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A New Marxist Paradigm?

A New Marxist Paradigm?

Joseph McCarney
I agree with a great deal in Gregor McLennan’s review
of Jon Elster’s Making Sense of Marx (RP42), and most
of all with his idea of the book’s importance. He may
well be right in thinking it ‘likely to dominate discussions of Marx and Marxism for the next decade’. There
is also likely to be widespread assent to his view of it
as ‘the flagship for a new armada of Marxist analytical
scholarship and reassessment’. The names of the other
captains in the armada would have to include those
MeLennan mentions of G. A. Cohen and John Roemer.

Here, one might suppose, is the long-awaited marriage
of analytical philosophy and Marxism. Elster’s book may
not be the last word on all, or any, of the themes and
findings of the new school, but it is surely the best
general guide and compen.dium. As such, its publication
does not simply mark the height of current academic
fashion, but is an event of real importance on the
intellectual scene.

Against this background there is one aspect of
McLennan’s review with which I would like to take
issue. It is his tribute to the ‘fair-minded feel’ to the
book, and his claim that Elster is ‘sympathetic to the
Marxist project’. The book does not feel in the least
fair-minded to me. On the contrary, it could serve as
an anthology of varieties of critical unfairness. On the
evidence of it, Elster could be regarded as sympathetic
to the Marxist project only in so far as that is compatible with a marked lack of sympathy with the project’s
founder. In amplifying these remarks,’ I shall not be
engagin.g directly with the central theses of the book.

It cannot be too strongly emphasised that nothing here
is a substitute for that vital task. It will, however, be
necessary to point to flaws in the details of some specific arguments. What is at stake in those cases is not
for the most part of great moment in itself. Nevertheless, they provide clues as to the author’s relationship
to his subject which can supplement what is gained
from formal statements of his programme and conclusions. In particular, they offer an invaluable perspective on issues of fairness and sympathy. Views on these
issues must in their turn have implications for the
book’s reception, for they help to shape the context in
which it is located and discussed.

The simplest kind of unfairness in Elster’s reading
is misrepresentation. Again and again the line of
Marx’s argument is bent, and always in the direction of
making it untenable. A couple of examples will have to
suffice here. Elster dismisses Marx’s views on the antagonism between English and Irish workers with the
remark: ‘Ruling classes can exploit prejudices, but they
cannot create them’ (Making Sense of Marx, p. 22. All
page references are to this work unless otherwise indicated). In the passage in question, however, Marx’s
claim was not that the antagonism was. ‘created’ by the
ruling classes but that it was ‘artificially kept alive

and intensified’ by them (pp. 21-22). The difference is
crucial in its setting. The desire to refute what, on
Elster’s own showing, Marx does not hold is found elsewhere. Thus, for instance, he cites Marx’s defence of
Fourier and other ‘organizers of labour’: it ‘was not
their view, as Stirner imagines, that each should do the
work of Raphael, but that anyone in whom there is a
potential Raphael should be able to develop himself
without hindrance’. This defence relies for its point on
the assumption that the potential to be a Raphael is
not universal. Yet Elster interprets it so as to fit with
his belief that Marx’s corpus as a whole never ‘refers
to differences in natural talents’ (p. 88). Later the
point is carica tured further.

Elster attacks the
‘Utopian’ idea that ‘everybody could be a Raphael’

while referring to the earlier discussion in a way plainly meant to imply that the idea was held by Marx (p.

201). Yet the distinction between it and his actual
view that everybody who could be a Raphael·should be
allowed to does not need labour ing.

Another kind of unfairness, all to familiar when
analytical philosophers turn to Marx, is the Stalinist
smear. Elster notes that Marx found himself compelled,
in his own words, to ‘say to the workers and the petty
bourgeois: it is better to suffer in modern bourgeois
SOCiety, which by its industry creates the material
means for the foundation of a new society that will
liberate you all, than ~o revert to a bygone form of
society ••• ‘. Elster comments: ‘Substitute the peasantry
for the petty bourgeoisie and primitive socialist accumulation for modern bourgeois society and you have the
classic justification for Stalinism’ (pp. 116-17). This
procedure is so useful it seems a pity to stop there.

