A Sociological Autobiography: 29 – ‘Are You a Marxist?’

By | May 29, 2014

I was reared on the Daily Telegraph and began my undergraduate life at Surrey University considerably misinformed. I recall in the early weeks of year one term one defending this Worthing stalwart and arbiter of common sense when confronted by Pete Kirby, a patient if querulous mature student and member of the Communist Party. But if I moved on fairly rapidly, had I by the mid-1980s become a Marxist? And what about now, as I write?

My edited collection on Sociological Theory and Medical Sociology contained a chapter on Marx by old mate, David Blane. Now he WAS a Marxist, and an ASTMS shop steward to boot, so how did I measure up? Certainly my acquaintance with chunks of theoretical and empirical sociology from Surrey days, and my later discovery of Habermas, had whetted my appetite; moreover I was undoubtedly disappointed at what I interpreted as a progressive distancing from Marx in Habermas’ writings. It was in fact around this time that I began responding to the question ‘are you a Marxist?’ with the formularic ‘I think any credible sociology has to be conducted in the spirit of Marx’, or ‘I think Marx is the starting point for anyone aspiring to a sociology of the present’. They are mantras I stand by.

In the late 1980s, if pushed, I located Marx within a Habermasian frame. I argued for the durable salience of class in what I then called post-1970s re- or dis-organised capitalism and saw this as the key aspect of a systemic colonization of the lifeworld. Habermas was too Weberian in his account of the ‘rationalisation of society’. For me, then as now, class structures rooted in the subsystem of the economy were significant drivers of command structures rooted in the subsystem of the state. As I noted in the last fragment in this series, one of the things I found attractive in Habermas’ theories was the way it facilitated linkages between macro-analyses of economy and state and micro-analyses of ordinary ‘everyday’ interaction.

With the advantage of a quarter of a century of hindsight, did I end up a full-bloodied Marxist? Now here’s an academic’s reply: yes and no (but probably more yes than no). Let’s get the negatives out of the way. Marx was writing a century and a half ago so the liberal capitalism that he so pungently unpicked differed significantly from today’s financial capitalism. It follows that his analysis has limited applicability: at the very least it requires updating. Nor did he altogether anticipate capitalism’s transitions or phases in his ‘mature’ work. How could an analyst penning his thoughts in the 1860s be spot on for the twenty-first century?

The positives trump the negatives with something to spare. I hold resolutely to the view that I was flirting with in the 1980s, namely, that Marx’s analysis of capitalism is fundamental for a sociology of post-industrial, post-Fordist or financial capitalism. For me capitalism is still characterized by the contradictions exposed by Marx and class remains a critical concept. That the ‘classical’ concept of class has been diluted and diminished is itself, I think, an indirect product of ‘class struggle’. I am getting ahead of myself here but these are my fragments after all! If I set out my stall, maybe this will feed into and clarify my journey from the 1980s through the ‘90s and ‘noughties’ to the 2010s. So where do I stand?

Let me hint at a view here that will doubtless be refined in as-yet unwritten pieces. It is of the essence of capitalism, or so Adam Smith declared in Wealth of Nations, that left to its own devices the rich become richer and the poor poorer. What Marx appended was a theory of exploitation: the ‘haves’ become richer by exploiting the ‘have-nots’. With Piketty’s Capital beside me in the Spring of 2014 I can confirm that the data support Smith’s proposition and are consonant with that of Marx. The interwar years, featuring the Great Depression, were a mere a blip. The data from the era of financial capitalism show: (a) a marked rise in inequality of wealth and income, and (b) in the absence of growth, a significantly enhanced salience for ownership of capital versus income from labour. Marx offered a theoretical frame that Piketty openly admits is lacking in his analysis. Piketty does social aggregates not social structures. Here are a few of Marxism’s surviving butresses. First, there is what I am tempted to call a logic to capitalism (from its mercantalist and liberal origins through to its financial phase). Second, capitalism contains ‘internal’ contradictions: not only between the ownership of capital and wage-labour, but also, for example, between market (or for-profit) ‘freedom’ and infrastructural planning for healthcare, education, housing and so on. Third, there remain in financial capitalism readily discernible class-based delineations and antagonisms. Fourth, these class-based antagonisms are rooted in exploitation. Fifth, well I could go on … I might even defend a version of the labour theory of value! But now is not the time.

Am I a Marxist? I have over time come to describe myself as a neo-Marxist. And if anyone were to call on me to distance myself from, label ‘old hat’ or denounce Marxism I would vigorously rebel. To speak a language popularly regarded as outmoded is not to be wrong. Concepts, even philosophies and theories, can outlive the words conventionally used to capture them. Terry Eagleton in his Why Marx Was Right in 2011 explains it all very straightforwardly.I worry especially about sociologists who have turned their backs not only on classical sociology in general but on Marx in particular. There will be no apologies in future fragments for my own neo-Marxism.



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