Friday, July 7, 2017


DAVID LAIBMAN’S SYNTHESIS APPROACH TO LONG-STANDING ISSUES OF MARXIST DEBATE: Review essay of Passion and Patience: Society, History, and Revolutionary Vision*

by Steve Ellner

Published in Science and Society, vol. 81, no. 3, July 2017, pp. 397-402

One of the merits of Passion and Patience is the breadth of the theoretical issues that Laibman analyzes and the cohesiveness of the arguments he puts forward. In doing so, he demonstrates the vitality and applicability of Marxism on diverse fronts. Laibman argues for the open-ended nature of Marxism as well as recognition of the “major contributions to our overall project” (p. 4) of a wide range of Marxist and (though to a much lesser extent) non-Marxist currents, such as Keynesianism and postmodernism. He also attempts to achieve a synthesis of Marxist schools in a number of areas and in doing so distances himself from dogmatic and reductionist formulations.

The book is a collection of essays published mostly in Science & Society beginning in 1994. The articles are organized in eleven chapters corresponding to topics related to Marxism, including political economy, capitalism in crisis, revolutionary strategy, and two on historical materialism. In spite of the extensive period of time that has elapsed since the publication of most of the essays, Laibman observes in the Introduction that nearly all of them “stand up quite well” (p. 7) and represent his current thinking. An exception is his earlier view that associated “socialism with collectivism and cooperation” (p. 7), as opposed to his current vision (undoubtedly influenced by the increased importance of social movements and social issues) that combines or perhaps synthesizes collectivism and individuality.

Laibman suggests that Marxism may have a “unique capacity” to synthesize diverse breakthroughs in the social sciences and at the same time “address the novel aspects of present-day reality.” His syntheses include fundamental Marxist positions that have historically divided Marxists and, as he shows, have been misinterpreted by non-Marxists. The deterministic tendency of some Marxists, for instance, has been distorted by philosophers such as Karl Popper to demonstrate the inherently totalitarian nature of Marxism. In refuting the determinist accusation, Laibman states unequivocally “there is absolutely no sense in which historical materialist theory ‘predicts’ any human outcome” (p. 68), even while he recognizes “underlying determinacy and directionality” (p. 69).  Human survival, for instance, is anything but guaranteed and in the face of this reality historical materialism only “points to the door and urges us to find it, as soon as possible” (p. 13). In way of another example, Laibman points to the possibility that “those in control of production …block and prevent technical change” (p. 68) in which case the contradictions of the dominant system analyzed by Marx will fail to deepen. Laibman’s observation, in effect, refutes the claim that Marx championed technological determinism.

Far from recognizing the validity of the anti-Marxist argument regarding Marxism’s rigidity, Laibman claims that non-Marxist social scientists are guilty of determinism in that they separate “objective and subjective dimensions, rather than “grasping their intense interaction” (p. 59). At the same time they idly wish that human agency could enter into the picture. In contrast, historical materialism enhances “revolutionary prospects… by joining appeals to subjective possibilities with study of objective conditions: what can be done in any given set of circumstance” (p. 59). 

Along similar lines, Laibman recognizes the merits of two basic and often conflicting visions that have been the subject of considerable debate among Marxists, one based on the dialectic and the other structuralism. The latter includes structural Marxism, which forcefully questions Marxism’s Hegelian input. Laibman avoids reference to structural Marxism and its main theoretician Louis Althusser and instead contrasts the dialectic with what he calls “methodological equilibrium,” in which the pure qualities of capitalism are accepted as valid for analytical purposes. In several essays, Laibman defends the usefulness of analyzing systems such as capitalism in their pure form or “inner core” (p. 119) or as an “abstraction” (in accordance with the structuralist approach) on grounds that they have “regular properties” and “benchmark values” (p. 120), even while recognizing that at any given historical moment they have almost invariably been of a hybrid nature and in a state of flux. In support of the structural approach toward the analysis of capitalism, Laibman points out “if you want to overthrow and replace it, you had better first… figure out how it works” (p. 119-120). As a way to overcome the difference between Marxism’s dialectical-based and structural-based variants at the metaphysical level, Laibman points to the relevance of the aphorism “motion and structure are the twin modes of existence of matter” (p. 117). In his support for a synthesis, Laibman argues that “structure and transformation, stasis and crisis, are intertwined aspects of capitalist reality” and that an appreciation of this duality is the only way to grasp the “complex reality” of capitalism (p. 120).

Another example of a synthesis embodied in Laibman’s analysis is his discussion of the current crisis of capitalist that began to manifest itself in the 1970s. Some Marxists have attributed the phenomenon to “under-consumption” while others to the falling rate of profit due to technological advances and/or working class gains. Rejecting all-encompassing explanations, Laibman reaches the following conclusion: “We should avoid… setting competition against technical change against market limitation against class struggle as explanatory vehicles. Understanding capitalist crisis clearly involves all of these, and more. The task… is to figure out exactly how they fit together” (p. 138).  

The Marxist debate over crisis also reflects the structuralism-dialectic polemic and here again Laibman calls for a synthesis approach. On the one hand, he defends the Marxist concept of the law of value (and the use of the term “labor theory of value”) as a valid instrument to analyze capitalism in the abstract and in “normal” situations, as opposed to moments of crisis. While certainly not endorsing the position that writes off economic crisis as external to the capitalist system, Laibman recognizes that capitalism “is not absolutely unstable” (p. 119), thus the feasibility of the structuralism approach. On the other hand, he quotes Greek economist and former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis as saying that capitalism in reality fails to “fit into well-behaved models” (p. 119).

