Why I am not a Marxist-Humanist, and my objections to implicit ideologies

Recently, I have been having a very heated debate with a internet friend that has gotten nasty on what I see is the flawed implications of Kliman’s minimization of income inequality. The recent numbers make it clear that the claim that income inequality has been stable for 40 years is untrue, and here the numbers confirm that. Yet Kliman’s assertion and brilliant analysis does seem to prove that declining rate of profits for companies overall. So the interesting thing is that most I am sympathetic to Kliman’s economic analysis, but his political analysis I find severely lacking. Like I said in another post today, Kliman seems to miss or minimize that there really has been a transfer of wealth upwards at the same time that profits are going down. When I point out that this is a political problem, my friends who like Kliman and carry some of his variants of Marxist-Humanism implicitly with them accuse me of just re-stating the Immiseration thesis that Marx carried over from Ricardo, I try to point out that I am actually arguing the opposite. That there is nothing automatic about any of this and that state (and non-state) politics matter just as much as economicism.

So for context, I object to Marxist-Humanism, and it’s implicit in some of the arguments in Andrew Kliman, is that Raya Dunayevskaya’s project was to say that Marx had a complete vision which had no need for politics and that it was consistent through the writings. The Marxist Humanist Initiative have essentially done to Marx what apologists do inconsistencies in the bible, read parts of one into the other regardless oIf where it was clear that it applied: alienation was never dropped from the discourse even though Marxist doesn’t mention it in his later writings. The conception of ideology doesn’t change from its early critique to commodity fetishism, etc. Why did they do this? Because they did not like the political implications in Leninism, and Leninism critique of the Immiseration thesis or that there could be class development unforeseen in Marx because it. In fact, in Imperialism Lenin set aboutexplaining why the immiseration thesis didn’t hold like either some of the left communism or the Kautsky-ian Social Democrats had believed was inevitable. This projectHAS led to interesting work on Kliman’s part teasing out numbers on the declining right of profit, and to interesting work by people like Moishe Postone against Althusser’s hyper-reliance on ideology as an over-riding mechanism. But it has also led to ignoring that all “class” struggles are not explicitly economic, oddly putting the argument back into something like Althusserian position. The Immiseration thesis held by the Social Democrats, the automatists, and by many classical Marxists has been called into question by both Frankfurt school thinkers and by Lenin because it argues that there is NOTHING automatic about any of this, and that the base/superstructure hyper-reductionism to economics making anything a necessary hasn’t historically held.

The belief that somehow coming value theory will dialectically lead to an end of capitalist relations is actually a form of hypostatization that confuses that capitalism is a totality in historical perception of social relations, it cannot determine social relations without also being determined by them. The is the dialectical view and going back to Hegel leads us to see this problem. To quote Ross Wolfe on this:

Marx once, in a magnificent line, said that “‘the pre-bourgeois forms of the social organization of production are treated by [bourgeois] political economy in much the same way as the Fathers of the Church treated pre-Christian religions.”

With stunning historical irony, this has become almost inverted by the Marxist-Humanists (as well as others Marxists who are otherwise good, who simply want to return to Marx while ignoring the politics that came later — i.e., Principia Dialectica, even Postone). Such Marxists regard the subsequent political history of Marxism following the death of Marx (or perhaps Engels) as one vast betrayal or heresy that must be done away with entirely, in much the same way as early Protestant theologians regarded the post-Apostolic succession of the Church in its Romanized, Catholic form as one long betrayal of Christ’s teachings. As such, Protestants retreat into the Lutheran dictum of “sola scriptura,” reading only the books in the Athanasian Bible (minus a few books). Likewise, most post-political Marxists read only the work of Marx or Engels, and perhaps other Marxist thinkers stripped of their political content (Lukács, Wilhelm Reich, Benjamin, Horkheimer, Adorno).

