Tom Whittaker, Counterfire

Review of Marx for Today

Marx for Today

Having been declared officially dead and consigned to history’s proverbial dustbin roundabout 1989, Marx has returned surprisingly quickly, popping up in various places. For Marcello Musto, the editor of this collection of essays on Marx, there ‘has always been a “return to Marx”’.

For the eminent poststructuralist philosopher Jacques Derrida, ‘it will always be a mistake not to read and reread and discuss Marx’ (p.4).

Not That Dead

Since 1989, we have experienced not only the publication of Derrida’s own Spectres of Marx (1993), but also the 150th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto (1998), which saw Marx partially rehabilitated as a prophet of globalisation. Right about some of the ways in which capitalism would develop if still wrong about everything else. The year 1999 saw Marx beat Einstein, Darwin and Newton to the title of ‘greatest thinker of the millennium’ in a BBC poll.

However, if Marx never fully went away, the discussion surrounding him did feel a little quaint. Getting it ‘right about globalisation’ was hardly going to make the ruling classes tremble. Forward to 2012, deep into the most severe global recession since the 1930s, and the tone of debate is rather more serious. A recent BBC2 series, Masters of Money featured episodes on Keynes, Hayek and Marx with the last word going to Marx. It was a portentous one at that, namely that the system is in severe crisis, and rather than being just an aberration, such crises are inherent in the nature of capitalism itself.

Actively seeking to move beyond capitalism, as Marx wished to do, was still considered off-limits, and footage from inside a former Stasi prison in East Germany served to underline this point. However, such predictable cheap shots aside, Marx’s critique of capitalism, of its crisis-ridden tendencies and production of class polarisation was unmistakably back in the political mainstream.

Returning to Marx Today

These are then opportune circumstances in which to publish a collection of academic articles entitled Marx for Today? Marcello Musto writes in the introduction that Marx ‘probed the logic of the system more deeply than any other modern thinker’ (p.7). This collection of essays gives scope to both the depth and breadth of Marx’s thought, covering a diverse range of themes; nationalism and ethnicity, alienation, democracy, emancipation and the outlines of a future of post-capitalist society. It also contains a section examining the dissemination of Marx’s thought across the world, beyond North American and the core European countries to include Brazil, Russia, China, South Korea and Japan.

Recipes and Cook-shops

Any ‘return to Marx’ has it dangers, and Musto is keen to avoid the rigid adherence to a set of scriptures that characterised the Marxism of both the Second International and, once Stalin had consolidated his power, also the Third International. Marx himself warned, seemingly to little avail, against ‘recipes for the cook-shops of the future’ (p.3). Musto gives a lucid description of the inadequacies of the Marxism of the Second International, describing it as ‘schematic’, ‘economic determinist’ and of having a ‘naive belief in the automatic forwards march of history, and therefore in the inevitability of the replacement of capitalism by socialism’ (p.1).

Following the barbarities of the twentieth century and confronting the impending ecological disaster of the twenty-first, notions such as the ‘forwards march of history’ seem rather absurd. Yet Marx’s warning against recipes and cook-shops still stands. Any rereading of his works for today must seek to avoid doctrinal introspection in favour of an active engagement with the economic, social, political, military and ecological realities encircling us.

On this latter point, Musto reminds us that ‘Marx’s analysis of capitalism was not merely an economic investigation but was also relevant to the understanding of power structures and human relations’ (p.7). Certainly, the range of essays included in this volume attempt to do justice to Marx breadth of vision. What follows below amounts to no more than a short summary of some of the essays included in this volume.

‘Not Just Capital and Class: Marx on Non-Western Societies, Nationalism and Ethnicity’

Kevin Anderson seeks to address what he sees as the barriers that continue to block ‘returning to Marx as the primary source of leftist critique of capitalist modernity as a whole, and as providing the theoretical grounds for its overcoming’ (p.20). For Anderson, this barrier is that wide sections of left and progressive academic circles believe, not that Marx was too radical, but that he was not radical enough. For post-modernists, Marx stands accused of having constructed a ‘grand narrative’ explaining historical development in far too a linear fashion. On this count, the likes of Foucault and Deleuze are actually more radical than Marx (p.20).

In a similar vein it is said that whilst Marx’s model may help explain class and economic factors it neglects gender, ethnicity, race and nationalism. Edward Said famously accused Marx of eurocentricism in his book Orientalism, and Anderson is concerned to defend Marx’s understanding of non-western societies and nationalism. This Anderson does through a detailed rereading of his writings on India, China, Russia, Ireland, Poland and the American Civil War. Against Said, Anderson makes three essential points about Marx’s work; (1) it does address the specificities of nation, ethnicity and race; (2) Marx made a significant original contribution in theorising how indigenous forms of resistance to capital need to link up with the working classes in more technologically advanced sectors of the world economy; (3) Marx’s theorisation of how race, ethnicity and nationalisation intersect with class struggle remains relevant today (p.35).

