Arkayan Ganguly, Social Identities. Journal for the Study of Race, Nation and Culture

Review of The Marx Revival: Key Concepts and New Interpretations

The essays collected in the book The Marx Revival: Key Concepts and New Interpretations, edited by Marcello Musto, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020, comprehensively inclusive in its compass, offer the readers an invaluable array of theoretically rich tools to dispel the miasma, invoked globally after 1989, around Marx and his ideas.

To cite two such instances, Francis Fukuyama famously proclaimed that the era of ‘Common Marketization’ of the world, be it in politics, economics or ideology, has led to the ‘End of History’, leaving Marx confined to academic interest delinked from living reality. Similarly, Richard Rorty dismissed Marx and Engels with undisguised contempt calling their thoughts a ‘lucridious flop’ much like ‘what evangelical Christians call “becoming a New Being in Christ Jesus”’. The object of this systematically sponsored onslaught is simply to brush off as dead and barren what is living and profoundly fertile in Marx. What is encouraging, as against this, riding the upturn of interest in Marx especially since the Great Financial Crisis (2007-2008), the book seeks to make sense of Marx in the light of theoretical advances made in the last few decades, in particular. It is with this object in mind that it offers clarity in 22 short chapters surrounding ideas such as proletariat, class struggle, capital and value, communism, gender equality, to name but a few, and how they can be grasped in both theory and practice.
The discussion of the book would broadly follow seriatim the order in which the contributions have been arranged. To begin at the beginning.
The book opens with the study on the broad conceptual frameworks of socio-political systems supplemented by Marx’s critical thoughts. Michael R. Krätke’s chapter Capitalism, the focal point of Marx’s life-long theoretical engagement, argues that capitalist production is not just the subversive ‘rule of capital’ by the ‘law of value’ where the majority suffers from ‘soaring inequalities’ and ‘insecurities’. Ironically, capitalist production is the mirror holding unbiased images of the motion of its peculiarly contrasting features in their historical development. On one hand, through the creation of ‘abstract and concrete labour’, of fetishism of commodities, and exploitation of the working class, capitalism advances a ‘bewitched and distorted world’, and, on the other, through its capitalist vanguards, driven by private interest in the accumulation of wealth, it upholds the ‘universal and impersonal bondage’ of capital in-itself. On what is a contrasting topic, Marcello Musto in Communism justly affirms that Marx never considered communism to be an alternate specific moment to capitalism but a socio-historical progress arising from it. Marx initially understood communism in terms of ‘Hegelian dialectics’. As he progressed into Capital, he altered his theory radically. Communism as the abolition of private property and wealth, and of ‘surplus labour time’ is replaced largely by the concepts of ‘free time’ and ‘real human wealth development’ for all. Consequently, the workers as ‘freely associated’ and part of a ‘common labour force’ would, overcoming the divisiveness imposed on them by the production relations based on wage system, assume the responsibility ‘to walk by [themselves]’. Acknowledging the specific needs of individuals, Musto’s chapter concludes with Marx’s radical determination of rights in a communist society which ‘would have to be unequal rather than equal’! Ellen Meisksins Wood in Democracy addresses how economic domination, previously exercised by political authority, underwent a radical change with capitalism’s appropriation of the new ‘science of economics’, granting all individuals equal political status independent of their economic locations. This shifts the conflict-zone from the political arena to the ‘workplace’. Marx, while emphatically appreciating these liberties and rights, addressed the ‘formal’ nature of the state to prevent any political deprivation. Consequently, capital constructed a new economic space, abstracted from the political, to carry out exploitation. In laying bare this duality, the essay reminds us of the continued economic deprivation liberal democracy under capitalism practices even today.
The next part of the book deals with Marx’s concept of agency. For Marx, agency is not only individualistic but also collectively constituted, which the following four chapters unfold. Marcel van der Linden in Proletariat exposes the ambiguity in Marx’s classification of the term. As Marx never answered the question ‘what is a class’, this left an open interpretive space only conceivable by what he kept out of it: the ‘chattel slaves’ and the ‘lumpenproletariat’. Interpolating on the basis of historical instances and logical extrapolation, Linden argues, Marx’s concept of the proletariat is not holistic. He, therefore, proposes a more inclusive one based on all forms of commodified labour producing value, embracing varied categories of working people. Alex Callinicos’s chapter Class Struggle maintains that the historical conditions of social change are not developed solely by class struggle itself. Yet when the situations