[This book review appeared in the Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, Fall 2000, pp. 372-3.]
American Academia and the Survival of Marxist Ideas
Praeger Publishers, 1996
This is a scholarly book that offers a valuable critique of several of the central tenets of Marxist thought, and especially of the denial of the realities of Marxist practice that has been common among those who have continued to cling to Marxism since the demise of the Soviet Union. As such, it is a worthy addition to the literature on Marxism.
Fernandez-Morera, an associate professor of comparative literature and Hispanic studies at Northwestern University, also deals most particularly with what he considers to be at the heart of Marxist theory: its epistemology, in which all concepts are seen relativistically as arising out of class conflict. The book offers many examples of this sort of thinking, which has come to be manifested so pervasively within deconstructionism, Critical Theory, multiculturalism (where it is applied to ethnicity rather than to class), and much feminist writing. Fernandez-Morera's critique of this relativism is from a classical liberal, Austrian School of Economics perspective, with many references to the ideas of such thinkers as Mises, Hayek, Bastiat and Menger. He doesn't refer to the Methodenstreit, but his critique could be considered a continuation, in effect, of the great argument over methodology that raged in the late nineteenth century between the Austrian School and the German Historical School.
This reviewer does have important reservations about the book, although they don't negate the strengths I have just mentioned:
1. It seems a shame that Fernandez-Morera didn't make the book an occasion to explore the many subtleties that bear on the subject of "relativism." The subject deserves to be carried into much greater depth than past discussions have taken it, since there is so much to say about when relativism is appropriate and when it is not.
There is a propensity among the successive generations of the Austrian School simply to repeat the same "truisms" without further extension or elaboration. Since other bodies of thought have during the past century taken on considerable nuance, even though they are not nearly as sound as the Austrian School is on most things, the result is that the ideas come across as over-simplifications. The School's ideas were accordingly easily brushed aside during the decades that free market thinking was very much a minority intellectual position; and now that support for a global market economy is ascendant, the over-simplifications take on an even more damaging role, locking classical liberalism into a circular ideology that no longer allows itself to look afresh at the imperatives of a free society.
2. Fernandez-Morera focuses on certain Marxist arguments, but makes no attempt to grapple with other concepts that are equally central to Marxism, such as its "theory of exploitation" (today continued as "victimization") and the "labor theory of value." An author isn't obliged to explore more than he chooses to discuss, but readers will want to note the limits.
3. The title suggests that this is a book about today's academic Marxism. It is not, however, the place to look for a detailed review of the contemporary scene in either American or European university life. It tells us nothing, for example, about what one will confront at a meeting, say, of the Midwest Sociological Society or of the Modern Language Association. Fernandez-Morera's discussion isn't empirical about today's academic Marxism, but is based on ratiocination about certain important Marxist perspectives. The book is valuable for what it is, but not for what its title suggests.
Dwight D. Murphey