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The Theoretical System of Karl Marx (1968)

By World Socialist Party US August 16, 2015 at 7:29 pm 1 Comment 11 Min Read

Book Review from the  1968 – number 3 issue of The Western Socialist


The Theoretical System of Karl Marx by Louis B. Boudin, Monthly Review Press, $7.50

The reprint of this book, sans introduction and hence free of possible reader misdirection, should be warmly received by all students of Marxism not having the good fortune to possess a long out-of-print copy. For verily this book may be deemed a Marxist classic, and belongs in the library of every socialist desiring a unifying understanding of Marx. It is indispensable reading for students of socialist fundamentals.

Its primary role is that of serving as a somewhat advanced but lucid introduction to the study of the Marxian system with its “accent on the system, that is the relation of its different parts to each other and the unity of the whole.” And this structural wholeness, this interdependency of its different parts cannot be overemphasized for one seeking a fuller grasp of Marxism.

Written in the first decade of this century by a Marxist of exceptional originality and deeply penetrating perception, this invaluable book consists of “an exposition of the teachings of Marx” in their systematic relatedness and wholeness and a depth analysis of the various criticisms — pertinent to the specific subject matter under chapter discussion (Materialist Conception of History and Class Struggle, Value and Surplus Value, Economic Contradictions, and the Passing of Capitalism, etc.) — which blossomed following the deaths of Marx and Engels and which, then as now, manifestly attest to the eminent position of Marxism and the nascent apprehensions of the bourgeois.

The Theoretical System of Karl Marx” is a book to be read and reread and certain parts reread again; and then conveniently shelfed next to Capital to be referred to frequently in the face of present day anti-Marxists.

The reader will note at the outset that there is one factor held in common by most, if not all, critics of Marxism, and that is that none

“openly defend the theories which Marxism has supplanted. Almost everyone admits expressly the justifiability of Marx’s criticism of the theories which predominated before his advent, and that Marx’s theories were correct at the time they were first stated and a proper generalization of the data then at hand. What they claim is, that latter developments have shown that they were based on insufficient data and that our present knowledge requires the revision of some of his tenets . . . Hence, the name Revisionists, under which most of newer Marx critics are known, and the term Revisionism applied to their writings and teachings.”

The Revisionists, exemplified by their don, Eduard Bernstein, a leading theoretician of the German Social Democratic Party and one time intimate acquaintance of Engels, but who for reasons examined in Boudin’s book was moved to a critical frame of mind, criticized the Hegelian background, the labor theory of value, “the exploitation theory,” the doctrine of increasing misery, etc.

As will become clear to the attentive reader, the Revisionists skimped on their homework. For they not only fail to prove their general criticisms but fail to prove the particulars in their particular indictment of Marxism. Since the “problems” raised by the Revisionists were vague and poorly formulated in their own minds, they were unable to get below the surface of the problems. Being vague as to what the problems actually were, being victimized by compartmentalized reasoning, as it were, their vision allowed them only glances at disconnected facts here and there and they lost the large and enveloping scene altogether. Because of this reliance on isolated statements or expressions and their disregard of the interconnected and inseparable interrelations of the Marxian system as a whole, they tail to get to the crux of the issues raised and consequently their satisfactory resolvment but rambles on in an aura of uncertainty and perplexity.

There definitely was a problem — the problem of harmonizing a new factor which had entered the picture (that of corporate methods of doing business) which, on the surface, tended to vitiate the Marxian prognosis. Clearly and thoroughly formulating the issues raised by the Revisionists and others, Boudin provides within the framework of Marxism the needed harmony.

In addition to the Revisionists, there is dealt with an anti-Marxist group who, in the opinion of Boudin, an opinion, it is safe to assert, shared by all scientific socialists, “conclusively establishes not only the preeminent position occupied . . .  by Marxism as the recognized doctrine, but also the fact that there is no doctrine capable of competing with it for establishment or even dividing honors with it . . . ” This group holds

“that the whole system must be thrown overboard as unscientific . . . These . . . critics of Marx do not dare accept in its entirety any other system, wholly or partly original with its authors, which would be capable of taking the place of Marxism as an explanation of social phenomena, They almost all, therefore, fall into what may well be termedNihilism, that is to say, they are led to deny the existence, nay, even the possibility, of any social science. In other words: Marxism is so much the scientific doctrine in its sphere (which covers all the life of humanity in organized society, including all its social and intellectual manifestations) that you cannot destroy it without at the same time destroying all scientific knowledge of the subject.”

