by pegleghippie (I show up as barometric pressure in the comments)

dirty fucky (left handed) hippie

I mentioned in my introduction post that I was “attracted to leftist politics.”  Those that know me well know that this was a bit of an understatement.  I write with, and vote with, my left hand.  This isn’t strictly about me though, I want to make a for reals political post, and stake my claim on the political spectrum.

First the elephant in the room: marxism.  It’s ok, you can say it.  It’s part of our tradition, and while none of us should be too keen on any traditions, Marxism is too powerful an idea to deny or ignore.  It’s a damn shame to not understand it.

I never called myself a marxist, although in the past few days I’ve felt sympathetic.  I read a lot of Marx’s early work in high school on my own time, I’ve recently been reading his more famous works now that I’m in college.  A few things jump out at me.  This is not the feel-good emotive-based leftism that characterizes the American left (I’m looking at you West coast).  Rather, Marx is pleading for humanity itself, and doing his damnedest to be realistic about it.  By practical, I mean that Marx takes a rather Lockean view of private property that is created by a skilled worker, who puts his/her heart and soul into something.  Today, it seems positively right-wing  Randian to be this obsessed with personal triumph over nature.  The last thing that jumps out, and the thing that I want to spend the most time on, is that “deep philosophical shit:” the meaning of doing (as opposed to simply being), what that means for control over manufacturing, and the really weird part, “dialectical materialism.” Also known as the idea that you can predict where arguments are going before they’ve even happened.


On to the doing thing: you probably know that Marx wrote a lot about the worker.  What you may not realize is that when marx was talking about labor, he didn’t mean it in the strict sense that ‘you have a job.’  He meant doing.  Nearly anything that goes on in life is labor of some kind, in other words, you’re usually doing something.  Much of the time, this labor is focused around creating and maintaining your own life.  Doing things is natural and good, and doing defines us as humans.  Isn’t that nice?  doesn’t that make sense?  If we evolved to enjoy surviving, we’d be more likely to survive.  If we evolved to enjoy the tasks that help us survive, we’d be even more likely to survive.  

We’re destined, in that way, to enjoy doing stuff, because doing stuff is what living things do to guarantee that they keep doing stuff.  It’s tautological, sure, but you can only fight biological-imperatives so far.  The point is, there’s a natural drive to be busy, and we should enjoy that drive.  This drive to do is opposed to the eastern idea that it is best to simply ‘be.’ To meditate on the simple so that one’s mind breaks free of its conditioning, and shows us the world of ‘enlightenment.’  As far as I’m concerned, eastern philosophy is a great way to hack one’s own brain-software.  It’ll teach you a little about how you work, and you might get some enjoyment out of it, but mostly, you can only do natural tweaks to your own perception in limited amounts.  Otherwise, you know, you starve to death. 


Back to Marx:  If all this doing is so great, then why does going to work suck?  Isn’t work supposed to be how I keep myself alive, and how I make my life better?  What’s up with that?  

Those are (basically) the questions that old Karl asked. Now I’m not going to bore you with the specifics or Marxist communism, as the economic world has changed in ways unimaginable in the mid-19th century.  Centralized economies fail to deal with the complexities of a changing world, end of discussion.  Does that mean that capitalism is the answer?  Hardly.

 The idea that’s important here is that work, in our modern artificial environments, has stopped rewarding the individual, and only serves the goal of the factory as a whole.  No one has any reason to be proud of their work, no one has any life aspiration to master a factory job.  So the thing that should be naturally rewarding, labor, is now a drag, and we turn to stupid things like eastern philosophy to take our minds off of it.

Marx’s solution wasn’t to return to nature, however.  He recognized that there was a lot of potential in this manufacturing thing.  So his solution was to simply take the benefits owner got, and to give those benefits to the workers.  Well, not exactly.  He wanted to give all of manufacturing’s benefits to all workers everywhere.  Only then could we be ourselves again.  But ignore the extreme element for a moment, and consider:  is there anything just in some getting richer simply because of what they own?  Whatever labor they did to make use of the earth, they didn’t do anything to deserve the wealth that they have.  And the hard work of those who don’t own what they make should be fairly rewarded, right?  Are we humans, or are we cogs?  

Even without arguing for economic equality, it’s plain to see that ownership on it’s own shouldn’t guarantee your lifestyle.  Not when there’s useful work to be done.  Isn’t the central idea of capitalism that what you own you make use of for some good?  Owning production starts to fail at this goal.  Fundamentally, I find myself agreeing with Marx that private ownership of production is a problem.  I don’t know what that means, as on the other hand, competition meets needs with increasingly better goods.  However, competition, and rewarding competition for winning, does not conflict with the goal of meeting people’s survival needs.  Sure it means competition must be limited, but it’s limited in a capitalist model anyway; even corporations have to obey the law (most of the time anyway).  

