Palinurus: Engaging Political Philosophy

James Bohman: Making Marx an Empiricist: On Recent «Analytic» Marx Interpretations

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From a classical Marxist view, James Bohman comes to grips in a thoughtful manner with the early writings in analytical Marxism concerning a normative dimension in Marx’s thought.

Until recently, Karl Marx held an ambiguous place among Anglo-American philosophers. This was not due to the lack of adequate interpreters of his thought, most prominent among whom are Shlomo Avneri and David McClellan. The enmity to Marx and Marxism led to a virtual silence, so much so that in 1966 Charles Taylor wrote an article in a collection of essays entitled British Analytic Philosophy to explain why there was no significant philosophical reception of Marx in analytic philosophy. Taylor traced the silence back to one source: empiricism. According to Taylor, Marxism could not be reconciled with empiricism for three major reasons: in epistemology, because of its activist view of knowledge, in methodology, because of its holism and its insistence on the validity of teleological explanations; and finally, but most important of all, in ethics because of its rejection of the distinction between fact and value. This ethical distinction is perhaps the most persistent among the dogmas of empiricism, and it has been viewed as a logical truth ever since Hume, who declared that no inferences could be made from “is” to “ought.” Thus, empiricists have always argued that Marxists committed the “naturalistic fallacy.” But, as Taylor points out, this distinction is not really a logical one at all; rather it is laden with metaphysical and epistemological presuppositions that conflict with the basic philosophical concepts of Marxism. “The alleged logical distinction between fact and value can only be considered valid if these concepts have no application” [1]. Despite these empiricist impediments, in this article Taylor wonders why the courtesy given to Freud was never extended to Marx in some philosophical attempt to develop and to revise his ideas in the spirit of empiricism [2].


Things have changed since Taylor wrote his article. With the waning of the influence of logical empiricism, “analytical” philosophers have become more courteous to Marx. Indeed, there is a new and burgeoning renaissance not only of books about Marx but also of attempts to apply recent philosophical developments such as social choice theory to problems of Marxist explanations. In the title of a recent anthology, John Roemer has called this phenomenon “analytical Marxism” [3]. What is interesting about this trend is that these analytical philosophers hold that Marx is of philosophical and not merely historical interest. In this essay I shall discuss three important books in this genre: Richard Miller’s Analyzing Marx: Morality, Power and History, Allen Wood’s Karl Marx, and Robert Paul Wolff’s Understanding Marx: A Reconstruction and Critique of Capital [4]. My main thesis is that for all this newfound charity, itself traceable to the influence of post-empiricist philosophies of science and anti-foundationalist ethics, Taylor’s argument is still essentially correct. Empiricism in analytic philosophy remains an impediment to understanding the vitality of the Marxist tradition, and in particular obscures from our view the philosophical foundations of the sort of discourse which is Marx‘s major philosophical innovation, namely normative social theory. Even if these philosophers abandon some of the dogmas of empiricism, they do not abandon the alleged logical distinction of fact and value, the most important dogma for social theory. In interpreting Marx, this leads to odd consequences. For Miller, a political reading of Marx is supposed to lead to a critical theory without rational foundations; for Wood, Marxism becomes a critical theory that is no longer normative; for Wolff, Marx‘s major endeavour is to formulate an economic theory that goes beyond classical economics, yet which fails to fulfill the basic requirement of formalizability in a mathematical model. Marx has been revived piecemeal by these authors, as an economic theorist, as a sociologist of knowledge, and as a political polemicist against moralism; but by each one of them he has been made an empiricist.


What accounts for this new interest in Marx, especially in America? Directly or indirectly, this interest has emerged as a consequence of two quite different books: John Rawls‘ Theory of Justice (1971) and G. A. Cohen‘s Marx’s Theory of History: A Defense (1978). Cohen‘s book broke the barren ground of Anglo-American empiricism by showing that Marx‘s explanations of historical change did not belong to the history of Idealism but to scientific theory. When properly interpreted, the predictive laws on which this theory is based can meet all the standards of the deductive-nomological model. Marx‘s idea of the succession of modes of production as material progress is just good Hempelian science according to Cohen‘s “technological interpretation of historical materialism.”


