How to not understand Marx


This was written as a response to a handout produced by sociology lecturer Jen Dixon at Rusin College. Her response to this (whinging to the Principal that I had ‘undermined her authority’) replicated that of her colleague Maeve Bayton. The only thing anyone could learn from scum like them was the sham-radical nature of sociology and of Ruskin College. Well actually, that’s not quite true, given that for a fair number of the students there the most important exam is the one for ‘dyslexia’ assesment, cos that gives them a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card, or a ‘Look At Me, I Can Do Fuckall And Still Get A Cert’.

I felt that my attempt to explain why Marx was not a sociologist failed. Let me try again.

Why should anyone call Marx a sociologist? He did not call himself such. He did not address any of the concerns which are those of the sociological tradition. His concern was not with stratification, nor with the ‘problem of order’ nor with the plotless novel of the ‘sociological imagination’.

For anyone who thinks that Marx is a sociologist, then perhaps they can show where in his writings the concerns are those of sociology.

Compare the titles of these three major works of the alleged ‘sociological tradition’:
Marx: Capital – A Critique of Political Economy
Durkheim: The Division of Labour in Society
Weber: Economy and Society
Notice the difference? Marx’s concern was not with human society ‘in general’ – even if that is taken as a meaningful category. It was with the character of human being where the determining societal relation is that of the extraction of surplus product in the form of surplus-value via the wage-form. The attempt to make Marx into a theorist of society in general is the same kind of ideological move that was made by the political economists in presenting the categories of the capital/wage-labour as necessary features of any human order.

Not only is Marx not a sociologist, but the entire discipline of sociology arose as a conservative reaction to revolution: in Europe to the French Revolution, in America to the anti-slavery movement.

The writer who, we are told, first used the word ‘sociology’ – Comte – was concerned, above all with the breakdown of the traditional, feudal order which he believed had been accomplished by the French Revolution. His response was to advocate the construction of a polity which united the previously opposed poles of order and of progress under a new priesthood – the sociologists, who would restore the hierarchy which was lost when the traditional, feudal, Catholic order was dissolved by the Enlightenment (COMTE Positive, p 406 – 8; HALFPENNY Positivism, p 19; MARCUSE Reason, p 341; ZEITLIN Ideology, p70 – 6, p 111).

Two of the major defences of slaveholding produced by the Southern slaveowners were titled Sociology for the South and Treatise on Sociology (GENOVESE World, p154). This was the first time that word appeared in North American publishing. It is no accident that the author of one of the standard textbooks of modern sociology, Anthony Giddens, is the chief ideologist for warcriminal Blair.

The entire point of Marx’s project was to show that what are presented in capitalist society as eternal categories of human existence are local formations of a particular way of extracting surplus. More importantly that the extraction of surplus, rather than its free and collective distribution is no more a necessary feature of human life than is slavery. . This critical project comes from the position that there is another way for the totality of societal labour to be organised – communism, producers freely associating to undertake fulfilling work producing goods to satisfy needs. The purpose of the project of sociology is to block this vision. The emergence of sociology on the European Continent was the response of the ideologues of the business-class to a revolutionary worker’s movement. (ANDERSON Components.) As part of this it attempts to conscript phrases from Marx into the service of a discourse which is hostile to any transformative vision.

How to not understand Marx

An outstanding example of this political strategy is Jen Dixon’s hand-out ‘Introduction to Marxism’. It would be hard to produce something which, in outline and in detail, was more misleading. Its sole virtue is that the best way to understand something is to begin by misunderstanding it. I expect that one response to the criticism which follows is that what it criticises is ‘an introduction’ and that simplification is a good place to start. This is not the point. I love fine simplifications. That is why in the first session I mention the chapter ‘The Great Money Trick’ in Robert Tressell’s Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, and why I suggested Marx’s own Wages, Price and Profit. My objection to the hand-out is not that it is a simplification, but that it is a falsification.

The falsification begins with its first paragraph. It presents communist theory as sharing the same object of study as functionalism, but that for the former there are ‘interests [which] conflict with each other’; whereas the latter ’emphasises’ consensuality. This is as if the object of study was the relation between industrialists and landlords in the England of the mid 19th C. One view might see a conflict, (industrialists want corn to be cheap and landlords want it expensive); another view might see harmony in that they both supported the system of wage-labour. Here we have two different ‘interests’ in a polity which both groups support. This is just what the sociology textbooks drone on about: a variety of different perspectives. But between landlord and capitalist there was no essential conflict over the social surplus. This conflict is the case with wage-labour and capital. But the word ‘conflict’ understates it. The relation between capital and wage-labour is one of war.

