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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/Logic, methodology, rational choice Marxism and the fate of bourgeois Marxism

Logic, methodology, rational choice Marxism and the fate of bourgeois Marxism

Anthony Monteiro

Platypus Review 161 | November 2023

AT THE END OF THE 20TH CENTURY, as postmodernism achieved hegemony in academic and social scientific discourse, a new Marxism emerged from within academic Marxism declaring itself a radical departure from traditional Marxisms.[1] It joined the fierce debates over structural and Althusserian Marxism. It rejected humanist and existential Marxism and much of Frankfurt School Marxism. It insists it sought to compel Marxists to live up to their claims of being scientific, subjecting their claims, as it were, to rigorous logical analysis and proposing alternatives to Marxist methodology, including methodological individualism, standard logics, modal logics, and rational choice / game-theoretic modeling. More than anything it is a brazen attempt to make Marxism into “normal” social science, denuding it of its radical character. Its principal theorists named their school analytical Marxism. It has also been referred to as rational choice or game theory Marxism.

Diminishing Marxism in order to allegedly clarify it is a bold, yet failed effort. It’s a turn from class analysis, the labor theory of value, the exploitation of labor and other foundations of Marxism. It replaces the working class and class collectivities with the “rational agent” of liberal social theory. This move to, as they claim, separate Marxism from its inherent “functionalism” and teleology is but a veil to justify turning Marxism away from working people and towards the petit bourgeoisie; from radical and revolutionary concerns to working-class subordination to ruling elites. Its principal thinkers are Jon Elster, E. O. Wright, Adam Przeworski, G. A. Cohen, and John Roemer. Others have carried out analytical and social-science experiments using its approaches. I will focus primarily on Jon Elster, John Roemer and E. O. Wright. G. A. Cohen is something of an outlier in the project and should be approached differently.

This essay deals solely with analytical Marxists as a group of Marxist theorists and academics. It does not deal with the sociology of the formation of this group of academics; what in sociology is called a theory group. As a theory group analytical Marxists are profoundly interesting as they manifest the conditions and modes for achieving academic success. The theory is as much a reflection of issues that go far beyond theory and include world political movements, global ideological relationships, and possibilities for academic success within late capitalist academic realities. These questions were explored in my PhD dissertation “Analytical Marxism: Theory Formation in a Time of Turbulence.”

This essay ends with a consideration of how artificial intelligence (AI) and game theory is deployed within Marxism and how it might be a fatal blow to academic Marxism and revolutionary politics among university trained people.

In political and ideological terms this project might be deployed to frame current debates about libertarian socialism and libertarian communism. Analytical Marxism’s appearance of theoretical sophistication possibly appeals to young thinkers drawn to both the working class and communism. I will try to show the philosophical and theoretical consequences of this epistemic strategy within Marxism, as perhaps a warning to those who might mistakenly assess its sophistication with its actuality.

Situated in a unique space between Marxism and the analytic philosophical movement and positivist social science, it declares it stands for a radical reworking of classical Marxism. Its program challenges Marx and his followers, including Lenin, at the levels of epistemology, logic, and methodology. It is, on the other hand, connected to Marxism by the nature of the problems that it purports to deal with and its normative and socialist values. At best, a thin connection to Marxism and its purposes remains. Beyond that, analytical Marxism is unidentifiable as Marxism. In the writings of Jon Elster, analytical Marxism appears to use Marx against Marx. Others among its practitioners claim their efforts to analytically rework Marx are to update Marxism using the tools of modern logics, including modal logic, rational choice and game theory, logical empiricism, and other methods as means of verifying Marx’s scientific claims. Analytical Marxists insist they are giving Marxism (which they assert is a 19th-century project) a modern, scientific do-over. However, while claiming loyalty to Marxism’s normative and socialist values, at the end of the day, foundational commitments of Marxists to the working class, class conflict, radical democracy, socialism and communism, are pretty much rejected. It is the Marxism of class peace, of reformism, of social democracy, and even libertarianism. It is the Marxism of the petit bourgeoisie, not the working class and certainly not the racially and colonially oppressed. It is a Marxism of adaptation to neoliberalism, and American and Western global hegemony.

