A Marxist counterfactual

I don’t know the author of Existential Comics—even their gender—but they recently posted a tweet that is extraordinarily helpful in making a point I’ve been wanting to make for a while:

There are, actually, a couple ways one could go with this. First, of all people, it’s probably safe to say of Karl Karx, that he would not want his work taken on faith. I have my disagreements with him—I think Michael Bakunin was correct to point to a fallacy in expecting to be able to overturn an authoritarian structure through authoritarian means[1]—but Marx was a critical theorist. Such a theorist, by definition, examines the world as it is, with a particular emphasis on power relationships.[2] The method here inherently entails an argument to be supported or refuted, certainly to be challenged, as to its premises, evidence, reasoning, and conclusions.

And then there’s that the world as it is today, while having much in common with the world in Marx’s time, is not the same world as it was then.

But also, if—and this is almost certainly a stretch[3]—Marx had not existed at the time he did and no one had produced a comparable work, the world would be an even more different place from that of Marx than it is. A contemporary Marx would be building on a very different situation.

That’s what makes the tweet so on point. Its author is pointing to a counterfactual and arguing that it is inherently invalid.

Counterfactuals are fun. What would have happened, for example, had John F. Kennedy not been assassinated? What if the South had won the Civil War? What if Nazi Germany had won World War II? Such “thought experiments” are endless and they carry little risk: We can contemplate both preferred and disdained scenarios without actually having to live through them.

A counterfactual takes the parts of a system, changes one (or more) of those parts, and speculates as to the outcome. So how would the world as we know it have developed had Kennedy lived? If Hitler had won? If the Confederacy had won a right to secede?

In systems theory, we speak of emergent properties, really the difference between a sum of parts and the whole. The system that emerges as the whole is not the sum of the parts; it is different from that sum and, in some substantial degree, unpredictable.[4]

And what this means is that speculation based on counterfactuals is almost certainly wrong. Because a timeline in which, allegedly, one thing is different would not in fact be a timeline with only one different thing. And we cannot know all the ways that that timeline would be different. We know only that it would be different in ways large and small: Consider the metaphor of a butterfly fluttering its wings in China, with attendant changes in the weather on the U.S. west coast.

Further, because of emergent properties, even in the extremely unlikely scenario where all other parts of the system really were the same, we could not know how that one difference would affect the resulting system.

Yes, a Marx somehow extracted from the 19th century and dropped in the 21st would write, if he wrote at all, a different book. And we can’t even begin to imagine how different.

  1. [1]Brian Morris, Bakunin: The Philosophy of Freedom (Montréal: Black Rose, 1993).
  2. [2]Raymond A. Morrow with David D. Brown, Critical Theory and Methodology (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1994); Ruth Wodak and Michael Meyer, eds. Methods of Critical Discourse Analysis, 2nd ed. (Los Angeles: Sage, 2009).
  3. [3]Alfonso Montuori and Ronald E. Purser, “Social Creativity: Introduction,” in Social Creativity, eds. Alfonso Montuori and Ronald E. Purser (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton, 1999), 1:1-45.
  4. [4]Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems (New York: Anchor, 1996); Joanna Macy, Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory (Delhi, India: Sri Satguru, 1995); Edgar Morin, On Complexity (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton, 2008).

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