Marxism and Social Science

Article excerpt

Macmillan (now Palgrave) London and New York, 1999, pp. 392. ISBN 0-333-65596-6 (pbk) 15.99 ISBN 0-333-65595-8 (hbk) 45.00 Reviewed by Andrew McCulloch

I chose to read this edited collection piecemeal as I attempted to cling on board the whirligig of a new teaching year. A collection less coherent than this one, therefore, ran the risk of falling into intellectual pieces in my agitated hands. The editors, however, have done a fine job for reading this collection feels like engaging with an on-going argument. No better advertisement could have been made for the vitality of Marxism. I, for one, am persuaded that this collection is evidence of the real possibility for Marxism of a productive transition. Nevertheless, there is still a considerable way to go before Marxism reforms and replenishes itself and there is the everpresent threat of retrogressive collapse.

Marx himself professed to `doubt everything' and was impatient of orthodoxy. Presently, the Research Assessment Exercise stalks the British academic land, smothering critical or heterodox thought as it despoils its habitat. Unfortunately, Tyrannosaurus RAE is insatiable. It consumes with impatient relish any kind of feeble, orthodox work offered up by spineless or opportunistic supplicants. However, although it demands a diet of greater and greater bulk, there is less and less real sustenance in the halfbaked intellectual protein it is often offered. (See, for instance, the welcome critical comments of Martyn Hammersley about sociologists rushing into print in the British Sociology Association Newsletter, No. 74, October, 1999.) It is important, and exceptional, therefore, when a vigorous edited collection takes issue with not only orthodox social science, but with aspects of Marxism itself.

Gamble writes in the introduction that, `Today a new generation of social scientists is growing up which has little or no contact with Marxist ideas or Marxist methods of analysis, and for whom Marxism, with its antiquated concepts and obscure concerns, seems increasingly to belong to a past era (Gamble et al, 1999: i).' As a teacher of Marxism to undergraduates within a social science department, I can only ruefully acknowledge this to be true. Increasingly I find myself on the back foot, as it were, not teaching Marxist theory but arguing with my students for the legitimacy of Marx's concerns and approach. (Their mighty indifference also extends to Weber and Durkheim.) The relevance of a book which professes to ask `whether Marxism, either as theory or doctrine, has anything left to contribute to the understanding of our circumstances at the end of the twentieth century' is therefore immediate in my own case.

The essays are divided into two sections. The first and shorter section consists of five essays which engage with critical issues. These issues are feminism, Regulation Theory, Postmodernity, New Right Theory, and the scientific status of Marxism. The second, longer part, is of essays which discuss separately the substantive issues of social class, the state, the welfare state, culture, nationalism, democracy, ecology, globalisation and communism and post-communism. Two of the editors contribute what is effectively a long, and extremely fluent, preface (Gamble) and a postface (Marsh). Gamble is also the author of the essay on the New Right. The remaining editor, Tony Tant, concludes the first section with the essay on the scientific status of Marxism.

I am not entirely convinced by this particular set of choices of the division between the theoretical issues and the substantive. …