emerge, these struggles play the ‘executive role[s]’. Thus, changes are ‘effected’ through them, though they are not the ‘motor[s]’ of social change as the popular reading of Communist Manifesto would seem to suggest. In his deeper understanding of the Capitalist order, Callinicos places class struggle outside its apparent manifestation, that is inside the composition of ‘relative surplus value’. To extract more ‘surplus value’ the capitalists expand the working time or hours. Such expansions of time reach a critical point, when the workers, past their endurance, organize collective resistance, leading to political upheavals demanding a shorter ‘working day’. This in turn, compels the capitalists to invest in advanced technologies aimed at extracting higher productivities which would fetch more ‘relative surplus value’ within a given ‘working day’. What results from the tussle is, first, that there arises a significant change in the ‘organic’ composition of capital.  With increased investment in technology, the wage labourers, the only source of value, are pushed out of employment in increasing numbers and their compound effects give rise to ‘fall in the rate of profit’. Secondly, with the compulsion of ‘relative surplus value’ continual investments in the means of production keep altering the productive forces resulting in contradictions with the ‘relations of production’, which is also another way of conceiving class struggle. These discrepancies disrupt social relations and build conditions for radical social changes, when other contributing factors are aligned. At the same time, this struggle is not limited only to the economic sphere but flows into the political as well, generating new categories of knowledge and consciousness. Peter Hudis in Political Organization draws on Marx’s thoughts on consciousness, which cannot be ‘brought’ to the working class from outside; it must evolve from within as a ‘self-moving object’. This unified ‘self’ aspiring to ‘historical objectives’ is what, according to Hudis, Marx meant by ‘organization’. ‘Party’ as a political entity would emerge from this ‘organization’, which as its historically evolving political organ will address similar objectives. Consequently, ‘Party’ for Marx, claims Hudis, is ‘of’ the proletariat and not ‘for’ it, much unlike the idea of the party as a niche intellectually superior group as envisaged by Ferdinand Lassalle, and later, following him, Vladimir Lenin. Nevertheless, what remains unaddressed in Hudis is, as one may argue, some urgent and relevant questions: can the identity of the members of the working class be reduced solely to their being ‘wage labourers’? Will not the diverse kinds of overlapping social identities call into doubt the viability of such a monolithic construction of class and unified ‘self’?  The insights these three chapters above offer are assimilated in Michael Löwy’s chapter Revolution. He substantiates how Marx changed his theoretical views on the subject from, initially, reposing his faith only in the ‘philosopher’s brain’ as being ‘active’ and the masses being ‘passive’ to, later, recognizing the latter as being equally active. So for Marx, the revolution was not only a seizure of state power, but also a synthesis of the material circumstances with an ongoing self-emancipation in a ‘revolutionary praxis’, which, Löwy holds, is not a single historic instance, but a permanent condition for a continued dialectical enlightenment.
Ricardo Antunes in Work construes work as ‘conscious human activity’ creating social life. Work under capitalism, however, is increasingly transformed into a mere instrument of subsistence as ‘alienated wage labour’. In production, labour’s expenditure ‘in a special form and with a definite aim’ producing ‘use values’ – concrete labour – is subdued to its general index of producing ‘exchange values’ and valorizing capital – abstract labour. Insofar as work takes the form of ‘non-reflective’ abstract alienated labour, it objectifies human relations as ‘fetishzied’ commodity relations. To return to work as ‘self-determining activity’ it is thus imperative to overcome ‘abstract’ by conscious ‘concrete labour’. Moishe Postone’s chapter Capital and Temporality dwells on this phenomenon. With the subsumption of work, every productive activity must take the ‘commodity form’, characterized by a peculiarly dual determinacy of ‘abstract’ and ‘concrete’ labour, which is a specific historical form unique to capitalism. Following Marx, Postone concludes that ‘value’, which is only produced by ‘abstract labour’, is the dominant form of wealth in capitalism. The substance of ‘value’ is a ‘self-mediating norm’ which is ‘socially necessary labour time’. With the dominant wealth form being principally labour time, there develops not only the supremacy of the ‘temporal form of wealth’ but also a ‘social domination’ governed by time. Interrogating value and its ramifications, Postone then constructs a ‘treadmill’ like ‘effect’ in capitalism: a rise in the ‘material wealth’ but no long-term increase in total value, as the temporary ‘higher levels’ of value produced per unit time, that is productivity, are continually ‘generalized’, and become the ‘base’ norm – however keeping the aggregate value always the same . In Technology and Science Amy E. Wendling looks at technology and science