A couple of years ago when I was at York University I remember a conversation between two other graduate students at a campus restaurant, in that campus mall. They were talking about capitalist development, and how it ought to be judged considering a radical critique and considering the betterment of people’s lives. The example of South Korea came up and the one student pointed out that living standards had gone up and people were living better lives than they had been living some fifty years ago in general, and that this was a result of capitalist development. What would a Marxist say to that? The other student tried to counter that a Marxist would talk about how capitalism alienates the worker from fellow workers, or something like that, trying to give a fairly abstracted answer to a fairly concrete question. It was clear the brother didn’t know much about South Korea.
Neither did, I for that matter. I don’t remember if I interjected to voice what I do remember thinking, that to the contention that capitalist development had raised living standards a Marxist would not, without concrete investigation, say much. The Marxist would go and study South Korea and see what trajectories its historical development had taken, and then come back with an answer about whether or not capitalist development was beneficial to it.
Of course, a Marxist would do a lot more — locate South Korea in a capitalist world system, interrogate the historical conditions inside and outside of South Korea that enabled capitalist development, determine where and how its primitive accumulation took place, and so on. The answer to the original question is complicated, as I have learned with a little bit of research over the past two years of research in the political economy of development.
But the point I am trying to make is that it perturbed me that there was a pre-packaged, abstract and philosophical answer to a real and concrete question. I think it signified one tendency of academic Marxism, which Samir Amin talks about in Global History: A View from the South:
…to be a Marxist is to start from Marx and not to stop with him, or with his main successors (Lenin, Mao), the builders of historical Marxism.
This is a critique of “‘marxology’, i.e., the critical interpretation of Marx’s writings.” I should note that JMP has also had a lot to say about marxology and how problematic it is as an overriding feature of some tendencies of academic Marxism.
The task of Marxists is not to hold up The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 as some kind of catechism against capitalist development in general and abstracted for all times, but to look concretely at its causes, its effects and the conditions that make it possible. Capitalist development can, indeed, raise living standards and raise entire nations out of poverty. Whether or not it can do that without great dislocation, great externalities, and sustain that momentum is another aspect of that question that is the task of Marxists to answer. Many even critical political economists treat such matters as another question entirely, if they ever think to address them at all.