The Two Marxisms


Salient reflections from the pen of Alvin Gouldner:

In one part, then, Marxism is a philosophy of praxis; in another it is a “science”–i.e., the political economy of the laws of capitalism. Marxism is thus a tensionful conjunction of science and politics, of theory and practice. Its topic is the objective socioeconomic conditions imputedly requisite for socialism. Its object in addressing this topic, however, is not only understanding but also a revolutionary practice aimed at changing the world. It must accomplish this, as all politics does, partly by appealing to and arguing with people, by attempting to persuade them through rational discourse and promises. For politics never assumes that since “history is on our side” we may wait for things and people to come our way; but it premises that outcomes depend upon the active mobilization of people. So Marxism is both: science and ideology; rational understanding and political practice; “reports” about the world and a “command” to do something to change it.

Yet there is also an irreducible tension between the call to do something now and the warning that those who do not wait for appropriate conditions or use scientific guidance are dangerous adventurers or mere “utopians.” Marxism as science premises that some things will happen without men’s rational foresight and whatever their efforts. As a politics, however, it also premises that events depend crucially on people’s efforts, struggle, capacity for sacrifice, and self-discipline. Indeed, while all politics premises that men “must seize the time,” science premises that things have their own nature and rhythms.

The two readings of Marxism briefly outlined here have, in part, grown up around the nuclear tension between voluntarism and determinism, between freedom and necessity. Both of these readings, let me hasten to insist, are a true part of Marxism. We are not faced with only a seeming contradiction that can be glibly resolved by claiming that one side is false, revisionist, opportunist, misguided, not really Marxist, while the other is the authentic, genuine, dyed-in-the-wool, true revolutionary article.

Our Two-Marxisms thesis maintains that both are in fact structural differentiations of a single originally undifferentiated Marxism; that over time the “two” emerge in part out of an effort to reduce the real internal tensions of original Marxism. Indeed, the Two Marxisms could not emerge as structurally distinct tendencies but for the fact that both are truly present in Marxism. Their conjunction in ordinary Marxism is recurrently productive of tensions and of a tension-reducing segregation of the inconsistent elements, by insulating them from one another into two (or more) distinct and boundaried systems of ”elaborated” Marxisms, Critical and Scientific Marxism.

As I will document, Marxism did indeed say that capitalist society was governed by blind and necessary laws to which persons were inescapably subject; it is also true that Marxism treats persons as free agents who will not only do what they must, but who can respond to appeals and be won over even against their own class interests. There is thus both determinism and voluntarism in Marxism.

2 thoughts on “The Two Marxisms

  1. dmf
    A developing research agenda in digital labour studies draws on aspects of information society theory and Marxist autonomism to understand examples of unionisation in digital workplaces and among digital labourers. In this article, I trace core concepts of information society theory and autonomism to demonstrate how unions have been framed by prominent figures in the field. I argue that both approaches tend to relegate unions to industrial capitalism and its historically-specific set of class relations. Information society theorists argue that capitalist class conflict has been transcended, perceiving unions as an obstacle to flexibility and entrepreneurship. Autonomists maintain a focus on class conflict, yet, based on their analysis of contemporary class composition, tend to prioritise other forms of organisation over unions. Digital labour studies research has developed, in part, as a critique of information society theory and draws on aspects of autonomism, including the concepts of precarity and immaterial labour. Authors studying empirical examples of unionisation among digital labourers identify different challenges and opportunities for unionisation among digital labours, and demonstrate the utility of unions for improving the conditions of digital labourers and promoting new working-class subjectivities


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