Tim Hayslip, Marx and Philosophy. Review of Books

The Marx Revival: Key Concepts and New Interpretations, edited by Marcello Musto, consists of 22 chapters dealing with a wide variety of topics written by well-known contemporary Marxist thinkers. The reader is not confronted by a single argument, but rather with an overview of the remarkably fractious character of current Marxist scholarship. Consequently, any assessment of the book must inevitably be influenced by one’s overall assessment of Marx’s leading academic successors. In this brief review, I have chosen not to try to describe briefly all the chapters in the book, as an adequate treatment of each is impossible in the space allowed. Instead I have chosen to discuss some of its main limitations and consider a few chapters that focus on Marxism as a response to the conditions of the world.

Those with minimal prior knowledge of Marxist thought may benefit from beginning with the final chapter by the late Immanuel Wallerstein who provides an overview of how Marxism’s development has been connected to geopolitical developments. Wallerstein argues that the origins of Marxism both “as an ideology and as a movement,” arose not from Marx’s own conscious efforts but after Marx’s death when “Engels assumed the heritage with panache” (Wallerstein, 378). Engels’ frequent interventions into the politics of the nascent German Social Democratic Party (SPD) consolidated Marx’s theoretical legacy and established the SPD as an important locus for debates about political strategy.

Although factions within the SPD debated whether socialism could be achieved through an electoral path or if revolutionary insurrection would be necessary, and the SPD leadership spoke of the necessity of insurrection, they did little to develop a revolutionary avant-garde. The party instead focused on “creating a powerful network of structures in the larger ‘civil society’” (Wallerstein, 379).

Wallerstein describes a lasting schism developing between the factions over the question of whether to support `their’ nation’s war efforts in World War One. This schism was later solidified by the formation of the Communist Party of Germany and the course of the Russian Revolution. Conceptually, reformist and revolutionary parties diverged over the question of how to win socialism, with social democrats focusing on growing the welfare state and renouncing any attempt to control the means of production, while the USSR transformed Marxism into an apologia for ‘actually existent socialism’. However, in practice, the Soviet leadership and Western social democrats were increasingly united by supporting state-led economic development (Wallerstein, 380-2).

Yet, radicals increasingly abandoned both of these methods that “had not ‘changed the world’, as they had promised” (Wallerstein, 388). Some radicals added gender and ecological concerns to these classical Marxist concerns. Others embraced post-modernism and rejected the idea of an authoritative theory of history, a ‘metanarrative’, in favor of theoretical pluralism.

Wallerstein (389) writes that after the dissolution of the USSR, some Marxists “began to adopt openly neo-liberal arguments, or at best post-Marxist social-democratic positions. But once again reality caught up.” Reality manifested itself in the forms of capitalist malaise, neoliberalism, and the 2008 global financial crisis. Together, these realities grew the audience for critiques of the economic status quo and revived Marxism.

In the chapter he wrote, editor Marcello Musto documents how the early, utopian socialists were responding to a similar impetus: the inequalities that persisted in the wake of the French Revolution. These early socialists hoped to transform society by championing new ideas and egalitarian principles. They felt that “equality could be the solution for all the problems of society” (Musto, 27).

Marx criticized such moralism from above, insisting on the necessity of workers’ self-emancipation. The development of nineteenth century capitalism was enabling social progress that presented workers greater opportunities for personal development and enlightenment than ever before. However, they were unable to benefit fully from the “time that the progress of science and technology makes available [because what should be free time] is in reality immediately converted into surplus-value” (Musto, 43). Communism was then and still remains necessary for workers to freely control their own lives.

Musto quotes a response Marx gave when asked about the proper policy a revolutionary government would enact to establish a socialist society. He stressed that the proper policy “at any particular moment depends, of course, wholly and entirely on the actual historical circumstances” (Musto, 31). Furthermore, as Marx says, communism ought to be conceived not as “a state of affairs to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself, [but as] the real movement which abolishes the present state of things” (Musto, 35).

Since Marxists see reality itself as having contradictory elements, it should not be surprising that the various viewpoints espoused in The Marx Revival are contradictory. Readers familiar with Marx’s own writings and theories may also notice divergences from them. While this is to be expected given the historical development Wallerstein describes, a limitation of the book is that these dissonant viewpoints are not brought into conversation with one another.

