Lately I’ve been struggling through a pile academic books that purport to be Marxist but that mainly display obscure language and practical irrelevance.
So this article, originally published in Socialist Worker Review in July 1989, definitely struck a chord.
Dialectically Speaking: Mystifying Marx
by Chris Harman
I used to wonder why Fred Engels devoted so much effort to writing his 400 page book Anti-Dühring. Who, after all, shows any interest in Dühring’s ideas today?
What worried Engels was that a university professor who rejected the central tenet of socialism – that workers could emancipate themselves – was nevertheless influencing many socialist intellectuals because he seemed to be academically respectable.
I am much more understanding of Engels’ efforts than I used to be.
In recent decades revolutionary socialists have confronted not one Dühring, but hundreds. Like their unacknowledged prototype they claim to be socialists but do not base themselves upon working class self-emancipation. Unlike him they have the gall to call themselves Marxists.
Until about 20 years ago the number of academics who claimed to be Marxists, at least in the English speaking countries, was very small indeed. However, since then a whole academic industry has grown up which claims to be Marxist. It controls professorships and readerships, whole departments of sociology and politics, research funds and visiting scholarships. It lies behind a score of academic journals.
A number of things are characteristic of almost all humanities departments in modern day universities and polytechnics.
First, there is an almost complete divorce of arguments from their practical implications, except occasionally in terms of advising existing governments about what to do. To advance in an academic career you are free to use whatever methodology you want – Weberian, post-structuralist or some variant of Marxist. But you cannot address yourself to the tasks of building a revolutionary party or equipping it theoretically for its tasks.
Second, flowing from this, there is the pretence that everyone shares a common frame of reference. You can say a previous speaker at an academic colloquium is inconsistent or does not marshal his or her facts correctly, but you cannot denounce them for standing on the opposite side of the barricades.
Third, there is the deliberate cultivation of obscure language and tortuous prose style. Successful academics are, more often than not, the ones who can convince those in control of appointments and promotions that their ideas are difficult and serious. How better to do so than to wrap up some common-sense idea in a mystifying package of long, preferably Greek words.
Fourth, there is extreme fragmentation of disciplines. The more disciplines there are, the more professorial chairs and so the narrower the field taught or studied the better. Hence the proliferation of social anthropologists who know nothing of human archaeology, of economists who have never looked at the working of a single firm and of sociologists who are ignorant of the most elementary facts of economic history.
All these elements have infected academic Marxism. The divorce from practice means that people with completely contradictory views on current concrete questions can quote each other’s theories as if they shared a common starting point.
So it is, for instance, that Ellen Wood, who identifies the future of socialism with the well-being of the USSR, can be quoted as a disinterested pursuer of truth by Bob Brenner who thinks that Gorbachev is the leader of a vicious, exploitative, bureaucratic collectivist ruling class. So it is too that a new book by Andrew Collier, who used to be associated with the revolutionary socialist views of this Review, can insist on the absolute correctness of the ideas of Louis Althusser – ideas which were first formulated in order to justify, from the point of view of support for the Chinese regime, an opposition to any notion that Marxism had a “humanist”, emancipatory content.
As for the obscurity of language, it is very easy to do to most academic Marxists what C. Wright Mills once did brilliantly to the arch-spokesman of conservative academic sociology, Talcott Parsons – to reduce three pages of dense text to two simple sentences expressing common place views.
The fragmentation of academic life finds its reflection with the fragmentation of academic Marxism: journals appear in related disciplines with no reference to each other’s concerns, and “experts” in one sphere often show the most elementary ignorance of findings in related spheres.
Finally, there is the question of fashions. Just look at the academic Marxist philosophers. In the mid-1960s they were all influenced by existentialism and phenomenology, to the point of not being able to write the word insertion without putting a hyphen after the first syllable. Then came the overnight conversion to Althusser, the sprinkling of every text with words like “over-determination”, “condensate”, “absent presence” and the condemnation of any opponent as “humanist” or “historicist”.
But soon Althusser was old hat and what was “in” was post-Althusserianism, which “deconstructed” the “subject” so much that individuals ceased to exist. In the last couple of years things have come full circle, with “analytical Marxism” reinstalling the individual in much the same way as the existentialist Marxism of a quarter of a century ago did – and ditching just as completely any chance of understanding the influence of material causes on human action through the use of the good old couplet of base and superstructure.
None of this means that there is never anything of interest in academic Marxism. Just as with academic history or economics in general, among the piles of crap there is the occasional nugget of gold that no genuine Marxist can afford to ignore. What is more, even with the rubbish, it is sometimes necessary to make an effort to prove it is rubbish – as Engels did with Dühring.
But before you can do either task, you have to understand that revolutionary Marxism starts from different premises and has different aims to the academic version, and not confuse one with the other.
I couldn’t agree more! Thanks to Marxist Internet Archive for making this available.
I have my own criticisms of contemporary academic Marxism and am always happy to see others add their voices but Harman, Sheehan, Myers, etc. all failed to grasp Marx’s object or (dialectical) method in Capital and thus the significance of that work or the range of application of its insights so I am mystified by the insistence of either the more or the less academically oriented “Marxists” that they are somehow the purer and the more committed to the faith.