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U.S. Marxian economists and the reconstruction of historical materialism

By Zhang Xiuqin | 2013-08-29 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

The world's first factories made extensive use of child labor.


Since the end of 1970s, European and American Marxist discourse has undergone a theoretical reorientation, becoming more concerned with country-specific definitions and topics as exemplified by contemporary American Marxian economists. 

If classic Western Marxism has continued to make itself felt anywhere in the circles of contemporary Marxist theory in the U.S., it is in the unshakeable place cultural issues have taken, especially in the writings and theories of cultural Marxist exponents Norman Levine, Bertell Ollman and Fredric Jameson. However, as David McLellan has observed, Americans’ most original contribution to Marxist theory to date has been in the field of political economy. The work of theorists such as John Roemer, Jon Elster and Robert Brenner has been devoted to providing historical materialist interpretations of contemporary American economic reality and recommendations for America’s future social development. The evidence they channel abides by the principles of methodological individualism and attempts to reconstruct the historical materialist interpretation of social relations by replacing the emphasis on production relations with an emphasis on property relations.


Principles of methodological individualism

Elster defined methodological individualism as “the doctrine that all social phenomena (their structure and their change) are in principle explicable only in terms of individuals—their properties, goals, and beliefs.” In other words, the actions of individuals, which can be explained from the basis of rational choice, lay a micro foundation for all macro social phenomena (i.e. exploitation and class stratification).

The foundations of methodological individualism are evident in Brenner and Roemer’s related ideas and definitions as well. Brenner writes, “by property relations, I mean the relationship among the direct producers, among the class of exploiters (if any exists), and among the exploiters and producers, which specify and determine the regular and systematic access of the individual economic actors (or families) to the means of production and to the economic product.”

Roemer argues that “a person’s class is not something that should be taken as a given before the person begins economic activity; it is an economic characteristic that emerges from market activity. A person acquires membership in a certain class by virtue of rational activity on her part, by virtue of choosing the best option available subject to the constraints she faces, which are determined by the value of the property she owns.”


Theoretical perspectives of property relationship

Analytical Marxists have been committed to using methodological individualism to replace the concept of production relations with property relations. Brenner originally proposed the concept of property relations in his influential 1976 paper, “Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-industrial Europe”. Brenner insisted that “property relations” or “surplus extraction relations” are, analytically speaking, a sub-concept of “class structure”. This triggered the controversial “Brenner debate” in 1976. Subsequently, writing “attitudes toward private property are at the heart of the matter (of exploitation),” Roemer argued that Marxists should directly focus on analyzing property relations and class relations created by the distribution of property. In brief, Roemer states that the aim of defining exploitation in terms of property relations is to offer an economically coherent explanation that places the root of exploitation in unequal ownership of property.

Other than demonstrating issues of exploitation and class, Analytical Marxists also utilized the concept of property relations to analyze Europe’s transition from a feudal society into a capitalist society, and to clarify the connotations of property relations in distinguishing between various social structures, as demonstrated by Brenner’s aforementioned definition. It is worth noting that Analytic Marxists such as Brenner extended the concept’s significance to the point where property relations’ analytical paradigm supersedes or entirely subsumes that classic labor-capital exploitative relationship. Therefore, from the theoretical perspective of property relations, issues of exploitation and class have actually surpassed their significance in classic Marxism. Thus, Brenner’s three types of property relations, Roemer’s three major classes, and Elster’s three kinds of ownership relations are all reasonable.


Property relationship and historical materialism

In Marxist analysis of the American economy, Roemer argues “what evolves through history are the types of property whose unequal distribution characterizes economic structures,” and notes that basing exploitation in property relations makes it more congruent with “the economic structures highlighted by historical materialism.”Therefore, to some extent property and its relational forms are connected to historical materialism. Certainly, this relationship is rather the latter absorbing the former than the former fitting into the latter. That is to say, the concept of property relations has nearly become the guiding principle for historical materialist interpretation.

