Episode post here. Transcription by David North—thank you, David!
Hello and welcome to Elucidations, a philosophy podcast recorded at University of Chicago. I’m Matt Teichman.
I’m Lawrence Dallman.
With us today is Brian Leiter, Karl N. Lwelleyn Karl N. Llewellyn Professor of Jurisprudence, and Director of the Center for Law, Philosophy, and Human Values at the University of Chicago. He’s here to discuss why we should think about Marx. Brian Leiter, welcome back to Elucidations.
Thank you, Matt. Thanks, Lawrence. It’s good to be here again.
So, Karl Marx is famous for telling a story about the way our society is set up and the way it’s going to go—the kinds of catastrophes it might be headed for. What were some of his basic views about that?
I’m going to resist calling it a ‘story’, to start with, because, for Marx, it was very important it was actually a correct explanation of patterns of historical, social, and economic change. That that was really central to the whole way he thought about what he was doing. He thought it was a scientific theory of historical change, though remember ‘scientific’—wissenschaftlich, in the 19th century—for us, ‘scientific’ has the connotation of natural science—looks like physics. It didn’t have the same connotation for Marx.
But it was meant to be a true explanatory account of why it is that history evolves the way it does, why it is that particular forms of social order rise and fall. Marx’s crucial thought that the social was the engine of historical change had two components to it: one was the level of development of what he called the ‘productive forces’ in a society. That is, every society has some way in which people produce the things they need in order to live. Foragers produce what they need to live in a way different than we do in industrial capitalism and, indeed, we in the 21st century produce our means of subsistence quite a bit differently than even at the heyday of industrial capitalism in the middle of the 20th century.
So Marx’s first thought is that you’ve got to pay attention to how developed the productive forces of a given society are at any particular historical moment. But then the other thing that he thought was crucial is that the dynamics of any society were a matter of what he famously called ‘class struggle’, where ‘classes’, for Marx, are defined in terms of the relationship they stand in to the existing productive forces in a society. In classic, say, 19th century industrial capitalism, workers—the famed proletariat that Marx talked about—workers owned only their own labor power. That was the only force of production they owned, and they were able to sell it to capitalists. Capitalists were able to purchase others’ labor power, but capitalists also owned the industrial means of production. They owned the factory and then they owned the widgets that came off the assembly line from the factory. They paid the workers some wage in return for the labor power, and everything else the capitalists were able to keep.
That’s just one example. So in capitalist society, we have capitalists. They own the major means of production, they purchase other’s people’s labor power. Workers, they can only sell their labor power. They don’t own any other means of production. If you go back to the middle ages, if you think of feudal societies, it’s totally different. The serfs didn’t even own their labor power. They couldn’t sell their labor power; they could perhaps use some of it to produce some of their means of subsistence. They didn’t even typically own their tools. The feudal lord owned everything: owned the land, owned the tools, and owned the labor power of the serfs. They had to do a certain amount of work for the feudal lord. Marx’s crucial thought is that classes, as defined by their ownership relation to the forces of production, end up in a certain kind of conflict, as you might imagine. And in particular, dominant classes extract as much economic value as they can from the forces of production they control, and they do so in a way that typically isn’t advantageous for those who don’t own the major forces of production. So, what arises is a certain kind of class conflict, as Marx famously described it.
One question I have is about the situation you mentioned—the feudal situation versus the heyday of industrial capitalism situation. What situation are we in right now? Does Marx’s notion of class correspond to our intuitive everyday idea of: well, there are Silicon Valley CEOs, and they run the show, and then there are people who work blue collar jobs? Is it basically the same thing, or is it a little bit different?
The stratification of classes has become a bit more complicated in 21st century capitalism. I mean, this started in the 20th century. The classic Marxian proletariat—that is, those who sell their labor power to capitalists who own factories—is a much smaller part of the general workforce.
