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Marx -- A Radical Critique (Review) December 15, 2003 by RedStar2000

Marx: A Radical Critique
by Alan Carter

(Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado/Frederick A. Prager, Publisher, 1988, ISBN 0-8133-0651-5/First published in Great Britain by Wheatsheaf Books Ltd., 1988)

I thought this would be a good book for me to review for several reasons.

It's been noticed from time to time that I have made some pretty sympathetic remarks about particular, the role of militant anarchists in the anti-globalization/anti-war movements around the world. Some have concluded from these references that I'm "not really a Marxist" but rather some kind of "closet anarchist" myself.

Others agree because of my rejection of the Leninist paradigm; in their eyes, one cannot "be" a "Marxist" unless one also embraces Lenin, Stalin or Trotsky, and Mao.

Thus, when talking about this book by a modern anarchist political theorist, it will give me the opportunity to "demonstrate" my "Marxism", such as it is.

Carter's book is very ambitious and fairly is not an "easy read". He wants to completely overthrow the Marxist paradigm altogether. In his view, Marxism is an ideology developed by a rising "managerial-technical" class that may or even will replace the bourgeoisie as a new ruling class without altering in any fundamental way the exploitation of the proletariat. Marxism is just as "false" as the bourgeois ideology that it supplants.

Accordingly, he "goes after" Marx across the board, attacking historical materialism, Marxist economics, Marxist sociology, Marx's theory of the state, and...Leninist politics. The relative sparseness of Marx's actual political work (limited to six or seven years of the First International) compels him to treat Leninism as "Marxism in practice".

Historical Materialism

Carter disputes the Marxist schematic: means of production -> relations of production -> consciousness/ideology. His argument is quite technical here, and I'm not at all sure that I even understand it.

What does strike me, however, is that he seems to offer no coherent theory for the origins or development of any of those things...they just "happen". He does postulate a "political/ideological substructure" for human societies--in place of Marx's "means of production". But it's not at all clear to me how this "substructure" emerges, changes, or even affects his "superstructure". In one place he attempts to diagram what he's envisioning...but it strikes me as an "everything affects everything else" theory. No doubt there is truth to this...but it seems to me to be a trivial observation.

In addition, if "ideas" (religions, customs, ethnic identifications, political theories of legitimacy, etc.) are really the "base" of human society, then changes in those ideas become a matter of chance--such and such a particular human develops a certain idea, convinces others of its utility, and the "base" changes to incorporate this new idea...after which adjustments are made to accommodate the new idea in technology, class relationships, and the state.

A theory that "things just happen"--bourgeois historians call this "contingency" because it sounds more erudite than using the word "chance"--is not very satisfying. Normally we resort to this when we can't explain things any other way.

What I think is missing in Carter's critique is the realization that a schematic is just that. If one were faced with a Marxist history of a particular sequence of historical events, the explanatory usefulness of that schematic would become clear and much so that even serious bourgeois historians often incorporate "Marxist" explanations without ever identifying them as such.

And, in fact, Carter himself "falls back" on a "Marxist" explanation for the rise of his "new class" of managers-technicians. The advanced development of technology in modern capitalism "requires" a group of managers/experts to "make it work"...and they duly come into existence and grow in importance and influence.

It doesn't just "happen".

Marxist Economics

Again, this is a highly technical section of the book, in which Carter criticizes the labor theory of value, the stability and duration of capitalism, the formation of monopolies, etc.

Without going into great detail, Carter thinks that the centralization of capital into huge corporations over time does not contribute to the instability of capitalism but rather to its stability.

Indeed, the logical outcome of existing capitalist trends is state monopoly capitalism...the rule of a managerial/technical class holding state power. In Carter's view, the USSR, etc. is the future...but has absolutely nothing to do with Marx's proletarian revolution or the emancipation of the working class.

In fairness, Carter wrote prior to the collapse of the USSR, etc. He had no way of knowing that state monopoly capitalism generates its own "crises"...and, if the historical examples are typical, "decays" back into "ordinary" monopoly capitalism. The "managerial/technical class" has become the capitalist class in Russia, etc.

Still, the core of Carter's hypothesis remains unaffected: monopoly "stabilizes" capitalism indefinitely. It is the competition between capitalists that generate crises...and if competition can be restricted or abolished, crises are mild or nonexistent.

Here, it must be admitted that he could be right--there have been no severe capitalist economic crises since the 30s of the last century. Such disturbances that have occurred have generally been periods of prolonged stagnation.

Carter points out that the creation of monopolies results in a "two-tier" working class...a prosperous and substantial minority compensated from a portion of monopoly profits and a low-wage majority who suffer chronic unemployment and gradual immiseration.

