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All you wanted to know about Marxism but were afraid to ask; Marxism: For and Against, by Robert L. Heilbroner. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

By Geoffrey ColvinGeoffrey Colvin is on the staff of Fortune magazine. / April 14, 1980



Marxism seems rarely to evoke calm and objective analysis. You hesitate to bring the subject up in conversation because you can see it setting off tempers, and you figure there's a fair chance someone will get more than a little overbearing about it in one direction or the other.

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Readers are rightly suspicious of discussions by writers they don't know; either the writer takes his stand at the outset, giving the reader a sense of hearing only half the story, or he doesn't, leaving the reader, who knows from experience that nearly everyone has a visceral feeling about the subject, to wonder what kind of concealed bias to watch out for.

Robert L. Heilbroner's latest book aims to put us at ease about the whole matter, beginning with its title -- "marxism: For and Against." That is his stand. he endorses some aspects of Marxist thought with uncommon strength, while others he deems mistakes or failures. There is no feeling of getting only half the story. And there is minimum concealed bias. Heilbroner is scrupulous about declaring his own opinions at every step.

And so the great value of this little book is that it enables the interested reader who hasn't the time to study Marx on his own (an avocation suited to those who have evenings free for about the next decade) to think and speak about Marxism with some of Heilbroner's own clarity and equanimity. To Heilbroner, Marx's importance lies not so much in his famous prognosis of a capitalist cataclysm as in his creation of "a mode of inquiry," a "combination of insight and method" that "permanently altered the manner in which reality would be perceived thereafter," and in this, Heilbroner says, his influence parallels that of Plato in philosophy and Freud in the analysis of the mind. The task of most of the book is to explain this "mode of inquiry" carefully and patiently, and without Marxist or anti-Marxist jargon.

It is a clear and fascinating explanation. One chapter (and there are only five) is devoted to the m eaning of "the dialectic." Another sets out the materialist approach to history. When, after 68 pages, we finnaly encounter the term "dialectical materialism," it strikes our ears not as a buzzword but as a term of real substance. (We also smile on learning that Marx himself never used the phrase.)

The popular perception of Marx as a seething despiser of capitalism is considerably clouded in this account. That in fact may well have been his stance, but we are reminded that on several points it would be hard to distinguish his position from that of Adam Smith. Perhaps there is popular confusion on this because of an insufficiently sharp distinction between Marx and Marxism.As Heilbroner points out, Marx's own effort was applied almost wholly to interpreting the course of capitalism; but the "mode of inquiry" he developed for the job has proved so appealing over the years that it has been applied by others to other problems to produce "Marxist" results. In the minds of many, these results are often attributed to Marx himself.

Heilbroner makes the important point that Marx's record as a prognosticator on the grand historical scale is no better than anyone else's, meaning not very good. Some of his analysis has been confirmed (capital has become more "concentrated and centralized," also more "internationalized," and the class of wage-earners has grown), and some has not (there has been no "immiseration of the proletariat" nor any "proletarian revolution" in industrialized capitalist countries).This simply reinforces Heilbroner's assertion that Marx's great achievement was his approachm to identifying capitalism's "inner nature." As he puts it, "We turn to Marx . . . not because he is infallible, but because he is inescapable."

This book is closely written and sometimes difficult, but not beyond the average educated reader. Much of its value derives from our familiarity with Robert Heilbroner as one of the Great Explainers of economics to regular folks. Once again he has done his job well. It's a sensitive subject he leads us through, and his talent is the ability to do it satisfyingly, without setting off bells and sirens.