‘Karl Marx – Perspektiven Der Gesellschaftskritik’ reviewed by Michael Maidan

and (eds)
Karl Marx – Perspektiven Der Gesellschaftskritik

Akademie Verlag, Berlin, 2013. 304pp., 49,95 € / $70.00 hb
ISBN 9783050063218

Reviewed by Michael Maidan

About the reviewer

Michael Maidan studied philosophy in Buenos Aires, Haifa and Paris-Ouest (Nanterre). He published …


The papers in this volume were originally presented at a congress held at the Humboldt University in Berlin in 2011, and are organised according to three coordinates: philosophy, economics, and politics. They are set, so we are told, in such a way that any two of these coordinates excludes or displaces the third. Philosophy is displaced by politics, and politics by economics, while economics is finally displaced by the criticism of the economy. These three coordinates are also the three sections into which the book is divided.

The philosophy section contains seven papers. Tilman Reitz presents Marx as an ‘anti-philosopher’, as a critic of philosophical speculation who only accidentally concerns himself with such problems (16). In his early writings, Marx is mostly critical of progressive and other ‘left’ thinkers, and skeptical of the capability of philosophy either to illuminate the systematic illusions of religion or to provide orientation regarding historical developments and concrete struggles. Philosophy, according to Marx, originates in the division of labour; it is part and parcel of the process by which a class fights and consolidates its power over society. Questions traditionally considered to be philosophical – e.g., the ontological status of symbolic orders and institutions – need to be clarified by other disciplines, including hermeneutics and discourse analysis, not by philosophy. In the second part of his essay, Reitz addresses the question of whether the mature Marx developed a ‘materialistic dialectics’. He points out that the only places where Marx suggests this idea seem to refer to the problem of conceptually representing a totality, a task for which Marx employs certain aspects of Hegel’s philosophy (21-22). Finally, Reitz explains away Marx’s use of terms such as exploitation, his descriptions of the living and working conditions of the working class, or the rare passages in which Marx refers to a post-capitalist society. All these are no more than ‘technical descriptions’ or suggestions (23).

Andreas Arndt asks about the role of Hegel’s dialectics within Marx’s thought. Based on statements made by Marx in the late 1850’s, it appears that Marx intended to write a rational clarification of Hegel’s method. However, nothing of this project was ever accomplished, and we do not know what Marx meant. Arndt reviews and criticises different attempts in the Marxist tradition to interpret and to complete Marx’s presumed intentions, ultimately suggesting that we should be guided by Marx’s claim that Hegel’s is the ‘mystical form’ of dialectics. This is an expression that remains fairly constant across Marx’s work, and that is similar to the one he uses to characterise the nature of the commodity in Das Kapital.

Frank Fischbach takes his cue from the rebirth of interest in political philosophy in France in the 1980’s and mid 1990’s, a trend that he chastises as a reaction against both Marxism and the increasing influence exerted by the social sciences on the philosophical discourse. This renewal emphasises traditional issues, such as human rights, the state of law, liberal democracy, etc., while avoiding questions about justice and injustice, equality and the role of labour. Political philosophy, claims Fischbach, pretends that the ideal is equal to the existing reality. However, as we learn from Marx, if the concepts of political philosophy are ideological, they are also real. Equality, for instance, is not only a projection of the ideas of the ruling class, but also something that is verified to some extent in the abstraction of labour in capitalist society. It is only after equality becomes part of the social life that it can function as a political idea. Instead of political philosophy, Fischbach advocates a critique of politics, a point of view that brings out the fact that most social actors find themselves living in a society that upholds the ideals of freedom and equality, while obscuring at the same time the reproduction of structures of unfreedom and inequality (45).

Lukas Kübler presents an interpretation of Marx’s theory of alienation that takes into close consideration the current scholarship of Marx’s text, in particular, of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, as well as the criticism in the last 50 years of the humanistic understanding of Marx’s concept of alienation. In his reading, the theory of alienation is not an expressivist philosophical anthropology but rather a critical appropriation and close reading of Adam Smith’s description of capitalism. Alienation is a deficit in the cooperation relationships within the capitalist regime of division of labour, not a problem of labour as an activity in itself (64).

 Georg Lohmann’s contribution deals with the ambivalences in Marx’s work with regards to morality and law. While statements with clear moral content are pervasive in Marx’s work, Marx remains suspicious of the utopian and the natural rights traditions. Lohmann claims that Marx’s criticism of capitalism is dependent on normative assumptions, and in particular, on the notion of ‘human dignity’, on Kantian morality, and on an anthropology with roots in Aristotle, Feuerbach and Schelling (72). He concludes his paper pointing to the role of human dignity in the discussions concerning the notion of market socialism, and in the work of Rawls, Nussbaum and Habermas.

Marco Iorio probes the ontology of some of the terms Marx uses to indicate change, including the highly charged ones ‘reification’ and ‘alienation’. In his view, Marx should be read as a process philosopher, not just as a praxis philosopher (81). He concludes with a criticism to Jaeggi’s interpretation of alienation, which by not differentiating enough between different types of change risks covering with a mantle of uniformity what are in reality quite different phenomena.