The Marxism that is reborn from this effort is not the Marxism that most Marxists are familiar with, or that Marx himself would recognize. John Roemer says, “During the past decade what now appears as a new species in social theory has been forming, analytically sophisticated Marxism. Its practitioners are largely inspired by Marxian questions, which they pose with contemporary tools of logic, mathematics and model building. Their methodological posture is conventional.”[2] Roemer suggests that previously considered opposite trends in philosophy and social theory can be united to form a “new species of social theory.” As will be seen, logic, mathematics, model building, and conventional methodologies are used to “liberate” Marxism from its supposed teleologies, functionalism and to establish non-functionalist, non-structuralist, methodologically individualist explanations of collective behavior. On the other hand, efforts are directed at formalizing Marxian propositions, through linguistic or nomological procedures; establishing coherent logical and nomothetic structures (see, for example, A General Theory of Exploitations of Class and Fundamentals of Analytic Marxism[3]). The point is to construct a logical and methodological superstructure of statements, formulations, and judgments that arise from logical rules and methods which clarify the assumptions and statements of Marxism. The objective is to bring linguistic clarity and consistent logical rules to Marxism; hence give it a new superstructure. Finally, it seeks to establish within Marxism an ideal model of reasoning. Dialectical logic, some would argue, the heart of Marxist method, is excised from Marxism. Taken as a whole package of logics, methods, assumptions, language, and judgements, the principal tools for analytical Marxists’ social science bends to behaviorism and methods more associated with neoclassical economics.

The component parts of analytical Marxism are rooted in a logical inversion of Marxism. I identify five parts of what constitutes analytical Marxism. These parts are the deep plumbing of the project. And while there are significant differences among the practitioners of the project, they are united around a logical inversion of Marxism away from dialectical logic to an eclectic mix of inductive and deductive logics. Its components therefore are:

  1. Methodological individualism and rational choice / game-theoretic modeling
  2. The centrality of the rational individual to social explanation
  3. Logico-methodological eclecticism, including modal logics, mathematical and statistical methods, and linguistic analysis
  4. Non-revolutionary and positivist social science
  5. A political practice of social democracy and libertarian socialism

I treat the choices of logic by analytical Marxists as the plumbing and groundwork of the project. It is therefore necessary to understand their understanding of the purposes of logic itself. At the end of the day, I locate its approach to knowledge and its logical apparatuses within that 20th-century movement called logical empiricist. I will explicate logical empiricism through the logical works of John Stuart Mill, William Whewell, Bertrand Russell, and Rudolph Carnap. In doing so I hope to lay bare what is going on in and among analytical Marxists. I will conclude with what I call “AI Marxism,” that is algorithm driven Marxism.

Logic, methodology, and scientific inquiry

Logic, as a “logic of investigation” (Popper) or a “logic of science” (Carnap), is, in the history of logic, a recent development. Prior to the emergence of the empirical sciences, logic was associated with Aristotelian syllogisms. The rise of mathematics and the physical sciences required more of logic than simple or syllogistic proofs. Francis Bacon, René Descartes, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz undertook the earliest development of logic as a logic of investigation which had as its essential purpose the discovery of new truth. This would fulfill logic’s commitment to science. Bacon, considered by Marx as the founder of English materialism and of “contemporary experimental science,” looked upon scientific truth as emerging from inductive logic. Descartes and Leibniz, on the other hand, looked upon logic as a branch of mathematics and therefore chose deductive methods as the logic for discovering truth. The logico-mathematical method was viewed by them as a means of solving scientific problems. Descartes sought to construct a single mathematical system within the limits of deductive logic; what, in the early 20th century, Russell and Whitehead in their Principia Mathematica[4] and Wittgenstein in his Tractatus[5]put forward. These efforts, though failing to establish a single deductive system to explain reality, or to — as Russell suggested — confirm “the appearance of the anticipated sense data,” did influence the rise of investigations of logics, impacting the  logical empiricist movement, and their eclectic and often chaotic experiments and claims.

John Stuart Mill, on the other hand, asserted that every process leading to scientific knowledge could be represented as an inductive process. Such an assertion brought forward its opposite. The earliest criticism of Mill’s Logic[6] was based upon its being solely bound to the sense data and did not include a synthetic dimension.

William Whewell argued, on the other hand, that empirical laws — meaning in Mill’s sense the causal connections of sense perception — could not lead to the discovery of new scientific laws. His view was that the discovery of new scientific laws introduced new scientific abstraction, which thereby serve to discover new connections between empirical data and thus form new theoretical systems. For Whewell this process of discovery is founded upon the process of applying a priori ideas to empirical material, in an upward spiral producing new scientific knowledge. He sought to discover new scientific laws through the introduction of new levels of abstraction. Whewell insisted that empirical connections alone did not in and of themselves suffice to establish scientific discovery. For Whewell the new level of abstraction necessary was identified with a priori conditions of knowledge. It was here that new empirical connections could be discovered. The substance of Whewell’s argument, and that which remains valid in the rejection of old-type inductivism, is the need to go beyond that which is given in sensation, and the method of identifying sense data with the real.

