‘Understanding Marxism’ reviewed by William Hebblewhite

Understanding Marxism

Acumen, Durham, 2012. 260pp., £14.99 pb
ISBN 9781844655212

Reviewed by William Hebblewhite

About the reviewer

William Hebblewhite is an independent researcher. He received his PhD from Macquarie University in …


In the study of Marxist theory, a person may be forgiven for the apprehension which they may feel when they approach the subject. Does one for instance begin with the work of Marx and Engels? Or perhaps with one of the plethora of commentaries written about them or their work? Or do you bypass Marx and Engels’ work altogether and go straight to a more contemporary variant of radical political theory? These are often the questions that students and also established academics find themselves asking. Marxism, generally speaking, is one of the most discussed intellectual enterprises of the modern era. Its intellectual and political theories are often underpinned by a jargon-filled theoretical framework. Given the wealth of content that is available to those who are interested in the subject, choosing where to begin may be a daunting task. Geoff Boucher’s Understanding Marxism provides an excellent entry-point for students as well as established Marxist philosophers and political theorists.

Understanding Marxism is the latest in the Understanding Movements in Modern Thought series by Acumen Publishing. This series is dedicated to providing accessible texts which introduce the major theoretical movements in history. Boucher’s contribution to the series offers a rigorously researched book, which provides a superb outline of the major contributions to Marxist theory and the radical political thought that has developed out of Marx. The aim of the book, states the author, ‘is to understand the greatness and limitations of Marx and Marxism’ (2); this comes out of Boucher’s claim that the book defies the ‘prohibition on radical alternatives’ (2) that has been a mainstay of liberalism. What sets Boucher’s work apart from other introductions to Marx and Marxism is that it does not focus on a singular aspect, but constructs a continuing line of inquiry that gives an insightful overview of the major contributions to Marxist theory, including thinkers, concepts and movements.

Rather than focus on Marx’s contributions too heavily, Boucher offers a sketch of the major contributions in the introduction to the book. He briefly, yet expertly, provides the reader with enough knowledge of concepts such as Historical Materialism, Alienation labour, the labour theory of value as well as social classes and women’s liberation. This is really all that is needed, as each of these concepts is then elaborated in different ways. For instance, Boucher takes up the question of Marxism and Women’s liberation by using Michele Barrett’s work in the chapter on structural Marxism. Likewise, questions about the construction of Historical Materialism permeate the text, from Classical Marxism’s acceptance of historical Materialism to those who present critiques of Marx’s theory of history.

The book is comprised of nine chapters (including the Introduction). Each chapter provides a detailed outline of the most important movements in Western Marxism, such as Hegelian Marxism, the Frankfurt School and Structural Marxism. It also includes a chapter on Classical Marxism, as well as more contemporary attempts at establishing radical leftist projects in the form of Analytical Marxism, Critical Theory and post-Marxism. Every chapter is constructed in a similar way: Boucher will briefly describe the raison d’etre of the movement in question, as well as introducing some of the major figures involved in the realising of the movement. The majority of the chapter is given over to the methodologies of these movements. For instance, the chapter on Classical Marxism tends to focus on the economic aspect, looking at productive force determinism and modes of production, while Hegelian Marxism looks at the theory of reification by Lukács and the theory of Hegemony of Gramsci. While these lines of inquiry may seem divergent, Boucher shows how each movement subsequently built on the foundations of the movement that came before it. An example of this is the influence of Lukacs on the Frankfurt School, yet the obvious difference between both groups’ understanding of Historical Materialism. This is also seen in the chapter on post-Marxism, where Boucher shows how Laclau and Mouffe built their project on a post-structuralist understanding of Gramsci and Althusser, but ultimately discarded universal, monistic Historical Materialism in favour of a discursive theory of Hegemony, which accentuates the particularistic antagonisms of contemporary political society. The drawing of these connections by Boucher makes the book seem less like an introduction, and more like a critical analysis of the intellectual evolution of Marxist and radical theory. At the end of each chapter, bullet points summarize the key points to be found. This style gives the feeling of a textbook, which should be appealing to those looking for an easily accessible introduction to Marx and Marxism. However, this same textbook feel may be a turn off to those looking for a deeper understanding of the various schools which come under the umbrella term of ‘Marxism’. Boucher’s careful and prodigious research, which can be accessed through the numerous references within the text and the bibliography that follows it, should appease those who may not like the bullett point summaries.

