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John Rees

The Return of Marx?

(July 1998)

From International Socialism 2:79, July 1998.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Suddenly, after years where the only words used about Marx in the mainstream media insisted on his irrelevance to contemporary events, there is a revival of interest in Marxism. Recently the Independent on Sunday devoted the three page cover story of its review section to an article titled Was He Right All Along? touting Marx as ‘the next big thinker’ and insisting on the importance of his analysis of capitalism before concluding that ‘despite his errors, he was a man for whom our economic system held few surprises. His books will be worth reading as long as capitalism endures’. [1] The Financial Times paid tribute to ‘Marx’s extraordinary impact on the last century and a half’ and reminded its readers that ‘Marx was not only the harbinger of revolutionary hatred, but a shrewd, subtle analyst of capitalist society’. [2] This was the second time in a week that the Financial Times praised Marx. A few days earlier columnist Edward Mortimer quoted The Communist Manifesto to prove that ‘Marx and Engels described a world economy more like that of 1998 than 1848’. [3]

The 150th anniversary of The Communist Manifesto has been the occasion for many of these reappraisals of Marx. The Guardian ran a full page feature, half of which was an extract from Eric Hobsbawm’s introduction to the new Verso edition of the Manifesto. The other half was an account of the 1848 revolutions. [4] BBC2’s Newsnight chose to run the longest section of one evening’s programme on an assessment of the Manifesto [5] and even Marx’s daughter Eleanor gained some recognition in The Independent with an article commemorating the anniversary of her death. [6] This list, and it is not exhaustive, certainly testifies to a flurry of journalistic interest in Marx. [7] But is there anything more substantial to the revival of Marx than a passing fad among editors short of sensationalist copy?

In fact the rediscovery of Marx in the press was preceded for some years by a softening of attitudes towards Marx among some left academics. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s postmodernism commanded an almost unqualified allegiance among left leaning academics. Marxism was rarely mentioned in anything but disparaging terms. Marx was said to be reductionist, determinist, authoritarian and worse. Any attempts at what Jean François Lyotard described as historical ‘grand narratives’ were said to be simply an attempt to project the subjective desires of the particular theorist onto a necessarily fragmented and atomised reality. The result of any attempt to act on such reductive theories could only be an authoritarian forcing of others to share in ‘discourses’ which were not their own. Such coercion would lead, ultimately, to the gulag.

A significant break in this theoretical anti-Marxist front came with the publication of postmodernist Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx in 1994. The book itself, based on earlier lectures, is a rambling, discursive stream of consciousness from which little of substantive interest can be rescued. Its significance lay in the simple fact that, beneath the verbiage, it seemed to transmit a message that a prodigal was returning:

… the Marxist inheritance was – and still remains, and so it will remain – absolutely and thoroughly determinate. One need not be a Marxist or a communist in order to accept this obvious fact. We all live in a world, some would say a culture, that still bears, at an incalculable depth, the mark of this inheritance ... [8]

And Derrida is not alone. In a recently published series of interviews conducted by Eva Corredor a number of prominent intellectuals reassess the influence of Marxism, particularly the Marxism of George Lukács, at the end of the 20th century. [9] Some are figures, like Terry Eagleton and Lukács’s biographer Michael Lowy, who have never sought to distance themselves from the Marxist tradition. Others, like Etienne Balibar, co-author with Louis Althusser of Reading Capital, were among those whose critique of Marxism paved the way for the triumph of postmodernism in the 1980s. Balibar now seems not only to be rekindling his interest in Marxism, but also to have developed a partial critique of his own earlier work. Balibar remembers that ‘in the sixties I would not read Lukács very much, mainly because of the influence of Althusser’. [10] He adds that:

… we were very opposed to any form of what we called a Hegelian interpretation of history, and we would see [Lukács’s work] as a form of return of Hegelianism into Marxism itself. Our idea, right or wrong, was that we should develop a critique or a new foundation of Marxism, not in that direction, but almost exactly in the opposite direction. So our great names were not Lukács and Korsch but Brecht, Levi-Strauss to some extent, and Freud above all. [11]

