Category Archives: Marxism

Marx and the state

I wrote about some of the tactical points brought out in the articles in the third volume of Marx’s political writing published by Verso in an earlier post. The other important work of Marx’s in this book is “The Civil War in France” where he analyses the Paris Commune, Europe’s most significant revolutionary event since 1848. The seizure of power by the Paris workers prompts Marx to think about the nature of the state, the impact of its seizure by the working class, and the nature of state power after the revolution.

For Marx the structure of the state is inherently connected to the nature of the economic system on which it is based. So in the “Critique of the Gotha Programme” he says:

“…the various states… have this in common, they all stand on the ground of modern bourgeois society although the degree of capitalist development varies.”

(Marx 2010, p. 355)

And in “The Civil War in France”:

“[the state’s] political character changed simultaneously with the economic changes of society.”

(Marx 2010, p. 207)

However Marx’s attitude to this capitalist state seems deeply ambiguous. On the one hand while Marx portrays the make up of the state as being broadly determined by developments in the wider society and economy, he also gives the impression that it is separate from it with an element of independence. It is not simply the tool of the ruling class. Characterising the state of the French late Second Empire he says:

“it was the only form of government possible when the bourgeoisie had already lost, and the working class had not yet acquired, the faculty of ruling the nation.”

(Marx 2010, p. 208)

In other words implying that it is an independent ruling entity dominated by a ruling class perhaps, but not an organic part of that ruling class. It is therefore a mechanism that the working class could perhaps take over and operate for its own purposes.

On the other hand, he is clear that the state is something that must be overcome by the revolution and is not simply a set of mechanical levers that can be taken over and operated by the working class:

“…the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.”

(Marx 2010, p. 206)

And of the specific progression of the Second Empire:

“the state power assumed more and more the character of the national power of capital over labour, of class despotism.”

(Marx 2010, p. 207)

Marx outlines how the Paris Commune represents a clear break and a separate form to the bourgeois state of the Second Empire. A “working body” where the representatives were revocable and paid workers’ wages and supported by a National Guard of the people rather than a professional army. By constituting a new structure outside the existing state the Commune represented an opportunity for truly revolutionary change.

“It was essentially a working class government, the produce of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour.”

(Marx 2010, p. 212)

“The Commune was therefore to serve as a lever for uprooting the economical foundations upon which rests the existence of classes, and therefore of class rule.”


(Marx 2010, p. 212)

Here Marx seems to be saying that the state is not an independent entity to be taken over by the working class movement and used for its own purposes. Instead the existing state is inextricably linked to the domination of the capitalist class, and therefore rather to be wholly overthrown and replaced by a new and separate structure.

This is crucially important for deciding the strategy of a movement aiming at the fundamental transformation of society. Should it work within the existing ‘rules of the game’ or seek to subvert them? In “The Civil War in France” Marx is writing about a specific contemporary event rather than outlining theory and this obviously colours his approach, but well worth studying for all that.

Marx, Karl The First International and After (Verso, London, 2010)

Thoughts on Marx and tactics

The final book in the three volume collection of Marx’s ‘political’ writings “The First International and After” covers the later period from the First International onward. It contains pamphlets and articles written for the International, letters and a range of other short documents and journalistic work. They show Marx grappling with the tactical issues of the day, many of which remain relevant, in particular on the relationship of different ‘progressive’ groupings in the state and politics.

The English Trades Unions formed a significant part of the International, and yet in the “Inaugural Address” Marx is clear that it is not sufficient to simply pursue the short term interest of the working class within the existing system through improvements in working hours and wages. These are ‘economic’ goals which are important, but should be subordinate to the movement’s longer term goals.

To conquer political power has therefore become the great duty of the working classes.

(Marx 2010, p.80).

In other words revolution – a fundamental change to the system – remains the overarching goal of any genuine movement of the left. Marx makes a similar point from a different angle when discussing the co-operative movement in the “Instructions for Delegates to the Geneva Congress”. Co-operative production allows workers to begin developing economic mechanisms which undermine the root of capitalism.

