Why Study Marx Today?  Three, Four, or Maybe Five Versions of Marx

Dr. A.W. Frank

Lecture for Soci 331


Note: in the following, all page number refer to George Ritzer’s Classical Sociological Theory 2nd edition, the text I was using when I wrote this lecture. 


Lecturing on Marx has become both easier and more difficult since the demise of world communism that began dramatically with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.  It’s easier because I no longer have to justify Marx by differentiating him from the practices of Soviet Marxism, since the old Soviet Union no longer exists.  Thus it’s no longer so necessary to make the case that Marx is not Marxism (note that Marx apparently said, late in his life, that he was not a “Marxist”).  The complementary difficulty of teaching Marx is that his ideas no longer have self-evident importance: isn’t Marxism a discredited system, consigned to what Marx called the scrapheap of history?  Why Marx today?


For one good answer, consider what Goldman & Papson write in Nike Culture.  They’re describing the production of most athletic shoes in Asian countries: “strict arithmetic tells us that South Korean and Taiwanese contract suppliers will seek to pass along their costs to their workforce by squeezing out longer hours and lower wages” (p. 11).  This explanation is straight out of Marx; it’s his theory of how workers’ wages will be kept low enough to maintain the capitalists’ “surplus value”, as applicable today as when he wrote it.  And while the “arithmetic” seems obvious to us today, it only is obvious because Marx recognized the process and made it obvious in his writing.  Here as elsewhere in social science, the “obvious” only becomes so after some theorist observes what others had failed to observe.


Of course the world has changed immensely since Marx’s time.  Clearly much of his theoretical work needs updating, and much may have outlived its usefulness.  Consider what Goldman & Papson write, in their next paragraph:  “On its face, it [the Nike production process] looks like the same old process of capitalist industrialization that immiserated English workers in order to generate capital for growth.  But in the early stages of capitalist industrialization, when Marx was writing, the locus of value production was pretty much in one place [that is, in the industrial production where natural materials were transformed into the commodity].  With the global commodity chain, the question of where, and how much, value is added along the many entry points to the commodity chain becomes a critical issue in figuring out who are the winner and who are the losers in these global value-construction chains.”  When G&P then suggest that we now have “symbolic workers” including advertisers, marketers, and designers, we’ve left Marx’s theoretical structure far behind.  Marx’s strict differentiation of the world into capitalists (who own the means of production but don’t do any real productive work) and proletariat (who sell their labour to the capitalists and who, alone, produce value) has a simplicity for which we can feel some nostalgia—if only the question of winners and losers were that simple, today. 


And yet, let’s not forget that it was Marx who first showed, with a drama that captured the world’s attention, that capitalism is about producing winners and losers; that’s what a capitalist economy is designed to do.  And Marx establishes a fundamental task of social science as figuring out the conditions that lead to some people being winners and others being losers.  Thus Marx continues to set a large part of the social scientific agenda.


Marx’s work also endures because it’s like the elephant in the tale about the five blind men who hold onto some part of the elephant, each identifying it as something different: for one who holds the tail, it’s a vine; for another who grasps the leg, it’s a tree trunk, and so on.  Readers over the last hundred and fifty years have held onto different parts of Marx’s work, producing at least three different versions of “Marx”.


Perhaps the weakest version, today, is Marx as communist revolutionary.  The issue is not only (a) that the communist revolution never took place where Marx predicted it (in the most advanced industrial nations, Britain and Germany), (b) that “class consciousness” has failed to materialize in industrial nations, and (c) that where communism did become the official policy (usually in what Marx would have considered the wrong places, due to their industrial underdevelopment), it seems to have failed.  The greater issue is that Marx devoted only a very small part of his writing either to how a revolution would be instigated or to what would happen afterwards.  One of the great debates among Marxists is whether the revolution would come about spontaneously, as a result of inevitable historical forces (I think this was Marx’s own view), or whether it would require (on the Leninist view) a “revolutionary vanguard” to bring it about “from above”.  What is perhaps most interesting about this argument is that Marx himself would have remained unclear on such a crucial point: how was the revolution going to happen?  Since Marx had the capacity to spell things out in great detail, his lack of interest here suggests something about his priorities.  It’s equally important to realize that Marx said almost nothing about how the future communist (or “scientific socialist”) society would be organized; again, it didn’t make his agenda (though his notion of history also made it contradictory for him to write about what would happen within future historical conditions that could not be understood until they came about).  So I have little interest in Marx the revolutionary communist, except as a matter of history—no other social theorist has affected so many people’s lives, however Marx himself would have understood or sympathized with those effects.


