Let’s talk about science and the productive forces in Marx!
John Ganz provoked everyone a couple weeks back by tweeting, first, that Marx teaches us that “socialism and eventually communism is not supposed to be a more moral system, but such an abundantly more productive system that the moral issues that arise in capitalism no longer exist.” He followed that up with another banger: “people want marx to be the cool humanist political writer who references shakespeare etc. and ignore the cringe 19th century parts where he's like ‘this is actually all science,’ but they are both there,” adding that “taking the deterministic parts [of Marx] seriously is kind of more interesting, even if it creates big problems.” After merrily engaging in the pugilism for a while, he wrote up his argument in essay form on his Substack.
I love some good Marxology, so I want to evaluate Ganz’s interpretive arguments. But I also want to say something about why these questions of science and productivity are politically important. In fact, I think two of the most important lessons we can take from Marx for contemporary emancipatory politics are embedded in these questions. So kudos to John for putting his finger on both of them – even if I am going to disagree with him about a number of issues. But also, the question of how best to relate to the thought of 19th century socialists like Marx is a motivating one for Ganz, and for me as well.
I’ll take the issues in the same order they came up: production first, science second.
Let’s establish some common ground first. Marx repeatedly and consistently maintains – and Ganz cites some of these passages in his essay – that the relations of production allow for the development of the forces of production, but that, as these forces of production develop, they come into conflict with the relations that have till then fostered them. At this point, the relations of production become fetters on the forces of production. This fettering continues until a social revolution transforms the relations of production into new relations, which can be forces- developing at this higher stage. Since socialism or communism is the highest stage of human development, and supercedes capitalism, it follows immediately that socialism must, according to Marx, have more developed forces of production than capitalism does. This is Hist-Mat 101.
The disagreements start as soon as we ask: what the hell does all of that mean? I study and teach Marx professionally and I will be the first to admit that Hist-Mat 101 sounds like a heaping bowl of word salad. Can we say the same things in a way that specifies the forces and relations of production, development, and fettering such that it sounds like anything other than a series of formulae?
Ganz implies that Hist-Mat 101 means that the sufficiently-developed productive powers of labor cause – that is, are necessary and sufficient conditions for the coming into being of – socialism. That’s how I understood his first missive. If socialism is so much more productive that the moral issues that arise in capitalism don’t come up, it seems that the increase in productive powers is what brings socialism about – otherwise the moral issues about how to distribute scarce goods would still be coming up under socialism. This is also why Ganz later insists that Marx is a determinist about history: the development of the productive powers of humanity follows a causally determinate and causally determining path, and social, political, and moral issues tag along for the ride but do no independent work.
This is a respectable interpretation of Hist-Mat 101, with a long lineage. One of its greatest proponents was the young G.A. Cohen. His 1978 book, Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defense, explicitly set out do give to the COMINTERN Marxism Cohen grew up with the most rigorous statement possible. I think it is fair to look to KMTH, therefore, to see the very best version of the argument Ganz is making.
According to Cohen’s version of Hist-Mat, the underlying trajectory of human history is the expansion of the productive power of humanity. Despite all local and temporary setbacks, there is a tendency for the forces of production to grow or develop. Since the productive forces produce use-values, of which there is no common measure, the development of the productive forces must be measured by “the amount of the day which remains after the laboring time necessary to maintain the producers has been subtracted” (Cohen, 2000, p. 61). The core of Hist-Mat, then, is this historical growth of our power to produce surplus time.
But Hist-Mat is scientific because it is explanatory: the core claim is supposed to explain the form taken by the dominant relations of production or by the economic structure of society. Economic structures that allow or encourage this development in natural power win out over those economic structures that hamper this development. Hence, any socialist economic structure must be better able to produce surplus time than is capitalism. Hence, also, social revolutions can be premature, when the forces of production are not developed enough to support the relations of production introduced by the revolutionaries. In Cohen’s terms, social or economic power is functional for productive power, and takes the form that is compatible with the current level of development of productive power.
Except, that is, when it is not and does not.
For it is also true that, as Cohen puts it, “the production relations are capable of fettering, that is, restricting the use and development of the productive forces” (2000, p. 41). During any period of time when fettering is occurring, “Dysfunctional relations persist” (p. 161). This dysfunctional state of affairs poses a significant difficulty for the Cohen/Ganz construal of historical materialism.
During periods of fettering, the relations of production are not explained by their functionality for the forces of production on hand, since they are dysfunctional given those forces. Hence, during periods of fettering the perseverance of the economic structure, if it is to be explained at all, must be explained by something other than the material powers.
Cohen thought the US was in a period of fettering in the late-1970s. According to Ganz, Marx thought that “the social organization of capitalism, with its class relations, was holding back or ‘fettering’ productive power” – and presumably this means in the England of the 1860s. That’s a lot of fettering!
