‘Globalization and the Critique of Political Economy: New Insights from Marx’s Writings’ reviewed by Spencer A Leonard

Reviewed by Spencer A Leonard

About the reviewer

Spencer A Leonard (saleonar@gmail.com) is Visiting Assistant Professor in the History Department at …


Even as Marxism grows increasingly historically remote and the prospect of transformative politics seemingly irrecoverable, the study of Karl Marx grows, perhaps necessarily so. Dozens of new book-length studies appear every year, supplemented by considerably more articles in what has now become a semi-respectable academic cottage industry. Much of the new research is enabled by the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe [MEGA], which, though the claims for it are frequently exaggerated and ideological, has certainly generated many fresh insights into Marx and Engels’ political and intellectual development. Still, in present historical circumstances, this new research threatens to devolve into the compulsive accumulation and cataloguing of bibliographical quisquilia. It is a peril that no author can overcome on her own, even though a conscious awareness of it is crucial if Marxology is ever to overcome its present academic confines.

Although it recognizes an ongoing crisis in Marxism that stretches back from neoliberalism to Marxism’s self-betrayal sometime after the Bolshevik Revolution, Lucia Pradella’s Globalization and the Critique of Political Economy [GCPE] takes its cues from present academic concerns, reaching back to their origins in the New Left. It is responding to “the anti-colonial revolutions … [and the resulting] new independent nation-states” that emerged after World War II. In our postcolonial world, she maintains, a new transnationalism (for capital and commerce, if not for labor) flourishes. This, in turn, gives rise to a new “global approach to the study of production relations” (3). While Marxism makes no particular advances, for much of the postwar period it formed the horizon of leftist politics and thought. Eventually, anti-colonial and nationalist movements slipped from Marxism’s influence, ultimately participating in and even precipitating Marxism’s final collapse. In 1978 Edward Said published Orientalism, and the following year witnessed the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In this sense, it is not Marxism, but its 1960s-vintage Third Worldist critique (later academicized in the 1980s into postcolonial and subaltern theory), that supplies GCPE’s problematic. Echoing the now familiar critique of Eurocentrism, GCPE maintains that “Postcolonial and subaltern studies … [have] managed to make visible the history and legacy of colonialism and imperialism” (4). The age of national self-determination, even if on the American neocolonial terms, allowed for insights that “profoundly influenced Western modern thought” (4). The book participates in the present “globalized” moment in which the political horizon has shrunk far more than the world has truly grown smaller.

Pradella is not unaware of the left’s implication in contemporary history’s regressive logic. Targeting the likes of Samir Amin and David Harvey, she observes that, “Marxist debates on neoliberalism and the ‘new imperialism’ assume that Marx concentrated on a self-enclosed national economy” with the consequence that for decades Marxism has lacked “an adequate critical analysis of the current capitalist system as a totality” (2). She then frames these debates not solely as contests over facts and reasons, but as symptoms, noting that not since “the early decades of the twentieth century did Marxist debates on imperialism and uneven and combined development … integrate, develop, or even correct Marx’s analysis” (3). For decades Marxism fell prey to methodological nationalism.

Ever since the seemingly final collapse of Marxism (or, rather, its failed reconstitution) in the 1970s, intellectuals who inherit the neo-Marxist ambition have been forced to answer anti-colonial nationalist criticisms. In recent decades this contest has taken the form of ongoing attempts to answer postcolonialism’s charges of Orientalism, Eurocentrism, teleologism, and unilinearism. Though it criticizes its most elaborate predecessor, Kevin Anderson’s Marx at the Margins (2010), on the grounds that it “[concedes] too much to the Saidian and postcolonial critique” (131), still GCPE seeks to counter the same criticisms that Marx at the Margins did, only more effectively. In this respect, like Anderson’s work GCPE takes its place alongside works by Gilbert Achcar, Aijaz Ahmad, Tom Brass, Vivek Chibber, Irfan Habib, Vasant Kaiwar, Sunit Sarkar and many others. At the same time, it distinguishes itself by its depth of research on Marx’s writings and, more specifically, by its sustained attention to the political economic register of Marx’s work. The work delves into obscure early notebooks from the 1840s and into still further detail in its discussion of Marx’s London Notebooks of 1850 to 1853, both published or near completion (and consulted by Pradella) as part of the fourth section of the MEGA. The numerous discrete insights generated by this fresh research are too rich and varied to summarise here, but what GCPE lays greatest emphasis on is how Marx came to reject the quantity theory of money, which in turn allowed him to “[ground] his thesis of the subordination of the state to the law of value” (144). The analysis then proceeds through a close reading of the Grundrisse and of the Capital manuscripts of 1861-3 to show how Marx came to prioritize global relations of production “in order to understand the world economy as a totality, and not as a sum of national units” (147).

