A restless ghost
Marx for Our Times: adventures and misadventures of a critique
Daniel Bensaid, translated by Grego
From the moment the earth closed over the original communist plot, at Highgate in 1883, Karl Marx was resurrected, only to die again, times without number. The most definitive, most widely proclaimed, perhaps most final demise came just over a decade ago. With the assisted suicide of the Soviet system, the great symbolic moment of demolition in Berlin, and the virtual disappearance of communist parties in almost all democracies (except, intriguingly, the new South Africa), Marxist theories, too, seemed doomed to a final dispersal. The End of History meant especially the end of Marx.
Some critics argued, quite reasonably, that this need not, or should not, be so. There was no necessary connection between the fate of Marx's ideas and that of orthodox communist politics; indeed, the latter had always been a vile perversion of the former. A few even urged, wishfully or wistfully, that with the demise of communism's stifling influence, a more genuine, radical, liberatory Marxism could revive and win new adherents. Boldest of all, one or two Marxist thinkers suggested that only now, after the cold war, could we see emerging the triumphant, unchallenged, truly global capitalist system that Marx had predicted. Karl Marx was, among many other things, the first great prophet of globalisation. He'd been right all along, only a bit over-optimistic about the timescale.
But these were isolated voices. It's true that there is no strict logical connection between Marx's ideas (or at least most of them) and the political programmes of the 20th-century left. It's even logically quite possible, if unsurprisingly rare, to be a Tory Marxist, to accept the doctrine of the class war but choose the "wrong" side. There has long been an intriguing disjuncture between the lack of mass popular appeal for Marxist politics in western Europe after 1945 and the unprecedented proliferation in the very same period of Marxist theories. That phenomenon has been more dramatic still in the United States. Alongside the near-total absence of a significant socialist left on the streets, there has been an astonishing growth in the American production of Marxisant academic theories and theorists. But even before the wall came down, they were becoming ever more internally fragmented and distant from any recognisable Marxist mainstream. Many of the thinkers concerned now call themselves, rather vaguely and portentously, "post-Marxist". But what this actually means is often, more simply, ex-, non-, or even anti-Marxist. A few distinguished veterans, such as Eric Hobsbawm, are still thought of as Marxist historians; but little in their later work is distinctively Marxist-inspired.
The connection between Marxism as a set of critical theories and Marxism as a form of politics - or between either of those and the actual ideas of the old German bushy-beard himself - may, then, not be logically necessary, but it remains emotionally and historically powerful. A crisis for one had inevitable, destructive consequences for the others.
Despite all this, Marx's multiple resurrections continue and perhaps, now, gather force. The image of Marx as a startlingly lively ghost haunting capitalism's feast is already well established, as in Jacques Derrida's powerful but idiosyncratic Spectres of Marx (1994). In the past few years, a Marx revival has been predicted, not only in places such as Francis Wheen's entertaining biography of the man, but in more surprising ones such as the pages of the Financial Times. Anti- capitalist movements obviously need some kind of theory to underpin their campaigns, and some vision of an alternative. The slogan that Jonathan Wolff reports from a recent demonstration, "Replace capitalism with something nice", clearly won't do. Where better to look than to the most famous anti-capitalist of them all?
Wolff's short, judicious, though slightly pedestrian, book, and Daniel Bensaid's long, dense, occasionally preposterous but often brilliant one, offer dramatically different programmes for a reinvigorated Marx. Bensaid seeks a full-scale rebirth and renewal, urging Marx's continued, indispensable relevance to everything from ecology to the philosophy of science. Wolff attempts a more piecemeal salvage operation, rescuing core ideas from later accretions and distortions, but rejecting others altogether. He concludes sensibly, if unexcitingly, that although "Marx's grandest theories are not substantiated", he "is not to be abandoned". His writings remain "to be appreciated and admired"; they are "full of insight and illumination". We still live with the social problems he identified, even if we can't accept his solutions to them. Marx won't rise from his Highgate grave; but his ghost will continue to walk many unexpected paths.
Stephen Howe's most recent book is Ireland and Empire (OUP)