Summary: On the 2019 Portuguese (Brazil) translation Kevin B. Anderson’s Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity and Non-Western Societies. First published in Portuguese on June 12 on Blog da Boitempo (Sao Paulo), here: https://blogdaboitempo.com.br/2020/06/12/marx-das-margens-ao-centro/ — Editors
Marxism, noted the philosopher Michel Henry (1), is the historical series of misunderstandings, the set of contradictions, misconceptions and distortions (unconscious or deliberated), pronounced, reproduced and established, in different contexts and in different ways, about the work of Marx.
Among the various misunderstandings about the conceptions of the German thinker, the imputations, stated by different critics of ethnocentrism, determinism or fatalism, reductionism, linearity, unidimensionality, what we could call “systemic Hegelianism”, that is, the projection of abstract distinctions on the real course of history, these attributions and other similar characterizations, are analyzed, debated and critically refuted by Kevin Anderson by means of a careful, documented, contextualized and argued examination of Marx’s writings in this important book.
Anderson examines the development of Marx’s thinking on the dynamics of the modern capitalist system in its internal and external processes of expansion. The work focuses on the ideas of the German revolutionary about non-capitalist societies in history and in his time, the relations of subordination and systematic exploitation that capitalism establishes between center and peripheries in modern colonialism, and how this question, in the view of the American author, is absolutely central to the understanding of “Marx’s Marxism”. The Marxism of Marx himself who, as the well-known anecdote says, emphatically denied being “Marxist”, et pour cause.
Modern industrial capitalism developed initially in specific centers in Europe. This development produced asymmetries and various conflicts and hierarchies, whether internal among the agents, that is, the social classes differentiated in their roles in the structuring of the system, or external between the competing initial developing centers and between these and the socio- historical domains that were at the margins, in different degrees and aspects, of the new processes.
As Marx understood, capitalism is a total system and, as such, tends to subordinate, absorb, modify and manage all processes and structures of material and symbolic reproduction of society, everywhere. Modern capitalism, that is, the socioeconomic system developed with the growth of industry in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, is a global system, that is, a system that needed from the beginning in order to solidify and prosper to overcome regional or national limits and have the world market as at the same time ground, base and destination.
The structural analysis of capitalism, to which Marx dedicated his energies and his talent as a thinker, had from the beginning the essential characteristic of demonstrating, within the processes of capital, the fundamental contradictions that constitute the historical-structural limits of capitalism, and of pointing out, in these same processes, the negative dimension, the dimension that signals the possible way or ways of overcoming capitalism, of resolving the contradictions that the capitalist system produces and establishes within the frameworks of human life, alternatives that are born dialectically from these same contradictions, from future possibilities or possibilities of future that capitalism both establishes and suppresses.
Modern European industrial capitalism in its geographical expansion presented itself as a crucial historical challenge, a vital challenge to the diverse “peripheral” or non-capitalist social formations with their different levels of cultural, economic and technological development.
The distinct and complementary analyses of the Grundrisse and Das Kapital demonstrate that, for Marx, the question is not that of a secondary or “marginal” reproduction of a supposedly one-way, linear movement of the historical “arrow of time” but, on the contrary, of understanding globally the essential conflicts of the times, conflicts that present themselves, each with their own particular elements and specific dynamics, at the same time in the central capitalist societies and at the periphery of the sociohistorical space of European capitalism, that is, in the World System as Marx saw it emerging from the beginning of modernity onward.
In the process of capitalist expansion, Marx observed, the walls of China can do nothing against the invasion of the “armies” of cheap goods, the factory system annihilates handicrafts and the artisans, technical progress is paid for with blood in the center and at the peripheries, domination under “civilizing” justifications occurs in fact as barbarism and crime. In this way, in his analyses of the anti-colonial struggles of his time in the British Empire, Marx can remind the British bourgeoisie that the colony, the periphery, is an integral part of the core of the system. De te fabula narratur: the bloody narrative of colonial domination and humiliation, of established barbarism, is not another story, a story from the others, but its own.
