The many faces of Marxism

VisBildeServletHere’s hoping there is a minor interest in bringing some Norwegian debates into the English language world of Gramsciana.

I am currently working on a text on scientific method and have thus had the opportunity to read quite a bit of theory of science. I recently skimmed through parts of Per Arne Bjørkums “Annerledestenkerne” (Roughly translated: The alternative/different thinkers) (Universitetsforlaget 2009). Looking for a piece on the Norwegian philosopher Hans Skjervheim and the Norwegian debate on positivism, I discovered he had written a couple of pages on Marxism.

Bjørkum declares Marxism as a positivist theory, where the idea of “false consciousness” makes it self-referencing, (and ultimately one would assume, not falsifiable). Marxists thus did not change their theory in the face of new information, the information was simply dismissed. This also created a violent (Machiavellian in Bjørkums words) ends-justify-the-means-streak in the praxis of many self-declared marxist movements. (p. 368)

Bjørkum at one single point in this section makes a nuance pointing to “more precisely Marxism-Leninism”.

In a later section where he repeats much of the same critique, coupling it with a critique of the lack of public outcry against Marxism, making the comparison with nazism previously mostly seen from right wing pundits. This is spiced with personal anecdotes from his meetings with extreme Stalinists in the 70’s. (p. 386-388)

Here he also makes a small concession that there is much positive with Marx’ philosophy, but that it is very dangerous when it “(through Leninism) is used as a finished (scientific) recipe for political praxis.”

These sections would not in itself have justified comment. All though it is published through an academic publishing house, the book does not seem to be peer-reviewed, and does not have extensive references. The author himself is also a geologist, and should not be assumed to have an extensive knowledge of political theory (said the physicist). And parts of the critique are also somewhat reminiscent of the one from Karl Popper, all though Bjørkum seems just as inspired by Thomas Kuhn (if we are to judge theory of science along that well-trodden axis).

There are however a couple of aggravating circumstances, which I will return to after a short section on what Marxism is.

Whenever I am asked to talk a bit about Marxism I often start with showing off a couple of pages from the Contents of “Twentieth-Century Marxism A Global Introduction” edited by Daryl Glaser and David M. Walker. I will quote some of the chapter titles below:

1 Lenin and Marxism

2 Left-communism

3 Right-wing Marxism

4 Soviet and Eastern bloc Marxism

5 Eurocommunism

6 Western Marxism

7 African Marxism’s moment

8 Applying Marxism to asian conditions

9 Marxism in Latin america/Latin american Marxism?

After presenting these chapters from a broad academic survey of 20th Century Marxism, and letting people have a few seconds to think, there are rarely many objections when I point out that there is no meaningful way to talk about Marxism. One can only talk about Marxisms. And this naturally points out one of the grave errors in Bjørkums outline. (I have previously critisized parts of the new atheists for similarly sloppy critique of religion.)

It is true that in Norway, as in many other parts of the world a perverted form of Marxism grew into fashion within a minor part of Norwegian leftist youth-culture during the 1970s. Bjørkums personal experiences seems to stem from these Stalinist groups, mainly connected to the Workers Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist). These groups have undergone an extensive public debate in Norway in the years following their 70’s heydays, contrary to the impression Bjørkum may give. This probably has given them a larger room within the public consciousness then they deserve. Quantitative studies has shown most radical students were not part of the Stalinist left (as documented in the book and research project Ekte sekstiåttere).

Despite his attempts to nuance Bjørkum generally promotes the idea of one (true) Marxism. What is perhaps worse is that he to a large extent equates this marxism with the one of his Stalinist foes. He thus ironically and sadly ends up promoting a Stalinist view of Marxism.

His view of Marx as a determinist is also deeply contested. Whether one concludes (as many scholars have done) that Marx was a determinist thinker, is actually not that relevant to his point. The important fact is that many Marxist tendencies do not. With this fact established his critique falls to the ground aimed at Marxism per se.

The question about “what did Lenin really mean” considering the phrase Leninism was coined by Stalin is another similar debate. The important point of internal disagreement between marxists holds here as well. (Lenin’s brutality as a de facto leader of the early Soviet Union amid civil war and invasion is however very real, it is hardly worse than that of famous western leaders like Churchill though, and the latter’s actions are rarely attempted connected to their political worldview.)

