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Marxism without Polylogism

August 31, 2009

Tags Other Schools of ThoughtPhilosophy and MethodologyPraxeology

[Excerpted from chapter 5 of Freedom, Property, and Society: Essays in Honor of Hans-Hermann Hoppe.]

Ludwig von Mises believed that the topic of polylogism was important enough to put up front in the introduction of Human Action:

Marxism asserts that a man's thinking is determined by his class affiliation. Every social class has a logic of its own…. This polylogism was later taught in various other forms also. Historicism asserts that the logical structure of human thought and action is liable to change in the course of historical evolution. Racial polylogism assigns to each race a logic of its own.1

He was writing in 1949 but he saw where trends were headed: polylogist thinking — the belief that a multiplicity of conflicting forms of logic exist within the human population, subdivided by some group-based characteristic — would become a prevailing feature of modern social science. So today a vast amount of modern politics is based on some form of this idea. We speak of the group-based interests not just about class but also in the areas of race, sex, religion, ability, looks, and more. Even environmentalist politics might be understood in these terms: that nature itself operates according to a different logical matrix from the human population, so that we are exploiting nature all the time and might not know it.

An additional point about polylogism: it is believed that not only are there are a variety of forms of logical structure existing in the world but that these forms of logic create a conflict, rooted in exploitation, that forms the basis of society and cries out for correction by some external means. Thus do all these forms of polylogism generate a supposed need for some social (state) action to accommodate these varieties of thinking. The exploiters must be overthrown, even in the case of the environment. So pervasive is this perspective that it nearly defines the whole of the social sciences as practiced in academia today.2

Becoming aware of this through reading Mises, the reader is shocked at Hans-Hermann Hoppe's presentation of the core claims of Marxian class theory and his summary conclusion: "I claim that all of them are essentially correct."3

How can we account for Hoppe's apparent softness toward the Marxist idea, even as Mises is so thoroughly against it? There is an answer here: what Hoppe has done is purge Marxism of its epistemological assumptions and retained its analysis of the material world. This permits us to draw for Marxism many important insights while disregarding the polylogism that has led to so much insidious rhetoric of the past and present.

A classic example of the use of polylogism can be found in Karl Marx and the Close of His System by Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk in 1896.4 Böhm-Bawerk offers a painstakingly detailed argument, stretching over 150 pages, that Marx never got around to fully explaining why it is that goods do not exchange in proportion to the value of labor in them but rather that the profit of capital is in proportion to the capital invested. Had Marx attempted to explain this, as he kept promising he would, it would have been obvious that his entire theory of surplus value was inherently contradictory to the facts on the ground.

This is a fatal flaw in Marx's work, because he doesn't allow the reader to logically or empirically test his claim concerning the surplus value extracted by the capitalist and not given to workers. Böhm-Bawerk further writes that Marxism seems to have built into the system a strategy that belies any attempt to refute it. Every disagreement is dismissed with ad hominem of sorts, that the writer is hopelessly mired in bourgeois thinking. "Is it too much to demand that if he introduces subjective interpolations into his system they should be correct, well founded, and non-contradictory? And this reasonable demand Marx has continually contravened." This was Böhm-Bawerk's protest against the use of polylogist assertions embedded in Marxist defense tactics.

Marxist theorist Rudolf Hilferding responded to Böhm-Bawerk in a way that underscored the problem with polylogism: he does precisely what Böhm-Bawerk would predict that a Marxist would do. He dismissed the source, and with long-winded criticism tossed aside all of Marx's critics in the same way that Marx did. Concerning the great professor's detailed attempt to grapple with the details of Marx's theory, Hilferding writes:

As spokesman for the bourgeoisie, it enters the lists only where the bourgeoisie has practical interests to defend. In the economico-political struggles of the day it faithfully reflects the conflict of interests of the dominant cliques, but it shuns the attempt to consider the totality of social relationships, for it rightly feels that any such consideration would be incompatible with its continued existence as bourgeois economics.5

Hilferding further says that the professor's argument can be disregarded because he failed to deal with Marxism "in its entirety" as a complete system of thought, that, one supposes, must be accepted on faith. Whereas Böhm-Bawerk talks about subjective values, and individual prices and their relationship with capital invested, Marx, writes Hilferding, "looks upon the theory of value, not as the means for ascertaining prices, but as the means for discovering the laws of motion of capitalist society."

