‘Critical Companion to Contemporary Marxism’ reviewed by Michael Arfken

and (eds)
Critical Companion to Contemporary Marxism

Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2009. $50 pb
ISBN 9781608460304

Reviewed by Michael Arfken

About the reviewer

Michael Arfken is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Prince Edward Island, …


The Critical Companion to Contemporary Marxism brings together forty essays that chart the trajectory of Marxist scholarship since about the middle of the last century. Although the essays in this volume come from a variety of scholars, close to a quarter of the contributions are from the editors themselves. The central purpose of this volume is both to highlight the recent crises that Marxism has endured and to offer a number of ways to move Marxism beyond these challanges.

The Companion is divided into three sections: Prefigurations, Configurations, and Figures. The first section provides an historical background for many of the issues facing contemporary Marxism. In the next section, scholars from various theoretical, philosophical, and political orientations analyze the unique issues that emerge in different strains of Marxist research and practice. Some of the topics covered in this section include Analytical Marxism, the Frankfurt School, World-Systems Theory, Liberation Theology, Political Marxism, and Postcolonial Studies. In the final section, contributors turn their attention towards the way Marxism has influenced a number of contemporary social theorists from Adorno and Althusser to Habermas and Jameson. Apart from being divided into these sections, the essays in the Companion largely stand on their own without being connected to one another in any systematic way. In this way, readers encounter a cacophony of Marxist narratives rather than a single overarching story. Two essays in the Companion are particularly conspicuous for their clarity of exposition and overall relevance to contemporary debates.

In ‘Whither Anglo-Saxon Marxism,’ Alex Callinicos traces various interpretations and transformations of Marxism in the last century with an emphasis on the United States and Britain. The piece is largely an history of and commentary on the forms of Marxism that took root in the intellectual climate since the 1960s. For Callinicos, although the student movements of the 60s brought a resurgence of interest in Marxist philosophy, the political transformations in the United States and Britain in the 1980s associated with the rise of conservative political movements fundamentally altered the course of Marxist scholarship and practice. Despite the fact that the intellectual Left once again found itself marginalized by new political realities, this climate did facilitate the development of a new form of Marxism uniquely suited to the Anglo-Saxon context.

With the publication of G.A. Cohen’s Karl Marx’s Theory of History, we see the emergence of what has come to be known as Analytical Marxism. Callinicos notes that Cohen’s work constitutes one of three main currents in Analytic Marxism, the second current emerging from the publication of Jon Elster’s Making Sense of Marx while the third current finds expression in the work of Erik Olin Wright and Robert Brenner. Of particular importance is Elster’s brand of Marxism which relies on two central assumptions of rational choice theory: methodological individualism and instrumental reason. Under the first assumption, analysis centers on the intentions and motivations of individual actors who are considered to be the building blocks of larger social structures. This methodological individualism emphasizes the role that individuals play in reproducing and transforming social reality. Under the second assumption of rational choice theory, individuals are motivated to follow the most efficient means for reaching a specific end – what a number of social theorists have identified as the assumption of instrumental reason.

Callinicos notes that the internal logic of Analytic Marxism left it vulnerable to attack especially by those who saw rational-choice theory as incompatible with Marxist philosophy. He suggests that this, coupled with questions regarding Marx’s overarching view of justice, led several prominent Analytical Marxists to shift their attention to discussions of distributive justice particularly as these played out in the context of normative political theory. While Callinicos’ largely antagonistic stance toward this shift is understandable, it is unfortunate that he misses an opportunity to explore how debates within normative political theory – especially between egalitarian liberals and communitarians – have led to some interesting developments in Marxist philosophy.

As with many of the contributors to the Companion, Callinicos asks whether the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the rise of neoliberalism across the globe signals the end of Marxism or the emergence of a rejuvenated Marxism sensitive to the contemporary political and economic landscape. Not surprisingly, he endorses the latter view emphasizing the way that Marxism operates both as an intellectual tradition and as a political movement. This opens up a space for Callinicos to argue that although Marxism has been seriously challenged politically, it still remains a potent scientific enterprise. Whether political action and scientific inquiry can be compartmentalized in this fashion is of course a matter of some debate. Moreover, it is unclear whether the intellectual Left really needs further justification for inhabiting an intellectual realm of ideas that often does little to bring about concrete political change.

