Marx at the Margins

Kevin B. Anderson’s Marx at the Margins, and especially the promise of its subtitle, “On Nationalism, Ethnicities, and Non-Western Societies,” sounds like just what I’ve been looking for — an explication of race and nationalist politics that reduces neither to a subset of economy, and a portrait of Marx that shows him pushing against the European origins of his thought.

And in some ways, Anderson delivers on the promise. He details better than most the evolution from Manifesto Marx to Capital Marx, that is, from Marx the cheerleader of real subsumption to the Marx of multiplicities. (More on this below.) He also paints Marx as someone who was animated about and by politics, even of the parliamentary/electoral variety, and who thought that proletarian struggles couldn’t be successful if they were fought only against capital, that they had to be waged politically also. So while Marx’s official works manifestly elided politics for the most part, his letters, journals, and articles show him to be intimately knowledgeable of contemporary political events, and not just of politics in general but of movements and events in their singularity. In Anderson’s telling, each of Marx’s political investigations and researches of marginal populations — of India, the U.S. civil war, China, Poland, Russia, and Ireland — rebounded, to varying degrees, on the economic-theoretical work he was carrying out simultaneously, including, for example, his insertion of the conditions of Irish workers into the sections on the working day in Capital and his incorporation of his studies of Russian society into later revisions of the primitive accumulation chapters. In short, Anderson presents a Marx who did not consider the political to be secondary to or derived from the economic.

Of course there are problems with this presentation. One of them is that for a book that purports to uncover a concealed, secret Marx — one that is less European than is often supposed, both by his critics and his fans — a great deal of the material he uses is not new, and the stuff that is new is less than convincing. Not that novelty is essential, but for a text that wants to cast in a brighter light the marginalized Marx thinking about marginalized struggles and events, Anderson does very little to alter debates about colonialism, nationalism, and racism. Mostly he’s interested in clarifying Marx’s position in those debates and how Marx eventually came to hold the correct position.

For example, to use the most famous instance that Anderson elaborates on, Marx’s views on Indian struggles against British colonialism, Marx started off, in the early 1950s writings on India, largely as a colonial chauvinist: India was backwards because it was culturally and politically passive and conservative, as indicated by its historical acceptance of the caste system, which paved the way for easy colonial conquest. For the early Marx, this rule did have an upside: It would bring the requisite levels of civilization and progress to India, which would, after they gained full purchase, allow socialism to succeed. By the late 1950s Marx had modified this position — though, as Anderson’s silence on the matter indicates, he never truly renounced it — and toned down his rhetorical denunciations of the passivity and savagery of the Indian population, eventually deciding that Indians do resist, in their way, and hypothesizing that “Asiatic” systems could be the locus of revolution and socialism just as much as nations of advanced capitalism could be.

Another example: Anderson holds out Marx’s 1879-82 notebooks, which have never been printed in English and barely at all in other languages, as another example of how his thought evolved and how he came to see non-European societies as capable of accomplishing socialism. In these notebooks, Marx quotes the work of anthropologists and archaeologists who were investigating Native American and other marginal societies. Marx, Anderson says, was trying to expand the scope of his anticapitalist project to investigate why socialist revolutions hadn’t yet come about and to discover if there were perhaps other, less progressive paths to socialism. Anderson gives great significance to these notebooks because they show Marx employing a “multilinear” approach to social questions and dropping the “unilinear” approach that typified the earlier, more Eurocentric Marx. This transformation, for Anderson, makes Marx relevant to today, when capital has become nearly universal and traverses the entire globe; Marx’s eventual acceptance that socialism can arise from a wide variety of circumstances makes him a contemporary thinker, a premature theorist of globalization.

I’m less than convinced by the argument. One reason is that the 1879-82 notebooks are almost exclusively made up of quotations, with only scattered, brief, and nonsystematic commentary by Marx, which Anderson somewhat scurrilously says shows that Marx was radically reshaping his early thought, implying that if he had lived longer he might have laid out a much different, more expansive (global) take on capitalism. But even accepting that Marx did change his mind on some of these important questions, Anderson in no way shows that the framework Marx operated in moved one bit. We are left with the same Marx that vulgar Marxism has given us: the telos of capitalism is socialism and the route to that end will be revolution. Anderson can only chart how Marx came to occupy the more humanist position within that framework, and the question of how to bypass the many blindsides of the traditional Marx is never addressed.

Anderson’s failure is due in no small part to his drily empirical, antitheoretical approach, which allows him to notice the early Marx’s Orientalism but doesn’t allow him to be critical of the form and boundaries of debates about national politics, ethnicity, and states. To his credit, Anderson does a fine job of clarifying Marx’s positions and how they changed, but he does nothing to contemporize and interrogate those debates themselves. They exist for us as they existed for Marx, and we can all be thankful that Marx came to his senses. The Marx Anderson gives us is the morally correct one, not a politically astute one.

For my purposes, the disappointing aspect of the book is its gloss of nationalism, which appears in the subtitle but is treated in a completely perfunctory way. For Anderson’s Marx, nations are given things, mostly neutral spaces where the contestation of local and global capitals can occur, formless containers for bourgeois-proletariat struggles. So, for instance, Marx sided with Irish nationalists because they fought Britain and its capitalists, and he only criticized them for “going to far” in their activities when they either angered or failed to appeal to the British working classes. But what Marx didn’t acknowledge or recognize was that Irish struggles for national recognition would, at various times, necessarily contradict and work at cross purposes with proletarian universality. Nations have their own dynamics, demands, and aporias, and in struggles over them, national subjectivities will inevitably conflict with and depart from proletariat subjectivities. In Marx, the national as such is never investigated, and the fact that the national and national movements follow closely the striations of metropolitan capital — i.e., its boundaries, identities, territorial divisions, etc. — is taken as natural and unproblematic.

It’s an understandable oversight by Marx, who after all was of his time, when modern national movements were in their infancy and did perhaps contain an anticapitalist impulse. But Anderson’s oversight, and his refusal to criticize Marx for it, is less understandable. For Anderson, it is enough that Marx moved forward in his career, from particularism to universality, from disdain for non-Western societies to sympathy and enthusiasm. For this reason, his book works better as textual exegesis than it does as a tool for today.

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