‘Nach Marx: Philosophie, Kritik, Praxis’ reviewed by Jacob Blumenfeld

(ed)
Nach Marx: Philosophie, Kritik, Praxis

Suhrkamp, Berlin, 2013. 513pp., €22,00 pb
ISBN 9783518296660

Reviewed by Jacob Blumenfeld

About the reviewer

Jacob Blumenfeld is a PhD candidate in Philosophy at the New School for Social Research, NY. He is …

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Nach Marx is a German volume of twenty essays on Marx and social philosophy today, edited by Rahel Jaeggi of Humboldt University in Berlin and Daniel Loick of the Goethe University in Frankfurt. The collection comes from the “Re-thinking Marx” conference in Berlin of 2011, organized by Jaeggi with contributions from philosophers and political theorists who are German-speaking (Hauke Brunkhorst, Alex Demirović, Rainer Forst, Axel Honneth, Rahel Jaeggi, Daniel Loick, Andrea Maihofer, Oliver Marchart, Christoph Menke, Hartmut Rosa, Michael Quante, Titus Stahl), Anglophone (Wendy Brown, Daniel Brudney, Andrew Chitty, Raymond Geuss, Frederick Neuhouser, Terry Pinkard, Moishe Postone) and Francophone (Etienne Balibar). All the authors can be said to have sympathy with the Frankfurt School approach to critical theory, although what that concretely entails is open to interpretation. Perhaps the only points of agreement are that Marx inaugurated the critical approach to society, and that capitalism is the object of critique. But how to read Marx and how to critique capitalism are anything but settled.

Nach Marx can be translated as either After Marx or According to Marx, and this duality is present in the entire book. On the hand are those who philosophize after the fall of Marxism, the decline of socialism, the end of utopia, and the rise of new theoretical and political discourses for social change. Their strategy is to take what is useful from Marx and discard the rest. On the other hand are those who stick close to Marx’s own words, whether as invariant guidelines for understanding the present or as the original source for the failures of the left. The overriding impulse that emerges from this collection is that we must hold onto both meanings of nach Marx: to think according to Marx requires us to think after Marx, that is, to adapt our critique of modern society to the conditions of the present moment.

There are five major themes that run through this volume, and I’ll briefly summarize them below. First, Neuhouser, Chitty, Quante, and Pinkard all focus on rethinking the relation between Hegel and Marx. Almost all of them opt for a qualified defense of Hegel’s theory of freedom against Marx’s juvenile critique of the Philosophy of Right. Yet they supplement it with Marx’s more mature understanding of capital. Neuhouser, Chitty and Quante bring out the similarities in the early Marx and Hegel concerning the critique of abstract freedom, the understanding of property, and the idea of recognition, while Pinkard focuses on the differences between Marx and Hegel concerning the theory of human action. Neuhouser stresses the methodological similarity of how Marx and Hegel both criticize society’s values as actualizations of ideals, but he thinks that Marx underestimates the value of liberal freedom (29). Chitty argues that the young Marx’s understanding of communism and ‘true property’ comes from a concrete version of Hegel’s abstract theory of private property and recognition in the Philosophy of Right (60). Quante defends the concept of species-being in a Hegelian manner as exemplifying the intrinsic value of human dependence, and shows why the theory of alienation presupposes it (75). For Pinkard, Marx’s critique of alienation and capitalist society would have greatly benefited from a more thoroughgoing Hegelian naturalism, that is, an account of the socially embedded form of rational, expressive action that constitutes human freedom (196). These essays can all be lauded for their nuanced readings of Hegel against the standard Marxist ignorance, as well as their complex attempts to utilize Hegelian arguments to provide stronger grounds for Marxian positions. However, when they wander off into analysis of Marx proper, they tend to veer into stale liberal complaints about the illusions of utopian communism and the importance of bourgeois individuality, things that Marx in fact knew quite a bit about.

