“It would seem that a (‘mature’) sifting out of the obsolete and the still useful is called for, i.e. a dialectical integration of Marx into contemporary radical thought ‘on a higher level’. There are many core elements in Marx that are of continuing relevance.”
The Historical Context
One of the redeeming features of critical Marxism is the possibility of applying its own tenets to itself. It would thus be thoroughly ‘un-Marxist’ not to attempt to briefly historically contextualise any discussion of the possible continuing relevance of Marx in the 21st century.
Following Marx himself (‘je ne suis pas Marxiste‘), it is first necessary to distinguish between Marx and ‘Marxism’. The latter, as an ‘ideology’ in the Marxian sense (cf. below ‘Ideology’), is well nigh dead. One seeming reason is of course the obvious fact of the global victory of privately organised capitalism since the peaceful collapse of the defunct state capitalism of the Soviet empire in 1989-91. However, Marxism was dead long before that collapse and for very good and deserved reasons.
The legacy of both Marx and Marxism (and indeed of socialism) had for too long been monopolised by ‘orthodox Marxism’ in its various irksome guises. From a strictly Marxist perspective, the latter was the ideology of a new ‘proletarian’ ruling class in industrialising catch-up countries (especially Germany and Russia) that lacked a politically powerful bourgeoisie, the ‘classic’ agent of capitalist industrialisation. (The ideology was of course also shared by the various sympathisers with this Soviet ruling class in other countries). From this rigorous Marxist perspective ‘orthodox Marxism’ was thus essentially a primitive bourgeois ideology that historically expressed and legitimised the interests of a new ruling class of ‘proletarian’ administrators and managers in pursuing industrial ‘primary accumulation’ (capital development via the disappropriation and proletarianisation of the peasant and small artisan classes) and the accompanying totalitarian terror while legitimising itself as a form of ‘socialism’. Finally codified by Stalin under the heading of ‘Marxism-Leninism’, it was initially developed by Lenin out of the orthodox Marxism of the 2nd Internationale (late Engels, Kautsky, Plekhanov). Being an ideology of a neo-bourgeois ruling class, all of its main characteristics were thus also those of the bourgeois 19th century: a pseudo-religious scientistic dogmatism, a crudely materialist positivism, a bourgeois economism and a Jacobinist statism and emphasis on merely political revolution.
In what may, for want of a better term, be called ‘Western Marxism’ in the widest sense of the phrase, there ensued a form of radical dissent from this orthodox Marxism of both Social-democratic and Bolshevik persuasion (‘Soviet Marxism’). In contrast to the latter, this revolutionary current of thought expressed the socio-cultural situation in the more developed industrialised countries, the brief revolutionary upswing in Western Europe after 1918 and the wholesale defeat of the working class movements thereafter. The key representatives  of this (self-)critical and dissenting form of Marxism were the early George Lukács, Karl Korsch, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, T.W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Ernst Bloch, and, continuing in the tradition much later, Guy Debord. This Western Marxism was much based on the early ‘philosophical’ Marx, on the Hegelian legacy, on the commodity fetishism chapter of Das Kapital, on the subversive implications of literary and artistic modernism and, in the case of Marcuse and Adorno, on the important contributions of Freudian psychoanalysis. Much of the following is indebted to this critical and dissenting tradition.
The Ambivalence of Marx
There is no straight line from Marx to either orthodox or Western Marxism. Both orthodox and Western Marxism deviated from and were already contained in Marx himself. Like most phenomena in the known universe, Marx was ambivalent, both as a personality and within his theoretical work. His theoretical ambivalences of course also express, from a Marxian perspective, the real ambivalences of Marx’s own historical period at the industrial transition point between pre-modernity and modernity. (In a parallel way, our own ambivalences may perhaps express our historical transition point between industrial modernity and post-industrial ‘post-modernity’…).
