Comments on "The New G.A. Cohen, Marxism, and Socialism," by Rodney Peffer and  "Premature Autopsies," by Olufemi Taiwo


Rita Manning, San José State University



I begin with a response to Professor Peffer.  Rodney offers a very thorough and compelling critique of the first reason that he says Cohen appeals to in his repudiation of Marxism, that Marxism is inherently – and in his view, fatally – attached to an “obstetric” doctrine (or motif) which insists that the emergence of a new form of society always occurs when the new form somehow develops within the old and must inevitably emerge.  On this view, according to Cohen, the only thing that political theorists and activists can accomplish is to make the emergence of the new society happen somewhat earlier than later, and perhaps lessen the “birth pangs.”

It seems to me to be a basic principle of historical interpretation that one adopt the most reasonable interpretation that is compatible with the available textual and contextual evidence.  In the case of Marxist scholarship, I believe that Peffer’s interpretation and Cohen’s earlier interpretation are more plausible than the alternative view that Cohen labels as the “obstetric” view.  Further, I see no reason to suppose that this interpretation is less compatible with the text than the obstetric view.  Thus unless Cohen can offer some additional textual support for his new interpretation, I am at a loss to understand his current support of this less plausible view.  Second, one needn’t, and indeed shouldn’t, understand Marxism as akin to a religion.  Even if the best interpretation of Marx himself did support the obstetric view,  I there is no reason why people working in social and political philosophy ought to limit themselves to a narrow and inflexible rendering of Marx’s views.  We certainly don’t see this with other philosophers.  One can defend J.S. Mill’s harm principle without being committed to the relatively conservative comments about women he makes in the last sections of The Subjection of Women; one can describe oneself as a Platonist or a Kantian merely by doing work in the spirit of these thinkers.  I see no reason why one’s intellectual relationship with Marx ought to be any more reverential.

I now turn to the second two reasons.  Peffer did not have time in his talk to address these reasons, so I offer some suggestions here.  First, let me quote Peffer's analysis of these reasons:

The second is that material abundance (or super-abundance) of the type Marx and the Classical Marxists seemed to have had in mind is not possible, especially given the ecological constraints the world is running up against at the present.  The third is that the working class – both at the national and international level – is too fragmented and weak to be an effective force for social revolution in today’s world in which capital has an immense advantage in being able to organize internationally (across national borders) while the labor movement, generally, is not allowed to organize across national borders.

          I begin with the second reason—that the material abundance that Marx envisioned is simply not possible.  I have two points to make here.  The first is that I find this a curious reason for rejecting Marx.  Since achieving a certain level of material abundance is a goal for virtually any defensible political philosophy, it’s not clear to me why this is a special challenge for Marxism.  My second response is that there are some prominent defenders of a market system who argue that the level of material abundance that a just global society should aim for is entirely possible.  I have Amartya Sen and Jeffrey Sachs in mind here.  Sen points out what should now be fairly obvious—the problem of global poverty is not a problem of abundance but a problem of distribution.  Further Cohen’s concern seems to assume a continually increasing global population, but again the evidence suggests that population stabilizes and evens decreases when women are both literate and economically empowered.  Jeffrey Sachs thinks that the only thing standing in the way of ending global poverty is the political will among citizens of developed countries to make small sacrifices in terms of effective development assistance to the developing world.  While I do have concerns about both Sen and Sachs, it is instructive to note that neither is arguing from a Marxist perspective.  Thus, there is no reason to think that concerns about material abundance are the death knell of Marxism.   Rather, I think one could argue in the other direction:  the concerns about access to the material abundance now possible are precisely concerns about how a market system distributes such abundance. 

          Cohen might point out there that I have ignored the environmental repercussions of providing such abundance.  I think there is no question that humankind are a super predator and international capitalism has been the catalyst for the most devastating environmental damage and that indeed it may be too late to avoid very severe climate change.  However, I think that the vote is not yet in about whether sustainable technology can indeed save us. In either case, this is no reason to despair of Marxism.  If the widespread, giddy and thoughtless embrace of capitalism is part of the story of environmental degradation, I see no reason for thinking that it is time to look elsewhere for a solution.  If Foster is right that Marxism is entirely compatible with responsible environmental practice, then there is no reason to abandon Marxism on this account.

