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Making Sense of Marx by Jon Elster

Review by: David Harvey
Political Theory, Vol. 14, No. 4 (Nov., 1986), pp. 686-690
Published by: Sage Publications, Inc.
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686 POLITICAL THEORY / NOVEMBER 1986
Jordan worries only about capitalism's contribution to the expanding
potential for discipline and exploitation. But the common willingness of
capitalism and socialism to exploit nature for the sake of economic
growth expresses their common acceptance of freedom-as-mastery.
And Jordan's insistence that autonomy is possible only within a design
that bends the state to the demands of "international economic
development" puts him in this same camp.
Jane Bennett
Rider College
MAKING SENSE OF MARX by Jon Elster. New York: Cambridge
University Press, 1985. Pp. 556, $49.50 (cloth), $15.95 (paper).
Making Sense
ofMarx by Jon Elster adds up to an intensive, lengthy,
but misguided labor of some interest.
Elster went to Paris in 1968 to try and make sense of Marx; but, not
feeling at home with the Althusserians who set the tone in those heady
days, he turned to that impeccable bourgeois scholar Raymond Aron
for guidance. He later meets up with G. A. Cohen, John Roemer, Eric
Olin Wright, and others to shape "analytical Marxism." The idea is to
subject every single tenet of classical Marxism to insistent criticism
according to the canons of contemporary analytical philosophy, while
remaining at least in principle favorable to Marx's political project. The
results of "analytical Marxism" are curiously varied. G. A. Cohen
defends Stalin's interpretation of Marx's theory of history (the primacy
of the productive forces), John Roemer generalizes the theory of
exploitation with a mathematical but ahistorical nicety that points to
the possibility of exploitation everywhere and therefore nowhere in
particular, while Wright (arguably the best of the bunch) struggles
gamely to preserve the integrity of Marx's notion of class while rubbing
it against the philosopher's stone of analytic thought. Elster's rush to
"disambiguate" Marx (his term, not mine) is so headlong that we find
Marx's contributions reduced to a rubble of statements that are either
trivial and true or nontrivial and untrue. More than once I found myself
thinking "with friends like this . ..."
Elster tries to make sense of Marx through the lenses of meth-
odological individualism and a fairly sophisticated version of rational
choice theory. When judged against these standards, most of Marx's
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BOOKS IN REVIEW 687
statements appear to be non-sense. If
methodological
individualism
and
rational choice theory are acceptable as universal criteria of
judgment,
and if it is agreed that they can be applied to each of Marx's sentences
in
isolation according to the truth-statement standards of
analytical phil-
osophy, then some of what Elster has to
say ought
to be taken
seriously.
I say "some" because Elster all too
frequently violates his own
standards
of judgment in his haste to expose the
sloppiness
of Marx's
thought.
There is, furthermore, the question of whether the criteria of
judgment
and the standard of their application are
appropriate.
What if
they are
historically relative, even (perish the
thought) products of the
bourgeois
era and its consciousness? Many Marxists will be
tempted
to look the
other way through Elster's telescope and dismiss his
project
also
as
non-sense.
Such an instant dismissal would be unfortunate. For there is much
here that commands attention. To begin with, Elster really knows his
Marx. He has combed the Marxian texts with admirable thoroughness
and pulled together a vast array of Marx's statements on several major
themes in Marx's thought. From this standpoint the book appears as an
obsessive labor of love. The mere juxtaposition and organization of
these statements provides food for thought, and often neglected areas
(for example, Marx's views on environmental determinism) are opened
up to scrutiny. Elster's insistent criticism also forces attention on
questions of consistency and meaning in ways that can be constructive
no matter what Elster himself does with them. And there is, furthermore,
a curious sense in which Elster unintendedly confirms what he is at most
pains to deny, for in taking us so thoroughly over the vast panoply of
Marx's thought, he suggests that the totality of that thought is rather
more than the sum of its parts.
Elster's intent, however, is to assemble all the canonical statements on
a particular theme and subject each of them to rigorous inspection for
internal consistency before comparing statements to see if there is any
consistent argument to be extracted. Elster organizes the materials into
two parts. The first deals with philosophy and economics and is chiefly
of interest for its serious consideration of Marx's "philosophical
anthropology." Marx's views on man and nature are judged to be "either
rambling and incoherent or inherently trivial," while his views on
human nature, though full of attractive insights on the importance of
fulfillment through labor, alienation, reification, and the like, were
achieved largely on the basis of wishful thinking or denial of vexing
questions. Marx's economics is deemed to rest on two main pillars-the
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688 POLITICAL THEORY / NOVEMBER 1986
labor theory of value and the falling rate of profit-both of which have
"conclusively been shown to be invalid." What follows from that
devastating introduction is a not particularly original neo-Ricardian
critique of Marx's economics followed by an essay on exploitation,
freedom, and justice that rests heavily on John Roemer's work.