Thus, substitute the unemployed and market forces and
you have the classic justification for Thatcherism. The
point is not just that Elster is indulging in the kind of
uncontrolled analogizing he castigates when he thinks
he finds it in Marx (see e.g., pp. 508-10). It is also that
the analogy in this case is singularly inept. Stalinism
did not, as Elster is well aware, rely on ‘saying’ to the
peasants in an effort to persuade them of the need for
sacrifices. It typically worked through coercion and
terror. Moreover, its programme has to be conceived as
pure loss of life and the amenities of life on the part
of those who suffered it for the sake of a hypothetical
future. The impression that Elster wishes to link Marx
with such projects is strengthened a little later by a
reference, on the basis of the same discussion, to his
‘philosophy of history that allows one to regard precommunist individuals as so many sheep for the
slaughter’ (p. 118). Some account should, however, have
been taken of Marx’s apparent belief that his recommendations will be of benefit to his audience themselves: their outcome ‘will liberate you all’. It is understandable that someone writing at the present time

only to be won, if at all, by the travail of generations.

But this would not have been so obvious to Marx writing in January 1849 in the midst of a European revolutionary upheaval. EIster’s treatment of the’ case points
to some of his chief weaknesses as a commentator: his
abstract, formalising style of thinking and lack of feel
for the specificity of the contexts in which intellectual
positions are advanced; more generally, his lack of an
active historical sense.

This blind spot may help to explain another feature of his method, the tendency to treat all of Marx’s
writings as one vast text to be assessed primarily for
internal coherence. Thus, he assembles a number of
passages in order to exhibit the inconsistencies in
Marx’s references to Christianity (pp. 506-08). The
sources extend in time from the 1840s to the 1870s.

They range from private notebooks to preparatory outlines to material published by Engels to works whose
publication was overseen by Marx himself. Given this
provenance, it is hardly surprising that inconsistencies
can be found. The absence of any could only mean that
one’s subject had stopped thinking about the topic at
an early stage. Elster shows no feeling for the heterogeneity of his evidence, nor any of the caution it
should induce. This is all the more surprising since he
had earlier quoted a remark that might have given him
pause. It comes in a letter to Engels:”Whatever shortcomings (my writings) may have, they have the advantage of forming an artistic whole, which can only be
achieved through my method of never letting them into
print before they lie wholly before me’ (p. 42). This
gives grounds for attending to the distinction between
what Marx let into print and what he did not, and even
between those categories and what was never intended
for print in the first place. In this connection one may
also note Elster’s comment that Capital 11 is ‘certainly
one of the most boring works ever written by a major
author’ (p. 142). He is, of course, aware that the work
we know by that title was put together by Engels,
exercising considerable editorial discretion, from manuscripts left after Marx’s death, and was not written by
Marx to be read in its present form. In view of this,
his comment is surely something of a cheap gibe.

The meanness of spirit shown here and elsewhere
in the book will surprise those who know Elster’s other
writings. The various ‘Replies’ to critics, for instance,
have a remarkable balance and liberality, being always
ready to reshape a thesis in the light of objections,
conceding a point where it seems necessary and holding
the line firmly where it does not (Inquiry 23, 1980;
Theory and Society 12, 1983). They are, in short, a
model of how to conduct intellectual debate. It is true,
and mildly amusing, that an astringent note tends to
creep in when Elster is responding to critics outside
the inner circle of the new ‘Marxism’. Then one finds
also the same favourite devices of the analytical movement as were applied to Marx. There is, for instance,
the ingenuously pained admission of inability to understand: ‘I confess my inability to make any interesting
sense of Marx’s article “On the Jewish Question'” (p.

504 note). In dealing with Anthony Giddens in particular, this device is made to work overtime (Theory
and Society 12, 1983). Even in these cases, however,
everything proceeds well within the conventional
bounds of academic discussion. No doubt the contrast
between them and that of Marx owes something to the
decencies appropriate to arguing with contemporaries.

But it would scarcely be to E1ster’s credit to take this
as a complete explanation. Something must be due to
the fact that in these debates he is confronting thinkers he respects as he does not respect Marx. At this
point one comes near the heart of the problem of his
book. For the attitude it reveals to its subject is best
characterised as a kind of intellectual contempt. To

say this is not itself to criticise either Marx or Elster.

The fact must nevertheless be acknowledged. The nature and basis of Elster’s contempt are sufficiently
shown in the tenor of his complaints. Marx has ‘a cavalier attitude to the canons of explanation’ (p. 35).