However, it’s still the case that most of us—I include myself—I sell my labor power to the University of Chicago. Now, I sell it under ridiculously favorable terms (don’t tell my Dean I said that), but I sell my labor power to the University of Chicago and am paid a wage in return for performing certain kinds of services: teaching, research, administrative work, supervision of students, and so on. The rise of personal retirement accounts means that even I have slight, very small ownership interests in some of the major forces of production though my IRAs, and the University-sponsored retirement plan, and so on, and that’s true of a lot of people. It’s also true that the forces of production have changed very significantly. That is, the industrial factory, the paradigm of the force of production in the 19th century, they’re still there. There’s plenty of factories that produce chips that make the whole world run. But of course, an awful lot of productive power arises from technologies—particularly related to computers and nanotechnologies—that don’t look much like the traditional factory.
Even if there are factories that produce the chips, what is it that Bill Gates owns? One of the things that he owns are property rights in computer software, which doesn’t exactly look like the old machine that produces widgets. But the productive power of that software, the Microsoft software, is, of course, enormous, and integrated right into—it’s right here in this office behind me. It’s probably in most offices in the world these days. And so on. So there are more nuances. There are more gradations of class.
But, at the end of the day, as the work by economists in recent years on inequality has shown, most wealth—now, they talk about wealth and not productive power, but we can think of wealth as roughly what Marx called ‘capital’—most wealth is owned by a very small fraction of the population. The fraction of the population that runs the elections in America, for example. It seems reasonable in Marxian terms to think of that group as the ruling class, in part because of their vast wealth, and in part because a lot of that wealth is tied up with control of the main productive powers that power a 21st century modern economy like ours.
And they’re the people that you and I are selling our labor to, in principle.
Yeah, more or less directly. It can vary quite a bit. What is the relationship between the University of Chicago as an employer and the ruling classes in capitalist society? Well, it’s complicated. In some places, it’s very, very close. If you look at the University of Chicago board of trustees, it is not made up of the working class.
Now, fortunately, there’s a strong tradition—in many American universities but certainly this one—that, although the University’s ability to function is heavily indebted to and dependent upon members of the ruling class, they largely stay out of the affairs of the university. That hasn’t always seen the case in the history of the world. Ironically, at least in the developed western democracies, the universities that have the most problems these days are the ones where there is no meaningful private sector, and they’re at the hand of government bureaucrats. That’s a kind of side issue.
But other people sell their labor power. Somebody who works at the barber shop on 53rd street in Hyde Park isn’t exactly selling their labor power to a member of the ruling class. They’re selling it to a shopkeeper. Shopkeepers existed in Marx’s time too—they are purchasing other people’s labor power, but they themselves are not members of the ruling class because they don’t own the major forces of production. They own a few barbershop chairs, a few electric razors, perhaps the storefront, and so on.
Marx is commonly taken to make claims about the essentially self-undermining character of capitalism. What are your views on this part of Marx?
Marx thinks that every historical epoch characterized by a certain level of development of the forces of production, a certain economic system, gets to a point where it undermines itself. And so, capitalism is just the final part of that story. You have to remember that Marx, to his lasting misfortune, was very influenced by Hegel. So he takes over quite a lot things from Hegel—he takes over more than he in fact rejects.
But one of the things he takes over is the thought that history has a certain kind of (as Hegel would call it) dialectical structure, in which certain kinds of contradictions or tensions in the historical moment lead to an explosion and a historical transformation. And he takes over from Hegel the idea that history has a teleological structure. I think it is plainly false that history has a teleological structure. If you were Hegel, and you were basically a Christian philosopher who believed that history was the working out of God’s intentions for humankind, that might have seemed plausible. Marx, as an atheist, should have said farewell to that. But he didn’t.
And having a teleological structure here means that as society, we’re all headed towards some ideal outcome, or some goal?
Yes. So, to say that history has teleological structure means that history is necessarily heading for a certain outcome. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a happy outcome. But for both Hegel and Marx, it was. It was a happy story; this is a Whiggish version of history.
Now, Marx thought that the crucial engine of historical transformation arose form the kinds of conflicts between classes that at some point come to a head in every form of economic organization. And he thinks that is true of capitalism too. Why does he think that capitalism is bound to self-destruct? He had an official view about this, which I think is mistaken. So let me just say a couple things. If the question is why anyone should think about Marx today, it isn’t because of the labor theory of value. Marx was concerned with the question: well, where does value in commodities—things that are bought and sold in the marketplace—where does that come from? And he thought it had to do with the amount of labor power put into it—that that was the real source of value. That was the labor theory of value.
