Posts Tagged ‘marx’

Ingo Elbe. Between Marx, Marxism, and Marxisms – Ways of Reading Marx’s Theory: I.3 The Critique of the Content of the State

Samstag, Juli 16th, 2011

I.3 The Critique of the Content of the State

Engel’s theoretical statements concerning the state in ‘The Origin of the Family’, ‘Ludwig Feuerbach’, ‘Anti-Dühring’, as well as in his critique of the Erfurt draft program of the SPD from 1891 constitute the source of the traditional Marxist conception of the state: In ‘Ludwig Feuerbach’, Engels states that the fact that all needs in class societies are articulated through the will of the state is “the formal aspect of the matter — the one which is self-evident”1. The main question of a materialist theory of the state, however, is “what is the content of this merely formal will — of the individual as well as of the state — and whence is this content derived? Why is just this willed and not something else?”2 The result of this purely content-based question concerning the will of the state is for Engels the recognition “that in modern history the will of the state is, on the whole, determined by the changing needs of civil society, but the supremacy of this or that class, in the last resort, by the development of the productive forces and relations of exchange.”3 Furthermore, in his deliberations in ‘The Origin of the Family’ Engels works with universal-historical categories into which modern designations like “public authority” are projected, and constantly assumes “direct relations of domination, immediate forms of class rule”4 in order to explain “the” state, which is consequentially understood as a mere instrument of the ruling class. From this content-fixated and universal-historical way of considering the state, it can be deduced that Engels loses sight of the actually interesting question, namely as to why the class content in capitalism takes on the specific form of public authority.5 The personal definition of class rule extracted from pre-capitalist social formations ultimately leads to reducing the anonymous form of class rule institutionalized in the state to a mere ideological illusion, which, in the manner of the theory of priestly deception, is interpreted as a product of state tactics of deception. Engels in any case attempts to make the class character of the state plausible by referring to “plain corruption of officials” and “an alliance between the government and the stock exchange”. 6 Nonetheless, in Engels’ work there still exists, despite the predominance of the instrumentalist/content-fixated perspective, an unmediated coexistence between the determination of the state as the “state of the capitalists” and of the state as “ideal total capitalist”.7 The last definition conceives of the state “not as a tool of the bourgeoisie (…) but rather as an entity of bourgeois society”,8 an “organisation that bourgeois society takes on in order to support the general external conditions of the capitalist mode of production against the encroachments as well of the workers as of individual capitalists.”9 But the specific formal aspect of modern statehood is not yet explained by this reference to functional mechanisms. Engels also paved the way for the theory of state-monopoly capitalism.10 In the Critique of the Draft Social-Democratic Program of 1891 he writes: “I am familiar with capitalist production as a social form, or an economic phase; capitalist private production being a phenomenon which in one form or another is encountered in that phase. What is capitalist private production? Production by separate entrepreneurs, which is increasingly becoming an exception. Capitalist production by joint-stock companies is no longer private production but production on behalf of many associated people. And when we pass on from joint-stock companies to trusts, which dominate and monopolise whole branches of industry, this puts an end not only to private production but also to planlessness.”11 Finally, in Anti-Dührung Engels writes of the state as real total capitalist: “The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit.”12 Here Engels reveals a limited understanding of private production and a tendency to equate state planning and monopoly power with direct socialization,13 reinforced by Engels’ construction of the fundamental contradiction and his tendency to identity the division of labor within a factory and the division of labor in society. Engels does note that “the transformation, either into joint-stock companies, or into state ownership, does not do away with the capitalistic nature of the productive forces,”14 but nonetheless sees an immediate transition to socialism setting in as a result, whereas the concepts of monopoly and state intervention remain “economically completely undetermined.”15 Engels thus suggests that the workers movement merely has to take over the forms of corporate bookkeeping in joint stock companies and the comprehensive planning by monopolies developed in capitalism. For Engels, the bourgeoisie has already become obsolete through the separation of ownership and management functions.16 The “transformation of the great establishments for production and distribution into joint-stock companies and state property” demonstrates according to Engels “how unnecessary the bourgeoisie are for that purpose”, i.e. for managing “modern productive forces”. “All the social functions of the capitalist are now performed by salaried employees. The capitalist has no further social function than that of pocketing dividends, tearing off coupons, and gambling on the Stock Exchange, where the different capitalists despoil one another of their capital. At first the capitalist mode of production forces out the workers. Now it forces out the capitalists, and reduces them, just as it reduced the workers, to the ranks of the surplus population, although not immediately into those of the industrial reserve army.”17

