Marx at 2020: After the Crisis

Marx at 2020: After the Crisis

by Ronaldo Munck

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“In this intellectual tour de force, Ronaldo Munck revisits the Marxist enterprise as a radical, open, and resilient tradition. The author explores the evolving tensions among scientific analyses, political projects, and utopian visions and integrates Eastern, Southern and global perspectives into a rich account of all the major themes and debates. This book is for social movements as well as the classroom and personal libraries.”—Bob Jessop, author of The State: Past, Present, Future

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783608072
Publisher: Zed Books
Publication date: 09/15/2016
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 300
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Ronaldo Munck is head of civic engagement at Dublin City University and visiting professor in Development Studies at St Mary’s University, Canada. He is the founding chair of the Development Studies Association of Ireland.


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Marx 2020

After the Crisis

By Ronaldo Munck

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2016 Ronaldo Munck
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78360-808-9



Jacques Derrida, a champion of the postmodern, post-Marxist era, once declared: 'There will be no future without this. Not without Marx, no future without Marx, without the memory and the inheritance of Marx' (1994: 13). It is not a simple question of saying 'Marxism is dead, long live Marx!' But there is now – more than thirty years since the collapse of the state socialist regimes – a more sober reappraisal of the Marxist heritage than was previously possible. This chapter traces some of the high (and low) points of the complex Marxist trajectories from their origins in Marx, through the social-democratic and communist traditions, to Marxism's difficult engagement with postmodernism in recent times. I have inevitably simplified the complex labyrinth of the Marxist discourse and the socialist communist movements. Sometimes, though, it would seem that the labyrinth – with its walls, dead-ends and Borgesian logic – is one that some Marxists/socialists/communists created for themselves or, more often, their followers.

Marx in his era

At first glance we would have read as counter-intuitive Étienne Balibar's confident prediction in1995 that: 'Marx will still be read in the twenty-first century, not only as a movement of the past, but as a contemporary author' (1995: 1). But just as we thought that Marx had become a 'dead dog' (as Hegel before him), he now seems to spring back to life. The Marxist project did not emerge fully developed one summer day from the head of Karl Marx. The genealogy of Marxism shows a complex, sometimes contradictory, development of the discourse we now know as Marxism. Nor can this be reduced to the 'young Marx' versus the 'mature Marx' or artificial distinctions between Marx as economist, philosopher or politician. It is even a simplification to argue, as Kautsky and Lenin both did, that Marxism as a world-view has three clear sources: German philosophy, French socialism and British political economy. This type of totalization, which is intrinsically and inevitably Europe bound, will not do for a critical or 'live' Marx for today. Instead, we must delve into the real world of Marx and examine the shifts, retreats and advances he carried out in his bid to put revolutionary theory on a scientific standing against all the 'utopian socialists' of his day.

With the Communist Manifesto, written with Engels in 1847, Marx's political vision was made explicit. While often read for its dramatic images of a dynamic bourgeoisie, the Manifesto is also marked by a strong belief in an imminent and general crisis of capitalism. This would create the conditions for the proletariat to lead all the dominated classes towards a radical democracy, which, in turn, would create the conditions for a classless, communist society. This was the era of permanent revolution. The proletariat is seen as the universal class of history. This, as Balibar notes, 'allows Marx to read off from the present the imminence of the communist revolution' (1995:40). The themes of modernism and romanticism seem rolled into one. Marx's dialectic of modernity creates a politics of redemption, of universal fulfilment. The image of perpetual progress and the inevitable advance of history is a bold one. From a postmodern perspective we can also see the dark side of these images. Marshal Berman, admirer of Marx-the-Modernist, can write of the Manifesto

We can see, too, how communism, in order to hold itself together, might stifle the active, dynamic and developmental forces that have brought it into being, might betray many of the hopes that have made it worth fighting for, might reproduce the inequities and contradictions of bourgeois society under a new name. (1983: 105)

As it turned out, history took a turn showing it would not always advance by its good side. The European revolution of 1848–49 could have seen the implementation of the Manifesto but, instead, had relegated it by 1850 into a seeming non-runner. The collapse of capitalism and the proletariat as universal class had been proven to be either a mirage or wishful thinking. The notion of permanent revolution went out the window and Marx was forced to grapple with the power of nationalism and religious ideas. There was to be no smooth move towards a classless society. Marx turned, in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napolean, to seek strategies to confront the counter-revolution and to bridge the gap between what he began to call 'class in itself' and 'class for itself'. Capitalism would not magically unite the working class, this unity would have to be constructed politically. Marx also (re)turned to his ambitious research programme into capitalism, the critique of political economy, which would bear fruit with the publication of Volume 1 of Capital in 1867. Capitalism's failure to oblige through a simple collapse and general crisis led Marx, thus, to uncover the hidden secrets of this mode of production, the sources of its dynamism and the nature of its contradictions.