And then, given the labor theory of value, he thought capitalism was prone to something he called the falling rate of profit—which was then going to be a real problem for capitalism, since capitalism was all about generation of profit. The reason he thought the rate of profit would fall is because capitalists would displace human labor with cheaper technology, a fact that is familiar to us to this day. They will replace human labor power with cheaper technology, but on Marx’s view, given the labor theory of value, if there is less human labor, then there’s less source of the value from which capitalists could generate profit in the first place. So the rate of profit will necessarily fall.
Now, this is ‘bad Marx’. Here he was just mistaken, it seems to me. The labor theory of value is not a plausible account of the source of value in capitalist societies, valuing commodities. Think the law of supply and demand as an attempt to provide different kind of account. How much people want something has some effect on the value, the price it can command in the market. And, since the labor theory of value is false, then the falling rate of profit theory is going to be false. And indeed, the evidence shows that it’s false. That is, companies increase their profits precisely when they replace expensive human labor power with cheaper technologies. That’s why they do it. They’re capitalists, after all, and capitalists, in order to survive, have to adhere to a certain logic that is dictated by the market relations under which they function. You can’t be a kind-hearted capitalist and survive.
That being said, I still think Marx is basically right. But I think the story has to be a slightly different one. Capitalists are in pursuit of profit. In pursuit of profit, they want to reduce costs, while at the same time being able to produce what they had been able to produce previously. Whatever goods or commodities it is that they’re selling. The problem is: as they reduce cost by eliminating human labor power, they also systematically eliminate those who are able to purchase the commodities and goods that capitalists produce.
So they create, shall we say, an inherently unstable and irrational situation that looks something like this. And I’m going to exaggerate it a little, but this is clearly how Marx was thinking of it. Capitalism, Marx thinks, enhances the productive power of humanity better than any other system. This is important about Marx. He was actually, in one way, a huge fan of capitalism; no communism without capitalism. A lot of what he has to say about capitalism, people over in our economics department would say: yes, that’s exactly right. Capitalism is great at producing the development of new technology, new productive forces, and so on. The problem is that the productive forces are owned by a very small number of people whose only interest is in the generation of profit. So we get into a strange situation where capitalism has produced extraordinary productive capacity.
In between 1750 and 1850, the increase in productive power in Europe was extraordinary. In that hundred years it was, like, greater than the prior two thousand. So a lot of people thought: wow, we’re going to get close to the point where the productive power of humanity is such that mana will be falling from heaven, you just push the button and you have all the things you need. And Marx is very explicit: you can’t get rid of capitalism until you have massive productive capacity. Massive productive capacity of the kind that makes it the case that you can produce everything that people need for subsistence. That it’s easy—you can be a little inefficient, but it won’t matter. You can have waste, and it won’t matter. The productive power will be that huge.
The mistake was that Marx, like a lot of people in the 19th century, thought this was around the corner. He didn’t have a strong sense of what was going on around the globe. You know, the productive power between 1850 and 2016 has increased multiple-fold, as well, since. And we still haven’t maxed out. But Marx’s thought was that capitalism produces this tremendous growth in the productive capacity of humanity and yet this productive power is all under control of people who want to utilize it to produce things to generate profit. In the course of increasing their profit margins, they immiserate the vast majority of humanity, whose labor power is no longer needed to do anything as technology takes their place—with the result that most people are miserable now, and literally immiserated. Think of the slums around Rio de Janeiro. That’s what we’re talking about.
People are immiserated. Their labor power is no longer needed. Yet, the productive power of humanity is adequate to provide for everyone’s needs. But it’s in the hands of a small number of people whose only interest in it is to generate profit, which they can’t really generate quite as much of, because there’s nobody to buy things anymore, because they’ve all been immiserated. That’s the folksy version of why capitalism is going to self-destruct. Marx’s thought—I think it’s a pretty plausible thought—is that if you have a scenario that looks like what I just described, it’s not going to be a stable scenario. It’s not going to be a stable situation in which most people are immiserated, yet we have the productive capacity to meet everyone’s needs.