Whewell’s rejection of Mill’s method of induction and his positivist description of the scientific process is important to, and in fact has anticipated, post-analytic discourse on method.[1]  Putnam, therefore, suggests a method that deals with the conceptual and the empirical in a non-positivist manner. Furthermore, the conceptual is not sacrificed to the empirical, i.e., to sense datum. Mill’s inductivism was undermined by its inability to go beyond sense datum, placing radical limitations upon the possibilities of knowledge. It was therefore at variance with the advances being made in the natural sciences. The unsatisfactory results of Mill’s Logic, along with the enormous achievements in the natural sciences, created the demand for new logico-methodological approaches to the questions of scientific knowledge. Moreover, the structure of scientific knowledge was increasing in complexity, occasioning the use of mathematics to explain the unobservable. Ernst Mach and the empirio-critics suggested a new positivism that based its outlook upon Hume’s epistemology. Empirio-criticism, while enjoying some popularity, failed to provide the necessary logical apparatus to address the pressing needs of science. Problems of logic were assuming a daily presence in the activity of science, driven by relativity theory toppling the dominance of Newtonian mechanics. Under these circumstances, the logical, and more specifically the logico-methodological apparatus of theory, assumed a place of practical necessity in the unfolding of research. Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus sought to systematically address this situation. The formation of the Vienna Circle and the Society of Empirical Philosophy in Berlin attempted to construct upon the foundations of Principia and the Tractatus a consistent philosophy. They viewed past philosophy as a fetter to science. The objective then was to construct, based upon mathematics, a logical apparatus by which to determine the truth of the statements of science.

Methodology as a special field of philosophic concern

Methodology, as a field of special study, appeared under circumstances when experimental science broke its dependence upon natural philosophy. Bacon sought to equip science with the methodological apparatus by which to discover knowledge. For Bacon, the empirical inductive method was that instrument. From that time to the present, methodology has assumed a place of centrality in the discussion and determination of the means by which to achieve knowledge. As such, methodology has assumed a special place in the organization of scientific activity. Logical empiricism one-sidedly assessed this situation and has argued that truth hinges solely upon the discovery of a scientific method. Logical empiricism, however, defines methodology as those rules or cannons by which to establish the truth value of statements.

While it can be argued that the empiricist inductive method of Bacon was principally concerned with formal questions in the discovery of truth, something which Mill would later associate with the discovery of canons of inductive reasoning, Descartes’s methods sought to look at the substance of these issues. In the Cartesian sense, methodology was tied to what is considered the main philosophical question, i.e., the relationship between subject and object. Descartes’s examination rejected the notion that thought could be reduced to simple and direct reflection of reality and proposed a rationalist solution to problems of methodology. In substance, Descartes considered method as the intellectual foundations and means of reasoning through which knowledge is achieved. Hence, the dependency upon immediate sense datum is broken.

Kant successfully separated methodological issues from general problems of epistemology. He separated constitutive and regulative principles of knowledge and, in doing so, substantiated a special status for methodological knowledge. Kantianism, as distinguished from Cartesian rationalism, separated the broader conceptual issues from those which could be experimentally verified. The a priori, for Kant, rather than being supra-experimental, is pre-experimental.[2]  The significant point is that Kant, in giving a special place to constitutive principles, allows for the pre-experimental, i.e., the conceptual, to achieve a critical place in the working up of knowledge. Kant, unlike Descartes’s pure rationalism and Hume’s skepticism concerning theoretical knowledge, did not place the total burden in the working up of knowledge on the conceptual apparatus, nor did he place the full weight upon the experimental or inductive. Kant was the first to attempt to unite the formal and substantive questions in the emergence of knowledge. The theoretical and the empirical; the analytical and synthetic; the categorical and the sensory; the conceptual and the experimental; the inductive and deductive. The analytic and logical positivist traditions invert this recognition, equating interpreting the analytic / synthetic relationship as a formal one, lacking any connection or reference to any but empirical and, hence, subjective phenomena. Moreover, it reduces the enormous role of the theoretical as viewed by Kant and later Hegel in the production of knowledge. It will be recalled that Whewell’s criticism of Mill’s method was also precisely at this point of objective content. Hegel argued that the initial task was to demonstrate how these formal functions of thought corresponded to objective processes. Hence, Hegel demanded that logic be more precisely connected to epistemology. Hegel argued against Kant that methodology is that point at which logic and epistemology are joined. While it is strongly suggested by Hegel, Marxism consistently develops the dialectical method. This is realized by separating the dialectic from the Hegelian system. Hence, concepts and categories of thought are constantly emerging and reflect the substance of objective reality. Thus, the foundational Marxist formulation concerning the relationship between the abstract and the concrete held that method should be based upon “the ascension of the concrete.”[7] Categories, concepts, methods, and science itself are historically determined. Marxism, moreover, argues that there is a material, social — indeed, class — determination of categories. Finally, political and ideological content informs the emergence of categories. Theodor Oizerman says of Kant’s contribution, “[Kant] has revealed the unity of the categorical apparatus of thinking with the content of experimental knowledge. That is why Kant does not confine himself to opposing ‘pure’ (a priori) knowledge to empirical knowledge, the way his predecessors did. He proves that since the precepts of theoretical natural science are universal and necessary, they are not purely a priori but both a priori and empirical — a priori in form and empirical in content.”[8]

