4 Approaches to the Study of Political Theory –Marxist

Lakshmi Radhakrishnan

epgp books


Module: Marxism


(Political theory has been enriched with multiple approaches and traditions that tend to analyse and understand politics in different and often contradictory ways. Each of these approaches have certain core premises and postulates that define its identity. However, each of them is also extremely variegated and sometimes informed by the other traditions. This paper is a broad overview of Marxist approaches/traditions in political theory.)


Vincent (2009) identifies Marxism as a strand within the variegated doctrine of socialism. Marxism, in Vincent’s view is a distinct version of socialist thought that can be described as ‘revolutionary socialism’. On the other hand, Jon Elster (1985) speaks of a distinct ‘Marxist method’ to study social phenomena, implying that Marxism offers a different method and approach to study society and politics. Gamble et al. (1999) further argues that Marxism proposes a direct link between theory and practice, and therefore crises and reassessments are not new to Marxism. Gamble argues that Marxism was never one paradigm; there were distinct and variegated intellectual currents within Marxism. Gamble identifies the interdisciplinary approach of Marxism as a prominent feature. Interestingly, different disciplines have dominated Marxism at different points in history. In the 1970s, state theory dominated Marxist approaches tan political economy approach (see Gamble 1999: 6). However, twentieth century Marxism is generally identified with economism, determinism and structuralism-all interrelated (Mars 1999).


A dominant trend in Marxism is its perception of society as a totality, an organic whole, characterized by interconnectedness. This was suggested by Marx in Grundrisse (see Singer 2001: 53). The interconnectedness is exemplified in the two important concepts of historical materialism and base-superstructure analysis particularly dominant in mainstream Marxist analyses. As Gamble (1999) contends, Marxism in the 19th century was centred on a critique of political economy and political liberalism using the method of historical materialism and the category of class struggle. Marx pointed out that liberalism failed to deliver its ideals.


Historical materialism is a central feature of traditional Marxist approach. Marx did not formulate the theory of historical materialism; it was developed by Engels after the death of Marx. Engels explains historical materialism as thus:


designate[s] that view of the course of history which seeks the ultimate cause and the great moving power of all important historic events in the economic development of society, in the changes in the modes of production and exchange, in the consequent division of society into distinct classes, and in the struggles of these classes against one another (Marx and Engels, in Wood 2005: 13).


Will Kymlicka concisely explains historical materialism:


According to this theory, the development of human societies is determined by class struggle, which is itself determined by the development of the means of economic production, and the inevitable result of this development is the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism by the proleteriat. Capitalism would be replaced first with socialism, and eventually, once abundance has been achieved, with full-blown communism. (Kymlicka 2001: 167).


Historical materialism assumes that society moves in a linear mode of history with successive stages determined by relations of production. Marx’s historical materialism was characterised by the stages of primitive communism, slavery, feudalism, capitalism, socialism and communism. Historical materialism has prompted critics of Marxism to call it a teleological theory- a history with an end- communism (see Popper 1966). Will Kymlicka similarly attributes the absence of normative engagements in Marxism on rights, justice, liberty, etc to the inevitability and historical necessity of a transition to communism (Kymlicka 2001: 175). G.A. Cohen gives a different interpretation of Marx’s historical materialism. Cohen contends that Marx’s historical materialism is not teleological but is in sync with modern scientific theories of causality and explanation. Cohen argues that Marx is not making a prophecy through historical materialism; he is only speaking of a possibility of transitions in the absence of countervailing forces (Levine 2004). Others defend Marx’s theory of history against the charge of teleology with the argument that it was only an explanation of history and not a scientific account of historical stages (see Singer 2001: 57).


The base-superstructure framework developed by Marx in Preface to a Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy is further a key to understanding economic determinism and historical materialism in Marxist tradition:


The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definitive forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general (Marx, in Mars 1999: 321).


The aforesaid statement is a clear postulate of economic determinism, a structuralist explanation where the mode of production- the economy- determines everything else including consciousness. The base-superstructure framework offers little agency to the individual, unlike in the liberal tradition where the autonomous individual is the core of liberalism philosophy. Historical materialism and base-superstructure in Marxism underline certain inevitable developments in history, over which individuals need not be in complete control. Moreover, relations of production determine the course of history. Marxian analysis also almost denies the existence of individuals independent of their class position. 1 This version of Marxism is also identified as the more scientific Marxism where certain laws of society determined the course of history objectively. This is best seen in the works of Marx and Engels exemplifying ‘orthodox’ historical materialism, which is ultimately a brand of economic determinism. Human nature in this perspective is alterable depending on the changes in material relations of production (Vincent 2009; Singer 2001). In Western Marxism, this is exemplified in Louis Althusser’s structuralist Marxism were the structure over determines the course of events, and were economy determines in the last instance. This version of Marxism is also referred to as anti-humanist Marxism/Marxist anti-humanism (see Hindess 2007: 393). In this version of structural overdetermination, the economy appears as one level of the structure as well as determines the structure and the relationship between the parts (see Hindess 2007).2 Individuals, in this perspective are nothing more than bearers of the functions emerging from their location in the structure (ibid).


1 An exception can be traced in the distinction Marx draws between class-in-itself and class-for-itself, the latter being marked by consciousness of the working class about their exploitation, while class-in-itself merely denotes the belongingness to a common class. This distinction is often cited as a defence of Marx against complete structural determination, in favour of human agency in revolution.