There is an ‘omnipresent bias of wishful thinking’ in his
work (p. 438). Most revealing and persistent of all is
the charge of ‘lack of intellectual discipline’ (pp. 317,
390, 508). These habits of mind are naturally enough
reflected in the detailed analyses, which are variously
characterised by Elster as ‘rambling’, ‘arbitrary’, ‘confused’,· ‘incoherent’, ‘rather absurd’, ‘downright silly’

and ‘a conceptual jungle’. It may be said that he shows
himself somewhat insensitive to the comic possibilities
that arise, against this background, when he turns to
authors of whom he approves, as when we are assured
that ‘(G. A.) Cohen’s approach is characteristically
lucid’ (p. 244). The incongruity here may oblige the
reader to pinch herself to get things back in their true
proportions, with Cohen as one of our ablest professors
and Marx as what he professes.

The low regard Elster has for the subject ‘of his
book has a more serious aspect. For it may well be
thought an odd qualification for the author of a study
of more than five hundred pages. Moreover, the overwhelmingly negative tone of the study must give rise to
the question of how such an intellectual pygmy could
merit attention on this scale. It may be surmised that,
in the course of the writing, Elster graduaUy became
alive to the pressure of this question. At any rate, the
final paragraph tries to strike a positive note, by indicating the sense in which he regards himself as a

••• speaking now for myself only, I believe, it
is still possible to be a Marxist in a rather
different (i.e. non-traditional, JM) sense of
the term. I find that most of the views that I
hold to be true and important, I can trace
back to Marx. This includes methodology, substantive theories and, above all, values.

(p. 531)
This is a useful check-list, and it should· be asked how
far the items on it will bear scrutiny.

achievement is prominent among the aspects of his
book that merits full-scale independent treatment. Even
a brief glance is, however, enough to show that what
he says about it amounts to the faintest of praise and
what he could claim to have derived from it in a personal way is wholly mysterious. Marx’s central contribution is taken to be the idea that uncoordinated
actions may come to grief through the mechanism of
unintended consequences (pp. 44, 48). This is the phenomenon which Elster, borrowing from Sartre, calls
‘counterfinality’. It is one of the two main species of
social contradictions discussed at length in his earlier
work Logic and Society. The second is called ‘suboptimali ty’, and involves the kind of intentional produc-

tion of suboptimal consequences of which the Prisoner’s
Dilemma is the paradigm. The contrast lies in the fact
that, while suboptimality is a game-theoretic notion
presupposing strategic rationality on the part of the
players, counterfinality can arise only at a prestrategic, pre-game-theoretic stage. This stage is, for
Elster, the true home of Marx’s methodological expertise. Thus:’ Although strategic interaction is crucial in
economic life, both within and between classes, Marx
took little explicit account of it’. Moreover, what he
says is ‘hardly more coherent and systematic than what
may be discovered in Hobbes, Rousseau or Tocqueville’,
and he is ‘sometimes confused’ with respect to a ‘crucial’ element of it (pp. 14-15). Indeed, he scores badly
for game-theoretic competence in general. Thus, he
commits the cardinal error of violating the principle of
‘mutual rationality’ (p. 298). His inadequacy also shows
itself in less basic, but still important areas, as in his
‘narrow pre-strategic conception of power’ (pp. 406,

To see the force of this assessment, one has to
invoke an idea that runs through E1ster’s work and is
made most fully explicit in one of the sets of ‘Replies’

to critics referred to earlier. It is that the conceptual
distinction between counterfinality and suboptimality
‘corresponds to’ the ‘historical divide’ between traditional and modern societies (Inquiry 23, 1980, pp.

216-17). It follows that while Marx’s methodological
contribution may be of use to the anthropologist or
ancient historian, it can have little to offer the student of capitalism. It follows also that he himself
lacked the conceptual tools needed to do justice to a
central object of his social science, the formation and
interaction of classes in modern societies. What actively interests Elster, as any acquaintance with his writings will show, is the application of game-theoretic insights to those societies, not the parametric predicaments of traditional actors. It now becomes difficult to
see what could be of personal significance for him in
Marx’s method. Indeed, one might ask how Elster could
possibly respect Marx, since he is a complete duffer at
game theory. The truth of this matter is surely not
hard to discern, and the only puzzle. is why Elster
should wish to deceive himself about it.