The four entries for the “rate of profit” in the index are merely presented alongside one another. For those drawn to Marxism by Marx’s analysis of crises, the few entries concerned with Marx’s economics may itself be viewed as a shortcoming of the book, albeit a characteristic it seems to share with contemporary academic Marxism in general.

Alex Callinicos’ chapter titled ‘Class Struggle’ provides a sympathetic outline of Marx’s falling rate of profit theory. Briefly, competition forces businesses to “invest increasingly heavily in means of production” resulting in its growth relative surplus value (profit). Despite the tendency for return on investment to fall, Marx disagreed with David Ricardo’s denial of the possibility of wages and prices rising simultaneously. If an economy grows quickly enough, increasing real wages are consistent with rising inequality (Callinicos, 97). Thus, the distribution of income between wages and profits is not the root cause of falling profitability. Instead, faced with falling returns of their investments or even bankruptcy, capitalists are strongly incentivized to economize on all costs, including wages. In a related vein, Seongjin Jeong’s ‘Globalization’ describes how the development of the world market has sped economic growth and constituted “a powerful countervailing force to the crisis tendency of the falling rate of profit” (Jeong, 297).

The remaining two references for the rate of profit in the book appear in Michael Kratke’s chapter titled ‘Capitalism’. The first mention repeats Jeong’s assessment of the relationship between capitalism and globalization, while Kratke’s second mention shows the importance Marx assigned to the tendency of the rate of profit to fall and the central role it would play in how capitalism “would eventually undermine itself”. However, Kratke adds that “Marx failed to establish the falling rate of profit as a law connected to technological changes” (Kratke, 21). One could say that these writers are debating but without the opportunity to address one another’s arguments.

A fifth unlisted reference to the rate of profit appears in ‘Proletariat’ written by Marcel van der Linden. He argues that since Marx describes the proletariat as the source of profit, the profitability of slave plantations was inconsistent with the labor theory of value. That profit was simply interest earned on the purchase of slaves, rather than value they had created. Marx himself “was apparently not completely convinced of his own analysis” in which slaves were categorized as an anomalous form of surplus value-producing constant capital. While neither Marx nor contemporary Marxism are without faults, I was surprised to find an interpretation that reinforces the common trope that Marx was blind to forms of exploitation and oppression aside from those faced by the working class within a book clearly intended to provide a sympathetic introduction to his ideas.

Its presence is especially regrettable when we examine a passage central to van der Linden’s argument. Marx (Capital: Volume III, Penguin, 1981, 761-62) wrote, “The confusion between ground-rent itself and the form of interest that it assumes for the purchaser of the land … cannot but lead to the most peculiar and incorrect conclusions … for the slaveowner who has paid cash for his slaves, the product of their labour simply represents the interest on the capital invested in their purchase.” Far from agreeing with the slaveowner, Marx was declaring this perspective is “peculiar and incorrect” in that it mistakes surplus value for interest. The confusingly anomalous status of laboring slaves appearing to their ‘masters’ as surplus value-creating ‘property’ while actually being super exploited people enables the production of profit without the significant exploitation of wage-earners in a capitalist framework.

Still, these limitations should not taint what is otherwise a very worthwhile book and well-rounded representation of contemporary Marxism. Musto’s main achievement as editor is in compiling a collection of contributions that demonstrate the continuing relevance of the Marxist theoretical corpus to a wide variety of topics from gender relations to nationalism and from colonialism to religion. I hope that attentive readers who notice the disagreements between the chapters are thereby spurred to deepen their investigations.

The wide-ranging contents of this collection suggests that it should serve as an excellent text for college and university students who already possess some familiarity with Marxism, as well as an introduction to some of the main themes of academic Marxism for a wider audience of activists. As clouds seem to again be gathering for a geopolitical and economic storm, the audience for Marx’s critiques will almost certainly grow, and the world may soon become haunted by The Marx Revival.

Published in:

Marx and Philosophy. Review of Books

Date Published

18 September, 2022


Tim Hayslip