Such a working class "cannot" unite to overthrow capitalism...they have clearly conflicting class interests.

The only question--and one that cannot yet be answered--is how this will "play out" in the long run? If Marx was right, then the bottom tier of the working class will become the overwhelming majority. But if Carter is right, that may not happen at all...the balance will "stabilize" as a consequence of the overall stability of monopoly capitalism itself.

One question that Carter does not really address, in my view, is the matter of how stable monopolies actually are. Every small and medium-sized capitalist "dreams" of becoming a monopolist...but the first step towards that goal is the subversion of an existing monopoly. Almost all of those efforts fail, of course, but it only takes one success to threaten a monopoly's position in very drastic ways.

Late capitalism seems to be characterized by very rapid technological innovation. Again, most of these innovations turn out to be marginal successes at best. But the CEO's nightmare is the one innovation that can utterly destroy his whole industry.

I think as the 21st century goes on, the danger of this increases...and monopoly at its most powerful is ever closer to the edge of the abyss.

If monopoly turns out not to be stable in the long run...then Carter is wrong and Marx was right. The major economic storms of early capitalism will return in even more furious and destructive crises.

Marxist Sociology

Carter comes down pretty hard on the ambiguities in the Marxist use of the word "class"...what, properly speaking, is the proletariat, really?

And, for that matter, what is this so-called "middle class" between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie?

If you define the proletariat as "manual industrial laborers", then you end up with a steadily declining proportion of the population in all of the advanced capitalist countries...thus rendering the possibility of "proletarian revolution" not only moot but faintly ridiculous.

If you use a "broader definition"--everyone who is compelled to sell their labor power--then things get rather fuzzy. Is a CEO a "proletarian"?

Part of the difficulty is empirical; we have no way to "measure" surplus-value as it is generated, accumulated, and distributed. If we had reliable numbers, then we could say with exactitude "this is a proletarian" and "that is not".

Even using a "class struggle" definition presents problems...are the public employees who form a union and go on strike against the government "proletarians" in a Marxist sense? Normally, at least, they don't generate surplus value--the government body they work for was never designed to function in the marketplace and make a profit. So what are they?

Carter would suggest, I think, that they are the "lower ranks" of his "managerial/technical class"...even though their immediate enemies are the higher ranks of their own class.

One bit of light might be shed on such struggles from a Marxist perspective. It would seem that bourgeois theorists and major political figures appear to be converging on a theory that "government functions" traditionally financed by a portion of surplus value generated by the private sector (or by "consumption taxes" extracted from the proletariat) should now be forced to function competitively in the marketplace itself and either break even or even generate a profit of their own.

If this turns out to be a sustained long-term trend, then "public workers" will be proletarians in the classic sense of the word.

Something should also be said about Carter's "new class" of managers/technicians. His thesis is that their expertise and indispensability confers economic power...and subsequently political power sufficient to make them, at least potentially, a "new ruling class".

I don't think joining technicians and managers into one "class" is very useful...they are very different groups of people with, I think, conflicting material interests in the long run.

A corporate CEO acts "in the interests" of the major stockholders...which, these days, often includes himself. Even if he has risen to his exalted position from somewhere lower on the food-chain, his identification is clearly and overwhelmingly with the ruling class. He can be and has been just as ruthless against lower-level managers as he is towards to the working class. In the last decade, a substantial number of lower-level and middle-level managers have found themselves on the street...victims of the "lean and mean" business model.

Technicians, on the other hand, are a rather different is quite rare for any of them to rise into the ruling class. For the most part, their expertise does not seem to elevate them much above the general level of a plumber or an electrician--a skilled worker whose knowledge can be sold to a capitalist for a relatively enhanced compensation.

But power? I think the only power technical workers have is that in common with other jointly withhold their labor in hopes of improving their compensation.

There are rare individuals who combine managerial "skills" and also technical expertise. If there were enough of them, they might indeed coalesce into a class with aspirations to rule for their own benefit. But the "mind-sets" are so different between those who are managers and those with technical expertise that a combination of the two within a single individual is, as I say, very rare.

They want different things.

The State

Following Bakunin, Carter sees the state as something more than Marx's "executive committee of the ruling class". He admits that the state "seems" to operate in this fashion often enough, but asserts that the state can sometimes take independent actions against both the will and the interests of the dominant economic class. Occasionally, he suggest, the state can even crush the dominant economic class and insert itself into that role...e.g., the USSR.

This is indeed a very complicated question, not least because of Marx's "Hegelianisms". As I remarked in a collection of posts on "dialectics", the influence of Hegel on Marx's thought was generally unfortunate, to say the least.