It seem that, according to Hist-Mat 101, fettering has been happening in the capitalist core for 150 years. The productive powers we have are incompatible with the economic structure we have, and call for a new economic structure, and yet the old economic structure persists. The moral issues that arise in capitalism shouldn’t be coming up now, and shouldn’t have been coming up for a while. The functional explanation of social power by natural power – the fundamental theorem of Hist-Mat 101’s social physics – is unable to explain anything that has happened in the capitalist core since Hist-Mat 101 was formulated. That seems bad.
So maybe Marx and Cohen were both wrong, and fettering isn’t happening yet. Maybe the forces of production still have to develop for a while under capitalism before they will be sufficiently mighty to burst the constraints of the capitalist relations of production. Maybe?
Yeah, maybe. But the basic problem with the causal reading of Hist-Mat as a reading of what Marx was up to is that it makes politics apparently superfluous, and yet eighty percent of what Marx did in his life and in his writing was engage in politics and encourage the workers’ movement to engage in politics. In other words, if productive-forces causality is the right way to read Marx, then the consequence is not only that Marx was very wrong about the state of development of those productive forces, but also that he was fundamentally confused about his own argument, since he ought to have drawn the lesson that political struggle is epiphenomenal to the progress of the productive powers of labour.
Rather than taking the development of the forces of production as causal, though, Marx seems to have taken this development as motivational. That is, the growing productive powers of cooperative and large-scale labour motivate the working class to organize themselves and to struggle for socialism, not because these powers make the moral issues that arise from capitalism – the question of how to distribute the needs of life – irrelevant, but because these powers make these questions more and more pressing. Or, to expropriate a phrase from Rosa Luxemburg, the development of the powers of production is indispensable to socialism, not because it renders superfluous the political tasks of socialism, but because it renders these political tasks both necessary and possible.
The political tasks are necessary because the crises caused and threatened by these massive productive powers are increasingly existential. The political tasks are possible because the workers are increasingly aware of the scope of the problems and are increasingly able to communicate and organize with one another. If Marx was too optimistic about anything, it was not that humanity was on the cusp of an age of superabundance in which we wouldn’t have to fight over scarce resources any more, but that the working class was on the cusp of solving the collective action problems presented by the market economy through concerted, international, and solidaristic action.
There is another side to Ganz’s claims, though. He also argues that Marx thought socialism (and then communism) would cause a huge increase in productive powers, such that socialism would be “abundantly more productive than capitalism.” This was already implied, of course, in the notion of fettering, but it can also stand independently. Even if Marx did not think the growth of productive powers causes socialism, he might still have thought that socialism would cause such a massive increase in productive powers that everyone’s desires could be met without anyone ever having to weigh the tradeoffs or make hard decisions about whose desires ought to be satisfied. In the parlance of the internet, did Marx believe in fully automated luxury communism?
Let’s tackle the passage Ganz cites from Marx’s “Critique of the Gotha Programme,” since this is not some explosion of youthful enthusiasm, but the argument of a man who had already written Capital. Marx there writes:
In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life's prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly – only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!
This is certainly Marx at his most utopian, and he seems to express here a sort of cornucopianism. And yet, what has always stood out to me about this passage is that Marx is postponing the cornucopia to a distant time. What Louis Blanc wanted to institute immediately – from each according to his ability, to each according to his need – Marx is claiming could only become a reality after the division of mental and physical labour is overcome, after labour has become a thoroughly pleasurable activity, and after everyone has become capable of all manner of cooperative scientific work.
Far from being something that would be unlocked by the socialist revolution, this is a possibility that Marx kicks far down the road in order to emphasize, instead, how much work socialists will have to do to solve the tricky distributional questions that will arise immediately from a socialist economy. Fully automated luxury communism, if it is a possibility at all, is not an immediate possibility, suppressed by the social organization of capitalism.
On the question of science, finally, Ganz argues that “Marx viewed his own thought on analogy to or even an extension of the natural sciences.” These are two very different things, though. Ganz is on stronger ground when he emphasizes the analogies Marx draws between his own thought and the natural sciences. There is simply no doubting that. Like Hist-Mat 101, though, there is a question of what those analogies mean. Do they imply that Marx’s approach to history is positivistic or deterministic?
Short answer: no.
There’s a lot of confusion about these issues generally. Marxists and anti-Marxists alike have claimed that Marx’s perspective, according to which “ the evolution of the economic formation of society is viewed as a process of natural history,” implies the elimination of free will or individual agency. I think it does not. As I wrote in in my book on Capital, Marx’s Inferno:
Marx does not argue that economic relations manipulate individuals like puppets, but that economic relations dominate their decision making. Commodity producers in a commercial society face competitive pressures from other producers. These competitive pressures predictably incentivize certain courses of actions. Moreover, competition replaces producers who are insufficiently susceptible to those incentives with producers more susceptible to them. Under these conditions, producers – regardless of their personal idiosyncrasies or perfect-world preferences – will tend to act on market incentives, and to be price sensitive in their decision making. Their agency remains intact. They continue to make decisions based on their beliefs and desires, and to have all the characteristics attributed to persons by the standard accounts of agency. But they are not, for all that, fit to be held responsible for their actions in view of the market. They are not forced to act as they do, but they are subject to a kind of hazard that rules out discursive deliberation except within arbitrarily narrow parameters. (p. 96)
The question of determinism is whether prior causes compel human action, or whether, on the contrary, humans are able to choose from among courses of action. Denying determinism does not require denying the causal order or the explicability of human action; rather, it requires only the denial that causation implies compulsion. The issue is complicated in Marx because – like many of his major influences, such as Adam Smith and Hegel – his social theory is centrally an exploration of the unintended outcomes of intentional action, or the various ways in which the action of human beings is transmuted, by macro-social processes of aggregation, into scenarios in which it doesn’t seem to matter what any individual does. Smith and Hegel tended to focus on the positive outcomes of these scenarios – this is Smith’s invisible hand and Hegel’s cunning of reason. Marx was more interested in the negative outcomes – the negative externalities of economies centered on a market in labour-power.
