“We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages.” Commenters on a recent post of mine have pointed out that my awareness of individuals’ limited cognition echoes that famous claim of Edmund Burke, and wonder how a Marxist can express such a sentiment.
The question’s a good one. Anyone who doesn’t feel the force of Burke’s point is a bumptious prat who knows nothing of history, politics or psychology. If Burke and Marx are incompatible, that’s bad for Marx.
But are they incompatible? Perhaps not.
First, a distinction. We Marxists are fighting both defensive battles (against inequality and reaction) and offensive ones. In the defensive battles, we are and have been certainly on the side of Burke whilst the right is against him. For example, Harry Braverman’s account of deskilling by Taylorite management is a defence of traditional craft knowledge against a form of rationalism. Our support of coal mining communities against the Thatcherite attack in the 1980s was a defence of Burkean small platoons against sophists and calculators. And our resistance to the managerialist-neoliberal attempt to revolutionize universities is a Burkean defence of tradition against arrogant know-alls.
In these respects, Marxists are the Burkeans and neoliberals and Tories have been the anti-Burkeans.
There’s more. One reason why I’m a Marxist is that I doubt that capitalism can be greatly improved by moderate reforms. That arises from a Burkean scepticism about rationalist scheming.
Which runs into the question: isn’t communism the most hubristic rationalist scheme of all? Isn’t there therefore a flat contradiction between Marx and Burke?
Not necessarily. Except for a few policy proposals in the Communist Manifesto (some of which were subsequently enacted) Marx notoriously did not provide a blueprint for a communist society and was rude about those who did. Instead, he wrote:
We do not anticipate the world dogmatically, but rather wish to find the new world through the criticism of the old…We do not confront the world in a doctrinaire way with a new principle: Here is the truth, kneel down before it! We develop new principles for the world out of the world’s own principles.
Burke wrote that “the individual is foolish, but the species is wise” – a claim we now know to be true only under special conditions. You can read those words of Marx as seeing the process of socialism as an attempt to unlock the wisdom of the species.
Many leftists today think of the transition to socialism in these terms. Erik Olin Wright has written (pdf) of “interstitial transformation” – building and then expanding socialistic institutions. In this spirit Paul Mason has written:
Capitalism, it turns out, will not be abolished by forced-march techniques. It will be abolished by creating something more dynamic that exists, at first, almost unseen within the old system, but which will break through, reshaping the economy around new values and behaviours.
In this sense, the transition to socialism will be a modest process of trial and error. That’s consistent with a Burkean scepticism about our ability to foresee what will work.
There’s something else. A big gripe Marxists have with capitalism is that it is a system of domination; in the workplace and in politics, only a few have effective power. By contrast, under communism such domination will cease; communism is a society “in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” In this sense, communism replaces the rule of foolish individuals with that of the wise species. It therefore facilitates Burkeanism in a way which capitalism cannot.
Of course, Burkean epistemology has often been used as a tool of reaction and conservatism. But it needn’t be so.