In the years preceding Covid-19's emergence onto the world stage, an explosion of interest in radical socialist ideas, centred on the left reformist projects of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, had inspired and excited revolutionaries in, and outside, those movements. Yet while both these politicians offered radical reformist visions, their projects determinedly veered away from revolutionary conclusions. Yet it is revolutionary ideas that have consistently helped understand the current crises. Marxist epidemiologist Rob Wallace has, for instance, become the go-to person to explain the interlinked ecological and capitalist crises. Leading British medical journal The Lancet has reflected these ideas in its commentary on the pandemic, borrowing Engels' phrase "social murder" to describe what has taken place.
So it is extremely welcome that the Routledge Handbook of Marxism and Post-Marxism should appear now. While young activists and militants are not its principle audience, there is much in it that will help develop movements trying to understand the systemic roots of racism, sexism as well as the economic, health and ecological crises.
Edited by three leading Marxist theoreticians, the book is constructed around a series of short introductory pieces that mostly focus on an individual and their ideas, and longer framing pieces. The list of no less than 59 contributing authors is in itself impressive. While no doubt having to make difficult choices, the editors show the breadth of Marxist and Post-Marxist ideas since Marx and Engels' time. Importantly, given the explosion of interest in radical ideas around Black liberation, they have not neglected individuals and theories who have critically engaged with Marxism from the Global South.
Editor Lucia Pradella's chapter on Karl Marx concludes with a summary of the importance of Marx's great work Capital:
Marx's Capital thus provides us not only with possibly the most lucid analysis of the workings of the capitalist mode of production, but discloses the antagonism between two different social systems, the potential for a free society growing amid the misery of the present. Only by placing Capital in between these opposing systems, by using it as a tool of political organisation and social emancipation, can we grasp its "globality" both in theory and practice.
But in an important sense this summary also stands in for the Marxist revolutionary theory as a whole, and the Handbook thus serves as a guide to how Marxism has been used, understood and updated in the years since Marx's death.
One of the themes of the book is that Marxism is continually going through a process of development and renewal. Many of the chapters demonstrate how Marxists develop new ideas and concepts as a result of engagement with concrete situations: war, revolution, social movements and so on. Of course the lives and activities Marx and Engels themselves demonstrate this, but there are numerous other examples in the book. Pietro Basso's chapter on Amadeo Bordiga shows how he renews his ideas on Russia and socialist organisation post World War Two, though he is limited by lack of links with working class struggle. Tithi Bhattacharya's engaging chapter on Lise Vogel, who re-examined Marx's work to explore ideas around women's liberation after the re-emergence of the Women's Movement, is another example. Sometimes these developments are very sharp - Alex Callinicos describes "efforts to re-conceptualise Marxism itself" in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and betrayal of the social democratic parties at the start of World War One.
The process is not limited to Marxists either, but can also be seen in the work of post-Marxists, some of whom were using other ideas to engage and critique Marx from other directions - though usually coming to very different conclusions. In Arnold Farr's chapter on Herbert Marcuse, he writes:
With the help of Freud and the many social and political revolts taking place all over the world Marcuse was able to repackage the Marxian theory of revolution. The student protests of the 1960s, the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, the environmentalist movement, the hippies etc. were all examples of a revolt against repression, war, waste and oppression. These protests were proof that even in a repressive society and in a non-revolutionary time the instinctual structure of many human individuals cried out against this repression. People could still imagine a qualitatively better society. Hence, the development of revolutionary consciousness was still possible. With the critical contribution of psychoanalysis to Marcuse’s theory and the influence of contemporary struggles for freedom and a better society Marcuse was forced to rethink the nature of the working class. The Marxian and Marxist notion of the proletariat was no longer applicable.
Marcuse and others were simultaneously drawing from Marx and breaking it up. Farr continues:
Regarding the expanded working class. Marcuse argued: “The working class is still the ‘ontological’ antagonist of capital, and the potentially revolutionary Subject: but it is a vastly expanded working class, which no longer corresponds directly to the Marxian proletariat”
As mentioned the engagement with ideas emanating from the Global South is particularly useful. Part IV, "Tricontinental" looks at the revolutionaries whose ideas were developed in engagement with anti-colonial struggles and revolutions outside the richer world - rightly it begins with Lars T. Lih's chapter on Lenin, and a excellent piece by Irish Marxist Kieran Allen on James Connolly, but also engages with CLR James, Mao Zedong and Frantz Fanon. Having recently read Mike Gonzalez's illuminating book on the Peruvian revolutionary José Carlos Mariátegui, I was pleased that Gonzalez has a short chapter on this important figure here. Mariátegui's work should be read by anyone engaging with ideas around indigenous struggles, Latin American socialism and the nature of socialist society.