Hilferding writes:

Instead of taking economic or social relationships as the starting point of their system, they have chosen for that starting point the individual relationship between men and things. They regard this relationship from the psychological outlook as one which is subject to natural and unalterable laws. They ignore the relationships of production in their social determinateness, and the idea of a law-abiding evolution of economic happenings is alien to their minds.6

Hilferding's criticism can be summed as an application of this polylogist dismissal: as a member of the ruling class who is wedded to bourgeois ways of thinking, Böhm-Bawerk is just not capable of thinking the right way about these things. Marxist thought, which is all about the laws of history and the social determinates driving the material world, is alien to him simply because his mind is incapable of seeing the truth.

And so it is today with so many political arguments. The rhetoric is on a much lower level today, but this is the usual way in which political discussion takes place in the post-Marxist society in which the polylogist assumption drives discussion. Capitalists can't possibly understand the logic of environmentalist thinking because they are out of touch with nature and its need. Whites cannot even begin to comprehend the demands of blacks for preference and redistribution because the black experience and way of thinking are alien to the white experience and way of thinking. So too with issues of sex, sexuality, religion, and physical ability.

It is usually assumed that one may not even speak about the controversies of our time unless one belongs to the "victim group" being discussed. Even then, if a woman or a black or a gay offers a point of view that runs contrary to the dominant political agenda of the mainstream lobby for these groups, that person is dismissed as somehow lacking higher consciousness or hopelessly mired in a different mindset. She is not a real woman, he is not a real black, they are not really disabled, he doesn't genuinely represent the views of Islam, etc.

What's at work here is an unraveling of the entire basis for any form of intellectual discussion. If we can't agree on universal rules of establishing the veracity of truth claims, all discussion is reduced to a series of demands followed by ad hominem attacks on anyone who resists those demands. Mises himself understood that if we are to avoid this fate, there had to be some understanding and agreement on the rules of logic. George Koether reports7 that Mises told his seminar students that the first book on economics that they should read is a book on logic by Morris Cohen, a book which is in fact one of the last complete texts on logic to be published for universal use in the college classroom.8 Meanwhile, forums on academic discussion boards filled with complaints that logic as a discipline is no longer part of high-school study or even undergraduate college study, which means that after 16 years of formal study, hardly any students are taught even the basic rules on how to think.

This is further evidence that this one aspect of Marxism—its radical attack on the core of clear thinking, a subject that (along with grammar and rhetoric) has been part of the "trivium" since the middle ages—has triumphed in mainstream thinking today, so much so that any professor suspected of holding to logical universals and refusing to accept class-interest arguments as self-evidently true can be driven out of the university merely for holding "politically incorrect" opinions.

Hoppe's attachment to Marxism, however, eschews polylogism completely and instead embraces universal logical principles as the very method by which to reapply Marxian political theory in a completely different context. In his writings on class theory, he ticks through the familiar list: history is defined by class struggle; the ruling class has a common interest; class rule is defined by ownership relations involving exploitation; there is a tendency toward centralization of class interest; and centralization and expansion of exploitative rules leads to an unviable attempt at global domination. What he is speaking of here is not polylogism as such but a narrower aspect of Marxian politics and its claims concerning the social forces of history. And he says that they are all essentially correct. The basis for Hoppe's claim reflects his views of the Marxist theory of exploitation, which he regards as correct in its analytical features but not in its application.

Hoppe deals with the application error in Marxist theory swiftly and decisively. The Marxist view says it is exploitation for the worker to labor five days and receive only three days of product value back in wages. And yet it remains true that workers willingly accept wage contracts. It is a strange sort of exploitation that is mutually beneficial to all parties and engaged in willingly and happily by billions of people every day. The interests of the worker and the capitalist are harmonious: the worker accepts a smaller portion of goods in the present over a larger one in the future, while the capitalist has the opposite preference. Marx didn't see this because he failed to comprehend that it is impossible to exchange future goods against present goods except at a discount.

