Monday, August 10, 2009

"thought of the day" (marx on [economic] history)

One of the central issues I am grasping with in developing the Econ 362 syllabus is defending my use of so many social history papers and books. Of course, it depends on how you define "economy" (see a previous post on this, where I made some controversial remarks concerning the place of neoclassical economics in heterodox economics education) but it also depends on how you define "history". Most academics could only answer one of these questions. Our friend Karl, on the other hand, can hit both nails on the head at once.

From Marx's The German Ideology, Part I

In direct contrast to German philosophy which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven. That is to say, we do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process.

There are still some things to unpack here -- for example, Marx seemingly ignores the importance of agency in a social theory -- but it's still an excellent way of understanding how an economy fits in society and therefore how we should go about studying it.


  1. I know this is just a thought of the day but I do wonder what you are implying about agency. I would not say Marx ignored it, so much as he had a theory in which individual choices had less importance than the standard liberal framework. In Marx's famous "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances..." I really think he attributes as much a role to agency as is plausible.

  2. A few things.

    First, you're quoting from his "18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte", which is not meant to be an outline of his theory of economic history, so do you have a quote from his theoretical works to support your point? Because from what I've read it seems to be an accurate account of his theory. I mean really, that's one quote man!

    Second, Marx's conception of history as far as I can tell is pretty basic. If you hunt, you are a hunter. If you farm, you are a farmer. Your social role in an economy is based on how and what you produce for society. That's why socialism is so liberating in Marx's framework, because it allows one to be freed from the constrictive system of being defined by one's place in the economy.

    But, I just don't think class is a useful concept in discussion of all aspects of history. For example, I'd really like to talk to you about radicalism some time, both the history of radicalism in the U.S. and in the abstract. U.S. history isn't one continuous story of class antagonisms, there were a lot of "third ways" at times, with groups of people expressing the desire to reform their relations with capital or the government but to do it within the system. They were led by religious ideals, or race, or gender, but not class. And seriously, is the history of radicalism really about the bending and swaying of class power? I really think not. At their core, I think there are sets of beliefs that people hold which are essentially uneconomic in nature.

    And, I wonder what Marx says about the family in socialism. Since it is the most basic unit of social relations I assume it is abolished along with the rest of them. What is the feminist movement really about and how many shades of feminisms are there?

    I think all of these things point to a level of agency and historical method that Marx's framework simply does not address.

    Third -- check out my Tocqueville quote on the right. I'm really attracted and interested in this point of view and it has a lot of value. But there's a bit more to historiography than that, so let me know if I was unclear with what I said above (I suspect I was...)

  3. One more aside--

    Thanks for your posts, Joe. It's really appreciated. They really make the blog worthwhile to keep up.

    And I encourage others to join in the discussions.

  4. It is only one quote, but I don't think we need to discount it because it is in the 18th Brumaire any more than we would have to discount the German Ideology because Marx was less mature.

    But, that aside, how about this, "The fact is, therefore, that definite individuals who are productively active in a definite way enter into these definite social and political relations. Empirical observations must in each separate instance bring out empirically, and without any mystification and speculation, the connection of the social and political structure with production. The social structure and the State are continually evolving out of the life-process of definite individuals, but of individuals, not as they may appear in their own or other people's imagination, but as they really are; i.e., as they are effective, produce materially, and are active under definite material limits, presuppositions and conditions independent of their will." This is from the German Ideology and I think present a similar idea.

    Now I'm strictly making a point about the role of agency. I don't even want to endorse Marx on agency (I not very enamored by the concept itself but thats a different issue) but in my reading he gives it as much of a role as one could without falling into a classic liberal model.

    I think the questions of class or economic determinism are different than the one of agency. This is not to say that there is not a relationship between them but I think it is fair to say that in Marx's readings there is a very definite place for agency and that at the same time economics plays too great a role.

    There are questions as to whether Marx as a person/agent was really such an economic determinist and the I think the reasonable conclusion is that he wasn't as strictly economistic as he wrote but really wanted to stress the economic dimension that people seemed to ignore.

    But this is NOT a defense of his writings and Marx's Theory of History is not the same as what Marx thought. So, I'm pretty much on board with your critique of class as the essence of history, even if I might express it differently.

    At the same time, I think Marx's motivations are interesting if for only the following reason. We can reject the orthodox Marxist theory of history while still maintaining the insight that (1) the economy and economics relations/struggle play an important role in society and (2) oftentimes this role is completely overlooked. So, for example, you mention religious ideals. I don't want to reduce religion to economy, but I do think it is just as problematic to assume that just because a movement is not overtly economic it is uneconomic.