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Debating Sociological Marxism

by Erik Olin Wright on September 7, 2015
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On 17 August, Erik Olin Wright hosted a specific international workshop on ‘What has Sociological Marxism ever done for us?’ at the University of Sydney. Participants were from Chile, Austria, nationally across Australia, and various universities within Sydney including Macquarie University, the University of New South Wales, as well as the University of Sydney.

The workshop was anchored around two documents. First, an article written by Adam David Morton entitled ‘The Limits of Sociological Marxism?’, which was published in Historical Materialism in 2013. The second was a specfic response from Erik Olin Wright written for the purposes of facilitating the debate. What follows below is Erik Olin Wright’s commentary that summarised that debate, which is available here for the first time.

EOWsocmarxNotes on Sociological Marxism

  1. Sociological Marxism is a contrast to other ways of doing Marxism – this is not Marxist sociology, but sociological Marxism. Michael Burawoy and I coined the term in a context where we were trying to clarify our common agenda as Marxists in sociology, but once it was coined I have been thinking about what it would mean to give this analytical precision.
  2. Before getting into this, I need to say a word about what I consider to be “Marxism” so that we can talk about different forms of Marxism.
  • What defines the parameters of the Marxist tradition? Not so much its moral foundations. I consider these to be equality, democracy and community/solidarity – but this is not really unique to Marxism. The other three agendas have a distinctive Marxist character:
  • Marxism is a variety of emancipatory social science (ESS). It is the most developed and systematic current of emancipatory social science, but it is not the only current. A fully developed ESS has four broad tasks: 1. Moral foundations. 2. Diagnosis and critique. 3. Theory of alternatives. 4. Theory of transformation. I would describe Marxism as the emancipatory social science of class emancipation.
  • It is somewhat of a historical liability that it has been named after a person. Naming theoretical traditions after a person is a hallmark of a doctrine rather than a science. This reflects the duality of Marxism as an animating ideology of struggle as well as a framework of scientific investigation. The cognitive demands on these two lives of Marxism are quite different.
  • Marxism is a theoretical tradition more than a tightly integrated paradigm. The tradition is defined by a set of problems – a broad agenda of analysis – and a conceptual vocabulary for formulating explanations and arguments.

i) Diagnosis and Critique of capitalism – class analysis and anti-capitalism;

ii) Alternatives to capitalism is the pivotal problem for elaborating alternatives, traditionally called socialism and communism. The alternative always involves a profound transformation of class relations, and sometimes also the dissolution of market relations as well. At the core of the problem of alternatives is alternative power relations over the organisation of the economy (i.e. class structure); and

iii) A theory of transformation revolving around class, the dynamics of capitalism, the state, ideology, and civil society.

ReconstructingSo, if you are an anti-capitalist in which your diagnosis and critique of capitalism and your conception of its alternative is anchored in class analysis, and you explore the dilemmas and conditions for transformation by understanding the interplay of class with state, economy, ideology and civil society (with unspecified emphasis on the domains), then you are working in that tradition.

  1. Sociological Marxism as one way of doing Marxism. Originally, when Michael and I adopted this label, we had two contrasts in mind (also see Reconstructing Marxism for more on a range of problems in historical materialism and class analysis):
  • A great deal of Marxist theory either is preoccupied with the economy or the state economy nexus, to the neglect of processes identified with what is sometimes called civil society (or sometimes even society). A sociological Marxism gives particular weight to this arena or dimension of social action. This became central to my idea of taking the “social” in socialism seriously and also the idea that in socialism a form of power that is anchored in civil society has particular importance. This doesn’t mean that we advocated giving any sort of general primacy to civil society in class analysis, but that it should be taken seriously and the processes specific to it be given greater attention. A class analysis of civil society is needed alongside a class analysis of the state and economy. This is so to speak adding the social to political economy.
  • We also saw the adjective “sociological” as a counterpoint to “historical” in “historical materialism”. This is not because we advocate “ahistorical materialism”, but rather that we had become quite skeptical of the possibility of a real “theory of history” in the strong sense of a credible theory of the overarching trajectory of history. Or, even more specifically, we lost confidence in the kind of theory of the trajectory of capitalist history that historical materialism has attempted: a theory that makes possible a projection into the future of likely states of the contradictions of capitalism because of an adequate theory of the laws of motion of capitalism. Historical materialism is not simply historically-specific materialism or historically-variable materialism; it was meant to provide foundations for a real theory of historical trajectory, especially of capitalism.