We recommend to the working men to embark in cooperative production rather than in cooperative stores. The latter touch but the surface of the present economical system, the former attacks its groundwork.

(Marx 2010, p.90)

In other words overturning the system is the key aim of the working class movement, and that requires both economic and political action with a focus on the long term.

This isn’t the whole story though. Later in the same “Instructions for Delegates to the Geneva Congress” Marx proposes a specific programme starting with a demand for limitations on the working day. So Marx is maintaining both a general overall strategy (the importance of political revolution as the ultimate goal) along with a specific tactical programme for immediate action (improving the lives of workers through ‘economic’ measures).

The “Prussian Military Question” similarly focuses on the tactical position of the German workers, whether to support the bourgeois parties in opposition to the aristocratic and feudal state over the issue of changes to military service.

It is in the interests of the workers, therefore, to support the bourgeoisie in its struggle against all reactionary elements, on condition that it remain true to itself.

(Marx 2010, p.144)

The workers can form tactical alliances to pursue short term goals, but must retain a focus on its long term interest – the overthrow of capitalism itself.

Marx indicates a similar dual role for Trades Unions as part of the movement. Rather than viewing Trades Unions as focused primarily on the economic or ‘tactical’ and working within the existing system, Marx points out that they fight both the immediate struggle and have a role in preparing the ground for fundamental change.

If the trades unions are required for the guerilla fights between capital and labour, they are still more important as organised agencies for superseding the very system of wage labour and capital rule.

(Marx 2010, p.91)

However at present, the unions are “too exclusively bent upon the local and immediate struggles with capital” (Marx 2010, p.91).

It is interesting for thinking about this combination of short term and long term goals for the movement that Marx characterises England as being ready economically for revolution, but needing a truly revolutionary movement to take advantage of it (something it hasn’t managed to do in the years since either).

The English have all that is needed materially for social revolution. What they lack is the sense of generalization and revolutionary passion.

(Marx 2010, p.116)

This implies that Marx certainly did not believe that the revolution would happen ‘naturally’ as working class consciousness developed. In other words there is no historically determined inevitability to the revolution, ‘reformism’ is a blind alley. In pursuing short term goals, the left must keep the long term vision in mind, still something that it seems to struggle with (in Britain at least) where working within the system too often seems to have led to a failure to pursue substantive change.

Marx, Karl The First International and After (Verso, London, 2010)

Marx and Nationalism

Marx’s writings from the Neue Rheinische Zeitung at the time of the 1848 revolutions contain some controversial comments on nationality, and especially the Slav countries which at the time formed part of the Austro-Hungarian empire including modern Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Slovenia. A number of these articles are published in translation by Verso in the first volume of their collections of Marx’s political writings.

Lifting just a few quotes out of the articles on the “Magyar Struggle” or on ” Democratic Pan-Slavism” it is hard not to see an outrageous German chauvinism in these writings.

“The historical role of the South Slavs had thus come to an end for all time.” (Marx 2010, 218)

“Does a single one of these peoples… possess a national historical tradition…?” (Marx 2010, 221)

“… this national refuse is always the fanatical representative of the counter-revolution and remains so until it is completely exterminated or de-nationalised” (Marx 2010, 221)

“… the Austrian Germans… will gain their freedom and take a bloody revenge on the Slav barbarians.” (Marx 2010, 225)

“… the general war that will then break out will… annihilate all these small pigheaded nations even to their very names.” (Marx 2010, 225)

These articles are part of a series in which Marx is analysing the failures of 1848, and the forces mobilised by the Austrian and Prussian regimes to overcome the nascent revolution, and this context is significant. To put this in the context of the analysis of Marx’s mode of thinking outlined by Bertell Ollman, Marx is operating at a lower (and very particular) level of abstraction. In other words, Marx is not making a general point, but criticising the specific current conjuncture.

