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Is Marxism “Realistic”?

I'd be happy to make a bet with real money that Marx was just plain wrong about immiseration, and will continue to be proved wrong.

Brian Leiter, the law and philosophy ratings maven, is an interesting guy. He’s an insightful Nietzsche scholar and legal theorist with a bit of a reputation as a bullying ideologue. (He’s treated me disrespectfully on a few occasions for what I assume are political reasons, which I mention in the spirit of full disclosure.) Anyway, I found this interview with Leiter in 3:AM really stimulating, and well worth reading. There’s a bunch of good stuff in there, and some not-so-good stuff, too.

Leiter’s right-on that the academic cleavage between “analytic” and “continental” philosophy fails to mark a meaningful intellectual (as opposed to stylistic) distinction. Leiter’s alternative classificatory scheme, which distinguishes between “naturalists” and “anti-naturalists,” on the one hand, and “realists” and “moralists,” on the other, cuts across the analytic/continental divide (i.e., there are both continental and analytic thinkers in every square of the implied 2 x 2 matrix) and draws into focus some real differences in intellectual disposition and conviction. Like Leiter, I think of myself as a naturalist and realist, which leaves me curious about his idea of naturalist-realist politics. Well, it’s not my idea. Though I knew him to be a staunch leftist, Leiter’s politics turns out to be, somewhat to my surprise, a relatively orthodox form of Marxism. Why should I be surprised? I suppose it strikes me as odd that such an erudite guy with an evidently robust bullshit detector would treat old-school Marxism as a plausible explanatory theory. Here’s Leiter:

Marx certainly didn’t need to be saved by sophomoric post-modernists; indeed, Marx didn’t need to be saved at all. On two central issues, Marx was far more right than any of his critics: first, that the long-term tendency of capitalist societies is towards immiseration of the majority (the post-WWII illusion of upward mobility for the “middle classes” will soon be revealed for the anomaly it was); and second, that capitalist societies produce moral and political ideologies that serve to justify the dominance of the capitalist class. Marx had three faults, to be sure: one was that he took Hegel seriously; another was that he wasn’t a very good fortune teller, so wildly over-estimated the pace of capitalist development; and a third is that he had no account of individual psychology, of the kind Nietzsche and Freud provide. Within academic philosophy, however, far more harm, in my view, has been done to Marx by moralists like G.A. Cohen than by any of the post-modernists. Cohen – a truly smart man and delightful human being to boot – did two unfortunate things to academic Anglophone Marxism: first, by offering a philosophical reconstruction of historical materialism in its least interesting form (namely, as functional explanation, rather than in terms of class conflict); and second, in his later work, by calling for a moralistic change in the consciousness of individuals, regardless of historical circumstances. This latter, Christian turn in Cohen’s thought represents as profound a betrayal of Marxism as Habermas‘ attempt to supply it a Kantian foundation – in this respect, both Anglophone and “Continental” Marxism betray Marx’s original realism.

This is pretty hardcore. Not included among Marx’s faults: the labor theory of value; the tendency of Marxism when applied to produce totalitarian dictatorships that have caused upward of 100 millions deaths. Anyway, there is precious little empirical evidence that capitalist societies tend toward the immiseration of the majority. Leiter seems to recognize that he’s on evidential thin ice here. He can’t seem to decide whether to say increasing middle-class standards of living have been an “illusion” or an “anomaly”. Either way, Leiter’s struggling to explain away the fact that it appears quite clear to anyone acquainted with a few facts of economic history that capitalist societies in fact tend toward the opposite of the immiseration of the majority. If this is one of the two big-ticket theses Marx is supposed to have nailed, it doesn’t look very good for Marx. An overwhelming preponderance of empirical evidence establishes that individuals and families at every decile in the income distribution grew much wealthier in capitalist societies over the last century. The case that this was an “illusion” is simply nonexistent. Leiter would be safer settling on the “anomaly” story, which allows him to admit that the data don’t support the predictions of Marx’s theory while holding out hope that the data will soon enough get its act together and vindicate the master. Leiter offers us no hints about why anyone ought to believe that it “will soon be revealed” that Marx was right after all, but it’s an interview and you can’t say everything. In any case, I’d be happy to make a bet with real money that Marx was just plain wrong about immiseration, and will continue to be proved wrong. Perhaps Leiter would agree with me that the top ten countries in the Fraser/Cato economic-freedom ranking count as “capitalist societies.” I’d be willing to bet 10,000 of Mitt Romney’s dollars, or a thousand of my own, that the incomes of those at the first and fifth deciles of the combined income distribution of the ten capitalist-est countries will rise in the next twenty years. It’s a good bet because, looking backward, the welfare of people of every class has improved not a little but a lot under capitalism, and much, much, much more than that of people who suffered the misfortune of living under regimes that attempted to put Marxism into practice.

The other “central issue” Marx is supposed to have nailed seems sort of vacuous. Every sort of society tends to “produce moral and political ideologies that serve to justify the dominance” of whatever group is dominant. But maybe that seems vacuous for the same reason Shakespeare seems full of clichés. So, sure, chalk one up for Marx.

Then Leiter comes down on G.A. Cohen for charitably assimilating Marx’s theory into a credible form of social-scientific explanation! The theory that class conflict is the engine of social, economic, and political change is embraced by few reputable social scientists, mainly because class-conflict theory, no matter how one tries to specify the relevant classes, fails to successfully explain or predict much of anything. Cohen was doing Marx a favor! Even so, his improvement of Marx’s theory of history remains a minority view in the social sciences for what are now fairly standard theoretical reasons that have helped us to account for the surfeit of evidence against group-interest theories of social change.

