Jordy Cummings, Studies in Marxism

Review of Marx for Today

Marcello Musto’s new edited volume Marx for Today is a superlative collection of essays by a fantastic roster of today’s most important Marxist thinkers.

Grouped together, these essays coalesce into something greater than its parts, forming a whole that drives home the point that Marx as theorist and scientist of human emancipation is even more relevant in the second decade of the 21st century than he was in his own lifetime, as Ellen Wood points out in her contribution.

Rescued, as Musto puts it in his introduction, from the debris of misinterpretation, whether officially propagated or based on misinterpretations of poorly put-together texts, Marx’s spectre, the spectre of 21st socialism is haunting the bourgeoisie in unexpected places, from Wall Street to Nepal to Latin America. What is more, as is shown in this volume, going back and reconsidering Marx’s own work, Marxian research is experiencing a veritable renaissance. The first half of the book, featuring essays by leading figures in English language Marxism, including Wood, Kevin Anderson, Michael Lebowitz among others, centred around reading Marx against the grain, both of orthodox Marxism and the ‘western Marxism’ that supplanted it. The second half of the book is an examination, redolent of Musto’s excellent volume on the Grundrisse, of recent Marxian research on a global scale.

There is sometimes a tendency, in analysis of political theory, from Machiavelli to Marx, to attempt a dry, disinterested tone. On the other hand, and in particular among Marxists, there is a tendency towards hagiography and veneration. Of course, written by Marxists, this volume engages with the practical questions posed by Marx. Yet it is not without very original contributions in regards to Marx’s mode of exposition. while he may bend the stick a tad too far in his disavowal of Marx as a ‘system builder’, Terrell Carver’s resuscitation of the much-maligned Herr Vogt to take a close look at Marx’s use of rhetoric, the construction of his published work and his use of sarcasm and satire, were tools in his political-writer’s toolbox, the pen and paper as a weapon in the battle for human emancipation. Carver, like all of the writers collected here produce marvellous prose, and so recognize how to read Marx is as important as what one learns from reading him. All of the arguments made in this volume are based specifically on reading Marx’s own work, within its specific context, and only in that sense can we see its relevance for Marxian inquiry and socialist practice in these times.

A great hallmark of the highly prolific Musto’s work, both written and in his edited volumes, is that Marxism has always been international, not merely European, and this theoretical internationalism was Marx’s intent. Indeed, as Musto points out in his introduction, very soon after Marx died, his ‘name was soon on the lips of the workers in Detroit and Chicago, as on those of the first Indian socialists in Calcutta.’ Indeed, underlying the narrative of this collection is not just the globality of Marxism, but the openness, the heterodoxy, the context-specific quality of its reception and praxis of intellectuals and activists. And indeed, Marx is indeed again inspiring the social movements, from

Occupy Wall Street (which Ellen Wood writes about far more approvingly than other recent social movements) to the Wisconsin uprising, from the uprisings in West Asia to the people’s wars in Central and South Asia. As opposed to making a ‘retreat from class’, new generations of Marxist scholar/activists are broadening their understanding of the socialist project, ‘what we are for as well as what we are against’, whilst retaining the core conception of moving beyond alienated labour. Certainly Kevin Anderson’s reading of Marx as multilinear, thus nowhere near the economistic reductionist that he has been portrayed, shows a need for fluid conceptions of the socialist project. In turn, as George Comninel points out, in his reading of emancipation in Marx’s early work, ‘the realization of full human freedom requires the elimination of our collective subordination of any form of sovereign power.’ As Comninel recently pointed out in a talk at the Left Forum, Marx was to a certain extent a philosophical anarchist. But philosophical anarchism, that is to say, moving towards what Paresh Chattopopadhy, in a provocative and convincing contribution, calls ‘something that has not yet been tried… the associated mode of production,’ requires practical communism.

Perhaps the best explanation for Marx’s current relevance comes from Ellen Wood’s above- mentioned contention. The classical Marxist theorists and revolutionaries- Luxemburg, Trotsky, Mao, Gramsci– however profound and important their contributions may have been, they were operating under a presupposition of some degree of ‘non-capitalism’, that the total subsumption of the planet under capital would short-circuit and finding a way to push this process was the role of Marxist theory. On the other hand, capitalism, in the 21st century, is universal. Yet capitalism’s universality ‘can only universalize its contradictions, its polarizations between rich and poor, exploiters and exploited. Its successes are also its failures.’ With a full universalization of capitalism and its contradictions, we are both more subject on a global scale to the compulsions of the market, but equally more able, by implication, to move beyond it.

This then leaves the question, how to construct the new socialist political subject? Michael Lebowitz, who has done so much to inspire a re-invention of the socialist project, works with Marx’s famous metaphor of turning ‘limits into barriers’ to argue against a fatalistic understanding of capitalist crises, emphasizing the role of human agency and human development in a refounded socialism. Musto’s own essay gives an account of the various uses of the concept of ‘alienation’, Marxist and non-Marxist, and envisions a disalienated future socialist society that would reverse the ‘war of all against all’ that constitutes capitalist social property relations, in which the product no longer rules over the producer. This indeed marks the other hallmark of this volume and much of Musto’s work, refounding and redeveloping a theory of alienation without lapsing into either voluntarism or determinism, balancing context and agency. Without a theory of alienation, a theory of class struggle and a theory of human emancipation is not possible. Yet all too often theories of alienation have confused alienation with objectification.

The second half of the text, as noted, is a survey of Marx’s reception in many different parts of the world. A survey of Marxism in Latin America, against the backdrop of the ‘pink tide’ is covered both in respect to Spanish languages for much of the continent, and for Brazil. The latter looks at Marxism among oppositional forces while the former is related to the influence of Marxism on these states, and the question of a transition to socialism. Paul Blackledge gives an excellent survey of English language Marxism, while there are also entries on Italy, Russia, Germany and France. Perhaps most fascinating, however, are the three essays on East Asia, where a veritable renaissance of Marxian research is taking place. Japanese Marxists have long been known for their exactitude

around the Marxian tradition, but the ‘resdiscovery’ of Marxism in South Korea, against the backdrop of post-Asian crisis capitalism is a real eye opener. The article on the contradictions of a state in which Marxism is nominally ‘official’ as in China, with its ‘New Left’ but also strong opposition to the renewal of Marxism and Maoism adds to this international approach. If there was to be one complaint, it would be the lack of featuring of South, Central and West Asia, where popular uprisings have taken influence from the Marxist tradition.

This can only but scratch the surface of one of the finest volumes on Marx’s work produced in the last few years. It is sophisticated enough for jaded Marxist intellectuals, yet accessible enough for students to read whilst reading Marx for their first time. It is political enough for those who connect their practice with their theory, but not so overbearingly political as to be sectarian. Marx for Today is certainly a book for today!

Published in:

Studies in Marxism

Date Published

1 January, 2013


Jordy Cummings