Marxian Economic Theory and an Ontology of Socialism: A Japanese Intervention

By Westra, Richard | Capital & Class, Autumn 2002 | Go to article overview
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Marxian Economic Theory and an Ontology of Socialism: A Japanese Intervention

Westra, Richard, Capital & Class


The unceremonious crumbling of the soviet style experiments with socialism has left the profession of Marxist studies under enormous pressure to seek a new orientation. Instead of summarily rejecting all utopian blueprints as before, Marxists are now called upon to come forward with a more concrete image of what to expect in socialism, not only its emergent institutional framework but also the social upheaval that might intervene in the process thereto from capitalism. The view that animates this article, however, is that creative thinking about the institutional architecture of the future socialist society must, at least at this historical juncture, receive priority over questions of the so-called 'transition' to socialism, as questions of transformatory action as such are largely dependent upon the answers we provide to the key question: What is socialism? In fact it is arguably one of the lessons of the past that Marxists had concentrated more on fomenting revolution than on the substance and material repr oductive viability of the post-revolutionary society.

Over the past decade, the writing on socialist institutional construction has been quite fecund and included, among other things: a studied re-engagement with the work of Marx's 'utopian socialist' contemporaries; investigations of the possibilities of building socialist institutions upon the foundation of a market economy; and the development of various models of democratic or participatory planned economy. However, while much of this writing has been productive of crucial knowledge for successful future directed social action for socialism, it suffers, in my view, from a major lacuna. As I have argued elsewhere (Westra 2000; 2001), this gap stems from a lack of clarity over the fundamental ontology of a genuine socialism, and associated with this, the absence of a solid understanding of precisely from where in Marx's corpus are the most robust and enduring insights into socialist institutional construction to be found.

My intention in this article therefore is to draw to the fore the powerful insights into the socialist institutional architecture embedded in Marx's corpus, and demonstrate how they impinge upon the important questions of motivation, calculation and economic discovery that are at the forefront of the current debate over post-capitalist social change today. (1) Hence, this article will be organised as follows: In the section succeeding this introduction my intention is to defend the position that a particular apprehension of Marx's project of the political economic study of capitalism, undergirded by his monumental Capital, constitutes the repository of the most fundamental presuppositions of the institutional configuring of a viable and genuine socialism. Next, I will introduce what I have dubbed an ontology of socialism, which is derived from Marxist political economy, and outline its three core principles. Finally, it will be demonstrated how the principles of the ontology of socialism that I introduce offe r direction for the creative implementation of genuine socialist forms of motivation, calculation and discovery in the next wave of socialist construction in the new millennium. Of course, this article does not pretend to treat the above issues exhaustively. As well, it is worth reiterating that it is a work of theory, serving a sort of 'under-labouring' function for more concrete, action oriented initiatives.

The centrality of Marxian economic theory

Marx's Capital and his project of the political economic study of capitalism has in general been apprehended as a sub-theory of historical materialism, and has largely been mined for its insights into the historical trajectory of capitalism and the tendencies embodied by capital for the realisation of a socialist historical outcome. My understanding of Marx's formative work, which is informed by the Uno approach (2) to Marxism developed in Japan, understands Capital rather as an endeavour to capture the inner-working or deep structural logic of capital, and to explain thereby, how it is even possible for the commodity economic principles of capital to reproduce the socio-economic life of an entire human society.

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Marxian Economic Theory and an Ontology of Socialism: A Japanese Intervention


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