In fact what I think Marx is trying to do here is to criticise the shift towards pan-Slavism among the potentially revolutionary classes in Eastern and South Eastern Europe, and how this led political leaders who prioritised nationality to look to Russia for support and turn away from revolution. As the leader of the Holy Alliance Russia represented a primary threat to any hopes of revolution across Europe, a prop to the existing absolutist regimes. He is criticising nationalism as it is used to deflect from support for the revolution. As he states later on:

“Let us in any case have no illusions about this. With all pan-Slavists, nationality, ie. imaginary, general Slav nationality, comes before the revolution [Marx’s italics].” (Marx 2010, 244)

In other words this is Marx tackling one of the pitfalls facing the modern left. In the UK the UK Independence Party, in the US Donald Trump, and in France Marine Le Pen have all used appeals to nationalism with some success to pursue the support of the working class. In these articles Marx doesn’t find a strategy to tackle this beyond shrill denunciation. The modern left is similarly struggling to find an answer to the modern version of the same problem.

The articles in question are included in The Revolutions of 1848, Karl Marx, Verso London 2010.

Dance of the Dialectic notes #4

A fourth and final set of rough notes taken while reading “Dance of the Dialectic” by Bertell Ollman, following the first, second, and third chunks.

Step 5

Critical Realism in Light of Marx’s Process of Abstraction

Broadly a restatement of earlier parts of Ollman’s book, particularly the use of abstraction and a philosophy of internal relations, as it might be used to alter and enhance the work of “Critical Realism”, primarily the work of Roy Bhaskar.

Marx’s Dialectical Method is More Than a Mode of Exposition

This section takes issue with an analysis which considers dialectics to be solely Marx’s means of exposition, of expressing his analysis. Rather that dialectics used by Marx in a complex intellectual process – first using the process to analyse and gain insight, then  reconstruct that analysis in his own thought. Only then can Marx uses what is in fact a carefully calibrated subset to attempt to explain his analysis to others.

In fact, Marx’s internal analysis is more complex and nuanced than shown in his published works which were carefully written for a more general audience. Therefore the key works to understand what he “really thought” are the Paris Manuscripts and Grundisse.

Why Does the Emperor Need the Yakuza?

In the final chapter, Ollman uses some of this mechanism of analysis to assess the Japanese state as a practical demonstration.

Dance of the Dialectic notes #3

A third batch of rough notes while reading Bertell Ollman’s “Dance of the Dialectic” following on from the first and second installments.

Step 4

Studying History Backwards

For Marx, the best approach to studying how the past developed into the present is to work backwards from effect to cause – instead of more usual assessments of the influence of the “economic factor” in tracing causality forwards. This is rooted again the philosophy of internal relations. His approach is therefore rather “precondition and result”, the two things viewed dynamically. Investigating how something comes into being is done from results backwards through the necessary preconditions – ie. from the vantage point of what things turned into.

Ollman emphasises that this is not teleological – nothing is inevitable. Rather it is a question of what had to happen to make just this present possible. This is not to deny human agency – people could have chosen differently. Vantage point is the key. The alternative in writing history is to make choices about what to focus on based on criteria outside the historical process itself.

Marx’s interest in eg. feudalism is therefore not in explaining feudalism but looking for the things which were important in the rise of capitalism.

The section on the future is far less convincing. Marx projects current trends into the future to identify what communism might look like using the same tools, but this short segment is weak.

Dialectic as Inquiry and Exposition

As inquiry, the methods outlined (internal relations, abstraction, and the various dialectical tools) provide the means by which Marx investigates his subject. “The dialectic as inquiry is the search for internal relations within and between abstracted units”.

As exposition, the dialectic “is Marx’s means of expounding these relations to his readers”. The difficulty of making language explain the analysis explains why Marx continually reworked Capital for example. Main features include dealing with each subject from many vantage points, along with following each subject through the particular forms it assumes at different times and in different contexts.

Marx assumes or masks the larger part of what he identifies in a Relation in order to be able to express and explain the point he is trying to bring out. In other words we only see part of the meaning he sees or is trying to convey. He uses many different phrases to signal this, including ‘reflection’, ‘manifestation’, ‘in one of its aspects’.