While Cohen made Marxist explanations safe for mechanism, Rawls had already made the conception of justice as fairness the central focus of Anglo-American normative political theory. For analytic philosophers, Marxism offered a significant challenge to Rawls‘ liberalism, and in polemics against Rawls, Miller and Wood in particular revive Marx‘s strident criticism of all theories of justice, including social contract theory. More than Cohen‘s technological determinist reading, this polemical relationship to theories of justice has determined much of the substance of recent analytical interpretations of Marx. On their view, Marx is the extreme opposite of Rawls; any affinity between Marxism and liberalism is to be purified away. What began as a criticism of Rawls is transformed into an antipathy to anything that is normative in social and political theory. Not only are we to reject Rawls‘ particular version of justice as fairness, but Miller and Wood also call for the rejection of any normative social theory that may be counted as moral, that is, any social theory that makes considerations such as equality, general norms, and universality central. Marx‘s significance for philosophy is that his political theory has nothing in common with rights-based theories. Anticipating the view Bernard Williams articulates in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Wood and Miller already believe Marx to have discovered that morality, particularly in the narrow Kantian version, is a small and wizened thing of no philosophical significance for social theory and political deliberation on institutional arrangements.


What do Miller and Wood mean by denying the significance of the moral point of view for Marxist social theory? They surely cannot mean that Marx‘s theory is merely a descriptive theory. Neither Wood nor Miller deny that there are evaluative elements in Marx‘s works, particularly in the condemnation of capitalism as an obstruction to human freedom and self-actualization. They do not get rid of values to replace them with facts; as true Humean believers in the naturalistic fallacy, they do not believe that descriptions can do the job of prescriptions. But, in good empiricist fashion, they do make these evaluations fundamentally non-cognitive and indeed non-rational. Ahistorical standards of rationality are part of the same Kantian package as absolute moral standards. In the way Miller imputes this view to Marx, the consequences of this noncognitivist social criticism and social decisionism become clear: “At some point, however, Marx requires that commitments be non-rational.“ Why? Miller continues: “If he did not, his attacks on morality would be utterly unfair“ (44). Marx is supposed to have believed that the central issues of social choice cannot be decided by the use of reason or evidence. Several conclusions follow from this assumption for the possibility of social criticism. It means that criticism can neither be normatively justified, nor directed to a universal audience, nor constructed in such a way as to be able to stand before the tribunal of reason. The price of purging social criticism of the moral point of view and its transcendental demands for justification is that Marx must be satisfied with basing criticism on a nonrational choice, informed by who we are and who our friends are. It is this aspect of Miller and Wood‘s anti-moral interpretation of Marx that is simply empiricist.


Consider Richard Miller‘s proposal for getting rid of morality in critical social theory. Marx wants to replace morality, in Miller‘s view, because of its inadequacy as a basis for political deliberation, that is, for making choices between social arrangements, such as between socialism and capitalism, or for choosing among the strategic means for attaining certain ends, particularly when illegal and violent means are necessary for revolutionary change. It is no accident that the great expositor of the moral point of view, Kant, typically condemns such means for change as immoral. At the same time, Miller insists that Marx does not draw the anti-moral conclusions of Weberian and Nietzschean non-cognitivism. He certainly takes into account what could be called broadly ethical considerations, such as the choice between various social goods like material well-being and freedom. Instead of advocating a «postmodern» anti-morality, the political Marx is advocating a non-morality, an ethical point of view that makes central just those things that would be excluded by the moral demands for universality, impartiality, and rationally well-grounded norms. For historically situated beings, there is no neutral position from which to make political choices. All the features of morality are affected by this rejection of impartial adjudication: equality requires neutrality among different people’s interest; the generality of norms requires impartial reference to the social circumstances of all historical societies, and appeals to universality require arguments which impartially appeal to everyone’s rational capacities (45). By avoiding all these rationalist claims, the choices and criticisms made by the “political” Marx need no normative justification or rational basis.


Miller can then take his new empiricist Marx down the path of Feyerabend and assert that Marx’s political proposals and social criticisms are unjustified. But instead of embracing such nihilism, Miller only wants to deny the need for justification in the strong sense of having a normative foundation. Are there any other models for justification, Miller asks, to which Marx could appeal to support his political and ethical motivation? In the absence of general norms, Miller must appeal to a mode of justification with a logical structure that is different from traditional moral theory and argumentation. Not surprisingly, he finds this in the justification of empirical claims and empirical arguments about factual questions concerning institutions and strategies that belong outside of moral theory. Their domain is “politics, social theory, or social engineering” (42). Thus, while appearing to have overcome the fact-value distinction, Miller has actually simply eliminated the value side of the opposition. Value questions are decided non-rationally, although still empirically. His own empiricist difficulty with the fact-value distinction is now claimed to originate in Marx himself, and Marx gives the most tried and true empiricist solutions of all to it.