In consideration of this reception history (only roughly outlined here), one could claim that Marxism in the form presented here was a rumor about Marx’s theory, a rumor that was gratefully taken up by most critics of “Marx” and merely supplemented with a minus sign. In fact such an assertion – as accurate as it may be overall – makes things too easy, in that it disregards certain deviations from the dominant doctrine that also understood themselves to be Marxisms, as well as regarding the above misinterpretations as being completely external to Marx’s own theory, thus excluding the possibility of any inconsistencies or theoretical-ideological ambiguities in Marx’s work. To clarify this question, a glance at the differentiated reading of Marx’s texts worked out in the so-called “reconstruction debates” will be useful.

In this respect, traditional Marxism should be understood here rather as an elaboration, systematization and assumption of dominance of the ideological content of Marx’s work – within the framework of a reception by Engels and his epigones. Practical influence was almost exclusively allotted to these restricted and ideologized interpretations of Marx’s theory, as historical determinism or proletarian political economy.

  1. []
  2. Ibid. []
  3. Ibid. []
  4. Schäfer 1974, XCVII []
  5. Compare Pashukanis: „why is the apparatus of state coercion created not as a private apparatus of the ruling class, but distinct from the latter in the form of an impersonal apparatus of public power distinct from society?” []
  6. No wonder, then, that Lenin refers affirmatively to this “explanation”, with its theory of agents and influence. []
  7. [Translator’s Note: The official translation of “ideeller Gesamtkapitalist” in the Marx-Engels Collected Works renders this unsatisfactorily as “the ideal personification of the total national capital”, when in fact “ideal total capitalist” is more accurate. The latter English term can be found for example here: ] []
  8. Busch-Weßlau 1990, 84. []
  9. []
  10. See Paul 1978, 51-54 []
  11. []
  12. []
  13. Schäfer 1974, CXXXI []
  14. []
  15. Schäfer 1974, CXXXIV []
  16. This old chestnut will later be presented by Wolfgang Pohrt and others as a deep insight about “late capitalism”. []
  17. []

Ingo Elbe. Between Marx, Marxism, and Marxisms – Ways of Reading Marx’s Theory: I.2 The Historicist Interpretation of the Form-Genetic Method

Donnerstag, Juni 3rd, 2010

I.2 The Historicist Interpretation of the Form-Genetic Method

If Lenin’s statement that “none of the Marxists for the past half century have understood Marx” – a dictum that in this case however also applies to Lenin himself – has any validity at all, then certainly with regard to the interpretation of the critique of political economy. Even 100 years after the publication of the first volume of Capital, Engels’ commentary was widely regarded as the sole legitimate and adequate assessment of Marx’s critique of economy. No reading in the Marxist tradition was as uncontroversial as the one casually developed by Engels in texts such as the review of Marx’s Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859) or the supplement to Volume III of Capital (1894). Here, considerably more explicitly than in the objectivist conception of historical materialism, Marxism is Engelsism:
Against the background of his conception of reflection, Engels interprets the first chapter of Capital as a simultaneously logical and historical presentation of a ‘simple commodity production’ developing toward the relations of capitalist wage labor, “only stripped of the historical form and diverting chance occurrences.”1 The term ‘logical’ in this context basically means nothing more than ‘simplified’. The method of presentation, the sequence of categories (commodity, the elementary, expanded, and general forms of value, money, capital) in the critique of political economy is accordingly “simply the reflection, in abstract and theoretically consistent form, of the historical course.”2 The examination of the genesis of the money form is understood as the description of “an actual event which really took place at some time or other” and not as “an abstract mental process that takes place solely in our mind”. 3 In no other passage of his work does Engels so drastically reduce historical materialism to a vulgar empiricism and historicism, as is made evident by his associative chain ‘materialism-empirically verifiable facts-real process’ vs. ‘idealism-abstract thought process-purely abstract territory’.