‘Revisiting Marx’s Concept of Alienation’

Marcello Musto seeks to examine how Marx’s concept of alienation developed between his earlier and later works and also how various non-Marxist thinkers adapted, and often distorted the concept during the twentieth century. In the Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts, which first appeared in 1932, Marx focused on the different ways that the worker is alienated under capitalist society; from both the product and process of their labour, from their ‘species-being’, and in relation to other human beings (p.95). Musto argues that for Marx alienation was ‘a particular phenomenon within a precise form of economy: that is wage labour and the transformation of labour products into objects standing opposed to producers’ (p.95). Marx considered alienation from a historical and not natural point of view.

However, in the hands of writers such as Herbert Marcuse alienation became associated with labour in general, rather than specifically wage labour, and with technological domination, rather than capitalist relations of production (pp.96-8). For Horkheimer and Adorno, alienation was the result of social control and the manipulation of human needs by the mass media, of a technological rationale dominating society (p.98). For psychoanalysis and existentialism, albeit in different ways, alienation was primarily about individual subjectivity, and its objective basis in capitalist relations of production was downplayed (pp.98-100). Within mainstream sociology and psychology the conception of alienation then hegemonic was even more individualistic (p.105). Therefore, in differing ways, all these theories pointed to agents other than the working class to overcome alienation.

According to Musto, the challenge to the individualistic conception of alienation came with the wider diffusion of Marx’s mature writings on the topic during the 1960s (p.112). In Grundrisse and Capital, volume one, Marx elaborated on his earlier concept of alienation, giving it a firmer grounding in economic categories and linking it with exchange value. This culminated in his theory of commodity fetishism which sought to explain how social relations between people take on the appearance of material relations between things (pp.110-13).

For Musto the crucial importance of Marx’s mature work on alienation was that:

‘It was a conception geared to the overcoming of alienation in practice – to the political and action of social movements, parties and trade unions to change the working and living conditions of the working class’ (p.112).

In the context of the political and social rebellions of the 1960s, Marx’s work on alienation provided:

‘an anti-capitalist ideological platform for the extraordinary political and social movement that exploded in the world during those years. Alienation left the books of philosophers and the lecture halls of universities, took to the streets and the space of workers’ struggles, and became a critique of bourgeois society in general’ (p.112).

The 60s radicals who dreamed of a world without alienation were to be disappointed. As the radical movements of the 1960s and 70s were turned back and as neo-liberalism set in and then consolidated its hold, alienation increased considerably. However, as financial markets and eco-systems enter rapid meltdown both the relevance of Marx’s critique of alienation and its ability to inspire new social movements should be obvious.

‘In Capitalist Crisis, Rediscovering Marx’

Ricardo Wolff describes capitalism as an economic system oscillating between periods of limited state intervention in the markets and private property, and periods of relatively more state intervention; periods of private capitalism followed by state capitalism (p.148). Two alternative, mainstream and non-Marxian theories have sought to explain the working of this system over the course of the twentieth century, namely the Keynesian and the neo-classical schools of economic thought (p.148). Since the 1970s and the onset of neo-liberalism, the neo-classical school has been by far the dominant school of the thought with the Keynesian alternative largely marginalised.

Since the crash in 2008 Keynesianism has made something of a recovery. However, for Wolff, ‘the Keynesian message remains what it always was: state intervention must save capitalism from its private form’ (p.150). Keynesian policies may temporarily reinvigorate the system but crises will recur paving the way for another oscillation back towards the private form of capitalism. For Wolff, the problem is that both schools of thought accept the capitalist structure of production:

‘The oscillations between the two forms of capitalism and between the two mainstream theories prevent crises in capitalism becoming crises of capitalism, wherein the capitalist production system itself is thrown into question. Oscillation between the two theories shapes and contains public debate when capitalist crisis cause serious social suffering. It keeps the range of discussable solutions to more or less regulation, more or less monetary or fiscal policies, and so on. That range keeps the public from imagining, let alone considering, the Marxian alternative solution, namely a transition out of either form of capitalism into a different system’ (p.151).

By contrast, Wolff suggests that the Marxian response to repeated economic crises would ‘not favour one form of capitalism over another’, but would seek to change the system and to move society beyond capitalism (p.159). Wolff then seeks to sketch out how this might be done on a micro-level, apparently in order to correct a bias in traditional socialist thinking towards the macro-dimensions of post-capitalist society (p.159).