Now we can have critiques of Leninism without trying to render Marx some kind of hyper-consistent thinker who never once changed his mind or methods. Furthermore we must not ignore that if the Immiseration thesis is correct, but the crisis regenerates capitalism thesis is also correct, the the “contradictions” that capitalism produces to undo it actually end up merely reinforcing it. Thus Fukayama and Hegel have an Endstaat against Marx entirely through Marxist thinking. The odd thing is that when I debate this with (generally new) Marxists who hold these ideas, they seem unaware that this has been debated for a century and a half. If you reconcile the numbers of the recent data on income with the numbers Kliman is generating on declining rates of profit, you see clearly that there is something political at hand beyond merely Immiseration. Indeed, the immiseration thesis renders Marxism eschatological. Instead of a political/economic struggle, we are forced to wait until something finally causes the crisis to generate the right kind of historical consciousness to undo capitalism without any political struggle. Yet this has never happened?

For all the flaws in Lenin’s politics that I see anarchists point out, it is the anarcho-communism who have a better answer here than the Marxist-Humanists for why Leninism went wrong. Yet Lenin seems to have been right about one key thing: class struggles change to generate new politics even if within the context of a capitalistic totality. Merely seeing the contradictions does not render it obvious because there is more at stake than just economics and a binary class opposition. Theologically trying to make Marx into a prophet instead of a theorists may produce insightful economic readings of capital, but it also leads to pretty flaccid politics and automatism.

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About El Mono Liso

Por una civilización de la pobreza.

Posted on November 28, 2011, in ideology, Marxism. Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. If our argument seemed nasty it was only because you were asserting a conclusion that didn’t follow from the essay or paragraph we were discussing. That is, again, our debate sprang from a post to a link to this essay:


    Nothing in this essay supports the view that “income inequality is a political issue while profit decline is an economic issue.” Further, not only does this conclusion have no relation to the essay in question, It appears to me to be incoherent. I frankly don’t know what to make of this assertion.

    Maybe taking a closer look at the essay above will help:

    Let’s start with your first claim:

    “The recent numbers make it clear that [Kliman's] claim that income inequality has been stable for 40 years is untrue.”
    Well, this is wrong on two counts. First, Kliman’s claim was that while income inequality has risen over the last forty years it has not risen significantly if one takes into account the full range of benefits and payments that companies make to workers. And secondly, since Kliman does include more than wages and salaries (which is what is typically included) into the mix as he calculates income the graphs you pointed at do not refute him as they simply calculate income differently.

    You then wrote: “Like I said in another post today, Kliman seems to miss or minimize that there really has been a transfer of wealth upwards at the same time that profits are going down.”

    Kliman doesn’t miss the supposed increase in the share of wealth at the top but appears to have empirically refuted the assertion that this has occurred in any significant way.

    You go on, “When I point out that this is a political problem, my friends who like Kliman and carry some of his variants of Marxist-Humanism implicitly with them accuse me of just re-stating the Immiseration thesis that Marx carried over from Ricardo, I try to point out that I am actually arguing the opposite.”

    Okay, here’s the immiseration thesis as per wikipedia:

    “The nature of capitalist production logically requires an ever greater reduction in real wages and worsening of working conditions for the proletariat.”

    So a reversal would be, “The nature of capitalist production logically requires an ever greater expansion of real wages and improving of living conditions for the Capitalists.”

    And the opposite would be, “The nature of capitalist production logically requires an ever greater expansion of real wages and improving of working conditions for the proletariat.” Now which one of these do you mean to say?

    I’m guessing that you don’t mean to say either of these things, so I’m at a loss. What you are arguing isn’t at all clear to me.

    You go on: “That there is nothing automatic about any of this and that state (and non-state) politics matter just as much as economicism.”

    Of course, this follows not at all from what you wrote before. Let me restate that: your mischaracterization of Kliman’s argument about income inequality (even if taken to be true) when added to your assertion that you don’t mean to imply that income inequality might support some kind of immiseration thesis, does not lead in any logical way I can decipher to this point about whether there is something automatic about “any of this.”

    Now a couple of side notes: I don’t know what you mean when you say “any of this,” are you referring to the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, a tendency that can be explained as a logical consequence of the labor theory of value, or are you referring to income redistribution to the wealthiest, or are you talking about some other thing? Further, when you say that state (and non-state) politics matter just as much as economics, what does that mean. Matters in terms of what? Do you mean to say that state politics causes profits to fall just as much as the tendency built into Capitalism? Do you mean to say that state politics cause incomes to fall just as much as economic factors do? Please clarify.