With the ‘logical-historical’ method Engels provides a catchphrase that will be recited and stressed ad nauseum in the Marxist orthodoxy. Karl Kautsky, in his enormously influential presentations, understood Capital to be an “essentially historical work.” 4 “Marx was charged with recognizing capital to be a historical category and to prove its emergence in history, rather than mentally constructing it.” 5 Rudolf Hilferding also claims that “in accordance with the dialectic method, conceptual evolution runs parallel throughout with historical evolution.” 6 Both Marxism-Leninism7 and western Marxism8 follow Hilferding in this assessment. But if the critique of political economy is interpreted as historiography, then consequentially the categories at the beginning must correspond directly to empirical objects, for example a dubious pre-capitalist commodity not determined by price,9 and the analysis of the form of value must begin with the depiction of a coincidental, moneyless interaction of two commodity owners – with Engels’ so-called “simple production of commodities”,10 an economic epoch he dates from 6000 B.C. to the 15th century AD. According to this conception, Marx’s law of value11 operates at times in this epoch in a pure form ‘unadulterated’ by the category of price, which Engels illustrates with the feigned example of a moneyless ‘exchange’ between medieval peasants and artisans:
Here we are dealing with a transparent social interrelationship between immediate producers who are at the same time the owners of their means of production, in which one producer labors under the watchful eye of the other, and therefore “the peasant of the Middle Ages knew fairly accurately the labor-time required for the manufacture of the articles obtained by him in barter.”12 Under the conditions of this ‘natural exchange’, it is not some normative criterion that is for him “the only suitable measure for the quantitative determination of the values to be exchanged”13, but rather the abstraction of a labour-time consciously and directly measured by the actors. Neither the peasant nor the artisan is so stupid as to exchange unequal quantities of labor:14 “No other exchange is possible in the whole period of peasant natural economy than that in which the exchanged quantities of commodities tend to be measured more and more according to the amounts of labor embodied in them.”15 According to Engels, the value of a commodity is determined consciously by the labor, measured in time, of individual producers. In this theory of value, money does not play a constitutive role. One the one hand, it is an expedient and lubricant to trade that is external to value, but on the other hand it serves to obscure the substance of value: suddenly, instead of exchanging according to hours of labor, at some point exchange is conducted by means of cows and then pieces of gold. The question of how this notion of every commodity being its own labor-money16 can be reconciled with the conditions of private production based upon the division of labor is not posed by Engels. Engels – as will be elaborated by the Neue Marx-Lektüre – practices exactly what Marx criticizes in the case of the classical economists, above all Adam Smith: a projection into the past of the illusory notion of appropriation through one’s own labor, which in fact only exists in capitalism; neglect of the necessary connection between value and form of value17; a transformation of the ‘objective equalization’ of unequal acts of labor consummated by the objective social relationship itself into a merely subjective consideration of social actors18

Up until the 1960s, Engels’ theorems continued to be passed on undisputed and, along with his formula (once again taken from Hegel) of freedom being the insight into necessity and the drawing of parallels between natural laws and social processes, gave sustenance to a social-technological ‘concept of emancipation’, the gist of which is that ‘the social necessity (above all the law of value) operating anarchically and uncontrolled in capitalism will be, by means of Marxism as a science of the objective laws of nature and society, managed and applied according to plan.’ Not the disappearance of capitalist form-determinations, but rather their alternative use characterizes this ‘socialism of adjectives’ (this term comes from Robert Kurz) and ‘socialist political economy’. 19 There is a significant disproportion between on the one hand the emphasis upon the ‘historical’ on the one hand, and the absence of a historically specific and socio-theoretically reflected concept of economic objectivity on the other. This is made evident by the irrelevance of the concept of social form in the discussions of traditional Marxism, in which it at most is considered to be s a category for ideal or marginal circumstances, but not as a constitutive characteristic of Marx’s scientific revolution.20