Faced with the claim that Elster Ilnds some of
Marx’s substantive theories to be ‘true and important’,
one can only ask ‘what theories’? On almost any
medium-sized topic one chooses, his verdict will be
found to be harshly dismissive. Fleshing out some of
the epithets listed earlier, one may note that Marx’s
views on ‘man and nature’ are said to be ‘either rambling and incoherent, or inherently trivial’ (p. 55). His
discussion of religion is described as ‘arbitrary and
largely incoherent’ (pp. 493-94). Going beyond the list,
one may cite the assertion that the writings on interna tional poli tics are ‘largely devoid of theoretical
interest’ (p. 17). It is true that occasionally a less hostile conclusion is revealed, but even then what is
chiefly remarkable is the grudging and patronising way
it is framed. To take a representative case: Marx’s
‘sociology of economic knowledge was quite an impressive achievement, in spite of being flawed by its reliance on functional explanation and the labour theory of
value’ (p. 504). It would be easy to give further instances at this level. Instead, however, it may be more
rewarding to deal in broad strokes with the two main
divisions of Marx’s substantive theorising, as conceived
by Elster.

The first, the theory of history, is on Elster’s presentation comprehensively vitiated by ‘the a priori
nature of his reasoning – the speculative, teleological
nature of his reasoningl – the speculative, teleological
strand in his thought’ (p. 432). The position as regards
the second, economic theory, is sufficiently indicated

by noting that the two ‘main pillars’ of the analysis of
capitalism as an economic system, the labour theory of
value and the theory of .the falling rate of profit, have
both, according to Elster, ‘conclusively been shown to
be invalid’ (p. 119). In general, his view of Marx’s sta·
tus as an economist is fairly caught in McLennan’s focusing on the phrase ‘a minor post-Ricardian’ (p. 513).

If one steps back from Elster’s own account to ask
what elements of substantive theory he could reasonably claim to take over from Marx, there seems only
one serious candidate. It can be argued that he accepts
some version of Marx’s conception of classes and of
modern society as structured by class divisions. The use
to which he wishes to put these elements is accurately
described by McLennan: ‘he recommends that classical
formulations be conceived anew as various possibilities
and strategies in a game~theory-based model of collecti ve action.’ Wha t is valuable in Marx is the grist the
picture of classes supplies for the game theorist’s mill,
mater ial he was incompetent to process himself. This is
the substance of Elster’s claim to be indebted to his
social science. In addition, one must acknowledge the
truth contained in the phrase ‘above all, values’ which
was quoted earlier. Herein lies what is undoubtedly
Elster’s strongest link with Marx. ‘Self-realization
through creative work’ is, for him, ‘the most valuable
and enduring element of Marx’s thought’ (p. 521). The
genuineness of Elster’s attachment to this ideal is not
in question. Neither, however, should its significance
for his view of Marx be overstated. The theme may
serve to establish Marx as a minor post-Ricardian
whose heart is in the right place, but it can add little
to his stature as a thinker or social scientist.

The comparison with Kolakowski, Elster’s predecessor as the chief interpreter of Marx to the academy, is instructive here. Without wishing to propound
any cheap paradoxes, it should be pointed out that
McLennan stands the truth on its head when he remarks that Elster ‘does not Kolakowski-lil<e, 'give the
sense of delightingln finding fault'. This 'Comment'

has tended to suggest that such delight may be seen as
the main motive force of Elster’s discussion. It would
be quite unfair to view the first volume of Main
Currents of Marxism in that way. It is true that the
later volumes, on Marxism after Marx, are an accelerating intellectual disaster, but that is another matter.

Kolakowski’s reading, in contrast to Elster’s, makes
intelligible the claim of Marx’s work to be an important intellectual achievement. In itself this is, of
course, hardly surprising since the reading had ben
taken over wholesale from Lukacs. On it, Marx clearly
emerges as a first-rank figure in the history of
thought, as, at least, a major post-Hegelian. Moreover,
it is plain that even, or especially, at his most hostile
Kolakowski is struggling with what he believes to be a
powerful and insidious poison whose effects he cannot
be entirely sure of having eliminated from his own
system. The condescending air, lit with flashes of irritation, that characterises Making Sense of Marx
betrays no such inner struggle. There is normally little
point in arguing about who is or is not a ‘Marxist’, and
yet the term may not, even now, have lost all determinacy. That the book is the work of someone who
regards himself, and is regarded by others, as in some
sense deserving the label is just the kind of farcical
touch in which Marx himself would have delighted and
to which his pen could have done justice. The truth is
that Elster treats Marx as a ‘dead dog’ and the most
intriguing question that now arises is how well he gets
away with it. If Making Sense of Marx fails to provoke
sustained and systematic attempts at rebuttal, it can
only be a sign that Marx’s work has, for the time being
at least, ceased to be a living force in the West. That
is the best measure of the book’s significance.


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