Of greater interest today is Marx the critic of capitalism.  The categories within what Ritzer calls “the structures of capitalist society” (the commodity form, capital, private property, the division of labor, and social class) remain essential issues today, and Marx’s writings remain the texts from which contemporary thinking departs.  Marx was incredibly prescient, but he did not have a crystal ball.  He failed to foresee (among other things), (a) how well capitalism would adapt itself to worker demands (through such mechanisms as legalized labour unions, workers’ compensation, minimum wage, workplace safety and other standards for worker protection), (b) how the concept of “ownership of the means of production” would dissolve in the joint stock company, and (c) how the managerial revolution would impose an intervening layer between workers and owners.  Perhaps most important of all, Marx would fail to see how much capitalism would require that workers become consumers, and that both conditions of work and wages would have to be adapted to allow workers to consume the goods that capitalism is so good at producing.  Capitalism can only tolerate that fewer and fewer be “immiserated”, and for less and less of the time.  Thus the contradiction (a term central to Marx’s notion of dialectic and historical change) between third world countries as sources of cheap labour and as new markets; if they are going to be markets, their labour can’t be that cheap.


Here’s the story in its simplest terms.  Marx saw clearly that capitalism is the first world economic system that is capable (has the means of production) to produce enough for everyone.  In his version of what would happen next, those who did the actual production (workers or proletariat) would get tired of receiving less value for their work than what their work added to the cost (“exchange value”) of the finished commodity.  Also workers would get tired of the conditions in which they were forced to produce.  Individuals would recognize that their personal discontents were part of a larger class position, and “class consciousness” would emerge.  The new “class for itself” (self-conscious of its own disadvantage) would rebel.  After the revolution, the means of production would be owned in common (which is the core value of communism), and because (a) everyone would do productive work (no more capitalist parasites), and (b) no class would be allowed to amass wealth in excess of its actual needs, people would be able to live happily with each doing only a few hours of work each day.  As I write that, it sounds like a story I might prefer to be living in.  But needless to say, it didn’t happen, and maybe it couldn’t, for reasons we can’t quite explain but are fairly sure of, based on historical precedent.


What has happened is far more complex that I can say, even if I had the time.  As Marx predicted, capitalism produced more and more.  But as I wrote above, workers became consumers and to some extent they also became owners (via profit sharing and stock ownership).  Class” position became ambiguous as many workers became property owners and increased their consumption, and “class consciousness” never developed.  People may not like going to work (thus “blue Monday” and “thank god it’s Friday”), but work takes second place in many people’s lives to endless cycles of commodity consumption (“I live to shop” as bumper stickers say).  And many consumption products are designed to isolate people in various mind-numbing activities: TV, video games, Internet surfing.  If there are still winners and losers, enough losers have enough sense of doing better to stave off serious discontent. 


Marx did not foresee what has happened, yet his analysis of the commodity form and the “fetishism of commodities” (p. 170-1) remains the beginning point for any contemporary analysis.  Perhaps never before have social structures been so “reified” in Marx’s sense “that people believe that social structures are beyond their control and unchangeable” (Ritzer, p. 171).  With microelectronics and computerization, Marx’s recognition that “the commodity becomes an independent, almost mystical external reality” takes on new significance; Marx could hardly have realized how independent, mystical, and external the “reality” of the commodity would become.