  1. []
  2. ibid. []
  3. ibid. []
  4. Kautsky 1922, p. VIII []
  5. Kautsky quoted by Hecker 1997 []
  6. []
  7. see Rosental 1973 []
  8. see Mandel 1968 []
  9. “This makes clear, of course, why in the beginning of his first book Marx proceeds from the simple production of commodities as the historical premise, ultimately to arrive from this basis to capital — why he proceeds from the simple commodity instead of a logically and historically secondary form — from an already capitalistically modified commodity.” []
  10. ibid. This interpretation of the analysis of the form of value is also adopted by Kautsky []
  11. that is to say, the law of value discussed by Marx. See []
  12. []
  13. ibid. []
  14. Or is it believed that the peasant and the artisan were so stupid as to give up the product of 10 hours‘ labor of one person for that of a single hours‘ labor of another? (ibid.) And whoever does so learns “only through mistakes.“ (ibid.) []
  15. ibid. []
  16. In contrast, See Marx’s critique of the notion of labor-money or respectively the notion of a pre-monetary commodity exchange in the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy and in the Grundrisse []
  17. See []
  18. For Marx’s view, see for example: “Adam Smith constantly confuses the determination of the value of commodities by the labour-time contained in them with the determination of their value by the value of labour; he is often inconsistent in the details of his exposition and he mistakes the objective equalisation of unequal quantities of labour forcibly brought about by the social process for the subjective equality of the labours of individuals.” []
  19. According to Marxism-Leninism, “value functions as an instrument of the planned administration of the socialist processes of production and reproduction, according to the principles of bookkeeping and control of the mass of labor and of consumption. Correspondingly, the relation of value is consciously implemented.” (Eichhorn 1985, p. 1291) Within this framework, socialism consists “merely in the revolutionized way of calculating the same social determination of the products of human labor as exists in the capitalist commodity economy.” (as Grigat (1997, p.20) critically notes.) Thus, allegedly Marxian communism degenerates into a sort of Proudhonian system of labor notes, as Behrens/Hafner also observe: “all hitherto existing conceptions of the transition to socialism resort to models of immediate calculation of labor-value and utility.” (Behrens/Hafner, p. 226) See here also Heinrich (1999, p. 385-392); Kittsteiner (1974, p. 410-415); Kittsteiner (1977, p. 40-47); and Rakowitz (2000). On the socialism of adjectives in the theory of law and the state, see Elbe 2002b. []
  20. For example, []

Ingo Elbe. Between Marx, Marxism, and Marxisms – Ways of Reading Marx’s Theory I.1 The Ontological-Determinist Tendency