Marx as a person was apparently a heady mixture of authoritarian Robespierre and libertarian Bakunin, of poetically expansive Whitman, moral Moses and systemic absolutist Hegel. The conflicts within, and eventual demise of, the 1st Internationale predominantly centred on Marx’s undoubtedly authoritarian political style and thought.  Anarchists like Proudhon and Bakunin accurately and presciently warned of the authoritarian, state socialist or ‘Prussian’ dangers contained in Marx and his political thought. Such analyses were later developed more thoroughly by representatives of the anti-authoritarian left like Rudolf Rocker and Karl Korsch who both succinctly analysed these bourgeois ‘absolutist’ and Jacobin statist elements in the thought of Marx.  We remember that Marx and Engels were also apologists for British imperialist repression and exploitation in India which their linear evolutionary determinism viewed as ‘inevitable progress’ in the Hegelian vein. The brutalising, authoritarian and hierarchical factory system was seen as a magic educational system of social cooperation and solidarity. In later texts a certain dreary (and bourgeois) economism would seem to often win out over the revolutionary and ‘romantic’ humanism of Marx’s early work. In all such less than admirable features it is possible to see the latent orthodox Marxism or ‘Leninism’ in Marx himself.
However, Marx is not reducible to any one side of his ambivalence. The mature Marx also wrote The Civil War in France that saw the libertarian Parisian Commune of 1871 as the new direct-democratic model for a future socialism and, looking at some of his dour adherents, noted that he himself was definitely not a ‘Marxist’. To restrict oneself to a focus on the obsolete and authoritarian elements in Marx would be to fall into the (psychologically ‘adolescent’) error of throwing out the baby of Marx himself with the bathwater of orthodox Marxism. Rather it would seem that a (‘mature’) sifting out of the obsolete and the still useful is called for, i.e. a dialectical integration of Marx into contemporary radical thought ‘on a higher level’. There are many core elements in Marx that are of continuing relevance.
The Continuing Relevance of Marx
Despite all the well known lacunae of Marxism that cannot concern us here, I would argue that a range of at least five key Marxian notions are still of great heuristic usefulness today to anyone concerned with radical social change: his revolutionary humanism and notion of ‘alienation’, the centrality of class, his analysis of ‘commodity fetishism’, his concept of ‘ideology’, and his systemic dialectics and historicism.
1. Revolutionary Humanism and ‘Alienation’
From its highpoint in the 1950s and 60s, the notion of ‘alienation’ has to a large extent fallen into disuse. This may be no coincidence. The more total alienation is actually becoming in late capitalism, the less concepts seem available to understand, and thus potentially change, this fact. A revival of Marx’s concept of alienation and its revolutionary overcoming would thus still seem to be of great relevance for understanding and overcoming the ubiquitous mystifications and complex oppressions of late capitalism.
The concept of alienation was central to the whole Marxian project of human liberation. Marx was a ‘humanist’ in the sense of a kind of thinker who put humanity and its ongoing socio-cultural self-creation throughout history at the centre of his philosophy of history rather than any metaphysical beings or dimensions. His thought lies thoroughly within this secular Renaissance and Enlightenment tradition of humanism. Although it subtly defines all his works, his explicit humanism may be more clearly seen in his earlier (pre-1848) texts, especially the famous Paris Manuscripts of 1844, first published only in 1932. Strongly influenced by both the dialectical idealist Hegel and the contemporary materialist Feuerbach, Marx’s thought here revolves around his core notion of ‘human alienation’ (Entfremdung).
In the Paris Manuscripts, man is a being alienated from himself, others, nature and his true (species) being (Gattungswesen). This is a result not of any ‘original sin’ or any posited anthropological and immutable ‘human condition’ (as in Heidegger’s existential ‘thrown-ess’: Geworfenheit), but is rather the result of specific historical processes: the wage labour and the alienated working conditions introduced by capitalism. The economic means of human material reproduction have been inverted into ends. Dead labour (Capital) now rules over living labour and sucks it dry in order to grow vampire-like at the worker’s expense. The economy rules society. As later further developed in Das Kapital, human social and productive relations have been separated from any natural and cultural embedding and taken on the form of things like the commodity, money and capital. Emerson well expressed this Marxian notion of socio-economic alienation and reification (Verdinglichung) in his famous dictum ‘Things are in the saddle and ride mankind’. The tail is wagging the dog. The worker has become a powerless appendage of the factory machine, the inhuman, brutalising forms and rhythms of which are exclusively dictated not by human needs but by the inherent need of Capital to make profits and self-accumulate.
