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SITL, Part 1: Marx, Reason, and the Art of Freedom

It is very fulfilling to find one's work discussed in the works of others. Since the publication of my "Dialectics and Liberty" trilogy, which includes the books Marx, Hayek, and Utopia, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, and Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism, there have been a number of books that have been published that examine my ideas from a variety of perspectives.

Today and over the coming months, I hope to turn some attention to discussions of my work that appear in the literature. For me, it will provide an opportunity to delve more deeply into some of the ideas first presented in my trilogy. Readers will note that these blog posts will be preceded by the abbreviation: SITL ("Sciabarra In The Literature"). Part 1 of this series begins with today's blog entry.

Some time ago, I received the second edition of Kevin M. Brien's book, Marx, Reason, and the Art of Freedom (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2006). The first edition was published in 1987 by Temple University Press; this second edition is put out by Humanity Books, which is an imprint of Prometheus Books, publisher of many fine works that would be familiar to Notablog readers.

I had reviewed Brien's first edition for Critical Review... twenty years ago! I am pleased to post a (not so clear) facsimile of that review (as a PDF) on my website here.

Let me say that I truly enjoyed Brien's book when I first read it, and I think his second edition is superb. Brien treats Marx's corpus as an open-ended, developing philosophical whole. He argues that, despite some ambiguous formulations in the works of Marx and Engels, the Marxian dialectical approach is opposed fundamentally to economic determinism. Brien sheds much light on dialectics by incorporating insights from such non-Marxist philosophers as Brand Blanshard (quite a revelation when I encountered it the first time around). In his second edition, the author deepens his discussion of the parallels between Marxist and non-Marxist perspectives. He also examines the "spiritual dimension in Marx" and includes an extended addendum on the complementary relationship between Buddhism and Marxism. There is so much worthwhile material in this book, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone seeking a more nuanced understanding of Marx.

In this blog entry, I want to focus a bit more attention on Brien's response to my review of his first edition. In the "Postscript to the Second Edition," Brien devotes part 1 to a response to his critics. He turns to my review first and quotes the following relevant passages:

Brien's interpretation of Marx's project suggests inadvertantly that communism is fundamentally dependent upon a grandiose epistemological achievement. Marx posits an historically emergent cognitive efficacy which boggles the human mind. On one level, Marx's speculations about man's future imply that he has a synoptic grasp of the movement of history. It is not entirely clear how Marx has access to knowledge about the inevitable triumph of human efficacy which is central to the achievement of communism.
F. A. Hayek and Michael Polanyi . . . have suggested that a synoptic grasp of the whole is epistemologically impossible. Indeed, the idealist belief in the possibility of an exhaustive comprehension of the whole and its internal relations is the hallmark of utopian thinking. . . . Hayek correctly views utopian blueprints for social change as resting on what he describes as a "synoptic delusion." A "synoptic delusion" represents a false belief that one can consciously design a new society as if one had possession of holistic knowledge. . . . Marx does not accept the Hayekian-Polanyian thesis which places fundamental strictures on man's cognitive capacity. For Marx, these strictures are themselves historically specific to pre-communist social formations.
While Brien's book emphasizes the important links between reason and freedom, it does not adequately question the actualizable potential of Marx's epistemological transcendence. If, indeed, the strictures on human knowledge are ontological, rather than historical, then Marx's project may be leading many genuine radicals toward an inherently unreachable, utopian goal.

Brien begins his response with a question: "Why can one not consistently accept that there may be some significant ontological strictures on human cognitive capacities, while also holding that other strictures on cognitive capacities are historically conditioned?" Marx, Brien argues, does not believe in the infallibility of human knowledge; he views all knowledge as conditional and limited. But "just because it is impossible to explain everything exhaustively about various natural or social wholes, does not preclude the possibilities of explaining some significant structural features of those natural or social wholes." (Brien will get no argument from me on this point.) For Brien, Marx projects various tendencies in capitalism and in social evolution based on "empirically grounded theories" that "aim at a kind of holistic or synoptic understanding," but not in the sense that Hayek means. All of Marx's pronouncements, in Brien's view, are "partial, limited, fallible, and empirically grounded," for all human knowledge must have "some sort of contextual limits." But contexts change, says Brien, and knowledge evolves.

