Marx misconstrued

Issue: 117
Posted: 18 December 07

Dan Swain

Etienne Balibar, The Philosophy of Marx (Verso, 2007), £9_._99

Etienne Balibar is one of the most prominent of the former students of the anti-humanist Marxist Louis Althusser. Today he is a leading figure in French Marxism, and involved with campaigns around migrants’ rights. This book, first written in 1995, attempts to fulfil two different roles. First, it is an attempt at an introduction to Marx’s philosophy; second, it presents a specific philosophical argument.

The book is at its best when it is explaining aspects of Marx’s thought, especially when rescuing them from the cruder characterisations in mainstream introductions. For example, the section on ideology is particularly strong in explaining how Marx attempted to account for the limits and basis of human thought.

But Balibar’s second aim is to present Marx as a conflicted, contradictory thinker. Marx formulated “a plurality of doctrines which has left his readers and successors in something of a quandary”. For instance, the notions of ideology and commodity fetishism are presented as competing, mutually exclusive, solutions to one specific problem. This is unconvincing. Balibar rightly identifies the differences between these notions, and their different origins, but does not show why we should choose between the two.

He points to several other key strands in Marx’s thought and tries to show that these represent important shifts within Marx’s work. Among these strands, Balibar argues, there is a rich theoretical universe for philosophers to draw on. He writes, “There is no Marxist philosophy and there never will be; on the other hand, Marx is more important for philosophy than ever before.”

In fact, for Balibar, the major importance of Marx’s work is as an object of study for academic philosophers. But he denies that there is a unified “Marxist philosophy” that can act as a guide for socialists. Rather Marx sometimes “goes beyond” philosophy in attempting to explain it in its social context, and sometimes “falls short” of it by making dogmatic claims. Balibar cites as an example of Marx’s dogmatic claims the famous line that “men make their own history, but not of their own free will; not under circumstances they themselves have chosen”. It is true that this is not clearly derived philosophically from any other aspect of Marx. Nonetheless it seems like a claim worthy of philosophical treatment.

Another weakness is Balibar’s style and language, which occasionally render the claim that this is an introductory text laughable. After five years in socialist politics and three studying philosophy I still found some sections opaque.

Finally, for Balibar, the period of 1890 to 1990 added nothing to a better understanding of Marx, and in fact inhibited it. The end of this period has “swept away the interests which opposed its being opened up… Freed from illusion and imposture, we gain a theoretical universe.”

But surely any attempt to understand Marx’s writings benefits from an examination of a century of attempts to put them into practice? The Russian Revolutions of February and October 1917, the support of the German Social Democrats for the First World War and the rise of state capitalism in Russia (to name but three) must hold important lessons to remember when studying Marx’s work in the modern world.

Of course we should debate, study and interpret aspects of Marx. But there is a core to Marxism that it is important to retain. Crucially, it is a philosophy that benefits from application to actual struggle. To examine Marx as a philosopher is a fascinating exercise, but it cannot be the overriding priority for Marxists.