Undoubtedly Wolff is right to emphasise the opportunity created by the economic crises for a revival of both a Marxian economic critique of the system, and a political programme to challenge it, however, his formulation of the deficiencies of both the neo-classical and Keynesian solution is highly problematic in its indifference to the often widely varying content of the two solutions. Crudely put, both Clement Atlee and Margaret Thatcher accepted the capitalist structure of production, but it would be strange for a Marxist to see no difference between them.

Our current conjuncture presents an immediate political choice between programmes of savage austerity, faithful to the tenets of neo-classical theory, or some sort of ‘Keynesian’ alternative. Even in Greece, a move towards the conquest of state power and the construction of a post-capitalist economy along Marxian lines is not yet on the immediate horizon. In such circumstances, simply dismissing this choice as one between two forms of capitalism and insisting on the Marxian alternative runs the risk of sounding a little abstentionist.

Of course, for the radical left, pursuing a ‘Keynesian’ solution should not mean seeking to stabilise the capitalist structure of production, but rather of creating a movement that, whilst pressing for limited reforms, begins to point beyond the logic of the system as a whole. This means something along the lines of what Trotsky referred to as a transitional programme. In this sense, it may well be that the road to Marx lies through a series of escalating popular mobilisations that seek to impose a ‘Keynesian’ programme as an alternative to austerity.

The ‘Lesser Evil’ as Argument and Tactic, from Marx to the Present

Rather usefully, the reasoning for such an argument can be found elsewhere in the book. In an interesting essay Victor Wallis examines the concept of the ‘lesser evil’ within the Marxist tradition. This he defines as, ‘decisions as to whether to give momentary tactical support to one or another bourgeois political formation’ (p.134). Wallis argues that within a democratic republic this usually means ‘advocating a united front [sic] with particular bourgeois parties against repression or in favour of progressive social policies’ (p.134). As an aside here, there is, of course, an important difference between a united front of working class forces, reformist or revolutionary, and a ‘popular front’ strategy which can risk subordinating the working class to bourgeois leadership for the sake of the lesser evil.

Of course the concept of the lesser evil itself is one of some controversy within the Marxist tradition. This is hardly surprising given all the occasions it which it has been used as justification for various wretched compromises with capitalism and imperialism by both the Second and Third Internationals. Currently in the USA it constitutes a ‘system induced imperative’, with the Republican–Democrat duopoly operating as a permanent drag to the right (pp.139-141). Yet for all this, the concept of the lesser evil is still essential to the growth of an independent working-class movement.

‘Maximalists sometimes use the derogatory expression “lesser evilism” in an attempt to discredit the idea of giving even limited and transitory support to any bourgeois formation. In fact, however, determinations of lesser evil (or least damage) are inherent in any decision requiring defensive calculations, as opposed to the unobstructed pursuit of one’s positive goal. To avoid such calculations is impossible: the challenge for a revolutionary party is to keep them within appropriate bounds’ (p.135).

Within the Marxist tradition it was Lenin who reflected more than most as to how to distinguish acceptable from unacceptable compromises, a point he outlined in a memorable example:

‘One must distinguish between a man who has given up his money and fire-arms to bandits so as to lessen the evil they can do … and a man who gives his money and fire-arms and bandits so as to share in the loot’ (p.139).

Referring to the controversy above, Keynesian policies could well be a means stabilising capitalism, (of ‘sharing in the loot’). However, they could also help form the basis of a programme both to defend working people from the effects of austerity, (of lessening the evil the bandits can do), and to increase people’s confidence to challenge more fundamentally the imperatives of the system.


If rereading Marx today means that we recommit to his long-term goal of a society of the associated producers, then that is all for the good. Yet we must also heed Marx’s warning about recipes and cook-shops for the future. Doctrinal purity should not be our objective. The road to a society of the associated producers will require many tactical and conjunctural decisions requiring compromise and the question will be whether these are kept within ‘appropriate bounds’. Seeking to make any sort of political and social reality out of Marx’s ideas will necessitate adaptation and improvisation in circumstances that cannot always be foreseen.

In this sense, the bold experiment taken by Lenin and the Bolsheviks in the most desperate of circumstances is of enormous use to us today. In this sense, one of the more disappointing aspects of Marx for Today is the treatment given to Lenin and the early years of the Russian revolution by Paresh Chattopadhyah (pp.45-9). Seeking to dissociate Lenin from Marx, by lumping him together with Stalin and Mao under the rubric of ‘anti-emancipatory socialism’ (p.43) involves treading a tedious and well-worn path.

However, considered overall, Marx for Today is a stimulating book that does justice to the depth and breadth of Marx’s thought and which makes a strong claim for his contemporary relevance.

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Date Published

23 November, 2012


Tom Whittaker