Hans-Christoph Schmidt am Busch deals with the influence of Fourier in the development of Marx’s thought. In the Economic & Philosophic Manuscripts Marx presupposes the validity of Fourier’s depiction of a society where

human passions can be wholly and harmoniously satisfied. Marx endorses this thesis while rejecting Fourier’s theological and metaphysical presuppositions (104).

The economic section contains eight papers of a mostly historical and interpretative nature. Mathias Bohlender explains the role of Marx’s antagonism to Phroudhon as a decisive moment in the development of Marx’s economic thoughts, while Michael Heinrich uses current scholarship on the publication history of Das Kapital to put into perspective some thesis commonly attributed to Marx, e.g., the law of the tendential fall in the rate of profit and the theory of economic crises. In both cases Henrichs shows convincingly that Marx had different ideas and many hesitations regarding both thesis, something that is obscured in the final text of Das Kapital volume II and III, as edited by Engels.  

Tim Henning points to the dependence of Marx’s thought on the classical labour theory of value. He proposes an interesting re-framing of Marx’s theory in terms of contemporary economic theory, showing that many, if not all, of the features that Marx describes as alienation can be articulated in terms of contemporary economic discourse.

Christoph Henning discusses the relationships between Marx’s theories and the theory of recognition elaborated by Axel Honneth as an alternative for a contemporary critical theory, and settles for Marx’s superiority.

Russell Keat proposes an ethical critique of economic institutions illustrated with references to Alasdair McIntyre’s notion of practices and to Peter Hall and David Sostice’s theory about liberal and coordinated varieties of capitalist society. Such a critique is concerned with the critical evaluation of economic institutions in terms of the kinds of life they make possible (or impossible) for people to live, and more specifically of the kinds of goods and ills they make (or fail to make) available.

A number of papers ranged across the economic and the politics sections address the question of gender. Terrell Carver describes Marx’s comments on gender both in the German Ideology and in Das Kapital, highlighting their shortcomings. Löw makes a strong case for a more central role of the exploitation of the Third World into analysis of contemporary globalisation. Hennessy also wants a larger role for the affective dimensions of social life, following in the path of Hardt and Negri. She exemplifies her position with a study of the forms of organisation of Mexican female workers during a strike, of the affective connections that they developed among themselves, and of their rising political consciousness. Gibson-Graham, Erdem and Özelçuk argue for a non-essentialist and a non-historicist understanding of post capitalism, and for an approach that does not reduces every aspect of social action to labour. Hannah Meissner defends a similar position, saluting Marx’s work as a classic and censuring its functionalistic understanding of social production and its one-sided reconstruction of the social.

Manuela Boatcă explores Marx’s economics from the point of view of non-Western societies. While she will not exonerate Marx from charges of Eurocentrism, she attempts to paint a more complicated picture, showing, e.g., that Marx gives to Europe’s colonial expansion in the 16th century ‘considerable explanatory power’ for the emergence of global capitalism (211). Boutcă is mainly critical of what she calls ‘the denial of coevalness’, by which she basically means a single path theory of historical evolution, showing, in part with elements present in Marx’s work, that the evolution of capitalism contained in itself and produced in different places forms of unfree labour, of which racialised slavery in the Americas is an outstanding example.

The book closes with an essay by Emmanuel Renault, which asks anew the question of the relationship between philosophy and Marx’s oeuvre. He distinguishes three possible ways of portraying such a relationship: (1) Marx develops the possibility of a new philosophy, the philosophy of the transformation of the world, whose details can either be gleamed from Marx’s work or need to be completed with the assistance of other philosophies or disciplines; (2) Marx abandons philosophy in pursuit of a science of history and society, and philosophy is reduced to a reflective account of the principles and methods (a position he identifies with the work of Postone and Bidet); (3) Marx advocates a transformation of philosophy in order to change the world. This transformation consists in recovering political philosophy from the standpoint of social experience. This has been to a certain extent explored by the members of the Frankfurt School, and is the one that Renault clearly adopts (285). In support of his interpretation, Renault refers to distinguished examples, such as Gramsci, E. P. Thompson, the early Mao (under the influence of John Dewey’s pragmatism), and in Marx himself. All these examples share the assumption that political discourse should give an account of what individuals and groups experience as problematic (288). Renault is well aware that the notion of social experience itself does not seem to have a central role neither in Marx nor among the Marxists he mentions. Nevertheless, he affirms its importance and claims that there is room in Marx’s theory for a pragmatist conception of social experience (291), one which remains closer to the ways in which subaltern groups experience injustice and domination and to the forms of social resistance that they develop (292).

The decision to use Renault’s interesting paper to close this array of examinations of Marx’s legacy is somewhat puzzling, because it would fit conveniently in the first section. While the editors may sympathise with his position, it neither weaves together the different strands presented in the book nor elaborates critically on the different approaches The lack of a real summation of this volume – which probably reflects the fact that this is the outcome of an academic conference – is to be deplored, particularly as it is being published at a time when economic, social and political crisis seem to multiply, and where the demand for sharp analytical tools is at its zenith.

15 October 2015

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