Laibman raises the possibility of syntheses in his discussion of other topics. In the chapter “Labor, Symbols, Nature, Human Nature” for example, Laibman rejects two extremes: the cultural relativism of the postmodernists and absolute behaviorism that deny inherent features of human behavior, on the one hand, and the “human nature” argument that posits unalterable behavior patterns, on the other. Laibman argues that the former line of thinking leads to “total nihilism” (p. 76) and adds that even Marx recognized certain basic human qualities and needs unmet by capitalism.

Similarly, in his discussion of the role of markets, Laibman stakes out a middle ground. On the one hand, he rejects the position of those Marxists who view markets as antithetical to the socialist system. Markets under socialism are destined to play a positive role and only under communism will they wither away. On the other hand, Laibman questions the notion of market socialism that “markets are an inherent feature of human life and socialism should be based on them” (p. 169; Laibman, 86, 2002).

Laibman’s synthesis approach is manifested in the book’s title “Passion and Patience,” a quote that is attributed to long-time U.S. Communist leader William Z. Foster. Referring to the title, Laibman writes in the Introduction that the “right combination” of the two “is the way to go” but “finding” it is no easy matter (p. 1). Undoubtedly, for Laibman, “passion” is an indispensable component of any progressive movement for authentic change. Passion is fed by the conviction that capitalism is the root cause of the multiple ills and injustices confronting the world today and that socialism is the only viable humanitarian alternative.  Left to itself, there is little room for compromise or nuanced positions.

In contrast, the word “patience” sheds light on the complexity of history, the multi-dimensional aspects of systemic transformation and the protracted duration of the process of meaningful change. Laibman uses the term “deep history” to refer to the larger timescale and social and cultural evolution that points in predetermined directions. Laibman conditions the directionality of his version of historical materialism by recognizing the “centrality of agency” (p. 72) and the multiplicity of “concrete social formations” (p. 69) making anything possible, at least in the short run. In addition, he eludes mechanical Marxism by pointing to the interplay within nations of modalities of distinct systems corresponding to distinct periods of history. Given the complexity stemming from this configuration of contrasting, if not incompatible, components, no one can say with assurance that the time has come for a systemic change, or that one is around the corner. Elsewhere Laibman wrote: “For ‘official’ reasons in the East and ‘utopian’ ones in the West, Marxists have repeatedly compressed the time line for social change” (Laibman, 2005, 287).  

In defining his concept of deep history, Laibman opts for an in-between position that avoids the extremes of what some call the “hard” (perhaps a euphemism for dogmatic) Marxist approach and the “soft” approach, or, as he writes elsewhere, “developing a theory that is simultaneously ‘hard’ and ‘soft’” (Laibman, 2007, 4). The former is characterized by determinism and belief in the commonality of fundamental factors and linear succession. The “soft” category may include the theory of overdetermination in which numerous factors at the level of structure and superstructure enter into play, thus making predictions of any sort problematic. An extreme expression of the “soft” approach would be postmodernism, which recognizes an infinite number of variables and highlights contingency.

Laibman’s rejection of the so-called “hard” position in its pure form, which simplifies the process of transformation, and the “soft” position, which denies or underestimates directionality, has far-reaching political implications. Directionality and the unsynchronized, multidimensional process of change – considered by Laibman to be fundamental components of historical materialism – lend themselves to a nuanced evaluation of socialist governments in spite of shortcomings, erroneous policies and structural deficiencies. Key aspects of these experiences such as state planning and, in the case of Venezuela, popular participation in decision making, are essential elements of socialist transformation that leftists needs to appreciate and highlight, even while pointing to and analyzing errors committed. Directionality is thus a corrective to purism and reductionism that pass over the positive aspects of existing socialism, which is faulted for falling short of what is alleged to be the system’s fundamental definition.

In his chapter on Soviet socialism, Laibman departs from the tendency to incorporate diverse factors and explanations into his analysis. While presenting cogent arguments to demonstrate the socialist character of the Soviet Union, Laibman attributes the shortcomings of state planning and the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union to “the authoritarian habits and culture inherited from past decades (and, indeed, centuries)” (p. 240). He concludes that in the area of political economy “the Soviet Union had it right!” (p. 171) and that “the Soviet demise was due to the culture, not to the economy” (p. 172). Such all-encompassing statements ignore the obvious tie-in between widespread institutionalized corruption (which at first glance could be characterized as “cultural”) and the chronic shortages and unwieldy distribution system that lent themselves to unethical conduct. Shortages, which were the result of structural deficiencies and/or errors in economic policy, led to corruption, not vice versa. Contrary to what Laibman explicitly alleges, economics trumped cultural factors.

In short, Laibman’s outstanding contribution is his overall vision based on the formulation of syntheses as a means to resolve long-standing polemical issues from a Marxist perspective. Over a century and a half of political struggle since 1848 has not provided Marxists with definitive or nearly definitive answers to many basic questions that have historically divided the left, suggesting the need to go beyond a singular set of explanations. Nevertheless, the answers certainly do not consist of a tick in the box of the all-of-the-above option in a multiple choice-type list of factors. Laibman argues for a veritable synthesis of different Marxist positions and implies that the real challenge for theoreticians and strategists on the left is to demonstrate how aspects of apparently conflictive and mutually exclusive explanations fit together. Laibman’s attempt to meet this challenge goes hand in hand with his advocacy of a non-dogmatic brand of Marxism, one that combines an appreciation of the structural whole with an appreciation of the relentlessly changing features of the system.

* I would like to thank Barbary Foley for her critical comments on an earlier draft.


Laibman, David. 2002. “Comment.” Science and Society, 66:1 (Spring), 86-87.

_______. 2005. “Theory and Necessity: The Stadial Foundations of the Present.” Science and Society, 69:3 (July), 285-315.

______. 2007. Deep History: A Study in Social Evolution and Human Potential. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.


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