Issue 210 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July/August 1997 Copyright © Socialist Review

Feature article: Marx in the modern world

A recent debate between London School of Economics director and well knoen sociologist Anthony Giddens and John Rees editor of International Socialism attracted 500 people. We reprint the speeches here.

John Rees:

Many people are familiar with the commonplace criticisms of Marxism­that Marx and Engels were two bearded old Victorians who had very little to say about the modern world.

It's worth stopping to consider who the people making these remarks look to for their political theory, economic guidance and moral precepts. More often than not you find that their economic theory is based on the ideas of Adam Smith which date from 70 years before Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto. Their political theory often owes some kind of allegiance to the work of John Stuart Mill, who was a contemporary of Marx and Engels, and in certain circles you even find a moral theory which runs back as far as Jesus Christ. So the problem is not with old theories, but with left wing theories and in particular with Marxism

The view that Marxism has nothing to say about the modern world is a common one. Professor Giddens' post-election analysis in a recent issue of New Statesman says, 'Socialism is dead as a theory of economic management...and interpretation of history' and 'the old welfare consensus is no more, Blair is right to say that there is no going back to these kind of politics'.

Yet although such views are popular amongst sociologists, they are not widely held in the rest of society. One of the great unsaid truths about modern politics is the persistence of ideas of class and class struggle among very large numbers of people. According to the British Social Attitudes survey of 1991, when asked what class they belong to, 46 percent of people simply said they were members of the working class and another 18 percent said they were members of the 'upper working class'. So it seems to me that those theories that talk of the death of class have misjudged the situation.

When Gallup asked people whether or not they think there's class struggle in this country, in 1961 56 percent of the population said yes there is a class struggle in this country and just 22 percent said there wasn't. Last August 76 percent said yes there's a class struggle while a mere 15 percent said there wasn't. These answers don't mean that these people are Marxists, or even socialists, but what they do show is that a method of analysis which has class at its heart speaks to some basic, fundamental realities about people's lives.

When people are asked if they think there should be more socialist planning in this country, 43 percent of the population said yes (and 61 percent of Labour voters said yes). So you begin to understand why Labour won the general election with a landslide and why it was an enormous class vote on class issues which produced that victory. This is not reflected in the policies of the Labour leadership. It has been borne out by quite detailed analysis about what people think and what they have been arguing about over the preceding years.

One advantage of the Marxist method is that it teaches us to look beneath the surface appearance. It allows us to look at what it is that makes people identify themselves as members of classes, to believe that there is a class struggle, These surveys show that it's premature to argue that a Marxist method no longer has anything to say about the modern world.

Marxism is not just content with understanding how the world works but seeks to give people the ability, collectively, to change it more effectively. Furthermore Marxism sets out to be not just a theory­as Engels said, 'Our theory is not a dogma, but a guide to action.'

Professor Giddens believes that the working class is no longer an agency for change.

But if you look not just at the working class, who are a majority of society, but the organised working class, you will see that they are the single biggest group of people in this country, with some 8 million members of trade unions. And what's remarkable is the extent to which union membership has extended beyond the confines of the old manual unions into the white collar working class. The white collar unions­Unison, Bifu, MSF­now have the same shop stewards reps that the manual unions have, and they now feature more frequently in the strike figures than the old manual unions. Despite some defeats, this is still capable of fighting for change. If you look across the Channel to France over the last 18 months this is clear. The extreme austerity package introduced by the Juppé plan was broken by the mass workers' movement just over a year ago. These events vindicate the Marxist method­to look at how people, as Marx and Engels put it, 'produce and reproduce their real lives' to see how this evolves into a class structure, and to see how the conflicts between those classes take place.

Professor Giddens has developed an entire critique of the Marxist method, a whole new series of concepts, like 'societal structuration', 'time space distanciation', 'time-space edges'. My objection isn't simply to the language. My real objection is that these theories operate at such a level of abstraction that they fail to connect with the day to day struggles to transform the world.

When a theory remains at that level of abstraction a gap opens up between the pretence that the theory explains the world and the real political development of society. When there isn't sufficient mediation (ability to make the abstract concepts deliver a concrete analysis and a strategy for action) the gap between theory and practice becomes such that the actual political practice which results adapts to the existing power structure in society. So no matter what claims the theory might make, when it comes down to the real proposals and the real activity, you find it leans towards the existing social structure­the existing state, spending patterns, policies on law and order, and morals­and it finds no point of purchase where a sufficiently powerful group of people change the world.