The ‘identity’ of things which are seemingly different (“division of labour and private property are identical expressions”) causes confusion among critics. Critics also tend to look for causal relationships “setting apart horse and cart where Marx meant each conception to convey both”.

Marxism and Political Science

Marxism has not to date formed a significant part in political science. But he does have a theory of the state, albeit not one that is written clearly in a single place. Underneath these theories is Marx’s concern to locate relations within a system and depicting the effects of that system on the relational parts.

Ollman then restates Marx’s method, stating that it exists on 5 levels:

  1. Ontology: study of ‘being’. Marx asserts that reality exists outside us, but as a totality of internally related parts.
  2. Epistemology: how what is known is arranged in thought.
  3. Inquiry: what Marx is looking for and how he understands what he finds.
  4. Intellectual reconstruction.
  5. Exposition: how to explain capitalism as a system of structural interdependence relationally contained in each of it’s parts.

Ontology: the conception of ‘totality’ is the structured independence of its parts – interacting events, processes, and conditions – as viewed from any major part. This is contrasted to a structuralist conception which asserts the predominance of the parts over the whole.

Epistemology: four interlocking processes – perception; abstraction (how Marx separates what is perceived into distinct units); conceptualisation (the translation of what is abstracted into concepts with which to think and communicate); orientation (the effects abstractions have on his beliefs, judgements, and action). This last point is important. What any group believes and does is inextricably linked to the ways in which it grasps and defends both.

Inquiry: tracing out relations between units, frequently changing vantage point to see it from all angles.

Intellectual reconstruction: Marx’s ontology is the world as an internally related whole; he breaks this down into relational units with structured independence which through inquiry he traces the links between. Ollman suggests that Marx’s personal understanding is not the same as the analysis in his published work. The key difference in his work is not between the young or old Marx, but between the published and unpublished. The key texts to trace his personal understanding are the 1844 Manuscripts and the Grundisse.

His reconstruction is a success because a) having connected the main parts he is able to catch a glimpse of the overall system at work in each of them; b) the reconstruction is both ‘superstructure’ and ‘base’, the key contradiction being between social production and private appropriation.

“The decisive distinction between radicals and liberals is that the latter understand most social problems as relatively independent and haphazard happenings and try to solve them one at a time. Not aware of their shared identity as interrelated parts of the capitalist system, they cannot deal with these ills at the only level on which a successful solution is possible, on the level of the whole society, and are reduced in the last analysis to alternating between the extremes of condemnation and despair.”

Exposition: comprehension and explanation are distinct functions and involve different techniques. Marx attempts to explain capitalism from the perspective of each major social Relation. It seems that he was broadly dissatisfied though as he continually revised Capital for each new edition. As a book it is best approached as offering “successive approximations” looking at various different angles in turn.

“force the frozen circumstances to dance by singing to them their own melody.”

Why Dialectics, Why Now?

A recapitulation of the analysis that history should be studied “backwards”, using abstraction to bring out the patterns in which most change and interaction occur, and study in a way which never loses sight of how the whole is present in the part.

Four stages to this study:

  1. Look for relations between the main capitalist features of society;
  2. Find the necessary preconditions of just those relations;
  3. Project these into the future;
  4. Look backwards from the projected future to identify what in the present would form the preconditions for that future state.

We can differentiate between near and far futures, marking the need for a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.


The End of Liberalism

Slavoj Zizek has not had a good 2016 US election, arguing that Trump is just another centrist liberal and that given a vote he would vote for Trump.

There have been a number of explanations given in the regular media for Trump’s unexpected victory, but common among them is that racism is at the core of his success. Should we ascribe Trump’s win to intolerance? And what are the implications if we do? Is it the “whitelash” identified by some commentators?