However, being historical and social in nature, this alienation can thus also be overcome by conscious historical and collective social action, i.e. by a process of social revolution that overturns the disempowerment and de-humanisation occasioned by capitalism. The revolutionary ‘expropriation of the expropriators’ thus becomes the inversion of the original capitalist inversion that was based on the wholesale disappropriation of the common people of their alternative means of livelihood (land and tools). Inverting the rule of the economy (Capital) over society, social revolution is the liberating process in which society finally gains control of the run-away economy. If, in Emerson’s dictum, things are in the saddle and ride mankind, social revolution in the Marxian sense is the process of putting mankind back into the saddle and making the economy subservient to human needs.
Marx’s original concept of revolution is thus not a power-hungry, merely political change in the state and at the top (as in bourgeois political revolutions and their continuation in social-democratic Marxism, Leninism, Trotskyism and Maoism), but a deep social and empowering change in the relations of production and, flowing from there, in the human relationship to self, others, nature and polity. The goal of this social revolution is human liberation from capitalist alienation and domination in an ‘association of free producers’ democratically producing for human needs. At least for the young Marx (as for Adorno, Marcuse and Bloch), this social utopia of ‘socialism’ or ‘communism’ would also be an ecological one: it would end human alienation from nature, finally realising a true reconciliation with nature, conceived not as some primitive neo-tribalist regression but as the civilisational ‘humanisation of nature’ and ‘naturalisation of humanity’.
2. The Centrality of Class
For both good and bad reasons, the concept of class has moved away from its central place in much dissenting and radical thought. The good reasons are that traditional Marxist notions of class and class struggle seem at best antiquated and at worst simplistic, wrong or obfuscating. Many or most concrete social phenomena and problems seem to slip through the simple broad meshes of ‘class analysis’. To broadly ascribe certain forms of consciousness to specific individuals based on their supposed class is to commit a fatal ‘category error’ (that of simply identifying the two very different categories of ‘individual’ and ‘class’). To continue to make the diminishing class of manual industrial workers into the prime or one-and-only so-called ‘revolutionary subject’ of deep social change seems regressively nostalgic at best, self-debilitatingly laughable at worst. In addition, both globally and within industrialised societies, class compositions, relationships and struggles have of course also very much changed and differentiated since Marx’s times. Marx’s simple base duality or binary of ‘bourgeoisie’/ruling class and the ‘proletariat’/working class would have to undergo both considerable differentiation and expansion to survive as useful tools for deep social change.
On the other hand, any radical theory that completely gives up on the notion of ruling and subservient classes (however modified) does so at its own peril. Contrary to various still prevalent ‘end of ideology’ ideologies, classes and class struggle did not suddenly and magically end around 1945-50. Never, one could in fact well argue, has there been such a clear socio-economic polarisation on such a global scale. Given the present immense concentrations and centralisations of wealth in the hands of a global ruling class and the generalisation of wage labour (i.e. ‘proletarianisation’) among billions of people, perhaps there are now really only ’200 pharaohs and five billion slaves’ (Adrian Peacock ). Consider merely the staggering 1998 statistics of the United Nations: the three richest people in the world had assets that exceeded the combined wealth of the 48 least developed countries; the world’s richest 225 people had a combined wealth of more than $1.7 trillion which was equal to the annual income of the poorest 2.5 billion people or 47% of the world population; Microsoft owner Bill Gates, who possessed more than the combined wealth of the USA’s poorest 100 million people ($ 84.7 billion), could alone afford the mere $68 billion needed to achieve and maintain universal access to basic education and health care, safe water and basic sanitation. 
