‘Marx’s Dream: From Capitalism to Communism’ by Tom Rockmore reviewed by Atahan Erbas


Marx’s Dream: From Capitalism to Communism

University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 2018. 285 pp., $45.00 hb.
ISBN 9780226554525

Reviewed by Atahan Erbas

About the reviewer

D. Atahan Erbas is studying for a MA degree at KU Leuven. …

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What do we think about something when we call that thing a dream? There are two opposite connotations of calling that thing a dream: a positive and a negative one. A dream’s positive connotation is its originality and its hopeful experience which discloses a better situation for the dreamer. A dream is far different and better from the dreamer’s current situation. Furthermore, a dream is not concerned with the past, but the future. That is to say, we dream of something which comes true either at this moment or in the predictable future. On the other hand, a dream’s negative connotation is its impossibility to be realized. We call something a dream when we cannot show why it will come true. Therefore, Marx’s dream is an unconditionally desired but unrealizable situation. Tom Rockmore foreshadows what he circulates as the main thought throughout his book by the title of the book: Marx was a good dreamer-philosopher but he has insufficiently created his thought system. In other words, Rockmore’s approach is double-fronted: While he philosophically feels close to Marx, he puts some distance between Marx and himself. Before stepping in this identification of Rockmore, I rather prefer to begin with some general information which potentially differentiates Marx’s Dream from the preceded works on Marx.

Marx’s Dream‘s fundamental thesis is that Marx tries to answer the question of human flourishing; i.e. “How can human flourish?”, throughout his writings. The book consists of three chapters. This thesis is the theme of the first chapter. According to Rockmore, this question becomes concrete in the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau, but which originated in ancient philosophy. There are two implicit but remarkable claims implied by this thesis. First, Marx’s writings are more philosophical than it has been thought to be. In general, Rockmore deals with characterizing  Marx as a philosopher. This effort is kind of a recovery project towards the image of Marx in the literature. In this regard, and throughout the book, Rockmore encounters with Marxism. For him, ‘Marxism is a series of misunderstandings of Marx’ (4). Roughly, what Rockmore means by Marxism is reading Marx with a sympathy for Engels and an antagonism towards Hegel. Therefore, recovering Marx means approaching Marx’s theory by differentiating it from Engels’s views and keeping it close to Hegel’s standpoint. For Rockmore, Engels remains insufficient about philosophy, while Hegel is a decent philosopher. In this regard, by showing identities between Marx and Hegel, and the antinomies between Marx and Engels, Rockmore aims at recovering Marx as a philosopher.

By showing some parallelisms between Hegel and Marx, Rockmore locates Marx in the tradition of German Idealism. However, Rockmore’s investigation is not limited to Hegel’s writings. He considers Marx as having relations with Feuerbach and, unusually, Fichte. This is the theme of the second chapter. In this chapter, first of all, Rockmore enumerates the errors of Marxism towards Marx’s writings. For Rockmore, the biggest error of Marxism seems to be characterizing Hegel’s theory as an abstract (or purely logical) theory disconnected from society. However, Rockmore is also critical of Marx’s thoughts on Hegel concerning that error. He argues that Marx has read Hegel insufficiently. For Rockmore, Marx sometimes has a reductive attitude towards Hegel’s thoughts (35). Therefore, while Rockmore values Marx’s thoughts as being more original than what the Marxists argue for, he discredits Marxist’s thoughts on Marx himself and Hegel. Against both Marx and Marxism, Rockmore depicts Hegel as a thinker who tries to solve the problems of the modern industrial society, including  the problem of human flourishing. Rockmore supports his claim by reviving the concepts of property, freedom and political economy in the context of Elements of the Philosophy of Right.  

The second implicit claim implied by the thesis, that  Marx’s main concern is human flourishing, is that although there are some ambivalent points, there is a continuity (concerning his aim) between Marx’s early and later writings. This claim is both the strongest (concerning its form) and the weakest (concerning its content) claim of the book. On the one hand, it is the strongest one because it engages with a gigantic literature which argues that there is a theoretical difference between the early and the late writings of Marx. For Rockmore, this literature again consists of Engels’s and the Marxist writings influenced by Engels. Here, the main thesis that Rockmore disagrees with is that Marx displaced philosophy after his early writings and preferred science in his later writings. Rockmore claims that Engels wrongly identifies Marx as the opponent of philosophy and Engels maintains this claim by exaggerating Feuerbach’s influence on Marx. For Engels, reading Feuerbach is the turning point of Marx from Hegel to the so-called scientific materialism. However, Rockmore rejects the so-called dichotomy (between materialism and idealism), as Marx did,  in order to locate Marx into the tradition of German Idealism, not as an idealist but as a philosopher: ‘Materialism, as Marx understands it, is not incompatible with, German Idealism’ (78).