Carried to its utmost extreme, Nihilism explains the underlying cause of much contemporary historico-philosophic writings of obfuscation, pessimism, mysticism, and the seemingly complete abandonment of reason on the part of its practitioners. Forsaking “the scientific doctrine,” denying or refusing to recognize its existence and validity, and devoid of any substantial substitute, these despairing representatives of the capitalist class, who would infuse in the working class the failure and hopelessness of the capitalist class to further promote social advancement and progress, who in their desperation deny any social science and hence any hope for mankind, perforce wander up and down the corridors of darkness, confusion, and negativism.

Boudin groups the critics of Marx according to their treatment of him, though this grouping is by no means rigid. Disregarding the overlapping of the groups, they are:

“First, the philosophers, who dwell principally on Marx’s philosophic system; secondly, the economists, who examine his economic theories; and thirdly, the sociologists, that is to say those who concern themselves chiefly with Marx’s theories of laws which govern the development of the capitalist system.”

As the reader will soon discover, these critics for the most part are prone to suffer an ailment diagnosed by Boudin as “Confusion of Terms and Ideas.” This mentally retarding and truth-concealing ailment lead Marxist critics, those of today as well as those treated by Boudin, to substitute their own terminology for that of Marx’s, and to ascribe to Marx (and his disciples) all sorts of things which he did not say or, having said, in a larger context conveying an entirely different meaning than his critics would have their readers believe. Not only does this ailment afflict those relatively ignorant of Marxism, but less understandably, infects those who otherwise allow no doubt of their knowledge of Marxism. Were it possible overnight to cure this apparently contagious malady with some miracle drug, there would immediately follow a vast lessening of anti-Marxism, and that remaining, legitimately raised and clearly marked, could be satisfactorily disabused.

The book contains several amusing criticisms of Marx. For example: Was Marx a philosopher and is Marxism a philosophy? Grave and profound dissertations were written on this, for it was considered of revealing import by certain critics of the time. It apparently never occurred to them, as it does not occur to many present day critics, to examine the works of Marx and Engels to ascertain what they had to say on the subject in conjunction, of course, with the teachings of the system as a whole. Had they done so they would have found Marx and Engels expounding the opinion that philosophy had reached its zenith and demise with Hegel, “that henceforth the place of philosophy is taken by science.” Quoting Engels, Boudin writes: “This conception (the materialist conception of history) puts an end to philosophy on the historical field, just as the dialectic conception of nature makes all natural philosophy unnatural and impossible.” No, in the words of Boudin, “Marxism is no abstract philosophy. It is just the reverse, it is concrete science, and therefore the heir and successor of all philosophy.”

Another amusing criticism of Marx was occasioned by the supposed contradiction between the first and third volumes of Capital — and this despite the fact that “most of the third volume, and particularly those portions of it which are supposed to modify the first volume, were actually written down by Marx in its present form before the publication of the first volume!

One Russian Marxist of some prominence was so moved by his inability to reconcile the seemingly opposing doctrines laid down in the first and third volumes that he questioned the latter volume’s genuineness and practically labeled it a fraud — and this he did notwithstanding Engels preface to the third volume which leaves no doubt as to its authenticity. It seems that even friends of Marxism can contribute to its misunderstanding for reason of their personal inadequacies.

The supposed contradiction in the first and third volumes took its classic form in Bohm-Bowerk’s Karl Marx and the Close of his System.” It was a favorite theme of the Revisionist, who held that

“Marx’s theoretical ideas had passed through an evolutionary process, the main tendency of which was from ‘unscientific,’ hard and fast monistic dogmas, at the outset, to mild and loose eclectic ‘science’ at the conclusion. This they applied equally, and with equal justification, to the whole Marxian theoretical system, to his historico-philosophic and his economic theories alike.”

Had the Revisionists been content to limit their criticism to Marx’s historico-philosophic ideas they might have stood a fair outside chance of getting away with it (despite its absurdity in face of the written order of Capital), since these views of Marx are not codified in any treatise, but “are strewn over the whole mass of his writings in a more or less fragmentary condition, and it requires an intimate acquaintance with his theories to see the improbability of this claim.”