under capitalism, growing not independently, but along the norms of value and productivity. The contradictions in such a trajectory of development show up as the inverse relationship between ‘machinery’ and ‘labourers’ by ‘deskilling’ the labourers short of total annihilation, which at least corrodes their ‘political’ bargaining power and capabilities. The combination of technological development and ‘treadmill effect’, leading to the rise in material wealth, but no long term increase in value, causes ecological havoc. John Bellamy Foster in Ecology returns to value and not to sensuous nature being the dominant form of wealth. The value that comes from labour-power is treated as an internal cost to capital while the cost of material nature remains external to it, a ‘free gift’, thoughtlessly squandered, giving rise to a ‘metabolic rift’. After Capital III, Foster looks forward to the man in a future society, chary of despoliation, who arguably will be engaged in rational metabolic appropriation of nature.
Heather A. Brown and Kevin B. Anderson in Gender Equality and Nationalism and Ethnicity respectively decode capital’s influence on these social categories. With mechanized industry, Brown points out, physical deficit as an impediment is overcome; the labour market, now indifferent to gender frontiers, expands at a dizzying pace. This makes pre-existing family relations – between women and men – both vulnerable and prone to change, not so much for mechanization per se as for ‘similar needs and wants’. Such a shift in the gender structure of labour empowers women as possible revolutionary subjects. This expansion of capital indifferent to social frontiers and possibly equipping different social agents as revolutionary subjects explains why, as Anderson notes, Marx lent support to the national and ethnic struggles in Poland, Ireland and the Northern cause in the American Civil War for their possible revolutionary potentials.
Pietro Basso in Migration, and Sandro Mezzadra and Ranabir Samaddar in Colonialism trace the emergence of the ‘world market’ together with the gradually expanding scope of ‘primitive accumulation’. World scale conquests and the enslavement of populations led to their ‘forced migration’ into slavery, exodus, or mass unemployment of almost entire populations. The imposition of the rule of capital by extra-economic violence and ‘brute force’ created a new ‘geographical expanse’ and the ‘reserve army of workers’, which are the two fundamental pre-requisites of capital taking the final form, world market.
Capital expanding geographically and class being ‘riven’ with ‘gender’, ‘race’ and ‘national identities’, our engagement with Marx under rapid historical changes lays on us the duty of ‘reformulating’ the ‘Internationalist’ nature of the proletariat by discovering diverse revolutionary subjects. Thus, it is only fit to ask, should we not include along with the proletariat those individuals and social groups from various sections of society and colonial subjects as new potential forms of the revolutionary bloc?
All such elements are systematically articulated within the parameters of a capitalist state, whose nature Bob Jessop’s chapter State analyzes. In applying the theoretical insights derived from Marx, he identifies three accounts of the state – viz. as the ‘instrument of class rule’, as the ‘autonomous authority’ competently tackling class conflicts, and as the ‘alienated form’ of political organization based on the ‘specific separation-in-unity’ of the economic and political relations. Expanding the notion of ‘separation-in-unity’, he then decrypts the ‘formal adequacy’ – political equalities contra economic inequalities – of the state. The capitalist state formation, for him, is located along the line of separation between the ‘civil sphere’ dominated by bourgeois ‘self-interest’ and its ‘illusory reflection’ as ‘common interest’ in the ‘public sphere’. This is where the politics of power masquerades as undifferentiated public interest. This formation explains how and why the social relations of servitude may well continue without the dominant class commanding political supremacy, thereby removing ‘class’ itself from being an ‘immediate’ organizing force. The upshot of this is, the modalities of class conflicts remain not only economic but also become politically specific, to overcome the juxtaposition held within the political integration of the state. This conception of the state is crucial for the ‘world market’ that Seongjin Jeong and Benno Teschke elaborate in chapters Globalization and War and International Relations respectively. Drawing upon Marx’s insights pertinent to a globalized world, Jeong offers his views on how value finally peaks in terms of the vertical integration of inter-state matrix. In conformity to capitalism’s claims, the chapter looks into the consequences of the international norm of ‘socially necessary labour time’ that allow the expropriation of  ‘surplus labour time’ by the high-productivity countries from those characterized by low-productivity, which, as he persuasively argues, is ‘zero-sum’ and not the Ricardian positive-sum game. Teschke improves upon Jeong’s model. He points to ‘war’, a ‘horizontal geopolitical conflict’, as another vector of the modern inter-state matrix. Studying the historical developments and the emerging tendencies of ‘world market’, he asserts that the theory of ‘historical materialism’ needs revision in these two axes of horizontal and vertical paths to grasp properly what uneven progress in production, mediated temporally, would really amount to. In this connection, he claims for his hypothesis with regard to states and their agencies a high degree of applicability.
