Friday, March 17, 2017

Response to Harvey, part 3: Socialisms, then and now

The part of my book that Harvey most appreciates is my discussion of “Marx’s relation to Proudhon, Fourier, Saint-Simon and Robert Owen.” Harvey is convinced by my argument against G.A. Cohen, who (along with many others) stressed the continuity between this socialist tradition, with its emphasis on “equality and social justice.” My challenge to Cohen insists that Marx was decisively opposed to much of this tradition, which he regarded as moralistic and mistaken about the operations of the capitalist economy. Although Harvey is appreciative of this aspect of my argument, I am left a bit puzzled by his response to it, for three reasons.

First, Harvey seems to skip right over the point of my argument. In his words, I argue that Marx “reached back into an older aristocratic tradition of republican governance as non-domination,” which “transformed by the experience of capitalist industrialism, produced a unique Marxist political vision.” Harvey asks, “If inequality and social justice are insufficient to the task of defining a socialist alternative then what might replace it?” He then goes on to talk about Owen and Saint-Simon on industrial administration, without even pausing to consider the answer my book proposes (and that I think Marx proposed): freedom. The “older aristocratic tradition of republican governance” was not just older and not just aristocratic. The republican concern with freedom from servitude and domination ran through much of the radical, popular, and plebian politics of the nineteenth century. It ran alongside the Rousseauvian concern with popular sovereignty and the utilitarian concern with rational administration, even as it clashed with these. It preached resistance to concentrations of power, and cooperative and deliberative association. My book argues that Marx’s entire argument in Capital is oriented by this republican desire for freedom from domination. And so I find it disconcerting that Harvey only mentions freedom once in his entire review, and then only to ask why I don’t talk more about the Jacobin tradition of republicanism, “which is very different.” I will return to the Jacobins below. For now, let me just indicate that my reconstruction of Marx’s republicanism resonates with some analyses on the contemporary Left. Alex Gourevitch has argued – in Jacobin and elsewhere – both for the historical credentials and the contemporary salience of “a vision of a society of equal freedom.” Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has made a powerful argument for reviving the movement for Black liberation. Corey Robin has, for several years now, called on the American Left to re-appropriate the politics of freedom from the Right. On my reading, Marx would agree with these calls.

Given that this is the orientation of my book, I am, therefore, also puzzled by Harvey’s apparent attempt to rehabilitate the Saint-Simonians. Harvey rightly claims that “Marx was reluctant to let go of the obvious enhancements in labor productivity achieved under industrial capitalism.” He also rightly notes that this reluctance was part of the basis for Marx’s appreciation of Robert Owen. However, he then uses one of Engels’s footnotes in Volume Three to bring in Saint-Simon, whom he reads as a harbinger of the joint-stock company, which has the potential – “when democratized to include the ouvriers as well” – to provide “modes of collective governance and administration” for the socialist future. I am extremely skeptical that there is anything of value for the Left in the thought of Saint-Simon. And, Engels’s footnote notwithstanding, there is no credible evidence that Marx thought much of Saint-Simon’s schemes either. Engels always had a soft spot for Saint-Simon, as I point out in my book, but Marx left no record of sharing his friend’s high estimation. That Engels assures us, after Marx’s death, that his friend had come around to Engels’s opinion is not very credible evidence that Marx was “attracted” to Saint-Simon’s “mode of thought.” For one thing, Saint-Simon was an authoritarian rationalist who dreamed only of benevolent hierarchy and orderly improvement. Therefore, he was utterly allergic to anything so disorderly as popular political movements or majoritarian democracy or government from below. When Harvey seemingly identifies the question of the socialist alternative with the question of how “to devise a form of governance that will be consistent with the objective of the principle of association [and] with the need to organize the macro-economy in productive and constructive ways,” he frames the issue is a way that is very congenial to Saint-Simon. I don’t see how it is congenial to a project of building a political movement for universal emancipation, though.

Finally, there is the matter of the Jacobins. Harvey notes that my book “ignores the Jacobin element” in the socialism of Marx’s day. This is basically right. (The only caveat I will offer is that the British Jacobinism of Bronterre O’Brien does appear in my story, if rather on the margins.) It is certainly right that Auguste Blanqui and his followers play no role in my account of the argument of Capital. On the one hand, Blanqui produced almost nothing by way of theory, and what he did produce was not very distinctive. Marx was concerned to close down Proudhonism and Saint-Simoneanism within the socialist movement, since these were the two substantial bodies of theory. Second, Blanquism was not a force to be reckoned with in the International Working Men’s Association, which – I argue in the book – is the most relevant context for situating Capital. There was a migration of Blanquists into the IWMA after the Commune, but Marx hated their conspiratorial methods and worked with his allies to shut them out. Third, Marx’s relation to Blanquism has been exhaustively and authoritatively treated in Richard N. Hunt's The Political Ideas of Marx and Engels (an underappreciated and hard-to-find classic, unfortunately); I saw no value in retreading that ground. Most importantly, however, the French republican tradition, of which Blanqui is one offshoot, is, as Harvey realizes, “very different” from the republican tradition that I think influenced Marx. Rousseau had a massive influence on the French tradition, but almost none on Marx (as David Leopold has shown). I simply see no signs of Jacobin or Blanquist influence in Capital, and Harvey does not point to any, either. If anyone else does, I would, of course, be happy to revisit the question. But, in the absence of any such indication, I am a bit baffled by the suggestion that I cannot pursue the evidence that is in the text “without first opening up the question of Jacobin republicanism.”

And so, to conclude, we seem to have come full circle. Harvey’s overwhelming objection to my book is that it is a reading of Volume One. He does not think that I can establish my interpretation of Volume One on the basis of Volume One. And he argues against my interpretation, but not, for the most part, on the basis of Volume One. This result suggests to me that I am onto something. As I write in the introduction to Marx’s Inferno,
Marx undoubtedly thought of Capital as his chef d’oeuvre. Throughout the twentieth century it was relatively neglected, for it was supposed to be the seat of the Marx we already knew from the proclamations of the Marxist parties. Hence, people who were attracted to Marx but repelled by the parties went looking for one “unknown Marx” or another, as new manuscripts became available. This process has certainly enriched our knowledge of Marx’s thought, but it has also produced the rather perverse situation in which Marx is better known for his unpublished jottings than for his major public intervention. Ironically, we never actually knew the Marx of Capital very well. It is a long and difficult book, lacking the programmatic clarity and generality of Engels’s late works. … Volume one of Capital—Marx’s only fully elaborated and published work of theory—ended up being largely neglected. And, so, I think it is important to go back to it, to read it carefully from beginning to end, and to do so without presuming that we know what we will find. (pp. 15-16)
My hope is that my book might provoke exactly this sort of reading. If it does, then I am sure that people will encounter things that push against my interpretations, that suggest other interpretations, that open up onto other interlocutors. Until then, I am grateful to Professor Harvey for taking the time to read and respond to my book, but I remain unmoved by his objections.