In fact, Marx explicated his view on how property relations tie into historical materialism in the preface to Critique of Political Economy: “At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or–this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms–with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto.”Like classic Western Marxists and other contemporary schools off Marxism, Analytical Marxism’s theories of property relationship are all based on reconstruction of historical materialism. No matter what kinds of questions and challenges it faces, “The virtue of historical materialism…is that it is a theory of history, a sufficiently clear and simple statement of an economic theory of history with which any other theory must come to grips,” writes Roemer (emphasis in original). He emphasizes that historical materialism provides an economic explanation for social evolution.

Although Gerald Allan Cohen, a British Marxist political philosopher, is widely regarded as the progenitor of Analytical Marxism, the Marxist academic circle holds divergent opinions on his work. In general, Elster is more inclined to stick to Cohen’s ideas, while Roemer and Brenner depart from them in some key places. According to Roemer’s understanding, Cohen’s ideas are more consistent with the historical materialism of classical Marxism, namely his isolating the forces of production as the decisive factor. Roemer summarizes Brenner’s view as: “the balance of class forces is the exogenous datum, and productive forces develop or stagnate as a consequence of existing property relations.”Consequently, class struggles take a supplementary status in Cohen’s productive forces determinism and exert a decisive influence in Brenner’s formulation. Roemer notes that “the causes of the transformation of property relations in both of these accounts are not the ideas about injustice and exploitation that the producers might have had.” Stated simply, attributing the transformation of property relations to injustice is to conflate cause with effect.

Though Roemer’s reasoning is not without sense, his opinions have been criticized as deviating from the essence of Marxism and called “Distributive” Marxism. Critics argue that the “Distributive Marxist” interpretation attempts to use the legal language of productive relations—property relations—to replace the general meaning of productive relations, and that, in its emphasis on property relations, it negates the decisive function of productive forces. As Roemer’s critics have expressed, productive relations cannot be ignored by highlighting property relations, and the decisive role played by productive forces cannot lose its historical rationality in the rebuke of “productive forces determinism” or “technological determinism”.


Evaluation of reconstruction

Contemporary American Marxian economists are established in principles of methodological individualism, and take the concept “property relations” as the point of departure to establish an economic explanation for historical materialism. In general, they have not broken away from broader attempts to reconstruct historical materialism by contemporary global Marxists. Orthodox Marxism’s understanding of historical materialism is essentially based on two pairs of categories, that is, productive forces and productive relations, and the economic base and superstructure. In that way, contemporary global Marxists emphasize the significance of productive relations and the superstructure. For this reason, they reinterpret the significance of these four categories (productive forces, productive relations, economic base and superstructure), renaming them either: to bring what orthodox Marxism regards as the constituents of productive forces into the category of productive relations, thus fitting components of the economic base into the superstructure; to bring the constituents of productive relations into the category of productive forces, thus fitting components of the superstructure into the economic base; or making no clear distinction as to how the parallel components in each pair are related.

If the contemporary American Marxist theorists of culture are focused entirely on the category of culture and devote themselves to the second pair of categories (economic base and superstructure), then Marxian economists embrace the concept “property” and commit themselves to the first pair of categories (the forces of production and relations of production). In this way, the emphasis of social relations has been transformed from classic productive relations into cultural relations or property relations. Additionally, it seems that based on the principles of methodological individualism, cultural relations or property relations are the only venue in which to express the relation between problems of the individual and problems of society. Within this paradigm, other sub-problems (including issues of exploitation and class) can only receive limited discussion. In the view of Marxian economists, class exploitation and class struggle is labeled as a kind of property relations between individuals and the society. Undoubtedly, the above discussion is feasible as an academic thought project (especially in economics), but who is it actually feasible for in the end? This is definitely a question worth pondering.



Zhang Xiuqin is from the Department of Philosophy at China University of Political Science and Law.

The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 467, June 26, 2013

                                                                                                                        Translated by Zhang Mengying

                                                                                                                           Revised by Charles Horne

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