Saturday, October 3, 2009

Marxist Theory

Although Marx is out of fashion, I’d say that he remains worthy of a lifetime of study. It’s hard to think about any history, but especially Russian history, without using a bevy of key Marxist theories and concepts. This is true because so many Russians were Marxist, but also because even Western historians tend to think in Marxist terms, even today when Marxist political systems have been discredited as political experiments.

As a blogger, I should ask you, dear reader, what your favorite Marxist idea is? Which is most interesting, which most influential, and which most powerful as a heuristic for understanding the course of modern Russian history? I guess most Americans get their Marx from the Communist Manifesto, which gets assigned so frequently in Western history survey courses as a result of its brevity and clarity. The most impressive Marxist categories of analysis seem to be there, or at least that’s the way I remember the text.

First, there is a simple division of history into historical epochs: primitive, medieval, modern, and communist. Second, there is a definition of capitalism as something extraordinarily creative and destructive. Third, there are definitions of key classes, including the proletariat and bourgeoisie. Fourth, there’s a description a discussion of ideology and false consciousness, base and superstructure. Fifth, there is a definition of labor, alienation, surplus value, and exploitation. Fifth, there’s class conflict as the engine of history. Sixth, we have a definition of state, revolution, and indeed communism, however abstract. In this book, and in Marxism in general, we have a system of economics, politics, philosophy, sociology, morality, and religion. We have a theory of gender relations, nationalism, etc. We have a theory of religion as the opiate of the masses. We have the Hegelian philosophy tied to economics, or dialectical materialism.

While it’s true that Marxist states like the Russian one have done incalculable harm in the world, it’s hard not to fall back about Marxist perceptions of the world. They retain their power and the irony is today capitalism as a economic system has no clear rival while Marxism as a theoretical description of that economic system has no clear rival either. Milton Friedman doesn’t come close.

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