From a Marxian perspective, such UN figures are in fact not only stating a key facet of the general ethical indecency of the capitalist system that motivates leftwing activism but also that ‘communism’ is now, at least objectively, possible. As predicted and lauded in the Communist Manifesto (1848), capitalism has now accumulated so much incredible wealth that the fulfilment of basic material needs for all the world’s people is now possible without the necessity of wage labour (i.e. ‘communism’). A Guaranteed Minimum Income not tied to work could now be provided for all, for example. Without the structural coercion of ‘work or starve’, without the material need for wage labour, capitalism could not function as before and a key material pre-requisite for the dissolution of classes would be given. ‘All’ it would need to realise this old utopian dream of humanity would be the radical redistribution of this wealth for the common good, i.e. a power struggle by the overwhelming majority to dissolve the power of the minority over the means of production and in the process to dissolve class society, i.e. a social revolution. At this stage, however, the world’s majority ‘proletariat’ would seem far from such awareness.
One cogent argument against a facile or reductionist emphasis on class alone, however, has also been frequently made by the various adherents of ‘identity politics’. The importance of non-class factors like gender, ethnicity, culture and sexual orientation for understanding and changing socially oppressive structures has been a radical given since the 60s and 70s, and doubtless an over-focus on class can often obfuscate, distract from or gloss over such factors and their various forms of oppression. At times, such factors can undoubtedly override class factors.
However, for social change activists to throw the baby of class and class struggle out with the bathwater of dogmatic ‘workerism’ or simplistic ‘class analysis’ comes at the great price of likely delusion. Beyond all theoretical argument, the sheer empirical facts would now seem to confirm the social (and thus heuristic) ‘ultimate’ predominance of class over all other factors underpinning ‘identity politics’.
Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell and a plethora of black CEOs in the US may be taken as cases in point: neither being a female nor being black need now necessarily preclude one from becoming a member of the imperial ruling classes (nor, despite the froth of Christian fundamentalist backlash, would it any longer really matter if either of them were gay). Empirically, a black middle and upper class is no different in its material interests and prevailing aggregate consciousness to any other middle or upper class. A greater degree of civil rights for oppressed minorities as achieved in the US or South Africa will not change the class realities manifest in South Central LA or Soweto. A Nelson Mandela in power might well enable a new black bourgeoisie and middle class but will not touch the wealth and power base of the ruling classes and will symbolically bestow the highest national honours on a kleptocrat and genocidal dictator like Indonesia’s Soeharto. Unlike many a white liberal, a white steel worker might in all likelihood not be surprised at any of this. He may also have a different, since openly class-based, view of collective shame or guilt about the historical legacy of black slavery:
I got no use for the black militant who’s gonna scream three hundred years of slavery to me while I’m busting my ass. You know what I mean? (Laughs.) I have one answer for that guy: go see Rockefeller. See Harriman. Don’t bother me. We’re in the same cotton field. So don’t just bug me. (Laughs.) 
Similarly, mainstream feminism’s systemically naïve, class-neutral fixation on ‘gender equality’ within prevailing capitalist institutions has ‘succeeded’ to the extent that most corporate PR spokespeople are now women (perhaps because we somehow still tend to view women as more ‘sincere’) and the ubiquitous advertising image of a successful CEO now also tends to be that of a woman, preferably even of non-European background. The ‘feminism’ even within Chinese Stalinism has enabled China’s richest billionaire to be a woman, Zhang Yin, a paper recycling capitalist. Western feminism has also ‘succeeded’ to the extent that the torture and atrocities in US-occupied Iraq involved women in the immediate chain of command: from Rice at the top to Major General Barbara Fast (top intelligence officer responsible for reviewing detainee condition before release) to General Janis Karpinski (director of Abu Ghraib prison) down to the three women Lynndie England, Megan Ambuhl and Sabrina Harman of the seven soldiers actually made to carry the can and be charged with abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib.  Thus, the defining criterion of ‘success’ within contemporary capitalism is not gender or race or sexual orientation but achieving the ‘equality’ of thoroughly espousing ruling class values and mind sets.
Thus from a critical Marxist perspective, in the ‘post-modern’ age of intensified globalisation and cultural McDonaldisation, Capital has now manifestly become what it inherently always was: a powerful cosmopolitan levelling force that knows neither nation, gender nor race as a barrier to its drive to self-accumulate. As the Communist Manifesto so forcefully argued, Capital is an inherently revolutionary force that sweeps all before it, all non-monetary qualities, quirks, responses, institutions and identities are but grist for its all-levelling mill of expansion and accumulation.