It is often said that Marxism is a deterministic theory that believes history runs on iron rails such that its course cannot be changed, making socialism inevitable. But Marx would not have written that 'men make their own history albeit not in circumstances of their own choosing', indeed he would not have spent a lifetime organising amongst the working class, if he thought the whole project was inevitable or automatic. Lenin explicitly dismissed this kind of criticism. He didn't use the common term 'determinism' but talks of an 'objectivist'­someone who simply thinks that the structure of society will deliver a particular historical goal. He said:

'The objectivist speaks of necessity of a given historical process. The Marxist gives an exact picture of a given socio- economic formation and the antagonistic relations to which it gives rise. When demonstrating the necessity for a given series of facts the objectivist always runs the risk of becoming an apologist for these facts. The Marxist discloses the class contradictions and in doing so defines his standpoint. He does not limit himself to speaking of the necessity of a process but ascertains exactly what class determines this necessity.'

Lenin argues there is an objective structure in society, but that all structures are mutable, and all are changeable. Whether they can be changed depends on how clearly you define the cracks, the sites of contradiction, in that society and how clearly you articulate a strategy for how people can band together to fight for a more progressive alternative. So it depends on what we do; both our intellectual clarity in saying what is wrong with the world and our commitment to changing that world by transforming that abstract picture into a strategy for change.

There are two important issues on which I believe my tradition has managed to do that. We never believed that the East European Stalinist states were socialist. We always started from the position that the working class was an exploited class in those societies. We described them as state capitalist. We always hoped that those societies would be overthrown by the working people from below. Without democracy and mass participation there can be no socialism, so we never described those societies as socialist as so many on the left, and indeed Anthony Giddens, described them.

Secondly, there's a crucial argument that says globalisation is something which no state, and no working class movement can stand against. Of course it's true that there is an enormous expansion of global production. But when you begin to look for the fractures and contradictions in that process you see quite a different project at work. Multinational companies overwhelmingly remain based within their own nation states. Of the top multinationals in the US with assets of £1,300 billion some £1,000 billion is invested within the US itself. In Japan two thirds of multinational investment is in Japan itself and in Germany 60 percent of multinational investment is in Germany. There is a contradictory process going on here which does much more than simply produce weakness for our side. For instance, it is tearing at the national state structure. It produces cracks and fissures within and between national governments and so we can begin to see how working class people still have the capacity to fight and win in a new global capitalist order.

So I've given examples of the existence of class in modern day Britain, of a way of looking at what happened to the Stalinist states, and of a way of looking at globalisation which doesn't simply say that history is running on some predestined course. Rather it shows a society in crisis torn apart by the inability of the market to deliver people's most basic needs, and it shows a class still capable of fighting. But for those battles to be more successful today than they were yesterday we can't renounce one of the most powerful intellectual weapons the working class has ever developed, nor with its commitment to developing a realistic way of winning in those struggles.

Anthony Giddens:

Historical materialism, like Marxism, has meant many different things to many different people. After all, there have been numerous different versions of Marxism. However, there are two basic interpretations that have tended to dominate. The first of these I will call the economic version­that version is an interpretation of concrete processes of historical change. It asserts that the general progression of historical development is in some way governed by either the economic infrastructure of society or is governed by the primacy of class struggle. When Marx says that 'human history is the history of class struggle' that's one expression of this version of historical materialism.

The second version of historical materialism is the more philosophical version. If you can say the first outlook has been associated more or less generally with people who have interpreted Marxism as science, the second version is more associated with those who see Marxism as, above all, a critical method. This version has not attached too much importance to the content of what Marx says either about contemporary capitalism or about the content of history itself, but has seen Marxism above all as a critical engagement with change.

According to this perspective historical materialism seems to me bound up with the interesting theorem that human beings in the past have not made history according to the conditions of their own choosing­that in previous eras human history has been dominated either by pre-existing forms of power which were not understood, or by dogma, tradition, or an unawareness of our own history. According to this version the point of understanding our history is to change history­'Philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point is to change it'­the more we understand about the conditions of our own history, the more we will be able to appropriate the future for our own interests and subordinate the future to the collective interests of humanity. I think the second of these is more interesting and also more interestingly wrong than the first. But let me just make a couple of points about the first.

It is indisputable that there are other sources of power in human history which are, in many circumstances, as important as economic power which cannot just be reduced to circumstances of class domination and without which you cannot make sense of major patterns of historical change. There is economic power of course, but not all economic power is class power. There is political power which is not just an expression of class power­the state is not just an expression of class domination. There is military power which is in many respects an independent force in history which, of course, depends on economic circumstances but cannot simply be treated as an expression of class struggle. Alongside these there is also cultural power or ideological power, which cannot simply be reduced to class dynamics.

