You are here

Marx vs. Weber: Uno Mas!

Social revolutions have come and gone. Proletarian internationalism lived and died. It fought and lost, and for the moment at least, has disappeared from our world. We are certainly closer to common ruin than to any more sustainable, more humane way of existence.
J C Myers

Issue #45, October 1999

Most of us who grew up in the United States during the Cold War years were indoctrinated with the dogmatic and inflexible party line that Marx was wrong. By the time we reached college, the crude Pavlovian conditioning had done its work. "Marx," our teachers would begin, "Was wrong!" our collective subconscious would chant in unison. Back in 1984, the year Reagan's itchy finger was on the trigger, one dangerous radical teaching a philosophy course I was enrolled in went so far as to begin a lecture by telling us, "Marx isn't so bad." The Cold War may have ended, but the conditioning settled in, deep and resonant. Is there another political thinker who can elicit such a quick and visceral response? But what, exactly, was Marx wrong about? Was it his savage, unsparing critique of Bruno Bauer that we were instructed to reject? Or perhaps his musings on the organic composition of capital? No, the answer is much simpler, of course, and we all know it, don't we? Marx was wrong because he failed to correctly predict the future. Marx predicted a future of capitalist decline and proletarian revolution, neither of which happened, thus sealing the fate of his "social theories".

There has been, I think, too little reflection on the Cold War years so far; on what we knew and why we thought we knew it. Let's, for instance, get one thing straight: Marx's prediction of a future of social revolution wasn't that far off. Not long after the ink had dried on the pages of the Communist Manifesto, revolutions broke out across Europe. In the aftermath of their defeat, things went quiet for seventy years or so before revolutionary struggles rose to power in Russia and were turned back in Germany and Hungary. After that, Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America. Let's be clear: It is one thing to point out that in most places, revolutionary struggles that have thought of themselves as socialist or communist or Marxist have been turned back. It is quite another thing -- and an abominable historical inaccuracy -- to claim that they never happened.

Surely, a more outrageous prediction was the belief (held widely by left-liberals and social democrats circa 1990) that once the Cold War came to a close with the West firmly victorious, reasonable, clear-headed social-democratic criticisms of the market could come to the fore without the red warning label being slapped across them. With the Soviet Union gone, it was often said, real reforms could take place in the West without knee-jerk reactionaries fighting tooth and nail against anything that might put us on the slippery slope to socialism. The actual events of the past decade told a different story. "Reform" in the US and in Western Europe has now come to refer to the process of dismantling what few social welfare protections those societies once enjoyed. Social-democratic parties have become liberal centrists, liberal centrists have become unapologetic free-marketeers, and just about anyone else to the left of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair went out for cigarettes eight years ago and never came back.

Neither did it turn out to be the case that rational, reasonable considerations of Marx as a political thinker would get any easier after the red flag had been hauled down from over the Kremlin. In a recent article devoted entirely to the work of Alexis de Tocqueville, for example, Daniel Elazar found it necessary to open by slamming Marx for having failed to "accurately describe, analyze, and explain the late-modern and early-post-modern world." Why this sort of anti-Marxist spasm still seems unavoidably necessary is unclear. We must, however, give credit where credit is due. Wheeling in Tocqueville to criticize Marx's fortune-telling credentials is a bold new innovation. Traditionally, of course, this had been the task reserved for Max Weber. If Marx was wrong about what lay ahead for Western capitalist societies, Weber was right. For those of us schooled during the Cold War era, this was sure and certain knowledge. As sure and certain as the knowledge -- obtained from somewhere no one can remember -- that supermarket lines in Kiev were longer than those in Cleveland. The outcome of the Marx/Weber debate was the bedrock of American social science. Now, perhaps it seems churlish of me to want to stir up an old fight again, but surely if those two old German duelists were with us today they'd be ready for a few more rounds. So in the interests of reflection and contemplation here at the business-end of the 20th century, let's bring 'em back into the ring.

Dare I say it? Let's get ready to rumble.

Round One: Social Order

brawler One of the central questions on which Marx and Weber were traditionally brought head-to-head concerns the sources of political order. Just why is it that the masses of people at the bottom of steeply unequal societies go along with the program, day in and day out, rather than rising up in rebellion? Marx's answer was not that the ruling class exerted such power through its steely grasp on the state, snuffing out all expressions of proletarian political aspirations. Though after the liquidation of the Paris Commune he had no illusions about the ferocity with which capitalist states were capable of defending themselves, either. Nor was his answer that workers were too hopelessly deluded by "false consciousness" to act in their own interest. Marx's real candidate for the source of social order in modern, capitalist societies was far more mundane than either force or fraud -- it was what he called in Capital the "dull compulsion of economic forces." Rent and groceries. Compounding this was the fact that in both production and politics workers become alienated from any meaningful control over the material conditions of everyday life. Rather than a sense of patriotic fervor, what Marx suggests capitalist society breeds under normal conditions is a sense of isolation and powerlessness. Life seems entirely accidental -- booming economy one day, mass layoffs the next -- and what can one individual do but try to make ends meet and take care of number one?