The price of ignoring class and systems dominated by ruling classes can also be seen in the contradictions and weaknesses of much mainstream environmentalism. Most environmentalists, being mostly middle or upper class themselves, tend to ignore class realities. Given middle and upper class over-consumption of the planet, these might become a little embarrassing if fully acknowledged. Wealthy people’s ecological footprints are immeasurably heavier than those of the poor. Ignoring class, wealth and power, environmentalist ideology usually constructs capitalist eco-destruction not as the necessary workings of an inherently growth-oriented, unsustainable and class-based economic system but as a mere function of corporate lack of knowledge, weak state regulation, inadequate laws, a mysterious lack of ‘political will’ on the part of politicians, over-population (usually of the poor, not of the rich) or else of some nebulously anthropological or essentialist notion of ‘human greed’. Lacking any systemic and class perspective, it then becomes a mysterious puzzle (or subjectivist ‘betrayal’) as to why so-called ‘green’ politicians, even when they manage to achieve a measure of political power (like vice-president Al Gore or foreign minister Joseph Fischer in Germany), neither effect nor even seek to effect any real change whatsoever to the corporate momentum of systemic ecocide.
In this class-free ‘night in which all cows are black’ (Hegel), the agent of ecocide then usually becomes a mystically unified ‘we’. ‘We’ are destroying the planet. The powerless order-takers are suddenly as much responsible for global ecocide as are the wealthy order-givers. The unemployed mobile home dweller, factory worker or social welfare recipient is as much responsible for global destruction as is the CEO of Big Business and Big Finance. It then also becomes a puzzle as to why low-income people should seem to show such little environmental concern, eat at McDonalds, drive their proverbial old gas guzzlers and not vote Green. For the Al Gore type of environmentalist, the working poor might be advised to buy a ‘clean and green’ hybrid car or shares in a wind farm company, stick a few photovoltaic panels on the roof, buy expensive organic food and maybe take a ‘carbon neutral eco-holiday’ trekking in Nepal to view the glaciers while they are still there. Ignoring class is inevitably linked to the associated technocratic ideology of ‘technical fixes’ to socio-ecological problems. (Cf. below Ideology) Marx can provide a cogent conceptual antidote to all these short-sighted, single issue and naively non-systemic ‘green’ ideologies which provide a fashionable ‘greenwash’ for the ecocide of capitalist business-as-usual.
3. Commodity Fetishism: Demystifying Capitalism
Marx’s most lasting contribution perhaps is his brilliant demystification of the core dynamic of capitalism. Orthodox Marxism often conveniently ‘forgets’ that Marx did not create a new (‘Marxist’ or ‘socialist’) economic system or theory but engaged in a radical ‘critique of political economy’ that sought to help overthrow the oppressive primacy of ‘the economy’, the rule of ‘the market’, over almost all human affairs in bourgeois industrial society. This central aspect of Marx’s critique would seem to be of immense current relevance as ‘the economy’ or ‘the market’ immeasurably extends and intensifies its control of all societies, people, psyches and nature both ex- and internal.
Mainstream economics, as hammered into general consciousness by the corporate media and politicians of all persuasions, always portrays the movements of Capital as abstract, i.e. as socially and politically de-contextualised. Our attention is strictly focused on the rise and fall of abstract numbers and things (share prices, interest rates, investment figures, foreign debt, trade balances, currency exchange and employment rates, GDP etc). Class interests and power relationships are completely absent from all mainstream media discourse on ‘the economy’.
The whole thrust of Marx’s critique of political economy in Das Kapital was to deconstruct and destroy this bourgeois ideology that today seems almost total. The ‘reified’ surface appearance of ‘capital’ as an abstract economic ‘thing’ seemingly acting of its own accord was demystified as being in essence a social relationship of alienation, oppression, ‘power-over’ and exploitation between capital and labour, the bourgeoisie and working class, the order-giving owners and managers of the means of production and the order-taking employees.