A modern Marxist quoted by Carter considers the state to be a relatively complex social formation: the government (members of parliament, cabinet members, and "the leader"...); the bureaucracy (including the judiciary); the military and the police, etc. Each have "interests of their own" which they pursue in competition with one another...and each seek allies among sections of the entire ruling class and, once in a while, even among sections of the working class. Subjectively, each feels, no doubt, that they are pursuing "their own interests"...but in practice, seeking "allies" among different elements of the ruling class actually translates into doing the will of those sections of the ruling class.

Overthrowing "the government", as Carter correctly points out, is far from sufficient to change the character of the state...the remainder of the state apparatus, if retained, will continue to function "in the old ways". The history of the Weimar Republic is an excellent illustration of that point.

Prior to the Paris Commune, Marx thought that it was sufficient to simply overthrow the government...and he was wrong. It turned out that it was and is necessary to smash the entire state apparatus...and, crucially, to ensure that the personnel of the old apparatus are not allowed to infiltrate anything that might be established in its place.

This, of course, was Lenin's "error"...the fledging Bolshevik state, as it grew, absorbed thousands of officials from the old Czarist regime. Its generals came from the old aristocratic military caste; its industrial managers came from those who had managed capitalist enterprises, etc. Verbal "support" of the party was all that was required...and many of these people were paid enhanced wages and received other perks to "insure" that loyalty. The "class character" of the Bolshevik regime began to change almost from the very beginning...towards capitalism.

Carter, in his effort to demonstrate the "independence" of the state, points to the empire of Napoleon III as justification (he might have used Hitler or Mussolini as well). It's a thorny problem: can the "populist despot" be said to rule as a representative of the dominant economic class?

I think the answer is yes, he can. The "desperate measures" that he introduces may indeed be temporarily contrary to the wishes of the ruling class...but, in the long run, I think his efforts strengthen the ruling class's grip on society.

After Napoleon III, French capitalism and its bourgeoisie were stronger and more prosperous than ever. The same thing was true of Germany and Italy in the last century.

Material conditions compel the "populist despot" to act in the long-run interests of the ruling class, like it or not.

Leninist Politics

As you might expect, Carter pounds the Leninists with numerous arguments...many of which I have raised myself on this board. He produces occasional scraps from Marx or Engels to situate Lenin firmly "within" the Marxist tradition...much as Leninists on this board have done.

Like the Leninists assert, Carter agrees that "Leninism is Marxism." I disagree, of course, and have offered my reasons elsewhere.

Though it may seem trivial, I noticed at one point that Carter quoted a statement from Marx, followed by his comment that this was "a tacit endorsement" of something done by Lenin. This is a temporal impossibility, of course. Marx and Engels were both dead before Lenin appeared on the scene; there is no way that Marx or Engels could "endorse", tacitly or explicitly, anything Lenin ever said or did.


In my opinion, Carter does not offer a credible theory of social change...not even one limited to considerations of how to replace capitalism with anarchism.

Unless I misunderstand his views completely, he seems to rely on "the moral appeal of anarchism"...people "should" adopt anarchism "because" it's "more just and fair".

Well, it is more just and fair...but so what? On what grounds can it be supposed that those who rule a class society are attentive, much less responsive, to justice or fairness?

Carter appears to think that social change is "an act of will". In particular, he places heavy reliance on the development of "appropriate technology" and environmental considerations as "motives" for ordinary people to "switch" to anarchism. When enough people "switch", then anarchism will emerge.

He is very much a "third-worldist" in orientation...he thinks that the best chance for anarchism to actually function is in those parts of the world that have yet to be over-run by large scale modern capitalism. He did not really anticipate the impact of globalization in the 1990s.

He is in favor of small, voluntary associations that, by example, prove their superiority (technological, environmental, moral) to the prevailing relations of production.

What he does not seem to favor, as far as I could tell, is any theory of class struggle, Marxist or otherwise. He seems to lack a taste for "confrontation" that takes place outside of academia.

It seems to me that rejecting the Marxist paradigm leaves a gaping hole in any project for transforming the nature of class society...and moral appeals to "be nice" don't even begin to fill it.

It's not "a nice world", as Marx and Engels pointed out.

I would urge serious Marxists to read Carter's book, if only to "firm up" your own theoretical understanding. He does raise a lot of questions which Marxists need to address more carefully and thoughtfully. In that sense, he has done Marxism a service.

[Note: although the views expressed here are entirely my own, I want to thank Morpheus at Che-Lives for being kind enough to criticize an earlier draft of this review.]

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