    On a final note I’ll just point out that Kliman doesn’t believe that immiseration through a bust will inevitably lead to communism or socialism or anything like that. All he argues is that busts are built into Capitalist production because of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. He goes on to point out that value production is ultimately what makes Capitalism so unstable. What we do with that information, however, is entirely up to us.

    So, to repeat: 1. You mischaracterized Kliman’s argument and the number you cited didn’t address his argument. 2. Your claim about State politics, while perhaps pointing to something significant, is currently indecipherable. 3. Your accusation that Kliman supports automatism is false. Now, I’ll stop at this point because everything that follows in this essay after that is just variations on beating a straw man.

    Now, this probably seems nasty to you, but in all actuality I’m not angry or even frustrated at this point. I’m just bewildered.

  2. One other comment: Thinking further on this, I think I may have gotten a handle on what you mean when you say: “income inequality is a political issue while profit decline is an economic issue.” I don’t think that’s always the case necessarily, or more accurately, I think the consequences of political struggles for higher wages are largely determined economically. Higher wages are much liklier to be won during booms rather than busts, for example.

  3. The numbers I cite do address what I feel is at root about the controversies around Kliman. However, I may be reading him in the context of the group he is linked to too much, but you can’t ignore implicit ideologies. Kliman is not a simple automatism, but his (implicit) focus on the immiseration thesis which was a huge portion of the Marxist humanist project as a rejection of the need for Leninism seems to be there in his works and why he seems so keen on minimizing parts of the profit increase.

    “Further, when you say that state (and non-state) politics matter just as much as economics, what does that mean.”

    Economic relationships are one form of the manifestation of struggle for material resources in a system of scarcity. These economic choices describe complex social relationships, but they don’t describe ALL of the complex social relationships, just relationships of production and value. If means are used outside of this, such a direct coercion through direct taxation or indirect coercion through other forms of wealth distribution, you have a problem. Kliman (and you) are right that a net transfer downwards won’t fix the problem but ignore that through political means it seems like there has been a way to get incomes to go up for a very small class of individuals at the expense of everyone else. This can only have been done through ways of hiding or working against the declining rate of profits: some of this is, of course, done by exploitation and technology, but some is done by state coercion (The bail-outs) or the removal of state coercion (such as austerity measures). It has always seemed to me that the case was being over-stated to make Marxists who disagreed with Kliman on the severity of income crisis to sound like undersumptionists or Neo-Ricardians, but I don’t think that is true. I think the reason that almost everyone outside of the Marxist humanist project considers Kliman an Orthodox Marxist has do with the holding unto the immiseration thesis and that is related to the ideas of political struggle AGAINST Leninism or ideas about Imperialism, etc.

    This is why Kliman is seen to be a hold-over and a very particular kind of hold-over. Some people, admittedly, completely ignore Kliman’s arguments here wrongly. On parsing the profits in the US, Kliman may be one of the sharpest minds, but there is more than that in reason for his insistence on specific points I think. I may be wrong, but that is what I mean.

  4. I would say of course. Politics and economics are tangled in-separately, and its the Keynesians who seem to miss that. Higher wages won’t fix the problem as the wealth for those wages aren’t limitless and eventually there will be no new markets for expansion to generate them. In that you and Kliman are both right, and I would defend you both against Richard Wolff or the Marx-Keynes hybrid thinkers.

  5. Could you point to an essay or article published by the Marxist Humanist initiative or News and Letters that supports or argues for the immiseration thesis?