And I think people are well aware of this. In a way, this Marxian scenario bubbles beneath the surface of a lot of public discourse. All these previously well-paid union workers in the Midwest who have lost their jobs, because the factory migrate to places where labor power is cheaper—what’s going to happen to them? They used to be able to make 25 dollars an hour and now they can make 12.50 an hour at Walmart. But even Walmart is going to gradually eliminate people, and they’ve already done it. Just think in the last 20 years, remember when cashiers used to be everywhere? And now they’ve been replaced by scanners? Sometimes there’s a cashier overseeing the scanners, but that’s a very simple case of a technological innovation that’s eliminating human labor power.
Driverless cars and trucks? The minute we have driverless trucks, that’s 3 million jobs that working class people—people with limited education, jobs that pay pretty well—will simply disappear. Why are people talking again about the possible need for universal basic income? Because they recognize that the trend lines here are very, very bad. People won’t be able to even sell their labor power, because it will be less and less needed, and yet, at the same time, they’ve still got to survive. Unless, of course you just want to let them all die—which I think a certain portion of the ruling class does. Though they don’t like to say that, because it’s not polite.
So, put in more colloquial terms, that’s Marx’s picture of why capitalism is fundamentally irrational and unstable. It develops the productive power of humanity to an extraordinary extent, but utilizes it only in the service of the pursuit of profit, and as a result, ends up immiserating most people whose needs could be met, but aren’t, given the way the productive power is controlled. Namely, it’s owned by the one percent—to pick the current standard of the ruling class in political discourse.
Do you think Marx’s analysis of capitalism sheds any light on recent events in American history?
I think the only reason to think about Marx is that either he is right, or he is wrong, about the way capitalist societies to develop. And that is a complicated empirical question. I actually think all the tendencies of global capitalism over the last two centuries suggest that he’s basically right about the pattern. A lot of the turmoil we’ve seen in American politics recently, including the 2016 election, is just sort of symptoms of these things that are going on.
We do have this system in which the two dominant political parties are essentially parties that represent the interests of the ruling class. Indeed, there are political scientists—there’s a guy at Northwestern and one at Princeton, Benjamin Page, and I forget the other guy—who actually took an empirical look at this. And what they found is that really rich people play a hugely disproportionate role in setting the policy agendas of both parties. Which is hardly surprising when you look at what passes for policy agendas in the United States.
So you have essentially two ruling class parties: the Democrats—I call them the prudent wing of the ruling class—that is, they’re kind of a little worried about immiseration—and then the Republicans tend to be the very imprudent wing. The Democrats nominated someone from the prudent wing of the ruling class party in 2016. The Republicans nominated a billionaire who posed as being concerned about workers—who in fact are victims of globalization, but more precisely, they’re victims of capitalism. Globalization is the codeword here, but what they’re really victims of is the logic of capitalist markets. Capitalist companies will either replace human labor power with technology, or they’ll replace it with cheaper labor power, full stop. And if they don’t, they will lose out to the captialist competitors who do. That’s how the whole thing works.
And so, the billionaire poses as concerned with this, swings whatever it was—70,000 votes in three states—of union workers who previously voted Democrat switch to the Republicans. But it’s all a charade. Trump’s cabinet is now almost entirely full of billionaires. There’s no indication whatsoever that the ruling class in capitalist America doesn’t still control the policy agenda. It’s just going to be more of the same, which is going to mean there’s going to be more misery and there’s going to be more looking for alternatives by people who are genuinely aggrieved. I want to emphasize that. I mean, this is why I dislike it when people say, ‘Oh, everybody who voted for Trump is a racist’. That’s bullshit.
There were probably some racists who voted for Trump. If I were racist, I guess I’d pick Trump over Clinton. But no, people who voted on both sides—but especially many of those who switched to Trump—were genuinely aggrieved. Unfortunately, they have completely mistaken views about cause and effect. They made a very serious error in what they thought would be the effect of casting that kind of vote. That is our dilemma. But we don’t get honest discussion of it.