It is this recognition that guides much of current thinking on issues of methodology. From several angles, philosophers of science draw upon this fundamental Kantian notion. Hegel criticized Kant’s metaphysics as purely descriptive of the functioning of thought. Hegel meant this criticism to apply equally to Aristotle. While stressing that the description of thought, irrespective of its content, was an important accomplishment, Hegel demanded a further examination of the forms of thought and their logically generalized content.

Logico-analytic methods and analytical Marxism

The results of analytic and positivist methods in philosophy have led further into subjectivism. As such, its results have been challenged by philosophers, philosophers of science, logicians, and social theorists. It is, however, interesting that it has regained new life and prominence within analytical Marxism. In many ways Elster’s attack upon and attempt to redefine dialectics mirrors the positivist and analytical rejection of all that was considered nonscientific and metaphysical in philosophy. Elster’s statement that the results of “dialectical deductions” must be “rendered into straightforward logical arguments,”[9] sounds not unlike the statements of the Vienna Circle and of Russell and Whitehead before them. Elster argues, “I believe that dialectical thinkers have had a unique gift for singling out interesting and sometimes crucial problems even if their attempts at a new method must be deemed a failure. As I see it,” he continues, “there is nothing of real importance in Hegel or Marx that cannot be formulated in ordinary and formal language.”[10] For Roemer[3] , in this methodological shift, nothing of value in Marxism is sacrificed except functionalism and teleology.
            The methodological problems of Marxism as considered by analytical Marxists can be resolved by the formalization of Marxist propositions and the construction of a formal logic and mathematical apparatus around it. Most importantly, the analytical is separated from the synthetic, the categorical from the historical and social, etc. This constitutes nothing less than a logical inversion and a logico-methodological reconstruction of Marxism, which is at the heart of a comprehensive reinterpretation of Marxism. The shift from the dialectical to the analytic in logic is the starting point of a more complete renovation of all the principal categories of Marxism, from materialism to the labor theory of value to class struggle and socialism.

A significant number of methodological questions posed in the analytical Marxist project have been previously raised in sociology. Mertonian[11] mid-level explanations have been followed by micro-level explanations.[12]

Stinchcombe sought to equip sociology with a scientific method. He argued that the achievement of sociological knowledge occurs in a manner similar to that of the natural sciences. He called the correct method “the logical process of science.”[4]  The strength of sociological conclusions, he held, rests with whether they have been achieved by scientific method. Here, Stinchcombe stood with the unity-of-science program regarding method. Form and formalism were the sine qua non of methodological issues. Hence, social science should, it is suggested, adopt the methodological canons and protocols of the natural sciences in order to achieve scientific rigor.

The effort to achieve the correct formal method can be traced to Mill’s canons of inductive reasoning and Carnap’s formal calculus, which had sought to establish method as the final arbiter of truth. This positivist approach has increasingly been disputed, challenged as it were, by a relativist approach to method.[13]

Analytical Marxism offers a new take on these questions. What is new emerges from the appearance of a serious concern with Marxist theory and method. This side-by-side with new developments in the contemporary philosophical landscape presents important opportunities for sociological inquiry in general and methodology particularly. Thus, in a real sense, concerns of sociological theory and philosophy of science are joined. Therefore, no longer is the primitive search for ways to adapt the natural scientific method to social science the primary issue. Now a central question is how to utilize traditional concerns to elucidate Marxist questions.