But the Revisionists were not content or were inherently unable to limit their criticisms of the supposed contradiction to Marx’s historico-philosophic views, but included as well his economic views. This lack of discrimination was their undoing, for the economic views of Marx ring loud and clear in most all his writings. On this issue, Boudin could not let the matter go unexamined and unchallenged, for, he writes, “if there really is such a contradiction, and if the doctrine of the third volume is virtual abandonment of the labor theory of value, it makes, of course, very little difference when the different portions of Marx’s book were written, or what he thought of one portion when writing the other, except, of course, as an interesting study of a great aberration of an extraordinary mind.” Hence, Boudin undertakes a tightly reasoned analysis of this bugaboo of the Revisionists and other critics and completely vanquishes it.

Boudin’s book in its relatively intense brevity (286 pages) is of immense scope and rich in historical interest. Notwithstanding the death thrust and burial given the anti-Marxist arguments by Boudin, their topicality is still very much with us as evidenced by the not infrequent sallying forth of contemporary anti-Marxists with pretty much the same opposing arguments as their long dead progenitors.


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  1. Ireneo says:

    that.A Marx-inspired socialist who said sonethimg like that would mean sonethimg like the following.When discussing capitalism, Marx is always sensitive to what he calls the two-fold character of labour. On the one hand, he says, labour is always a form of instrumental action: purposive, world-transforming practice. On the other hand, though, in some contexts, it is also part of a social process, with an interpersonal structure, whereby human creativity and effort are channeled in certain ways to produce some things for ends that are not related to the ends of the direct producer. As Marx always says, again and again in his late writings, these interpersonal relations whereby the work of some people is mobilized for the sake of the ends of others (namely, the goal of capital accumulation by owners of the means of social production) appear to the participants in these relations, not as relations between people, but instead as relations between things (namely, the prices of commodities).So, the private ownership of the means of social production is a social (interpersonal) relationship between the direct producers (who perform the instrumental action of producing a commodity) and the people who employ them (i.e., pay them for the use of their commodified labour-power in commodity production), in which the purposes of the producers are systematically subordinated to the purposes of their employers (profit-making, basically). This he used to call alienation, at least well into the 1850s.Marx regards this, on the whole, as a bad thing, at least in the sense that there could be sonethimg better. He notes that this set-up has the effect of making what gets produced (homes? or yachts?) contingent on which is more profitable for that relatively small population of people who own means of social production. Most people own only one kind of productive force, which is their own capacity for creativity and effort, i.e., their labour-power. It is this fact that makes their participation in social production (the social process whereby a society’s labour is allocated or channeled into various departments of production) possible only if they can find one of the owners of means of social production who expects to make a profit by hiring them. And Marx therefore regards the relationship as coercive ( wage slavery, as he calls it).He does think, for these and other reasons, that it would be better to bring this process of allocating social labour under common control, and to subject it to some process of rational (instrumental, or goal-oriented) planning, as opposed to allowing non-rational (non-goal-oriented) market regulation to determine these matters.As for muffin trays, clearly these can be means of social production, if they are used not just in the personal allocation of one’s own efforts for one’s own personal ends, but in the context of the social process of channeling social labour either via planning or via market regulation toward certain activities. In that case, I suppose, public ownership would entail integrating these into the democratic process, i.e., some kind of deliberative-democratic form of legitimation, like the kind we expect to occur in the use of resources now seen as public, like public education or public roads.But if I use a muffin tray to cook muffins for myself, or to give muffins to others, then that is not means of social production. It is not part of that labour-allocating social process that people usually refer to as the economy. It is labour with a uniform, rather than a two-fold character. It is instrumental action, but not social labour. In Marx’s terms, it is a relation between person and thing, but not a relation between person and person (not social labour ).As for self-ownership, many socialists (e.g., G.A. Cohen) have wanted to argue that Marx endorses the idea of self-ownership. But it seems to me that this term, in this context, is ambiguous. Usually, when Marx (or Nozick, for that matter) says ownership, the context is such that we are supposed to think of this as referring to a commodity. Marx, clearly, wanted to de-commodify labour-power. So, in that sense, he wanted to remove the possibility (that exists in a capitalist society) of selling one’s labour-power. If one means sonethimg else, such as unilateral discretion over what you do with your labour-power, then I suppose we would have to attempt an interpretation of Marx’s intriguing definition of communism, as a society in which the full and free development of every individual forms the ruling principle (Capital, I).

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