Part Two examines the theory of history. The first chapter deals with
modes of production, and here Elster has to confront a formidable
opponent within his own school of thought. The chapter challenges G. A.
Cohen's interpretation of the primacy of the productive forces and seeks
a more powerful role for social relations. Elster is here much more
respectful of Marx, probably because of what he recognizes as the
cogency of Cohen's defense, and the chapter is of considerable interest.
It leads naturally into a consideration of class and class struggle where
Marx is credited with a lot of partial insights caught within a "strangely
disembodied" theory of history and a "no less strangely myopic" theory
of collective action. Marx's "inherent lack of intellectual discipline"
unfortunately muddies up some important intuitions (in those instances,
that is, where Marx is not "dead wrong"). The ambiguities in Marx's
conception of the state are properly pointed up in the chapter on politics
and the state, and that opens a path to instant criticism of Marx's
utopian views on communism. Marx's views on ideology are then
assessed. The critique of political economy is judged impressive "in spite
of being flawed by its reliance on functional explanation and the labour
theory of value." But the commentaries on religion are a total failure.
The final chapter on capitalism, communism, and revolution attempts
some sort of synthesis. Hardly surprising is Elster's conclusion that "it is
not possible today, morally or intellectually, to be a Marxist in the
traditional sense." More surprising is his view that we can still draw
inspiration from Marx's "methodology, substantive theories, and above
all, values." I was hard pressed to see how that conclusion could follow
from the debunking that went before. It reads as if Elster had a final
twinge of remorse or doubt at the manner in which he had so ruthlessly
crushed and interred the thought of his victim.
A number of objections can be raised against Elster's work. To begin
with, he does not always stick to his own method. He sometimes appeals
vaguely to "history" or to other thinkers (who do not necessarily share
his methodological principles) to substantiate his points. He cites John
Roemer and G. A. Cohen as if their work is definitive and noncon-
troversial, and we hear no mention of Gramsci or Poulantzas on the
state or of the widely divergent opinions held on the labor theory of
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BOOKS IN REVIEW 689
value, which is by no means as dead as Elster makes it out to be. Lukacs
is dismissed as having plunged Western Marxism into the "trap of
premature totalization," and alternative conceptions of Marx's
logic,
such as those of Ollman, are not given any consideration. The result is to
present a picture which is as unfair to Marx as it is to Marxists. There are
times when the book reads like a polemical tract lauding the achieve-
ments of analytical Marxism rather than as a serious and sober analysis
of Marx's arguments.
But there are problems with Elster's technique even when consistently
applied. Which of Marx's texts to treat as canonical is never self-evident,
and Elster, in laudably ranging far and wide, treats statements made at
very different times and under very different circumstances with equal
weight. Cavalier comments in letters, tentative formulations set down in
notebooks, burning accusations forged in the heat of political struggle,
and the considered judgments of the first volume of Capital are all run
together as if Marx's life and thought can be reduced to a set of
individual sentences of equal consideration. By taking the sentences out
of their context-textual as well as intellectual and historical-Elster
violates all reasonable standards of criticism. The result can only be a
"strangely disembodied" and "no less strangely myopic" version of what
Marx has to offer. Curiously, Elster is saved from totally vacuous and
boring exposition by a basic intuitive sense of where the importance of
Marx might lie and a lively political sense of where he thinks Marx and
Marxism do go wrong. But at that level the book reverts to its status as a
political tract dressed in the guise of analytic philosophy. The differences
with other Marxists in the analytic school-with G. A. Cohen over the
primacy of productive forces or with Eric Wright over the meaning of
class and class struggle-then appear primarily as political rather than
analytical differences.
For those who do indeed draw real as opposed to fictional inspiration
from Marx's methodology, there are innumerable sticks to beat Elster's
arguments with. The ahistorical treatment of Marx is nothing short of
shocking, the reduction of dialectical reasoning to ordinary analytical
language dealing with social contradictions is catastrophic, and the
failure to appreciate the relational way in which Marx builds his
arguments is totally uninspired by anything that Marx was about. And
as for the politics, Elster is closer to the "nouveaux philosophes" (with,
one suspects, a similar pedigree out of Raymond Aron) than he is to
anything that resembles Marxism. And therein lies the tragedy of
Elster's work. He put immense effort into a project of great im-
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690 POLITICAL THEORY / NOVEMBER 1986
portance-an assessment of the achievements and failings of Marx and
Marxism. But he trivializes his results by choice of method and thereby
takes important insights beyond the realms of credibility of those he
might most want to persuade, leaving behind a trail of juicy and
damning quotes to be used at will by those with whom I feel sure Jon
Elster would not want to be politically aligned.
-David Harvey
The Johns Hopkins University
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