To counter anti­imperialist nationalisms Pradella recovers what was grasped implicitly by revolutionary Marxists of an earlier day, namely that “The expansive logic of the system … the laws of capitalist development … [do] not hold primarily in the national sphere, but globally,” from which she concludes that, for Marx, “international relations and the development of new capitalist states [are] subordinate to [those laws]” (76). Dynamics of “combined and uneven development,” i.e. the geography of exploitation and lumpenization, cannot be understood simply in consequence of power relations and consequent unequal exchanges between countries. Instead, in the first analysis, they must be grounded in an analysis of capitalist production itself, i.e. in the geographical logic that flows from a self-contradictory structure of temporality. As Pradella writes, “Marx grounded his theory of ‘unequal exchange’ in his theory of surplus value,” and his political internationalism flows from this. Here GCPE makes an essential point: capital accumulation is itself “an imperialist process … [rooted in] different but interacting forms of labour exploitation” (159). Of course, there is more to imperialism than the dynamics rooted in capitalist production, but interstate relations, relations of formal and informal imperial domination, international currency and market dynamics, and much else, cannot be understood apart from those dynamics. This is the volume’s most valuable insight.

A problem arises from Pradella’s overestimation, as a point of reference and orientation, of Marxological concerns, as opposed to more traditional understandings of Marx. At its best, the academic study of Marx identifies discrete conceptual breakthroughs in his ongoing process of digestion, completion, and, thereby, critique of political economy. But such discrete recognitions ought not to be divorced from, much less take precedence over, the development of Marx’s theoretical aspirations that takes place in line with his developing political self-understanding, whether as understood from the writings of Marx and Engels themselves, or those of the great Second International revolutionary Marxist interpreters of Marx: Mehring, Luxemburg, Lenin, Korsch, Lukács, Ryazanov, Trotsky, etc.. From their perspective, the necessity of defeating his opponents on the left, above all the Proudhonian socialists, only grew more pressing in the wake of the defeats of 1848. This project of the immanent critique of socialism had already taken on the character of a critique of political economy as early as the 1844 Manuscripts. When developed in 1848, Marx recognized, against the socialists of his day, the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat. This insight achieved still fuller realization in Capital in which what Marx later calls “bourgeois right” is exhaustively explored. To grasp the truly transformative developments within Marx’s thought after 1848, the period upon which GCPE concentrates, the analysis of Bonapartist imperialism and his argument for the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat surely merit greater emphasis, even if we restrict our concern to Marx’s critique of political economy and, on that basis, of 19th century colonialism. Still, Pradella presents much that is valuable. For instance, while Marx was doubtless justified when he complained in the “Preface” of A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy that his work as London correspondent for the New York Tribune “necessitated an excessive fragmentation of [his] studies,” the author is still right to insist that this work fed powerfully, if indirectly, into the writing of Capital, and that it contributed directly to Marx and Engels’s developing strategic reflections, as she shows chiefly with reference to Marx’s research notes on British imperialism in India and China.

A second weakness in GCPE’s argument arises from its conception of the contradiction of capitalism, which again generates a certain mismatch between the book’s conceptual framework and its aspirations. For Pradella, Marx’s critique is of liberalism and not of the socialism that (inadequately) attempted to realize liberalism’s promise of historical transformation under conditions of industrial production, systemic unemployment, and bonapartist democracy. GCPE treats Marx’s criticism of classical political economists as conceptually distinct from his critique of socialists because, for Pradella, the issue is less capital than it is class exploitation. She thus writes: “the contradiction [Marx identifies is] between the development of the productive forces—based on ever-expanding cooperation—and their private appropriation” (173). Pradella opposes the growth of the capitalist class and its exploitation of the world labor market to the growth of labor cooperation through the increasingly global division of labor. Reducing the growth of labor’s productive power to the question of cooperation (172), GCPE views Marx’s project in terms of the universalization and realization of labor rather than grasping labor itself as fully contradictory precisely with the fullest realization of its productive powers, i.e. with the fullest realization of relative surplus value.

The greatest contribution GCPE makes is in its use of Marx’s study notebooks. Although, as Pradella rightly says, these provide no ground for erecting a “new Marx,” her research helps to establish a richer understanding of Marx. Where GCPE encounters its most fundamental challenge is in its specification of where, precisely, Marx’s critique breaks with classical political economy. The crucial point for Marx was that the socialism of his day did not advance beyond, and oftentimes fell beneath, the classical political economists, even as the liberals who claimed the classical legacy invariably proved “vulgar.” (Vulgarity is a neglected category in Marx over which Pradella recurringly puzzles). So, Marx’s critique of political economy was​​ the continuation of his lifelong project of critiquing the left. Nor is it true that Marx “overcame the then prevailing dualistic conception of the West and the East” (121). First of all, Marx’s Enlightenment precursors were already committed to the achievement of human society. Secondly, Marx knew that this project depended most fundamentally on the realization of socialism in the core of capitalism, i.e. among the organized working classes, who alone amongst the world’s exploited millions had set themselves this goal as a political task. In this way, Marx’s revolutionary project certainly was strategically focused on Central and Western Europe, and, in this sense, Eurocentric.

24 January 2016

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