Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Aron on Marx

On the theory that ideological purity is a sign of intellectual degeneration, I turned to Raymond Aron’s textbook (or something like it) Les étapes de la pensée sociologique for a treatment of Marx before looking at Althusser.

This particular text is interesting for several reasons. The book was published in 1967, which I think we can treat as the autumn of Marxism as a fad in French intellectual life. Aron is thus accustomed, at this point, to being set aside. This is perhaps the source of the clarity of his prose. I have for the moment only looked at the chapter on Marx (I think next will be Durkheim), so although I can’t say what the book as a whole attempts to do, I can say that for Marx, Aron attempts simply to say what points he thinks Marx plainly tried to make and to elaborate the sources of the ambiguity that typifies interpretations of this foundational thinker. I can also say that, as someone who has read a great deal about Marx, and has now read a few of the major texts, Aron seems enormously even-handed, though not without his faults.

Whence the ambiguities? First of all, because any philosophy that becomes ‘official,’ sanctioned by governments, and taught to hundreds of millions of people, can only be contested and confused. Apart from this there is the widely discussed philosophical/scientific division in Marx’s corpus. Aron presents this ‘Althusserian’ theory of Marx in contrast to the tripartite set of influences claimed by Marx for himself: English economics, German philosophy, French socialism (that is, sociology). Aron views skeptically the claim that we know, now, that the early philosophical manuscripts contain the secret of Marx’s work, even though Marx himself left them to rot. Many objections could be made (and no doubt have been made) to this somewhat ‘naïve’ approach. I think it is enormously valuable. Aron certainly does not hide the philosophical issues at play for Marx, nor does he attempt to paper over the (perhaps productive) leaps in Marx’s thinking. His naïve reading, then, is in fact an attempt at a less engaged (though no less ideological) appreciation of the author of Capital.

For Aron, Marx is first of all, above all, the author of Capital. Marx was and ‘wanted to be’ a scientific economist. Yet he was, plainly, at first and durably, a philosopher. His economics itself, Aron says, passes necessarily through sociology. So, in very compressed form, we can say that for Aron, the sources of Marx’s various ambiguities are to be found, first, in the confusions, slippages, or décalages between these three areas and, second, in the attempt to derive historical movement, then necessity, from the economic/sociological/philosophical conceptual toolkit he has constructed.

Aron seems to rely on Schumpeter for his criticism of Marx as an economist. For instance, in his discussion of the labor theory of value, after arguing that Marx adopts this theory as the only one that can account for the quantitative nature of the exchange of qualitatively different goods, Aron seems to endorse Schumpeter’s argument that since the value of labor itself is itself qualitatively determined, the whole thing is a word-game. Yet, if I understand correctly, it seems to me that this objection falls into the hole Aron describes between economy and sociology. The value of labor (that is, the cost of reproducing the worker physically, which includes his dependents) is determined socially. It is true that there is a physiological lower limit to the resources necessary for the reproduction of labor (or even for the act of labor), but Marx is quite clear that the cost of labor is determined, we might now say, culturally. This makes it no less real, but it does mean that the primary question is not biological, and perhaps therefore qualitative, but rather remains quantitative. Social norms declare that a certain set of material, of a given value, is necessary for the maintenance of the given worker. There is no bottom to the labor theory of value, and it seems to me that this means it does not run aground on physiology. This, however, is a quibble.

I won’t summarize Aron’s points about Marx more than I have already. But I do want to mention the final section of the chapter, in which Aron sets out the three great crises so far encountered by Marxism. The first, naturally, is the revisionist crisis between Kautsy and Bernstein. Then there is the crisis precipitated by the Bolshevik revolution. This time the antagonists are Kautsky and Lenin. The third crisis—and this struck me as odd—Aron says is contemporary (1967), and is between the Bolshevik and the Scandinavian models of socialism. The antagonism here is between, on the Bolshevik side, an economy planned entirely by a ‘total’ state, and on the ‘occidental’ side, an economy partially planned by a democratic state. Some Marxists, says Aron, are looking for a third way: a genuinely democratic state with a fully planned economy. If I, today, were asked to enumerate the crises of Marxism, I would quite naturally chose the first two in the same way as Aron has done. I might then say that Maoism, or tiers-mondisme was a third. I would want to think about whether the fall of the Soviet Union in fact constitutes a crisis in socialism, but it would be perverse to argue that it does not. I don’t think such an enumeration of crises would be controversial.

One might say that Aron didn’t have the perspective we have now. I think, however, that Aron wanted his crises to line up with the three poles of Marxian thought. The first, the revisionist crisis, is clearly economic. The second, the Russian Revolution, is sociological in that what is at issue, according to Aron, is the relation of state and class. Lenin claimed that the Bolsheviks, since they represented the proletariat, were, when in power, the dictatorship of the proletariat. Or, as many other Marxists thought, did the Bolsheviks really only represent a dictatorship over (‘sur,’ as opposed to ‘de’) the proletariat? Aron thinks that the dictatorship of the proletariat is a ‘myth,’ on obvious impossibility. How can the majority rule? The state itself, the actual human beings making decisions, will always be a minority.

This means that the last crisis, the one that Aron says is contemporary, is a philosophical crisis. It is philosophical in the sense that it represents an attempt to collapse the economic (a planned economy) and the political (democracy). Does Aron mean to suggest that this operation leaves us with the more general science of society, sociology? Writ large, it seems to me that Aron endorses Marx’s sociological categories, but does not draw the same conclusions from them, or find them in history in the same way, as did Marx. So perhaps the lesson is that Bourdieu will rise over the grave of Althusser? Aron, himself, defends the specificity, the irreducibility, of the political. Indeed, I could only smile, thinking about Badiou and Laclau talking about how Marxism tends to collapse the political into the economic—while Aron wrote, 30 years earlier, that one of Marx’s major problems was, “la réduction de la politique en tant que telle à l’économie...l’ordre de la politique est essentiellement irreductible à l’ordre de l’économie” (199). Perhaps it was a commonly made point? I don’t know.

I can’t finish without noting the odd presence, on tel gallimard’s cover for the book, of a detail from Volpedo’s The Fourth Estate, which is also the opening shot of 1900, and on the cover of Laclau’s On Populist Reason. Everyone wants to love that painting.

At any rate, I look forward to reading Aron on Durkheim. I expect he will need to be less careful, but I hope that won’t make him less lucid.

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