The third Marx is Marx the humanist.  Marx begins with a question typical of 19th century social thought: what makes the human distinct from animals?  (Durkheim will begin from this same question, as we’ll see.)  Marx poses the question in his famous metaphor of the difference between the best of bees, whose hive is an architectural wonder, and the worst of architects (who designed most of the recent suburban development in Calgary, so far as I can see); see Ritzer, p. 160.  The difference is the human capacity to imagine what is going to be built, before actually doing so; as Ritzer puts it, “the ability to raise a structure in one’s imagination and then to erect that structure in reality.”  Why is that useful?  Because it allows humans to grow, to develop, by being able to see the difference between what they imagined and what they have achieved.  And Marx remains very much a German Romantic philosopher in his presupposition that being human is about developing and growing. 


Marx’s essential criticism of capitalism is that it cuts off that capacity for growth by divorcing the worker’s actual work from any possible imagination of what is being created in that work.  Here lies the core of alienation: when the worker no longer is able to create in response to an imagined ideal of what is being created, work becomes alienated because there is no capacity for personal development in that work.  Consider this lecture.  Writing it is hard work, but it’s not alienated work; why?  Because I started with an imagination of the text I would create, and how it would make Marx understandable and relevant in your lives.  When I get to the end of writing, and later when I get to class and see your reaction, I’ll undoubtedly have failed (compared to what I imagined), but that’s all right, because I can keep creating new lectures, trying to get closer to my ideal.  Thus instead of my work being alienating, my work is the medium for my development as a person; thus, as Marx writes, “Man makes his life activity itself the object of his will and of his consciousness” (p. 160).  It’s crucial to understand that Marx believes that humans exist by virtue of their work.  Communism is not to end work but to liberate it.  Communism will free workers from capitalist alienation, in which the worker cannot imagine the product of his or her work and measure what is produced against that ideal. 


One of the crucial questions for neo-Marxist research is the extent to which work remains alienated in Marx’s specific sense.  The contemporary forms of alienation include data processing (in first world countries) and deskilled factory production (increasingly in third world countries).  But are the “symbol workers” referred to above alienated?  That’s a tricky question that Marxist theory initiates but may not give us sufficient resources to answer.  But you can see why sociologists move toward an operational definition of social class as how much perceived control a person has over the conditions of work; this links back to Marx’s notion of alienation.


A central problem applying Marx today is whether his model of work is inapplicable to what most people today call work.  Many have criticized Marx as being limited by his nostalgia for older, cottage craft production.  In Marx’s model, craftspersons transform natural materials (cotton, leather) into things with use value (shirts, shoes).  Capitalism then transforms use value (the actual use of what is produced) into exchange value (what the commodity can be traded for, in a market).  Thus we get back to Goldman & Papson’s statement, quoted above, that for Marx value is only added in one place: in the production process, whether at the craftsperson’s bench or in the factory.  As G&P suggest, value is now added (and the commodity is created) in a global chain, and production (stitching, gluing) is only part of that chain.  In the production process of a McDonald’s hamburger, as you’ll read in Ritzer’s McDonaldization book, labour seems pretty clearly alienated in Marx’s terms.  But in the production of a Nike shoe, where alienation occurs is less clear.  For example, is advertising alienated labour?  Any answer has to begin by asking, for whom, under what conditions?  Marx’s idea of alienation still seems relevant, but its application is far more complex than the transformation of cottage craft into factory production.


For me, Marx is most relevant—Marx the critic of capitalism meets the humanist Marx—in a statement Ritzer quotes:  “The ancients provide a narrow satisfaction, whereas the modern world leaves us unsatisfied, or, where it appears to be satisfied with itself, it is vulgar and mean” (p. 161, my emphases).  That statement has deep resonance for me.  So much McDonaldized, Disneyfied, Nike culture is vulgar and mean.  The commodities and experiences these systems sell are designed to leave us unsatisfied (note another new development: “experience” is increasingly sold as a commodity, something unthinkable in Marx’s day).  McDonalds’ salt and sugar coating provides no nutrition but makes us want more (that still won’t provide nutrition); theme parks escalate to faster, more dramatic rides (advertised in language that would not have been polite when I was a child and I still hesitate to set in print; experiences of escalated vulgarity require a language of escalated vulgarity), Nike leaves us waiting for next year’s model that will look even less like a shoe but that some kids will, literally, kill for. 


