What’s Left of Marx?

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 …

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Is Marx Dead? February 27, 1986