  6. Explicitly, using those terms, not much, but implicitly, its all over the place and was part of the cut away from Lenin, which Marxist-Humanist see as not being exposed to unpublished early Marx. For examples of this see: http://www.usmarxisthumanists.org/wp-content/uploads/docs/rein-article-rl-rd-sa-08.pdf

    Or this: http://www.marxists.org/archive/dunayevskaya/works/1968/economic-reality.htm

    “We concluded that it was not accidental that the “backward worker,” not the advanced, party-minded intellectual, even when he is a Marxist, raised the question of Humanism, made it the urgent question of the day. To summarize not only the chapter, but the whole of the book, I propose the frontispiece to be used be Marx’s statement on totality from the GRUNDRISSE. “[W]hen the narrow bourgeois form has been peeled away, what is wealth if not the universality of needs, capacities, enjoyments, productive powers, etc. of individuals, produced in universal exchange? What if not the full development of human control over the forces of nature – those of his own nature as well as those of so-called ‘nature’? What, if not the absolute elaboration of his creative dispositions, without any preconditions other than antecedent historical evolution which makes the totality of the evolution – i.e., the evolution of all human powers as such, unmeasured by any PREVIOUSLY ESTABLISHED yardstick – an end in itself? What is this, if not a situation where man does not reproduce himself in any determined form, but produces his totality? Where he does not seek to remain something formed by the past, but is in the absolute movement of becoming?”


    Notice that it is the idea that the worker, because of his/her subject position, would be manifestation and enact-or of the contradictions of his/her own life.


    “First, let me take up the question of language. [No word] is more important than Subject. Whether we mean by that the Movement, or a specific group like News and Letters Committees; whether we mean the workers or a single revolutionary; whether we mean women’s liberation, Blacks, Indians, “organization,” it is clear that “Subject” is the one that is responsible for both theory and practice. Therefore, we must not say “Subject must unite with its theory”; it is the subject who unites, or fails to unite, theory and practice. In a word, the preposition “with” is wrong.

    Perhaps part of the looseness of expression is due to my stressing how crucial theory is, that, as you put it, quoting me, “Philosophy is itself revolutionary.” Yes, because the whole point of philosophy, of dialectics-both its point of departure and point of return-is Freedom. The trouble with philosophers, whether they were only thinking of Utopia, the Future, or of Thought as their special province, was that they limited the concept of freedom. That is why Marx says (It is the very first quotation one meets even before turning to a single page of text in MARXISM AND FREEDOM) that “Freedom is so much the essence of man that even its opponents realize it….No man fights freedom; he fights at most the freedom of others.”

    Marx “took advantage” of this nature of man, and therefore his thought, the striving for freedom, and said of Hegel’s dialectics-THE greatest philosophy produced by bourgeois philosophy-that what we must do is “realize it” for by realizing this talk and thought of freedom we will HAVE it, be whole man. But under no circumstances does “philosophy is itself revolutionary” mean it will realize itself. Only living men and women can do that. In a word, it is no substitute for “Subject” any more than history is a substitute, for history, too, means MASSES making it.”

    It other words, the contractions of the make it inevitable that the revolution must come from the working class because it predicated on a necessary of the masses realizing their freedom of which “Marx [merely] took advantage.”

    So immiseration thesis is not explicit, but implied because it is implied in different parts of Marx. Lenin argued that these were wrong as because of the way capital reconstituted itself in later periods of crisis and that there was no evidence that working class consciousness could emerge purely from itself.

  7. Well, what is said in these excerpts is pretty nuanced and I think it’s mistake to reduce this perspective to a simple “immiseration thesis” let alone an even simpler automatism. Further, the subjectivity of the proletariat as a revolutionary subjectivity probably deserves defending, but only as a negative subject I think. More later.

  8. I wouldn’t say it was reducible to immiseration and automatism, but I would say it contains the immiseration as part of its implicit assumptions. I am not sure that I think that this means that Marxist-Humanists are automatists, actually. I think that’s more what the Social Democrats were guilty of.

  9. Well the immiseration thesis without automatism isn’t objectionable as far as I can tell. The idea that Capitalism has built in contradictions that lead to the continual immiseration of the working classes and the wrecking of the world is obvious. The only thing that is objectionable about the thesis, as far as I can tell, is the idea that immiseration naturally leads to revolution. In fact, you’ll often hear that struggling to expand worker’s wages and quality of life generally will lead to revolutionary struggle as workers chafe against the constraints imposed by a system of exploitation. I don’t think either set of economic conditions automatically lead to revolutionary struggle.

  10. The difference between us is, again, minimal but may be important. Have you read my problems with Althusser yet? It’s related.

