3.1 Marxism

Caricatures of Marxism abound, and it is sometimes difficult to dispel these when the caricatures themselves have had such a thorough and brutal practical grounding in the bureaucracies of the post-capitalist states. With the collapse of the Soviet regime and its stalinized satellites, most erstwhile supporters and fellow-travellers have abandoned any formal adherence to Marxism, and their stake in reinforcing the old caricatures is all the higher. Marxism is the theory and practice of class struggle, and it is all the more important now to emphasize that the elaboration of a theoretical understanding of the social order for Marx always presupposed doubt, speculation and empirical examination. Marxism is a theory of the economic conditions which sustain particular competitive and destructive forms of social relationship, and its character as a ‘theory’ is designed to trace the real movement of internal contradiction by which the basis is laid within capitalism for socialism (and in that respect it anticipates ‘prefigurative’ arguments from within socialist feminism). It is an open heuristic system which tests and accumulates observations about the structure of capitalism in different cultures as part of an international interlinked economic network, and it moves from a general view of historical change formed by these observations to particular instances. Marxist theory has recently been wedded to a realist epistemology, which is to say that it looks to relatively enduring structures in the natural and social orders which permit and inhibit forms of action. To say that these are 'relatively enduring' is to treat them as susceptible to change, and to emphasise the way that any human activity affects structures of the social order in a two-fold manner. This is a notion that we capture, borrowing from Roy Bhaskar (1989), in the phrase 'reproduction and transformation'. Every activity reinforces or destabilizes, validates or disturbs existing systems of power.

Although some varieties Marxism have tended to treat language as part of the 'superstructure', we treat language as part of the machinery of class control. It is, in addition, of course, part of the machinery of sexism and racism, not a simple reflection of other supposedly more important processes. A notion from analytic philosophy which focusses on 'ordinary language' which is particular useful here is that of 'speech acts' (Austin, 1962). In this account, language does not simply represent the world, or float on top of it, but does things, brings about or changes states of affairs. We will have to use Foucault's work to take this further to look at how speech acts are structured into patterns of power, but for the moment I want to highlight the importance of the Marxist view of all action, including linguistic action as materially effective.

There is something in the Marxist account of the process of testing and observation which is of particular interest to critical psychologists, and which chimes in with preoccupations of qualitative researchers (cf. Parker and Spears, 1996). Marxism is not supposed to be an abstract theory which brings a true understanding of society to people otherwise incapable of understanding how the frustrations and possibilities of action are structured. Rather, the process of investigation is action research par excellence, for an understanding of the world is only obtained through an attempt to change it. Marxism itself is a function of a particular set of social relationships at a particular historical period, with a series of analyses of commodities, forces and relations of production, and the State that would not make sense to people living in a world untroubled by capitalism. The argument that the human being is not an enclosed entity independent of others, but is an 'ensemble of social relations' (Marx, 1845) means that every attempt to make sense of the world theoretically also entails the creation of new types of relationship and a challenge to traditional ones.

Subjectivity is theorised here, then, as both entirely conditioned by the social and as always necessarily agentic. It is one of the conditions of capitalism, for example, that people should actively participate in economic relationships that are socially and personally destructive. When someone sells their labour power, they do so because they would otherwise starve, but they do so in a creative act of production, the very thing that the buyer of their time finds so valuable and which yields a surplus value for further investment and employment. In the process, the worker is also turned into a commodity to be bought and sold along with the fruits of their labour, and a sense of things being separate and exchangeable accords with that social reality. Marxism, then, draws attention to the commodification of relationships as a characteristic of modern culture, and two further aspects of the work of culture are also highlighted. The first is that the dead weight of the past sets the boundaries for how for someone entangled in a culture can reflect upon their position, and the second is that the different relationships that are set up between workers and employers, and between workers and workers, reproduce contradictions in which critical reflection, a critical distance can be developed.

Marxism is very much concerned with this critical distance of course, and an analysis of language, of discourse is always an analysis with a suspicious eye. This is part of what can mark it off from simple humanist approaches which are content to describe the themes in accounts. Dominant discourses, and many of the subordinate ones that are constituted in relation to them too for that matter, ratify the existing order of things, make them seem natural and unquestionable, and they conceal patterns of power or render accounts of those patterns unreasonable or more dangerous still to those trapped within them. Thus to say that a discourse or set of discourses is ideological is to draw attention to the way that it meshes in with exploitation and disempowers opposition to it. And to say that an individual or group enmeshed in ideology is suffering 'false consciousness' is simply to argue that under different material and discursive conditions they would themselves construct a narrative of suffering, isolation from others and loaded choices that prevented them from taking steps to free themselves (Eagleton, 1991).

The notions of ideology and false consciousness highlight the way Marxism operates as a partisan knowledge, one that takes its standpoint seriously in an argument among different positions rather than wanting to float among them as if nothing was at stake. There is a double dynamic in that standpoint which many critical psychologists would want to endorse at the very moment that they may deny that they are Marxists. The first is the celebration of change, and the continual transformation of social relationships and discursive positions, and the second is the move from individually-focused explanations and experience to relational and collective action. Power, for Marxists, is conceptualised as the sometimes deliberate and often unintentioned hindrance of change and as an attempt to block this double dynamic. There is thus a tension between immediate experience and what conditions it, between what is essentially human and what sabotages humanity. That tension is addressed in Marxist accounts of contradiction and dialectics. There is something in the attention to flux and discursivity of experience in qualitative research which also leads in this direction, but although Marxism should be able to theorise how and why such flux and discursivity is frustrated, it is feminism that has taken that understanding forward in social research.

Previous Section Top Next Section