It doesn't seem to me to make any sense to suppose that ethnic, religious or national identity divisions can be simply reduced to class divisions. Nor to me is it plausible to suppose that the debate about the destruction of the ecological fabric of the earth is in some sense itself an expression of class divisions. There are divergent sources of power and divergent sources of conflict, and many sorts of problems which of course class divisions may have a relevance to, but which it would be daft to suppose can be exhausted by reference to class.

Marx saw history as a kind of progressivist movement from the early development of tribal society to the dominance and then transformation of industrial capitalism into a global socialist commonwealth. But, as Lévi-Strauss quite accurately pointed out, history is not like this­rather this is the history of a certain type of society. History as a whole is a way of ordering time. The ordering of time normally throughout at least 90 percent of what we call human history doesn't have this dynamic form...?... Cultures, as Lévi-Strauss called them, are a different way of existing in time and organising in time. What we call history is a certain way of relating ourselves to time, to writing and to power. Marxism is much more an expression of that kind of society, than it is an independent critique of it.

Let me turn to the second version of historical materialism­that in the past human beings have not understood their history, but now we can and Marxism is the main tool for understanding our history and transforming the future. In this sense I think Marx was straightforwardly an Enlightenment thinker, and in some respects the prime Enlightenment thinker. The Enlightenment had a certain theorem about our relationship to our history which seemed, and still seems, powerful, but which turned out to be either wrong or more complex, difficult and contradictory than most of us used to think. This theorem is that the more we get to understand our own history and the world of our outer nature, the more the accumulation of knowledge, whether it be in the form of social scientific or natural scientific knowledge, will allow us to subject both nature and ourselves to our own dominion. That is to subordinate our history, and not the external world, to human imperatives and human interest.

The history of the 20th century has shown us that this theorem does not apply at least in the sense in which Marx set it out. The advance of human knowledge in many domains of life actually produces unpredictability rather than predictability­it produces risk scenarios which we do not have much basis for confronting from our past history. We don't live in a world which is subject to human dominion through the expansion of social scientific and natural scientific technologists. We live in a world which I would describe more as a runaway world­a world of erratic and fractured change which we don't fully understand. The future faces us as a series of possible scenarios between which it is difficult to choose, and we encounter the present as a much more fractured and unpredictable present than Marx would ever have acknowledged. The very occurrence of the 1989 revolutions is a recent version of that fractured unpredictability. Anyone who wants to confront the possibility of political change and engagement with the late 20th century world is bound up with this very unpredictability. It does not happen because we are ignorant of the outer world, or of ourselves, but in some part because of the very accumulation of knowledge about ourselves and knowledge of the external world. These generate forms of unpredictability precisely for which history does not prepare us.

History for us does not have the form which the Enlightenment anticipated even though we only have the Enlightenment methods and science to deal with it. We cannot escape from the scientific and technological universe we have created. You cannot even diagnose ecological risks without the use of science and technology which is deeply embroiled in producing those risks in the first place. All of this means, however, that history has not become the project that Marx anticipated. And this is because there was a logical flaw in the view of history, knowledge and social change that Marx accepted. When Marx says human beings set themselves only such problems as they can resolve, we have to accept that this theorem has become unstuck. We cannot assume that the problems we have set ourselves as collective humanity can necessarily be resolved by us. We live in a world with many possibilities, but we also live in a world with dangers that we have created. If we don't face up to contingent risk as a fundamental feature of what history has become, and if we think we can just march on into the future, there is no chance of confronting those risks satisfactorily. The Marxist theory of history does not make sense of what our world has become.

We live in a society in which there is actually a hardening of class divisions. I don't think it's a society in which class has disappeared. And the hardening of class divisions is substantively bound up with globalisation. But there is a big difference with globalisation happening in the world today and the pre-existing expansion of the older forms of industrial capitalism across the world. This period of globalisation is more decentered, in which information technology plays a key role and in which the transformation of the monetary system into a globalised electronic monetary system in which financial markets dominant represents a key set of changes. Contrary to what John Rees says in this world you trace out the global escape of capital from labour­to me that is one of the reasons why the old welfare state consensus has substantially dissolved. It is not at all easy to see what the solution is to this issue.

A good deal about what Marx had to say about the structure of contemporary capitalism remains important. Capitalism does have a tendency towards monopoly and oligopoly, and it is a restlessly unstable system. Now we live in a global civilisation that cannot stay still, it is not at all clear that it is possible to live in this society in the medium term let alone the long term. But where Marxism is dead is precisely where Marx believed he made his greatest contribution­in the theory of socialism, the theory of economic management, the idea that the working class makes history, and the idea that there is a socialist commonwealth which is somehow built into the progression of history. These ideas don't seem to have to me the purchase that once they appeared to do. We have a whole diversity of problems we have to face up to and we have to work out a more adequate political theory to confront those problems.

