Marks Of Change

Listener 28 May 1990.

Keywords: History of Ideas, Methodology & Philosophy;

The University of Sussex in Brighton, England, where I first taught, was deeply committed to the whole of the social sciences. In teaching, research and policy applications the staff believed in the importance of social sciences to social and personal understanding, and their contribution to building a better society. They partly summed this up in the phrase, “We are all marxists now.”

Many New Zealanders, even many who purport to having had a social science training, are likely to falloff their chairs at the thought. Of course, at Sussex there was a ring of irony in the phrase. Most of the social scientists were of a classical liberal strain – more likely to send their children to a private school than mount the barricades. The most notable advocate of the view was well known for picking on the most outspoken marxists in his graduate class and persistently challenging their views.

But the phrase contained a fundamental acknow]edgement that Karl Marx was a great – (the greatest?) – 19th century social scientist. and that welltrained 20th-century social scientists had to think through carefuny their position in relation to Marx – more so than for any other social thinker.

Note that I described Marx as a social scientist, not an economist, or sociologist, or political scientist, or historian, or social philosopher, or economic and social policy advocate, He was all of these; he saw that you could not be one to the exclusion of others – you could not be a good one without being them all.

I was reminded of this in my recent visit to Central Europe. Economists there had a much wider perspective than their New Zealand counterparts, easily and – as far as I could judge – knowledgeably linking pure economics to related social issues. Our economics graduates are likely to have done some accounting or mathematics in their degrees, but have had little to do with other social sciences. European economists’ wider perspective showed the benefit of their having struggled through marxist studies.

Assuredly it is a struggle. I have sat in a class trying to make sense of a passage from Marx while the teachers have checked the original German to see if that helped. Marx is steeped in the philosophy of continental Europe, whereas I and most economists are Anglo-American trained. Coming to terms with Marx forced me to become more aware of the continental part of my European intellectual heritage.

For instance, what is one to make of Marx’s “last thesis on Feuerbach”: “the philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point is to change it”, I’ve pondered on this for hours, coming up with a whole variety of interpretations. It challenges my complacent feeling that all that is required of me is to understand the world better.

My favourite Marx is not “the Communist Manifesto” (great polemic as it is), nor Das Kapital which an economist finds difficult because it is using an economic methodology which was superseded shortly after Marx’s death. I like best his 1844 Manuscripts, for here is the passion of a young man, turning his intellectual powers to the agonies of industrialisation which Europe was experiencing. Much of the text has a lyrical – even spiritual – quality. Marxism need not be godless; as numerous Christian-Marxists testify.

But most people have not studied marxism. Their view is set by what happened in Russia, when a particular type of marxism came to power. We may debate whether Marxist-Leninism is really as Marx intended. My view is that the Soviet Union placed on marxism a distinctive interpretation, reflecting its historical and geographical situation. Unfortunately, because of the geo-political significance of that country, the Soviet account is often treated as the only true marxism by those who have not studied Marx. But there are other marxist paths, just as there are numerous interpretations of the christian message.

For instance Austro-Marxism – which evolved in the first part of this century in Vienna – was described by one of my teachers, the eminent marxist scholar Tom Bottomore, as “revealing the possibilities that are still to be found in marxist social science as an instrument of human liberation and of the rational humane ordering of social life”. Ironically the Austro-Marxists were put down by a combination of fascists and Marxist-Leninists in the 1930s.

Indeed the Karl Marx of the 1844 manuscripts would have been deeply disturbed by some of the things the Soviet Union did in his name. (Jesus Christ must have similar feelings about his name being used to justify similar unseemly actions.) Certainly, such events have limited marxist contribution in the public debate, because it is easier to tar all marxism with the extremes carried out in the name of Marxist-Leninism, rather than directly tackle the challenge that Marx presents.

That is why perestroika is also liberating marxism. What will happen to its Marxist-Leninist sect may be conjectured. But CentraJ European social scientists, among others, are not going to abandon the positive things they learned from studying Marx. We may be confident that as the political domination of Marxist-Leninism recedes there will be a flowering of marxist scholarship and understanding of society, which will generate changes – benefiting us all in the long run.