Capitalism requires that we want more.  It’s precisely because the commodities are vulgar and mean that we’re so anxious to replace them, but the replacements (“upgrades”) are more vulgar and mean still, perpetuating the cycle of consumption.  Note that while this diatribe began with a statement from Marx, I’ve now gone well outside Marx’s theoretical horizon since Marx did not imagine the worker as consumer.  Contrary to Marx, people do not seem especially alienated from the products of their own labour, maybe because—just as Marx observed and object to—they cannot recognize the commodities as the products of their own labour.


Yet again I come back to Marx for my own humanist critique of contemporary capitalism.  What I follow Marx in fearing is that fewer people take their work seriously for what they produce.  They take very seriously their competitive position within the production system (their place within their own company, the company’s position within the market, and so forth), but they don’t take seriously their own “products”.  Many people have difficulty holding anything in their hands and thinking of it as their own production (as I can hold the text of this lecture, or as you can hold a paper you’ve written in a course).  I’m enough of a traditional, modernist, Marxist humanist to fear this loss of work as producing a product recognizable as “mine”.  But many would say I’m being nostalgic.  I’d reply by asking what they do that they can take real pride in.  These debates are not going to end soon.


In closing I’d like to say a word about the fourth possible Marx, Marx the social scientist.  On the one hand, Marx shares with Comte and Durkheim a touching 19th century faith in “science” as being able to produce truths that lead to human progress.  He very much wants to place his work within the idiom of (economic) science and to distance it from “philosophy”.  Yet today Marx’s attempts at scientific formulas and “laws” seem deeply flawed, while his more philosophic ideas—dialectic, alienation, and reification—retain considerable analytic power.  Marx seems to me far less a scientist than a poet: his metaphors of “vampire” capitalism (pp. 153, 179, 180) retain great force, and who else wrote a line like “All that is solid melts into air”, Marx and Engels’ great description of modernity?  Marx seems (to me) not so much the scientist of capitalism as capitalism’s greatest poet-seer.


On the other hand, as a pre-sociological theorist, Marx leaves us with (at least) two conceptualizations that reoccur throughout other theories.  One is his notion of false consciousness (p. 177), which is an idea that can neither be defended (against what standard is consciousness to be held “false” in its expressions of its own interests?) nor dispensed with.  False consciousness reemerges in conflicts including anti-colonialism (those whose consciousnesses remain “colonized” suffer from false consciousness), anti-racism, anti-sexism, and critiques of commodity culture (such as many of my comments above: how can I say people don’t genuinely like McDonalds?). 


The other idea that keeps reemerging is Marx’s “universal class”, which represents a key moment in Marx’s idea of how the revolution would create communism and be the end of history.  History has always been the history of class conflict, Marx argues with particular effect.  Yet in the revolution against capitalism, the proletariat (now the revolutionary class, just as the capitalists were once the revolutionary class against feudalism) has a unique possibility.  Because the means of production now can provide enough to go around, the proletariat can give up its particular class interest and take on the interest of all humanity, including the former capitalists.  As the proletariat transforms itself into the universal class, there will be no more class division (winners and losers), and history will therefore end. 


Like the idea of false consciousness, the universal class is indefensible, yet it keeps popping up.  For example the African American sociologist Anna Julia Cooper, writing soon after Marx, makes this same claim for African American women.  Because they are doubly oppressed (by race and gender), they will be able to transcend their own interests and take on the interests of all society.  The persistence of the universal class, in one disguise or another, suggests a fundamental split in social theory, between what might be called realists and utopians.  Realists believe society will always have winners and losers, and the only questions worth studying concern how much to cushion the losers and restrain the winners.  Utopians believe that somehow the division of society into winners and losers might someday end.  Then we could have, in another of Marx’s great phrases, a society that gives to each according to his/her needs, and asks from each according to his/her abilities.  Although most theorists today tend more toward the realist camp, I think Marx’s utopianism keeps realism honest.  Thus one last Marx: the ethical Marx, who perpetually challenges our sense of what is right in the struggle of winners and losers.