As Viajy Prashad's framing chapter on Marxism outside Europe makes clear figures like Mariátegui were important not simply as activists, but as theoreticians that could make Marxism relevant to global struggles. Prashad demonstrates the dynamic development of Marxism in the Global South, making a point about Mariátegui that could be generalised to other thinkers and activists elsewhere, emphasising the importance of Marxism as a body of revolutionary ideas that needed to be used in an undogmatic way:
Marxism would have died an early death in places like the Andes if it did not take seriously the concrete conditions of the workers as well as the social aspirations of national self-determination... To improve the conditions of work and life as well as to capture the necessity of anti-colonial nationalism meant that Marxist-inspired movement had to merge the struggle of nationalism to that of socialism... It was these emancipatory demands - drawing on old messianic ideas and anarchism as well as Marxism - that would bring together the currents of anti-colonial nationalism and socialism in the colonies and semi-colonies into what we are calling Third World Marxism.
The process was not always easy, and remains incomplete in many cases. As Prashad says about India:
It took the Communist movement in India many decades to wrestle with the precise balance between the need for unity of all exploited people and for special emphasis on certain kinds of oppressions along lines of social division. The initial organizational route proposed by Indian Communism was to use the platform of class organizations openly to attack caste oppression, religious majoritarianism and feudal male chauvinism. But soon it became clear that this was insufficient.
Prashad makes an important point (one that this book is clearly designed to correct) that "one of the imitations of our understanding of Marxism is the assumption that “theory” is produced in Europe and in North America, while “practice” takes place in the Global South."
If Marxism continually renewed itself in the context of experience, there was also the role of the ideas themselves. Frédéric Monferrand's chapter on "Reading Capital in 1968" discusses the importance of Marx's key work for the 1968 generation, noting that the previous generation had found Marx's 1844 Manuscripts equally important. He makes important point though that engagement with ideas alone isn't enough, and while the 1960s and 1970s saw the publication of a mass of new material by Marx, it would "probably have come to naught if their publication did not intervene in a conjuncture that called for a profound renewal of Marxist theory and practice".
One of the great strengths of this Handbook is that it introduces important figures to readers who may have not heard of them before. I must confess to being ignorant of the work of the Italian radical Mario Tronti, but I got a lot from Davide Gallo Lassere's chapter exploring the development of his radical ideas in the context of Italy's working class struggles. In other cases I was introduced to thinkers from outside my own political tradition. For instance I found the chapters on Samir Amin, Immanuel Wallerstein, Daniel Bensaid, Harry Braverman and Paul Sweezy very useful. In other cases - for instance the chapter on Mao Zedong - someone from a very different revolutionary tradition to myself, I still found much of interest. Reading Kohei Saito's Karl Marx's Ecosocialism a few years ago, I was struck by how the work of Japanese Marxists had been neglected in the West. So I found his chapter (together with Ryuji Sasaki) on Kozo Uno very interesting.
It should be noted that Sasaki and Saito's chapter is an excellent example of something that struck me as being very important about this work. While each article is written by authors who might be called "experts" on their subject, they are not hagiographies. Sasaki and Saito are very critical on their subject. Noel Castree's piece on David Harvey similarly engages fraternally with Harvey's work without failing to note (in a constructive way) the differences the author has. That said no Marxist reading this varied work would not find they had disagreements of emphasis or conclusion. I also suspect that most Marxists will also find figures that have been omitted that they feel should have been included. I was surprised that neither Tony Cliff nor Ernest Mandel had chapters given their importance in keeping the flame of revolutionary Marxism alive in the post-war years. I also felt more could have been made of Marx's importance to subjects - eg archaeology, anthropology and so on.
Having said that Camilla Royle's chapter on Marxism and Ecology shows how Marx's ideas have been central to an anti-capitalist understanding of ecological crises. As Royle shows, writers like Wallace, John Bellamy Foster, Paul Burkett and many others, have been able to use key ideas like the Metabolic Rift, to show the importance of Marxism to what may well be the defining feature of the 21st century.
But given the scale and length of this work, my criticisms are relatively minor. Readers will likely balk at the high price of the book, but this is a sad consequence of the academic publishing system - it will need to be ordered in to your library. But it is worth embarking on this because the most important thing about this book is that it places Marxist and post-Marxist ideas to a readers in a critical framework in order to facilitate the further development of those ideas. Most readers will find a great deal of value and, in many cases they'll discover that there is a great deal of relevance to contemporary struggles.
A few months into 2021 and we are already seeing global struggles and events that illuminate the limitations of capitalism and the importance of Marxism for understanding and fighting it. As editor Alex Callinicos concludes in his chapter on political economy:
The future of the Marxist critique of political economy is likely to depend on how successfully it captures not just the macro-patterns of crisis but also the complex transformations in production and trade that contemporary capitalism is currently undergoing. The search to elaborate and deepen Marx's extraordinary synthesis continues.
Callinicos - Imperialism and Global Political Economy
Callinicos - Making History: Agency, Structure and Change in Social Theory
Marx - Grundrisse
Marx - Capital I
Patterson - Karl Marx, Anthropologist
Foster - Marx's Ecology