Coincidences can be curious. A blog post by Arindam Chaudhuri, the renowned Indian management guru, materialised in cyberspace when I was reading this book. In his blog Chaudhuri writes: "They are the emperors of a third of Indian districts today. Yes, 200 out of the 600-odd districts in India are today under Naxalite rule." Chaudhuri, author of the Great Indian Dream, must recognise the ground reality in India, which is that a third of the country is under Maoist insurgency (Naxalism), which is considered to be the single most important threat to India's security by the Indian state. Most likely this is news to Goran Therborn, writing about the breach that has developed in classical Marxism between politics, social science and philosophy.
He refers to banners at the World Social Forum in Mumbai in 2004. Presumably he was there. World Social Forums in Mumbai and elsewhere consistently register high participation rates of Western Marxist academics. But across the road from the World Social Forum in Mumbai there was another forum: Mumbai Resistance 2004. Had Therborn crossed the road, he may have encountered a different class of people engaging Marxism in very different ways. Therborn, like many other Western Marxists, does not cross roads, metaphorically speaking.
This book is evidence of the deep stasis of Western Marxism. I am reminded of the Buddhist dictum symbolised by the three monkeys: see no evil; hear no evil; speak no evil. Like other Western Marxists, Therborn follows the dictum: see what you want to see; hear what you want to hear; speak what you want to speak. India contains one sixth of humanity and a Maoist insurgency in a third of India, one would imagine, is not exactly a storm in a teacup, even if we consider Nepal and Philippines to be too small to matter. Therborn, like many other Western Marxists, simply leaves out swaths of Marxist practices and theories he does not wish to deal with - even when the aim is to "evaluate contemporary Marxist political practice" and provide a "systematic panorama of left-wing thought", which are aims the book sets for itself.
In fairness, Therborn states at the outset that the "panorama" he wishes to present is limited to "left-wing thought in the North". Every writer is entitled to carve out his or her field of inquiry and if Therborn's is "left-wing thought in the North", so be it. The problem is that Marxism is not a theory easily contained within regions, states or nationality groups. As a result, a book that purports to limit itself to Marxism in "North America and the North Atlantic" is full of sweeping judgments about the state of Marxism outside the two continents, in particular in Chapter 1, which sets the scene for the "panorama".
There is little attempt to anchor the trajectory of "left-wing thought in the North" to Marxist analytical categories. Consequently we are left with a rapid trawl through an array of writers spanning two centuries, but without tools to interpret the changes. Take out classes, class struggles, forces of production, relations of production, revolution, structural social change, class character of states, nation-state as institutional umbrella for capitalism and other such foundational categories, and what is left of Marxism?
Throughout the book, we are told "Marxist politics has disappeared or (is) completely marginalised"; "its greatest moments may have passed"; its stalwarts have abandoned its foundational ideas - yet we are asked to believe that Marxism remains "resilient", "creative" and "defiant". Therborn's book is Marxism through the eyes of a Western Marxist. Seen as such, the proclamation is: "Marxism is dead! Viva Marxism!"
I shall wait for books by Marxists who interpret the world with a view to changing it.
From Marxism to Post-Marxism?
By Goran Therborn. Verso, 208pp, £14.99. ISBN 9781844671885. Published 16 March 2009