But the underlying pattern and problems that Marx diagnosed seems to me right beneath the surface of all these things. And that goes for Brexit too. It goes for a lot of other—you know, what’s going on in the internal politics of many countries. So, we’re screwed. Until capitalism is defeated.
You described a trend within capitalism toward greater and greater immiseration, and you’ve characterized one portion of the ruling class as more prudent, and one portion as less prudent. With respect to what are these politicans making prudent and imprudent decisions? That is to ask: what does Marx predict as the plausible outcome of this greater and greater immiseration, and what are these politicians trying to prevent?
Good. So when I describe Democrats as the prudent wing of ruling class party, I’m being a little ironic. I mean, they’re prudent in the sense that they want to slow the pace of immiseration. They don’t think of it quite in these terms. But to some extent, they are aware that everything about the logic of the market to which they are beholden and which they worship—and they all do—
We’ve had eight years of Obama. He’s a nice man. He speaks well, he’s civilized, unlike his successor. He’s not an animal, he’s not an ignoramus. But he is a complete lackey of the capitalist ruling class, in every single meaningful respect. He did nothing to restore even the New Deal consensus from the Roosevelt years. And even Roosevelt was, of course, motivated in the 30s by wanting to preserve the capitalist system.
So when I say they’re the prudent wing, I’m being a little ironic. They’re trying to stave off what’s bound to come. The Republicans tend to be imprudent, in the sense that they don’t even want to make the slight efforts to check the inherent logic of the market, which is mass immiseration. Now of course, the ironic part is that revolutions tend not to end well for the ruling classes. Every historical episode seems to confirm that. So if Marx is right about the tendency, they’re being imprudent with respect to their own long-term well-being, as well.
But again, as between the Democrats and Republicans, even today, there’s still more agreement than there is disagreement, about an awful lot of things. And not just in foreign policy, where essentially both parties speak univocally. This is if Marx is right about what the tendency is. But it seems to me all the evidence we have suggests he is right about the tendency. He was wrong about a lot of things: he was wrong about the timetable of it. He was wrong about the ability of capitalist ruling classes to ameliorate and slow down and adjust in certain ways. So, he didn’t really foresee the 20th century union labor movement. But the 20th century labor union movement in the industrial capitalist societies is in decline. In the US, it’s basically been destroyed, except for the margins. With its destruction, the normal tendency of capitalist relations of production resumes its course, which is widening inequality. Which now everbody’s talking about. But most of the people talking about it don’t really diagnose it as the inevitable result of the logic of an economic system to which they’re all basically committed. Including Paul Krugman, who has to count as the most sanctimonious, superficial person on the face of the earth.
I wonder about how inevitable this is. It seems like the mechanism you just described involves industrial capitalism ramping up a lot of power to produce a lot of advanced technology and produce a lot of manufactured goods. And then, once that power has reached a certain critical point, human labor becomes redundant. But then, because the ruling classes who are in charge of the whole apparatus are still mainly driven by maximizing profit, they’re not going to do quote unquote the right thing and use their wealth to end the immiseration they’ve caused. They’re just going to keep on doing the same old thing, and that’s what’s going to make the whole thing implode.
But is there another version of this scenario where, once capitalism has bypassed this critical point—where automation makes human labor redundant—where the ruling classes could turn around and be like: ‘ok, now is the time to not prioritize profit; now it’s time to do something else which won’t make the system implode’. Is that a possibility?
Yes, it’s a possibility. And let me be clear about the inevitability point. I actually don’t think, partly because of the kind of scenario you describe, that the overthrow of capitalism is inevitable. I think that the developmental tendency of capitalism is inevitable. It is built into the entire structure of what it means to run a capitalist economy. Now, is it possible that at some point in the not too distant future—where the productive power of humanity is such that we push a button to get our mana from heaven—that all of a sudden the ruling class will become very altruistic and concerned for their fellow human beings?
You know, they love that in the tech world. It’s pivoting.
