It Would be a Mistake to Confine Marxism to Merely Academic Specialism

Prof. Marcello Musto, 40, one of the leading research scholars on Marxism in the 21st century, teaches Sociological Theory at York University (Toronto). His books and articles have been published worldwide in more than 20 languages.

Among his edited and co-authored volumes, reprinted in several editions, there are: Karl Marx’s ‘Grundrisse’, Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy 150 Years Later (2008), Marx for Today and The International After 150 Years: Labour Versus Capital, Then and Now(2015), all published by Routledge. Recently, he has also edited the first anthology on the International Working Men’s Association ever realised in English language, Workers Unite! The International 150 Years Later (Bloomsbury, 2014).

Following are excerpts of his interview with The News on Sunday.

If updated and applied to the most recent developments, Marx’s accounts of the dynamic of the capitalist mode of production offer effective means for explaining many of the problems of contemporary society that became fully developed only in the twentieth century.

The News on Sunday: Some people say that Marxism would live only as an academic tool, as a classic of philosophical thought. Do you agree?

Marcello Musto: If Marx isn’t identifiable with the carved Sphinx of the grey ‘actually existing socialism’ of the twentieth century, it would be equally mistaken to believe that his theoretical and political legacy is confined to a past that doesn’t have anything more to give to current conflicts, to circumscribe his thought to a mummified classic that has no relevance today, or to confine it to merely academic specialism.

The return of interest in Marx goes well beyond the confines of restricted circles of scholars as does the significant philological research of MEGA2, dedicated to demonstrating the diversity of it in respect to the large number of his interpreters. The rediscovery of Marx is based on his persistent capacity to explain the present: he remains an indispensable instrument for understanding it and being able to transform it.

Faced with the crisis of capitalist society and the profound contradictions that traverse it, there is a return to the question that the author set aside, too quickly, after 1989. Thus, Jacques Derrida’s affirmation of 1994, that “it will always be a fault not to read and re-read and discuss Marx”, which only a few years ago seemed to be an isolated provocation.

TNS: In one of your writings, you have stated that ‘the research on Marx has still many paths to travel’. Would you elaborate?

MM: Despite all the predictions after 1989 that Karl Marx would forever be consigned to oblivion, scholars around the world have again been paying attention to him in the last few years. In a world beset with profound contradictions, analysts are once more turning to a thinker who, hastily dismissed after the fall of the Berlin Wall, has become important for an understanding of the present.

After a near-total suspension for twenty years, Marx studies have resumed in many European countries — his works have reappeared in bookshops, and new editions ofCapital have quickly sold out — as well as in the English-speaking world and Latin America (for example in Brazil). In particular, since the onset of the international financial crisis in 2008, academics, economic analysts and journalists from diverse political and cultural backgrounds are again recognising the value of Marx’s analysis of the inherent instability of capitalism, and of its self-generated cyclical crises which have such grave effects on political and social life. In all parts of the world, leading daily and weekly papers have also been discussing the contemporary relevance of Marx’s thought.

Finally, even if timidly and in often confused forms — from Latin America to Europe, passing through the alternative globalisation movement — a new demand for Marx is also being registered in political terms. Some commentators have described this context as “Marx renaissance”.

TNS: What remains of Marx today? How useful his thought is to the struggle for emancipation and freedom? What part of his work is most fertile for stimulating the critique of our times?

MM: These are some of the questions that receive answers that are anything but unanimous.

If the contemporary Marx renaissance has a certainty, it consists precisely in the discontinuity in respect to the past that was characterised by monolithic orthodoxies that have dominated and profoundly conditioned the interpretation of this thinker. Even though marked by evident limits and the risk of syncretism, a season has arrived that is characterised by many Marxs, and indeed, after the age of dogmatisms, it could not have happened in any other way. The task of responding to these problems is therefore up to the research, theoretical and practical, of a new generation of scholars and political activists.

TNS: Is Marx still relevant today?

MM: Of course the writings that Marx composed a century and a half ago do not contain a precise description of the world today. It should be stressed, however, that in Capital,Marx tried to present the “organisation of the capitalist mode of production, in its ideal average,” and hence in its most complete and most general form. He foresaw that capitalism would expand on a global scale and formulated his own theories on that basis. That is why Marx’s oeuvre is not only a great classic of economic and political thought, but still provides a framework today for understanding all the profound economic and social transformations that have meanwhile occurred, including a rich array of instruments to use in understanding the nature of capitalist development.

If updated and applied to the most recent developments, Marx’s accounts of the dynamic of the capitalist mode of production offer effective means for explaining many of the problems of contemporary society that became fully developed only in the twentieth century.