Donnerstag, Mai 27th, 2010

I.1 The Ontological-Determinist Tendency

Scientific socialism was conceived of as an ontological system, a “science of the big picture”. The materialist dialectic functions here as a “general law of development of nature, society, and thought” 1 ; nature serves for Engels as a “proof of dialectics”2 . Engels already undertakes a false analogy between historical-social processes and natural phenomena by the mere fact that in his elucidations upon the main features of the dialectic, a reference to Subject and Object is missing. “Negation of the negation” or the “transformation of quantity into quality” are identified in the changes in the physical state of water or in the development of a grain of barley. Against a static point of view, dialectic is supposed to demonstrate the “becoming”, the “transitory character” of all existence,3 and is bound to traditional dichotomies of the philosophy of consciousness, such as the so-called “great basic question of all philosophy“ as to which component of the relationship between “thinking and being” has primacy . 4 The dialectic is split into “two sets of laws”, into the dialectic of “the external world” and the dialectic of “human thought”, whereby the latter is understood to be merely a passive mental image of the former. 5 Engels constricts – even distorts – the three elementary praxis-philosophical motifs of Marx, which he had partially still advocated in his earlier writings: 1) the recognition that not only the object, but also the observation of the object is historically and practically mediated , 6 not external to the history of the mode of production. Against this, Engels emphasizes that “the materialist outlook on nature means nothing more than the simple conception of nature just as it is, without alien addition”. 7 The naive realism of the theory of reflection systematized by Lenin8 and others – which falls prey to the reified appearance of immediacy of that which is socially mediated, the fetishism of an in-itself of that which exists only via a historically determined framework of human activity – already obtains its foundation in Engels’ writings. 9 As “things refer to consciousness and consciousness refers to things” , 10 the concepts of praxis and of the subjective mediation of the object, as well as ideology-critical considerations, have hardly any place in this paradigm. 2) The concept of Naturwüchsigkeit (“the state of being naturally derived”), which is still used in The German Ideology also by Engels in a negative sense, is now turned into a positive concept. The sublation of specific social laws resting upon the unconsciousness of social actors is no longer postulated; rather, Engels postulates the conscious application of “the general laws of motion […] of the external world”. 11 3) If Marx writes in the Theses on Feuerbach that “[a]ll mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice” , 12 Engels reduces praxis to the experimental activity of the natural sciences. 13 Admittedly, ambivalences and praxis-philosophical motifs can also be found in the writings of the late Engels, which were largely blotted out by the epigones. Nonetheless, Engels – bundling together the scientism of his epoch – paves the way for a mechanistic and fatalistic conception of historical materialism by shifting the accent from a theory of social praxis to one of a contemplative, reflection-theory doctrine of development.
The vulgar evolutionism in the European Social Democracy of the 19th century is a nearly ubiquitous phenomenon. 14 For that reason, it is not just for Kautsky, Bernstein, and Bebel the case that the deterministic concept of development and the revolutionary metaphysic of a providential mission of the proletariat15 occupy a central place in Marxist doctrine: accordingly humanity is subordinated to a “scientifically verifiable” automatism of liberation. That which presents itself in the modern scientific garb of a fetishism of laws is ultimately nothing other than a historical metaphysic with a socialist signature 16 : precisely the inversion of subject and object that Marx had criticized. A process consummated behind the back of social actors is attributed a morally qualified aim. 17 Ultimately, in the Erfurt Program of the German Social Democratic Party, this revolutionary passivity 18 is codified at an official level as consistent Marxism: the task of the party is to remain braced for an event that will “necessarily” happen even without intervention, “not to make the revolution, but rather to take advantage of it.” 19 The ontological orientation and the encyclopaedic character of Engels’ deliberations also feed the tendency to interpret scientific socialism as a comprehensive proletarian worldview. Ultimately, Lenin will present the “Marxist doctrine“as „omnipotent“, a”comprehensive and harmonious” doctrine that “provides men with an integral world outlook”. 20 Correspondingly, the negative concept of ideology is neutralized into a category for the determinate being of consciousness in general.
All of these developments, which undoubtedly constitute a theoretical regression, ultimately culminate in the theory of “Marxism – Leninism” conceived of by Abram Deborin and Stalin. If for Lenin, Marxism constitutes – despite all emphasis upon the political – a “profound doctrine of development” 21 that calls attention to breaks and leaps in nature and society, in the case of Marxism-Leninism the naturalist-objectivist current is elevated to a state doctrine: the central argumentative figure will be, “what is valid for nature must also be valid for history” or respectively “nature makes leaps, therefore so does history”. Political praxis is thus understood as the consummation of historical laws. This impressive logic is perfected in Josef Stalin’s work “Dialectical and Historical Materialism”, for decades an authoritative work in the Marxist theory of the Eastern Bloc: historical materialism stands for the “application” and “extension” of ontological principles to society, which implies an epistemological essentialism (a theory of reflection, which in the form of Dialectical Materialism conceives of “being” and “thinking” independent of the concept of praxis) and a sociological naturalism (a developmental logic – to be “consciously applied” or “accelerated” by the party as the highest technocratic instance22 – existing independent of human agency). 23

