Friday, 1 June 2018

The Preconditions of Socialism: a Critical Review (v)

“For with what judgement ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” (Matthew 7:2 KJV)

By now anti-Marxist readers (openly right-wing or reformists, it makes no difference) must have felt something of what Marxist readers of Preconditions felt in the late 1890s. What’s sauce for the goose, is sauce for the gander.

Unlike those Marxists, the more enterprising among anti-Marxists may even have discovered the trick I played them: unlike Bernstein, I explained it to them.


My impressionistic assessment of Preconditions is that it is what one would expect from a careerist who wanted an editorship job for which he was grossly underqualified. I intend to prove that beyond any reasonable doubt. Neither his mind nor his heart were on intellectual pursuits. His real talent was as a social climber. 

This has implications for us living more than one hundred years after that book was published: there’s no dearth of intellectually mediocre careerists in our own times. Take economists, within and without the mainstream, for instance: many seem to fit that profile to a T, yes?

Two different routes lead to conclude Preconditions is little more than a hoax.

It’s easier if one doesn’t lose sight of the forest for the trees. In that case, Austin F. Harrison’s assessment, ironically enough, already suggests it:
“Bernstein attacked the ‘surplus-value’ theory— though he admitted that its basis was, in the main, correct, even if the theory were in itself untenable.” (pp. 128-9)
Harrison -- and those illustrious anti-Marxists who joined Bernstein -- was evidently unaware of the question that deeply contradictory statement raises, so let me spell it out for them: if Marx’s law of value was “in the main, correct”, as Bernstein himself admitted, why was it “untenable”?

I cannot blame readers if that perplexes them. Petty bourgeois intellectuals like to claim their strict adherence to objective science: the correctness of a theory is what, the argument goes, justifies its tenability. Well, that evidently did not work for Bernstein or Harrison.

A way, the only one I can think of, to understand that is that the problem Bernstein and Harrison saw in Marxism is not its theoretical untenability but its political unpalatability.

They are not alone in that appraisal.

Faced with the contradiction “in the main, correct” (A) versus “untenable” [not(A)], a reformist social democrat with little skin in the political game, like Thorstein Veblen, was free to choose A. In the same situation, a reformist social democrat deeply committed to a centre-right political agenda (much like Bernstein), like Sidney Hook, chose to peddle not(A): thus his magnifying the reach of Bernstein’s attempt.

Based on Preconditions readers can pick and choose whatever is congenial to them, exactly like Veblen and Hook did, discarding what they don’t like. Last time we’ve pinpointed some of those contradictions in Preconditions. By itself, that should be more than enough to justify a poor review of Preconditions.

Joseph Schumpeter didn’t have the hindsight we have, but I suspect he shouldn’t have had much difficulty extending his views of Bernstein (“he was no profound thinker and especially no theorist”) to Bernstein’s work.


But I want to follow a harder path: to examine the trees, not just the forest. This requires an explanation.

Terrible Preconditions may be, that doesn’t make it unimportant for intellectually lazy bloviators, like Matt or Noah Smith (and frankly, a large majority of the petty bourgeois intelligentsia).

What matters to them is not whatever passes for reasoning in Preconditions (I’d say the anti-Marxist literature, in general, but I’ll limit myself to Preconditions) is its conclusion, which they recite as mantra: dump Marxism. Their fondness for the word dogma sounds suspiciously like Freudian slip.

That precisely should make it a target for socialists. But not for the reason readers might think.

No amount of reasoning, no matter how rigorous and humble and respectful, will ever change their attitude: reason is futile. As Upton Sinclair remarked: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it”. One might as well get things out of one’s chest and burn the bridge: Marx and Engels were right, there’s no dialogue, let alone common cause, with those people. They are as much the enemy as the capitalists themselves.

Let me put that visually. A salary of US$ 180K a year, not uncommon among the top tenured academics in US universities, may not qualify one as a genuine mover and shaker, but it still puts one comfortably within the top 10% of the US population by income. There is a long way to go to reach the two right-most bars in the chart below, but even from the middling locations those academics occupy everything starts looking distastefully far left.


Top jobs, too, have their social and psychological perks: the ability to command the public’s respect and admiration, for instance. One may even come to the friendly attention of real masters of the universe. Gratitude about the present and (questionable) optimism about the future may do wonders …

Worse still: to remind them that they are there because we produce so that they enjoy the product of our effort is a non-starter.

Zach Carter recently wrote that “the job, in other words, is to back up your team.” He was talking specifically about economists; but there are, evidently, many team players.

At any event, if you were in their shoes, wouldn’t you hate to lose all that and find yourself suddenly a member of the hoi polloi?

As socialists, therefore, we shouldn’t waste our time and effort attempting to persuade them: after years of giving him his guidance and friendship, Engels failed miserably with Bernstein. Let’s be blunt, Bebel tried bribing him into compliance, humiliating himself, the SPD, and the working class in the process. He also failed: every concession engendered a new demand, until one day it was the socialists who begged for concessions. When that day came, no concessions were made.

If we try, we’ll fail as well. If there is a lesson to draw from the Eduard Bernstein episode and its aftermath is this: there’s no alliance with those people.

My public, therefore, are the working class, the socialists, those who are still open to reason. It’s them who have something to learn from this episode.


Thus, my choice of the harder path. To carefully go through Preconditions presents little conceptual difficulty but is not the kind of thing one normally chooses to do in one’s spare time: the book is that bad. Hopefully, workers should find that instructive.

