‘Karl Marx and Contemporary Philosophy’ reviewed by David McLellan

and (eds)
Karl Marx and Contemporary Philosophy

Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2009. 288pp., £50 hb
ISBN 9780230222373

Reviewed by David McLellan

About the reviewer

David McLellan is Emeritus Professor of Political Theory, University of Kent and Fellow of …


In 2005 Marx was voted, in a popular BBC poll and by a huge margin, “the greatest philosopher of all time”. Two years previously, in tune with this more favourable Zeitgeist, the Marx and Philosophy Society was founded in the United Kingdom. Since then the Society has flourished and its seminars and conferences have an international participation and reputation. This book brings together finished versions of some of the most significant papers presented in their original form at meetings of the Society over the last five years. They are an excellent testimony to the pioneering and sophisticated work being carried on by the Society.

The book is divided into five sections which cover respectively: what Marx drew from his predecessors, particularly Aristotle and Kant; Marx’s political philosophy; Marx’s views on labour, money and capital; Marx’s twentieth century followers, particularly Lukacs, Althusser, and analytical Marxists; and, finally, Marx and feminist philosophy. In all this amounts to sixteen chapters. They are all worth reading. With such a diverse subject matter, it will be useful for potential readers to have a more detailed idea of what they can expect. Accordingly, I shall give this and then offer a more general overview.

Part I begins, appropriately, with a discussion by the late Joseph McCarney (to whom the book is dedicated) of Marx’s debt to Hegel, particularly as evidenced in his 1843 Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. McCarney argues that Marx extends Hegel’s own logic to draw political conclusions therefrom which were the opposite of Hegel’s. McIvor, by contrast, reads Marx as a radicalising neo-Kantian who thus engages interestingly with contemporary debates in moral and political philosophy. And Meikle sees Marx, particularly in his Paris writings, as drawing upon the Aristotelian tradition (then still dominant in German-speaking academia) to confront the contemporary utilitarian/capitalist hollowing out of economic and social life.

In Part II questions are raised about the relationship of Marx to current political thought. Daremas looks at Marx’s early critique of Hegel’s politics and argues that Marx’s “real societal democracy” would make real the (to date) abstract promises of contemporary conceptions of democracy at the same time as dissolving their constitutive terms and categories. Collier advances the provocative thesis that Marx’s social and political thinking has more in common with conservatism than with liberalism. He argues that Marx’s critique of contemporary society is based not on external ideals (rights, equality etc.) but on the development of institutions and values which are antagonistic to the system and generate the possibility of its replacement. Fine suggests a kind of parallel between Hegel’s Philosophy of Right and Marx’s Capital, seeing the former as analysing the ideal forms of modernity, while Marx’s critique of political economy dealt with its material forms.

In Part III, Chitty argues that “capital” first appears in Marx’s early writings as an abstract, alienated and therefore inadequate form of humanity’s “species-being”. This, in turn, raises questions about the relationship of Marx’s later economic analyses to a philosophical anthropology of freedom and universality. Sayers takes issue with the claims of Habermas, Arendt, and particularly Hardt and Negri that Marx’s concept of labour is specific to nineteenth century industrialization. By contrast, Sayers argues that, for Marx, human labour is always/already communicative and world-making and therefore transforms not only the immediate raw material but also subjectivity and social relations. Arthur investigates Marx’s account of the institution of money. Drawing on Hegel’s Science of Logic, he argues that Marx’s philosophical analysis of money was the starting point for his account of Capitalism in which money had become the aim, rather than the means, of circulation, thus instituting a new form of value – capital – which depends on the exploitation of useful labour for its expansion. Murray contests the interpretation of Hegel as the unsurpassed theorist of the modern condition and aims to show how Marx’s analysis of capital – a concept not present in Hegel – challenges all claims for the supremacy of legal and political forms based on equal rights of ownership and citizenship. Finally, Roberts explores the way in which, according to Marx, human activities and social practice produce, under the regime of capital, “an abstract, spiritual subject which we embody as its moments, but whose logic we do not control”.

In Part IV Postone investigates how Lukacs reclaimed the Hegelian dimension of Marx’s approach, stressing its social and historical dimensions. He takes issue, however, with Lukacs’s view of the proletariat as the subjective agent of history, assigning this role in contemporary society to capital itself. Grant then contests the received view of Althusser as implacably anti-Hegelian. Basing himself on Althusser’s later writings, Grant portrays an Althusser who pointed to a political heritage that Marx received from Hegel, concentrating on ideas of contradiction and negativity which would allow scope for political struggle and revolt. Finally, Veneziani contrasts the narrow Rational Choice Marxism with the less reductive and more sophisticated Analytical Marxism which, he claims, can play an important role in the revival of socialist theory in its historical and normative dimensions.

In Part V, Carver gives an account of Engels’s Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State in which Engels effectively initiated the so-called dual-systems theory of class and gender oppression, and suggests the possibility of the suppression of the divide between Marxism and feminism. Howie reviews the progress of socialist/feminist theory during the last three decades and questions particularly the “postmodernist turn” in recent feminist theory, arguing that feminists need to “regroup economic analysis and recent sophisticated accounts of subjectivity” if they are to address the problems caused by the increasingly global nature of capitalist relations.

It will be obvious from the above that the subject matter of this book is varied and covers several disciplines. Some contributions are fairly technical and involve detailed exegesis. Examples of this are Daremas and Fine, on Marx’s Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Arthur on money, and Postone and Grant on Lukacs and Althusser respectively. For my money (and this is a rather expensive book) I prefer the more wide-ranging and very thought-provoking contributions of Collier on how Marx owes more to conservatism with its organic model of society than to liberalism with its abstract concepts of rights and equality, or of Sayers’s supple account of human labour which show it to be, pace such thinkers as Hardt and Negri, to be just as relevant to the 21st Century as it was to the 19th. One striking aspect of this book is – perhaps not surprising given the focus on the more philosophical aspects of Marx’s work – is the attention given to the influence of Hegel and particularly to Marx’s Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. This is not only the case with Daremas and Fine who explicitly address the topic. Murray also uses the Philosophy of Right in explicating Marx’s concept of capital; and Sayers, Arthur, and Grant all discuss at some length Marx’s debt to Hegel. The one slightly discordant feature of this collection is that it is difficult to see what the last section, on feminist philosophy, is doing in a book with the title this one has. The two contributions (both of which are excellent in themselves) have virtually nothing to do with Marx. Carver’s contribution is about Engels, not Marx, and he (Marx) does not even figure in the extensive bibliography appended to Howie’s chapter. I was left wondering whether the inclusion of this section is some kind of compensation for the fact that, of the sixteen contributors to this collection, fifteen are men.

In any collection where not only the subject matter but also the perspectives of the authors are so varied, the question of what unites them inevitably arises. The editors pose the question: are there any general themes that can be outlined and broad conclusions drawn from this collection? In reply, they point to the continued relevance of Marx’s philosophical anthropology, his deep engagement with modernity, and Marx’s ongoing engagement and argument with Hegel. It becomes clear that, while Marx wrote little connected with the narrow concerns of contemporary philosophy (logic, epistemology, philosophy of mind etc.), on a more general definition Marx does indeed merit the accolade conferred on him by the BBC poll. All the contributions are thoughtful and well-crafted. They give us an excellent overview of the most sophisticated and ground-breaking work on Marx and philosophy currently being pursued. It is heartening to see that the old mole is still digging away to such good effect.

9 November 2009

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