  1. []
  2. :// []
  3. []
  4. ibid. []
  5. []
  6. []
  7. []
  8. Above all in Materialism and Empiriocriticism, stylized by Marxism-Leninism as the classical textbook of dialectical materialism alongside Anti-Dühring. Here, Marxism becomes an ideology in the strict Marxian sense: a systemization of the forms of thought of a reified common sense. Concerning the political-pragamatical background of the text, usually disregarded in ML, see Busch-Weßlau 1990, page 30 []
  9. Falko Schmieder (2004, p. 213) points out the apriori role of the medium of photography as a foundation of this naive realism in philosophy, as well as the fundamental commonalities between Engels, Lenin, and Feuerbach. []
  10. Sohn-Rethel, 1978, p. 114 []
  11. []
  12. []
  13. []
  14. For more on this, see the study of Steinberg 1979, above all pp. 45, 63. Approaches toward a social historical explanation are offered by idem, pp. 145-150, Groh 1974, pp. 58-63, Negt 1974, Gramsci 1995, p. 1386 []
  15. For a critique, see Mohl 1978, Sieferle 1979, Elbe 2002a []
  16. Laclau and Mouffe (2001) point out the Darwinist-Hegelian character of this conception: “Darwinism alone does not offer ‘guarantees for the future’, since natural selection does not operate in a direction predetermined from the beginning. Only if a Hegelian type of teleology is added to Darwinism – which is totally incompatible with it – can an evolutionary process be presented as a guarantee of future transitions.” (p.20) []
  17. For more on this, in an instructive manner, see Kittsteiner 1980. []
  18. See Groh 1974, p. 36 []
  19. Kautsky, quoted in Steinberg 1979, p. 61. See also According to Kautsky, the prospects for freedom and humanity are not “mere expectations of conditions which only ought to come, which we simply wish and will, but outlooks at conditions which must come, which are necessary.” Kautsky defends himself against interpretations of necessity “n the fatalist sense, that a higher power will present them to us of itself,” but Kautsky assumes an irresistible immanent historical-economic compulsion toward revolution, whereby the immanent compulsive laws of capitalism and the formation of the proletariat as a successful revolutionary subject play the same role: “unavoidable in the sense, that the […]capitalists in their desire for profit [!] revolutionize the whole economic life, as it is also inevitable that the workers aim for shorter hours of labor and higher wages, that they organize themselves, that they fight the capitalist class and its state, as it is inevitable that they aim for the conquest of political power and the overthrow of capitalist rule. Socialism is inevitable because the class struggle and the victory of the proletariat is inevitable.” []
  20. []
  21. []
  22. On the paradoxes of this combination of voluntarism and determinism, see Taylor 1997, 729-731 []
  23. It is precisely Western Marxism that – against Marxism-Leninism – emphasizes the non-ontological character of Marx’s materialism (see Horkheimer 1988, p. 174 as well as Schmidt 1993, pp. 10-59). Stalin determines the components of Marx’s theory as follows: Dialektik: a universal logic of development emphasizing discontinuity, which teaches that everything can be conceived of as in a state of becoming and decaying; Materialism: a contemplative ontology which teaches that consciousness is merely a reflection of a nature existing independent and outside of consciousness; Historical Materialism: the application of dialectical materialism to history; universal historical laws are class struggle, the dialectic between forces of production and relations of production, rooted in the primacy of the development of the forces of production (casua-sui concept of forces of production), and ultimately the law of progress of successive social formations. []

Ingo Elbe. Between Marx, Marxism, and Marxisms – Ways of Reading Marx’s Theory: I. Marxism

Samstag, Mai 22nd, 2010

I. Marxism

The term “Marxism” was probably first used in the year 1879 by the German Social Democrat Franz Mehring to characterize Marx’s theory, and established itself at the end of the 1880s as a discursive weapon used by both critics and defenders of “Marx’s teachings”, but the birth of a “Marxist school” is unaminously dated back to the publication of Anti-Dühring by Friedrich Engels in the year 1878 and the subsequent reception of this work by Karl Kautsky, Eduard Berstein, et al. Engels’ writings – even if the terms “Marxism” or “dialectical materialism”, the self-applied labels of traditional readings, do not yet appear in them – supplied entire generations of readers, Marxists as well as Anti-Marxists, with the interpretative model through which Marx’s work was perceived. In particular, the review of Marx’s Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), the late work Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1886) or the supplement to Volume III of Capital (1894/95) achieved an influence that can hardly be underestimated. Above all, however, it was Anti-Dühring that was to be stylized as the textbook of Marxist theory as well as a positive depiction of a “Marxist worldview”: For Kautsky, “there is no other book that has contributed so much to the understanding of Marxism. Marx’s Capital is greater. But it was first through Anti-Dühring that we learned to correctly read and understand Capital.” And for Lenin, it is one of the “handbooks of every class-conscious worker.”
At the same time, something is consummated which will be a general characteristic of the history of “Marxism”: the initiators of the theoretical corpus regard it as “unnecessary […] to themselves make an appearance as eponyms […] the eponyms are not the real speakers.” In many respects, Marxism is Engel’s work and for that reason actually an Engelsism. In the following I will name only two points which an ideologized and restricted reception of Marx could draw upon.

Ingo Elbe. Between Marx, Marxism, and Marxisms – Ways of Reading Marx’s Theory: Introduction

Samstag, Mai 22nd, 2010

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.