Thus, in Brien's interpretation, "Marx himself does not pretend to have carried out the kind of 'grandiose epistemological achievement'" that worries me. But he issues a cautionary note: "Quite unfortunately though, there have been many deluded, dogmatic, and totalitarian followers of Marx who, having been caught up in the kind of 'synoptic delusion' Hayek warns us about, believed they knew the absolute, complete, and certain truth about social wholes. But not Marx!"

Before responding to Brien's comments, I should point out that the discussion from which he quotes was published in 1988. My interpretations of Marx and Marxism can be found in slightly more developed form in Marx, Hayek, and Utopia (1995) and in Chapter 3 of Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism (2000).

Following Hayek, I have long argued that there are traces of constructivist rationalism in Marx's approach, which poison its goal of human emancipation. While I think that Marx, arguably, does not fully succumb to a "synoptic delusion," I think it is also true that Marx's own sketchy blueprint for a socialist future invests the proletariat with some kind of higher efficacy that would give it "virtual omniscience about social reality," as I state in Total Freedom, "generating precisely determined effects while transcending the unintended social consequences of their actions. This is, for Marx, the birth of genuine human history." Granted: The most problematic tendencies in this regard can actually be found in the writings of Frederick Engels, rather than in Marx himself. As Engels states in Dialectics of Nature:

[T]he more [people] make their own history consciously, the less becomes the influence of unforeseen effects and uncontrolled forces on this history, and the more accurately does the historical result correspond to the aim laid down in advance. If, however, we apply this measure to human history, to that of even the most developed peoples of the present day, we find that there still exists here a colossal disproportion between the proposed aims and the results arrived at, that unforeseen effects predominate, and that the uncontrolled forces are far more powerful than those set into motion according to plan. And this cannot be otherwise as long as the most essential activity of men . . . social production, is above all subject to the interplay of unintended effects from uncontrolled forces and achieves its desired end only by way of exception and, much more frequently, the exact opposite.

Quoting now from my book, Total Freedom:

Engels takes his cue from Marx, who believed that people's social actions unconsciously reproduced the structures of oppression that grew behind their "backs," making them the "playthings" of forces beyond their control. For Marx and Engels, the onset of communism engenders conditions in which the forces of production are not unruly "demons" but the "willing servants" of collective humanity.
It may be objected that Engels is not speaking of omniscient or omnipotent control of social forces, but a condition in which there is less spontaneity, and increasingly greater conscious direction. He speaks of "more" and "less," of degrees of control. Marxists might actually agree with Hayek's anti-constructivism [as Brien himself suggests above], but they dismiss it as a "strawman" argument, since people require not perfect, but "sufficient" knowledge for social reconstruction. A collective in possession of such "sufficient" knowledge will be able to manage social decisions through a process of "trial and error."

While I agree with Brien that there are some significant ontological strictures on human cognitive capacities and that there may very well be other strictures on cognitive capacities that are historically conditioned, there is still

no reason to believe that some distant proletarian generation will be able to achieve that which is ontologically and epistemologically impossible for human beings as such. Disputing these facts by declaring that our myopia is historically specific to capitalism does not remove the burden of proof. That burden rests on those who assert the positive: that it is possible to conquer unintended social consequences and to achieve complete predictability.

Even if Brien is correct that Marx himself did not fully exhibit such epistemic hubris, he is also correct about those "dogmatic and totalitarian followers of Marx" whose "synoptic delusion" is all too apparent.

