A Review of a Review of a Companion—to a Big Book

Having mentioned the Center for a Stateless Society earlier today, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the challenging essays that my friend Kevin Carson, a senior fellow at C4SS, has been posting for eons. As a coeditor of The Dialectics of Liberty: Exploring the Context of Human Freedom, I was very proud to include Kevin’s essay, “Formal vs. Substantive Statism: A Matter of Context,” in that anthology. Kevin always brings to the intellectual table a unique perspective on a multitude of issues and that essay is no exception.

Today, he posted a review of David Harvey’s book, A Companion to Marx’s ‘Grundrisse’ (Verso, 2023), which I’ve not read—but which I’m looking forward to reading thanks to Kevin’s review! My brief discussion here serves as both a promo for Kevin’s work—and my own (but I do it in less than 30 paragraphs!). Still, I realize it may fall into the category of tl;dr—but I had fun writing it!

For those unfamiliar with the Grundrisse, Kevin provides a summary of its controversial position in the literature:

“The Grundrisse itself amounts, more or less, to a voluminous collection of notebooks or commonplace books, filled with Marx’s notes and commentary from his readings through the 1850s. Its relationship to Capital is a major point of contention between the various factions and sects of Marxism. To put it in quick and dirty terms that will probably offend just about everybody, the interpretations fall into two broad categories. The first is dominated by the vulgar Marxists, and particularly adherents of vulgar Marxism’s highest expression in Marxism-Leninism; members of this category see the three volumes of Capital as essentially a completed, stand-alone work in their own right, and dismiss the Grundrisse as yet another of Marx’s ‘juvenalia.’ The other group, among which autonomists like Antonio Negri and Harry Cleaver figure prominently, sees Capital as only one component of a larger, unfinished project envisioned in the Grundrisse.” 

Kevin places Harvey closer to the second camp—a camp with which I, myself, would identify, as a scholar of Marx’s work. Through my graduate and doctoral years, studying with my mentor, the great Marxist theorist Bertell Ollman, I came to appreciate the Grundrisse for providing more insights into what made Marx “tick” from a methodological standpoint than any other work in the Marxian canon. As I write in Marx, Hayek, and Utopia:

“Like [F. A.] Hayek, Marx focuses on the mutual interaction of the parts within an ‘organic whole,’ which must be understood systemically and historically. In the Grundrisse, Marx writes: ‘While in the completed bourgeois system every economic relation presupposes every other in its bourgeois economic form, and everything posited is thus also a presupposition, this is the case with every organic system. This organic system itself, as a totality, has its presuppositions, and its development to its totality consists precisely in subordinating all elements of society to itself, or in creating out of it the organs which it still lacks. This is historically how it becomes a totality. The process of becoming this totality forms a moment of its process, of its development.’

“The Grundrisse was not meant for publication, though it was a serious attempt at self-clarification for Marx. And yet, it provides a profound insight into Marx’s method. For Marx, the methods of bourgeois science reify the fragmented reality of capitalism. Marx’s dialectic attempts to transcend social polarities by identifying them as historically specific to and organically expressive of, the capitalist mode of production. It attempts to transcend the fragmentation within the object of its scrutiny by viewing the system as a totality of dynamic and contradictory processes. The identification of structural contradiction is not problematic for dialectical method. It is fundamental to its framework.”

Kevin perceptively highlights not only this theme in Marx’s work but in Harvey’s treatment of Marx’s Grundrisse:

“One recurring theme on which Harvey does place special emphasis, however, is the dialectical character of Marx’s thought. Even the most concrete functional analyses of capitalism are within the context of Marx’s understanding of capitalism as a totality with a beginning and an end, and changing over time. Human society as a whole is in a process of change; relationships within it change along with the larger whole, and the nature of individual entities is defined by their functional relation to the whole. 

“This necessarily entails the recovery of history, in the face of bourgeois liberalism’s largely ahistorical approach (e.g. the origin of private property in peaceful individual appropriation from the common, the original accumulation of capital through abstention, and the predominance of the cash nexus as the result of an innate tendency to truck and barter). Marx rejects ‘robinsonades’ or ‘bourgeois nursery fables’ in which the institutions of capitalist society emerged spontaneously in prehistory from the voluntary interactions of individuals. All human productive activity, going back to our earliest history, has been within the context of an ongoing set of organic social relationships. And — contrary to liberalism’s view of human relationships being governed by ‘eternal natural laws independent of history’ — the specific character of that productive activity has been defined by its relationship to the social context. The social model which bourgeois liberalism framed as natural — one of atomistic individuals relating through contract — was constructed through the forcible suppression of earlier social relationships. And those natural laws, far from being eternal or independent of history, were the conditioned outcome of a historical process.

“The conflict between these two approaches was at the heart of the so-called Methodenstreit, a dispute over economic methodology in the German-speaking world in which Menger (a founding father of Austrian economics) posited fundamental economic laws which were good for all times and places. Menger was the winner in this dispute, to the extent that mainstream capitalist economics operates from the same assumption. But it does so largely by concealing power relations behind the appearance of neutral relations of exchange. And despite this ostensible victory, the institutional school continued to explore the actual power relations which marginalist orthodoxy attempted to hide.”