While Callinicos gives us a brief overview of Analytical Marxism, Christopher Bertram’s essay in the Companion takes the reader deeper into the tensions and contradictions that lie at the intersection of analytic philosophy and Marxist social theory. He begins by emphasizing Cohen’s role in bringing functional explanations to bear on an analysis of social relations. Specifically, Cohen argues that social relations must be understood in terms of how they function to reproduce the material productive forces. As Bertram observes, Cohen’s functional analysis served as the background for a productive debate with Jon Elster who argued that functional explanations must draw on causal and intentional explanations in order to provide an adequate analysis of the capitalistic mode of production.

In Bertram’s contribution we encounter a more sustained engagement with the theoretical and philosophical foundations of Analytical Marxism. He notes that Analytical Marxists have attempted to demonstrate that in a number of revealing passages, Marx seems to come close to articulating a rational choice model of economic activity. This is particularly clear in Capital where Marx analyzes the tendency for the rate of profit to fall or in The Poverty of Philosophy where Marx’s reflections on social relations accord a central role to the social practices of individual actors. Given these passages, how are we to make sense of critics who suggest that rational choice models of decision making and problem solving appear to rest on assumptions embodied within the very structure of capitalism itself? Put somewhat differently, if the philosophical anthropology that emerges from rational actor models is a reflection of exploitive class relations, how can this model provide a foundation for radically transforming the structure of existing society?

Much like Callinicos, Bertram highlights the shift in emphasis for a number of Analytical Marxists from an analysis of economic relations informed by Marxist philosophy to an interest in issues traditionally found within normative political philosophy. While Bertram clearly does not completely endorse this transition, he appears to be much more sympathetic than Callinicos to some of the productive debates that emerged in the wake of this shift. For example, Cohen’s analysis of the concept of self-ownership has important implications for Marxist philosophy as well as normative political theory. What is important to clarify is what if any elements of Marxism are lost when inequalities are analyzed outside of a traditional Marxist framework.

It may seem strange in reviewing an edited volume with forty essays to focus on only two. Perhaps it is even stranger that both essays deal specifically with Analytical Marxism. Surely there is much more to contemporary Marxism than this particular perspective. To understand this narrow focus, it may be helpful to get a better grasp of the structure of the Companion as a whole.

There are at least two ways of approaching a volume of this sort. The first is to summarize the developments in a particular area. In this case, each contribution would be written as if it were an introductory chapter to its own area of investigation. The advantage of this is that it is well suited to stimulate the interest of scholars with a basic understanding of Marxism. By using this basic understanding as a springboard, it is possible to bring scholars into contact with some of the most exciting developments in contemporary Marxist scholarship. The other option is to solicit contributions that participate in a central debate within a particular area of study. The latter approach is particularly appropriate for scholars with extensive knowledge in a specific area of Marxism.

It appears that by and large the editors of the Companion have selected essays that follow the second strategy such that contributions begin by jumping in the middle of a particular debate. The central problem with this strategy is that it risks alienating the very scholars who are likely to be interested in such a volume in the first place. The most likely scenario is that one would approach this volume to get a broad grasp of contemporary developments in Marxism. Readers with a basic understanding of Marxism as well as an interest in the changes that Marxism has undergone in the last few decades may be disappointed to encounter essays that are often inaccessible either because the intended reader is not prepared to appreciate the sophistication of an argument or simply because the language is often unnecessarily obscure.

It is also surprising that a number of influential contemporary Marxists are largely absent from this volume either as contributors or as topics in their own right. Some of the more glaring omissions include David Harvey, Terry Eagleton, Nancy Fraser, and Walter Benn Michaels. Moreover, a number of important areas are either dealt with in a cursory fashion or completely overlooked. Specifically, the editors miss an opportunity to see how Marxism has developed in the context of literary theory, feminism, and various social science disciplines.

With this structure in mind, it is little wonder that any individual reader is likely to gravitate toward a few areas while finding little of interest in the other areas. Yet it is important to understand that despite the Companion’s faults, this may be a feature of contemporary Marxist scholarship more generally. There is no doubt that Marxism has weathered a number of challenges in the last few decades. To maintain any semblance of legitimacy, certain transformations in Marxist scholarship and practice are inevitable and in some measure even desirable. But the pressing political question is to what extent the diversity of contemporary Marxist approaches reflects a failure of the intellectual Left to mount a sustained and trenchant critique of one of the dominant features of modern society.

26 July 2011

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