Yeah, it’s certainly possible. We don’t see a lot of examples of that in the history of the world. We might say in a Marxist spirit: well, because we’ve never been to a point in the history of the world where the productive power was so enormous that the ruling class could sacrifice none of its avarice and still meet the needs of other people. Yeah, it’s possible. I don’t know that I think it’s very likely.
But that’s just a guess. Marx did not think a lot about individual psychology. In a way, this is a question about what is possible, what the limits of individual psychology and individual motivation are. Hume and many others after have observed that human beings are creatures of limited altruism. It could be that we aren’t really creatures of limited altruism. It just depends on the circumstances under which the human beings we’re looking at have lived. And maybe, in some hard to imagine future of enormous productive power, those who own it would in fact deploy it differently. That’s possible.
One might think that the decision to pass legislation to reduce the immiseration of the workers is motivated not only by prudence or by arbitrarily felt altruism, but by conformity to moral beliefs—to beliefs about what, even in a position of privilege, one ought to do. How does this fit into the story that Marx tells about the motivations of historical actors?
I think Marx clearly recognizes that people, including ruling classes, have moral beliefs, and that sometimes they might even act on the basis of on moral considerations, or moral reasons.
Now, what Marx also thinks which, again, seems to be confirmed by what we observe in history, is that the moral beliefs that individuals have in general—and especially the ruling classes—I mean, there’s an antecedent claim here, which is that Marx thinks that the general moral ideology of a society is going to be one that is basically in the interest of its ruling classes. So he doesn’t think that moral beliefs will arise—propagate, catch on—in a society if they’re fundamentally hostile to capitalist relations of production, in the case of the capitalist society.
And I do think that’s what we see in terms of professions of moral commitment. It’s about charity. Charity and the moral imperative to contribute to charity is consistent with all the prerogatives of the ruling class and with capitalist relations of production. It poses no threat whatsoever to either one of those. And as a result, capitalists tend to be very good about talking about obligations of charity. Not all of them, right?. I mean, all of these guys now have been reading Ayn Rand, so they’ve even given up on that. But put those crazies to one side. That’s the kind of moral commitment you get.
This is why, as I’ve written, I think Peter Singer is the moral philosopher for late capitalism, because he frames every ethical question as a question about what an individual ought to do, against a backdrop that is taken for granted. Every ethical question is a question about: how this action will affect overall utility, assuming nothing else changes. And that is a perfect moral ideology for capitalist society. Indeed, you’ve got the Princeton graduate who went to Wall Street, worked in the finance industry, and he’s going to give half his income to charity each year. And he clearly thinks of this as having acted on the basis of certain good moral reasons.
Notice even cases like that are pretty unusual. Most of the people working in finance and Wall Street are not giving away half their income. By the way, giving away half his income isn’t that impressive when you remember what his income is—but put that to one side—the thing that’s striking is that’s what passes for moral philosophy. That’s thought to be serious moral philosophy. But I think that’s consistent with what Marx expects, namely, that to the extent that people in capitalist societies have moral beliefs—act on moral reasons, profess moral commitment—it will be in ways that are fundamentally unthreatening to the basic prerogatives of the ruling class and capitalist relations of production.
Who are the most morally passionate people you run into these days, especially around philosophy? It’s the vegetarians. Be kind to the piggies and the chickens. Now, you know, big business agriculture isn’t too thrilled with these people. But, as a moral crusades goes, it is certainly compatible with the fully sucessful functioning of the capitalist system. It’s not very threatening. It’s not nearly as threatening, say, as if people’s moral passion were invested in the idea that billionaires should have their fortunes confiscated in order to shore up social security—which I’ve never seen discussed anywhere in the media or taken up as a big cause. Though, it seems to me an obvious topic for moral debate.
I mean, these Walton children inherit this fortune, kick it around in Arkansas with their billions of dollars. A) they don’t deserve it and B) they don’t need it. I’m a very nice guy—I’d leave them with five million each. And the rest should simply be confiscated and used to support things that actually help human beings who are genuinely in need. That seems to me a great moral topic. I haven’t seen any moral philosophers writing about it, and maybe there’s someone out there. But it’s certainly never discussed. And that’s the really amazing part about the ideological indoctrination in which the entire society operates—is that everybody knows better than to try and discuss that in a major media form. New York Times, no. NBC, CNN, even MSNBC, they don’t go near any of this stuff.