One additional issue for the adjective sociological: Sociological explanations typically adopt a certain eclecticism in the building of analyses, even when they adopt a fairly strong theoretical core. To use one language for talking about this, sociology tries to identify causal mechanisms in a process, and generally has a relatively relaxed attitude towards exploring mechanisms that come from different theoretical traditions. This is quite different from some types of economics, for example, which relentlessly builds explanations around rational choice models.

  1. AlienationRelational analysis. Adam Morton draws a contrast between interior and exterior relational analysis. He wrote in correspondence to me (16 August 2015): “So what I term problematic about “ontological exteriority” – taking state / economy / society as separate and then combined, or even inter-penetrating – stems from a dissatisfaction with treating abstractions as externally related i.e. the world is made up of “things” external to each that are then analysed in relationship but only after their prior separation. Here my influence is Bertell Ollman on the philosophy of internal relations that is the hallmark of historical materialism. There is a dialectical method, processual and relational, where connections are made as aspects of each part as elements of a whole in which they belong.” This is a complicated set of issues. I think the problem comes from thinking about the meaning of the expression of “parts as elements of a whole in which they belong.”
  • We can certain construct an abstract model of society in which every part is an element in a whole to which it “belongs.” The classic way of doing this is through functionalism, where the belongingness of a part comes from the functions it fills for the whole. That can be a useful model, a heuristic. But this is quite different from saying that the real parts of any actual social system have that kind of character. My view is that the functionality of any element in a capitalist system for capitalism is highly variable and contested; it is an achievement of a specific capitalism that it manages to successfully functionalise its parts, and this is always precarious. No state is a pure capitalist state in which its structural features are all derived from their role in capitalism.
  • The precariousness comes from the fact that society is a particular kind of system – a loosely coupled, open system, in which functional integration is contingent, partial, and contested. What this means is that the character of parts is not entirely a function of the “whole to which they belong.” There are two issues here:

(1) Parts have internal processes and mechanisms. Let me give an analogy from an organic system, which is more the model of a functionally integrated system where parts are not even definable without reference to the whole: a heart is a heart by virtue of its relation to the rest of the system. This is why an artificial heart is intelligible as a heart even though it is made out of totally different substances from natural hearts. But a heart is also a thing relative to the body, with its own internal relations of parts that are not simply reflections of the heart’s relation to the system. This is why you can have an autonomously determined malfunction of the heart that has nothing to do with its connection to the whole. A valve can collapse because of a failure of its internal architecture (its internal relations of its own parts) that is not itself explainable by the relational role of the heart in the system as a whole. The parts are themselves made up relations—these constitute the mechanisms interior to the parts—and these are not mere derivatives of the part’s insertion into the whole.

(2) The whole that we call society or a social system is actually not a unified whole animated by a single essence. It is not really like an organism. No capitalist society (a society in which the economic system is dominated by capitalist relations) is simply a capitalist system. The concrete complexity of this socioeconomic ecosystem also means that the parts do not simply have interior relations as parts of “the whole”, because there isn’t a unitary “the”.  This applies to all of the parts themselves: no capitalist state is purely a capitalist state.

All of this complexity in understanding relations—relations all the way down—is one reason why I think it is more straightforward to emphasise causal mechanisms. These mechanisms are relational, of course, but they are plural and heterogeneous.

Erik Olin Wright

Erik Olin Wright is Vilas Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin. He is the author of many books, including Classes, Interrogating Inequality, Class Counts, Deepening Democracy (with Archon Fung), Reconstructing Marxism, Envisioning Real Utopias, and Understanding Class.

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