In a similar way, the defining object of capitalist society, the commodity, was also demystified. Marx analysed the strange ‘sensuous abstraction’ of the ‘commodity fetish’ as a ‘coagulated’ form of ‘abstract’ (wage) labour undertaken under the new historical conditions of generalised commodity production, i.e. conditions in which anonymous, isolated and competitive strangers exchanged their products or services according not to their concrete and qualitative ‘use values’ (human needs and qualities) but according to their abstract and quantitative (monetary) ‘exchange values’.
Capital is now seeking to even further expand its realm of abstract exchange values: its inherent project of commodifying of all life is now proceeding exponentially by expropriating the last vestiges of the global commons (water, air, seeds), by genetically engineering, cloning and patenting life forms. All of nature and its complex ecological and aesthetic qualities are viewed as nothing but abstract, quantifiable and marketable ‘natural resources’. At the same time, many ‘cool’ and hyper-modern ‘market personalities’ (Erich Fromm) have totally internalised Capital’s values by thinking and talking its pervasive language of money and markets, by closely identifying with the brands of commodities they wear or use or by seeing aspects of their own ‘personalities’ as sellable commodities on the generalised ‘labour market’.
The cold, inhuman and reified non-relationships of totalised wage labour, market relations and the commodity now reign supreme both in the world and in many minds. Marx’s unsurpassed analysis can provide the proverbial axe that helps break that mental ice of conformity.
Marx’s concept of ideology is also of continuing relevance as it differs from the now prevalent neutral definition of the term as simply denoting any belief system whatsoever. Marx’s use of the word is socially critical and situated within the larger tradition of the critique of ‘idolatry’. This tradition reaches from Moses to Francis Bacon (Novum Organum, 1620) and his delineation of the various ‘idols’ that hinder men from seeing truth or undistorted reality. Focussed on the radical critique of political economy and its reifications as Marx is, the term ‘ideology’ takes on the precise general meaning of ‘socially necessary false consciousness’.
Bourgeois economics, for example, is undoubtedly the core ideology of modern capitalist societies from New York and London to Beijing and Moscow. All ruling elites of whatever political persuasion, the corporate media and increasing numbers of ‘market personalities’ in the general populace now exclusively live and think in its terms. The ideology of economics is false because it abstracts from and further reifies social class relations of power/powerlessness. At the same time this ideology is historically ‘necessary’ in two senses. Firstly, the class interest of the bourgeoisie power elite prevents it from conceiving ‘the economy’ or ‘markets’ in any other way. Secondly, this ideology also unconsciously expresses a historical reality or truth: social relations really are ‘abstract’ (geared not to human needs but to the realisation of monetary values), reified and almost totally dominated by ‘the economy’ and ‘market’ (Capital).
The prevalent technocratic ideology of fetishizing technology and technical fixes to socio-economic problems (popular in a green version among many or most environmentalists) can be similarly deconstructed as both false and necessary. It is false because, like economics, it abstracts from any social or class context or interest. The whole point of technical fixes is to leave (capitalist) power relationships and ‘business as usual’ intact within the economic and political spheres. An exclusive focus, for example, on ‘clean coal’, nuclear, large-scale renewable technologies or individual energy-saving measures as ‘solutions’ to climate chaos can deflect from any uncomfortable social questions about equity and power, e.g. the exorbitant, inequitable and unsustainable energy use of the wealthy or the social control of centralised energy systems by powerful elites and corporate carbon emissions in general. At the same time the technocratic ideology unconsciously expresses the truth of a historical reality in which Capital in the material form of its hyper-industrial ‘megamachine’ (Lewis Mumford) really has become all-dominant and seemingly overpowering.