On the other hand, the claim about the continuity between Marx’s writings is the weakest one in the book because it requires strong textual evidence. Naturally, if the question of human flourishing is Marx’s main object, then showing that question conceptually in most of his writings must be indispensable for any possible investigation on Marx. Unfortunately, the book seems to be insufficient in showing that problem consistently in Marx’s works. Rockmore even admits that making the question of human flourishing central in Marx’s writings requires a consistent encounter with that problem throughout (at least) most of Marx’s works, which are not precise and do not mention ‘human flourishing’ per se (3).

Tom Rockmore starts the book with a quote by Georg Lukacs as the following: ‘The unity of theory and practice exists not only in theory but also for practice’ (v). Here,  Rockmore foreshadows the book’s second main thesis, that the relation between theory and practice refers respectively to the relation between the question of human flourishing and the question of how the conditions of human flourishing can be realized in the modern industrial society. This is the topic of the third chapter. Throughout the book, Rockmore takes the point of the eleventh thesis of Theses on Feuerbach very seriously. According to Rockmore, in the eleventh thesis, Marx differentiates the theories which just interpret the world and which both interpret and change the world. For Rockmore, this differentiation is very crucial in order to find an original place for Marx in the history of philosophy, because this differentiation is Marx’s break point from Hegel. In general, Rockmore tries to argue for a strong identity between Hegel’s and Marx’s theories; he thinks that Marx is a thinker who makes Hegel’s thoughts more detailed concerning the modern industrial society. Here, the focal point is that Rockmore seems to agree with Marx that Hegel’s philosophy is concerned with mere interpretation, while Marx’s theory is directly concerned with changing the world. Rockmore’s account of this distinction is the comparison between Hegel’s owl of Minerva and Marx’s new philosophical approach in the eleventh thesis. While the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk in order to look at the past time, Marx’s approach proposes to be concerned with the changeable future of the world. That is to say, while Hegel’s philosophy is past-oriented, Marx’s philosophy is future-oriented.

Marx’s future-oriented philosophy proposes to be the forerunner of a better future which is caused by the transition from capitalism to communism. Here Rockmore gives the main critique, which inspires the title of the book, towards him: Marx’s theory is ambiguous and not competent to explain the conditions of the transition. However, Rockmore’s real problem is not about Marx’s writings but also about his successors who claim to hold a Marxian theory.  According to Rockmore, there are four different strategies to achieve the transition, or  four answers for the question namely “how the theory can be realized in practice?” which were suggested by those successors. These strategies are as follows: through the proletariat, through economic crisis, through politics and through critical social theory. By considering these strategies, Rockmore does not only investigate their consistencies with Marx but also criticizes them from a contemporary perspective of 21st century, which contains a strong critique of Marxist institutions and figures like the People’s Republic of China, the Soviet Union, Lenin etc.

Now let us combine the main points mentioned above and try to find a general frame for Marx’s Dream. In summary, Rockmore thinks:  Marx was wrong about Hegel. Further, he was not competent to create a full-fledged theory as Hegel did. As mentioned above, Marx differentiates himself from Hegel by designating a possible transition of society in the future. Therefore, the end of Hegel-Marx unity is the point where Marx starts to ‘dream’. Marx was not clear about what communism is, he was ‘dreaming of’ a better future. He could not support his thought of transition from capitalism to communism. Furthermore, the successors of Marx (mainly Marxists) were both superficial (or sometimes careless) about keeping Marx’s thoughts alive and erroneous about their expectations from their theory and practice.  On the other hand, Marx was more than what was suggested by Marxism. He was successful in applying Hegel’s thoughts to modern industrial society and achieves a concrete philosophy concerning the condition of capitalism. That is why he is an original philosopher who was different from the preceding philosophers, even from Hegel. Marx was clear and explicit: interpret the world in order to change it! Therefore, Rockmore neither requires us to be the hooligans of Marx (like Marxists) nor to ignore Marx and his writings. In the end, Rockmore seems to hope for Marx’s dream but this does not change the fact that Marx’s dream (as communism) is nothing more than a dream. Thus, Marx’s Dream is a good guidebook on how to take Marx seriously without radicalizing his thoughts in either a hostile or a fetishistic manner. On the other hand, it is worrisome for a reader who expects a perfect philosophical (or political system) from Marx.