The complex architecture of Marx's Capital, in its three volumes and the 'fourth' volume of theTheories of Surplus Value is, of course, his most enduring and systematic legacy. Yet at this level only, read as an economist, Marx could conceivably be dismissed, as he has been by some commentators as a 'minor post-Ricardian'. This perception changes if we move on to read Capital politically, as Harry Cleaver advised: 'it is a reading which eschews all detached interpretation and abstract theorizing in favour of grasping concepts only within that concrete totality of struggle whose determinations they designate' (1979: 11). With the rule of capitalism having been secured (almost) across the globe, it would seem opportune to return to Capital. Of course many of the problems which have exercised Marxist economics over the years – for example the so-called 'transformation problem' of finding a general rule by which to transform the 'values' of commodities determined by the labour theory of value into the 'prices' of the marketplace – seem, and probably are, arcane today. However, a strategic reading of Capital can still be a useful aid towards developing a deeper conceptual understanding of capitalism today. With capitalism triumphant, Marx may still provide, as Zygmunt Bauman writes, 'a thoroughly critical utopia, exposing the historical relativity of capitalist values, laying bare their historical limitation and thereby preventing them from freezing into an horizon-less commonsense' (1976: 99). In developing a new common sense for our new times, Marx still has something to say, if read critically.

The events of 1870–71 were, as those of 1848–49, also to have a mixed effect on the development of the Marxian system. The Franco-Prussian war of 1870, followed by the great but tragic Paris Commune, set back even further the optimistic view of history. While Marx may have hailed the Commune as the first 'working-class government' in history, he was still shocked that the revolution had not broken out in the most developed capitalist country, namely England. Then, the merciless crushing of the Parisian working classes brought home the real, material military power of the ruling classes. There would be no simple, organic path to communism. Real politics came smashing into the developing Marxian paradigm. Again history was not developing on the 'good side', as testified by the dissolution of the First International in 1872. After 1871, as Balibar writes, Marx 'did not stop working, but from that moment on he was certain that he could no longer "finish" his work, that he could not come to a "conclusion". There would be no conclusion' (1995:103). The Marxian discourse became more open, less necessitarian and more 'political'. In Marx it led to the notion of 'transition' seen as a phase before communism when the proletariat would have to dismantle the state apparatus. This 'rectification' of Marx's would have serious effects on the later history of socialism.

After the shock of 1871, Marx again interrupted his research programme, this time to learn Russian among other things, and to rectify his theory of social evolution. The inexorable progress of capitalism towards communism with its evolutionary image had been shattered. It was a simple question, yet one that was inordinately difficult for Marx to answer, which prompted this epistemological rupture. The early Russian socialists, known as 'populists', sought Marx's opinion in 1888 on whether the rural commune could be the germ of a non-capitalist development prefiguring communism. In the 1867 Preface to the first edition of Capital Marx had argued famously: 'The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future' (Marx, 1976: 91). In 1881, Marx was able to articulate in his letter to Vera Zasulich that Capital's law-like theory of capitalist accumulation did not apply regardless of historical circumstance. No longer is there a unilinear path of capitalist development, but a recognition of complexity, diversity and the distinct concrete paths to development in different parts of the world. For Teodor Shanin, who helped bring to light Marx's writings on Russia: 'His last decade was a conceptual leap, cut short by his death. Marx was a man of intellect as much as a man of passion for social justice, a revolutionary who preferred revolutionaries to doctrinaire followers' (Shanin, 1983: 33).

When Marx died in 1883, Engels became his literary executor, with huge effects for the development of what was to become Marxism. Along with the notables of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) Engels systematized or simplified and made mechanical Marx's fluid thought. His defining influence is felt in the volumes of Capital published after Marx's death, in his own doctrinal texts such as AntiDühring and in his creation of 'historical materialism' as Weltanschauung (world-view). In his analysis of the critical reception of Marx after his death, Paul Thomas goes as far as to say that 'Engels's doctrines owed little or nothing to Marx, the man he called his mentor' (1991: 41). Perhaps this is going too far, but it is no coincidence that the Soviet translation of Marx's thought into state ideology began with the work of the Marx-Engels Institute. Against all the scientific readings of Marx by Engels and others, it should be recalled that Marx never referred to 'historical materialism' and certainly never to that Soviet monster 'dialectical materialism' (or 'diamat' for short). It was, of course, Stalin's 1938 pamphlet, Dialectical and Historical Materialism, which cemented this 'Marxist' orthodoxy and helped convert it into state ideology and police method. None of this was inevitable of course.

We do not need rose-tinted spectacles to reject Kolakowski's concerted effort in his three-volume history of Marxism to make the father responsible for the sins of his children. The religion of Marxism Leninism simply cannot be laid at Marx's door, if we place the latter in historical context and actually read what he wrote at the time, in the conjuncture in which he was living. This does not mean, of course, that Marx is immune to criticism, particularly as a modernist thinker. In this regard, we need to consider Foucault's warning that: 'the claim to escape from the systems of contemporary reality so as to produce the overall programs of another society, of another way of thinking, another culture, another vision of the world, has led only to the return of the most dangerous traditions' (1984: 46). Marx was probably guilty of this type of arrogance, but Capital does not lead inexorably to the Gulag, as some of the more disingenuous 'nouveaux philosophes' tried to tell us in the 1980s after they forsook Marxism (e.g. Glucksmann, 1980). Even Foucault, as we shall see, who ran a mile from anything which smacked of 'dialectical materialism', can be seen to be in a constant engagement with the 'ghost of Marx', as Max Weber was before him.