E. O. Wright, in his book Classes (1985),[14] sought to answer this problem early in the project. Pauline Vaillancourt, in her work not connected to analytical Marxism, sought to define a Marxist research program rooted in empirical methods and operational techniques. Hence, discourses on methods within social science have been compelled to achieve a new level of philosophical and theoretical competence. Thus, an epistemic intersection between questions being posed in philosophical, philosophy of science, and logico-methodological discourse was attempted. This common terrain, this point of intersection if you will, is a question of methodology. However, methodology defined in its broadest sense embraces the principal questions of philosophy, sociology, and science. In this respect, methodology should be regarded as a strategic approach to knowing. It is an epistemic strategy, a way of tackling fundamental problems in the process of knowing.[5] 

Jon Elster’s epistemic strategy

Jon Elster places methodological questions at the heart of his effort to reconstruct Marxism, locate the working class, define exploitation, and assess the prospects for socialist transformation.[15] He makes the claim that Marxist method is so widely used in the explanation of social phenomena that few would think of referring to it as “the Marxist method.” His argument rests upon the notion that structural assumptions have been so prevalent in social theory as to no longer be questioned. This he attributes, in part, to Marxist influence upon social theory. He, however, rejects the essence of the “Marxist method,” which he identifies with three prevailing elements: methodological holism, functionalism, and dialectical deduction.[16] In its place, he proposes methodological individualism, game-theoretic and rational choice modeling, and modal logic.[17] This methodological shift constitutes a search for the micro-foundations of class consciousness, class struggle, the falling rate of profit and unemployment, central issues in classical Marxism. The mechanisms of causality are located at the level of individual intention. This he admits is a reductionist strategy. Elster makes robust claims concerning methodological individualism. He says, “[Methodological Individualism (MI)] then is the claim that all social phenomena, events, trends, behavioral patterns, institutions can in principle be explained in ways that refer to nothing but individuals, their properties, goals, beliefs, and actions. In addition, MI claims that explanations in terms of individuals are superior to explanations which refer to aggregates.”[18] This reductionist program appeals, according to him, on three levels. First, its aesthetic elegance, which he says comes out of our curiosity to know the causal chain which operates through individuals. Secondly, the time span between explanans and explanandum is reduced, thus, the problem of arguing through consequences is solved. Third, this lower-level explanation is necessary to understand the stability and change of aggregates.[19]

For Elster such methodological shifts clear the way to establish the rational social agent as the ontological center of social theory and of Marxism. Once this is accomplished, the task is to develop appropriate techniques to predict and explain collective human behavior. Herein rests the significance of game theory and rational choice approaches. Rational choice / game-theoretic approaches claim to capture both constraint (due to the behavior of others) and choice (degrees of individual freedom). Elster, furthermore, claims that three main dependencies of social life are captured. First, the reward of each depends upon the reward of all; second, the reward of each depends upon the choice of all; and, third, the choice of each depends upon the choice of all.[20] Second, differing levels of information are required for differing games. Lastly, differing time requirements apply to different games and strategies.[21] Assumed here is common rationality and equality of agents as rational. This assumption is based on liberal notions of the primacy of reason and rational agents to explain society and go against the Marxist notion of class determination of collective behavior.  Roemer brings an added dimension to the understanding of this issue. He argues that Marxists must discover micro-foundations for behaviors considered characteristic under capitalism. The tools to achieve this, he argues, are rational choice models, general equilibrium theory, game theory, and modeling techniques developed by neoclassical economics.[22] Elster and Roemer reject what is considered the Hegelian / Marxist definition of dialectics and propose an instrumentalist or rational choice definition. This is considered a non-teleological definition and one compatible with MI and micro-foundations. The standard example is the prisoner’s dilemma. Elster claims that Marx thought that most problems under capitalism were of this type. That is, rational agents who attempt to optimize their outcomes, end up in suboptimal solutions.[23]

From this rational choice / game-theoretic approach, “class struggle is a method of carrying out bargaining . . .”[24] On this basis, Elster develops an entire reconstruction of Marx’s definitions of class, class consciousness, and class struggle.[25] Utilizing Roemerian endowment explanation of class and exploitation, Elster offers that “classes are characterized by the activities in which their members are compelled to engage by virtue of the endowment structure.”[26] This definition embraces both freedom and unfreedom for the proletariat. In other words, all workers are not forced to sell their labor power.[27] Such an approach undoubtedly brings into question the entire question of the class struggle, democracy, trade unionism, and revolution. In essence, they are inverted and tailored to conform with liberal assumptions.

