Sep

15

(Analytical) Marxism Madness

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EC on Tuesday evening. via Wikimedia

In a remarkable failure of unregulated supply and demand, an estimated 160 people showed up for the lecture “Taking Stock of (Analytical) Marxism,” which was held in a common room at the Heyman Center for the Humanities with a legal capacity of 80 persons. Bwog’s Katheryn Thayer squeezed in.

The EC entrance, usually congested by students getting signed in for weekend dorm pre-party hangouts, took on a different character Tuesday evening, when it was crammed with students, professors, grad students, and random adults hassling the guards for entrance to the unexpectedly popular lecture on Analytical Marxism.

Steve Gurton, an adult student of panelist Jon Elster with experience at the Center for International Conflict Resolution, took time to discuss the esteemed professors’ views on Marxism, even though he was pissed he couldn’t just be let in to see the event. He explained that Elster, noting the downfalls of capitalism (his office is physically at the far end of the Columbia Political Science building), spent his academic career deconstructing Marxism with the intention of reconstructing and reexplaining it. He was looking for a big discovery, but found that the theories behind Marxist thought were sometimes helpful and sometimes not quite coherent. Gurton hypothesized that the turnout for what many consider an obscure topic was so huge because right now, with the global economic collapse, more people are interested in social welfare and wondering what Marx had right.

The door security, finally taking pity on the girl waiting half an hour to hear about the intricacies of Analytical Marxism, finally let me into the discussion, now halfway through . At this point, John Roemer was finishing his speech on the class exploitation correspondence theorem, which tries to make concrete some of the abstract principles  Marx laid down. There are many ways of producing a good, but capitalists want production to be cheap and use as little labor as possible. Roemer ultimately found, however, that breaking down Marxism into theories and applying them sometimes produces conclusions contrary to Marxist philosophy.

Earlier in the lecture, panelists differentiated “Bullshit Marxism” (all seemed to agree it’s alive and well) from Analytical Marxism, separating indoctrination from actual political ideas. Marxist academics try to extract theories from Marx and use them in useful applications, much like how economists and political scientists extract theories from past events and data. The first speaker, Jon Elster, wanted to examine the truth of Marxism because he was part of the revolutionary party and so, as Gurton described, delved into the study and interpretation of Marx’s philosophy.

The final speaker, development economist Pranab Bardhan, started by saying that he thought, “the unifying principle is that Marx asked great questions…” even though he often had the wrong answers. Of these answers, Bardhan took issue with the faults in Marxist theories on impact of globalization, state, transition from agriculture, relation between technology and institutions, and crisis; citing both errors and achievements in each category. Pranab obviously valued the discussions incited by Marxist thought, but quoted Alfred Whitehead in saying, “a science which hesitates to forget its founders is lost.”

While none of the speakers seemed to be clinging desperately to Marxism, the thoughtful and stimulating conversation implied that it makes sense to keep history in mind when analyzing now and beyond. The questions raised by Marx are still relevant and useful in fields of sociology, history, and economics, and from the looks of it will continue to play an interesting, if small, role in discussion.

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