This doesn't seem to me to be a wildly implausible description of life in the "early-post-modern world", but the Weberians have maintained for years that their man had a better answer vis-à-vis the trajectory of modern politics. The source of mass obedience was the belief in a system of legitimate authority. In early societies, legitimacy was based on tradition. We do things this way because we've always done things this way. When a society went into crisis and its system of legitimacy was disturbed, a charismatic leader would arise and step into the breach. But in the long run, the system of legitimacy bound to dominate modern societies was rational administration. We follow the rules and obey authority because we believe that the powers that be are rational and legally-constituted. Given the stones that are usually hurled at Marxists over the question of "false consciousness" there is an awful lot riding on collective belief here. But certainly the rationalization and bureaucratization of the state has been a central trend in the developed countries for most of the century.

Here stand two plausible descriptions of social order in capitalist society; some good punches thrown by both fighters. Let's call round one a draw.

Round Two: The Direction of History

What was Marx's prediction for the future of capitalism? Why, as he writes in the Communist Manifesto, the emiseration of the proletariat. The proletariat would sink deeper and deeper into poverty while the bourgeoisie ruthlessly enriched itself until the day the revolution struck and the expropriators were expropriated. Weber, on the other hand, predicted a future of progressive rationalization. Capitalist societies would manage their contradictions and overcome their crises with the tools of rational administration. They would reform, if necessary. They would supply the masses with sufficient amounts of material well-being so as to stave off revolution. In the Marx-Weber debate, this was always the Weberian knock-out punch. Capitalism didn't emiserate the working class. It rationalized; it reformed; it survived. After the arrival of the Western European welfare states, the New Deal, the War on Poverty, and the Great Society, it was hard not to be convinced and most scholars were. Weber had stood the test of time.

That is, until our own day and age in which Marx's counter-punch seems finally to have landed. For what Marx predicted about the future of capitalism, first and foremost, was the spread and dominance of the market. Finding its way into every pore of social life, the market would leave no human relationship unaffected; it would transform personal worth into market value and convert revered professionals into wage workers. More than this, capitalism would expand to reach to every corner of the globe in the search for profits, slipping out of the nation-state's grasp and forcing every country to adopt its way of life. Is there a more accurate way of describing the conditions of post-Cold War globalization? In place of the cornerstone of the American welfare state, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, we have now the Personal Responsibility Act. In need? Hit hard times? Tough. Find a job. Public schools falling apart? Here's a voucher, go talk to the private sector. National health insurance? We've got something even better, it's called "managed care" -- a health care system run by private companies for a profit, of course. Laid-off? Downsized? Jobs moved to a cheaper labor market overseas? Well, what did you expect? Competition leads to the generalization of technological innovations, rates of profit decline. Somebody has to make up for the losses and it sure isn't going to be the stockholders. A whole world filled with workers, firms, and nation-states tearing at each other's heels to remain "competitive"? You can find descriptions of contemporary capitalism like this in the business section of any major newspaper. Or you can find them in Marx.

Weber's great advantage as a social theorist in the 1950s and '60s was that his eye was focused on bureaucratization -- unquestionably the name of the game back then. But whereas Weber saw market capitalism as inseparably linked to a broad, totalizing, rationalization of society, what Marx recognized about the market was its irrationality. His inspiration here was drawn from none other than Adam Smith himself, who taught that commercial society was organized by the collision of independent economic exchanges -- unplanned, unconscious, unhindered by the iron grip of rationalization. Marx, however, foresaw a slightly less benign result to this process than did Smith. Market capitalism, Marx wrote in the Manifesto, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the dark powers called up by his spell. What is lost in capitalist society, rather than gained as Weber would suggest, is precisely the ability to use the tools of reason in matters where our collective material well-being is concerned. Just as the worker's conscious control over the act of production is lost when he or she becomes nothing more than an abstract laborer -- a burger-flipper, a cubicle drone -- society's conscious control over investment, employment, and the environment is lost when we give over those decisions to the market. As the political tools once used to rein-in market forces have been steadily dismantled and disorganized, capitalism comes once again to resemble a ship on the high seas whose captain has gone mad.

It may even be worth considering, in this post-reform age, whether the emiseration of the proletariat was really such a ridiculous prediction after all. First and foremost, we would do well to remember that capitalist reform -- higher wages, shorter hours, and social welfare benefits -- was nowhere the product of capital or the state acting in complete independence from a well-organized mass labor movement. Cut those movements down to size and no reform remains on the table for long. Between 1983 and 1995, the percentage of private sector workers belonging to labor unions dropped from 16.5% to 10.3% and the results were nothing short of mechanistically precise. Higher wages? Wages in the U.S. have stagnated since the beginning of the 1980s. Shorter hours? Ask anyone in Silicon Valley about the Eight-Hour Day and they'll laugh them selves unconscious. Social welfare benefits? In 1987 some 31 million Americans (12.9% of the population) were not covered by any form of health insurance. By 1994 that figure had expanded to 39.7 million, or 15.2% of our fellow citizens. After rising sharply in the 1980s, the poverty rate has held steady at 13.3% of the population -- in 1997, 35.6 million people. And these, we might do well to remind ourselves, have been boom years. What happens when the boom slows down, as even the most orthodox neo-liberal knows it inevitably will? No one seems to want to ask, because the answer is just too obvious.

