is marxist theory making a comeback?


The most recent issue of Organization Studies has a special forum on critical theories of management, with a special focus on the paleo-Marxist view. What, you ask, is paleo-Marxism? No, it is not the study of the alienated ancient Greek labor class. “Paleo” is Paul Adler’s way of describing a more fundamental view of Marxism that returns to the original Marxist texts to uncover core themes. Implicit in his use of the “paleo” prefix is an assumption that neo-Marxists have tainted the original Marxist thesis and that a new generation of scholars should try to uncover or rediscover what Marx was really talking about.

As Adler outlines in an essay in the forum, his paleo-Marxism is focused on the socialization of the labor process, an aspect of Marx’s original work that he feels has been ignored. By socialization, Adler means both a growing interdependence between workers of different specialties that occurs under capitalist systems, similar to Durkheim’s view of organic solidarity, and an emerging consciousness within the worker of belonging to a greater whole, which essentially strips the worker of individuality and narrow self-interest. Adler wants to explain how the labor process socializes the worker and how this socialization leads to the creation of a class of capitalist “gravediggers.”

Adler’s major adversaries are the labor process theorists (e.g., Braverman) – that version of neo-Marxists who saw the labor process as stripping workers of dignity and skills. Adler, in contrast, sees the labor process as leading to an increasingly complex set of workers that are ever more capable of surviving and functioning in a rationalized society. Rather than demeaning workers to the point that they have no other option than to fight against capitalism, capitalism produces a working class with an increasingly sophisticated skill set. (Paul Thompson refers to this process as “upskilling” to note the difference in outcomes between Adler and Braverman.) The result of this skill upgrading is the creation of a working class that is organizationally and socially-skilled enough to mount an insurgency against capitalism.

Over the long run, the overall effect is to create a working class that is increasingly educated, cognitively sophisticated, experienced in large-scale collaborative enterprise — and thus increasingly capable of successfully taking on the task of radically transforming society and of assuming the leading role in a new form of society. This task is made progressively easier by the modest steps towards socialization of relations of production even within the womb of capitalism itself….This viewpoint allows us to grasp the contradictions that beset capitalist management, and to grasp them in a surprisingly intuitive way: on the one hand, management needs and cultivates the productive power of the collective worker; on the other, management limits this development due to pressures of corporate profitability; and over the long term, the former dominates the latter, progressively intensifying the fundamental contradiction, and thereby opening prospects for change (1328-29).

Adler’s perspective is controversial among Marxist organizational scholars. Accompanying his essay are several commentaries on paleo-Marxism from scholars associated with the labor process view. Paul Thompson argues that “Adler de-politicizes the workplace by removing any source of conflict over work relations between capital and labour” (1366). David Knights and Hugh Wilmott claim that paleo-Marxism ignores other sources of conflict inherent in the labor process and that “[a]nalyses of ‘gender’, sexuality, ‘ethnicity’, religion, ageism and ‘anti-globalization’ are… conspicuous by their absence from Adler’s account” (1371). And Steven Vallas suggests that “issues of culture, class, and consent; of discourse and practice at work; of the reproduction of inherited organizational forms; of the claims that organizations make on the worker’s self; and of the structure/agency link” are ignored by Adler. Still, all of the commentaries acknowledge that Adler is right to draw our attention to the labor process as an important source of instability and potential transformation in capitalist relations.

My own take is that Adler shares much in common with the social movement scholars who argue for the structural foundations of collective behavior and political dissent. The resource mobilization perspective, in fact, was developed partly as an explanation of power and conflict as sources of organizational change. See, for example, the early work of Mayer Zald on the political economies of organizations. And, of course, Zald and Berger (1978) is highly relevant. The latter perspective purports that many kinds of organizational change are rooted in social movement agitation that, in turn, originate from the buildup of organizational resources and rationalized mobilization mechanisms. Adler might find sympathetic allies among these sociologists.

Written by brayden king

October 16, 2007 at 11:10 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Adler’s seems like a nice dialectical argument, but it sure as hell does not sound like any Marxist (or Marxian) theory I’ve ever heard of.



    October 17, 2007 at 12:10 am

  2. Well, that’s because the Marx you’re reading isn’t Marxist enough!



    October 17, 2007 at 12:45 am

  3. I’m too sexy for my Marx, too sexy for Marx, too sexy for my Marx!!



    October 17, 2007 at 12:50 am

  4. I wonder why isn’t Mao more popular in organization studies (not referred to in this special issue, apparently). The concept of “principal contradiction” and “secondary contradiction” is not useless for an understanding of corporate life… ;)



    October 17, 2007 at 12:45 pm

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