John Rees:

The whole force of Marxism depends on it being simultaneously an analysis of the economic structure, of the class struggle which derives from that structure, and a critical theory that is necessary to understand the structure and to inform the struggle. Tearing this apart in the way that Professor Giddens and other sociologists are prone to do is a recipe for persistently and consistently misunderstanding the primary categories of the theory. Of course if you separate structure and agency, economic structure and class struggle, you will end up with a theory that is both inadequate about the structure and inadequate about the struggle. Again, if you then separate the notion of critical theory from the rest you are going to end up with a class struggle which is directionless, an economic structure which is unanalysable and a whole body of thought which is contradictory. But if you start with the wrong premises you end up with wrong conclusions.

With regard to the phrase, 'Philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point is to change it', precisely the point of Marx's contention is that it is two edged. It was not just a call to action, it was also meant to show that without political engagement in society, without being part of its struggles it was impossible to understand it. It was a call to go beyond the current academic understanding and to engage with the world. It was simultaneously a practical and an intellectual advance. The whole critique of Marxism rests on trying to drive a wedge between these two elements.

Anthony Giddens argues that it does not make any sense to reduce questions such as race or military struggle to the question of class. The point of Marxism is that it gives you an articulated view of society in which the different elements both have an autonomy of their own but also have a relationship to the other parts of the totality. This is an elementary part of what they call their dialectical method.

For example, when we talk about the military struggle and about war deaths, there is a brute statistic we have to explain­in the second half of the 20th century, leaving aside the two great world wars, there have been twice as many deaths as there were in the whole of the 19th century, and seven times as many as there were in the 18th century. To pretend that this increase is not to do with the dynamic accumulation of industrial capacity expressing itself in more destructive weapons, that the drive to war is not connected with economic competition, is to disable yourself in trying to address one of the most fundamental things about human society. And precisely because that destructive process is at work it is nonsense to talk about Marxism as a progressivist ideology. Marx did not say there is an automatic progression from primitive communism to slave society. Actually he pointed to a number of societies in which quite different outcomes were possible. When he talked about the collapse of Roman slavery he talked about it falling in on itself under the weight of its own contradictions. To say that Marxism is a version of Enlightenment thought is an elementary mistake. Indeed it is also a mistake about the history of philosophy. Hegel was a post-Enlightenment philosopher precisely because he made a criticism of that kind of progressivism, and precisely because he introduced the notion of the contradiction into philosophy and history. Marx was a critique both of Hegel and of the entire Enlightenment strand of thought. So on both the substantive issue and on the nature of the philosophy involved I don't think Professor Giddens has made the case.

Anthony Giddens:

It was not me that made the distinction between various forms of Marxism, it was Marxists themselves. People from different perspectives within Marxism have always been radically critical of each other. But the division between, for example, Marxism as a method was that it was specifically made not only by members of the Frankfurt School but by many versions of phenomenological and philosophical Marxism. There is a division between that and Marxist-Leninism or Althusserian Marxism or the various forms of more scientific Marxism that have existed. This division is strongly embedded in the history of Marxist thought and practice, partly because these are two discernible threads in Marx's own writings.

Marx certainly intended these two strands to be simultaneously applicable. But if you do intend that then I think the force of the criticism is double because not only is it empirically false as a theory of history, it is not a theory which gives you much purchase on the real evolution of history. It's also philosophically debatable in terms of the scheme which is then built on that as a programme of political action. Of course different Marxists have taken different views on this. Some have argued that you can abandon quite a lot of the substantive ideas that Marx had, including the idea that the working class was revolutionary, while still sustaining the spirit of Marxism as a critique. Others have said precisely the opposite.

The fact is that economic determination of history is always bound in a slightly tangled web­either economic factors in some sort of last instance are determinate or they are not. If they are determinate in the last instance you have to claim that they do form the kind of infrastructure which Marx identified and that the political, ideological and military factors are a superstructure on which this is built. It would be nice if history were this simple, but it isn't. You see all round you that you can't make sense of, for example, the conflicts in Bosnia, if you simply try to apply this kind of method to them.

It is true that this is the century of warfare and more people have died than any previously century. This is bound up with industrialisation of war and the bureaucratisation of war. But to speak of the industrialisation of wars does not show that war can be explained in terms of class divisions or class struggle. War in the 20th century now is very much bound up with the superdestructive qualities of weaponry. If you don't treat military power as independent, linked to the rise of the nation state and influencing the transformation of the nation state system in the world, you simply cannot make sense of the role of military power in modern history.

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