The results of creeping market dominance in the rest of the world have been equally brutal and equally predictable. According to the recently released UN Development Report, inequality between rich and poor countries has expanded in the last decade, as has inequality between the rich and the poor within a vast range of countries. Yet the consistent inability to recognize what is happening -- to call it by its proper name -- is truly baffling. A recent article in Slate entitled, "A Land Laid Waste by Nikita Krushchev", describes the plight of people in Evensk, a small town in northern Russia. The state geological agency, once the largest employer, has shut down, and food is now sold by private entrepreneurs at prices matching those in New York. A young, unemployed mother receives the equivalent of $12 a month to feed herself and her child. Now, perhaps there's something I'm missing here. This is Krushchev's fault? The worst that can be said about Soviet socialism has already been said innumerable times before. But who is going to remember that it was capitalism, not socialism, that allowed people to go hungry in Russia in the 1990s?

The champ seems a little stunned as the fighters return to their corners. And on points, it looks like round two goes to the man in the red trunks.

Round Three:
Nationalism, Internationalism, and Revolution

To be sure, Marx's most outlandish prediction was that of a growing internationalist consciousness among the working classes of the world, and their eventual rise to power in a global revolutionary struggle. "The workers," the Manifesto famously declares, "have no country." It was internationalism, Marx argued, that would separate communist political practice from that of other 19th Century socialists. For his part, Weber recognized the existence of proletarian internationalism, but saw it as a force in decline. Nationalism looked to him far more likely to spur the passions of modern societies and after Bosnia, Rwanda, and the rise of identity politics, can we doubt the accuracy of his insight here? (Even if we might hesitate at his enthusiasm for such developments -- Weber, after all, looked forward to the coming of World War I.)

There are a few things to say about Marx's understanding of nationalism and internationalism before awarding this round to the dueling-scarred sociologist from Erfurt. Marx's internationalism was rooted in a critique of any partial identity's ability to deliver a meaningful form of emancipation. We may all be citizens of a proud and free nation, but when your job gets downsized, that and a dollar will buy you a copy of the want ads. For Marx, in order for human beings to live a genuinely human sort of life, we have to be able to control the realm of necessity and to relegate it to its proper place. We have to spend less time slaving for rent and groceries and more time thinking, acting, and creating freely. The nation-state qua nation-state can't deliver this, nor can any type of identity-based social solidarity, including, we might add, an internationalist proletarian identity. But international working class solidarity was never meant to be a form of emancipation in itself. Freedom, for Marx, would not mean going to a workers' bar after work rather than T.G.I. Friday's, it would only be the result of a massive reorganization of production. What stands in the way? Capital. And capital, Marx maintained, was far too powerful to be overcome by a working class in one country, acting alone. A European social revolution, Marx wrote in a widely ignored passage, would founder on the rocks of British capital. A lone, isolated socialist country, he predicted, could never survive economically in the world of global capital.

Marx's "prediction" of the rise of proletarian internationalism, then, was never really a prediction at all, but a deadly accurate assessment of what it would require to overcome the power of capitalism. His prediction here has been verified by history in the starkest terms. It was the survival of the Soviet Union for 74 years, not its finally going under, that flew in the face of Marx's analysis. As for Weber's prediction that proletarian internationalism would wither away, this too turned out to be correct, but only 90 years or so after it was supposed to have happened. The organization of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War - to take just one historical example - and the sacrifices made by more than 35,000 volunteers from 53 countries are inexplicable apart from the recognition that proletarian internationalism was rising to its high-water mark through the first half of the 20th century, not falling into decline as Weber thought.

One of Marx's lesser-known predictions, underscored by Eric Hobsbawm in his introduction to a 1998 edition of the Communist Manifesto, was the failure of revolutionary struggle and the "common ruin of the contending classes". Social revolutions have come and gone. Proletarian internationalism lived and died. It fought and lost, and for the moment at least, has disappeared from our world. We have by no means reached anything resembling common ruin. But we are certainly closer to common ruin than to any more sustainable, more humane way of existence. We are also far closer to it than to the "iron cage of rationality" predicted by Weber. The post-Cold War world is not one of planning and control organizing every aspect of existence and snuffing out the human spirit. It is one in which the market has thrown planning and control to he wind. It is one in which every guarantee of security, from the welfare state to lifetime employment, has been sacrificed to "competitiveness". It is one in which personal freedom has been ground down to our choice of dwelling and adornment. Marx said that. And Marx was right.

J C Myers is Lecturer in Political Studies at the University of Cape Town. You can reach him by e-mail.

Copyright © 1999 by J C Myers. Drawing 1999 by Mike Mosher. All rights reserved.