While consisting of nine chapters, the book feels as if it could easily be divided into Marxist and post-Marxist categories. The inclusion of movements such as Analytical Marxism, Critical Theory and post-Marxism in a book called Understanding Marxism may be seen as controversial, given the amount of work that has been done in criticising these movements for their supposed anti-Marxism. The second half of the book moves towards more controversial endeavours. ‘Alongside Analytical Marxism and Critical Theory, post-Marxism represents a provocative and challenging effort to reconstruct the project of the left while still preserving the emancipatory impulse of Marxism (216). As Boucher rightly acknowledges, these theoretical movements have been maligned for their views as much as they have been celebrated. He obviously disagrees with others, such as Norman Geras (whom he mentions directly), and Ellen Meiskins Wood, who view these movements as non-Marxist. As Boucher himself mentions in relation to Analytical Marxism, many of the thinkers associated with these groups, including Jürgen Habermas (Critical Theory) and Chantal Mouffe (post-Marxism) have recently aligned themselves with more liberal theories, and while Marx and Marxism may still seem to influence these thinkers, it is much more of an influence from the shadows rather than a direct influence (such as in the case of the Marxists of Hegelian Marxism, Structural Marxism and the Frankfurt School). While I think the inclusion of these thinkers and movements in a book about Marxism shows the enormous breadth of Marxist theory today, I do believe that more needed to be done to justify their relation to contemporary Marxist theory. Because of this, Boucher’s book may actually raise more questions about the idea of Marxism then it answers.

One of the many strengths of this book is its ability to be read in a number of ways. For instance, as an introductory text for casual readers of Marxism, or undergraduates interested in this topic, the book does not suppose any prior knowledge about Marx or Marxism. The first chapter, Marx without Marxism (13-47), explains the central ideas of Marx’s philosophy ‘as the essential background to Marxism’ (13), presenting topics such as dialectics, alienated labour, ideology and the labour theory of value in such a way that the reader does not feel burdened by these difficult concepts. However, those who already have knowledge of these essential aspects of Marxism, such as postgraduate students and established academics, will find it easy to skip to the chapters which would most inform their own research.

Boucher presents an excellent piece of work that provides a clear exegesis of the major currents that have swept through Marxist theory. What is truly remarkable is the amount of effort that has gone into the research of each individual chapter. The book should be commended for the skill with which the author moves between a general overview of Marxism, and an understanding of the particular schools of thought that it has inspired. Understanding Marxism is a superb book, and would serve any instructor well in undergraduate and graduate courses on radical political theory. Not only does it offer a comprehensive introduction to Marx, Marxism and contemporary radical theory for those who are new to radical politics, but also to the learned academic who would like to know where to look next to further their understanding.

19 January 2014


  1. William:

    I have not yet read Understanding Marxism, but apparently Boucher considers only varieties of ‘western’ – academic or philosophical – Marxism. In which category then should the contributions of Lenin, Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, Mao and a host of similar Marxists should fall?

    Does Boucher deal with them?


  2. Sarban,

    This is nice introduction to Marx and Western Marxian Tradition (and a generous and nice review by Hebblewhite). Here is what Boucher writes directly addressing your concern: “The history of the communist movement is essential to an understanding of Marxism, but it is not the central focus of this book. Accordingly, although I will discuss Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, Gramsci, Stalin and Mao, some of the most fascinating non-canonical theoretical writings of other party leaders must be merely mentioned in passing” (p. 4).

    Even these theorists, aside Gramsci, receive barely more than “in passing” mention. The focus is on the chapter heading schools as articulated in Hebblewhite’s review.

    I have recently used the chapters on Frankfurt School and Structural Marxism as introductions for people curious about these traditions.

    For myself, updating Marxian philosophy up to Habermas and Zizek is the real or unique value of the book.

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