‘From Marxism to Post-Marxism?’ reviewed by Jérôme Melançon

From Marxism to Post-Marxism?

Verso, London, 2010. 194 pp., £9.99 pb
ISBN 9781844676309

Reviewed by Jérôme Melançon

About the reviewer

Jérôme Melançon is Sessional Lecturer in Political Studies and Philosophy at …


Göran Therborn presents his assessment of contemporary left social theory as a traveller’s notebook. And indeed, large parts of From Marxism to Post-Marxism consist of lists of works – and lists might be fit to be read at the beginning of a new year and of a new decade. In three essays originally published in the New Left Review, Therborn guides us through the theoretical history of Marxism (second essay), changes in the socio-economic, cultural and geo-political domains (first essay), and the political stances adopted by theorists following these changes (third essay). Yet his book is also a reflection as well as an exercise in politically engaged thinking.

The line of argument adopted throughout is that Marx’s thought and Marxism after him are resolutely modern. Marxism is a theory that radically criticizes many of the aspects of modernity – most of all, its political economy – while defending it against antimodernism and postmodernism. From the standpoint of culture and society, Marxism attempts to bring about ‘another, fully developed modernity’ (67) already present in the contradictions of modern society. There is a dialectic of emancipation and violence at work in society itself, and Marxism takes on that dialectic in order to realize a society free of exploitation and alienation and to save modernity and the Enlightenment from their self-destruction.

To espouse this dialectic, Marxism was constituted by three poles, forming a triangle: it was a social science of relations of productions; it was a philosophy of dialectics; and it was a political and social current standing above the other two poles, determining them and making Marxism into a science, a philosophy, and a mode of politics of the working class. While it was at once a historical materialism, a dialectical materialism, and a socialist class politics, politics always came first. It was in practice that Marxist politicians would settle theoretical debates.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, given Therborn’s understanding of Marxism and the generation to which he belongs, the Russian Revolution – including perestroika and glasnost – is the central historical reference of Marxism, whose history revolves around this event. The second essay presents an overview of Marxist thought after the First World War, mostly in relation to Western Marxism, and specifically to the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, which Therborn calls the ‘Horkheimer circle’ (72). The reception of the Russian Revolution by European intellectuals who saw it as the embodiment of Marxist thought defines Western Marxism, the central scientific and philosophical current of Marxism until 1968.

While relying on the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Perry Anderson and Martin Jay on Western Marxism, Therborn gives his own account of this tradition. He presents it as an answer to Georg Lukács’ question of 1918: is democracy an integral part of socialism, or simply a temporary practice; or, ‘can freedom be attained by means of oppression?’ (Lukács, quoted by Therborn, 88). Lukács answered it in History and Class Consciousness and by joining the Communist Party. Like Lukács, the other Western Marxists –notably Korsch and Gramsci; the Horkheimer circle; and Goldmann, Sartre and Lefebvre – ‘became Marxists because they regarded the October Revolution as a decisive, world-historical event’ (91), or at least were sympathetic toward the USSR for the same reason.

Such a judgment was not possible for the 1968 generation, because it did not experience the Russian Revolution. It thus stands apart from Western Marxism and represents another moment in the history of Marxism. According to Therborn, Habermas is closer to the neo-Marxism of Anderson, Cohen, and Poulantzas, than to the Marxism of the Frankfurt School with which he is so often identified. According to the same criterion, Therborn operates a distinction between the worldwide communist movement and the Marxist, but not communist, anticolonialist movement that is also closer to neo-Marxism.

While Marxism had first been a political practice in socialist parties and then in anticolonialist movements, Western Marxism found shelter in philosophy departments, which were mostly adogmatic compared to other academic fields (93), before the 1968 generation developed it in the direction of sociology and historiography (101). As intellectual discourses developed and became more complex, the distance between social science, philosophy and politics grew to the point of separating them. What is more, socialist political discourse imploded in the 1980s. It was replaced by neoliberalism as the most politically successful current of thought, at the same time as postmodernism made its academic gains against Marxist theory and philosophy. Therborn links Marxism’s loss of influence and connection to politics to its new tendency toward self-analysis, following which it produces less original Marxist work about society and capitalism, and more about Marx and Marxism itself.