2 Hindess explains this as ‘structural causality’ in Altusser’s Marxism.


With the decline of communist regimes in early 1990s, Marxism was deemed ‘dead’ (see Fukuyama 1991). This view has been refuted by many scholars who point towards the relevance of Marxist approach in a different way. The rebirth of Marxism post-Cold War is manifested in the works of western Marxists. This is called ‘Analytical Marxism’ since it attempts to reformulate Marx’s ideas in the light of contemporary analytic philosophy (see Levine 2004; Kymlicka 2001). It is important to note here that while Marxism traditionally approached issues through class politics and historical materialism, undermining the role of moral argument, analytic Marxism purports to develop normative arguments to defend Marxist insights. As Kymlicka contends, when Marxism defended the inevitability of proletarian revolution, it was not required to explain the desirability of socialism or communism (Kymlicka 2001: 167).


However, the normative component gains significance with subsequent Marxist attempts to denounce the inevitability of revolution. Marxism now had to explain why the Marxist alternative is superior or better (ibid). Kymlicka explains the shift in Marxist approach as thus: “In other words, the death of ‘scientific’ Marxism as a theory of historical inevitability has helped give birth to Marxism as a normative political theory” (Kymlicka 2001: 168). This also represents the more humanist form of Marxism in the works of Lukacs and Gramsci, that gives an important role to human agency or autonomy. Indeed many have pointed to the striking methodological individualism in analytical Marxism (see Hindess 2007). In the humanistic version, there is an ontology for human beings that is not determined by material relations of production. Marxism now has to explain the limitations of and provide an alternative to liberal theories of justice (Kymlicka 2001: 168). On the other hand, Andrew Levine (2004: 76) contends that the moral argument3-based nature of analytical Marxism “collapsed Marxism into liberalism”. Roemer, another analytical Marxist agrees on this point. In Roemer’s view, the boundaries between analytical Marxism and left-liberal philosophy are fuzzy (Lebowitz 2009: 41). Roemer, for instance retains only exploitation as the key idea in Marxism, while the other arguments are close to liberalism.


The new Marxism is a rejection of economism, determinism and structuralism (Mars 1999:321).

3 Levine (2004) argues that Marx was not against moral arguments. E cites the example of alienation as a moral argument in Marx. However, Marx refused to apply this moral argument to social contexts. In other words, Levine calls fro making a distinction between moral argument and normative argument in general to discuss Marxism.


David Mars however warns that it is a fallacy to identify every Marxist with economic determinism. Mars cites Kautsky, Lukacs, and very importantly Antonio Gramsci as Marxists who engaged with the importance of ideology and hegemony rather than economic determinism to explain the sustenance of capitalism and the hurdles for a revolution.4 Colin Hay similarly cites Poulantzas’ ‘relative autonomy’ theory as a non-economic explanation of state theory within Marxism (see Hay 1999). Interestingly, non-economic factors like intentions, desires and beliefs are part of Marxist method (Elster 1985; Singer 2001). The theory of alienation in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Singer argues, is a part of the materialist conception of history. In Singer’s view, alienation and historical materialism are not two stages in Marxism5. For example, Singer contends that the Eighteenth Brumaire itself suggests the role of ideas and personalities and not merely productive forces in changing human history (Singer 2001: 50). Also, the Communist Manifesto describes history of all societies as history of class struggle and not the history of economic forces. Singer thus concludes that Marx observes that the productive forces of human history make human being alien from each other and hence the materialist conception of history and the theory of alienation are part of the same theory. In a similar vein, Wood (2005) cites ‘practical-critical activity’ in the Theses on Feuerbach and the role of class consciousness in the Communist Manifesto, that are departures from the base-superstructure view in many other works. Robert Brennan, another analytical Marxist, argues that the driving force of change in Marxism is not mode of production; the agent of change is class struggle (see Hindess 2007: 398).


David Mars’s description of Marxism as a realist epistemology throws light on Marxist approach to political theory as well. Mars (1999) argues that Marxism is not relativist because it is based on the assumption that knowledge of the social world exists independently of our knowledge of it. This is a positivist view of knowledge. However, unlike positivism, Marxism believes that every relationship between social phenomena cannot be directly observed. However, like positivists, Marxism agrees that there is a logic of necessity and causality, making Marxism almost a science (ibid). The contribution of Marxism however lies in not only interpreting and unraveling causal explanations but also in changing it. Mars therefore underlines Marxism at its best as “a humanity-centered and activist philosophy” (Mars 1999: 332).


4 See Gramsci (1971).

5 As argued by many western Marxists who distinguish between young Marx and old Marx. This is further discussed in the context of Western Marxism.


Marxism’s interesting contribution lies in the nuanced position on structure and agency, or class relations and individualism. Elster (1985) underscores ‘methodological collectivism’ as the mainstay of Marxist methodology- i.e., in the explanatory order, there are supra-individual entities prior to the individual. At the same time, an ethical individualism is manifest in Marx’s German Ideology and the theory of alienation wherein communism is superior to other forms for Marx on account of its potential towards full realization of human beings. In the 1990s, the more autonomy-based Marxism combined with postmodernism and resulted in a new version of post-Marxism “where class and similar concepts become ‘social imaginaries’, rather than definite empirical realities” (Vincent 2009: 98).6

  • 6 In other words, post-Marxists like Laclau and Mouffe started destabilizing class as an available category; class is also seen increasingly as a constructed category.


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