Neither of these perspectives imply determinism, however. And neither does Marx’s faith in the inevitably of socialism. As G.A. Cohen put it, Marx believed socialism was inevitable, not no matter what people did, but precisely because the proletariat had good reasons to bring it about and would, being rationally concerned with their well-being and the well-being of future generations, figure out how to bing it about. Human agency is what makes socialism inevitable, and so the inevitability of socialism cannot deny human agency.
The question of positivism is a bit different. Positivism in the social sciences is the doctrine a) that the methods and modes of inquiry appropriate to the natural sciences are also appropriate to the social sciences, b) that the goal of all science is causal explanation and prediction, and c) that there is a fundamental distinction between science and everyday cognition or “common sense.” All of these elements of positivism can be given more or less strict constructions – so you might think that only experimental methods can arrive at scientific knowledge, or you might think that a wide range of empirical methodologies are adequate to the task.
Marx certainly adheres to the third element of the positivist program: he constantly reiterates that, if simple observation of the apparent surface of the world were adequate for knowledge, no science would be possible. Science always penetrates the appearances of things in order to reveal the true order, which both differs from and explains how things appear. This is true of astronomy and it is true of political economy.
In a sense, Marx also adheres to the second element of the positivist program: explaining and predicting the course of events is certainly Marx’s interest. However, this is complicated by what I said above. Marx thinks human beings act in more-or-less predictable ways, but this is predicated on them seeing and understanding their rational interests in a certain way, which cannot be taken for granted. The intelligent political action of a few can change how a huge multitude see their interests, and scientific works can do the same. Since Marx’s aim in writing and publishing Capital was to have just such an effect as this – to change how the working class movement saw its situation and ints interests – there is a fundamental tension between Marx’s project and positivism.
But it is regarding to the first element of the positivist program that Marx most obviously diverges: he denes that the same methods and modes of inquiry are appropriate to scientific inquiry into the natural and the social world. One of his most famous invocations of science indicates this quite clearly. In the preface to the first edition of Capital, Marx writes, by way of a caution to the reader:
Every beginning is difficult, holds in all sciences. To understand the first chapter, especially the section that contains the analysis of commodities, will, therefore, present the greatest difficulty. That which concerns more especially the analysis of the substance of value and the magnitude of value, I have, as much as it was possible, popularised. The value-form, whose fully developed shape is the money-form, is very elementary and simple. Nevertheless, the human mind has for more than 2,000 years sought in vain to get to the bottom of it all, whilst on the other hand, to the successful analysis of much more composite and complex forms, there has been at least an approximation. Why? Because the body, as an organic whole, is more easy of study than are the cells of that body. In the analysis of economic forms, moreover, neither microscopes nor chemical reagents are of use. The force of abstraction must replace both. But in bourgeois society, the commodity-form of the product of labour — or value-form of the commodity — is the economic cell-form. To the superficial observer, the analysis of these forms seems to turn upon minutiae. It does in fact deal with minutiae, but they are of the same order as those dealt with in microscopic anatomy.
The lines I have emphasized indicate why it is misleading to assimilate Marx’s project to positivism. The methods he advocates and uses are essentially and necessarily different from the methods of the natural sciences. Experimentation and the isolation and observation of empirically identifiable objects and events are, according to Marx, inappropriate to the task of scientifically understanding the laws of motion of capitalist production.
For all of these reasons, I think that Ganz is incorrect – or only superficially and partially correct – in his treatment of Marx. Marx was not a determinist about history, nor was he a productive forces determinist about socialism. He was not a positivist.
Nonetheless, I think Ganz is exactly right that Marx’s emphasis on scientific inquiry, his denigration of the effectiveness of moral transformation, and his hard-nosed insistance that socialism has material prerequisites do indeed mark out “what is so radical, strange and distinctive about Marx as a thinker, what it is that makes him still fun to read and compelling in the 21st century.” I think he is right that there is a real resistance and even embarrassment among many on the Left, including on the socialist and communist Left, about these aspects of Marx’s work.
However, I think this resistance and embarrassment stem, at least in part, from the very conflations – of science with positivism, explanation with determinism, and the material prerequisites of socialism with accelerationist faith in the autonomy of productivity – of which Ganz’s provocation is guilty.