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Marx and the Giraffe

In response to:

On Your Marx from the December 20, 1979 issue

To the Editors:

The reviewer, Peter Singer, of my Marx’s Interpretation of History (NYR, December 20), is blind to the main thrust of the book. Singer complains that I “never tell” my readers how I can reconcile Marx’s organic model of explanation with Marx’s contention that there is an interaction of unequal forces of which “the mode of production” is by far the most efficacious. This complaint overlooks my whole argument that, just as there are hierarchical relations in a complex biological organism (the heart, for example, being especially dominant), so there are hierarchical relations of dominance and subordination in the “social organism.” The two principles, hierarchy and organic inter-relatedness, go together without contradiction. So I argue on many pages, which Singer seems to have skipped.

Just as arbitrary is his dismissal of my interpretation of “dialectical development” as “a softer base and superstructure model.” This dismissal ignores my account of the “inner dialectic of powers and needs”—the disparity between thought and being, ideal and fact, hope and accomplishment, potentiality and actualization, alienation and its overcoming. It is just this recognition of the subjective development of the dialectic, paralleling the “outer” dialectic of discrepant social structures, that distinguishes my interpretation from the mechanistic twist of “Marxist” fundamentalism, with all its cruelty and harshness.

Singer has torn the guts out of my book and then complained that it is shallow. It is his review, not my ungutted book, that deserves this epithet.

Melvin Rader

Department of Philosophy

University of Washington

Seattle, Washington

Peter Singer replies:

Melvin Rader’s letter nicely illustrates the problem I was pointing to in my review. Perhaps he simply doesn’t see the nature of the problem. By working at the level of metaphor he avoids getting deeply enough into the hard issue of how the different models of history he finds in Marx are to be reconciled. Certainly the example of the dominance of the heart in a complex biological system is no help at all. For one thing the analogy breaks down at crucial points—the heart plainly does not lead to the creation of the brain, as Marx thinks the productive forces lead to politics, religion, ideas and so on. Nor does the heart itself go through revolutionary changes, leading to equally profound changes in other organs, as Marx thought the productive forces change, leading to changes in the rest of society. But even if we overlook the weakness of the analogy, in what sense is the heart dominant over other organs in a biological system? Why should we regard the heart, rather than say the brain, as dominant? Does the heart exercise more control over the brain than the brain over the heart? If the productive forces are, for Marx, no more dominant than the heart is in a biological organism, the base and superstructure model had better be abandoned altogether.

What Rader says about the model of “dialectical development” illustrates the other means he uses to skim over the surface of the difficulties in interpreting Marx: uninterpreted jargon. How does his talk of an “inner dialectic of powers and needs” and an “outer dialectic of discrepant social structures” help the reader to form a clear picture of the relationship between the forces of production and the political and ideological structure of society? We still need to know what causes what.

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