As I did last time with him, Bernstein selectively quotes from Marx and Engels. That’s one of his favourite techniques: to make two authors say whatever he wished them to say, whatever is most embarrassing to them and the positions they held. It’s not hard to pull that rabbit out of one’s hat. I quoted A: Bernstein admitted Marxism is “in the main, correct”. I did that with a clear conscience, because Bernstein was lying by concealing relevant information. I, on the other hand, did not create his contradictions, I only used them.

In effect, I’ve already demonstrated one case where Bernstein did that: he made no reference to the Circular Letter of September 1879 or to related previous correspondence, including letters Engels wrote him. But that’s not the only instance of that. I will tackle just another example in Chapter 1 of Preconditions and Evolutionary (§ b). It’s a critical one, astounding in its sheer clumsiness: the man wasn’t just a liar, he was inept too.

It’s not hard to understand the general gist of Bernstein’s argument (Marxism delenda est!); it’s much harder to understand what he was specifically trying to prove and why. Bernstein’s argumental pirouettes explain the mistaken interpretations of both Piketty and Hook: against their understandings and maybe even against his own understanding, Bernstein was actually arguing that Marx was wrong because the rich were getting richer: in Bernstein’s expert opinion there were too many rich for Marx to be right. If I am right, Bernstein rightfully deserves a place next to W. Nassau Senior in the compilation of human stupidity we call economics.

Strictly speaking I didn’t have to discover those pirouettes. Henry Tudor did the heavy lifting for me:
“At this point we would have expected Bernstein to characterise the theory of the inevitable collapse of capitalism as part of Marx’s applied science. This would have enabled him to reject the theory as having been superseded by recent economic and social developments while still insisting that the principles of Marx’s pure science (the materialist conception of history, the theory of surplus value, etc.) remained intact. He could then have vindicated himself as a good Marxist by arguing that he rejected, not the principles of Marxism, but only the obsolete applications of those principles to particular cases. This, however, he did not do. Indeed, he went out of his way to reject this strategy and to insist that Marx’s general theory of capitalist development belonged squarely ‘in the domain of pure science’. So to reject this theory was to reject a fundamental principle of scientific socialism.” (p. xxiii-xxiv)
Tudor is referring to Bernstein’s “scholastic” argument in Chapter 1 (both Preconditions and Evolutionary), but another excellent example comes from those two mysterious paragraphs missing in E2§2. This will be the subject of two of my posts.

What Tudor calls going out of his way to reject Marxism, I call Bernstein’s hanging judge attitude: time and again, after a formulaic hand waving intended to provide a cloak of justification, Bernstein draws arbitrary lines in the sand to show that Marxism falls short.

And, for Hanging Judge, any transgression earns the death sentence. His case against Marxism is based on denying it his goodwill, intelligence and cooperation, the same goodwill, intelligence and cooperation his fellow petty bourgeois intellectuals demand for him and themselves.

There are many more problems in Preconditions: (1) Like Harrison, I also say that book is a mess; unlike Harrison, I don’t applaud that: Bernstein jumps back and forth in his argument, takes unexpected turns. (2) In an attempt to discredit Marxism by Hook or by crook (pun intended), he undermines his own argument (industrial concentration is not proceeding as predicted, but monopolies are a stabilising feature of enlightened capitalism?). (3) What’s a mortal sin for Marx is not worth a remark in his own thought (abstraction?). (4) He plays all sorts of word games, some of them cartoonish, intended to exasperate (abstraction, again). (5) He writes about subjects he has no claim of expertise whatsoever (mainstream economics and the philosophy of science, to name two), with such wrong-headed views that financialisation, another of the “stabilising” features in his new stable capitalism, is the only source of endogenous instability mainstream economists cannot deny.

Preconditions, in other words, is a target-rich environment. This can be a blessing for his critics; it can also be a curse. With a little patience, one could score many hits at Bernstein’s expenses. The term “overkill” never seemed this appropriate and tempting.

But that can’t be healthy (readers, too, may lack the stomach for that).

There’s much previous work to draw on: no point repeating what others did (I couldn’t locate Kautsky’s or Bebel’s replies). Luxemburg did an excellent job. Plekhanov debated both Bernstein and Schmidt on methodological issues (chiefly historical materialism). I still think the Marx and Engels 1879 Circular Letter is the best general reply to Bernstein’s 1899 Preconditions.

So, I’ll try a more strategic approach, instead: KISS. Given Bernstein’s positivism, which he shares with his fans, I’ll focus on his empirical analysis. That’s a point his Marxist critics, Luxemburg included, mostly neglected. To the best of my knowledge, only a forgotten British socialist, Jack Fitzgerald, made an effort to engage with it (but I think he made some mistakes and could have gone further).

Regrettably (and I do honestly regret this) I won’t be able to avoid Bernstein’s “scholastic” argument entirely: an attempt to do that risks leading us into the same trap Piketty seems to have fallen into.

I’ll need to show first Bernstein drawing his “lines in the sand”. As mentioned above, Tudor himself pointed to a very important example (pp. xxiii-xxiv), involving his “philosophy of science” (P1§a, E1§a), which we’ll develop.

That “philosophy of science” is the foundation of his critique of historical materialism; that, according to the table of contents, is the subject of P1§b E1§b. That critique, however, is scattered all over his book, more or less at random, so, after wasting his readers’ time and patience with Preconditions Chapter 2 (“Marxism and the Hegelian dialectic”), Bernstein returns to historical materialism in P3§b E2§b. It contains the example of selective quoting I mentioned above: it’s so clumsy it can be demonstrated graphically. It’s also immediately relevant to his empirical analysis.

Only after those two subjects are dealt with we will be able to consider Bernstein’s empirical analysis: P3§b-c E2§b-c.

No comments:

Post a Comment