Capitalism in its imperative expansion creates a space for the unification of humanity. Unification in conflict, under the hegemony of the commodity production system, which demands from men vital solutions in the present. In this unified space are manifested the effective potentialities to overcome the social antagonisms constituted and constitutive of history. Potentialities that, as we observed, capitalism gives and suppresses in the same movement for the whole of humanity in the historical process of overcoming the human prehistory of man.
From the initial European paradigm, that is, from the in-depth examination of the historical formation of Europe of his time, and the experience of contemporary revolutionary transformations, Marx, the activist and political exile, the cosmopolitan intellectual and multilingual writer, will develop his ideas, as Kevin Anderson shows, incorporating in essential ways the experiences of the struggles of resistance of the peoples subjugated by colonialism (India, China), the struggles for the emancipation of Black slaves in the USA, the national-popular liberation struggles in Europe (Poland, Ireland), in the analysis of contemporary popular movements, their complex and essential relations with the autonomous initiatives of the working class, and in the appreciation, within an effectively global and, therefore, multidimensional vision, of the diversity and unity of the present. Anderson observes the conceptual contributions of the analyses of current events, that is, of Marx’s journalistic work on, among other topics of actuality, the Civil War in the United States, the opium conflicts in China, the rebellions in India, for the development and completion of the theoretical architecture of Das Kapital as established in its last revisions by Marx in a specific way in the French translation.
It is in this global and multidimensional perspective that Marx will subsequently develop the conceptualization of the differentiated ways of overcoming the capitalist system as, for example, in the study of Russian society under the tsarist autocracy. Marx notes some of the revolutionary potentialities of the historically established peasant communities for a process that could economize, could avoid the historical phase of the bourgeois revolution in circumstances where the bourgeoisie itself could only pretend an imaginary historical role given its lack of real historical power. Universal human history, therefore, does not show a single path and therefore does not offer an exclusive paradigm for change based on limited present day visions and perspectives.
In the Communist Manifesto, Marx, like a “poet of commodities”, in the words of Edmund Wilson (3), expressly and enthusiastically praises the material achievements (revolutionary in the historical perspective) of the bourgeoisie, the class that promotes the new capitalist relations. The great work of the bourgeoisie for the awareness of time and history was to demystify the past, to show in practice the material foundation that structures the multiple aspects of human life, to tear the centuries old veil of idealistic illusions in common life and in modes of thought.
The role of socialism, anchored in the concentrated experience of the modern working class and expanded in the struggles against the various forms of oppression of nationalities, ethnic minorities, peoples, races and gender, is to demystify the present. At the same time that the bourgeoisie, through its revolutionary actions and through its ideologues and spiritual representatives, unveiled the historical character of human life, the transience of social forms based on the material production and reproduction of living conditions, it tried to cover up the historical dimension of the present. There was history as a real process for the bourgeoisie, a process that culminated in modern material and spiritual civilization: bourgeois civilization. From then on, observes Marx ironically, for the new ruling class, history ceases to exist.
In the Communist Manifesto, Marx briefly and didactically explained the fundamental reasons for the historical creation of the new system, generated within the previous social formation, and its relative “inevitability”, that is, the triumph of industrial capitalism in Europe, based on unprecedented productive capacities that revolutionized traditional ways of life by overcoming previous socioeconomic structures and processes. At the same time, the Manifesto pointed out the contradictions, the structural instability of modern capitalism and its equally “inevitable” transformation, as historical creation, as a product of time and, therefore, a transient form.
To explain the reasons means: to show how a particular development took place and for what reasons it was precisely like that and not in any other way. Here we see the author of Das Kapital as a researcher of great rigor and talent. To point out the contradictions within the present formation means: showing that the historical process continues and develops in different dimensions, in varied and closely related instances and that, based on this structured and structuring complexity, the future does not configure itself once and for all in the heritage from the past nor from its actual present historical results as such.
And here the social scientist shows himself, by the same operation, to be concomitantly a revolutionary activist: the future is, in fact, a book yet to be written today, a narrative (it doesn’t matter if it is classified as “grand” or “minor”) that depends on the initiative of its actors, where the given conditions are stipulated in general terms but do not exclude real choices, concrete alternatives generated from material processes and interests in conflict with their own expressions, that is, their particular conceptions and respective values.
