Rethinking Marxism | by Michael Burawoy

by Oct 16, 2011All Articles

What should be our orientation to MarxisM today? The most common response is to bury it. Marxism, as Talcott Parsons used to say, was a theory whose significance was wholly confined to the 19th century – a version of 19th century utilitarianism of no relevance to the 20th century. Ironically enough, he penned these lines in 1968 in the midst of a major revival of Marxism across the globe, a revival that rejected Soviet Marxism as a ruling ideology, a revival that reclaimed Marxism’s democratic and prefigurative heritage. The revival did not last long but suffered defeat after defeat as revolutionary hope turned to repression and dictatorship. With the collapse of the Soviet order in 1989 and 1991, and the market transition in China, the grave diggers pronounced Marxism finally dead and bells tolled across the world.
Facing such anti-Marxist euphoria, the last hold-outs appeared dogmatic and irrelevant. Some Marxists have, indeed, obliged their enemies by confirming their religious fervour. They defend Marxism in its pristine form, revealed in the scriptures of Marx and Engels. The disciples that followed Marx and Engels – Lenin, Plekhanov, Trotsky, Bukharin, Luxemburg, Kautsky, Lukács, Gramsci, Fanon, Amin, Mao – were but a gloss on the original bible. Today’s epigones do not place Marx and Engels in their time, as fallible beings reflecting the period in which they lived, but regard them as Christ-like figures, and, thus, the source of eternal truth. They can speak no falsehood.

The third response is more measured. Neither burial nor revelation, many in the social sciences and beyond have appropriated what they consider to be salvageable, which might include Marxism’s analysis of the creative power of capitalism, their ideas of exploitation, and their notion of class struggle. These neo-Marxists and post-Marxists often combine the ideas of Marx and Marxism with those of other social theorists – Weber, Durkheim, Foucault, Bourdieu, Habermas, etc. Indeed, these latter theorists had themselves absorbed many Marxist notions, often without acknowledging their debt, and sometimes even mired in hostility to Marxism. The neo-Marxist selectively pick and choose from Marxism as though they were entering a supermarket. They take what pleases them and leave behind what doesn’t, sometimes paying at the checkout, sometimes simply stealing – ready to discard what doesn’t suit the times.  
The fourth approach, the one adopted here, is that Marxism is a living tradition that enjoys renewal and reconstruction as the world it describes and seeks to transform undergoes change. After all, at the heart of Marxism is the idea that beliefs – scientific or ideological
– necessarily change with society. Thus, as the world changes so must Marxism. Equally, Marxism assumes a different form in different parts of the world, according to the social and economic structure. At the same time, Marxism is not content with sitting back and reflecting the world; it also seeks to understand in order to change. But a changing world, once again, requires a changing theory if its interventions are to be effective.

Marxism as an evolving tradition
What Makes MarxisM MarxisM? What is its unchanging core irrespective of the period, irrespective of the national terrain? What do all branches of Marxism have in common? We can think of the Marxist tradition as an ever-growing tree. We can then ask: What are its roots? What defines its trunk? What are it branches? The roots themselves migrate over time – yesterday it may have been the postulates of historical materialism as found in the preface to the Critique of Political Economy, today it might be the premises of history as found in The German Ideology, tomorrow it might lie in the Paris Manuscripts with the notion of alienation but also his ecological writings. The trunk of the Marxist tree might be the theory of capitalism, as laid out in the three volumes of Capital – and how that theory has grown over the last century and a half! Then, there are the successive branches of Marxism – German Marxism, Russian-Soviet Marxism, Western Marxism, Third World Marxism – some branches dead, others dying, and yet others flourishing. Each branch takes off from its own reconstruction of Marxism, responding to specific historical circumstances: German Marxism to the reformist tendencies within the German socialist movement of 1890 to 1920 as well as capitalism’s capacity to absorb the crises it generates; Russian Marxism to the dilemmas of the combined and uneven development of capitalism on a world scale, and to the battle over socialism in one country; Western Marxism as a response to Soviet Marxism, fascism and the failure of revolution the West; Third World Marxism grapples with the dilemmas of underdevelopment as well as colonial and post-colonial struggles.
When we examine this tree we see that Marxism may have begun as a small-scale project that did indeed link people across national boundaries – think of the First and Second Internationals. As Classical Marxism garnered popular support it became tied to national politics (Russian, German, French, etc.), from which it expanded into regional blocs – Soviet, Western and Third World Marxism. Where does Marxism today locate itself? Marxism increasingly takes on a global character because now we no longer respond only to local, national or regional constellations, but also to global issues, issues that affect the entire planet. To reconstruct Marxism of a global scale requires rethinking the material basis of Marxism through the lens of the market, but not in terms of its geographical scope (since markets have always been global as well as local), nor even in terms of neoliberal ascendancy (since markets have always moved through periods of expansion and contraction) but in terms of the novel entities it commodifies.

