When capitalism enters a period of crisis, the spectre of Marx has a tendency to return to haunt the popular imagination. This collection of three essays (originally published in New Left Review) is certainly timely, even though they were written before the present economic crisis. Because of this they already have a dated quality to them, but nevertheless raise a number of interesting questions about Marxist scholarship and the problems of socialist strategy.
For the purpose of this review it is probably best to begin with Therborn's middle essay, 'Twentieth-Century Marxism and the Dialectics of Modernity'. This locates Marxism in the context of modernity; and argues it should be conceptualised as its loyal opposition. For Therborn "Marxism simultaneously affirmed the positive, progressive features of capitalism, industrialization, urbanization and mass literacy, of looking to the future instead of the present, and, on the other hand, denounced the exploitation, the human alienation, the commodification and instrumentalization of the social, the false ideology and the imperialism inherent in the modernization process" (pp.66-7).
Unsurprisingly but understandably he focuses on an overview of Frankfurt School theorists, starting from Herbert Marcuse, for whom Marxism was the "integrating force" of critical theory to Max Horkheimer, who literally kept his philosophical radicalism under lock and key in the 1950s and 60s. What united the idea of critical theory was an at times explicit, at times repressed Marxism that sustained the link between it and the critique of political economy, regardless of the theoretical gyrations performed by Marcuse, Adorno, Horkheimer et al during their careers. For Therborn this link was broken by the trajectory of Jürgen Habermas, who moved away from the systemic antagonisms that exercised Marxism and critical theory to exploring episodic conflicts and the possibilities for communicative rationality.
But Frankfurt was just one strand of what came to be known as Western Marxism. Following Perry Anderson's Considerations on Western Marxism (1976) and Martin Jay's Marxism and Totality (1984) this "tradition" began with the October Revolution and was heavily conditioned by the defeat of the revolutionary waves of the 1920s. It is therefore unsurprising that its overall trajectory was to retreat from politics and labour movements to philosophical and institutional preoccupations. Therborn accepts the heavy influence of 1917, but instead suggests Western Marxism should be read as the radical reception and reverberation of this event rather than of the retreats that came later. As such it came to an effective end when the USSR dissolved in 1991. Nevertheless the key feature of the tradition is the disassociation of theory from practice.
The first essay, 'Into the 21st Century: The Parameters of Global Politics' aims to analyse the post-1968 world by attempting to draw a map of global political space. This proceeds along the traditional political axis of left and right, but also the 'cultural', and the geopolitical. This produces an account that charts the relative decline of the US, first in relation to West Germany and Japan, and latterly the European Union and China. Therborn also acknowledges the rise of neoliberal agencies such as the IMF and WTO as global actors, and the new importance of networks of loosely progressive NGOs that give international relations a new dimension of complexity. Therborn also analyses the rise of certain state forms at the expense of others, and addresses the coincident and connected processes of the growing centralization of capital and its ability to range across transnational markets.
As far as Therborn is concerned this development of capital has unfolded along lines more or less predicted by Marx. However another trend Marx discerned – the increasingly social character of capitalist production and a sharpening conflict between it and the privatisation of wealth – has gone into reverse. Since the neoliberalisation of global capitalism (Therborn dates it from 1980 onwards), the specific configuration of class relationships that sustained capitalism in the post-war years has broken down. The chief casualty was the industrial working class in the West, but elsewhere agrarian labour has been uprooted, as masses of people are compelled/drawn to the world’s cities. This has meant that along with the diminishing influence of labour movements, capital has also undermined many of the bases of religious influence and patriarchy. This, among others, has resulted in a widespread cultural shift from ‘deferential individualism’ to ‘irreverance’.
Another interesting point Therborn makes here is his location of postmodernism as a discourse of the left. It is a product of irreverence fused with important victories of the ‘new social movements’, the acceptance of the welfare state, and the defeat of colonialism. But it is also equally the offspring of labour movement decline, the neoliberal dominance of capital, and the discrediting of a socialist alternative. Simultaneously while the (academic) left were mired in arguments around metanarratives and the possibilities of social critique, an aggressive right wing modernism has recast the globe in its image. Globalisation was heralded as a social Darwinist utopia, and modernisation was equated with breaking up the social wage and destroying existent collectivities in the name of flexible labour markets. Postmodernism was disarmed and helpless in the face of this onslaught.
To this state of affairs Therborn opposes a ‘trans-socialism’ - a socialism that retains its anti-capitalist thrust but without a historical agent whose struggles have transcendent capacities. It seeks to encompass workers’, women’s and ethnic collective identities in the context of an anti-exploitative moral discourse, while making the case for the right to pleasure and enjoyment, avoiding the dour asceticism often associated with the Leninist left.
In the final section, which surveys radical social theory in the West since the turn of the century, Therborn offers an interpretative framework for analyzing its condition. He suggests understanding Marxism as a triangle of a philosophy of contradictions, historical sociology and a mode of politics. The last was the apex of the triangle in classical Marxism, and its prominent adherents were masters of all its three sides. Subsequent developments have broken this triangle, partly because of the increasing intellectual division of labour, and partly due to the decline/fragmentation of labour movements. This has bequeathed contemporary social theory a varied set of left thinkers, such as Zizek, Jameson, and Wallerstein, but the sundering of the triangular has led to a splintering of radical thought along the lines of ‘Third Way’ post-socialism (Giddens); a new, non-Marxist left (social democracy/NGOs/anarchism); professional Marxology (academia); Post-Marxism (Laclau and Mouffe); a militant Neo-Marxism (Negri and Hardt, Zizek) and resilient lefts (‘official’ communist parties, Trotskyism).
Overall Therborn can only see a pessimistic future for Marxism. At the end of the second essay, he writes “the most obvious way forward for social theorising inspired by Marx will be to look at what is currently happening to the venerable couplet of the forces and relations of production on a global scale and their conflictual effects on social relations. Marxism may no longer have any solutions ready to hand, but its critical edge is not necessarily blunted” (p.110). Leaving aside the extent to which Marxism has ever had “solutions ready to hand”, the whole thrust of the book accepts as immutable the disjunction between Marxist theory and practice. Therborn also neglects the fundamentally open Marxist understanding of class, which views it as a relationship. Never before in history have so many working lives been subject to the capriciousness of capital. Rather than being just one struggle among many, for the vast numbers of men, women and children common experience of class relationships can act as the social glue for a whole series of seemingly disconnected subaltern struggles. As long as this state of affairs persists, there will be activists, parties and movements who turn to Marxism to make sense of their circumstances. It is here where the fusion of Marxist theory and practice can and will be found, regardless of academic debates about Marxism’s status.