          I turn now to Cohen’s third point.  Here again I offer a reading of Marx that I find plausible.  What is crucial is not that it be industrial workers that organize and overthrow capitalism, but that capitalism creates and enables its own overthrow by empowering its most potent critics.  I agree that international capital is far more effectively organized and powerful than workers, but I refuse to concede that this situation is permanent.  And even if international labor is not organized and is unlikely to be in the foreseeable future, I think that the possibility of coalitions between workers and peasants is possible.  Workers and peasants are feeling more insecure and angry than at perhaps any time in my memory.  Though this anxiety has not resulted in any positive action in the U.S., we do see French young people rioting over a proposed law that would allow employment at will for young people.  In two emerging capitalist economies, India and China, we see outbreaks of resistance.  In India, we see a struggle that has gone on for over a decade against dams on the Narmada River.  Peasants and fishermen are rioting in China as rapacious capitalism is destroying the land they farm and the waters they fish.  While the World Water Forum ended last month (3/22/06) without declaring water a human right, it did suggest that governments, and not private enterprise, ought to be in charge of water: "governments have the primary role in promoting improved access to safe drinking water."  Many have argued that one of the secrets of the survival of capitalism was its ability to appease workers through various concessions.  Globalization has fueled a race to the bottom in wages and benefits for workers, and is rapidly disenfranchising traditional peoples by selling their water, polluting their land and destroying their fishing fields.  Isn’t this precisely the kind of situation that Marx predicted?  Can international capital return to its strategy of appeasement in this new global economy?  This remains to be seen. 

          Finally, perhaps workers won’t organize internationally.  Maybe peasants and farmers will be replaced by dams, agribusiness and factory fishing.  Perhaps the competing interests that divide workers and peasants will never be overcome.  Maybe capitalism will find a strategy to appease, imprison or kill off its enemies.  Does it follow that there is no wisdom to be found in Marx?  Here let me just cite my agreement with Rodney that one needn’t understand Marxism as a religious dogma to be accepted wholly or not at all.  Rodney writes,


By a “Marxist” moral and social theory I mean one that (1) is informed by the spirit of Marx’s radical humanism and egalitarianism; (2) is based on the empirical theses centrally important to the Marxist political perspective (particularly Marx’s theory of classes and class struggle and his analysis of capitalism); and (3) attempts to defend the Marxist’s basic normative political positions (MMSJ, p. 3).


          I believe that our understanding of the failures and successes of international capitalism will continue to be informed by Marxist theory and that his basic normative political positions are both distinct from his empirical claims and his musing about the future, and continue to merit careful study in their own right.


          I now turn to Professor Taiwo's paper.  I agree with him that Marx is both an extremely relevant and insightful critic of contemporary capitalism.  What I shall do in my remarks here is extend his arguments about immiserization, alienation and globalization.




          Professor Taiwo distinguishes immiserization in an absolute and relative sense.  By immiserization in an absolute sense he means "however much production increased and the economy expanded, the working classes will always scrape by on a subsistence basis".  He uses an example to illustrate immiserization in a relative sense: "in the unprecedented expansion of the US economy in the nineties…a good percentage of American's population was excluded from participation in the boom.  As a result, many Americans have, relative to the size of the pie that is no longer within their reach, become much poorer than they were before the boom."  Thus one relative sense of immiserization seems to be:


1) workers being economically worse off than they were in the past.


Professor Taiwo argues that in this relative sense, workers in industrialized countries have become immiserized. There are two other relative senses of immiserization that I wish to distinguish.


2)  workers as a class becoming progressively economically worse off than capitalists as a class; and,


3) wage earners in the lower percentiles becoming progressively economically worse off than those in higher percentiles. 


          I shall argue that immiserization is increasing in the second of these relative senses.  I begin with the first.  One of the obvious difficulties with distinguishing between capitalists and workers these days is that many workers own appreciating or wealth creating assets, and many people who get the bulk of their income from such assets also have income from wages.  Rather than look for a hard and fast dividing line, I will focus on net worth.  According to State of Working America by Mishel, Bernstein, and Allegretto, in 2001, the top fifth of households in terms of net worth held 84.4% of all wealth while the bottom fifth had negative net worth--that is they owed more than they owned.1  This distribution has not changed much over the last forty years or so, so there is no evidence that immiserization in terms of net worth has increased. 