In brief, there have been three waves of marketisation that have swept the world: the first spanning the 19th century, the second beginning after World War I, and the third beginning in the middle 1970s. Associated with each wave is the commodification of a novel but crucial force of production, successively labour, money and nature. These are Karl Polanyi’s (1944) three fictitious commodities whose commodification, he claimed, destroys their use value. Thus, when labour is subject to unregulated exchange it loses its use value – it cannot be productive; if money is subject to unregulated exchange the value money becomes so volatile that businesses go out of business; and if nature is turned into a commodity it destroys our means of existence –the air we breath, the water we drink, the land upon which we grow food, the bodies we inhabit. Each wave of commodification spawns a counter-movement that organises itself on an ever-widening scale: local, national and, presumably, global. Finally, to each counter-movement there corresponds a new configuration of Marxism – Classical Marxism, based on the projection of an economic utopia; Soviet, Western, and Third World Marxism based on state regulation; and, finally, Global Marxism based on an expanding and self-regulating civil society.
Michael Burrawoy is a Professor in Sociology at the University of Berkeley. This is drawn from an article to appear in a forthcoming special issue of Transformation that focuses on rethinking Marxism.

Transnationalising Gramscian Marxism in the 21st century | by By Viswas Satgar
Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937), the most original Marxist thinker of the 20th century, was imprisoned by Mussolini’s regime in 1926 for his radical ideas and his leadership of the Italian Communist Party. He began writing his highly influential Prison Notebooks in 1929, the year the New York stock exchange crashed and capitalism entered the Great Depression of the 20th century. A central aspect of the problematic informing the Notebooks is the ability of capitalism to reproduce itself through ruling class strategies. At the same time, Gramsci’s Notebooks pondered how to elaborate a politics capable of transforming capitalism without degenerating into revolutionary voluntarism, on the one hand, and not being held back by economic determinism on the other. Gramsci understood that Marxism was never finished and it had to constantly make sense of a changing social world. Hence, there was always room for Marxism to evolve as it grappled with concrete historical situations. This was different from the general level of abstraction utilised by Marx to understand capitalism as a mode of production.

Thus for Gramsci, Marxism was always open to new ideas and concepts as its line of enquiry moved from the general level of abstraction to concrete historical circumstances. Through this practice, new concepts, new perspectives and new anti-capitalist politics were easily inspired by Gramsci’s Marxism and hence it provides a fertile ground for the renewal of Marxism in the 21st century. Today the world is living through and experiencing the ‘Great Depression’ of the 21st century. In this context, reading and drawing on Gramsci’s theoretical corpus in a critical way is extremely important in providing insight into the nature of the crisis, but also to think about how ruling classes are responding to it and how struggles for alternatives can be waged.
In this contribution on transnationalising Gramsci’s Marxism, I begin by clarifying which Gramscian Marxism has to be transnationalised. This is important given that Gramsci’s own Marxism has been overlayed and in some senses obscured by varied interpretations, readings and sometimes abuses. The second crucial move in this regard relates to locating and tracing how Gramsci’s historical materialism has been brought into international relations and global political economy. This brings into view the emergence of a Neo-Gramscian transnational historical materialism and how this has disrupted established Marxist ways of understanding the dynamics of capitalism.

While Neo-Gramscian perspectives on global capitalism are both novel and creative, this project is far from complete in terms of transnationalising Gramscian Marxism.

Returning to Gramsci’s historical materialism
In the course of the 20th century GraMsci’s Marxism has been characterised as ‘defeated’, ‘a philosophical Western Marxism’, a staunch Italian Marxism-Leninism and more generally the expressions of a great ‘Italian thinker’. These interpretations of Gramsci’s thought and practice are post-Gramsci and provide us with bounded understandings of Gramsci. While there might be some merit in these approaches to Gramsci, these representations of Gramsci’s Marxism also obscure the universal and critical core of Gramsci’s own historical materialism. As part of transnationalising Gramsci’s Marxism in the 20th century, it is necessary to retrieve this universal and critical core by, firstly, reading Gramsci through Gramsci and, secondly, thinking in a Gramscian way about social reality.

Reading Gramsci through Gramsci
Within Gramsci’s writings there are guidelines to assist us to think with Gramsci in the present but also to go beyond Gramsci. In particular, he emphasises the following: (i) ideas are a product of social relations and sometime ideas outlive their social context; (ii) the past and present are connected – the past is an integral part of the present and this would also include ideas; (iii) ideas from the past in the present need to be selected based on the relevance of these ideas to solving a practical political problem and the extent to which ideas have become part of mass consciousness.

Thinking in a Gramscian way about social reality
To think in a Gramscian way about social reality means engaging social reality through Gramsci’s understanding of historical materialism. While Gramsci accepted Marx’s critique of capitalism and his dialectical understanding of historical change, Gramsci also emphasised the need for historical materialism to be unencumbered by dogmatic, voluntarist and mechanical understandings of history. In this regard, other dimensions of Gramsci’s historicism are crucial. Firstly, such historicism rejects economism. That is an understanding that history is made only by the ‘economic last instance’. This understanding liberates Marx’s ‘base-superstructure’ metaphor from a deterministic straightjacket and brings to the fore a role for politics, culture and ideology in shaping history. Second, and as corollary to the previous point, Gramsci rejected the positivism and law-like approach to understanding capitalism. He preferred to explain capitalism by understanding how its structures where constituted and challenged through class struggles. In other words, he had an appreciation of the dialectic of structure and agency.

