A Return to Marx?

Thanks to, and at the insistence of, JMP at M-L-M Mayhem! I have decided to update this blog a little more frequently. I am especially inspired by two book reviews that JMP has posted recently on a particular subterranean current  of historical materialist social movement literature which includes authors like J. Sakai, Butch Lee and Red Rover, and POW’s like James Yaki Sayles and Kevin Rashid Johnson (although it must be argued that while many of these authors share particular insights that they express a wide-variety of political views that render them distinct from one another).

It has become a common watch-word for the contemporary Marxist academic left to declare the need for a “return to Marx”. I have no problem on the surface with this approach, in fact I think that without having read the late Marx (especially the Marx of Das Kapital and onwards) one can but only have a flawed version of revolutionary Marxist theory and historical materialism. However, I find that this call is actually a double-call i.e. it is not simply a call to gain a firm grounding in Marxist theory so that one can fully explore the issues covered in the subterranean historical materialist tradition mentioned above, but rather serves as a call to become Marxologists and return to a pre-Lenin pre-Mao Marxism in which the work of Marx serves as a ‘sacred text’. This re-reading of Marx as a sacred text is a far more dangerous proposition as it attempts to undo or engage in a ‘future anterior’ reading of Marx in which all of the insights of other revolutionaries (Lenin, Luxemburg, Mao, etc etc) are already prefigured in the sacred text, and it is only through constant sifting can one find it all (a Da Vinci code Marxism).

Instead, and I don’t think I am saying anything new, one must recognize that Marx can only serve as a starting point for any kind of revolutionary theory or action today. And that if one remains within the four corners of Marx (and Engels) that one can but only arrive at a Eurocentric out-moded white male Marxism (surprise, surprise about the largest constitutive body of the current left despite the fact that the most marginalized, racialized communities have little representation and mobilization within these movements). Instead what we need is a synthesis (I am not trying to call for a ‘new synthesis’ a la Bob Avakian) but rather, an attempt to actually to bring together the threads of orthodox Marxist theory (Marx and Engels, Luxemburg, Lenin, Mao), the orthodox historical experiences of the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam and contemporary Marxist criticism (Zizek, Badiou) etc (a triangle that some groups like Kasama are advocating), WITH other more marginalized traditions like the one mentioned above, but also marginalized political movements and groups like the RAF in Germany, the CCC in Belgium or the Red Brigades in Italy (or the “Fighting Communist”/”Urban Guerrilla”) and their respective theoretical developments, and contemporary theory and experiences in Nepal, India and Turkey (a tradition that the RCP-Canada is advocating), and the works of  Water Rodney, Samir Amin, Amilcar Cabral, Andrea Dworkin, Cell 16 etc. Indeed, no longer can we rely on a simple tripartite to serve as our sources for our contemporary Marxism.

Let a hundred flowers and a hundred schools compete.

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3 thoughts on “A Return to Marx?

  1. Excellent entry. Reminds me of Amin’s claim, way back in Class and Nation, that people who want to go back to some pure Marx before Lenin, or any of the theoretical developments after Lenin, are “rigid dogmatists” who turn Marx into what he is not and never wanted to be: a prophetic interlocutor of sacred texts: “To voluntarily disregard this context, to transform phrases, often taken from drafts that Marx did not consider worthy of publication, into so many ‘revelations’ is, in reality, to betray him in the worse way: by embalming him.”

    I also think all of this “return-to-a-pure-Marx” is disingenuous because it hides the fact that those who are advocating this return do not do so in such a “pure” way. They’re already reading Marx through various and privileged hermeneutical methods. Sometimes they come from a former Trotskyist position, other times they have read all the popular marxian commentators who themselves speak of an abstractly “pure” Marx outside of space and time.

    Of course, like you, I think that it is important to reground our theoretical understanding by taking the political economy and scientific method of Marx as a starting point: the lack of so-called marxists to properly use historical/dialectical materialism, as well as the bizarre rejections of the labour theory of value, has led to so many pseudo-scientific and mixed up analyses of society. The problem is that most of these return-to-marx types are incapable of even grasping Marx’s method – they demonstrate positivism instead of dialectical thinking – and are actually in defiance of that method due to their very ahistorical and abstract (it ends up becoming quite idealist) notion of a return to a Marx outside of Marx’s history.

  2. Also, I think you need to qualify your comment about the “largest constitutive body of the current [marxist] left” is white men. Definitely this might the case in the centres of capitalism, but if we look at things globally marxists are overwhelmingly not European and probably outnumber their European counterparts 10 to 1.

  3. Hey JMP,
    Regarding your qualification I completely agree with you that this is definitely a commentary on the centers of capital and does not reflect on the fact that the global communist movement today is largely located in the 3rd world, and comprised of people of color and a larger percentage of women. At the same time I would not like to overstate the case even in the 3rd world as the communist parties still remain largely male-dominated and definitely control the leadership of the national parties although some more local areas/regions may have female leadership. Indeed, Comrade Parvati has spoken quite eloquently on this question, as you well know, about the party in Nepal and how the people’s war allowed for greater political power and access.

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