Why would we imagine that the ideas of Marx might be relevant today? For Lukács, in a text he later disowned during the Stalinist heyday, 'Orthodox Marxism ... does not imply the uncritical acceptance of the results of Marx's investigations . ... On the contrary, orthodoxy refers exclusively to method' (1971: 1). Though still a text of a 'true believer', to some extent the point is a sensible one. The method of Marx is that of the radical critique, with its inherent capacity of reflexivity and self-critique. If the 'diamat' is an integral part of Stalinist totalitarianism, Marx's critical method points instead towards all the radical trends in epistemology, from feminism to deconstruction. In Marx's own thought there was permanent innovation, adaptation and self-critical reflection. Marx's thought was/is as dynamic as the society it worked on, and its drive for social justice is as relevant today as then. There does seem to be considerable consensus that Marx was on surer ground as critic of capitalism, rather than as creator of a new society. In this regard we can but agree with Marshall Berman, for whom: 'The great gift [Marx] ... can give us today, it seems to me, is not a way out of the contradictions of modern life but a surer and deeper way into these contradictions'(1983: 129).

If Marx sought a science, did he not also create a utopia with communism? Certainly in much of his writing we can detect a strong anti-utopian sentiment, but communism is still a utopia in the full sense of the word. There are many voices urging a reconsideration of this utopian element in Marx. For John Gray, no friend of Marxism, to 'repress in the interests of criticism and objective knowledge the mythopoeic impulse which explains its appeal' is to reduce it to 'an esoteric and barely intelligible cult' (1995: 232). Jacques Derrida, in his own settling of accounts with Marx, similarly, but more positively, notes that Marxism 'carries with it, and must carry with it, necessarily, despite so many modern or post-modern denials, a messianic eschatology' (1994: 59). It would indeed be a very reductive and 'cold' view of science which would divorce it from all positive human endeavour. The politics of utopia can be grounded and do not necessarily degenerate into totalitarian nightmares. It is perhaps, at this point, that Marx speaks most clearly to the new social movements which many would see as the agents of change comparable to Marx's gravedigger of capitalism, the proletariat.

The followers

The socialist clock (or bomb?) so passionately wound up by Marx was slowly but surely unwound by his followers, to become a pale reflection (even betrayal) of its former self. The Second or Socialist International was formed in 1889, a few years before Engels died in 1895. Hopes were high that this new international body would take up and develop the heritage of the First International. Kolakowski has, with little exaggeration, called the 1889–1914 era the 'golden age of Marxism' (1981: 1). Yet as the First World War broke out in 1914, the socialist parties of the French and German proletariats lined up behind their national states and armies in the great conflagration. The great hopes of socialist internationalism were dashed as its constituent parts succumbed to chauvinism and jumped on, with varying degrees of reluctance, to their respective nation-state war machines. This watershed in the history of Marxist ideas and practice was to give rise to a new, hardier offshoot, Bolshevism or communism, to be examined in the next section. But first we have to consider in more detail the epistemological and political underpinnings of 'orthodox' Marxism after the death of its reluctant founder, Karl Marx.

The role of Friedrich Engels in Marxism has always been contested. For some we are dealing always with a hybrid Marx/Engels persona, for others Engels was elevated by orthodox Marxism-Leninism precisely because he simplified and sometimes distorted the thinking of Karl Marx. My own position, in brief, is that Engels played a vital role in Marx's life and at times collaborated with him, but that he must be regarded as a separate thinker. In the years which Friedrich Engels lived after the death of Karl Marx – 1883 to 1895 – he acted as the latter's literary executor, editor of the volumes of Capital after Volume 1 and, in some ways as the arbiter of what Marx 'really meant'. Inevitably that role, to some extent foisted on him by the leaders of social democracy, left him in the ambiguous position as Marx's 'alter ego' and, as some said at the time the 'source of truth'. Soviet ideology then canonized him in this role so that Marx-Engels became a duo to be followed by Lenin, Stalin and Mao – all claiming to be direct descendants from the work of Karl Marx philosophically, intellectually, politically and ethically. Nothing could be further from the truth.


Excerpted from Marx 2020 by Ronaldo Munck. Copyright © 2016 Ronaldo Munck. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
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Table of Contents

1 Beyond the labyrinth: Marxism and history
2 Red and green: Marxism and nature
3 Soviets plus electrification: Marxism and development
4 The gravediggers: Marxism and workers
5 Unhappy marriage: Marxism and women
6 The return of the superstructure: Marxism and culture
7 Difficult dialogue: Marxism and nation
8 ‘Opium of the people’: Marxism and religion
9 After the crisis: Marxism and the future

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