Miller admits that he still has not said enough. How are we to specify which empirical claims are relevant? He proposes that instead of moral theory and general norms, Marx offers a description of “a motley array of goods to be pursued.” I take it that this is a “motley” array precisely because there are no rules to rank these goods (since one would then need general norms like justice), not even a numerical one such as the utilitarian rule to promote the general welfare. Like Wood, Miller denies that Marx is a utilitarian against Jon Elster’s very influential reading of Marx colored by social choice theory. Since social goods cannot be ranked, appealing to them does not clearly settle choices between political alternatives. That, Miller asserts, is “a matter of empirical controversy.” There should be no basic difference between choosing basic principles and choosing a political program, “for the arguments that goods provide a coherent and applicable standard of choice (at present) are the empirical arguments that justify the pursuit of certain institutional arrangements as the best way to promote the goods” (42-43). The array of goods is taken as given so that the only important political questions are not normative but purely strategic. Political deliberation is simply a matter of arriving at the best set of strategies for achieving a diverse set of ends. With Miller’s effective reduction of political questions to strategic ones, taken together with the belief that goods are given and unrankable, the basic questions of Marx’s theory not only become merely empirical, but also clearly unanswerable. Marx is made “political” at the price of circularity and reductionism.


So as to assure philosophers that there is a standard of justification that Marx can still appeal to after rejecting those of moral theory, Miller attempts to show certain resemblances between the political choices of situated actors and theory choice in the history of science. This analogy is not surprising, since political choice is made a matter of empirical controversy. Miller‘s philosophy of science is not the old positivist kind found in traditional logics of induction; rather, it is based on the post-positivist theory of science of a non-relativist sort. Thus, unlike Cohen‘s basically Hempelian methodology, Miller finds that transformations in the philosophy of science offer new possibilities for interpreting Marx in analytic philosophy. The problem of the choice between competing theories is similar to the problems faced by Marx in his account of political choice. “A scientific theory is chosen for its success along a number of diverse dimensions. This motley of goals is not intrinsically determinate“ (43). In comparing theories, we cannot appeal to some ahistorical standard of justification nor to some single dominant goal of science or politics in light of which all other goals can be weighed. The model for justification is always practical and specific; post-positivist philosophy of science has allowed us to overcome the dualism of questio juris and questio facti, but only because questions of justification are now themselves empirical questions. On the question of the choice between socialism and capitalism Marx only wants to give sufficient evidence to support the choice of socialism under the best construal of the empirical facts. On the level of political deliberation, what is desirable about this flexible empirical approach is that it accurately describes the way in which people actually do make political choices. Quite consistently, on the methodological level of philosophical justification, Miller only gives us empirical considerations to justify his theory of political choice. Marx can make virtue of necessities imposed upon him by empiricism.


It is crucial to Miller‘s whole train of argument that Marx has discovered sufficient empirical evidence to support his criticism of capitalism and his choice of socialism, although it is difficult, if not impossible, to say when exactly one has sufficient evidence of this sort. Even though the rest is a matter of unargued and nonrational commitments, this argument places enormous burden on Marx‘s empirical claims, a burden that they may actually not be able to bear on closer examination. Their examination by Robert Paul Wolff shows that Miller may have put Marx on shaky ground indeed, quite apart from the question of the defensibility of a critical theory of society without any normative foundation.


