Leaving Marx on the carpet

The Philosophy of Marx - A Requiem for Karl Marx
October 13, 1995

Is there anything new to be said about Marx? The man whose professed favourite occupation was "book-worming" has inspired thousands of texts on his life and his work. The philosopher who sought to change the world has been interpreted in a prodigious variety of ways. After the collapse of communism, Marx and Marxism continue to be written about, but without the old conviction. Although the familiar sounds can still be heard, the suspicion has grown that the words have gone dead.

These two books do little to counter such anxieties. One - Frank E. Manuel's A Requiem for Karl Marx - returns to the man, while the other - Etienne Balibar's The Philosophy of Marx - returns to the theory. Both are competent, interesting, sensitive, well-written texts, yet neither says anything one did not already know.

Manuel chose to focus on Marx because "the mindset imposed by Marx's system provokes inquiry into the elements fostering its original growth and the maladies, present at birth, that have hastened its demise." By Manuel's own admission, his text offers "no addition to the polemics of Marxologists"; its sole contribution to the ongoing debate on the future of the theory is the banal observation that, although a requiem for Marx "cannot ignore the iniquities of his offspring", the "banner that he unfurled need not be interred with his bones." Manuel's text does not, however, add anything of significance to Marx biography either; the reader who seeks a thorough scholarly account of Marx's life will not find anything here which is not discussed in greater depth and detail by earlier biographers.

What Manuel does purport to do is to provide one with "a personal expression of wonderment over the fast tempo at which the writings of a 19th-century author captured and enthralled the minds of men and women on different levels of society and amazement that only recently have the ideas been declassed and treated as historical relics." The problem is that Manuel's Requiem is not merely unoriginal but surprisingly impersonal too. As the author admits in his prefatory remarks, he has engaged with Marx's ideas "with the ebb and flow of attitudes among many Americans of my generation." Consequently, his account, as a self-conscious requiem, is a capricious affair. Verdi's Requiem is an emotionally plangent work rooted in the struggles of effusive individuals, whereas the Requiem of Berlioz occupies a more abstract universe in order to reflect on the fate of humanity, and Mozart's Requiem is of course, the most personal of the three. Manuel acknowledges that his requiem draws its inspiration from all three, without bearing "the marks of their genius"; the problem is that it also lacks their willingness to stand on their own singularity.

Balibar, whose methodological predilections precluded him from attempting a similar meditation on the life of Marx, concentrates instead on the legacy. He has written a book which aims to explain "why Marx will still be read in the 21st century" as a "contemporary author". Rather than mourn the man, he works to redeem the theory. Though Marx appeared to propose an "anti-philosophy" - "perhaps", Balibar remarks, "the greatest anti-philosophy of the modern age" - he also contributed to the transformation of philosophy. Having broken with the tradition that ran from Plato to Hegel, Marx began the movement towards a "potential plurality of doctrines". He would write "in the conjuncture". He thus became, Balibar argues, "the philosopher of eternal new beginnings", a theorist who moved forward by leaving behind a trail of uncompleted drafts and unfinished projects.

Because Marx's thought was always in motion, always in the process of revision, Marxism, as Balibar acknowledges, has never been a reassuringly familiar theory. Marxism has always been characterised by its struggle to be "post-Marxist". Its peculiar openness encouraged a "permanent oscillation" between a "falling short" of philosophy (a kind of heavy, obdurate materialism) and a "going beyond" of philosophy (an embodied philosophy, situated in a field of historical, social, economic and political contexts and processes). Such ambiguity, Balibar argues, is a strength rather than a weakness; the oscillations within the Marxist theoretical disposition have brought into question the very nature of philosophical activity, its style, its method, its function. Philosophy, since Marx, is no longer as it was. After noting this, Balibar claims, one can return to Marx and, "without either diminishing or betraying him", consider him, read him, as a philosopher.

Where does this leave Marxism as a philosophy today? Balibar admits that Marxism, even after his restatement of its core concerns, remains an "improbable philosophy", because it is still engaged in the messy process of extricating itself from "historical Marxism". It cannot escape this past, he argues, by returning to its origins; rather, it must learn from its history and look to its future. Philosophy, he insists, "will be 'Marxist' as long as, for it, the question of truth is a question of analysing the fictions of universality which it raises to autonomous status; but it first has to be 'Marxist' against Marx, to make the denegation of the ideology in Marx the first object of its critique."

This is the kind of argument first audible in the two or three decades at the start of the century, and it was probably heard most recently in Derrida's atavistically otiose contribution to the debate last year. One wonders whom Balibar - and, indeed, Manuel - hoped to enlighten. As answers to the question, "Where does Marxism go to from here?", neither text appears to suggest anything more positive than the idea that it might simply have to stay just where it is.

Graham McCann is a fellow, King's College, Cambridge.

The Philosophy of Marx

Author - Etienne Balibar
ISBN - 1 85984 951 2 and 046 9
Publisher - Verso
Price - £29.95 and £10.95
Pages - 139

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