3 September 2019

4 comments

  1. Rockmore offers some interesting new “takes” on old topics, but it ought to be said that his scholarship is just pretty bad. He just doesn’t research his material thoroughly. To give just one example, when he writes about the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall (p. 184ff), a lot of his text is plagiarized from the English wikipedia article which I wrote (for the most part) on this topic (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tendency_of_the_rate_of_profit_to_fall) Even so, his presentation of what different authors have to say about the TRPF (Croce, Luxemburg, Piketty and so on) lacks accuracy.

    What we are seeing more and more is that “creative” Western Marxists are at a loss about what to do, and therefore they recycle material from the past, pretending that they are doing something new. They hope you won’t notice where they lifted their ideas from. This is not a genuine *critique* of the past, but just a way of seeming “innovative”, and propel one’s career forward. Personally I prefer to stay away from this type of discourse, because I regard it as a scam.

  2. Rockmore’s TRPF bits actually starts at p. 183, not 184.

    Among other things, Rockmore claims that “Marx makes the simple but abstract argument” that “an increase in constant capital decreases surplus value, hence brings about a fall in the general rate of profit” (p. 183).

    Yet Marx claimed no such thing, knowing very well that the mass of constant capital and the mass of surplus value both *increase* in the long run, even if not in equal amounts, or at the same rate.

    Marx’s argument is not, that there is a zero-sum trade-off between the growth of constant capital and surplus-value (so that if the former increases, the latter decreases) but that the growth of the mass of surplus-value (and of surplus labour) in the long run does not keep pace with the growth of the total outlays of constant capital.

    Marx’s theory of the TRPF was intended to explain, why long-run empirical declines in the average rate of profit of industries (noticed by many 19th political economists, and even reported in encyclopedia articles at the time) would *necessarily* happen.

    In the case of Rockmore, we have to deal with a Marx-commentator who evidently not only plagiarizes his ideas from wikipedia, instead of consulting the original sources referred to, but subsequently also manages to wrongly represent what Marx’s argument actually was. And in so doing, he shows that he doesn’t even understand basic math.

    With “scholarship” like this, it is no wonder that Marxian thought is in such a terrible mess. I watched Rockmore “live” once, about ten years ago in Amsterdam, because I was invited to attend some of the “Returns of Marxism” sessions organized here by Sara Farris, after I had finished editing Marcel van der Linden’s book “Workers of the World” (my own talk –
    http://ricardo.ecn.wfu.edu/~cottrell/ope/archive/0812/0077.html – was not included in the book version edited by Farris).

    In his IIRE talk, Rockmore explored the idea of whether Marx had, or had not been a “Fichtean” all along (really, is that the question?). But the real problem was with Rockmore’s notions of materialism and idealism, and evidently he had no accurate understanding of the history of these terms in the Marxist (and Marxist-Leninist) tradition.

    Regrettably many modern proponents of the Neue Marx-Lektüre nowadays like to pretend that the 20th century has never truly existed, or they believe that most of what happened in the 20th century must remain forever a mystery.

    In this way, the Neue Marx-Lektüre supporters try to avoid uncomfortable or awkward discussions about what actually happens, when you apply Marxian ideas in practice, instead of keeping them “safely philosophical” in a Hegelian (or Heideggerian, or Fichtian) way.

    Yet in taking this approach, they also mystify the very sources which shaped their own “Marxian” ideas, and so the Neue Marx-Lektüre actually winds up as a “New German Ideology” – an airbag ideology based on selective “social amnesia” (Russell Jacoby’s term). In the era of the Millenials, one might say, the 20th century has effectively become “The Unknown Century”.

    This mirrors trends in contemporary bourgeois ideology (including within China and Russia), which also want to get away from more discussion about the meaning of the 20th century.

    Only authorized corporate or political “storytellers” are still allowed to talk and publish about the 20th century, and they define what it is supposed to mean (this is not a joke or exaggeration – in Russia and China, you can go to jail if you publish the “wrong” story, and in the United States senior budget-holders decide what the story will be).

