Liberty Matters

Marx’s Method and Aesthetic


I am currently out of the country, so my engagement with this conversation has been slightly delayed. I had three reactions while reading my colleague Virgil Storr's essay "Marx and the Morality of Capitalism": (1) our teacher Don Lavoie is smiling down on this conversation and is thrilled that we are taking seriously the critical analysis of Marx; (2) Storr's careful reading and willingness to engage others with whom he disagrees are extremely impressive and Lavoie-like; and (3) as the "bad" economistic student of Lavoie, who was raised on Böhm-Bawerk's "close" of Marx's system and Mises's "decisive critique" and who spent the formative decade of his academic career documenting the utter destruction and inhumanity of Marxism in practice, I was reminded of (a) Murray Rothbard's opening remarks to a history-of-thought lecture series in 1985: "You will do well in history of economic thought if you remember two things: Marx was a commie and Keynes was a Keynesian"; (b) Lavoie's emphasis in Rivalry and Central Planning: The Socialist Calculation Debate Reconsidered (1985)[13] of Marx's dialectical materialist methodology and the implications he drew from that methodology, and (c) recent reading I have been doing on counter-Enlightenment thought and in particular the role played by aesthetics as compared to logic and evidence in the works associated with the "Totality" project of complete revolution.
What argument or evidence, I want to ask Storr, would persuade Marx (or a Marxist) that his analysis of capitalism was offbase? For example, Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, in his Karl Marx and the Close of His System (1896),[14] exposed logical inconsistency between volumes one and three of Capital, which has since been dubbed the "transformation problem": how does the value of commodities based on socially desirable labor units get transformed into competitive prices in the marketplace? If no logically coherent way can be found, then Marx's economic analysis fails on its own terms. Answers? No. No Marxist has solved that problem yet. But neoclassical economists have: it's the marginal productivity theory of factor pricing, and it's based not on the labor theory of value but on subjective value and marginal utility theory. Early neoclassical economics basically drove an intellectual nail into the coffin of Marx's ideas.
Can we still learn from Marx? Of course we can. But what? By putting forth a vision of an economic system that is the opposite of the "invisible hand" we can actually see more clearly critical features of "invisible hand" explanations of the market order. Most important of these is Mises's "decisive objection" to comprehensive central planning: that it must forgo the intellectual division of labor. The flip side is how the economic calculation enabled by private property, market prices, and profit-and-loss accounting mobilizes this intellectual division of labor to realize productive specialization and peaceful social cooperation among the participants in the economy. Economic calculation sorts out from the bewildering array of technologically possible investment projects those which are economically viable. It is this process of economic calculation that was a critical component in the Great Enrichment that Marx and Engels celebrated in The Communist Manifesto (1848).[15]
But how does Marx give us this "picture" of the opposite of the "invisible hand"? As Storr explained, Marx had two fundamental tools of critique — alienation and exploitation — and the longing for total revolution is only satisfied if the injustice of exploitation is eliminated by the transcendence of the alienating force of private property. Justice, in other words, can only be served through transcendence -- thus the abolition of private property and commodity production. Marx might not have wanted to write recipes for the cookshops of the future, but he certainly left us a picture to gaze at.[16]
Critical to understanding Marx is that the dialectical method requires that science advances through criticism. Marx did not object to the utopian socialists talking about socialism; he objected to the way they talked about the socialist future. They did not follow the dialectical method, and in his way of thinking, they were not scientific. But Marx, the dialectical materialist, was scientific, and he had identified the governing dynamic in the inevitable march of history. Socialism would be what capitalism was not. So if capitalism was exploitive, socialism would not be; if capitalism suffered from periodic crises, socialism would not; if capitalism was characterized by the anarchy of production, socialism would be the rationalization of production. Thus, the argument went, socialism would revolutionize the social relations of production to such an extent that humanity would move from the Kingdom of Necessity to the Kingdom of Freedom.
But, what if such a rationalization isn't possible? If the promised future world isn't possible, what remains of the critique?
So if Böhm-Bawerk was right and Mises was right, shouldn't the Marxian system be closed for good? The millions of souls lost in the most horrific social experiment of the 20th century might certainly hope so, but they would be wrong. The animating spirit of Marxism is alive and well and retains its appeal in the face of logical demolition and an empirical track record that should give anyone pause.
Wait. The aesthetic is too appealing. No logical demonstration of flaws and inconsistencies and no accumulation of evidence can make the aesthetic of the totality project appear distorted and disjointed.
Storr's three fundamental questions must be asked and answered. Will the Marxian aesthetic hinder or encourage such a conversation?
[13.] Don Lavoie, Rivalry and central planning: the socialist calculation debate reconsidered (New York : Cambridge University Press, 1985).
[14.] We have online a German and English version of this book: PDF only: Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, Karl Marx and the close of his system, a criticism. Translated by Alice M. Macdonald with a Preface by James Bonar (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1898) </titles/2760>; English HTML version: "On the Completion of Marx's System (of Thought)" (1896, 1898) </pages/completion>. German version: PDF </titles/2761/titles/2761>; HTML <>.
