Friday, August 20, 2004

Good Question

I'm glad it's Brad DeLong asking this question and not someone like myself, as it'll be much more difficult to dismiss as politically motivated coming from his direction.

Kieran Healy writes:
...the horrors of Stalin don’t invalidate the fundamental insights of Marxists...
which reminds me of a question I have long wanted to ask: Just what are the fundamental (valid) insights of Marxism?

I ask as someone who is. I think, more inclined toward "Marxism" than anybody else on the Berkeley campus. That is, I believe that in the process of going about the business of making, using, and consuming the things people need and want to continue their daily lives, humans enter into social and economic arrangements of production, association, exploitation, and exchange that form patterns and have consequences that none of them have willed, and that these arrangements of production, association, exploitation, and exchange--these "modes of production, as it were"--form the base, the soil in which the rest of society is rooted and out of which it grows. This is what Marx believed, and if I'm not the only one on the Berkeley campus today who believes it, it's certainly true that we are scarce on the ground.

But what valid insights does Marxism draw and develop from this starting point? The "dictatorship of the proletariat" stuff is the worst political idea in human history save for perhaps Naziism. All the stuff about the labor theory of value and the transformation problem is unhelpful. The claim that any price system in which land earns rents and capital earns quasi-rents is ipso facto exploitative and unfair is simply completely wrong. The stuff about the Asiatic mode of production is wrong. The claim that the Orleanists represented commercial capital and that the Legitimists represented landed capital is wrong. The claim that the transition from the Roman Empire to medieval feudalism can be well-understood as some Hegelian dialectical thesis-antithesis-synthesis process is profoundly unhelpful, as is the claim that the transition from feudalism to modernity can be well-understood in Hegelian terms.

The writing of western European history as the rise, fall, and succession of ancient, feudal, and bourgeois modes of production is a fascinating project, but the only person to try it seriously soon throws the Marxist apparatus over the side, where it splashes and sinks to the bottom of the sea. Perry Anderson's _Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism_ and _Lineages of the Absolutist State_ are great and fascinating books, but they are not Marxist. They are Weberian. The key processes in Anderson's books concern not modes of production but modes of domination.

So can someone please come up with a short list--five one-sentence bullet points, for example--of the fundamental insights of Marxism considered as an intellectual enterprise?
I for one await the proposed responses with baited breath. I have a feeling that I'll have a long wait ahead of me, however ...