Unlike Miller‘s book, which aims at a “political“ Marx, Allen Wood‘s Karl Marx does not have a specific interpretive goal in mind. It is a broad interpretation of Marx as a philosopher considering his dialectical method, his realist philosophy of science, and his materialist framework for explanations of morality and ideology. Nonetheless, it is equally crucial to Wood’s interpretation that part of the central canon of Marx’s writings on social theory are his polemics against justice and morality. Wood does this by showing how Marx reduces claims to justice to factual sociological claims: for a standard to be just requires only, first, that it be appropriate to the prevailing conception of justice and mode of production that produce it, and, second, that the conception of justice serve a positive function in maintaining the mode of production. Thus, for Wood, Marx believed, surprisingly enough for a thinker who condemned all forms of domination as no other in history, both that ancient slavery was in fact just, and that the exchange between wage labor and capitalism is also just. Even capitalism itself is just. Wood construes Marx as asserting coherently on the one hand that capitalism is exploitative but that on the other it can exploit “justly,” however jarring that locution maybe to ordinary language use. Marx is said to believe simultaneously that slavery and capitalism are just and that they are “intolerable.” These dramatic but somewhat rhetorical conclusions only serve to show that Marx had no stock in justice; Marxism has no moral foundation nor does it stand in need of one (125 ff).


Like Miller, Wood thinks that Marx‘s criticism of a moral point of view does not make him an immoralist like Nietzsche. Marx still makes evaluative claims in his social theory, but his evaluations are never, Wood insists, justified by appeal to invariant and external moral standards. Impressed by historical diversity and Aristotle’s conception of self-actualization, Marx is supposed to have believed that the social theorist cannot judge other societies by inappropriate and ahistorical standards. It is certainly true that Marx may have questioned the effectiveness of moral criticism, although that alone should not lead anyone to believe that Marx drew the conclusions Wood has him drawing. As Allen Buchanan and others have pointed out [5], Wood seems to be leaping from his assertion that Marx did not judge slavery to be immoral to the assertion that he judged slavery to be moral. Wood can indeed find support for his view in Marx’s derision of the “moralizing criticism” of socialists like Pierre Proudhon, Adolf Wagner and Karl Heinzen. Marx consistently polemized against the utopian socialists’ attempt to make abstract humanity the addressee of social criticism. Wood accepts the implications of making these texts canonical and not merely rhetorical; his interpretations on the whole coincide with the scientific socialism which has long dominated orthodox interpretations of Marx from the later Engels to Lenin and the Second International. It is no accident that in his chapters on morality and social theory Wood often appeals to Engels’ writings (which he praises for their clarity in working out the implications of Marx’s non-morality), especially his Socialism, Utopian and Scientific. The cost of reinterpreting the polemics against utopianism and moralism as a prelude to science is no less an orthodoxy than is supported by Cohen’s attempt to make Marx scientifically respectable through technological determinism.


There are two basic strands of Wood‘s reading of Marx on morality and social criticism, and both reveal Wood’s underlying intention of making Marx an empiricist. The first strand is the attempt to reconstruct Marx’s criticism of morality in light of a new but equally problematic distinction beyond the fact/value dichotomy; Wood admits that Marx never makes the distinction crucial to his interpretation in explicit terms. However, he asserts that we can make sense of “scientific” socialism only by distinguishing between moral and non-moral goods. Ultimately, this distinction does not hold up, and it certainly cannot be imputed to Marx himself. The second strand is based upon a strong claim for the scientific character of historical materialist descriptions and explanations of social facts. Wood thinks that Marx can show that moral values are merely ideological; indeed, one of the functions of historical materialism is to replace the actor’s naive moral beliefs by a more effective sociological description of the emergence of morality from, and its function in, a mode of production.


The distinction of moral and non-moral goods is supposed to answer the basic question of how Marx can still make evaluative statements in his social criticism. Wood thinks that Marx positively evaluates a set of social institutions not because they fit standards of justice but because they promote a finite set of non-moral goods, including self-actualization, health, pleasure, happiness, and comfort. The very formulation of the distinction makes sense only if we agree with Wood‘s very narrow, utterly Kantian designation of what is “moral.“ According to Wood, the difference between moral and non-moral goods is the difference between valuing and doing something because of duty to the moral law and valuing and doing something because it fulfills our needs or conception of the good life. Wood proposes two contrasting lists. “Moral goods include such things as virtue, right, justice, the fulfillment of duty, and the possession of morally meritorious qualities of character. Non-moral goods, on the other hand, include such things as pleasure and happiness, things which we would regard as desirable and good for people to have“ (126-127). Marx‘s negative evaluation of capitalism is due to its failure to provide these non-moral goods, in particular self-actualization, security, freedom, and community.