The second major theme concerns the status of justice and right in capitalism and beyond. While Forst, Brudney, and Menke seek to reclaim a theory of justice, right, and democracy with Marx, Loick and Maihofer are more suspicious of any critical theory based on rights and norms as such. Forst argues for a Marxian theory of relational justice (113); Brudney claims that the young Marx’s understanding of communism is in fact similar to the middle Rawls conception of democracy (134); Menke believes that Marx’s critique of private right (of equal exchange of private property) as a form of capitalist domination misunderstands the other source of right, social right (of equal participation in social wealth), which involves a different logic of domination (282). Loick’s critique of human rights mobilizes Foucault’s work on policing and psychology to show its harmful forms of subjectivization (297), and Maihofer’s deconstructive approach to the normative tradition of critical theory emphasizes the historicity and uncertainty of the very norms used for critique in the first place (187). Despite their limits, the essays by Menke and Forst are strong additions to the tiny canon of Marxist Rechtsphilosophie. Maihofer and Loick’s critical stance to normative theory are welcome, but they offer little in response. Brudney’s Rawlsian Marxism is just… strange.  

The next thread that runs through some of the articles is about the nature of ideology and critique. Geuss, Brown, Stahl, and Jaeggi each interrogate the validity and purpose of Marx’s and Marxist critical theory of society. Geuss bemoans the end of Marxism as a trans-subjective worldview with authority, but thinks it’s high time we re-read Marx without the baggage of twentieth century economism and determinism (91). Brown is interested in Marx’s critique of religion, and hopes to use the same theoretical toolset of fetishism to analyze secularism and the sacralization of capital (261). Stahl’s essay places the dilemma of ideology critique front and center: the cognitivist critique of ideology as ‘false belief’ seems wrong but still necessary alongside the materialist critique of ideology as the expression of ‘false’ social relations (240). Stahl’s attempt to square the circle utilizes Taylor, Wittgenstein, Hegel and Brandom to rethink the nature of social action as implicitly expressing normative content, and hence as both material and conceptual at the same time. Jaeggi wants to know what is wrong specifically with capitalism, and not other social forms (322). To do so, she lays out a schema of the three most typical forms of capitalist critique and shows their inherent limits: functional critique (i.e., systems failure and crisis theory), moral critique (i.e., injustice and exploitation), and ethical critique (i.e., alienation and commodification). Jaeggi convincingly shows the weaknesses of each path on its own, and hence argues for a multi-dimensional critique of capitalism as a form of life that integrates all three (348). Geuss and Brown are beautiful writers, but they say very little of value besides some vague calls for renewed understandings of Marx today. Stahl and Jaeggi forego lyrical flourish but provide compelling arguments on the impasse of critiques of ideology and capitalism, as well as some suggestions on how to overcome them.

The fourth set of problems revolves around the analysis of capital and totality. Rosa, Postone, and Brunkhorst agree that only a systematic exposition of capitalism as a totality can illuminate a way out of the present. Rosa’s accelerationist reading of the Communist Manifesto pushes back against the leftist tendency to focus only on poverty, injustice and class inequality as the source of discontent with modern society (395). Rather, the entire ‘escalation game’ of capitalist accumulation is rigged, everyone loses, everyone suffers, and there’s no way to change it piecemeal (407). To cure ourselves, we must pull the plug before it is too late. Postone recites the main arguments of his work Time, Labor and Social Domination in an impressively short essay, with room left over for jabs at poststructuralism, postmarxism, and some contemporary forms of political resistance. Postone’s Frankfurt School inspired reading of Marx takes Capital not to be a class based theory of the exploitation of labor (367). On the contrary, capital is a quasi-objective form of social mediation that structures human practice according to a historically specific kind of labor (381). Overcoming this abstract form of domination neither comes from the transhistorical assertion of human labor nor from the metaphysical positing of some ‘outside’ to capitalism, but from the transformation and reconstitution of value that provides a specific dynamic to history (388). Brunkhorst’s evolutionary perspective on capitalism and class struggle seeks to unify diverse threads in Marxist sociology against the anti-social, risk paradigm of Luhmann’s systems theory (414). Against the administrative perspective which sees social ills as merely technical problems for experts to solve, Brunkhorst weds both normative and systemic aspects of the critique of capitalism together in a sweeping logical-historical account of law, politics, and the economy (417). These essays were a highlight of the volume for me, especially Postone’s systematic theory of capital; yet by ignoring the role of class struggle in history, they limit their own political value.

