Materialism and alternative paths to noncapitalism

Posted: 15 April 2010 in Uncategorized
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Russian mir (мир) or obshchina (община)

Daniel Little has a useful posting on a letter that Marx wrote to Vera Zasulich, an important Russian Marxist, late in his life.

The letter is famous in Marxian circles because it indicates Marx’s interest in basing a Russian transition to communism on the existing peasant commune (mir or obshchina) rather than on the foundations laid by the full-fledged development of capitalism there.

Theoretically speaking, then, the Russian “rural commune” can preserve itself by developing its basis, the common ownership of land, and by eliminating the principle of private property which it also implies; it can become a direct point of departure for the economic system towards which modern society tends; it can turn over a new leaf without beginning by committing suicide; it can gain possession of the fruits with which capitalist production has enriched mankind, without passing through the capitalist regime, a regime which, considered solely from the point of view of its possible duration hardly counts in the life of society. But we must descend from pure theory to the Russian reality.

Little also understands that the letter addresses more general concerns. First, Marx’s materialism has nothing to do with predictive power. It is not an attempt to predict the future trajectory of society (in Russia or elsewhere) but to analyze existing social reality to intervene to create one possible, desirable trajectory. Second, it eschews any notion of a predetermined or necessary path of development.

It explicitly rejects the notion that Marx’s economic and historical theories are suited to the task of identifying the necessary or inevitable course of historical development. It summarily dismisses the idea of a necessary sequence of modes of production. Instead, Marx shows himself to recognize the contingency that exists in historical development, as well as the degree to which history creates new conditions in its course that influence future developments.

Marx’s letter turns out to be an important reminder of both the aleatory dimensions of Marxian materialism and the possibility of conceiving alternative paths to nonexploitative forms of economy and society that are rooted in contemporary reality rather than some necessary and predictable trajectory of history.

  1. […] David Ruccio and Daniel Little agree that Marx stressed the limits of predictive power for his theory- Anti-capitalism & Understanding Society […]

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