Brian K. Obach, Contemporary Sociology. A Journal of Reviews

Rethinking Alternatives with Marx: Economy, Ecology and Migration is a volume edited by Marcello Musto in which a number of renowned international scholars critically engage a wide range of Marxist concepts. Some reevaluate dominant interpretations of classic works while others apply concepts to contemporary conditions or to our potential future. Several of the authors draw not only on Marx’s vast body of published work, but also numerous unfinished works, notes, drafts, letters and other materials made available through MEGA (Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe), a project compiling the entire collection of writings by Marx and Engels. Thus, some of the work draws on material that may be new even to those well versed in Marxist literature.

This volume is part of the Marx, Engels, and Marxisms series that includes numerous edited volumes and sole-authored monographs addressing many facets of Marx, nineteenth- and twentieth-century Marxist theory, labor, and social movements. The subtitle for this volume, “Economy, Ecology and Migration,” is somewhat of a misnomer. Of course all the chapters address the economy, given its centrality to any Marxist analysis; but of the 13 chapters, just three focus specifically on environmental matters and three address migration. The rest cover an eclectic mix of subjects, all of which are loosely organized into four parts.

The first part, “Capitalism, Gender and Social Relations,” includes two chapters that explicitly concern gender questions. Both authors seek to expand notions of anti-capitalist struggle to allow space for gender and family. In her analysis of class, Himani Bannerji examines the whole set of social relations that constitute one’s class position. That would include family relations that are ultimately as vital to production as factory work. Silvia Federici takes Marx to task for his sparse and superficial analysis of gender given the essential economic contributions that women have made not just in terms of social reproduction, but as unpaid laborers in the home, as slaves, and as underpaid wage workers subject to an array of violence and abuse at the hands of capitalists and male workers exercising power over women through the “patriarchy of the wage.”

The following two chapters in this section depart from the gender theme. Bob Jessop refutes charges of Marxist determinism and calls for a “form analytic historical approach.” This recognizes that the course of class struggle is far from determined by economic or technological forces, but rather it is ever changing based on the state and economic terrain as well as shifts in organization, strategy, tactics and other fluid variables. Workers can pursue a wide range of gains short of revolutionary transformation. This section of the book concludes with a densely written but poetic chapter elaborating on Marx’s concepts of use and exchange value.

The second part of the book is dedicated to environmental crisis. All three authors in this section address the ecologically destructive tendencies innate to capitalism. While Marx has been characterized as a Promethean anticipating complete human domination of the natural world, Kohei Saito teases out the ecosocialist in Marx. Through a textual exegesis of Capital Volume 1, Saito argues that the wealth under communism that Marx alludes to does not necessarily mean material riches and that natural limits will persist. The “original unity” between humans and nature will be restored as will a balanced metabolism between the social and the natural.

The other two chapters in this section offer ideas about how we might achieve that balance. Razmig Keucheyen draws on the work of Gorz and Heller to propose how to collectively reconceive of “need” in ways that would be ecologically sustainable as we transition away from the destructive consumerism endemic to capitalism. Gregory Claeys expresses doubt about whether we will ever get there. Instead he predicts, “The planet will burn, and we will likely be exterminated fighting over the charred remnants” (p. 114). Despite his grim assessment, Claeys offers a series of reforms, from bans on advertising to population control, that he suggests would help mitigate the crisis.

Migration is the subject of the third section. The forced migration of peasants to the city during the enclosures is a central focus for Marx, as is the slave trade, but there is less published material on international worker migration. A long and detailed historical chapter by David Norman Smith draws on Marx’s unpublished works to assess his views on this subject. This includes an examination of competition among workers and the resultant nativism, an analysis very relevant to contemporary working-class struggles. On a related theme, Pietro Basso poses a challenge to current thinkers who, he argues, are misinterpreting Marx to promote what he views as anti-immigrant policies.

The final part of the book addresses an issue on which Marx was especially and perhaps intentionally unclear. It includes three chapters that consider what the future communist society will look like, or at least what it will not look like. Editor Marcello Musto examines the structural failure of the Paris Commune to inform the organization of the post-capitalist state, while Álvaro García Linera identifies the Soviet Union’s inability to move beyond state ownership and to secure true freedom for its people. Michael Brie takes up that theme in the final chapter as he theorizes about a communist society that incorporates liberal notions of individual liberty. Authors in this section comb Marx’s writings for ideas about how a post-capitalist social order can be constructed that meets human needs and allows for individual and social fulfillment, all while living within the natural limits of planetary systems.

As is evident, the chapters in this volume are very diverse in terms of focus, but they also differ greatly in terms of style, and even length. The shortest is just 13 pages while the longest is almost 70. Some chapters would be suitable for a lay audience, while others are geared toward those already in possession of a deep understanding of Marx. Some dissect historical developments while others speculate about the future. A positive interpretation of this would be that there is something here for everyone. A more critical view would be that the volume lacks focus. Either way, Rethinking Alternatives with Marx is a testament to the richness and persistent relevance of Marx’s work. After over a century and a half of examination, scholars can still find material over which to engage in fruitful debate. And, in a more practical sense, Marx can still offer insight into how to understand and to carry out struggle in a world characterized by exploitation, white supremacy, patriarchy, and ecological devastation. This volume allows us to continue to learn from one of the most brilliant social theorists of all time.

Published in:

Contemporary Sociology. A Journal of Reviews

Date Published

1 January, 2023


Brian K. Obach