Then I came across this passage in “Living in the End Times” from 2010, in which Zizek gives a typically eclectic take on “the coming apocalypse”, and I thought about the light it throws on the liberal media reaction:

“of course I am not against tolerance per se; what I oppose is the (contemporary and automatic) perception of racism as a problem of intolerance. Why are so many problems today perceived as problems of intolerance, rather than as problems of inequality, exploitation, or injustice? Why is the proposed remedy tolerance, rather than emancipation, political struggle, or even armed struggle? The source of this culturalisation is defeat, the failure of directly political solutions such as the social-democratic welfare state or various social projects…”

There can be no doubt that Trump ran an openly racist election campaign. It is also clear that race is an important influencing factor in US politics and society. Exit poll data suggests that 58% of white voters voted for Trump which at face value seems to suggest that Trump’s outward racism had a significant impact, that intolerance was at the heart of his success. But 57% of white voters chose Romney in 2012 so perhaps race isn’t the unique factor behind Trump’s success.

Similarly, 53% of voters with an income below $30,000 voted for Clinton which would seem to support the standard narrative. Poorer voters supported the Democratic candidate and therefore Trump’s victory was driven by angry white people, and economics had nothing to do with it.

And yet.

That 53% of voters in the under $30,000 income bracket voting for Clinton was 16 points down on Obama’s performance against Romney. 90% of voters who thought the country “generally on the right” track voted Hillary, but just 25% of those who thought it seriously off track. 63% of those who expected their children to have a worse life than today voted for Trump. Hillary was the continuity candidate, maintaining the existing economic settlement. The 53% from the lowest income bracket voting for Hillary masks the catastrophic shift to Trump. The economics is important.

In other words analysing Trump’s victory in terms of race (or gender, or sexuality) is an example of the left’s subordination to “identity politics”. By seeing politics through the lens of individual identities the left has lost sight of the economic system which colours voters’ willingness to support a continuation of the current state of affairs.

Although inflected by race and misogyny Trump’s pitch was aimed fundamentally at “the system”, a system which isn’t working for a large chunk of the population. His overt racism is part of the narrative he adopted to attracted voters disaffected voters.

The challenge for the left is therefore not to demand tolerance from a Trump administration but to lead social and economic change in a progressive direction. To change the system.

This leads to a final quote from Bertell Ollman’s “Dance of the Dialectic“.

“The decisive distinction between radicals and liberals is that the latter understand most social problems as relatively independent and haphazard happenings and try to solve them one at a time. Not aware of their shared identity as interrelated parts of the capitalist system, they cannot deal with these ills at the only level on which a successful solution is possible, on the level of the whole society, and are reduced in the last analysis to alternating between the extremes of condemnation and despair.”

The left in both the US and Western Europe has approached social and economic change as separated things which can be tackled individually. In the face of Trump we need to avoid both condemnation and despair and instead craft a genuinely progressive movement for change.

Dance of the Dialectic notes #2

A second batch of notes from reading “Dance of the Dialectic” by Bertell Ollman, following on from the post covering the first 2 steps.

Step 3 – Putting Dialectics to Work: the Process of Abstraction in Marx’s Method

“How, in other words, can we think about change and interaction so as not to miss or distort the real changes and interactions that we know in a general way at least, are there (with all the implications this has for how to study them and to communicate what we find to others)? This is the key problem addressed by dialectics, this is what all dialectics is about, and it is in helping to resolve this problem that Marx turns to the process of abstraction.”

All philosophers use abstraction. Marx’s use of abstraction differs by incorporating both change and interaction in to the element abstracted. Rather than comparing two static snapshots, Marx includes both past and future. This approach is dramatically different from the ‘usual’ when where ‘things’ exist and undergo change as two logically distinct elements of thought.

This leads Ollman to a restatement of the earlier section on the Philosophy of Internal Relations – presumably because the book is in fact a collection of articles published elsewhere and fashioned into a book after the fact.

There are then three main aspects to abstraction “which are also it’s functions vis-a-vis the part abstracted, on the one hand, and the system to which the part belongs and that it in turn helps to shape, on the other hand”:

  • Extension;
  • Level of generality;
  • Vantage point.