          I now turn to the next sense of relative immiserization: wage earners in the lower percentiles becoming progressively economically worse off than those in higher percentiles.  There are a number of indices we can look at here.  The first is income.  Since 1979, the average real after-tax income of the lowest quintile has increased by 9%, the second lowest by 15%, the third lowest by 20%, the second highest by 25% and the highest by over 50%.  The income of the top 1% more than doubled.  Here then is real evidence for immiserization.  We can supplement this evidence by looking at the disparities in health care coverage and pension protection in the 5 quintiles.  In 1979 37.9% of workers in the lowest quintile, 60.5% of the second quintile, 74.7 of the third, 83.5% of the fourth and 89.5% of the top quintile had employer provided health care coverage.  In 2003, only 24.9% of workers in the lowest quintile, 46.9% of the second, 62% of the third, 71.1% of the fourth and 77.8% of the highest quintile had such coverage.  Given the great increase in health care costs over the last 25 years, the workers in the lower quintiles have an increasingly disproportionate expense relative to the highest quintile. We see the same trend when we look at pensions.  In 1979, 18.4% of workers in the lowest quintile, 36.8% in the second, 52.3% of the third, 68.4% of the fourth and 78.5% of the highest quintile had employer provided pension insurance.  By 2003, 14.6% of the lowest quintile, 31.7% of the second, 48.6% of the third, 62.2% of the fourth and 73.3% of the highest quintile had such coverage.  Here again we see a huge disparity.

          The loss in relative income plus the loss in employer funded health care and pension coverage provides stark evidence for the immiserization thesis for most workers in the U.S.  The loss of pension coverage strongly suggests that these same workers will face even more severe immiserization when they reach retirement age.  The fact that there has been no increase in net worth in the last forty years or so shows that there is no other source of income to offset this increase in immiserization.




          Marx and Marxists are often criticized for understanding progress as dependent on increasing uses of technology.  Here one might cite, for example, this passage from The German Ideology, "slavery cannot be abolished without the steam engine and the mule and the spinning jenny, serfdom cannot be abolished with improved agriculture, and that, in general, people cannot be liberated as long as they are unable to obtain food and drink, housing and clothing in adequate quality and quantity."2 John Bellamy Foster, in Marx's Ecology: Materialism and Nature3, argues that Marx understood alienation from the natural world as a kind of alienation.  Humans evolve in the context of the natural environment, but human labor also transforms the natural environment.  Capitalism is concerned only with profit and is at best indifferent to environmental degradation as human activity transforms the natural environment.  The consequences of this indifference are truly frightening.  As one who often struggled to reconcile my confidence in Marxian insights with my ecofeminism, I am glad to see this kind of work.  The upshot of it all is that though there has been a good deal of very important work on the natural environment in the years since Marx and Engels, we need no longer consider them enemies to the natural world. 


          Professor Taiwo ends his discussion of globalization by mentioning aspects of globalization that he hasn't touched upon.  "The refusal to open the borders of the leading capitalist countries to the goods, and, more significantly, migrants from Africa, Asia and Latin America represents an unhinging of the dialectic of the globalization of capitalism.  The exclusion of Africa from the movement of global capital is another example.  But it is an anomaly accounted for by racism."

          In what follows, I will touch upon some of these aspects.  I begin with the purported refusal to open the borders of leading capitalist countries.  I take it that Taiwo thinks that Marx would be committed to saying that the logic of capitalism requires that all borders be open to exploitation by capitalist enterprises.  Thus closed borders are an anomaly that must be explained away.  My response here is twofold.  First, I don't see a general refusal by leading capitalist economies to open borders to goods, though the story about migrants is more complex.  The WTO and NAFTA are just two successful attempts by international capital to open all borders.  At the same time, it is true that there is often intense internal political pressure to protect national industries.  We saw this recently in the reaction to the lifting of quotas on textiles.  However, the protectionist tendencies are more than offset by the push for free trade.  The other factor Taiwo mentions is the flow of persons.  The ongoing controversy about immigration in the U.S. illustrates one of the ways that local politics thwarts international capitalism.  Capitalist enterprises, with their thirst for high profits and low costs, are always seeking to lower production costs and labor is traditionally one of the highest costs.  The desire for cheap immigrant labor by business in the U.S. is just one example of this.  One might argue that the existence of policies that limit immigration is a challenge to Marx's claim that capitalism inevitably results in destroying national boundaries, and to Taiwo's claim that Marx's prediction is now coming to pass.  But though I agree with Taiwo that Marx's criticisms and analyses of capitalism are eerily prescient, I think the days when Marxism was understood as a grand narrative are thankfully past.  We need only agree with Marx that capitalism puts tremendous pressure on all countries to open their borders to the free flow of capital.  Indeed we do see this.  Were not for 9/11 and the shameless politicization of it which created a tremendous fear of immigrants among many citizens of the U.S., I believe we would already have seen substantial lowering of restrictions on immigrant labor. 