But Balibar, ‘at the other end of my career’, now records a significant shift in focus:

I am now and have for some time been in a process of re-evaluating the importance of Lukács in the intellectual history of the 20th century. To my own surprise, possibly because I was too ignorant, too naive, or too sectarian, I have now become aware of the fact that he is a very central figure, to say the least. [12]

Balibar’s reappraisal does not run to embracing the crucial notion of the working class as the subject of history, but it nevertheless marks a shift in emphasis back towards the central concerns of the classical Marxist tradition, founded by Marx and Engels and developed by Lenin, Luxemburg, Gramsci, Lukács and Trotsky. Other writers much further from this tradition than Balibar are also finding the 1990s to be a time in which it is useful to recall Marx. Writer Cornel West describes himself both as ‘a black Christian’ and as ‘deeply indebted to the Marxist tradition’. George Steiner, the model of an establishment intellectual, concludes an interview full of admiration for Lukács, with these sentiments:

If one has not read [Hegel’s] The Phenomenology of the Spirit, one is not of our time. And really read it, not just little post-deconstructivist idiocies about it ... The same is true of others. Not to have read The Eighteenth Brumaire, The Condition of the Working Class in England by Engels – very, very important – not to have read part of the Grundrisse, not to have read about the French Revolution, would be to deprive one of the masters of epic narrative and invectives, which is to have missed the turning point of modern history even while disagreeing totally. [13]

All this comes after a steady stream of books with titles like Marx at the Millennium, The Future of Socialism and Reinventing Socialism. [14] The Communist Manifesto anniversary has added to this current. Two of the more interesting and substantial pieces are Eric Hobsbawm’s introduction to the Verso edition and Colin Leys and Leo Panitch’s contribution to the special edition of the Socialist Register devoted to the Manifesto. [15]

The first sense in which these contributions are interesting is that they forcibly state one of the main reasons for the revival of interest in Marxism – the continued economic and political chaos of the global capitalist system in the late 20th century. Behind the ephemeral journalistic enthusiasms, the waning of postmodernist fashion and the convenient dual anniversaries of 1848 and 1968, lies the brute and inescapable fact of a world caught in the coils of instability first described in the Manifesto. This is the constantly repeated refrain in both media and academic commentary. The Guardian’s economics correspondent, Larry Elliott, even imagined, in an article called How the Next Depression Began, the possible effects of the next worldwide slump: ‘Did anybody emerge with any credit from this debacle? Well ... Karl Marx ... won hundreds of millions of new followers among the huddled masses ...’ [16] But mostly commentators reserve their praise for Marx’s ability to foresee the shape of the global economic crisis in advanced capitalism. Eric Hobsbawm expresses the common position:

… what will undoubtedly ... strike the contemporary reader is the Manifesto’s remarkable diagnosis of the revolutionary character and impact of ‘bourgeois society’. The point is not simply that Marx recognised and proclaimed the extraordinary achievements and dynamism of a society he detested – to the surprise of more than one later defender of capitalism against the red menace. It is that the world transformed by capitalism which he described in 1848, in passages of dark, laconic eloquence, is recognisably the world in which we live 150 years later. [17]

Leys and Panitch make the same point more directly:

Journalists can no longer speak, as they did in the 1980s, of ‘the business community’, as if it were some benign college whose interests were more or less identical to those of the nation as a whole; simply to stay credible they must now talk about ‘the corporate agenda’ and the threat capitalism (no longer a taboo word) poses to the environment, and about the problems of poverty and homelessness it is creating, the erosion of social security and the negative impact of the standards of health and education. [18]

And so they argue:

The tide of reaction is still flowing, but with diminishing confidence and force, while the counterflow of progressive feeling and ideas gathers strength but has yet to find effective political expression. As the contradictions of unbridled neoliberalism become increasingly plain, fewer and fewer people any longer mistake its real character. ‘Stubborn historical facts’ are breaking through the illusions fostered by neoliberal rhetoric – and equally through the pseudo-left illusions of ‘new times’, ‘radicalism of the centre’ and all similar dreams of a capitalist world miraculously freed from alienation, immiseration and crises. [19]