And that is the problem. That is the danger of aiming for what is ultimately a utopian goal. Over time, the utopian dream disintegrates into a dystopian reality. Again, from Total Freedom:

Because our efforts are a matter of degree, the danger is that planners will try to actualize the utopian illusion. Since the world does not stop functioning while it is being reconstructed, the planners will be unable to transcend the unintended consequences of their own actions. The experiments have left millions of human corpses in their wake. Statist brutality is not what Marx envisioned as a model for human emancipation.
Much of the impetus for totalitarian constructivism came out of Soviet Marxism. The Soviets found justification in the works of Engels. Approaching the model of a Unified Science, Engels saw dialectics as "the science of interconnections." . . . Leaning heavily on Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature, Engels recognized that "[t]he world clearly constitutes a single system, i.e., a coherent whole, but the knowledge of this system presupposes a knowledge of all nature and history, which man will never attain." It is peculiar to find Engels agreeing with Hayek—and not grasping that which Hayek found so elementary. To the extent that he ignored the fundamental differences between the natural and social worlds, Engels overschematized and rigidified a dialectical approach that Marx had used with greater flexibility.
Many contemporary Marxists have sought to distance themselves from this scientistic Engelsian "category" error . . . The full development of Engels's dialectic, or what became known as "dialectical materialism," took place within the confines of Soviet "science" and politics. The very expression "dialectical materialism" was not used by Marx or Engels; it was popularized by the Soviet Marxist, G. V. Plekhanov. The doctrine became an ideological device to justify the control and distortion of science, engendering such debacles as the Lysenko affair. These controversies have led contemporary Marxists to reject the thoroughly "undialectical" and "tyrannical application of a mechanical and sterile Stalinist diamat."
[Howard] Sherman [in his book Reinventing Marxism] has provided one of the most trenchant critiques of this Soviet model. For him, the dialectical enterprise is properly relational and organic. It stresses reciprocal causation and interaction among many factors in a social totality. But this emphasis on totality is not, in Sherman's view, an apologia for methodological collectivism. Surprisingly, Sherman applauds Popper for "criticizing extreme collectivism, which has sometimes made glib or mystic accounts of social wholes greater than their individual parts." Legitimate Marxist dialectics provides a tool for the analysis of the whole forest, as seen from the vantage point of any tree. It must never lose sight of the fact that "the whole is composed of individuals. . . . But as Karl Popper points out, someone who tries to claim that the forest as a whole exists without or independently of the trees is talking nonsense." On this basis, Sherman asserts that the organic analogies in Marxism are metaphorical; they presuppose neither a collective mind nor an impersonal, inexorable force in history.
Sherman recognizes that Popper's critique is fully applicable to Soviet Marxism, which regarded dialectics "as an omniscient system explaining the whole universe, following the Hegelian tradition in this respect." . . . This scientistic distortion of dialectic provided a priori formulas by which to interpret and shape the world, as if one could understand the complexities of society without actually engaging in empirical investigations.

Kevin Brien, to his credit, recognizes the "pervasive and systematic distortion" of dialectical method that has resulted from the reification of certain abstractions in Marx's and, especially, Engels' presentation. He argues (on page 202 of the second edition of his book) that there is a crucial "contrast between Marx's method of scientific explanation and Engels' 'cosmic dialectic of development.' To adopt the first does not commit one to the second."

But in bidding "good riddance" (as Howard Sherman puts it) to the totalitarian model that has infected Marxism, more attention needs to be paid to the epistemic hubris or "synoptic delusion" that gave birth to this model in the first place. It is this same hubris that has led too many "progressives" to embrace a state-centered vision for political and social change. The state is not the repository of either "total" or "sufficient" knowledge to affect a genuinely radical social transformation. It has been a reactionary agency of violence, at war with both reason and freedom.

In Part II of SITL, coming soon, I will turn to another discussion of the "synoptic delusion" in which my work is cited: Theodore A. Burczak's book, Socialism After Hayek.

Noted at Liberty and Power Group Blog.


Thanks for the link, Jim; I hope to post on the Burczak book very soon.

I share the opinion of the writer in full load. Thanks in order to have given the possibility to me to take part.
Blog is a much beautiful one.

Thanks for your kind words and support!