E. O. Wright, John Roemer, and methodological individualism

E. O. Wright defines analytical Marxism as the “systematic interrogation and clarification of basic concepts and their reconstruction into a more coherent theoretical structure.”[28] It takes into account and extends the criticism of Marxism among liberal and Left academicians. Roemer argues that analytical Marxism’s methods are “conventional,” meaning they are based in analytic and positivist epistemology. Moreover, along with a “commitment to abstraction,” another characterizing feature of this trend, according to Roemer, is a “search for foundations” that is the micro or individual causes of collective behavior.[6]  Hence, the individual, rather than social class, emerges in this project as the center of analysis. Roemer argues that analytical Marxism asks questions that conventional Marxism “sees no need to raise,” such as, “Why do classes emerge as important collective actors (or do they)?; Why is exploitation . . . wrong?; Is socialism in the interest of the workers in modern capitalism?; Is socialist revolution or transformation possible?; Is the proletariat unfree?”[29] Yet, more important than the questions are the answers and the methods used to arrive at them. In answering these questions, these analytical Marxists turn to “state of the art methods of analytical philosophy and the positivist social science.”[7]  Roemer claims that analytical Marxism emerges out of conditions that go beyond the academy. The most significant of these are “the chequered success of socialism and the dubious failure of capitalism.”[8]  Rather than totally dismissing Marxism or “retreat[ing] to a Talmudic defense,” analytical Marxism, Roemer says, has adopted a course which acknowledges “that Marxism is nineteenth century social science.” As such, “it is bound to be primitive by modern standards, wrong in detail, and perhaps even in some basic claims. Yet, its power in explaining certain historical periods and events seems so strong that one feels there must be a valid core which needs to be clarified and elucidated.”[9]  Roemer, as with his colleagues, expresses great confidence in the methodological strength of analytic philosophy and positivist social science, a confidence not shared by prominent Anglo-American philosophers and philosophers of science. For instance, Richard Rorty charges that, “the notion of ‘logical analysis’ turned upon itself and committed suicide.”[10]  Hilary Putnam insists that “the accomplishments of analytic philosophy are only negative; it destroyed the very problems with which it started by successive failure even to determine what would count as a solution.”[11] 

Logical empiricism’s logico-analytical strategy

When the practical task of logic in the construction of the methodological apparatus of scientific knowledge assumed centrality, logical empiricism’s logico-analytical strategy came to the fore. It claims to discover the “given” content of knowledge and the empirical significance of its elements. Logical empiricism, therefore, makes robust claims both from the standpoint of its negative and positive objectives. On the positive side, it sought a precise analysis of the cognitive significance of the concepts and statements of science in order to disclose their empirical or given content. Its negative function is to eliminate speculative philosophy from scientific statements. This objective is best described as removing from statements of science all which is not reducible to that which is given in sensation. Simply put, the logical empiricist program constitutes the reconstituting of the system of existing knowledge. Analytical Marxism, in logico-analytical terms, adopts a strategy closely similar to logical empiricism.

Analytical Marxists, like logical empiricists, assert the primacy of empirical knowledge, separating the empirical and the theoretical and, in fact, collapsing the theoretical into the empirical. Knowledge is reduced to the directly given, i.e., the primacy of empirical elements of knowledge. Such reduction ipso facto eliminates the possibility of levels of knowledge in the formation of knowledge.

Logical empiricism attempted various logical means of addressing the problem of levels of knowledge, while maintaining its reductionist posture. For example, Russell proposed extensional logic, based upon the idea of nomological statements. Russell’s logic reflected a change in the fundamental principles of methodology and logic of the 18th and 19th centuries. Represented is a search for general laws that sum up the wealth of knowledge.

In spite of its many shortcomings, logical empiricism reflected an effort to come to terms with the enormous complication of scientific knowledge and the development of the mathematical apparatus of science and the decline in the role of direct visualization or observation in scientific experimentation. The objective is to order and organize in a rigorous manner the exact meaning of scientific assertions and concepts. Logical empiricism, in contrast, absolutizes this objective at the expense of the creative and emergent characteristics of knowledge. Thus, Russell and Whitehead’s Principia developed a mathematical logic that is extensional, the logic of truth functions. The truth value of each statement is capable of being subdivided into component statements which are determined unambiguously by the truth value of its components. In other words, each statement is a truth function of its components.

Knowledge of reality requires its reconstruction into a language with a grammar that clarifies statements about reality. In order to rigorously define the “significance” of any statement under this concept of logical structure, it is necessary to examine the connection of the given statement with other statements in terms of their truth values, that is to demonstrate what statements the given statement is a truth function of. It is, however, obvious that such a reductionist strategy cannot proceed endlessly. Such a system must contain ultimate statements representing the limits of reducibility. Since the truth value of ultimate statements is not based upon the logical connection between them, they may only be postulated by some extra-logical means. At the point where reduction is not an option, solutions are at the level of epistemology.

