[Gold, Michael (1988), Review of J. Elster (1986): An Introduction to Karl Marx, Kyklos 41 (2):329-332]

[ Books | Articles | Reviews | Index | The main menu ]


Review of An Introduction to Karl Marx

[start of page 329]

Michael Gold

ELSTER, JON: An Introduction to Karl Marx, Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 1986. pp. vii + 200. $29.95 cloth. $8.95 paper.

In the preface to this abridged version of his larger work, Making Sense of Marx, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), JON ELSTER again claims to 'simply

[end of page 329, start of page 330]

state MARX's views and engage in an argument with them' (vii). In order to do this he undertakes a complex threefold task which seeks to, first, expose MARX's thought; second, establish what is true or not in his work; and finally, declare what remains valid in his contribution to the social sciences. There should no doubt that what he really attempts to do is update KARL POPPER's polemical The Poverty of Historicism, without 'the epistemological rigor which characterized the earlier attack, formulated in terms of the averred vacuous and dangerous nature of Marxism's historicism. In effect, ELSTER avoids a direct confrontation with MARX's complex philosophy and sociology of knowledge by emphasizing the primacy of method, under the guise of the explanatory and predictive power of methodological individualism (i.e. rational choice theory). ELSTER ultimately seeks to appropriate MARX's liberating language and imagery, thus attempting to abstract thought from action. The author's political individualism - or liberalism legitimated through scientism - is a denial of MARX's emphatic statement in his Eleventh Thesis on FEUERBACH that 'The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point however is to change it.' ELSTER is, after all, a philosopher, attempting, and failing to reinterpret the world according to the latest craze in social science methodology.

Initially, the reader is given the impression that this introduction to MARX will be a hermeneutical endeavor, with ELSTER's assertion that he will subject his work to 'the usual principles of textual analysis' (2). It is, nonetheless, soon clear that this is nothing more than a threadbare positivistic attack on the surprisingly resilient tradition of historicism - to which MARX belongs - the outcome of which is predicted with unflinching certainty, as it is very early on claimed that 'In fact, by and large it will appear that strictly speaking MARX was almost never "right". His facts were defective by the standards of modern scholarship, his generalizations reckless and sweeping' (3). The reader is never told what these 'standards' are, although they are implicit in the methodology espoused and explicit in the language used by ELSTER.

The body of this work is taken up by a recapitulation, and at times, as in the case of ideology (Chapter 9), an expansion - albeit a poor one - of past critiques of MARX's work. The three grounds on which ELSTER attempts to refute and reformulate MARX are argument, or rhetorical formality; ontological implications, namely that 'the logical outcome of his political philosophy is an abhorrent social system; 'and the supposed integration of the 'remains' of his thought into 'mainstream social thought' (4). The author's image of social science is that presented by IMRE LAKATOS 'research programmes,' with historicism, structural Marxism, and post-structuralism as examples of 'degenerating research programmes' and rational choice theory and analytical Marxism as 'progressive problemshifts.' The extent of ELSTER's epistemology is to be found in a few scattered endnotes and a superficial discussion of methodology, to which we now turn.

In Chapter 2, entitled 'Marxist Methodology,' ELSTER rejects methodological holism, functionalism, and dialectical deduction. The essence of this attack is the proposition that reductionism is 'a central strategy in science [that is, the natural sciences]'(22). Formally this takes the shape of methodologicl individualism, or the presumption 'that all institutions, behavioral patterns, and social processes can in principle be explained in terms of individuals only: their actions, properties, and

[end of page 330, start of page 331]

relations'(22). In the body of his work ELSTER repeatedly restates fundamental Marxist premises in terms of the abstraction of Game Theory" (i. e. the discussion of alienation), arguing that it is 'a unifying conceptual framework for most of social science'(29). In the final analysis Elster rejects MARX the sociologist, as well as the political theorist and activist, on the basis of his liberal, voluntaristic claim, that 'the action of one individual can make a small or a large difference to the outcome [of history], depending on his place in the network of social relations'(189). As indicated, this has a clear ideological component, since ELSTER argues for the 'self-realization of the individual'(200), in terms of political melioration and not substantive change. In addition, his epistemological foundation is that of a naive and crude positivism premised exclusively on 'causal explanation [since] we account for a phenomenon by citing its (actual) cause, assumed to have preceded in time'(31).

The voluntarism in ELSTER's work is contrasted to what he perceives to be Marxism's 'structuralism ... .[where, among others] workers and capitalists are not agents in the full sense of the term: free, active choosers'(30). This is not to say, however, that MARX considered individuals to be exclusively at the mercy of destiny. What he proposed, in the second paragraph of 'The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte' was that 'Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please: they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past.' Thus, what MARX attacked, and ELSTER implicitly tries to encourage, is the Lockean liberalism which today continues to be an ideological imperative of much of modern Western political thought, oriented as it is to the perpetuation of unfettered possessive individualism. It would appear that ELSTER seeks to, through a flourish of words, a mere declamatory twist, declare Marxism dead, while claiming for his own the legitimating and influential mantle of MARX's progressive legacy, especially among social theorists, if not politicians. He seeks to achieve this by 'trac[ing] the ancestry of his most important beliefs back to MARX... [but espoused in a] suitably revised and generalized form'(4).

It becomes necessary to enumerate the elements of MARX's thought which ELSTER asserts to be defunct, along with those which are deemed to be of some value, so as to emphasize ELSTER's appropriation of the latter in order to warrant his fanciful version of Marxism. In reference to this it is useful to point out that in order to be a Marxist it is not imperative or desireable to 'parrot' MARX himself, but it is necessary to appreciate and understand the totality of his work. It does, after all, stand as a whole, and not a fractured collection of incompatible writing produced by man suffering of 'a lack of intellectual control'(22). ELSTER states that the following are dead: scientific socialism; dialectical materialism; teleology and functionalism; Marxian economic theory; the theory of productive forces and relations of production -'perhaps the most important part of historical materialism'(193); substantial aspects of the theories of alienation, exploitation, class, politics, and ideology.

It is, however, possible to present some of these in an Elsterian formulation, and thus give them a renewed validity, as is the case of the dialectical method; the theories of alienation, exploitation, class consciousness, class struggle, and politics; along with MARX's conception of distributive justice and a resurrected theory of ideology. Unfortunately for the author, none of what he presents is recognizable as Marxism.

[end of page 331, start of page 332]

What ELSTER ends up presenting is a collection of flawed analytical statements, which are only held together by the powerful glue of rational choice theory, if and only if it is granted the stature of anything more than deductive abstraction. One would think that after the failure of the Behavioral Revolution and the inability of logical-deductive nomothetic social science to provide satisfactory explanatory and predictive statements about socially constructed reality, it would be possible for social theory to transcend its perceived inferiority in relation to the natural sciences. Continued exegeses on the inapplicability of alternative analytic frameworks for the social sciences to the one modelled after the 'scientific method' of the natural sciences are vain and ultimately fruitless. This is especially the case of those scholars who in an opportunistic and disingenuous fashion try to redirect an intellectual tradition in order to appropriate its continued political and scholarly approval.

Washington D. C.
MICHAEL GOLD

[end of page 332]

[Gold, Michael (1988), Review of J. Elster (1986): An Introduction to Karl Marx, Kyklos 41 (2):329-332]

[ Books | Articles | Reviews | Index | The main menu ]


1 1