The falsification of Marx continues with the arid and mechanical rigmarole about the ‘forces and relations of production’ and the ‘base’ and the ‘superstructure’. This is a very common way of explaining Marx. What is missed in this explanation is that the text which forms the basis of this account, the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy is unusual, indeed anomalous. It does not use the word class, not the concept of class-war. There is a simple reason for this. It was written, like the book it prefaces, as a tactical move by Marx in order to get something past the Prussian censor and therefore establish a presence in Germany. For a fuller version of this argument, see
PRINZ ‘Motive’

The Preface is not an authentic version of Marx’s work. It was written, to ‘smuggle’ his vision into a police-state. It is now being promulgated by the academic apologists for the police-state we all live in.

Even if we leave aside this point about the origin of the text, it is deeply misleading to present it as if it were not seriously contested. See, for example, THOMPSON ‘Poverty’. Edward Thompson wrote this as a polemic against the French Stalinist Louis Althusser, once fashionable amongst British leftoid sociologists, who spawned a herd of clones amongst them. To just ignore Thompson’s work as if it had never existed is as gross a falsification as the Stalinist erasure of Trotsky from its histories. Of course, someone will say; ‘but this is just your interpretation’. Fair enough, so it is then up to the author of ‘Introduction to Marxism’ to source their version in, for example, Capital or the Grundrisse.

But even leaving this aside, ‘Introduction to Marxism’ contains so many errors as to be nonsensical. The third paragraph has it that the ‘means of production’ includes not just machinery, but ‘capital’. A major purpose of the critique of political economy is to demonstrate precisely that capital is a social relation and not a thing ie is not of the same category as factories or machinery. The ‘Introduction’ then continues that ‘Marx argues that the means of production will give rise to a particular set of social relationships’. Therefore, as the means of production under modern capitalism are automated machinery these generate monopoly capitalism and no other set of social relations. This is precisely the opposite of Marx’s argument that the extension of automation necessarily undermines the foundation of capitalism and prepares the way for communism. This is not just standing Marx on his head, but is turning him inside-out! It would be hard to imagine a better demonstration of Sociology’s misappropriation of Marx and of its role as PR and HR dept of the business-class.

We are then offered an account of the nature of ideology which is so crude as to only function as a straw-man to be burnt by any liberal or conservative with any critical faculty at all. Paragraphs 6 – 8 have it that ideology functions as some sort of conspiracy by ‘those who control the modes of production’ (presumably a typo for ‘means of production’). Anyone who takes the trouble to read Marx will see that the prime way in which capitalism conceals the essentially exploitative nature of the wage-capital relation is by the appearance of that relation itself. There is no way in which the wage-form – unlike that of slave or serf labour – can be broken up into necessary product and surplus product.

In criticising the entire reliance of ‘Introduction to Marxism’ on a mechanical version of Marx I have taken a strong postion on one side – there actually is an argument for the other side, but it’s not up to me, here, in a polemic to present it.

Dialectical Drivel

However, the situation is quite different in the section entitled ‘The Dialectic’. This is a complete and utter travesty which has no basis whatsoever in the writings of Marx. There is just one place where Marx does use the terminology of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. He does so in his attack on Proudhon precisely to mock and deride this language as the worst kind of fake profundity, of philosophical mumbo-jumbo:

thesis, antithesis and synthesis … the Hegelian language .. the ritual formula …The yes becoming no, the no becoming yes, the yes becoming both yes and no, the no becoming both no and yes, the contraries balance, neutralise, paralyse each other
(MARX Poverty, p 163 – 4).