The basic appeal of this distinction is that non-moral goods seem to be measurable and historically specific. But can the distinction really be made? There are numerous examples of goods that cannot be easily located on either side of the distinction. For example, why should freedom be a non-moral good, since even for Kant it is a moral good? In any case, the real problem is that non-moral goods do not provide sufficient grounds for the sorts of justification Marx requires. Here, too, counterexamples multiply. For example, a highly repressive society may promote many of the goods on Wood‘s list, indeed Stalinism did, so did Nazi Germany, and most tellingly of all, so do most late-capitalist societies through non-repressive consumerism. It also seems impossible to specify which non-moral goods are preferable over others and which and how much of these goods would be sufficient to justify such choices. Again, to specify these considerations, one would require amoral rule as in utilitarianism. The problem with Wood‘s interpretation is the same as with Miller‘s; an unordered list does not provide any basis at all for the sort of comparisons that historical materialism does and indeed must make. On this basis alone, the critic again comes close to merely expressing his or her particular preferences or partisan desires. The obstacle of the fact-value distinction again reemerges, and Wood‘s empiricist non-moral reading of Marx tries to escape it in the usual emotivist way, by making value judgments fundamentally non-rational.


Wood‘s aim is to dissolve moral discourse into objective sociological description. Here we have the old empiricist problem of the relation between scientific description and ordinary beliefs in Marxist form. This has been a basic problem in analytic philosophy, particularly in the philosophy of mind with regard to the intentionalist language used to describe action in ordinary speech and the physicalist language used to describe action in neurophysiology. Because it achieves a scientific, intrinsic, and subject-independent description of the uses and functions of moral discourse, historical materialism can now turn normative questions about the morally rational into factual questions about relations of “fit“ to material relations of production. As usual in “reflectionist” theories of ideology, these relations are ”the real basis“ of moral standards. Marx becomes like Hegel in this regard, and Wood‘s Hegel is also an empiricist: “For Marx, as for Hegel, the morally rational is determined by the socially actual“ (132). As a social critic, Marx strangely and anomalously seems to give into social actuality as far as moral standards are concerned.


The nonmoral Marx becomes an arch-functionalist. Historical materialist insight into the social-historical situatedness of morality is not used to show that its standards are essentially conservative, nor to unmask the supposed universality of moral claims. Wood takes Marx to be saying that morality ought to fulfill the function of providing ideological justification for the prevailing mode of production. We see this confusion about Marx’s claim for a theory of ideology in Wood’s remarks about Marx’s rejection of external standards. “The standards that are at odds with prevailing relations do not fulfill the function proper to moral standards. Hence, they must be not only socially impotent but also wrong because they are at odds with the proper function of morality” (132). Surely, Marx would not draw the same conclusion even if he believed in the practical impotence of moral standards like justice for processes of fundamental social change. It does not follow at all that such standards are “wrong.“ Quite the contrary, Marx often says that there are ideals that prefigure and await actualization in the institutional structure of a future rational, socialist society.


This conclusion only follows if Wood is right about the relation of science to ordinary moral discourse. In the philosophy of mind, a position equivalent to Wood‘s version of the relation of scientific discourse to ordinary beliefs would be a version of physicalism, that neurophysiological descriptions of successful biological science should replace ordinary intentionalist rational explanation. Thus, what we really mean when we say that someone is in pain is that such and such neurons are firing; analogously, what we mean when we say that something is morally right is that it is appropriate to standards that fulfill a function in a mode of production. To his credit, Miller disputes this view, although only to offer yet another empiricist solution. Miller thinks that moral terms like justice should be treated as parts of outdated theories as chemists now treat “phlogiston.“ Justice is not a property of institutions at all, not even a functional one. Such a construal, Miller believes, is more consistent with Marx‘s activist orientation to the future; nonetheless, the disagreement with Wood here is not substantive and only concerns alternatives to the basically non-moral approach to social criticism. Neither Wood‘s nor Miller‘s view makes sense without seeing historical materialism as achieving some sort of scientific description of social reality superior to, and independent of, actor‘s beliefs about their own society.


