Between Marx, Marxism, and Marxisms – Ways of Reading Marx’s Theory

By Ingo Elbe

[Translator’s note: the complete original German-language text can be viewed here. This English translation will be published in serial form as time permits.]

The intent of the following observations is to offer a rough overview of central ways of reading Marx’s theory. These are to be presented – by means of a few selected topics – as Marxisms that can be relatively clearly delimited from one another, and the history of their reception and influence will be evaluated with regard to the common sense understanding of “Marxist theory”.

A distinction will be made between the hitherto predominant interpretation of Marx, primarily associated with political parties (traditional Marxism, Marxism in the singular, if you will), and the dissident, critical forms of reception of Marx (Marxisms in the plural), with their respective claims of a “return to Marx”. The first interpretation is understood as a product and process of a restricted reading of Marx, in part emerging from the “exoteric” layer of Marx’s work, which updates traditional paradigms in political economy, the theory of history, and philosophy and succumbs to the mystifications of the capitalist mode of production, systematized and elevated to a doctrine by Engels, Kautsky, et al, and culminating in the apologetic science of Marxism-Leninism. The other two interpretations, specifically Western Marxism as well as the German neue Marx-Lektüre (“new reading of Marx”), usually explore the esoteric content of Marx’s critique and analysis of society, often consummated outside of institutionalized, cumulative research programs, by isolated actors in the style of an “underground Marxism”.

In order to characterize both ways of reading, some strongly truncated theses, limited to a few aspects, must suffice. In particular the ambitious proposition, first formulated by Karl Korsch, of an“application of the materialist conception of history to the materialist conception of history itself” that goes beyond the mere presentation of intellectual history as well as an immanent theoretical critique and critically takes into consideration the connection between historical forms of praxis and theoretical formations of Marxism, must be refrained from here. Also, a consideration of those readings which are critical of Marx or Marxism can also be disregarded here, insofar as their picture of Marx usually corresponds to that of traditional Marxism.

I thus begin with the hegemonic interpretative model of traditional Marxism, and only at the end of my presentation will I follow up with a few positive determinations of what I regard as the fundamental systematic intention of Marx’s work. I do this primarily because only in the course of the learning processes of Western Marxism and the Neue Marx-Lektüre can a differentiated reading of Marx’s work be gained.