Nach Marx ends with a series of polemics and philosophical meditations on politics and class struggle. Honneth, Demirović, Balibar, and Marchart all defend the radical contingency of politics against economic determinism, and the indelibility of class struggle against the myth of post-political liberalism. Honneth stresses the difference between Marx’s political writings and his economic work, arguing that the former incorporate a temporality of social change and action different than the functional logic of Capital (351). If Marx had used the political perspective in his economic works, then we would have a much better account of the collective actors, normative stakes, and social struggles at play in capitalist society (361). Instead of character masks and personifications of impersonal forces, we would have concrete social groups divided by conflicting norms pressing their claims upon each other in struggles for recognition, constrained by the economic rules of the game. Demirović presents Marx’s early critiques of politics as still valid today, the point being however not to abolish politics altogether but to reabsorb it back into society (480). The dissolution of the separation of human activity into distinct spheres requires a different kind of politics that takes its model not from the state but the ‘commune’. It is Demirović’s hope that spreading the practices of the commune into all walks of life will bring about a new organization of society (485). Balibar responds to Schmitt’s critique of Marx by defending class struggle as an eminently political concept. Balibar claims that Marx’s concept of class struggle relativizes the spheres of politics and economics, placing them in dynamic tension at the center of his account of history (447). He also argues that Marx’s view of class struggle is both pre-political (beneath the institutional relations of law) and post-political (beyond the horizons of the national state). For Balibar, post-Fordism and globalization have not weakened the role of class struggle in the world, but reconfigured it along new axes of domination and possibility (459). Marchart concludes the volume with his antagonistic journey through postmarxism in search of a post-foundationalist, negative ontology for Marx. Adorno, Althusser, Laclau and Mouffe all contribute to Marchart’s attempt to free the contingency of struggle from the shackles of economic necessity (495). In the end, Marchart sides with an ontology of struggle beyond class in which an antagonistic field of differences haunts reality everywhere and nowhere. The microconflictuality of social being trembles with absolute unrest (514). While these last few essays persuasively defend the role of politics for Marx, it is unclear what specific political content they imply.

The highlights of the volume depend on what kind of Marxist one is: Hegelian, normative, value-form, radical democratic, postmarxist, ideology critic, class struggle, etc. I can say that the contributions from Postone, Menke, Jaeggi, Chitty and Pinkard all stand out as quality interventions in Marxist philosophy and social theory. The essays from Balibar, Stahl, Rosa, Forst, Neuhouser, Brunkhorst and Honneth all garner special mention, but are not so critical. The rest I’ll pass over in silence.

The best essays in the volume tend to stay close to Marx’s own writings while also reinvigorating them with new political, historical or philosophical foundations. The worst essays tend to rehash straw man critiques of Marx’s economism, determinism, and so on without adding anything new but recent theoretical buzzwords. In between are the Marx-curious, tempted by some of Marx’s concepts, methods and politics, but wary of getting caught up in Marxological dogma. All such tendencies are prevalent in Marxism and philosophy today, and so all make an appearance in Nach Marx. One hopes though that next time so many German-speaking and Anglophone philosophers are brought together into a single volume on Marx, that some more Marxists will be present.

29 November 2014

2 comments

  1. Thanks to Jacob Blumenfeld for a comprehensive – also crisp I should add – introduction to ‘Nach Marx’. I think it is time when the alternative to capitalism, the picture of post-capitalist society that we imagine and desire, should be concretised. As for the means to achieve the desired end, the western Marxists need to study closely Mahatma Gandhi’s satyagraha: the non-violent mass mobilisation combining non-co-operation and civil disobedience, in which the pursuit of truth is never subordinated to the pursit of power. Philsophical/theroetical debates, useful and useless, within academia will continue, but as Wittgenstein would say, we are to get down to ‘business’. Caplitalism has banished all sublimity, all ture beauty from human life. The point, therefore, is not only to interpret, but change the ugly world of capitalism.

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