At the same time, Gramsci’s historical materialism affirms the following: (i) transience, which means nothing socially constructed is permanent – to this extent Gramsci’s mode of historical analysis necessitates a rigour when engaging historical reality; (ii) ‘limits of the possible’: various limits like ideas, institutions, power relations etc. that constrain social agency. While structures condition action, collective social action also impacts on structures;
(iii) ideas are implicated in social change: knowledge and even philosophy emerge out of struggle. In this regard, ideology (including philosophy and culture) had to be taken seriously. Ideology for Gramsci shaped ‘common sense’ or understandings of the world to which human beings ascribe. Such common sense includes scientific understandings, folklore and traditional beliefs, for example. Moreover, common sense for Gramsci reflected the intellectual capacity of all human beings. At the same time, common sense had to be contested on the terrain of civil society to ensure ‘good sense’ prevailed. To this extent, for Gramsci a living  and non-dogmatic Marxism was an important expression of ‘good sense’ in that it provided an integral outlook which contained the elements that could provide the basis for a new civilisation.

Transnationalising Gramscian Marxism
In the 20th century, lenin’s understandinG of imperialism and neo-Marxist world systems theory dominated understanding of how the expansionary tendencies of capitalism needed to be understood. For Lenin (1977), imperialism was not fleeting or a policy that could be changed, but rather an expression of an inevitable consequence of monopoly capitalism. As a result, Lenin’s conception of imperialism has been instrumentalised and reified as the basis of revolutionary Marxism. As a lens through which to understand contemporary capitalism and its dynamics, it is extremely inadequate.

From another theoretical tradition within Marxism, world systems theory expressed the fundamental contradiction of contemporary capitalism as between the rich North or centres versus the poor South or peripheries. This world system has its origins within mercantile capitalism, circa the 16th century, which has evolved different regimes of labour control and a hierarchy of states corresponding to these regimes of labour control. Core, semi-peripheries and peripheries engender states that enable global accumulation and unequal exchange. Through unequal exchange, a polarising logic dominates centre-periphery relations, which explains under­development. Hegemonic states with material capacities (political, military and economic) dominate such a world system. Today, world systems theory is at the cutting edge of debates about the decline of the US hegemony and the rise of China. While world systems theory has a lot to offer in terms of contemporary analysis of global capitalism, it is also limited. It doesn’t appreciate the role of struggles and class conflicts as the basis for social change.

For the greater part of the 20th century, classic theories of imperialism (like Lenin’s) and world systems theory provided common sense understandings of the international relations of global capitalism, both in the academy and beyond. However, with the reception of Gramsci’s work in the English-speaking West in the early 1970s and the evoking of transnational relations to explain how US capitalism has penetrated and dominated post-war Western European capitalism, the ground was set for bringing in Gramsci’s Marxism into international relations. This has given rise to a Neo-Gramscian transnational historical materialism. Such a perspective draws on Gramsci’s conceptual framework but attempts to understand the dynamics and structures of global capitalism rather than only national capitalism. This has led to a body of work which maps a more complex frame to understand power dynamics as it relates to hegemony and world order, social relations of force, a historical understanding of structure-agency dynamics and the place of hegemony and passive revolution within global uneven development. This is a new contribution to Marxism and the transnationalising of Gramsci’s Marxism. At the same time, such an approach is further characterised by its willingness to go beyond Gramsci’s thought in trying to understand contemporary global capitalism. In many ways, this is a non-dogmatic approach which draws on other critical readings of Gramsci and other critical theoretical approaches to explain global capitalism.

New themes for a transnationalising Gramscian Marxism
While neo-GraMscian thinkinG has spaWned Work on global capitalist restructuring, transnational neoliberalism, US hegemony and transnational class theory, it is evolving and has to take on new themes to further transnationalise Gramscian Marxism. In this regard, there are three crucial themes.

First, a Neo-Gramscian perspective has to be developed on the conjunctural and systemic nature of the current crisis of global capitalism. In this regard, some of the following questions have to be answered: (i) How are relations of production changing in the context of the global crisis and what does this mean for the rule of transnational capital? (ii) How are state-society complexes changing in the US and across the world? (iii) How are historical blocs being affected and reconstituted? (iv) What new concepts of control or class strategies are coming to the fore? and (v) What are the limits and contradictions of these class strategies in the context of the anti-capitalist struggle?

Second, the ecological dimensions of Gramsci’s historical materialism have to be engaged, and more generally the relationships between power, production and ecology in Neo-Gramscian perspectives have to be clarified. Essentially, Gramsci’s thought as well as Neo-Gramscian perspectives have to be ‘greened’.
Finally, Neo-Gramscian analysis has to develop a keener appreciation of anti-capitalist politics and its alternatives. In this regard, research and perspectives have to be developed on new forms and practices of anti-capitalist politics and what this means for transforming the world order.

Vishwas Satgar is a member of the national convening committee of the Democratic Left Front and a senior lecturer in International Relations at Wits University.

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