On Marxism and Method

Martin Glaberman

THE ESSAY BY Michael Lowy, “For A Critical Marxism,”provides a useful beginning for discussion. His subtitle, “The Centrality of Self-Emancipation,”is an important departure from the more vanguardist views that used to prevail on the left, though it remains rather ambiguous and amorphous. But I would like to deal with what I see as two weaknesses.

The first is what Lowy sees as the limitations of Marx. “It is obvious,”he says, “that the world of labor has undergone profound transformations, particularly in the last decades: decline of the industrial proletariat and rise of the service industry, structural unemployment, and the creation (particularly in Third World countries of an excluded mass, marginalized from the process of production—the `povertariat.’ Marx did not foresee these phenomena. . .”

Lowy also complains that Marx is inadequate to deal with problems of ecology, gender etc. I get the impression that Lowy is disappointed that Marx did not leave a political program for the year 2000.

Writing in the middle of the 19th century—the only period when relatively free competition and laissez faire characterized the capitalist countries—Marx predicted the development of monopoly capitalism and statism, a permanent army of the unemployed and more.

Did he cover everything? No. He covered what it was possible to cover more than a century ago.

He wrote in The Communist Manifesto (and repeated in Capital): “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without continually revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production and all the social relations.

“Conservation, in an unaltered form, of the modes of production was on the contrary the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolution in production, uninterrupted disturbance of al social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation, distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.”And so on.

Does anyone expect Marx to predict how many workers Kodak will lay off a century and a half later? No, some work is left for us to do. The same thing applies to such questions as feminism, ecology, the growth of nationalism, etc.

Marx pointed out in his earliest writing (in Economic and Political Manuscripts of 1844)1 that the level of development of humanity can be judged by the relations between men and women. He couldn’t say much about women’s struggles until they in fact developed—in the same way that he couldn’t say much about the proletariat until there was an active working class.

Method, Not Party Program

This leads to the second problem. Lowy writes: “Shouldn’t we consider Marx’s work as a construction site, always incomplete, on which generations of critical Marxists still labor?”

That is only partly true. Marxism is not a construction, it is not predictions, and it is not a party program. Marx left us, above all, a methodology with which to examine and understand our world.

Marx’s methodology involves a number of things; but at the foundation is dialectics. In the movement, dialectics is a term that is bandied about; there is no one who attempts to study dialectics as a method of analysis.

Marx publicly acknowledged his debt to Hegel. Lenin studied Hegel and made extensive marginal notes (see Lenin’s Collected Works, vol. 38). Who is there who follows in their footsteps?2

This is admittedly difficult. No one ever provided a revolutionary materialist introduction to Hegel’s methodology. I don’t recommend it to everyone. But that the intellectuals of the movement avoid the subject like the plague is one of the barriers to making Marxism a continuing tool for a revolutionary movement.

One of the reasons for this is understandable: Dialectical materialism violates the rules of what we learned as scientific method. That is why most left theorizing rarely rises above the level of academic social science.

But try to understand the first chapter of Capital [in which Marx explores the twofold character of the commodity—ed.] without some sense of the methodology involved. Stalinist “theoreticians”solved this problem by proposing to teach Capital in a different order than it was written, leaving Chapter 1 for later. The French Stalinist, Althusser, proposed to abolish Hegel altogether.

I would think that we have a greater responsibility. What Lenin did for his time, we need to do for ours—to go back to the roots and study Marx and Lenin, and to apply their methodology to our problems—rather than complaining about what Marx failed to do.


1.Collected Works, vol. 3, 295-96.

2.A first tentative attempt to do that can be seen in C.L.R. James, Notes on Dialectics, in which James was able to see in abstract form what emerged eight years later as the workers’ councils of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.

ATC 76, September-October 1998