The logical apparatus of analytical Marxism unavoidably rests upon certain epistemological and philosophical foundations. Analytical Marxism rests upon an idealist epistemology, which holds that sense perception is the ultimate source of experience. For them knowledge is reducible to a set of foundational statements or assertions which are empirically verifiable by sense perception. This is the epistemological basis of analytical Marxism. For this epistemic strategy, knowledge is a set of statements about sense data and the cognitive meaning of a set of fundamental statements, revealed through the empirical sense-perceived conditions of truth. Therefore, to understand an assertion or statement consists in knowing its empirical conditions and the sense datum which verifies them. For this strategy verification always consists in the appearance of the anticipated sense data. Schlick used the phrase “the meaning of a proposition is the method of its verification.” Obviously, the verification principle of logical atomism relies upon observation or sensation. But what of nonobservable statements?
            Wittgenstein’s answer in the Tractatus was that logical and mathematical propositions do not in and of themselves constitute knowledge of reality; they are countless and empty. They are basically guidelines indicating the permissible transformations of modes of linguistic expressions, but in no way bear upon their meaning. Logical propositions are tautologies which are true under any and all combinations. Such tautologies convey no knowledge of the actual world or bring forth no new information. According to this view, the world assumes the structure of a mathematical logical model.

Analytical Marxism and the conventional model of science

How do analytical Marxists understand science? Abraham Kaplan, a conventional philosopher of science, astutely characterized the logic of science idea as a form of “reconstructed logic” which, in his words, is an idealization of science and scientific practice.[30] Analytical Marxism’s claims to abstraction, rigor, and scientific clarity is an idealization of science. Hence, the return to conventional methods, abstraction, formalism, etc. affirms within Marxism the protocols and conventions of nomothetic and mathematicized social science. Such an effort assumes that social science is disconnected from class and ideological questions. This is the idea that science transcends political, ideological, and other value issues. Hence, what is proposed is a single unified science that explains social reality and causality and that transcends sociopolitical relations. This is in the interest of establishing direct causality and discovering empirical foundations of Marxism. Elster, among other things, claims that the functionalist / teleological aspects of Marxism inhibit the development of both direct causality and an empirically verifiable research program within Marxism.[31] Roemer in A General Theory of Exploitation and Class (1982) and Analytical Foundations of Marxian Economic Theory (1981) set as its task building a model to test Marxian economic theories, and to construct a propositional structure amenable to empirical testing. However, the combined impact of Roemer’s method of abstraction and formalization of economic categories holds that the external world replicates logic. Thus, in this approach, history and the process of historical determination of categories and laws is left outside of the model. For instance, Roemer proposes a “general theory of exploitation” which applies equally to capitalism, feudalism, and socialism. This form of abstraction is alien to dialectics and historical materialist analysis. Thus, Roemer’s model is built upon a set of protocols and nomothetic laws which, he argues, can represent a verifiable model of the world.

Furthermore, in logico-epistemological terms, analytical Marxism is a return to the Baconian / Millsean notion of science. However, nomothetic techniques are added to primitive inductivism so as to attempt to account for the emergent qualities of social life. Game-theoretic / rational choice models are an example of this approach. What is emergent is the multiple and unintended consequences of rational human behavior. Put differently, the emergent quality is the consequences of the causal relationships of relational atoms or rational agents. All games assume that human rationality is ahistorical and therefore transcends ideology and history.

AI, possible worlds, and rational choice Marxism

Where could all this lead? Logics and possible-worlds theorizing, along with rational choice / game theory modeling, suggest an avenue for AI as a tool of “class analysis.” Rational choice Marxism, as identified by analytical Marxists, suggests that the class struggle is no more than negotiations between competing interest groups — the workers and capitalists. In this conceptualization most outcomes are compromises and suboptimal. AI is used as a logical tool in order to predict the “class struggle.” Here the notion of predictability is based on the idea that billions of rational agents’ actions are predictable through proper algorithms. Rather than the class struggle generally understood, we have the actions of billions of rational agents acting to achieve personally satisfying outcomes, albeit, most times, suboptimal outcomes. The working class is but a collection of individuals without durable class interests. Their interests are first and primarily individual and can be explained when individuals are idealized as rational agents.

AI and sophisticated algorithms, while imitating human intelligence, operate on the assumption of the separation of consciousness from intelligence and sets aside the notion that intelligence and even rationality are social constructs. Furthermore, the various logics and their relationships to knowledge and science in certain construals can be deployed in one or another use of AI.

This practice makes Marxist analysis into an apolitical, technocratic collecting and analyzing of data, and leads to predicting outcomes in nonpolitical ways. What is apparent is that class analysis is separated from class struggle. Marxist intellectuals are separated from the working class. The working class turns out to be but a fiction invented by petit-bourgeois Marxists and academics, for whom the working class can never be a class for itself and will never be conscious of itself as a collectivity, i.e., as a class.