Kevin’s work, highly critical of those ahistorical and atomist characteristics that can be found in the liberal narrative, has gone a long way toward clarifying what I’ve called ‘capitalism: the known reality’, rather than ‘capitalism: the unknown ideal’. He has been relentless in exploring the historical, dynamic, and structural relations of power within the actual system that exists.

My appraisal of Carl Menger and the Austrian school (including Ludwig von Mises, Hayek, and Murray Rothbard) appears to differ somewhat from Kevin’s (though see below!), insofar as I view that tradition as a complex product of diverse intellectual influences, which separate it from other neoclassical schools of thought. In Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism, I devote Part II to a critical exegesis of Rothbard’s work, who, influenced by Mises’s organic understanding of the trade cycle, develops the rudiments of a theory of class conflict that is rooted in the historical interpenetration of capital and state (especially in the state-banking nexus and in the genesis of the entire regulatory apparatus). One can agree or disagree with Mises or Rothbard and still appreciate the dialectical unity of theory and history that is entailed in the approach.

Despite my praise for this radical, dialectical aspect in Rothbard’s analysis of power dynamics in state capitalism, I am highly critical of those aspects of his thought that are undialectical, dualist, reductionist, atomist, and ultimately utopian (insofar as they apply to ‘nowhere’ or ‘no place’ on earth, which is what the word ‘utopian’ actually means).

Still, one of the chief themes in Part I of Total Freedom—the finale of my “Dialectics and Liberty Trilogy” (which began with Marx, Hayek, and Utopia and continued with Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical)—was to rediscover those kernels of dialectical wisdom in the classical liberal tradition. And while Menger might be criticized on a variety of levels, I think the picture that emerges of him is far more interesting from a dialectical standpoint.

In Chapter 3 of TF, “After Hegel,” I argue that Menger’s view of social reality was profoundly organic and relational and could not be fully appreciated outside the continental traditions that influenced it. As Pete Boettke has emphasized, “The Viennese soil was fertilized by the philosophical writings of Wilhelm Dilthey, Franz Brentano, and Edmund Husserl.” The German-born Brentano’s Aristotelian pedigree drew from the writings of F. A. Trendelenburg, who taught Dilthey, Kierkegaard, Feuerbach, and Marx.

Let’s not forget that it was Aristotle who was the father of dialectical inquiry, and for many, Hegel’s thought has been viewed in significant ways as a revival of Aristotelianism. Menger embraced many of the same essentialist, teleological, and dialectical insights of Aristotle. As I argue, for Menger, as for Hegel, social life is

“an organic totality teeming with living institutions and processes, such as language, religion, law, the state, markets, competition, and money. Both see this totality as the result of ‘natural’ and spontaneous forces that generate ‘unintended consequences’ from intentional human actions. The parallels between Marx and Menger are even more pronounced. [Max] Alter goes so far as to characterize these thinkers as intellectual relatives, for ‘when we compare the conceptual apparatus of Marx with that of Menger we can easily see that Menger is much closer to Marx than any other bourgeois economist. The kinship between the two is, indeed, so strong that one could easily talk about Marx and Menger as distant cousins’. Menger’s methodological techniques parallel Marx’s, insofar as they deepen understanding through a hermeneutical spiral: returning to the object of one’s study from different vantage points and on different levels of generality. This assessment is not unique to Alter: [Barry] Smith has emphasized that ‘Marx and Menger share an Aristotelian antipathy to atomism,’ and O’Driscoll and Rizzo recognize that ‘Marx’s conception of social science was, of course, similar to Menger’s.’”

I spend a bit of time in the rest of that chapter detailing the ways in which Menger’s work can be appreciated through a dialectical lens.

I’d like to say that this is the smallest quibble you’ll find in this review of a review of a companion to a big book! But in truth, I’m not sure I’m quibbling at all. Because in his own discussion of the Methodenstreit, which I highly recommend, Kevin shows a deeper appreciation of Menger’s work. Indeed, he credits Menger for calling for a method of explication that applies “the basic, or simplest, economic laws in the context of the phenomena of a particular historical phase”—but argues that this is “precisely what marginalist economics by and large has not done since his time.” He sees in Menger somebody who, at his best, merged a realistic/empirical dimension with a theoretical dimension, providing a glimpse into their organic complementarity. In Kevin’s view, Menger’s approach “had the potential for being the intermediate body of thought that bridge[d] the gap between fundamental or pure theory (‘exact’ theory), and the concrete analysis of economic phenomena in different societies or historical epochs. … This, however, was not the approach taken [by] … [t]he heirs of marginalist economics.” Take a look at his larger discussion of the Methodenstreit, because he’s got a wonderful section in that work where he calls specifically and dialectically for “Restoring Context” so as to grasp the historical, institutional, class, and power dynamics that were all too often obscured by the neoclassical theorists.

In any event, do check out today’s review by Kevin and the volumes he continues to churn out with amazing energy. Prepare to have some of your most precious ideological beliefs challenged!

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