5. Systemic Dialectics, Historicism and the Potential for Liberation
For minds made passive, confused and lost in the ‘spectacle’ (Guy Debord) – i.e. the fragmented, de-contextualised and thus meaningless world as ubiquitously constructed by Capital and its advertising and media – an exposure to Marxist dialectical texts can help see things from a different and liberating perspective. Here we come across the important legacy of Hegel and the philosophically sublimated results of the great bourgeois revolutionary epoch of the 1770s-90s. Reading ‘Hegelo-Marxist’ texts like Das Kapital, Grundrisse, T.W. Adorno or Guy Debord, we engage with the primacy of dialectical process over static substance and structure. We experience a revolutionary fluidizing of things and categories, a de-reifying of the solidified. Like the life it mirrors, dialectical thought never rests in any final conclusion or result. The truth is not in the end but in the process or proverbial journey itself, a truth-in-process. Thus it is actually impossible to make reified and dead comments about ‘dialectics’ as such, i.e. as something separate from the actual process of dialectical thinking and analysis (as the ontological ‘dialectical materialism’ of Marxism-Leninism attempted, even purporting to find an ‘objective dialectic’ in nature divorced from human perception and construction). The following remarks are thus little more than abstract hints as to certain general aspects of its nature.
Like the historical evolution of society in Marxian perspective (‘all history is the history of class struggles’), the process of dialectical thought in the Hegelo-Marxist tradition is movement driven forward by conflict, paradox, ambivalence, self-contradiction. Within this process there is a double movement of self-alienation and eventual or temporary self-reconciliation or ‘supercession’ (Aufhebung: integration). Supercession or transcending is not an ‘abstract negation’, not a ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’. Rather, it is ‘concrete negation’ in the threefold, seemingly paradoxical sense of the German Aufhebung in which the old is simultaneously negated, kept and superseded or ‘lifted up’ onto a higher level of integration. Thus for example, a post-capitalist society in the Marxian sense will not simply regress from or throw out (‘abstractly negate’) all the considerable historical achievements of capitalism and bourgeois society, but will seek to ‘lift them up’ and integrate them into a higher unity.
This whole dialectical movement of Aufhebung is, however, more than the dead mechanics suggested by the often cited phrase ‘thesis-antithesis-synthesis’. It may perhaps be best exemplified by the threefold subjective work of ‘identifying-disidentifying-integrating’ (Ken Wilber ) as ideally happens in psychological development, individuation and maturation. Thus, as children we build identity by unconsciously introjecting and identifying with our parents (as immature citizens still do with their leaders); then as adolescents we often continue to build identity by abruptly cutting off, reacting against and consciously dis-identifying with them, while as we mature we are at some point called on to overcome and somehow resolve these two previous developmental stages. Ideally this happens neither by regressively re-identifying with one’s parents (becoming conformist), nor by maintaining the cut-off (becoming compulsively ‘anti-conformist’), but rather by maturely and ‘dialectically’ sifting through, discarding and integrating our various parental influences and hang ups.
A similar dialectical approach can be taken towards Marx himself. It is possible to first completely and dogmatically identify with him as a ‘Marxist’, then to equally dogmatically dis-identify with (or ‘abstractly negate’) him as an ‘anti-Marxist’ (like many ‘renegades’ a la Horowitz or Kristol or Glucksman etc.) Finally, it is possible to engage in the mature work of ‘dialectical integration’: i.e. to analyse and discard, or else keep and integrate those elements of Marx that would seem to continue to be true and useful.
Furthermore, in dialectical thought everything is dialectically ‘mediated’ (vermittelt). That is, there is nothing simply and dogmatically given as an isolated ‘fact’, there is nothing simply ‘im-mediate’ (unmittelbar, i.e. un-mediated), as in the empiricism, positivism and scientism dominant in global mainstream thought. Rather, everything is considered mediated with other things, contextual, in relationship, in communication with the other (vermittelt also means ‘to get across’ or ‘communicate’). Moreover, this mediation is not an external and mechanical relationship extraneous to the object being considered but rather an internal and inherent one. The mediation, the relatedness, is a constitutive part of the object itself. As the whole is made up of or mediated by parts, so also is the whole contained or mediated within the parts themselves. And this whole is ‘holistic’: as in ecology and systems science, things are always seen not in isolation but systemically, as part of a ‘concrete totality’. Thus Marx in the three volumes of Das Kapital famously develops the successive categories of his analysis of the totality of capitalist economy dialectically out of the one basal category of the commodity.