This turn of the tide has been gathering force during the 1990s, fuelled by the failure of the New World Order in the Gulf War and subsequently everywhere from the Middle East through the Balkans to Somalia and Rwanda. The failure of the Asian Tiger economies and the revolution in Indonesia are merely the latest, if also some of the greatest, chapters in the unravelling story of capitalism’s failure to live up to the bright future painted for it by its apologists in the wake of the collapse of the Stalinist states. The most important popular expression of this mood has been a series of mass strikes in many European countries, most importantly in France. Another has been the return, especially in Britain, of social democratic governments after many years of conservative dominance which has further raised hopes of a socialist revival.

The current ‘return to Marx’ is a product of these interlinked events. But, welcome as it is, this revival contains a number of crucial weaknesses which, if it is to be sustained and built upon, must be overcome. Firstly, the return to Marx is partial and selective. Marx’s analysis of capitalism is praised, but his belief in the revolutionary potential of the working class is denigrated nearly everywhere. Hobsbawm again provides a summary of the common argument:

… if at the end of the millennium we must be struck by the acuteness of the manifesto’s vision of the then remote future of massively globalised capitalism, the failure of another of its forecasts is equally striking. It is now evident that the bourgeoisie has not produced ‘above all ... its own gravediggers’ in the proletariat. [20]

It is not that Hobsbawm dismisses the working class as a political force altogether. He is willing to admit that the Manifesto was right in its ‘prediction of the central role of the political movements based on the working class’ and points out that ‘descendants of the social-democratic parties of the Second International, sometimes under their original names, are parties of government in all except two European states (Spain and Germany), in both of which they have provided the government in the past, and are likely to do so again’. [21] Such optimism about the prospects for reformism is an unacknowledged change in Hobsbawm’s analysis. He famously predicted in the 1980s, in the essay The Forward March of Labour Halted, that the erosion of the traditional working class would undermine the possibility of reformist parties repeating the electoral success they enjoyed before the Thatcher-Reagan era. That particular form of impressionism seems to have been dispelled by the electoral success of reformism in the 1990s.

Hobsbawm’s criticism of Marx is now specifically directed at the claim that the working class is a potentially revolutionary class. [22] Both Derrida’s rediscovery of Marx and Balibar’s rediscovery of Lukács founder on the same rock. Indeed the only interviewee in the Corredor collection who will defend the proposition that the working class is the agent of social change is Terry Eagleton. The incredulity with which this idea is received by his interviewer speaks volumes for how academically unfashionable this notion remains. [23]

Yet the revolutionary potential of the working class is an indispensable central tenet of Marxism. Indeed it was the theoretical recognition of this fact which was the founding moment of Marx’s distinctive analysis of capitalism. Many before Marx had pointed to the destructive nature of the capitalist system, not least the Utopian Socialists. And any number of social critics, radical sociologists and assorted reformers have done so since. What was and remains unique about Marx’s approach was that it insisted that working class self emancipation could provide an alternative to the barbarity of capitalism. Almost alone among recent commentators Leys and Panitch have some sense that the working class movement is still, in the words of the Manifesto, ‘the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority’:

By the mid-1990s strikes in France, the USA and Canada once more occupied the front pages alongside reports of strikes in South Korea and ‘IMF riots’ throughout much of the Third World from Zimbabwe to Mexico. There was also a sharp rise in class awareness. Even the Economist noted, ‘Many commentators think that class is dying, but ordinary people are not convinced. In fact class antagonisms may even be worsening – the proportion believing that there is a ‘class struggle’ in Britain rose from around 60 percent in the early 1960s to 81 percent in the mid-1990s, according to Gallup ... [24]

The evidence for the vitality of the class struggle is, in fact, a good deal more substantial than this quotation suggests. There have, after all, been general strikes in Greece, Italy, Spain and Denmark in the mid-1990s. Moreover, there have been, on one calculation, mass political strikes in some 20 countries between 1994 and 1997. [25] Without a recognition of this fundamental revival in working class combativity and consciousness in recent years – notwithstanding all its continuing problems, weaknesses and limitations – it is difficult to see how those who are sympathetic to the revival of Marx can make any theoretical headway, let alone play any useful role in the development of the class struggle.