[15.] Editor: If the reader will pardon my intrusion here I will provide a long quote from the Communist Manifesto in which Marx expresses in quite moving prose his positive vision of how "capitalism" (or rather the Bourgeoisie) will transform the world for the good:
Die Bourgeoisie kann nicht existiren, ohne die Produktionsinstrumente, also die Produktionsverhältnisse, also sämmtliche gesellschaftlichen Verhältnisse fortwährend zu revolutioniren. Unveränderte Beibehaltung der alten Produktionsweise war dagegen die erste Existenzbedingung aller früheren industriellen Klassen. Die fortwährende Umwälzung der Produktion, die ununterbrochene Erschütterung aller gesellschaftlichen Zustände, die ewige Unsicherheit und Bewegung zeichnet die Bourgeois-Epoche vor allen früheren aus. Alle festen, eingerosteten Verhältnisse mit ihrem Gefolge von altehrwürdigen Vorstellungen und Anschauungen werden aufgelöst, alle neugebildeten veralten, ehe sie verknöchern können. Alles Ständische und Stehende verdampft, alles Heilige wird entweiht, und die Menschen sind endlich gezwungen, ihre Lebensstellung, ihre gegenseitigen Beziehungen mit nüchternen Augen anzusehen. Das Bedürfniß nach einem stets ausgedehnteren Absatz für ihre Produkte jagt die Bourgeoisie über die ganze Erdkugel. Ueberall muß sie sich einnisten, überall anbauen, überall Verbindungen herstellen. Die Bourgeoisie hat durch die Exploitation des Weltmarkts die Produktion und Konsumtion aller Länder kosmopolitisch gestaltet. Sie hat zum großen Bedauern der Reaktionäre den nationalen Boden der Industrie unter den Füßen weggezogen. Die uralten nationalen Industrieen sind vernichtet worden und werden noch täglich vernichtet. Sie werden verdrängt durch neue Industrieen, deren Einführung eine Lebensfrage für alle civilisirte Nationen wird, durch Industrieen, die nicht mehr einheimische Rohstoffe, sondern den entlegensten Zonen angehörige Rohstoffe verarbeiten, und deren Fabrikate nicht nur im Lande selbst, sondern in allen Welttheilen zugleich verbraucht werden. An die Stelle der alten, durch Landeserzeugnisse befriedigten Bedürfnisse treten neue, welche die Produkte der entferntesten Länder und Klimate zu ihrer Befriedigung erheischen. An die Stelle der alten lokalen und nationalen Selbstgenügsamkeit und Abgeschlossenheit tritt ein allseitiger Verkehr, eine allseitige Abhängigkeit der Nationen von einander. Und wie in der materiellen, so auch in der geistigen Produktion. Die geistigen Erzeugnisse der einzelnen Nationen werden Gemeingut. Die nationale Einseitigkeit und Beschränktheit wird mehr und mehr unmöglich, und aus den vielen nationalen und lokalen Literaturen bildet sich eine Weltliteratur. Die Bourgeoisie reißt durch die rasche Verbesserung aller Produktions-Instrumente, durch die unendlich erleichterten Kommunikationen alle, auch die barbarischsten Nationen in die Civilisation. Die wohlfeilen Preise ihrer Waaren sind die schwere Artillerie, mit der sie alle chinesischen Mauern in den Grund schießt, mit der sie den hartnäckigsten Fremdenhaß der Barbaren zur Kapitulation zwingt. Sie zwingt alle Nationen die Produktionsweise der Bourgeoisie sich anzueignen, wenn sie nicht zugrunde gehen wollen; sie zwingt sie die sogenannte Civilisation bei sich selbst einzuführen, d. h. Bourgeois zu werden. Mit einem Wort, sie schafft sich eine Welt nach ihrem eigenen Bilde. Die Bourgeoisie hat das Land der Herrschaft der Stadt unterworfen. Sie hat enorme Städte geschaffen, sie hat die Zahl der städtischen Bevölkerung gegenüber der ländlichen in hohem Grade vermehrt, und so einen bedeutenden Theil der Bevölkerung dem Idiotismus des Landlebens entrissen. Wie sie das Land von der Stadt, hat sie die barbarischen und halbbarbarischen Länder von den civilisirten, die Bauernvölker von den Bourgeoisvölkern, den Orient vom Occident abhängig gemacht.
The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind. The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature. The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians' intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image. The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life. Just as it has made the country dependent on the towns, so it has made barbarian and semi-barbarian countries dependent on the civilised ones, nations of peasants on nations of bourgeois, the East on the West.
[16.] "(S)tatt Rezepte (comtistische?) für die Garküche der Zukunft zu verschreiben." This comes from Marx's "Preface to the Second edition" of Das Kapital (London, Jan. 24, 1873) and reads: "Thus the Paris Revue Positiviste reproaches me in that, on the one hand, I treat economics metaphysically, and on the other hand—imagine!—confine myself to the mere critical analysis of actual facts, instead of writing recipes (Comtist ones?) for the cook-shops of the future." In Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Volume I: The Process of Capitalist Production, by Karl Marx. Trans. from the 3rd German edition, by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, ed. Frederick Engels. Revised and amplified according to the 4th German ed. by Ernest Untermann (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr and Co., 1909). </titles/965#Marx_0445-01_46>.