Therborn’s attention to the relation between social theory and social reality is thus central to his reflection. In a similar vein, he argues in his first essay that changes in the socio-economic, cultural, and geopolitical domains have definitely relegated Marxism to the past. To understand how social theory can renew itself, he attacks a few common misconceptions on the socio-economic front. As social theorists seldom fail to note, after its successes until the 1960s, the Welfare state has been falling to privatization and neoliberalism and their international institutions (the IMF, World Bank and WTO). However, neoliberal states spend even more than Welfare states used to and they continue to have as much of an effect on society. What is more, it is not corporations that have extended their power and influence, but the markets that have extended their reach through increased transnational capital flows.

In the cultural domain, the last decades of the twentieth century have seen the meaning of modernism and modernization shift from the Left to the Right. The modernist ‘commitment to reason, science, change, progress and the future’ (29) was revived under the guises of deregulation and globalized survival of the fittest, while the disenchanted forces of the left have turned to post-modernism and environmentalism, both of which tend to criticize the ideals of modernism, without being concerned with emancipation.

The geopolitical domain, which permeates the other two domains, is far from neglected by Therborn. Amongst the shifts in the balance of power, the extension of markets and the neoliberal globalization, the twenty-first century brings three novelties on which he focuses. No state counterpart to capitalist powers has emerged, making the class struggle problematic; the domination of North Atlantic countries in international relations is coming to an end; and a ‘de-territorialized world war’ (42) has been declared with Osama Bin Laden and George W. Bush as its major protagonists.

Given the misconceptions of the Left, the shift from Left to Right of the meaning and use of the state and of modernization, and the successes of the Right in International Relations, we can ask whether the Left is right in focusing on its past achievements, whether its nostalgia for the Welfare state and for anti-corporation activism is holding it back, and where it may find new inspiration for political action – and it is unclear where Therborn stands on the issue.

Since, as Therborn notes, ideas are formed against the background of socio-economic, cultural and geopolitical activity, the third essay presents the response of political theorists who are situated on the left to these changes in society and politics since 1968. Their response has included modes of theorizing such as inspiration in theology; futurism and utopianism; the divorce of class and struggle, away from the concept of class struggle; the end of emphasis on the state; the ‘return to sexuality’ (149) without reference to class; the privilege given to networks as a new object of study; and the search for a new political economy.

The political responses of theorists – philosophers or, for the most part, social scientists – are also central. Their relationships to Marx and to capitalism serve to establish the major positions in left social theory. On the Marxist side, resilient Marxism (analytic Marxism), neo-Marxism (including Žižek) and post-Marxism are all found on the side of socialism, while scientific Marxism and Marxology remain within the sphere of capitalism. On the non-Marxist side, something like socialism continues to be defended by the non-Marxist left of which Bourdieu was the most visible, while Third Way theorists and post-socialists attempt to function within capitalism.

Therborn’s evaluation of the work of other social theorists on the Left is ambiguous at best. He simply presents the positions and outlooks of others, often in a sympathetic manner. Yet because he positions himself in this field of social theory critical of capitalism as post-Marxist and trans-socialist – and as such, as able to lead original work toward new modernities – it is difficult not to see an implicit criticism of the theorists located in the other quadrants.

In light of what Marxism was and continues to be, post-Marxism is ‘a new moment of critique’ (110), still aimed at the political economy of capitalism and ‘its polarizations of life courses’ (110), still taking place beyond academics, and still inspired by Marx, insofar as it focuses on the interplay of production and social relations. As for trans-socialism, it continues to be based on the social dialectic of capitalism, which strengthens a working class that is increasingly becoming more service-oriented. However, it is now based on the dialectic of ethnic collective identity, with ethnic movements always threatening to fall to the Right; on the moral discourse of human rights and nonviolence; and on enjoyment and on playfulness, as it relates to local cultures (61-5).