Russell Hardin’s entry on “the free-rider problem” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s offers an excellent summary of the great political-economist Mancur Olson’s criticism of Marx’s theory of class conflict in The Logic of Collective Action, a modern classic. Let me quote at length, since this is absolutely essential to any account of historical change that seeks to be both naturalistic and realistic in Leiter’s sense. Hardin:

The odd mismatch of individual incentives and what may loosely be called collective interests is the independent discovery of two game theorists who invented the prisoner’s dilemma for two persons (see Hardin 1982a, 24-5) and of various philosophers and social theorists who have noted the logic of collective action in various contexts. In Olson’s account, what had been a fairly minor issue for economists became a central issue for political scientists and social theorists more generally. From early in the twentieth century, a common view of collective action in pluralist group politics was that policy on any issue must be, roughly, a vector sum of the forces of all of the groups interested in the issue (Bentley 1908). In this standard vision, one could simply count the number of those interested in an issue, weight them by their intensity and the direction they want policy to take, and sum the result geometrically to say what the policy must be. Olson’s analysis abruptly ended this long tradition; and group theory in politics took on, as the central task, trying to understand why some groups organize and others do not.

Among the major casualties of Olson’s revision of our views of groups is Karl Marx’s analysis of class conflict. Although many scholars still elaborate and defend Marx’s vision, others now reject it as failing to recognize the contrary incentives that members of the working class face. (Oddly, Marx himself arguably saw the cross-cutting — individual vs. group — incentives of capitalists, the other major group in his account.) This problem had long been recognized in the thesis of the embourgeoisement of the working class: Once workers prosper enough to buy homes and to benefit in other ways from the current level of economic development, they may have so much to lose from revolutionary class action that they cease to be potential revolutionaries.

In essence, the theories that Olson’s argument demolished were all grounded in a fallacy of composition. We commit this fallacy whenever we suppose the characteristics of a group or set are the characteristics of the members of the group or set or vice versa. In the theories that fail Olson’s test the fact that it would be in the collective interest of some group to have a particular result, even counting the costs of providing the result, is turned into the assumption that it would be in the interest of each individual in the group to bear the individual costs of contributing to the group’s collective provision. If the group has an interest in contributing to provision of its good, then individual members are (sometimes wrongly) assumed to have an interest in contributing. Sometimes, this assumption is merely shorthand for the recognition that all the members of a group are of the same mind on some issue. For example, a group of anti-war marchers are of one mind with respect to the issue that gets them marching. There might be many who are along for the entertainment, to join a friend or spouse, or even to spy on the marchers, but the modal motivation of the individuals in the group might well be the motivation summarily attributed to the group. But very often the move from individual to group intentions or vice versa is wrong.

This fallacious move between individual and group motivations and interests pervades and vitiates much of social theory since at least Aristotle’s opening sentence in the Politics. [Emphasis added.]

Yet Leiter goes on to insist that, “class conflict is both the actual causal mechanism of historical change and intelligible to the people who are the agents of that change.” I’m with Hardin and Olson and pretty much everybody on this one.

So, in what sense is a commitment to a discredited version of Marx’s theory a way of being “realist” rather than a “moralist”? The question has teeth when we observe that Leiter tends to apply his Marxism in a ham-handed, moralizing way. Check this out:

If 75% of the wealth of the richest one-tenth of 1% of American society were immediately expropriated, there would be no need to discuss cuts to spending that affects the well-being of the vast majority. This is a democracy, why isn’t this a major topic of public debate? Why aren’t the national media full of debates between defenders of the right of the Koch brothers to keep their billions and advocates for seizing the majority of their fortune to meet human needs? One only needs to read Marx to know the answer.

Leiter’s appeal to Marx here strikes me as a way to avoid thinking realistically about the question he has posed. The implication, I take it, is that we are not now having a major public debate over the propriety of seizing enormous fortunes because, what?, the capitalists and their running-dog apologists have snowed the public with its propaganda? False consciousness? As Karl Popper rightly pointed out, it’s precisely this sort of thing that makes Marxism a cozy circle of self-reinforcement–an unfalsifiable pseudo-theory. When Marxists lose an argument, the most devout among them soften the blow by reinterpreting the loss as a prediction and thus vindication of the creed. And, make no mistake, Marxists did lose a big argument, one we now know as “the 20th century.” The evidence has been in a while. People fare best in liberal-democratic welfare states with capitalist economic systems. This is a fact available to any honest inquirer. The places where human needs are best met are not those in which aggrieved majorities swoop in and suddenly confiscate 3/4 of the assets of successful capitalists. They are places that don’t do that.

Societies in which human needs are best met are blessed with stable legal and economic institutions that facilitate the production of wealth. Those who through hard work and good luck do especially well are made by law to relinquish a larger portion of their incomes to the state than the rest. And those who have fared the worst are helped both by the well-financed welfare state and the flourishing civil society capitalism facilitates. That’s what works. You can look it up.

We are, of course, having a major public debate over whether the wealthiest among us are taxed too little or too much. Everyone seems to agree that the framework rules of our economic and political system have been twisted to enrich the few at the expense of the many, but there is a major debate over the precise nature of the problem and what exactly should be done about it. The reason Leiter’s proposal to “expropriate” or “seize” wealth on a monumental scale is not presently a hot debate topic is not that Charles and David Koch have somehow kept the subject off “Up with Chris Hayes.” And it’s not that the tender-headed liberal “moralists” have lulled the 99% into scrupling to loot Tim Tebow’s bank account. The reason is that it is well understood by intelligent, well-informed people that Leiter’s is a disastrously stupid idea inconsistent with the sort of social order that does meet human needs reliably and well. Welcome to the 90s, realist.


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