          I now turn to the purported exclusion of Africa from the flow of global capital.  I take it that Taiwo thinks that Marx is committed to the view that capital flows to areas where profit can be maximized.  In order for this to happen, products must be created and transported to the point of sale at the lowest possible cost.  Since much of Africa is very poor, one might then expect to see substantial manufacturing moving to this continent.  The lack of such manufacturing might then be construed as a criticism of Marx.  I have two responses to this.  The first is that we needn't see the explanation in purely economic terms.  There are other factors and racism is undoubtedly one of them.  The second is that even if we think that Marxism must understand the lack of development in purely economic terms, there might be other economic factors that explain it.  There are two accounts that we can appeal to here.  Thomas Pogge argues that it is economically advantageous for resource industries, notably the oil industry, to sustain tyrannical rulers who loot the wealth of the countries they dominate.4 Tyrants who care nothing for the future of their own countries but who selfishly line their own pockets are willing to sell their countries' resources for a relative pittance.  They are also wonderful clients for the arms industry, who cater to their desire to stay in power.  Here we have an economic argument that is more nuanced than one might expect, but still in the spirit of Marx.  There is no reason to suppose that Marx would fail to recognize that capital invested in one industry would have different interests than capital invested in another.  The oil industry today is tremendously profitable and very well connected politically.  Thus it is no surprise that it is not interested in increasing the prosperity of the inhabitants of oil rich countries like Nigeria.  While the oil industry benefits from the impoverishment of the Nigerian people, other industries are unable to exploit this impoverishment by moving production to Nigeria because of the lack of infrastructure.  But again, the lack of infrastructure can be explained by appeal to the political domination by tyrants who are interested only in selling their country's oil and keeping the profits for themselves. 

          Jeffrey Sachs gives another explanation for the exclusion of Africa from the flows of global capital.5 He points to several important factors, but I will mention just two here.  The first is the lack of access to transportation.  Manufacturing requires both cheap labor and cheap transportation.  Many African countries do not have the waterways that functioned as the major transportation routes for other more economically developed countries.  Second he points to disease, in particular malaria, as a cause of Africa's exclusion from economic development.  There are two things about malaria that explain its deadly impact on Africa.  The first is that the warmer the temperature, the more likely it is that the infected mosquito will be able to infect its hosts.  The second is that there are different types of mosquitoes.  Some prefer to bite humans, some cattle, some bite humans sometimes and cattle at other times.  In India, for example, the mosquitoes bite humans about one third of the time and cattle the rest of the time.  In Africa, by contrast, the mosquitoes bite humans 100% of the time.  Though there are treatments and prevention strategies for malaria, it is not in the interest of overseas capital to invest in the infrastructure needed to create the climate for favorable investment.  Thus the exclusion of Africa from the flows of global capital can be explained in economic terms and does not pose a challenge to Marxism.




          I agree with Professors Peffer and Taiwo that the reports of the death of Marxism are premature.  I think there is much insight in the work of Marx and Engels and good reason for recognizing their important critiques and analyses.  Their work does suggest that there is one important question that merits further discussion: What does it mean to describe oneself as a Marxist?   If one can be a Marxist without insisting that explanations for all social phenomena must be economic, or that resistance to capitalism must be rooted solely in the working class, then I think Marxism is salient, and more importantly, essentially correct.  Regardless of how one answers this question, I think that Marxism remains an impressive and insightful way to understand the present global economic and political environment.




...back to recommended readings page



1 Mishel, Bernstein, and Allegretto. The State of Working America (Economic Policy Institute, January 2005).  All the statistics that are cited in this paper come from this source. 


2 Tucker, Marx Engels Reader, p. 133


3 John Bellamy Foster, Marx's Ecology: Materialism and Nature. (Monthly Review Press, 2000)


4 Thomas Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights. (Malden Ma: Blackwell Publishing, 2002)  


5 Jeffrey Sachs, The End of Poverty, (Penguin Press, 2005)