The worry seems to be that a very standard, influential picture today of what moral philosophy is all about—the subject matter of moral philosophy—is conveniently unthreatening to the basic power structures behind capitalism. The idea that what ethicists should be interested in is: what would an ideal person in a certain kind of situation do given the setup of the situation, how do they figure out what to do as an individual? That’s conveniently not that threatening. Is there an alternative conception of moral philosophy that you think would be more helpful, or that would pose a threat to capitalism, that you would recommend?
Heh. I like that way of putting it. Look—I there are interesting philosophical questions about morality. One interesting philosophic question is: how is it that people come to have the moral beliefs they have? Marx is not the only thinker who was relevant to that. What I’m doubtful about is that normative moral philosophy, applied ethics—I’m doubtful that any of that has any particularly useful role to play. Or, to the extent it does, it’s basically not that different from the Dear Abby advice columns. And you know, I’ve got nothing against Dear Abby. She’s not as sanctimonious as some moral philosophers.
But I’m not actually committed to the view that every form of inquiry, philosophical or otherwise, needs to be relevant to revolutionary practice. Far from it. Marx himself, I think, was. Marx, in the second thesis on Feuerbach, says any question about the reality or unreality of thinking that makes no difference to practice is a merely a scholastic question. And he meant that in the pejorative sense of ‘scholastic’. So, you know, realism versus idealism, the dispute between Kant and Hume, or between Hegel and Kant—makes no difference to practice, not worth the time.
I don’t think that’s the case. What I do think is interesting is that normative moral philosophy in the English-speaking world, which proports to be fairly high minded and concerned with what ought to be done, has been completely silent on the main thing that ought to be done and that underlies all the actual problems that afflict humanity. Or so it seems to me, with my Marx hat on.
But look—even more generally, the 20th century was a century of two ghastly world wars. It has been a century of imperialist aggression around the world, vicious capitalist exploitation of dozens and dozens of countries all over the world, resulting in slaughter, and disease, and grotesque forms of exploitation, and the degradation of human beings. And Anglo-American moral philosophy has basically silent on all of it—it’s just irrelevant to it. There’s a brief moment in the late 60s when a few of Rawls’ students got somewhat interested in these things—you know, the Vietnam War. But the Vietnam War was just the tip of an iceberg of what you might have thought was morally unacceptable conduct. You look in vain in W.D. Ross and H.A. Pritchard and the others, for—they’re not even aware of it. They’re not even aware of any of this.
So, you juxtapose the history of 20th century English-speaking moral and political philosophy with the history of the 20th century, and you do realize that they seem a little disconnected from each other. Which has largely not been true about a lot of continental (what we might call) moral and political theory. Partly because most of it, up until Habermas ruined things, is more concerned with diagnostic explanatory questions, and is more engaged across disciplinary borders, with trying to understand what happened.
Before Habermas wrecked critical theory and the Frankfurt school—though the seeds were there—the Frankfurt school was concerned with a really concrete problem: namely, how did Nazism happen? How was that possible? And how would a population get into a situation like that? And so Adorno, famously, after the war, worked with psychologists in trying to understand the authoritarian personality. Marcuse tried to diagnose with some Freudian tools, some Hegelian tools, some armchair social theory, and various things, tried to say: how did we get into this situation. And how did capitalism get into the situation it was in, in America in the 1950s and 60s? That kind of stuff strikes me as a lot more worthwhile.
But look: people have different tastes. As I said, I’m not opposed in principle to practically irrelevant inquiries. I’d be in a lot of trouble if they were all verboten. I do think that normative moral and political philosophy in this last century will not stand the test of time very well, and that, especially as it has recently developed—we have philosophers worrying about hard questions like: if you promise to have sex with someone, it’s okay to break that promise, but it would be really wrong to break a promise not to have sex with them. And if that’s what professional moral philosophers are being paid to think about in the Trump era, then it’s going to look pretty silly.