With the development of capitalism into a system that invades and permeates most aspects of human life, anyone can see that Marx’s thought has been extraordinarily prescient in many fields not addressed by twentieth-century orthodox Marxism. We can say that some of Marx’s analyses have revealed their significance even more clearly than in his own time.

TNS: What has been the role of Engels for the dissemination of the ideas of Marx in the world?

MM: After Marx’s death, in 1883, Friedrich Engels was the first to dedicate himself to the very difficult task — due to the dispersion of the material, obscurity of language and the illegibility of the handwriting — of editing his friend’s legacy. His work concentrated on reconstruction and selection from the original materials, on the publication of unedited or incomplete texts and, at the same time, on the republications and translation of writings already known.

Even if there were exceptions, such as the case of the Theses on Feuerbach, edited in 1888 as an appendix to his Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, and the Critique of the Gotha Programme, which came out in 1891, Engels focused almost exclusively on the editorial work for the completion of Capital, of which only the first volume was published before Marx’s death. This undertaking, lasting more than a decade, was pursued with the explicit intention of realising “a connected and as far as possible complete work”. In the course of his editorial activity, based on a selection of texts that were far from final versions, and actually different variants, Engels had the difficult task to give to the prints the second and third books of Capital.

The completion, in 2014, of the second section of MEGA2 finally allows a critical evaluation of the state of the originals left by Marx and of the value and the limits of Engels’s editorial work.

TNS: Can you tell us more about the fourth section of the MEGA2?

MM: Yes, sure. The novelties of the historical critical edition are very noticeable in the fourth section — called Exzerpte, Notizen, Marginalien. This contains Marx’s numerous summaries and study notes, which constitute a significant testimony to his mammoth work. From his university years, he adopted the life-long habit of compiling notebooks of extracts from the books he read, often breaking them up with the reflections which they prompted him to make.

The literary legacy of Marx contains approximately two hundred notebooks of summaries. These are essential for the knowledge and comprehension of the genesis of his theory and of the parts of it that he didn’t have the chance to develop as he wished. The conserved extracts, which cover the long arch of time from 1838 until 1882, are written in eight languages — German, Ancient Greek, Latin, French, English, Italian, Spanish and Russian — and treat the widest range of disciplines. They were taken from texts of philosophy, art, religion, politics, law, literature, history, political economy, international relations, technology, mathematics, physiology, geology, mineralogy, agronomy, ethnology, chemistry and physics, as well as newspaper and journal articles, parliamentary reports, statistics, reports, and publications of government offices — amongst these are the ‘Blue Books’, in particular the Reports of the Inspectors of Factories, which contained investigations of great importance for his studies.

This mine of knowledge, in large part still unpublished, was the building site of Marx’s critical theory. The fourth section of MEGA2, planned for 32 volumes, will provide access to it for the first time.

TNS: Can you tell us what is the ‘Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe’ (MEGA2)?

MM: The first publication of the complete works, the Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe(MEGA), started in the 1920s in Moscow. The Stalinist purges in the Soviet Union and the rise of Nazism in Germany led to the early interruption of the publications. The project of a ‘second’ MEGA began in 1975, but was also interrupted, this time following the events of 1989. In 1998, after a difficult phase of reorganisation, in the course of which new editorial principles were approved, the publication of the so-called MEGA2 commenced again.

The complete project, in which scholars of various disciplines from numerous countries participate, is articulated in four sections: the first includes all the works, articles and drafts excluding Capital; the second includes Capital and its preliminary studies starting from 1857; the third is dedicated to the correspondence; while the fourth includes excerpts, annotations and marginalia. Of the 114 planned volumes, more than 60 have already been published (more than 20 since recommencement in 1998), each of which consists of two books: the text plus the critical apparatus, which contains the indices and many additional notes.

This undertaking has great importance considering that a major part of the manuscripts of Marx, of his voluminous correspondence and excerpts and annotations that he used to make while reading, have never been published.

TNS: What are your future plans?

MM: The next two years will be very significant for the scholars of Marx. 2017 will be a turning point for the studies on Capital. On the occasion of the 150th anniversary of its first publication (1867-2017) there will be many new volumes and conferences analysing the most important concepts of one of the books that changed the world. The same in 2018, the year of Marx’s 200th birthday. Among my forthcoming books there are three monographs and edited volumes dedicated to Marx’s Magnum Opus (The Formation of Marx’s ‘Capital’, Pluto, 2017); to his life (Another Marx: An Essay in Intellectual Biography, Bloomsbury, 2017); and to his contemporary relevance in our contemporary society (The Marx Revival , Cambridge University Press, 2017).

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The News Daily

Pub date:

8 May 2016

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