Three main issues ought to be raised against Therborn’s book – perhaps more so against his outlook than against most of the contents of the book. The first and most obvious is that it lacks an analysis of the texts that would allow to really grasp the ‘post-Marxism’ that Therborn shares with Balibar, Laclau and Mouffe, Habermas and Honneth, Fraser, Castells, Debray and Bauman. Yet Therborn’s approach is more that of the sociology of knowledge – relating theorists to the context in which they write and presenting their relationships to each other – than that of philosophy. Correspondingly, he defends his classification with the idea that it is more attitudes than ideas that make up the positions within left social theory.

The second objection is perhaps ironic, given Therborn’s reliance on Merleau-Ponty’s Adventures of the Dialectic. While Merleau-Ponty’s classification of thinkers is addressed, the underlying argument of his book is conspicuously absent. Merleau-Ponty’s conclusion is that after its ‘adventures’ following the Russian Revolution and leading to Sartre, dialectic thinking (even that of Hegel and Marx, as Merleau-Ponty suggested in his 1960 course) had revealed its limitations and its own contradictions. As a result, what was needed, Merleau-Ponty argued, was a ‘hyperdialectic’, a more fundamental attempt at rooting thought in the reality to which it can only respond, and which would go beyond the opposition of materialism and idealism and adopt a resolutely political character, addressing the need to rethink socialism and democracy. Just as it is not mentioned by Therborn, the fact that Merleau-Ponty’s final contribution to left social theory (which would have placed him within the non-Marxist left) has not led to similar far-reaching work in theory is perhaps symptomatic of the difficulties faced by the Left in reinventing itself. Therborn addresses many, but not all, of the prejudices of Left social theory.

Related to this second objection, the third limitation of the book is less cosmetic than it might seem: the title misrepresents the book, which has as a topic not the transition from Marxism to post-Marxism, but rather the Left (philosophical, sociological and political) since 1968. What is more, the newest generation of thinkers and activists are noticeably absent from the book, understandably perhaps, since they have not had the chance to establish themselves. Yet they (I should say we, in the spirit of openness) have also been publishing new accounts and new criticisms of capitalism, without ever having breathed the atmosphere of Marxism and with only faint memories of communism. By ignoring what the social movements have been proposing since the 1990s, and perhaps also since 1968 – not socio-economic, but political changes that would bring true, meaningful democracy, and a reorganization of critique and protest away from parties and the state, toward other forms of power and toward building independence from the electoral process – Therborn cuts himself off from the possibility of addressing what comes after Marxism.

Yet the book stands as the explanation of the end of Marxism as a ‘ism’. It takes into account the successes of the Left in antiracism, feminism, the Welfare state until the 1960s, and the new social movements. It also takes notice of its defeats by the Right: its failure to deal with economic crises, which made the success of neoliberalism possible; its failure to develop a new politics based on the movements of 1968; the continuation of the use of violence by authoritarian regimes; the disappearance of noncapitalist regimes to serve as sources of inspiration; the social and economic opportunities opened by the liberalization world markets; and the loss of Right-Left geopolitical balance. These realities must be faced by the left; social theory must likewise remain rooted in empirical social research and in political action, or at least maintain a close and lively relationship to them.

More than lists of names, we have here a cartography of the left social theory that was developed by the generations who experienced the Russian Revolution and its institutionalization in communist regimes and socialist parties – the theories which included, to some degree, the three poles (social-scientific, philosophical and political) that constituted Marxism. We also find a commitment to the critique of the prevailing economy, which social movements might be lacking at the moment. And we have an injunction for theorists to tie together, once again, these three poles, in what Walter Benjamin might have called a new constellation.

7 February 2011


  • Merleau-Ponty, Maurice 1973 Adventures of the Dialectic trans. J. Bien (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press).

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