So, on the version of Marx that we have here, the role that post-capitalist future could play—the role communism can play—would be as the consequence of processes that are already at work within capitalism. Now, many self-proclaimed Marxists have believed that bringing about revolution requires some special feat of will, either on the part of an educated vanguard of socialists, or the part of the workers themselves. How does your version of Marx square up against that version of Marx?
The whole reason Marx wrote is because he thought that if people didn’t have a correct understanding of their historical situation and its possibilities, they wouldn’t be able to effectively take advantage of it. So, the reason he was active in various political parties—the reason he thought a communist party was important—was that it would educate people not about their moral obligations. It would educate people about the historical circumstance in which they found themselves, what the potentialities of that situation were, and what would be in their self-interest.
I think that’s very important in understanding Marx. Communism is not about altruism. It’s not about caring for your fellow man. Communism is about recognizing that the existing system is not in your interest. And that only with collective action can you bring about circumstances that might be in your interest. And in your interest in quite banal senses: namely, enough to eat, a decent place to live, opportunities to develop human capacities, and whatnot. So, he did think that there was an instrumentality required.
But it is crucial for Marx that he didn’t think successful communist revolution would be possible unless the right background conditions obtained. So, on Marx’s view, if you write the Communist Manifesto in 1720, it falls stillborn from the press. It cannot possibly have any effect. But he thinks that in the mid-19th century, it in fact can have an effect. As I said earlier on, I think he was wrong about the timing, because like many of the 19th century, he had an overly optimistic view of what capitalism was accomplishing.
Later on, in the 20th century, as the traditional working class of the 19th century grew smaller, as it became more layered, people began thinking more about the question: who is it that will be able to lead or bring about a revolutionary transformation? Herbert Marcuse thought it was the Jefferson Airplane and college students. I don’t think that was hugely realistic on his part. I think it’s important to see, though, that where we’ve had nominally, or self-proclaimed, communist revolutions: the Soviet Union, Russia in 1917, or Cuba under Fidel Castro, or China under Mao Zedong—none of them were, by my lights, very serious students of Marx. Well, Castro and Mao clearly weren’t. Lenin should have known better.
But having read Marx, the correct thing to do in 1917 would have been to institute genuine capitalist relations of production after displacing and executing the aristocracy. They did that part, but they missed that part of Marx that makes him sound like the Chicago School of economics, namely, that capitalism is really good at doing something essential for a different from of social and economic organization to be possible. Namely to develop of productive powers of humanity to such an enormous extent that we eliminate the era of need. Now, what will the future hold in this regard? What instrumentalities, what forms of organization and activism will make possible transformations? I have no idea. It’s beyond—I’ll speak like a capitalist—beyond my pay grade.
I think Marx’s picture, that seemed plausible in the 19th century, namely, large groups of working class people brought together in factories in the cities, where they interact with each other, and earn starvation wages, and gradually become more and more miserable, but they’re all together and near each other—well, that looks like a good powder keg. That’s not the way the world looks like right now. And what it’s going to look like in 25, 50, 100 years, I don’t really know. Assuming it isn’t annihilated, of course, by Donald Trump.
Putting nuclear annihilation to one side, it’s very hard to predict. What was that recent movie, Elysius? What was it called? The one with the rich people living on their own little satellite off the planet Earth? Elysium. I mean, in a way, that describes what Marx predicts as the trajectory. Not that he was thinking of satellites, but that as productive power becomes great enough to provide for those who control it, they enjoy it, and everybody else is miserable. But in that kind of science fiction image of the future, how would revolutionary action occur? God knows. There, it involves smuggling into one of the spaceships. But that’s just science fiction, so I don’t think—while it’s amusing, it’s not really helpful practical guidance.
If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, check out Brian Leiter’s paper called ‘Why Marxism Still Does Not Need Normative Theory‘ which appeared in 2015 in a journal called Analyse & Kritik. We’ll post a link to it on the blog.
Brian Leiter, thank you so much for coming back. Hopefully we’ll have you back for a fourth time, before we’re all immiserated.
Thank you, Matt and Lawrence. I enjoyed it.
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