However, what is Marxism without a politics of revolutionary change? It ceases to be Marxism, or at least the Marxism conceived by Marx and his followers of all stripes. And here is the rub: academic Marxisms, already suspect because of their disengagement from working people, reaches its apogee with analytical Marxism / rational choice Marxism. Not only is it apolitical and anti-revolutionary, but it fits all the conditions of academic social science across the board. It is then a Marxism that serves the capitalist classes and argues and presents a strategy of working-class struggle that turns out to be but a negotiation with ruling elites. On the other hand, it fits with a type of labor-aristocratic leadership of trade unions. Presenting themselves (especially when the logics and algorithms tied to AI are deployed) as technically competent strategists of the working class, they can foist upon working people and their leaders, reformist strategies and programs.

This essay focused upon the logical choices and consequences of analytical Marxism, showing that more than what they say, it is the choices of methods and logics that predict what the trajectories and uses of this project might be. So, the future of analytical Marxism is as a part of AI, modal logic and game theory — and against the working class. Its practitioners end up somewhere between libertarian socialism and libertarian communism, consigned to a corner somewhere in the academy; in a discursive space where they attempt to engineer the “class struggle” and preach reformism and quietism to working people. Not a positive fate for what, at its start, was celebrated as a “new species of social theory.” |P

[1] This essay appeared in an earlier form as “A Dialectical-Materialist Critique of Analytical Marxism,” Nature, Society, and Thought 3, no. 2 (1990): 197–223, available online at <>.

[2] John Roemer, “Introduction,” in Analytic Marxism, ed. John Roemer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 3.

[3] John Roemer, A General Theory of Exploitation and Class (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982).

[4] Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead, Principia Mathematica (1910, 1912, and 1913).

[5] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921).

[6] John Stuart Mill, A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive (1843).

[7] Karl Marx, Grundrisse (1858).

[8] Theodore Oizerman, “Immanuel Kant and 17th-Century Philosophical Rationalism,” in Dialectical Materialism and the History of Philosophy, trans. Dmitri Beliavsky (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1982), 133.

[9] Jon Elster, “Introduction: Logic and Society,” in Logic and Society: Contradictions and Possible Worlds (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 1978), 3.

[10] Ibid.

[11] After the American sociologist Robert King Merton.

[12] An important literature on micro-foundations from a non-Marxian perspective has appeared. See, for example, James S. Coleman, “Microfoundations and Macrosocial Behavior,” Raymond Boudon, “The Individual Tradition in Sociology,” and Peter M. Blau, “Contrasting Theoretical Perspectives,” in The Micro-Macro Link, eds. Jeffrey Alexander, et. al. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987); Randall Collins, “Micro Translation as a Theory Building Strategy,” in Advances in Social Theory and Methodology, eds. Cetina Knorr, et al. (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981).

[13] A body of post-positivist philosophy of science literature has suggested a relativist and even anarchist approach to methodology and its relationship to knowledge. Examples are Paul Feyerabend, Against Method (1975); Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979); Hilary Putnam, “Science as an Approximation to Truth,” in Mathematics, Matter, and Method: Philosophical Papers, Vol. 1 (1975); and Joseph Margolis, Pragmatism Without Foundations: Reconciling Realism and Relativism (1986).

[14] Erik Olin Wright, Classes (London: New Left Books, 1985).

[15] See Jon Elster’s Making Sense of Marx (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985) and An Introduction to Karl Marx (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

[16] Elster, “Marxist Methodology,” in An Introduction to Karl Marx, 21.

[17] See Elster, “Political Possibility,” in Logic and Society, 48–64;  “Marxism and Individualism” and “Further Thoughts on Marxism, Functionalism and Game Theory,” in Analytic Marxism, ed. John Roemer.

[18] Elston, “Marxism and Individualism,” 12.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Elster, “Marxist Methodology,” 26–27.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Elster, “What is Living and What is Dead in the Philosophy of Marx?,” in An Introduction to Marx, 192.

[23] See Elster, “Philosophical anthropology,” in Making Sense of Marx, 53–118; Elster, “Contradictions of Society,” Appendix 1, and Appendix 2, in Logic and Society.

[24] Roemer, Analytic Marxism, 192.

[25] See Elster, “Classes,” in Making Sense of Marx, 318–97.

[26] Ibid., 326.

[27] See G. A. Cohen, “The Structure of Proletariat Unfreedom,” in Analytic Marxism.

[28] Wright, Classes, 2.

[29] Roemer, Analytic Marxism, 1.

[30] Abraham Kaplan, The Conduct of Inquiry (Scranton: Chandler Publishing, 1974).

[31] Jon Elster, “Marxism, Functionalism, and Game Theory,” Theory and Society 11 (1982): 453–82.