Secondly, the return to Marx is not a return to Marxism – that is, to the revolutionary Marxist tradition. Nothing exemplifies this more clearly than the very different fashions now affecting, on the one hand, Marx himself, and, on the other hand, the history of the Russian Revolution. The renewed interest in Marx may be a minority current even now. It may have important weaknesses. But it is, as we have seen, real enough. There is no such current, however shallow, willing to grant the same credence to the experience of the Russian Revolution or the work of Lenin. It is only sufficient to note that two of the most popular and widely praised historians of the Russian Revolution, both equally and violently anti-Bolshevik, are a former member of Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council, Richard Pipes, and a former colonel in the propaganda department of the Russian army, Dmitri Volkogonov. There is virtually no counter-current on the left. [26]

But without the recognition that Marxism is a tradition, those who wish to see its revival will be hamstrung. However far-seeing Marx and Engels were, they could not foresee the series of problems which the further development of capitalism placed in the path of the working class movement. The development of imperialism, mass reformism, Third World nationalism and Stalinism, to mention only the most obvious issues, pose problems which are almost impossible for modern Marxists to resolve unless they regard the work of Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky and Gramsci as part of a live, coherent and, for all the differences between its various representatives, unitary tradition.

Finally, the revival of interest in Marx is hampered by its proponents’ lack of any direct contact with the radicalised mood among the mass of workers. The renewed interest in Marx is still largely a phenomenon restricted to an older generation of intellectuals, often those first radicalised by 1968 and its aftermath. Although there are some signs of a younger generation keen to rediscover the Marxist tradition, they have yet to make a mark and often remain mired in the obscure modes of expression typical of an academic milieu much more cramped by ideological conservatism and funding restrictions than their predecessors. Previous generations of radicalised theorists mostly found their home in the various Communist Parties internationally or in one brand or other of left reformism. Both forces are much weaker now than they were 30, 20 or even ten years ago. Yet some organised connection will have to be remade with the working class struggle if the revival of Marxism is not to wither on the vine as a mere literary episode with no serious social consequences.

Yet it is on this issue that even the best of the current commentators on Marx are least certain. Socialist Register has always insisted that some sort of organised political link to the working class struggle is desirable, but has long argued that this could not take the form of a Leninist party. Leys and Panitch continue this tradition by paying tribute to the ‘brilliantly argued’ case of Sheila Rowbotham, Lynne Segal and Hillary Wainwright who, in the 1970s pamphlet Beyond the Fragments, criticised ‘the defects of the old parties and their sectarian offshoots’. [27] In fact Beyond the Fragments was a conspicuous failure: it did not lead to any new socialist grouping but it did provide an intellectual justification for a layer of former revolutionaries to either rejoin the Labour Party, initially its Bennite wing but later currents further right, or to drop out of politics altogether. And the current issue of Socialist Register leads with an essay by Rowbotham which resurrects many of the old canards, principle among them being that Marx was insufficiently feminist.

But Leys and Panitch, despite their praise of old allies, seem to sense that something more is now required by the revival of the workers’ movement. While claiming that the ‘original new left’s critique’ of Bolshevism ‘pointed in the right direction’, they explicitly cite ‘the failure of the new left either to transform the existing Social Democratic and Communist parties or to found viable new ones’. Furthermore they acknowledge that this led ‘a strong current of left wing opinion to give up on both socialism and the working class, in favour of a more diffuse, “decentred” conception of “radical democracy”’ and this ‘swept under the carpet the irreconcilability of democracy with private property’. [28] In response to this failure, Leys and Panitch call for a different form of socialist organisation:

What has always been missing – and this is now strongly felt by many social movement leaders themselves – is something that would be more than the sum of the parts, something which the Social Democratic and Communist parties did partly provide in their heyday ... These include providing activists with a strategic, ideological and educational vehicle; a political home which is open to individuals to enter (rather than restricted, as today’s social movement networking is, to representatives of groups); a political community which explicitly seeks to transcend particularistic identities while supporting and building on the struggles they generate. [29]

The problem with this description of socialist organisation, at least for people who reject Leninism, is that it could have been written by Lenin himself. Lenin’s model of the party was precisely designed to give a strategic and educational direction to the militants who joined it; it was specifically built with the intention of providing solidarity with the struggles of the exploited and oppressed and at the same time overcoming their particularistic character. And, if the revival of Marx is to have any practical effect on the working class struggle which he was the first to properly comprehend, such a party is necessary to fuse the movement of the day with the prospect of transforming society.


1. J. Cassidy, The Next Big Thinker, Independent on Sunday, 7 December 1997. This itself was a reprint of an article which originally appeared in The New Yorker.

2. P. Aspden, The Place Where All Workers are United, Financial Times, 28–29 March 1998.

3. E. Mortimer, Global Gloom, Financial Times, 25 March 1998.

4. 23 Pages that Shook the World, The Guardian, 28 February 1998. Verso claim some 125 newspaper stories in the US concerned with their edition of the Manifesto alone.

5. Newsnight, BBC2, 2 April 1998.

6. F. Evans, The Daughter of Modern Socialism, The Independent, 1 April 1998 – although the article itself was largely ill informed gossip about the domestic life of the Marx family.

7. Other pieces, for instance, by Charlotte Raven appeared in the Modern Review, and, by Barrie Clement in The Independent, 8 March 1998. The same paper returned to the theme a few weeks later insisting that it had never been more fashionable to be ‘red’ and that ‘now, more than ever, revolution is the ecstasy of history.’ Noting the waning of the postmodern fashion, Howard Byrom wrote, ‘The very instant you get a grip on Barthes, the chattering classes have switched to discussions of dialectical materialism’. H. Byrom, Commie des Garcons, Independent on Sunday, 29 March 1998.

8. J. Derrida, Specters of Marx (Routledge 1994), p. 14.

9. E.L. Corredor, Lukács After Communism, interviews with contemporary intellectuals (Duke University Press 1997).

10. Balibar, ibid., p. 116.

11. Ibid., p. 114.

12. Ibid., p. 117.

13. G. Steiner, ibid., p. 74.

14. C. Smith, Marx at the Millennium (Pluto Press 1996), W.K. Tabb (ed.), The Future of Socialism, Perspectives from the Left (Monthly Review Press 1990), H.J. Sherman, Reinventing Socialism (The Johns Hopkins University Press 1995).

15. C. Leys and L. Panitch, The Political Legacy of the Manifesto, in L. Panitch and C. Leys (eds.), Socialist Register 1998 (Merlin Press 1998).

16. L. Elliott, How the Next Depression Began, The Guardian, 30 March 1998.

17. E. Hobsbawm, Introduction to The Communist Manifesto (Verso 1998), pp. 15–16.

18. C. Leys and L. Panitch, op. cit., p. 19.

19. Ibid., p. 18.

20. E. Hobsbawm, op. cit., p. 18.

21. Ibid., p. 21.

22. Ibid.

23. E.L. Corredor, op. cit., 142.

24. C Leys and L Panitch, op. cit., p. 20.

25. K. Moody, Workers in a Lean World (Verso 1997), p. 10.

26. For an account, and refutation, of the left’s capitulation to the right wing historiography of the Russian Revolution see J. Rees et al., In Defence of October (Bookmarks 1997). See also M. Haynes, Social History and the Russian Revolution, in J. Rees (ed.), Essays on Historical Materialism (Bookmarks 1998).

27. C. Leys and L. Panitch, op. cit., p. 22.

28. Ibid., p. 40.

29. Ibid., pp. 22–23.

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