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22 Jul 2017
The Philosophy of Marx by Etienne Balibar
The Philosophy of Marx
By Etienne Balibar (translated by Gregory Elliot and Chris Turner)
240 pp., $38.95
Etienne Balibar notes ‘The general idea of this little book is to understand and explain why
Marx will still be read in the twenty-first century, not only as a monument of
the past, but as a contemporary author - contemporary both because of the
questions he poses for philosophy and because of the concepts he offers it.’
(p.1). And with some reservations, I feel he achieves this goal.
While this is a thought provoking book, it
may disappoint readers who seek either an introduction to Marx’s philosophy or
a straightforward account of how Marx’s ideas can inspire focussed political
action in the 21st Century. There is a very useful guide
to reading more about Marx’s philosophy and some very clear panels describing
key thinkers and themes from Gramsci onwards. However Balibar discusses
some very complex and subtle ideas, that demand a good knowledge of Marx’s key
works, as well as those of such far-from-easy thinkers as Kant and
Wittgenstein, along with structuralist, aleatory and post-modern thought.
In short, this is a sophisticated and in depth examination of the topic, but
not the first place to look if you are new to Marxist philosophy and want to
find a way in!
Despite being neither directly
politically practical or an easy book, it is extremely stimulating. It
richly rewards the effort to read and is full of original insights and exciting
notions. Balibar has condensed the last fifty years of his work closely
reading Marx’s text to very good effect.
Balibar hints that it is wrong to
read Marx’s work and to extract one clear and unambiguous set of principles
from it. Both academics and sectarians are tempted to argue that they
have the correct reading of Marx and that other readings are wrong.
Balibar argues that Marx was driven by a number of shared passions, advocating
communism, class struggle, materialism and human liberation. Marx sought
to show how political change might be possible in a particular context.
Because the context changed, so did Marx’s philosophy; if it is possible to
construct a Marxist philosophy (a task that Balibar rejects), this philosophy,
far from being fixed, will change with changing circumstances.
Balibar argues that it is wrong to
seek a Marxist approach based on the texts of Marx to all political, social and
indeed philosophical questions. It was once said that only religion
pretends to know everything, a thesis strongly echoed here. Balibar
argued that attempts have been made to fix the meaning of Marx’s work, from
Engels' synthesis after Karl’s death to Stalin’s Dialectic Materialism.
Yet Marx’s pursuit of liberation was, according to Balibar, a product of an
open and ever changing system.
Two historical contexts are seen as
particularly influential on Marx’s philosophical work. The first is the
series of uprising in the early part of the 19th Century, which
shaped the construction of the Communist Manifesto. The second was the
creation and bloody defeat of the Paris Commune, when in 1871, the workers
created their own self-governing society. The defeat of the revolts of
the 1840s made Marx focus on the emergence of capitalism. The Paris
Commune strengthened his belief that working class self-emancipation was
possible. Bailbar notes that Marx was always rethinking his ideas, so any
fixed doctrine of Marxism does not reflect his efforts. Equally Marx was
not an academic but a communist; he kept rethinking because liberation requires
a constant effort to recalibrate revolutionary thought.
Balibar, even though he rejects the
concept of a philosophy of Marx as a complete set of ideas, identifies a number
of important themes. One is the notion of transindividualism, Marx
rejected both structuralism and pure individualism. We are not trapped by
unchanging structural factors, this would make social change impossible, but we
don’t act as pure individuals. We are influenced by wider forces. Noting
Marx’s use of the French word ‘ensemble’, Balibar stresses that human society
is collective because it is the product of human interactions, thus
transindividualism is an appropriate and useful concept. The ways in
which we come together in particular social classes, is also stressed as a
continuous historical force in the book.
Given this rather post-modern
interpretation of Marx’s approach and the difficulty of many of the ideas, it
would be easy to reject the book as irrelevant to the political tasks we face
in a world of climate change, violently mutuating capitalism and right wing
political monsters such as Donald Trump. In fact, while it requires
effort and doesn’t produce simple answers I would certainly recommend it.
The German Marxist scholar and prominent ecosocialist Frieder Otto Wolf
provided a foreword for the German edition. It’s a shame it is not included in
this edition; I am sure it would have been of interest to many Greens and ecosocialists.