (who was sometimes called Chu Mao by the peasants as the two worked together in the war against Japan - it was by Agnes Smedley - these are all fascinating accounts of the revolution in China - I also found Mao tse Tung's philosophic analyses excellent and also very well written.

12:26 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I dont give a damn about Hitchins, nor do I think that activists are going to be as sensitive to Marx view of capitalist progress as you are. They are probably reading your blog on their computers too.

Marx supported the Haitian revolution against the French revolution because it stood for its completion. He did not support British colonisation of Ireland. What he did support was the removal of the feudal and reactionary societies that stood in the way of capitalism and ultimately socialism. Marx never said he didnt care for the human loss involved, it was a lesser evil argument. History is revolutionary or not.

Of course Lenin abandonded stages in 1917, but he had already abandoned the fiction of a Commune being able to jump over capitalism in Russia.

You havnt shown that the late Marx or Thompson for that matter have had any impact at all on the real world that Thompson goes on about.

What are these BAD abstractions? Does Thompson object to value or what? What are the historical insights that Thompson is able to bring separately and independently of Marx bad abstactions?
Leaving people out seems to be his big beef, but its scientifically void unless he proves it.

Precisely what 'history' did Marx butcher according to Thompson. As apposed to the proof already offered that the supposed Late Marx would have come to grief in 1917 unless he became a Leninist as Lenin became a Trotskyist.
Come on lets see some proof behind this provocation.

7:56 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My experience is that many people on the left do associate Marx with Eurocentrism and a worship of the industrialisation as always automatically progressive, no matter what the cost. And this view has some license in some of Marx's early texts. That's why I criticise them and counterpose them to Marx's later views.

Surely it's silly to say EP Thompson's writings (not all of which I agree with) haven't influenced the world? If he hasn't had any influence, then God help the rest of us.

And it's a bit pointless to condemn Marx's late writing for failing to influence the Bolshevik revolution when, because of deliberate suppression by the Second International, none of this writing was published until 1923. It's a bit like saying Lenin's suppressed testament is worthless because it didn't influence events after his death.

Did British imperialism remove the 'feudal and reactionary elements in Indian society' which stood in the way of progress? The answer to this question is no.

Indian historians have shown that between the advent of British imperialism in the 1780s and Indian independence at the end of the '40s the GDP of the country hardly grew. Imperialism actually retarded the development of Indian industry, which was growing under the Mughals.

The railways which Britain built, and which Marx mistakenly saw as signs of a growth in productive forces, only served to help loot the country. They are analogous to the airports and pipelines the US is building in Iraq today.

There were regular massive famines in India during the period of British rule - the last took place during World War two in Bengal, and killed 3-4 million people. The root cause of the famines was the export of too much agricultural production by the British. There have been no large famines since the British left India.

British imperialism was so progressive in India that the Indians rose against it in 1857 and sided in large numbers with the Japanese and Nazi Germany to try to defeat it during World War Two.

The Haitian revolution was a revolution from below - like the French peasantry in 1789-94, the Haitians seized the big estates and divided them into small plots of land. This act actually greatly diminished the productive forces in Haiti, and retarded the growth of capitalism. Yet it was undeniably progressive.

In India and in the other countries conquered by imperialism we see a different process - the expropriation of small farmers and communes and the building up of big agricultural units which export to the developed countries and repatriate their profits.

The importance of the late Marx lies in the way he posits the possibility of developing the economy of a pre- or semi-capitalist country without dragging the whole place through a repeat of the enclosures.

He sees the peasantry - eg the vast majority of the population of the world in his day, and still about 30% of the world's population today - as more than the source of a surplus which can be sent to the cities and ploughed into the development of industry.

He thus advocates something vastly different to the advocates of capitalist 'modernisation' and the central planners who collectivised agriculture in the Soviet Union and China.

The theoretical basis for this late political stance comes in some of the revisions to the abstractions in Capital which I described in my post 'Chavez is not a Marxist...'. For instance, Marx's failure to find a 'pure' example of primitive accumulation apparently led him to
create a model for the circulation of capital in Russia which involved both the state and pre-capitalist economic forms. The old abstraction was too restricted.