Wolff’s Understanding Marx does not bear directly on this issue, but if Wolff is right there are serious theoretical and empirical problems with Marx‘s critical explanation of capitalist economics. In light of these analytic difficulties, the replacement of normative arguments with empirical ones might prove a dubious strategy indeed. As opposed to Miller and Wood, Wolff is not concerned with Marx directly as a philosopher, but primarily as an economic theorist, and therefore takes the theoretical core of Marx‘s corpus to be his economics. In examining these theories, we encounter Marx‘s basic failure to resolve the problem of classical economic theory from Smith to Ricardo, the problem of natural price and the relation between labor and value. Wolff points to Marx‘s deficiencies through the device of constructing simple models of three commodity economies (such as corn, iron, and books as a luxury item). These models show that Marx never actually succeeded in representing his compelling critique of capitalism in a formal, mathematical theory, a failure made all the more pressing by the near total victory of marginalism in orthodox economic theory. Although Wolff ends Understanding Marx with the open question of whether or not relations of domination in the workplace which Marx considered fundamental to capitalism can be formally modelled, it is clear from his mode of presentation and from several other essays that he sides with Pierro Sraffa and Joan Robinson on theoretical issues surrounding the value controversy.


For the uninitiated in economics and linear algebra, Wolff’s book clearly sets out some of the issues at stake in the murky debate surrounding the theory of surplus value. He argues that Marx‘s economic theories as well as his empirical analysis of capitalism stand or fall with the conception of surplus value as the resolution to Smith‘s problem of “natural price.“ Surplus value is supposed to explain the basic paradox of classical economics: If all exchanges on the market are exchanges of equivalence, what is the source of profits? Capitalists make a profit, according to Marx, because they are fortunate enough to find a commodity which has the property of being the source of all values: the labor power of the wage-laborer. Surplus value is that quantity of value produced by the worker during the workday that is over and above what is required to reproduce this labor power. If profits are simply surplus value produced by the workers and appropriated by the capitalist, the whole normative, critical conception of exploitation rests on the concept of surplus value and its attendant distinction between labor and labor power. Wolff thinks that if these concepts cannot be represented in a formal model, then the entire analysis loses its empirical force.


Wolff’s book outlines Marx‘s ingenuity in dealing with this problem, but also his ultimate failure. His theoretical difficulties leave Marx in no better position to provide a mathematically consistent analysis of price, profits and wages than could Ricardo. This is a devastating blow, since Marx‘s “entire critical claim is that capitalist accumulation depends upon surplus value“. Such an analysis could be provided only if there were a direct relationship between surplus value and profits, formulated in what Wolff calls “the quantitative principle of the conservation of surplus value.“ Marx‘s ingenious move beyond Ricardo is to look for the confirmation of this principle on the aggregate level of the whole economy; only here is surplus value conserved, such that total profits equal total surplus value and total prices are equal to total labor value. Only if we shift the theoretical perspective to this aggregate level does the ideological appearance of justified exchange disappear and capitalist exploitation become apparent. For all its ingenuity, Wolff points out two problems with these solutions. First, by constructing simple models, the conservation principle of surplus value can be shown to be valid only for very few economies, most significantly only for those economies that follow maximum growth paths and whose capitalists approximate perfect accumulators. Second, Wolff argues that the conception of surplus value depends upon making a fetish of abstract labor as “the substance of value,“ and this can never be spelled out in an empirical theory. “The identification of labor as‚substance of value5 is arbitrary and without theoretical significance unless it can be shown that labor is in some way formally distinguishable from all other commodities” (176-177), but labor cannot be so distinguished, since the distinction between labor and labor power cannot be introduced into any formal model. Wolff’s conclusion is that this difficulty seriously jeopardizes Marx‘s entire theoretical project, although the reader may equally conclude that something is wrong with Wolff’s own insistence upon formal models as a method of philosophical reconstruction. For all his love of ratios, Marx cannot be consistently made into a formal economic theorist; there are just too many passages in which Marx criticizes such a conception of theory. The lesson to be drawn here is that making Marx‘s theoretical endeavour fit the standards of empiricism is a highly dubious project which may be doomed to inevitable failure from the start.