An open future corresponds to a reexamined and reevaluated past: in his ethnological investigations Marx deepens the knowledge of non-capitalist societies, of the communal life forms that demonstrated in the historical process the creative and adaptive capacities of the species and the human aptitudes, in different contexts, for diverse non-conflicting, albeit historically limited, forms of cooperative sociability with their potentialities for multidimensional human development.
The dialectical analysis of history in Marx proceeds as immanent critique, that is, starting from the internal structures of given sociohistorical processes and their corresponding forms of consciousness, taking as such their own determinations, it points out the limiting tendencies, the internal contradictions that lead them to impasses and the need for their practical and ideological overcoming. To ignore in these analyses the “dance” of concepts, that is, the movement of thought proper to the dialectical approach, is to take isolated parts for the whole, something that produces reductive, impoverished, mistaken readings on Marx’s vast and complex work.
Likewise, a recurring problem both for certain militant readings and for hurried and concisely critical readings of Marx’s work is that of taking images, metaphors and illustrations for concepts, as observed by Ludovico Silva regarding the formal or aesthetic elements of the writings of the German thinker (2). In the descriptions of capitalism, for example, the synthetic, evocative, incisive formulations and images in Marx’s texts produce a kind of abbreviation and expressive short-circuit (unity and contrast of form and content) as an instigating mode of portraying contradictions, of presenting the dialectical movement of history itself.
Here, based on Kevin Anderson’s argument, we can make a parallel between the readings of Marx’s works as an additional chapter of 19th century Political Economy and those readings which point out in Marx’s writings the problems, risks, aporiae, limitations and contradictions, etc., typical of the (bourgeois) Philosophy of History as outlined during the 18th century and that culminated in German Idealism (the “sublimation” of the French Revolution in the world of ideas) with Hegel. Marxism would be in this respect, yet another “grand narrative” subjecting the diversity of real history to a linear, limited, subjective approach and thus markedly “ethnocentric”, etc. A Grand Narrative that the disasters of the 20th century: wars, interrupted and aborted revolutions, the risks of technology, the commodified management of social life, the ecological crisis, etc. would have buried definitively.
As the arguments of Marx at the Margins show, such readings and their critical formulations fall far short of the complexity of the theory developed by Marx in the detailed and critical examination of the categories of political economy and in the equally dense analysis of ideology, that is, of the dominant ideas of his time. These, in essential aspects, as “inheritance” and through adaptations, reformulations and updates, in many ways are still effective in our time.
Kevin Anderson’s analyses in this book remind us that examining and evaluating Marx’s work implies not only the need to contextualize, to locate in his time and in his theoretical and practical field of intervention, the ideas of the German thinker and revolutionary, which Anderson does in fact with brilliance, but that this procedure also implies the reciprocal analysis and evaluation of the analyst’s own perspectives. Something that is less evident in several of the recent critics, called with or without propriety “postmodern”, of the works of the author of Das Kapital.
Kevin Anderson’s book is situated in the debates of our time in opposition to some central aspects of contemporary ideology which, in the context of the fragmentation and “privatization” of experience by the system of neoliberal capitalism, tends to paradoxically hinder the comprehension of the socio-historical whole and its fundamental articulations. At a time when the universal commodification of human relations deepens and proceeds to equate as equivalent abstractions and to subordinate, in the name of qualities, preferences and differences, the social subjects and their contexts.
These brief observations are intended to indicate to the reader the historical, documentary and conceptual richness of Kevin Anderson’s book. The author uses primary sources exhaustively and productively, showing the creative role that erudition can play in intellectual work and demonstrating in his analyses the practice of critical reflection as self-reflection.
1 Michel Henry, Marx, a philosophy of human reality (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1983).
2 Ludovico Silva, El estilo literario de Marx (Mexico, DF, Siglo XXI Editores, 1975)
3 Edmund Wilson, To the Finland Station (Garden City, NY, Doubleday, 1953).