    We are supposed to live now in a completely different world, so that the 20th century past has become largely irrelevant. At the same time, in our new stage of amnesia, we do not know anymore where our own ideas originated from.

    Social amnesia is encouraged, because it prevents scientifically uncomfortable and politically awkward questions being asked the past – questions such as: why were real wages, conditions, housing, education and social security better 50 years ago than they are now? What were the achievements and failures of Russian (and Chinese) socialism, and why was that? Why were people able to create alternatives in the past, and why is it apparently no longer possible to do these things now?

    This is not about “Marx’s dream”, but rather about a deliberately encouraged social amnesia which treats the attempt to understand real events in the more distant past as a “dreamtime” of unreality.

  3. Mr Rockmore complains for example that: “The withering away of the state is a Marxist concept—the term apparently never occurs in Marx’s writings—that has never satisfactorily been put into practice”. (p. 200).

    The first point about this is, that “the withering away, or the abolition of the state” was NOT a specifically “Marxist concept” (for one, Saint-Simon was already talking about it). Hal Draper clarified already 50 years ago that:

    “The “abolition of the state” is one of the oldest ideas in the history of social dissent, older and more primitive than either socialism or anarchism as ideology or movement. An obvious speculation is that anti-statism would naturally arise with the beginnings of the state itself, in reaction to its new pressures, and that it would long survive as a reminiscence of a Golden Age. In any case, it is already found at least in ancient Greek and Chinese philosophy” (Hal Draper, “The death of the state in Marx and Engels, Socialist Register 1970, p. 281).

    In his famous book “Society against the state” (New York: Urizen Books, 1977), Pierre Clastres describes how archaic Indian societies in Brazil, Venezuela and Paraguay (in contrast to the Aztecs and Incas) consciously resisted and rejected the formation of a centralized state authority.

    The second point is, that while it is true that Marx himself did not use the expression “absterben” (dying off, or withering away) of the state, the abolition and supersession of the state unquestionably remained a long-term programmatic objective for him. “It is significant that Marx preferred to speak of the “supersession (aufheben) of the state,” which implies the preservation of certain elements, rather than “the state’s dying off.”” (Boris Meissner, Partei, Staat und Nation in der Sowjetunion. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1985, p. 96).

    What both Marx and Engels had in mind throughout, was the gradual reduction of the state’s aegis as the regulating authority of the life of society, via the subordination of the state’s functioning to the real requirements and needs of society.

    This idea was the complete inverse of the total statification of the Soviet Union, deemed by Stalin to be essential (for the political control of the Communist Party, centralized planning, military-strategic reasons, the utilization of resources and the mutual development of the republics).

    Stalin’s aim was to assert the absolute authority of the state and the omnipotence of the communist party, to break all resistance to the program of socialist construction, to assure cooperation regardless of competing interests, and to convince people, that any and all resistance or dissenting initiative was utterly futile.

    The third point is that, as far as Marx & Engels were concerned, the program of abolishing and transcending the state authority had begun to be implemented practically by the revolutionaries of the Paris Commune of 1871: the overthrow of the old state authority and the devolution of functions.

    This very fact helps to explain, why the revolt was repressed with such enormous savagery, in a bloody massacre which left around 10,000 dead and many more wounded (as described e.g. by the Dutch historian Dennis Bos in his 2014 memorial book “Blood and Barricades: remembering the Paris Commune”).

    No doubt, the withering away of the state was never put into practice “to the satisfaction of Mr Rockmore”, but as far as Marx and Engels were concerned, it was “put into practice” all the same in 1871. That is, it was no longer simply an abstract philosophical concept anymore, a concept in a book that could be taken out of the bookshelf, and returned to the shelf after it had been contemplated.

    The core problem that Mr Rockmore has in dealing with this issue, is that he cannot imagine how the withering way of the state could possibly occur. That is why he becomes dismissive of the whole idea. But the underlying reason is, that his own philosophizing fails to understand what the whole controversy is about, from the beginning to the end.

    So rather than enlightening his readers and deepening our insight, regrettably Rockmore’s superficial philosophical “dreaming” again sows more confusion with its imprecise language, its lack of historical knowledge, and its shoddy, superficial research.

  4. To make things perfectly clear, I am not myself advocating the abolition of the state right now, merely making a scholarly comment about what Marx said he stood for.

