Jon Elster is a Norwegian political scientist who works at the Institute for Social Research in Oslo and teaches at the University of Chicago. He has written a number of lively and contentious books, chiefly in the philosophy of the social sciences, and this most recent book, still lively and contentious but also very long, follows directly from his previous work. Except in a limited and special sense, it doesn’t follow from previous Marxicology. Making Sense of Marx is meant to represent a new style in Marxist studies—as if to say of earlier scholars that whatever they have made of Marx, they have not made sense of him (and many of them have not made sense at all). Elster’s aim is to make Marx make sense, and his notion of what is sensible is, as we shall see, both straightforward and narrow. Hitherto academic Marxists have tried to shape the social sciences to fit a Marxist model; Elster tries instead to shape Marxism to the model of modern social science.
Not Marxism, really; the focus here is on Marx’s own work, not on the political and intellectual tradition of which it is the source. Bernstein, Luxemburg, and Trotsky figure only incidentally in the book; Kautsky, Lenin, Gramsci not at all. Indeed, Elster’s references tell an interesting story. The leading Marxist writers of the preceding generation, Louis Althusser and Nicos Poulantzas, do not appear in either the index or the bibliography—a sign that if one wants to write for the ages it might be better not to write about Marx. After Marx himself, the authors most frequently cited in this book are the English philosopher Gerald Cohen (Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defense, 1978), John Roemer (Analytical Foundations of Marxian Economic Theory, 1981, and A General Theory of Exploitation and Class, 1982), and Jon Elster. These three are coeditors of the Cambridge series in which Making Sense of Marx appears; the series is devoted to freeing Marxist thought “from the increasingly discredited methods and presuppositions which are still widely regarded as essential to it [so] that what is true and important in Marxism will be more firmly established.” The project seems to entail freeing Marxist thought from most Marxists.
It may also entail freeing Marxist thought from most of what Marx wrote, for on Elster’s reading, which is always learned, conscientious, and sensible, many of Marx’s arguments turn out to be important but not true—or true but not important. The trouble lies in Marx’s “cavalier attitude to the canons of explanation.” Elster, by contrast, is a methodological Puritan, or, perhaps better, Roundhead. (“A Roundhead is a man whose brain’s compact/Whose verilies and trulies are an Act Infallible.”) His first chapter sets forth the critical canons he approves of, which are essentially two-fold: methodological individualism and rational choice. The first requires that we explain social change (and resistance to change) by reference to the beliefs, motives, and actions of individuals; the second requires that we conceive these individuals as “rational.” That is, in the light of what they believe, they are engaged in some form of behavior aimed at “maximizing” one value or another—probably, but not necessarily, their private interests.
Elster intends these two canons to rule out functionalist and teleological explanations. He attacks, for example, the claim, defended with great rigor in Cohen’s book, that what Marx calls the “relations of production” (the way productive forces like labor, raw materials, or technology are organized into an economic system such as feudalism or capitalism) are to be explained by their capacity to develop the forces of production themselves. According to Cohen’s Marx, who is a technological determinist, the forces are always primary, and economic organizations, political systems, even ideologies, take hold and prosper only insofar as they enhance the use and/or development of a given set of productive forces.
This is what Marx himself says, or seems to say, but it makes no sense as an explanation, according to Elster, until an account is given of how (precisely) this taking hold or prospering is actually brought about by the choices individuals make in economic and political life. And Marx gives no such account; his historical descriptions are marked mostly by a cavalier disregard of his own theory. Cohen’s functionalist reconstruction of the thesis that productive forces are primary serves only to show “how implausible the…thesis is.” Implausible is one of Elster’s favorite words; so far as I can tell it describes most of what commonly passes for Marxism. What is left that could possibly be true and important is a hard question. The question has to be asked since Elster professes himself a Marxist still—in spite, as it were, of his own book; but first I must render an account of the toll he takes.
Much of Making Sense of Marx is concerned with exegesis. Elster is a master of the texts, all of them, the books, pamphlets, speeches, articles, letters, and the seemingly endless stream of notebooks—thousands of pages Marx never prepared for publication. Alas, his mastery gives him no pleasure. He finds Marx guilty of a “deplorable lack of intellectual discipline.” He is “dumbfounded by the apparent lack of concern for consistency,” and finds it “difficult to avoid the impression that [Marx] often wrote whatever came into his mind, and then forgot about it as he moved on to other matters.” Elster does the best he can, and that is very good indeed, to reconstruct Marx’s arguments and to choose among rival interpretations. But “it is a sign of the elusiveness of Marx’s thought that almost no interpretation can be definitely eliminated.”