Although it may be that Wolff is probably correct about the weaknesses of Marx‘s theory of surplus value, I am not convinced by his mode of demonstration. The device of appealing to simple models is not as theoretically innocent as Wolff would have us believe. Too often these model simply assumptions which beg the question of the value controversy by making labor into a physical quantity like any other. Of course, if labor cannot be distinguished from labor power, then it is almost trivial to say that labor will not have any properties that are different in any theoretically significant way from any other commodity. More importantly, the basic question raised by Wolff’s reconstruction is where to place Marx‘s writings on capitalism within the present division of the empirical sciences. What discipline do they belong to? In the face of the success of marginalism, Wolff thinks that Marxists should treat Marx‘s theory of capitalism as an empirical economic theory to be formalized mathematically. While Marx certainly asked the basic questions of classical economics, his most fundamental descriptions of capitalist accumulation belonged to another domain, namely that of historical social theory. As the chapter on “primitive accumulation” in Capital indicates, Marx wants to explain above all the social and historical conditions that make capitalism possible. That this aspect of Marx’s theory cannot be captured in mathematical models is no objection to the entire critical force of his analysis of capitalism. This is particularly true if we see that the critical analysis of capitalism, even given the validity of the theory of surplus value, would still depend at least in part upon further ethical, normative claims about human persons and their self-actualization. On the whole, Wolff proves Taylor‘s generalization: those philosophers overly influenced by empiricism in their methodology cannot help but negatively evaluate Marx‘s theory.


It has been the case that each generation of philosophers attempt to reconstruct the major thinkers of the philosophical tradition in light of current conceptions. In France, Marx was read through the structuralist lenses of Althusser. Even with all the philosophical innovations of structuralism, Althusser‘s Marxism ended in a kind of hyper-orthodoxy. Such extreme orthodoxy is not the manifest intent of Wood, Miller or Wolff. But for all their post-positivist conception of ethics and philosophy of science, the end result of their interpretive efforts is a surprisingly orthodox Marxism, particularly in the case of Wood and Miller, whose views seem to repeat in more contemporary terms the scientific orientation of the later Engels and the Second International. None of these philosophers fundamentally question the basic framework of historical materialism, as do most contemporary European interpreters of Marx. They remain analytic and reconstructive. Apart from Wolff’s implicit appropriation of Straffa and Robinson, none of them considers problems presented by the development of social theory since Marx, nor problems presented to the «political» approach by the historical experiences of the Communist Party in this century.


While changes in empiricism away from positivism do indeed make it possible for analytic philosophers once again to offer fruitful interpretations of Marx, these same changes do not seem to permit the constructive fundamental rethinking of historical materialism. Such rethinking has been undertaken by Western Marxists such as the Frankfurt School, Habermas, Lefort, and others; but these Western Marxists develop the contrary view to Wood and Miller that social criticism must be normatively and universalistically justified. Such more fundamental philosophical recasting of Marxist categories is short-circuited by making Marx an anti-foundationalist empiricist. At worst the new empiricist Marx becomes an emotivist and decisionist; at best, this Marx relies upon strong empirical claims, which themselves are at times highly dubious. The ultimate price of making Marx an empiricist by disavowing normative reflection is the loss of a coherent theoretical foundation for social criticism and any possibility of formulating a Marxist ideal of human emancipation.


This survey of some “analytical“ Marxists shows a pervasive tendency in the present to make canonical the anti-utopian and anti-normative Marx of the polemical writings. The orthodoxy of this new reception can be located in its desire to give us yet another version of “scientific socialism“ now clothed in the less honorific philosophical language of a new empiricism. But in view of the broad and radical challenges to the very foundations of Marxism on all fronts, from social theory to feminism, the past mistakes of scientific Marxism demand revision, not repetition. And as post-structuralism shows as well, all the non-foundationalist innovations in philosophy turn out to be insufficiently revisionary in social and political theory. Analytical Marxism is the same old tired Marxism, now burdened with new empiricist difficulties about facts and values.




1. Charles Taylor, «Marxism and Empiricism,» British Analytical Philosophy, ed. B. Williams and A. Montefiore (London: Humanities Press, 1966), p. 245.


2. Ibid., p. 230.


3. See John Roemer, Analytical Marxism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).


4. The books discussed in this review are: Richard Miller, Analyzing Marx: Morality, Power, and History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984); Allen Wood, Karl Marx (Routledge and Keagan Paul, 1981); Robert Paul Wolff, Understanding Marx: A Reconstruction and a Critique of Capital (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984).


5. See Allen Buchanan‘s criticism of Wood in Marx and Justice: The Radical Critique of Liberalism (Totowa: Rowman and Littlefield, 1982), p. 52 ff.



From Praxis International, (6:3) October 1986. Redigitized by Central and Eastern European Online Library –