Having said that, it has to be stressed that the late Marx doesn't invalidate everything the younger Marx said, isn't completely consistent, and doesn't provide a template for revolution in every country. Part of the lesson of the late Marx is that there is no template for revolution in every underdeveloped country. Each society has to be studied in its uniqueness.

Marx notes this when he rejects the idea that Capital applies automatically to Russia in his 1877, and when he removes the universalistic language from the 1875 edition of Capital.

How the late Marx relates to agricultural policy under the Bolsheviks is a complex question which I don't know how to answer properly. I think that the policy followed during the period of war communism was very different from what Marx advocated, but that Lenin's late writing on the role of peasant co-ops within the NEP economy was probably much closer.

I think you can see some models of rural development very roughly similar to what Marx recommended in practice in the Waikato Kingdom and Parihaka in nineteenth century New Zealand, in Portugese Guinea under the leadership of Amilcar Cabral, in Grenada during the Bishop era, and in East Timor in 1974-75 (I discuss this example in my post 'A Different Tradition'). I'm sure there are other examples I don't know about.

Reading some of the statements from the new communal farms (eg Berbere) and co-ops established in Venezuela in recent years I detect echoes of the late Marx's idea of a rural development built on indigenous and pre-capitalist forms.

12:11 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is one thing to say capitalism represents progress relative to what came before, and another to say it is progressive relative to some counterfactual development of history. In the Manifesto M&E are clearly making the first argument.

I have no problem with the sections expressing awe at capital's power, and I think such a two-sided view of the simultaneous tragedy and triumph that capitalism has been gives the work much of its appeal and sets it apart from righteous denunciations. I think your teenager reading it after her first rally is at least as likely to be excited by that aspect as to be turned off.

M&E were hardly addressing Diggers, Levellers, Luddites etc, through some window back through time, begging them to call off their pre-emptive strikes because capitalism was due to raise everyone's standard of living. Counterfactuals open a can of worms for historical materialism, but we can assume that M&E would have welcomed some more humane development of humanity's powers should such an alternative proved possible.

It seems the later writings were written in the hope that some _present_ historical force was extant that could develop in a more humane way. It's a big error to use the Manifesto to legitimise imperialism as the spread of liberal capitalism to Iraq, the breaking down of Chinese walls and all the rest, because actors in a history which is still unfolding can make things turn out differently.

But that doesn't invalidate the dialectical rhetoric of the Manifesto.

12:43 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

But we're not talking counterfactuals so much as the real history of countries like India and China. Think imperialism was progressive there, even in the limited sense of developing the economy? Look at the numbers. It wasn't.

From the 1780s to indepenence the Indian economy grew by 1%! From 1857 to 1947 India’s share in the world economy fell from 18% to 3%, a six fold decrease. Britain levied high taxes on agriculture, leading to famines, and British goods flooded Indian markets, destroying indian manufacturing.

It was really Marx and Engels who were full of moral righteousness when they praised imperialism on the East in the Manifesto and some of the texts of the 1850s. The 'Chinese walls' in the Manifesto is an allusion to the first of the Opium Wars, which are surely a classic example of the way that imperialism pushes a society backward rather than forward. They make the current war in Iraq look like liberal imperialism in action.

Marx and Engels had bought into the fashionable European idea of the East as stagnant and timeless. Marx says in the 1853 text I discussed in the earlier post that British imperialism was the only revolutionary force that had ever existed in Indian society! It's the white man's burden rap.

Luckily, Marx went on to study societies like India carefully, and change his views.

12:24 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah. I don't disagree with you about the India writings... Just defending the honour of the Manifesto! I think capitalism has pretty clear-cut progressive features in European history at least, despite the tragic elements.

Last year I went to a seminar by a PhD student in the English department here at Sydney Uni. His thesis is on Marx's writing on India throughout his life. He's Pakistani himself, incidentally. He made some of the points you do, but his main argument as I recall was to defend a reading of British imperialism as having contradictory effects, both terrible and progressive. I'll see if I can track this guy down, you might have stuff to talk about.

12:59 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks. Sound 'in'erestin'. I'm pretty pleased to have gotten the Marxological chapter of my PhD out of the way, though, to be honest. Pretty heavy stuff!

1:41 pm  

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