So lets review:  private ownership of production is unjust and crushes people.  BUT, competition is an effective way to find superior solutions.  So, demanding that people work, rather than receive a free-ride from ownership, but still allowing enough reward to make people compete, will keep people from crushing each other.  That’s my take on Marxist politics.

Marxism not Communism

Increasingly, people refer to themselves as Marxists, but not communists.  I think it’s a fair distinction, since Marx’s premises do not necessarily lead to communist conclusions, but I’m going to have to say that I’m neither a marxist nor a communist.  I’ve already objected to a centrally planned economy (communism), so here’s my problem with Marxism:

     Dialectical materialism.  I can get behind Marx’s view of labor as both natural and good, but I can’t get behind his view of history.  Dialectical materialism, As I understand it, is the idea that as we argue over how we shall administer power and manage resources, we will come to a single conclusion about “the best” way to do these things.  Furthermore, this best way is inevitable, mankind is destined to discover it, and all of history is the story of that discovery. 

For Marx, that “best way” was communism.  For non-communist Marxists, they may admit that we aren’t real clear on that best way, but it exists out there somewhere.  And this is how they approach political arguments, as merely a piece in the puzzle of figuring that answer out.  This is absolutely insane.  First off, what standard are we going by to determine “the best?”  How will we know when history is over, and that we’ve discovered “the best?”  What made us destined for anything at all in the first place?  Why are arguments suddenly filled with so much metaphysical baggage?  

An argument about a theory of arguments can get confusing fast, I admit.  But look at it this way.  Arguments, and the logic we use to declare a winner, are essentially linguistic in nature.  Language changes, and becomes increasingly complex.  There are no signs that this will someday stop.  As our language (and our problems), become more complex, our solutions will have to be more and more adaptable, and increasingly open to change.  This would suggest that, so far as we know it, history cannot end, and neither can our political discussions.  We also shouldn’t have to assume things like a preset design, or an objective definition of ‘perfection,’ when we talk about these things.  All these little problems lead me away from dialectical materialism.  

The end, for now

This turned out long, and I only covered one area of the left.  As I said, I am not a marxist, but I find myself sympathetic to many of Karl Marx’s ideas.  Philosophically, he hits it out of the park when it comes to doing (labor), not so much when it comes to arguing.  Politically, I understand the need for justice and the survival onus of all of us to the larger humanity, but of course his economics are out-dated, and a little simplistic.  All in all though, he was a smart guy who made a huge contribution to the world, as well as my own thinking. 

2 Responses

  1. You say you’ve only read Marx’s early work, and I’m willing to be you’ve never read Kapital if you think Marxist economics is simplistic. It’s not perfect, of course, not by a long way. He was after all one man and the awesome complexity of large-scale economies made them a complete mystery to the ancient societies, the subject of competing theories in the industrial revolution, and still imperfectly understood; a discipline of statistical trends rather than causality. The ideas Marx brought to the table remain useful, and no less simplistic than that of capitalist theorists such as Ricardo or Malthus.

    I think that along with his economic theories Marx’s greatest legacy is Marxism as cultural movement. You are right to point out that Marxism is not Communism, but it is a major component of it. Marx’s revolutionary lexis and his simple descriptions of industrial European society were extremely attractive to the new class of urban workers, especially in eastern Europe. Christianity no longer adequately explained the world they lived in, and appeared increasingly aged and irrelevant. So much like Protestantism before it, Communism was adopted as the dogma of an emergent class — and Marx’s ideas were at the heart of it. I wouldn’t go as far as calling it a religion, but the fighters in the various Communist revolutionaries in the late 19th and 20th centuries weren’t economists but people inspired to improve their lot by Marx’s absolute categorisations of society, and all the imagery, music and propaganda that went with it.

  2. Joseph,
    Thank you for the thoughtful comment. You’re right of course. I’ve only read overviews of Das Kapital. When I call Marx’s economics simplistic, I’m speaking as someone from today’s world of overly-complicated mathematical analysis of economics, as well as today’s ‘economic imperialism,’ where we see economic tools brought into other fields, oftentimes with startling results.

    As for Ricardo and Malthus, this was a post about marxism. I didn’t feel the need to point out where capitalists were inadequate; indeed I had already identified myself within the leftist tradition, such a critique can be assumed.

    I think you’re right about Communism as an almost-religion. I’m not a fan of dogma in any form, so this is generally the least attractive side of Communism, as far as I’m concerned. I wanted to engage Marx’s ideas on a more philosophical ground, so that I may use him as a spring board to give my own impressions of politics.

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