We are told that this account of ‘the dialectic’ is ‘based on the writings of Hegel’. We are not told which writings. One commentator states that thesis-antithesis-synthesis is ‘mentioned only once in the twenty volumes of Hegel’s works’ (KAUFMANN Owl, 153; see for a fuller discussion MUELLER ‘Legend’). Yet even at this level the ‘Introduction ..’ is nonsensical: the diagram headed ‘The Dialectic in Action’ appears to have history starting with the ‘thesis’ of feudal lords. Turn over the page and under ‘Types of Society (Marxist Cultural Evolution Model)’ we are told that history begins with ‘Primitive Communism’. So what was the ‘antithesis’ to ‘generalised reciprocity’ ? The answer – on the model of guilds being the ‘antithesis’ to the ‘thesis’ of city life is … well anything you can think of, because it’s all mystificatory gibberish. It is even more nonsensical when you realise that the notion of ‘primitive communism’ actually plays no role at all in Marx’s writings. Don’t take my word for it, see someone who really knew about these things – our very own Raphael Samuel (SAMUEL British, p 34).

It may be that ‘dialectics’ is a useful term to describe the logical structure of Capital, but the fact is that ‘dialectical materialism’ is a phrase never used by Marx. It is a construction of the Leninist-Stalinist tradition. The notion that this logic can be captured in the formalism of thesis-antithesis-synthesis is something that is as easy to diss as shooting fish in a barrel. So why has this construction being imposed on Marx? Why was an intellectual project presented in a way which was so absurd as to be easy to demolish? Why? Because the tradition which canonised it was a political culture whose purpose was to present the Soviet tyranny as with ‘history on our side’, to reconcile the view that communism was about human liberation with the barbarism of Stalinism. The social use of the dialectical materialism gibberish was to so blunt the critical faculties of working people that they would believe any nonsense just so long as it was legitimised by The Party. If you believed that the move from feudalism to capitalism could be grasped by the mystic formula of thesis-antithesis-synthesis then you could, and would, and did believe literally anything: and that was just what the Stalinist tyranny needed from its ambassadors in the workers’ movement in the capitalist states. It needed them to believe that its despotism was actually liberatory.

But why has this nonsense now being taken on by Sociology? Because the imperative of sociology is to present itself as critical of the societal order which actually funds it, feeds it and uses it. Sociology is about presenting the only way to approach the societal world as the shifting between different ‘perspectives’. It offers a pick and mix: a helping of Marx, a helping of Weber, a side order of feminism and a sprinkling of Baudrillard. It sets up a Marx which is easy to refute as a totalising theory, but from which can be taken a ‘perspective’. The added advantage of the ‘dialectics’ gibberish is to prepare the student for the fashionable nonsense of post-modernism.

Does any of this matter? Well if you want to understand Marx and get a critical grasp on the dictatorship of the business-class – yes. If you just want to pass your exams – no; because the folks who mark you will likely themselves accept the nonsense in ‘Introduction to Marxism’.


ANDERSON Components: Perry Anderson, ‘Components of the National Culture’. in English Questions, Verso, 1992

COMTE Positive: Auguste Comte, The Positive Philosophy, ‘Freely translated and condensed by Harriet Martineau’, AMS Press Inc, NY, 1974, 1st publ. 1855

GENOVESE World: Eugene Genovese, The World the Slaveholders Made, Wesleyan University Press, 1988

HALFPENNY Positivism: Peter Halfpenny, Positivism and Sociology – Explaining Social Life, George Allen and Unwin, 1982

KAUFMANN Owl: Walter Kaufmann, The Owl and the Nightingale, Faber and Faber, 1959

MARCUSE Reason: Herbert Marcuse, Reason and Revolution, 2nd edn, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969

MARX 1859 Preface: Karl Marx, Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels – Selected Works in One Volume, Lawrence and Wishart, 1977

MARX Poverty: Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, in Karl Marx Frederick Engels Collected Words Vol 6, Lawrence & Wishart, 1976 (1st publ 1847)

MUELLER ‘Legend’: Gustav E Mueller, ‘The Hegel Legend of “Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis” ‘, Journal of the History of Ideas Vol XIX No 3, June 1958

PRINZ ‘Motive’: Arthur M Prinz, ‘Background and Ulterior Motive of Marx’s “Preface” of 1859’, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol XXX No 3, July-September 1969

SAMUEL 1980: Raphael Samuel, ‘British Marxist Historians I’, New Left Review, No 120, March-April 1980

THOMPSON ‘Poverty’: E P Thompson, ‘The Poverty of Theory’, in his The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays, Merlin Press, 1978

ZEITLIN Ideology: Irving M Zeitlin, Ideology and the Development of Sociological Theory, Prentice-Hall, 1968


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