On the Non-Existence of Objectivist Historical Analysis

Matt and I have been responding to Will Wilkinson’s rather silly post on the relative respectability of Marxism and Objectivism in academia on Twitter, so I thought I’d bring it here as well. Attempts to shut down Marxist writing through repeated shouts of “Kulaks!” are juvenile and a clear indication that the person in question has never actually read Marx, and Matt does a typically excellent job of showing that Marxism has, indeed, produced great scholarship through people like Eric Hobsbawm and E.P. Thompson.

That said, Wilkinson’s comment on Matt’s post deserves further examination:

Perhaps Hobsbawm, Thompson, etc. were smart imaginative people and would have made even more useful contributions outside a Marxian framework. My guess is that, body counts aside, Marxism led to a huge amount of intellectual wasted effort and had an overall retarding effect on intellectual progress. I’m not sure how to argue this (maybe the possible world in which Marx never caught on gets hijacked by an even more fruitless ideology), but the combination of the endurance and falsity of the core Marxist tenets seem to me likely to have had a rather massive downside.

Yeah, no. Obviously, not all of Marx’s ideas hold up. The labor theory of value isn’t exactly riding high these days. But a lot – I’d say more – still have relevance. Marxist alienation is a tremendously useful tool for studying work and workers, and the applicability of commodity fetishism today should be clear enough. I even think Marx’s theory of history has a lot going for it, an argument into which the late G.A. Cohen put a lot of intellectual muscle. I’m not up enough on his exploitation theory, but it has serious people defending it.

Two broader points can be drawn from this. First, Marx is divisible. A historian or social theorist can draw upon certain parts of his critique of capitalism without agreeing with all of Capital, let alone with Marx’s political program. For example, I wrote an essay for a sociology of work class last spring drawing upon Marx’s theory of alienation in order to analyze drive-through window workers at McDonald’s franchises. This does not – or at least should not – imply that I accept every theory the man has promulgated. It does mean that I dubbed one of them to have value, and used it as a way to critique low-wage labor conditions. The paper was certainly Marxist in character, but that doesn’t make me a Marxist, let alone a Communist.

Second, Marx’s primary intellectual value is as critic, not as a promulgator of particular policy planks. One needs not draw the same normative conclusions about the need to overthrow capitalism in its entirety as Marx to agree that capitalism is a deeply flawed system and that he had some decent criticisms of it. When E.P. Thompson uses Marx to analyze the development of the English working classes, that need not imply support for Communist nations or policies, but that Marx has interesting and useful things to say about class relations (which should be an uncontroversial point). Of course, Thompson, Hobsbawm, and others did belong to the Communist Party of Great Britain while using Marxist analysis, but while connected, their political activism was not inextricably linked with their academic work. It is completely possible – and indeed ideal – to use Marxist analysis while rejecting his political platform.

Neither of these two points hold for Rand. Her theory does not have unique components that do not turn up in other places. Its metaphysical claims – that there is independently existing reality that is knowable through logic and reason – have been made by many others before and since. Her real innovation was putting a philosophical sheen on her knee-jerk hatred for basic human decency. That’s not really a critique, or at least a sophisticated one from which interesting claims can be made. A historical analysis through an Objectivist lens would be cartoonishly simple, and not particularly interesting. As people like Thompson and Hobsbawm have proved, nothing could be further from the truth with Marxist analysis.

Wilkinson’s claim seems to be that Thompson and Hobsbawm would have been equally good historians without Marx’s assistance. But to make that argument, he needs to prove that Marx’s assistance was not really worth much. When even vocal critics like Jon Elster concede that there is real value in his work on alienation, exploitation, and class conflict, that’s a hard point to establish.

P.S. See also new TNR webtern Noah Kristula-Green’s take.

One thought on “On the Non-Existence of Objectivist Historical Analysis

  1. I read (or where technical discussions of economics were concerned, “read”) Capital in a 19th century lit class alongside Carlyle, Dickens, and Freud. I really think that’s the right context for Marx.
    I don’t really take Marx seriously as a historian anymore than I take Freud seriously as a physician. But that doesn’t mean they have nothing to tell us or about the world we live in. As you say, on the contrary.

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