Marx is obviously not the very model of a modern social scientist. Elster’s charges apply, I think, even to the central books and articles. But some of the difficulties arise from the radically dissimilar texts that Elster examines. It is as if Bible critics should find themselves possessed not only of Jeremiah’s prophecies but also of his journals. Imagine, indeed, six sets of journals, dating from different periods, in which the prophet wrote down all sorts of things (“whatever came into his mind”), tried out arguments, images, even prophecies—that never found their way into his formal utterances. Is it the published prophecies that reflect Jeremiah’s fully considered views? Or did he express his deepest convictions only in private? Perhaps the journals reveal the prophecies he would have delivered had he not been bundled off to Egypt. Perhaps they reveal only his discarded ideas. Which are the privileged texts? How does one make sense of Jeremiah?
Elster doesn’t spend much time on the analogous problems in Marx. Mostly, he takes the texts as given, no matter how they have come to us. He rightly thinks the first volume of Capital is Marx’s masterpiece (it is also the only major piece of writing that Marx ever finished), but when he is struggling to reconstruct (or deconstruct) an argument, he cites whatever passages come to hand. Perhaps that is all one can do now, after the publication of the notebooks and their extraordinarily rapid ingestion by apparently famished professors. But if anyone hoped to find a definitive message in the Grundrisse or the Kritik der politischen Ökonomie or the Ethnological Notebooks or the Mathematische Manuskripte, Elster’s book dispels that hope. There is no such message.
Nor is the best message that we can tentatively put together very persuasive. If anything, Elster’s substantive criticisms go deeper than his methodological ones, though the two are, in the Roundhead manner, closely connected. I will go through them roughly as they appear in Making Sense of Marx.
Marx’s views on man’s relationship to nature “are either rambling and incoherent, or inherently trivial.” They are true (sometimes), but not important.
Marx’s psychological theory “is largely based on wishful thinking…denying or ignoring important features of human nature.” This is a criticism considerably augmented when Elster gets to the account of communist society, in which what Marx called the human “species-essence” is supposed, finally, to be fulfilled. But how can we all be (equally) fulfilled, Elster asks, when “the frustration of unsuccessful individuals is an inevitable by-product of a system that allows a full development of human talents?” If everyone who feels a poetic impulse actually sits down and writes poems, some people, in fact many people, will write bad poems. And eventually they will have to confront their failure, if only because everyone who feels a critical impulse must be allowed to express it…and so on.
Marx’s philosophy of history, like Hegel’s, is “imprisoned in a halfway house, between a fully religious and a fully secular view.” And if this philosophy no longer justilies the ways of God to man, it is frighteningly available to justify the ways of man to man. Its strong teleology—i.e., its view of history as inexorably tending toward the victory of the proletariat—can readily be used, and was used, to defend the Stalinist sacrifice of living men and women for the sake of a speculative future: it “allows one to regard pre-communist individuals as so many sheep for the slaughter.”
The labor theory of value, the cornerstone of Marxist economics (crucial, too, for the understanding of exploitation), is “useless at best, harmful and misleading at its not infrequent worst.” Marx held that the value of commodities could be explained by the amount of labor that went into making them; and that the same measure of value could explain market prices. But, Elster argues, the theory cannot do this for a variety of reasons. Because people differ in natural talents, for example, Marx cannot define “homogeneous” units of labor. This “prevents the labour theory of value from even getting off the ground, since the basic concepts cannot be defined.”
Marx’s theory that as capitalists substitute machinery for labor the rate of profit tends to fall is also untenable, indeed “conclusively…shown to be invalid”—because, among other reasons, Marx was wrong to think that surplus labor is the only source of profit. The theory is important but not true. Elster works hard to explain Marx’s economic arguments, drawing heavily upon Roemer’s books. But he ends up accepting Paul Samuelson’s (noncelebratory) judgment, delivered on the centenary of the publication of the first volume of Capital, that Marx was basically “a minor post-Ricardian.”
Marx’s views on justice “are quite bewilderingly ambiguous.” Elster argues that Marx, for all his denunciation of moral chatter, did think capitalism unjust and (sometimes) said so. The injustice consists in exploitation, that is, the robbery of surplus value from the workers. But, he argues, Marx’s moral criticism of capitalism fails; exploitation can’t be a “fundamental notion” in morality since the labor theory of value is harmful, misleading, useless, and so on.
John Roemer has attempted to redefine exploitation in a way that does not depend on the labor theory. His argument is fairly technical, but it can be briefly and not misleadingly summed up as follows: If we imagine that the class of workers were to withdraw from society, its members taking with them their per capita share of the means of production (and also of society’s products, including their own skills); and if, having withdrawn, the workers turn out to be better off in the measurable terms of income and time available for leisure, and if the complementary class of capitalists, left behind, is worse off, then the workers can properly be called an exploited class.