Philosophy of Marxist Sociology – Part 1

Marxist analysis has made me uneasy for years. The issues, for me, in these analyses (discernable in the final exposition of the result-statements) are the intertwined relations of methodological commitments and ontological assumptions. The workshop on 20-21 July 2019 gave the opportunity to think through one or two aspects of the philosophy of Marxist sociology. Here I will talk about “concept fetishism” and “ontological assumptions” (in part 2 – spoilers alert: part 2 instead turned into a post about technology).

As this is an informal discussion I use the term Marxist for prominent Marxist thinkers without clear demarcation, who have an affinity with Bolshevik ideology, and Marxist analysis as the analysis of social phenomenon from the lens of their understanding of “dialectics” and “historical materialism”. While these are only a fraction of questions around Marxist analysis, there are more important issues (to put it very mildly) with their political program.

Concept Fetishism:

Marxists, among other things, pride themselves for being “scientific”. They were not alone in the mid to late 19th century Europe to use such language – even the anarchists like Bakunin and Luigi Fabbri fell victim to such positivist romanticism but, this soon subsided from other schools of thoughts, left or right except notably in Marxism (it did reemerge in mainstream neo-classical economic through mathematization of economics in mid 20th century.) Many Marxist still hold this positivist and to a significant extent deterministic view of their sociological “science”.

One important aspect of the scientific study of any natural phenomenon is the plurality of analysis – vertical and horizontal. Let us take an example of fluid mechanics. Lets us examine the Venturian flow of a fluid (with a Set X of properties – viscosity, velocity, discharge, etc, which are irrelevant for the point under consideration.) Venturian flow is the flow of a fluid from one pressure zone to another pressure zone. The vertical plurality of analysis of this phenomenon might include at one level the study of chemical difference (say, phase separation) in a zone of study and at another level the study of pathline of parcels (the trajectory of individual particles.)

Both ways of looking at the different aspect of the same phenomenon give the fuller understanding of the mechanism of the flow. In practice though, it is the (theoretical) understanding of mechanisms at different levels and their interactions that precedes particular analysis. This kind of plurality is common in all social analysis and even Marxists analyze segregation and sub-segregation of classes in this manner. In fact, even common-sense worldview works on this principle.

The problem in many cases arrises in horizontal plurality. It usually takes the form of the fetishism of one concept within that level of study at the cost of neglect of others – but reductionism or neglect.

Let us continue with the example of Venturian flow to look at horizontal plurality. At the second level of the previous example, the study of pathline can be done through either Lagrangian or Eulerian methods. The Lagrangian method looks at fluid motion where the observer follows an individual fluid parcel as it moves through space and time. Eulerian on the other hand looks at fluid motion at a specific location in the space through which the fluid flows as time passes. Both are looking at the same phenomenon at the same vertical level of abstraction.

I believe Power to be a level of analysis for understanding society. It is almost at the same level of Class analysis (Note: I say “almost” because one of difference, it seems to me, between hard and social science is the possibility of clearly demarcating the vertical levels.) In power analysis control of means of production (capitalist class), over mean of administration (political and social elite),  means of violence and coercion (police and military elites), their interrelations and the power of organized opposition to them could be the different ways of looking at the distribution of power in a social zone.

By various ways, Marxists have sidelined or ridiculed the idea of power because, to put it crudely, power is only used to “maximize profits”. Maximization of profits, hence, becomes the summum bonum of all social activities for “the ruling class”. This untested premiss is one of the core principles of Marxist worldview. This is one reason why Marxists had difficulty in accommodating racism and caste in their framework. Black women were not taken as test subjects for medical experiments for reasons of maximizing profits. Neither there is any evidence that Pardhi men are criminalized for reasons of profit generation.

At least, I believe. that maximization of profits and concentrating more and more capital is one way of gaining control and power in society. This is not a place to dwell on the whole of the power and elite frameworks of analysis – much of which is compatible with Marxist views.  But here is should suffice to raise the question can profit-making really be an end in itself? Do we see that happening in any sphere of social life? Or are control and power too important and quite independent components of social motivation for actions – shaping class interests? And If they are does Marxism leave space for horizontally accommodating them?


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