In addition, this totality is not abstract and a-temporal (as in the positivism of general systems theory) but inherently concrete and historical. In the ‘historical materialism’ of Marx, nothing can be really understood outside its historical genesis or context. The concept of ‘capital’, for example, cannot be understood without analysing its historical origins in the social and cultural terrors of ‘primary capital accumulation’ (enclosures, slave trade, absolutism, child labour, pauperisation etc). In contrast, the prevalent positivism, structuralism and scientism of mainstream academia and the media tend to take things as simply ‘given’, as structures, systems, data, ‘information’ or fragmented ‘facts’ divorced from historical context and origins. This is of course not accidental. Where everything is simply a-historically ‘given’, it becomes ‘naturalised’ and eternalised, and thus legitimised. As in Margaret Thatcher’s notorious ‘TINA’ (‘there is no alternative’) axiom, a concept of any systemic alternative and different future can then no longer arise. Without history, without a sense of the past and the future, reality has been flattened into a repressive eternal Now, i.e. the Nietzschean ‘eternal repetition of the same’, the very image of capital accumulation itself. For Capital, as for Henry Ford, ‘history is bunk’.
In contrast, where things have an origin and an evolution, they can also change and be changed. Past and present contain differing potential futures that are created by collective human action and meaning-making. This would seem to be Marx’s most lasting contribution to the ongoing project of human liberation from social alienation, the core of his continuing charm. With Marx, another world is indeed possible.
1. My choice of key representatives differs from Perry Anderson’s (Considerations On Western Marxism (London: NLB, 1976)) and J.G. Merquior’s (Western Marxism (London: Paladin Books, 1986)) notions of Western Marxism. Since the anti-authoritarian or libertarian notion of ‘Western Marxism’ being used in this essay hinges on the latter’s radical divergence from the orthodox and social-democratic Marxism of which Leninism and Marxism-Leninism are but continuations, I am including the Situationist Guy Debord and not Communist party adherents like Gramsci, Sartre, Althusser, Goldmann and Colletti under this heading. Due to the both stylistic and substantial originality of his work, my inclusion of Ernst Bloch occurs despite his Leninism and even Stalinist apologetics during the thirties.
2. Cf. from a guild-socialist perspective: G.D.H. Cole, A History of Socialist Thought Vol. 2: Marxism And Anarchism 1850-1890 (London, Macmillan & Co., 1964) 197-202; and from a syndicalist perspective: F. Brupbacher, Marx und Bakunin: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Internationalen Arbeiterassoziation (Munich: G. Birk & Co., 1922).
3. K. Korsch, Marxismus und Philosophie (Frankfurt a.M: Europäische Verlagsanstalt, 1966); R.Rocker, Absolutistische Gedankengänge im Sozialismus (Darmstadt: Verlag Die Freie Gesellschaft, n.d.).
4. Adrian Peacock, Two Hundred Pharaohs Five Billion Slaves (London: Ellipsis, 2002).
5. ‘Super-rich Trio Worth more than 48 Countries’, Sydney Morning Herald, 11 September 1998, 3.
6. Studs Terkel, Working (New York: Pantheon Books, 1974), xxxv.
7. As feminist Barbara Ehrenreich hopes: “A certain kind of feminism, or perhaps I should say a certain kind of feminist naiveté, died in Abu Ghraib.” (B. Ehrenreich, ‘Feminism’s Assumptions Upended’, Los Angeles Times, 16 May 2004.
Available at: www.commondreams.org
8. Ken Wilber, A Brief History of Everything (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1996), 144.
Peter Lach-Newinsky was born 1949, grew up bi-lingually (German/English) in Sydney, Australia and studied politics, philosophy and literature in Munich and Frankfurt in the late sixties/early seventies. He was involved in politicisation and activism in the German student and anti-authoritarian movement, worked for many years as a high school and adult migrant English teacher in Germany and Australia and has been in eco-activism since the mid seventies. He now maintains a 20 acre small permaculture farm in the highlands south-west of Sydney.