Gilbert Achcar in Religion captures Marx’s ‘materialist’ conception that is not delinked from his ‘political attitude’ towards it. The former co-relates ‘credit’ and ‘faith’, and ‘alienation of labour’ and ‘religious alienation’ converging into ‘mystification’ of human relations, which so long as religion in itself is determined by the ‘historical changes in production’ will remain similar to the process whereby capital fetishizes human relations. As a timely warning though, Achcar maintains that any ‘defence of freedom’ can come to naught if the ‘freedom of religion’ is attacked when religion becomes a ‘component of the fight for political freedom in general’. This aporia Marx believed can be resolved only with education and ‘emancipatory fight’ by the workers’ party.
Robin Small and Isabelle Garo in their chapters Education and Art respectively, uphold ‘real human development’. Small’s chapter builds on Marx’s substantive commitment to education as a means to build ‘personality and human development’ to overstep the incompleteness which division of labour and ‘vocational specialization’ conspire to impose. In a similar vein, Garo argues, though art is socio-historically determined, it cannot be wholly ‘alienated’ from the artist. This allows art to escape the entire loci of ‘abstract labour’ and ‘law of value’, thus opening a possibility of ‘dialectical human sense development’ between artist and aesthete.
Finally, Immanuel Wallerstein chronicles some really shaping historic experiences influenced by the Moor; and here naturally he alludes to the paradigmatic shifts – from the days of the ‘German Social-Democratic Party’, through the ‘Russian Revolution’, the ‘Cold War’, the ‘World Revolution’ of 1968, the collapse of existing socialism, the rise of the Chinese Communist Party, right up to the Great Financial Crisis (2007-2008). Subsequently, without being named, Marxism did by no means part company with the new generations affianced to many forms of ‘global justice movement’ embodied in ‘World Social Forum’, ‘left-of-centre’ political parties, and the criticisms of mainstream policies since 2008-2009. With this hope, he expects Marxism of tomorrow to engage with Marx ‘carefully’ and ‘critically’. However, conspicuously missing in his chapter is the deserved focus on how Marx, subsequent to the discovery of Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, and Grundrisse, sent shockwaves in the 1930s and 1960s, respectively, compelling powerful debates both within and outside of academia.
Overall, the book appreciably enriches our understanding of Marx’s conceptual paradigm, making it a valuable core text for academicians, enthusiasts, activists, and even the Sociology Departments of Universities. We, however, conclude with two critical remarks: To start with, the Marxian categories extensively analyzed here have been restricted primarily to a socio-political reading; thus their immense economic and philosophical significance has been either undervalued or ignored. If the financial crisis of 2008 is one of the reasons for Marx’s revival – even Francis Fukuyama admitting that ‘certain things Karl Marx said are turning out to be true’ (2018) – then we may well ask whether the meaning of financial capital, including market derivatives, can be grasped through his theory of value and the falling rate of profit? This having been said, we may then ask if, in view of the unreflective exploitation of natural resources, would it not make sense only if we widened the framework of the falling rate of profit? If such is the case, then to put a compelling limit on the heedless exploitation of nature’s warehouse, what is urgently called for is a reconstruction of our economic ontology that can effectively tackle the ever-growing clash between advanced economies and their rising rivals. Next, taking off from the second comment, to conceptualize such a reconstruction through Marx’s thoughts, does it remain restricted only to the far-reaching reconstruction of economic systems? Despite recurrent economic melt-downs since 1989, the fetishism of “productivity” continues to hold sway over the historical processes globally. This “productivity” is sustained by the two “living negation[s]” of capitalism – exploitation of youthful human labour and the previously mentioned inward invasion of nature. The question then remains; do these concerns also not extend to the much larger issue of the reconstitution of class consciousness in and for itself? At this point way of concluding query, by, a further thought suggests itself. Will Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe (MEGA2) – the Nachlass of 15,000 pages of notes – not prove to be a watershed in interpreting the Key Concepts? With another world stagnation looming large, we must muster courage for – no, not a short-lived but – a sustained Revival!

Published in:

Social Identities. Journal for the Study of Race, Nation and Culture

Date Published

1 April, 2021


Arkayan Ganguly