Marxism and its Variants

Marxism offers a critique of the development of capitalism and the role of class struggle in economic change.  On a very basic level, Marxism offers a materialist understanding of social development and historical change.  It takes as its starting point the necessary economic activities required by human society to provide for its material needs. The form of economic organization or mode of production is understood to be the basis from which the majority of other social phenomena arise, these include social relations, political and legal systems, morality and ideology. Even more crudely, the economic or mode of production is the base whereas all of the other factors constitute the superstructure; people themselves are distributed roughly as the bourgeoisie (owners of the means of production) and proletarian (those who labor).  Marx promulgated that the ruling ideas in any given epoch are those of the ruling class; ie the bourgeoisie rules in ideas and economic means.  This seems to connote a fairly totalizing world view, but his thinking was actually more nuanced.  These ideas have been calibrated by a range of thinkers, most notably Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser.

In general Marxism believes that as the means of production improve, thanks to new technology, existing forms of social organization become inefficient and stifle further progress. These inefficiencies manifest themselves as social contradictions in the form of class struggle. The antagonisms between the bourgeoisie and proletariat will result in a social revolution.

There are many variants of Marxism but the ones most often alluded to in our readings are those of the Leninist and Maoist varieties.

In the Leninist version, the social revolution will be enabled by the leadership of a vanguard party.  There will be no bourgeoisie.

In Maoism it is the agrarian peasant not the working class that is the key to the revolution; it is agriculture that can transform capitalist society.  For Maoism the industrial-rural divide is one through which capitalism exploits the peasantry.

Louis Althusser is a 20th century French philosopher whose Reading Marx is considered as a radical reinterpretation of Marx, ie restoring Marxist thought to its original.  Althusser’s students, who are featured in the book, comprise a constellation of contemporary leading theorists: Etienne Balibar, Jacques Ranciere, Pierre Macherey, and of course, Foucault amont others.  Very crudely, this book argues that Marx’s work is fundamentally incompatible with its antecedents because it is built on an epistemology that rejects the distinction between subject and object.  In contrast to empiricism, dialectical materialism counters the theory of knowledge as vision with a theory of knowledge as production.

For the purposes of our class, the key ideas Althusser introduces are those of ideology and the co-terminus concepts of the Ideological State Apparatus (ISA) and Repressive State Apparatus (RSA).  Althusser draws on Gramsci and Marx but also on Freud and Lacan’s theories of unconscious and mirror-phase.  The resultant theory of ideology describes the structures and systems that enable the concept of the self.  For Althusser, these structures are both inevitable and repressive.  It is impossible to escape ideology and to not be subjected to it.

In Althusser’s worldview, our values, desires and preferences are inculcated in us by ideological practice.  ISAs are a range of institutions such as the family, media, religion, and education which are the key nodes of ideological practice.  There is no single ISA that produces in us the belief that are self-conscious agents, rather we derive this belief in the course of learning what it is to be a daughter, a steelworker, a politician, etc.

RSAs on the other hand, comprise the police, courts, army, government, etc, all of which use violent and coercive means (when necessary) to ensure the interests of the ruling classes.  RSAs are controlled by the ruling class.  In general, RSAs function as a unified entity whereas ISAs are diverse and plural.  What unites the disparate ISAs is the fact that they are ultimately shaped by the ruling ideology.  RSAs function by means of repression and violence and only secondarily by ideology; ISAs function predominantly by ideology and only secondarily by violence.  The function of the ISAs is concealed and largely symbolic.

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