  11. Two comments.

    1. I never said or wrote that there hasn’t been an increase in income inequality. In my new book, _The Failure of Capitalist Production: Underlying Causes of the Great Recession_, I present 3 measures of income inequality, all of which show that it’s increased. On the Diet Soap podcast I did recently, I said that it increased, and I gave the numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau on the extent of the increase. (But there are various measures of “income,” various units one can look at (households, people, tax units, etc.), and many other factors that affect the numbers significantly, there’s no consensus out there on the *extent* of the increase in income inequality).

    What I *have* said and written is that compensation of employees has been a stable share of corporate output (income) for 40 years. The data come from the Bureau of Economic Analysis of the U.S. Department of Commerce; I didn’t make them up. You can do the computations yourself.

    How is this compatible with rising income inequality? Simple: corporate income is only one part of total income, and also there seems to have been a (very modest) increase in the inequality of employees’ compensation, something I also discuss in the book.

    2. The nutty stuff about me being an “orthodox Marxist” with some ideological predisposition or commitment that makes me deny that income inequality has risen is not only baseless. It’s the very opposite of the truth. As I say in the book (pp. 8-9), “Prior to analyzing the data, I had no prior belief that actual rates of profit had failed to rebound since the early 1980s, and I even wrote that ‘profitability has been propped up by means of a decline in real wages for most [U.S.] workers’ (Kliman 2009: 51), which I believed to be an unambiguous fact.” Note that I wrote and published this as late as 2009. And you can check the article and confirm that this quote is there: Andrew Kliman, “‘The Destruction of Capital’ and the Current Economic Crisis,” _Socialism & Democracy_, vol. 23, no. 2 (July 2009), pp. 47-54.

    I was *very* surprised to learn a lot of what I learned while researching the book.

  12. Thank you, Dr. Kliman.

    By the way, do you know how I could GET your books in South Korea? I would love to read it to clear a lot of this up.

  13. Well, a Korean ed. of the new book is being investigated. And I expect to be there, with books, in June. But in the meantime, my 2007 book might be in some academic library (check WorldCat). Both can be bought from Marxist-Humanist Initiative and the whole gamut of online booksellers (though Amazon.com–unlike Amazon.co.uk–seems to be refusing to ship the book until the official U.S. release date). MHI’s price including shipping is $35 per book.

    I’ll send you relevant text in the even-more meantime.

    I should also add that I *have* said and written that working people’s share of U.S. national income has been stable for 40 years and has risen a good deal since 1960. The data are also governmental. This doesn’t conflict with the misleading claim that the wage-and-salary share has fallen, since, as Doug notes, that’s only part of employee’s compensation. And it doesn’t conflict with the income inequality data for various reasons, among them that stuff like capital gains isn’t part of national income.

  14. Yes, actually, then you’re view isn’t that different from my own. I was convinced your numbers on the declining rate of profits and on compensation in the US. I did think you were minimizing it, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. The capital gains issues as well as other means of hitting middle class income is part of the political attack as a means of getting past the declining rate of profits overall I think. When you are in Korea, I would love to be there. I am an American-expat and given some of the strangeness of the Korean Natural Security Laws as applied to foreign residents, I can get a little nervous about talking about these issues too much in public, but would love to engage with you in person.

  15. Skepoet said:
    “With stunning historical irony, this has become almost inverted by the Marxist-Humanists (as well as others Marxists who are otherwise good, who simply want to return to Marx while ignoring the politics that came later — i.e., Principia Dialectica, even Postone).”

    This is a valid point but you are wrong to lump in Principia Dialectica with the Marxist-Humanists. For instance, see: http://www.principiadialectica.co.uk/blog/?p=575. Also here: http://www.principiadialectica.co.uk/blog/?p=1069 you’ll see PD slugging it out with real Marxist-Humanists over post-Marx politics. Perhaps it’s another case of…?

    Skepoet said:
    Yes, actually, then you’re view isn’t that different from my own.

  16. I see. Consider myself corrected.

  1. Pingback: When I am wrong, I’ll admit it: A few statements on Andrew Kliman « The Loyal Opposition to Modernity:

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