Abstraction of extensions operates like different levels of magnification in a microscope. Marx criticises political economists for drawing abstractions that are too narrow in scope – for example commodity exchange is substituted for the whole process by which a product becomes a commodity and subsequently available for exchange.

As an example, an abstraction of extension underpins Marx’s claim that capital and labour are “expressions of the same relation, only seen from opposite poles”.

Abstraction of extension also impacts the classifications that Marx makes. It means that he does not define clean boundaries between different structures. Their extent depends on the abstraction in play. One can work solely at the level of appearances – what Marx calls ‘fetishism’. Class is particularly impacted with the statements “all history is the history of class struggle” and “class is the product of the bourgeoisie” which are seemingly contradictory dictated by the abstraction Marx is operating at.

Abstraction of extension also support capturing the movement which Marx wants to investigate. Ollman identifies a number of sub-movements:

  • Quantity/quality – historical change;
  • Metamorphosis – organic change;
  • Contradiction – a union of two or more processes which are simultaneously supporting and undermining each other.
    • mutual support;
    • mutual undermining;
    • immanent unfolding of processes, contradiction becomes bigger, sharper, more explosive;
    • change in overall form as a result of interactions with other processes in the larger system;
    • resolution (may not be permanent).

“Commodity, for example, is said to embody the contradiction between use and exchange value as well as the contradiction between private and social labour. To contain both contradictions, commodity must be given a large enough extension to include the interaction between the two aspects of value as well as teh interaction between the two aspects of labour, and both of them as they develop over time”.

Level of Generality

Ollman gives five levels which he states Marx uses, plus two extra to complete a set of seven:

  1. The unique, specific to each individual;
  2. What is general to people and their activities within modern capitalism;
  3. Capitalism as such;
  4. Class society, the period of human history where society is divided by class;
  5. Human history;
  6. The animal world;
  7. Nature itself.

All the associated qualities are equally real, but different elements will come into focus depending on the level we are operating on. Marx usually operates on level 3, but occasionally on levels 2 or 4. Bourgeois political economists normally operate on either level 1 or 5 – that is it either treats individuals as entirely unique or as all the same, part of human nature.

A good example of this in action is the Labour Theory of Value. Marx is seeking to explain only why products have a price at all, not the specific price of an individual product. He is operating at level 3. To explain the price of an product and the fluctuations of the market means “abstracting in” both levels 2 and 1. As such, the “transformation problem” of values into prices disappears once we acknowledge what level of abstraction Marx is operating at.

Marx’s approach to economic determinism in history is similarly often misunderstood through failing to see how it might operate at the different levels of generality. Moving down through the levels creates constraints to what is possible at a lower level.

Vantage Point

The same relation viewed from different angles creates apparent contradictions in Marx’s work. For example the state is treated as both an instrument of the ruling class and a set of objective structures that respond to the demands of the economy.

“A vantage point sets up a perspective that colours everything that falls into it, establishing order, hierarchy, and priorities, distributing values, meanings, and degrees of relevance, and asserting a distinctive coherence between the parts.” Viewing something from a particular vantage point is inherent to the concept of a Relation.

Capital and Labour can be seen as the same Relation viewed from opposite poles. Marx favours vantage points connected with production, for example viewing profit, rent, and interest from the vantage point of surplus value – the identity they have in common as portions of value produced by workers that is not returned to them. Vantage point constrains the visible identity of any individual – capitalists are seen as non-gendered representatives of capital for example. The metamorphosis of value can only be seen when the vantage point is ‘value’.

The Role of Abstractions in the Debates over Marxism

Differences in abstraction are at the root of many of the debates in Marxism. Things such as the role of economic determinism or human agency; or whether crises are caused by the falling rate of profit or the realization of value.

Each side is seeking a permanent boundary in Marx’s thought, when in fact Marx can pursue analysis across all the levels of generality and from various vantage points with differing extensions.