Bjørkums criticism is of course relevant made against determinist and particularly Stalinist thought, and similar to criticism I myself have made in my pamphlet Sosialisme på norsk (Socialism in Norwegian). All though I coupled it to cocksureness rather than “scientism”, it is definitely related. My critique is however not solely directed against Marxists. I point out that the same ideological cocksureness is an important element in George W. Bush disastrous military adventures, and the murderous sanctions against Iraq during the Clinton presidency.

As I hinted earlier, a geologist touching in on these themes in a book mainly about other subjects, might be forgiven this deeply flawed account. There is a point however that makes these errors seem strange.

Bjørkum uses some space criticising the logical positivism of the so-called Vienna-circle (and rightly so, I might add). As their prime opponents in the international debate around positivism, he presents another school (p. 364-365):  The Frankfurt School. (Yes – draw your breath.)

The Frankfurt School. Critical Theory. Horkheimer and Adorno. The School that is devoted their own subchapter under “Western Marxism” in Glaser and Walker’s book on 20th century Marxism referred to above. Adorno and Horkheimer that discussed the creation of a new Communist manifesto (Towards a New Manifesto, Verso). These are also referred to as the inspiration of aforementioned Hans Skjervheim. Skjervheim again is then presented as the antithesis of the Norwegian “Marxists”. When reading this, I was actually at a loss for words. When promoting Marxists as champions of science, reflection and critical thought, they are never labeled “Marxists”. Irrational and dogmatic Stalinists on the other end of the spectrum are however promoted to representatives of Marxism as such. It is a painful and embarrassing read.

Another point of interest are Bjørkum’s lengthy discussions around Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm shifts. They are often at the centre of his book. For me it is difficult not to see the parallels between Kuhn’s term of paradigme and Antonio Gramsci’s term of hegemony. All though there are differences – Kuhn is oriented around science, Gramsci around politics (and Gramsci was 40 years earlier) – the similarities are also striking. And the social sciences are definitely one of the areas in society with a constant war of position going on in the struggle for societal hegemony. When a new position is taken, this will perhaps take the form of a new paradigm. The discussions around Greece and the negotiations with the “Institutions” could point to such a shift within economics. With economists like Piketty, Stiglitz and Krugman (and not to forget: Varoufakis) coming out on “the Greek side” the neoliberal hegemony within economics seems ready to fall. (Wilkinson and Pickett’s Spirit Level probably also helped.) This is interesting as the rise of neoliberalism happened within economics first, and politics second. But this is based on a subjective impression. As they say – this requires further research/is an area ripe for further scholarship etc. etc.

To get back on point however: Gramsci is a prime example of how new knowledge makes (some) Marxists reject old theories and develop new. The failure of the revolutions in Western Europe and the rise of fascism gave the rise of a new and much more complex Marxism, exemplified by Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks and subsequently the Frankfurt School amongst others – a Marxism which again is the foundation of the thinkers Bjørkum hailes as heroes in the struggle against Marxism…

Well. I Think I’ll end my rant there. I’ve made my point.

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One thought on “The many faces of Marxism

  1. Bjørkum used to be dean of the Faculty of Science and Technology at the University of Stavanger, and “Annerledestenkerne” is (or was) required reading for the obligatory course in Scientific theory and ethics in the engineering educations. As I had already taken ex.phil., I got an exemption for this course and haven’t read the book myself. Bjørkum touches upon Marxism in this article as well:

    http://www.aftenbladet.no/meninger/Klimadebatten-og-det-ubehagelige-meningsklimaet-3684448.html

    This was written in connection to the Hans Borge-debate, but he’s written about climate change research before:

    http://www.aftenbladet.no/meninger/Da-forskerne—og-ekspertene—tok-feil-3591598.html

    http://www.aftenbladet.no/meninger/Myten-om-den-objektive-forskeren-A-og-offentlig-finansiert-forskning-3642178.html

    Though he’s more of a concern troll than an actual denier, his scepticism to antropogentic global warming is quite common among geologists.

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