    It isn’t feasible I think to get rid of the state or markets in our lifetime, because that would require a quantity and quality of human cooperation sufficient to transcend private or sectional interests and competition – in a very comprehensive way. It is unlikely to be achieved in the foreseeable future.

    What we can do is create much better ideas about human and social amelioration, based on scientific and experiential knowledge. A Marxian ethics is to a large extent an “empirical ethics” or an “empirically informed ethics”, i.e. things are considered “good” or “bad” for people, not simply because of some principle, but because it has been proved “good” or “bad” in verifiable experience.

    It is of course quite possible to change the functioning of the state and markets, to nationalize or privatize state particular functions (or abolish functions), or to change the legal system. An overthrow of the previous state power or a “regime change” is also possible. That has been happening already on and off for centuries, for better or worse, with alternating increases or decreases in social justice, social efficiency and social equality. A central state authority remains anyhow though, democratic or not, because without it, things in society as a whole become totally unworkable. In the history of complex societies, the collapse of the state leads inexorably to population decline.

    Nevertheless Marx’s “dream” of a society in which people regulate themselves and their own affairs without the need for regulation and enforcement by the state (which presupposes a lot of human development and a lot of growth of consciousness), is still there as an “ultimate objective” for human civilization. It states, that people ought to aim for managing their own affairs as much as they can, rather than being regulated by external forces. It carries the quest for human freedom forward to the end.

    In this respect, neoliberal ideology is rather ambivalent – it affirms people should be free… but not “too free”. After all, people might use their freedoms to do things which do not benefit society, in which case the state has to regulate them and draw the line. But what is “of benefit” to society? Who decides that? Who says?

    Jean-Claude Juncker quipped around 2007 that “We all know what to do, but we don’t know how to get re-elected once we have done it.”

    Juncker’s idea is, that there exist authorities on “what is good for society as a whole”, but they cannot be sure anymore about the backing or support they can get from the population at the ballot box. A cynic might say, “the plebs don’t know what’s good for themselves.’

    However, you could also invert Junckers idea, and say that it is precisely because the supposed authorities don’t have mass support of or real affiliation with the population, that they are unable to diagnose correctly what is good for society. Or even, that they try to override the interests of the population “authoratively”, allegedly “for the good of society”.

    In a well-functioning democracy, this kind of accountability dispute can be sorted out reasonably well, but if democratic procedure is reduced to mere window-dressing for a bid to ram through policies allegedly “for the good of society”, then it is likely that people will lose confidence in democracy altogether, and wish for a strong leader who will genuinely represent their interests, i.e. a leader who overrides democratic procedures, in the interests of the people as a whole, and in the interest of a “workable” society.

    In this respect, Marx was certainly not in favour of dictators, he was a democrat who believed in the rule “of the people, by the people, and for the people”, i.e. democratically expressed majority rule. And if the people cannot achieve that, they cannot achieve a stateless society in which people are self-managing their own affairs either.

    The main thing that went wrong in the Russian empire was that after a decade of world war and civil war, a *military* mentality had taken precedence over democratic values.

    The war experience had legitimized the application of quasi-military (forcible) solutions to the problems of society, and had created plenty new means for implementing those solutions (party officials, decrees, soldiers, police, spies, security services etc.). After the war ended, even Trotsky envisaged setting up “labour armies” to ensure that things got done.

    The problem of authority was “solved” by quasi-military methods, which meant that the scope of real democratic participation gradually reduced to the point where all dissent was silenced – any and all dissenters were dismissed, jailed, exiled or executed.

    It was not really that the people “lacked experience of democracy” (it is not difficult to understand the principle of majority rule), but that each anti-democratic step legitimized the next one, so that democracy was actively killed off. And all this “in the name of Marxism and Leninism”.

    It is implausible that Marx would have supported that ferocious and messianist trend, since, by the time that millions of people had their lives ruined by state diktats, the useful purpose of the state to promote modernization had degenerated into mass oppression and state terror – a betrayal and inversion of the original aspirations of the revolution.

    After a second barbarian German invasion was defeated, the Soviet republics and Eastern Europe gradually recovered, but the human toll of political misleadership did an amount of damage that people living there are still trying to repair even today.

    If, in politics, you fanatically drive a valid point to excess, you get the problem of “overkill”, and that overkill can ruin the original validity of the point. A much better idea is, to draw well-founded conclusions from the successes and failures of the past, in order to do something that genuinely improves on previous thinking.

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