But what about the theory of the reality of exploitation itself? Hoppe argues that it is fulfilled in the Austrolibertarian framework of looking at the world, once we understand that the ruling class is distinguished by its access to state power. This follows from Hoppe's new definition of exploitation, which occurs when a person successfully claims partial or full control over scarce resources that he has not homesteaded, saved, or produced, nor acquired contractually from a previous producer-owner. The state can be seen as a firm devoted entirely to the task of exploitation in this sense. This exploitation creates victims, who can overthrow their exploiters once they develop a consciousness of the possibility of an exploitation-free society in which private property is universally respected and not systematically violated by a ruling class.

What's interesting about the Hoppean account of the Marxian theory, and his recasting of the theory in light of Austrolibertarian theory, is that it completely bypasses the core polylogist assumption of Marxist theory. There is no need to postulate that the exploiters and the exploited are somehow socially hardwired into thinking differently according to conflicting logical principles. On the contrary, Hoppe's approach assumes the universal applicability of one set of logical principles. Here is the main point of departure, one that clarifies the seeming difference between Mises and Hoppe, and highlights an important ideological agenda for the future.

In what ways might Hoppe's reconstruction of Marxism apply to Marxism's modern spinoffs? Once we strip away the polylogist assumption underlying modern politics, we can see that many group relations are indeed characterized by varieties of Hoppe-style exploitation. And it is precisely law and legislation that make this possible. Laws that privilege one race, one religion, one sex, one class of abilities, over another generate a group of victims and solidify a form of group solidarity that might have previously existed only in nascent form. Whereas group differences might resolve themselves through trade, the entry of the state into the association amplifies and institutionalizes group conflicts.

This is true as regards, for example, religion. Once the state begins to subsidize one form of religious expression, it generates the impression on the part of other religions that they are being ripped off or put upon in some way, and the only means of defense is to organize and coalesce to take back what is rightly theirs. This trajectory can become particularly explosive when it involves issues of race and sex, but conflict also appears in other areas, such as environmental legislation and disability legislation.

In the same way that state-subsidized exploitation led Marx to observe but misdiagnose the nature of exploitation in his time, forms of state exploitation today can lead people to embrace anticapitalistic creeds based on a misdiagnosis of the root of conflicts over race, sex, religion, ability, and the environment today. It is not the case that demographic groups are inherently in conflict; the illusion is created by the absence of what Hoppe calls "clean capitalism," in which all relationships in society are characterized by voluntary exchange and association.

Part of that misdiagnosis drives people to embrace a polylogist understanding of the structure of the human mind. But once the Hoppean understanding of the exploitation and conflict — those kernels of truth in Marxism — becomes clear, there is no need to resort to far-flung explanations to account for them. The root problem is not somehow embedded in the structural diversity of operating logics in the world; the explanation of conflict in society is rooted in a much more direct and simple cause: the state itself.

In this way, then, the Hoppean theory of social conflict has the potential to not only do away with old-time Marxist politics and its destructive effects in the world but to hold within itself the potential for uprooting and overthrowing the entire polylogist basis of the social sciences as they have developed in the last hundred years — and the state apparatus of interventionism that results from them. As to whether this is possible, it comes down to the question of which is more fundamental to the Marxist worldview: its polylogism or its exploitation theory. A major job of the Hoppean project is to toss out the former while retaining a version of the latter in a way that can be used against the state and its interests.

  • 1. Ludwig von Mises, Human Action, Scholar's Edition (Auburn, Ala.: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 1998 [1949]), p. 5.
  • 2. My friend B.K. Marcus sums up his entire college experience as a four-year case for polylogism.
  • 3. Hans-Hermann Hoppe, The Economics and Ethics of Private Property (Auburn, Ala.: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2006), pp. 117–38.
  • 4. Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, Karl Marx and the Close of His System (New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1949).
  • 5. Ibid., p. 121.
  • 6. Ibid., pg. 196.
  • 7. Austrian Economics Newsletter 20, no. 3 (Fall 2000).
  • 8. Morris Cohen, An Introduction to Logic and Scientific Method (New York: Read Books, 2007); originally published in 1934.


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