The Marginal Marx

Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity and Non-Western Societies

by Kevin B. Anderson

The University of Chicago Press, 2010, 319 pp.

Marx is journalistically rediscovered  at regular intervals, at least when business writers have to confront an economic crisis. He makes good copy. The academic intellectual consensus, however, is that Marx is no longer relevant. To them, he is either a brilliant but fundamentally mistaken critic of the excesses of capitalism’s early period or the figure chiefly responsible for the social catastrophies of the twentieth century (the late Tony Judt exemplified this attitude). An important new book by scholar Kevin B. Anderson—author of Lenin, Hegel, and Western Marxism—forces us to realize that despite the oppresive prevalence of this opinion, we may not yet even know Marx.

Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity and Non-Western Societies is a thoroughgoing account of the extensive but little known writings of Marx on such diverse topics as the U.S. Civil War, the politics of Britian’s domination of Ireland, Tsarist Russia’s imperialism in the Caucasus, and early anthropological studies of India, Indonesia, and Peru (the global “margins” of the book’s title). Much of this material appeared as newspaper contributions to Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune (Marx was recruited to the paper by the Fourierist socialist Charles A. Dana) and the Viennese periodical Die Presse. An enormous amount of this writing, however, has remained not only unpublished, but also unseen except by a small circle of scholars and archivists since Marx’s death in 1883. The history and provenance of this material is another important focus of Anderson’s book.

Anderson’s argument—which in large measure he develops from currents in the work of Raya Dunayevskaya—is that the Marx scorned as an economic determinist and exclusively class-oriented thinker by the liberal intellectuals is by great lengths more sophisticated than his contemporary critics assume. So much so that Marx’s persistent investigations into the origins and history of the communal forms of property that long predate the age of capitalism are so wide-reaching that we must conclude that a profound rethinking of the idea of what used to be called “socialism” is in order.

While Marx’s critical notes on the American anthropologist Henry Lewis Morgan are known—perhaps unfortunately—through what Frederick Engels made of them in his Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Marx also made extensive notes on the works of lesser-known figures such as his friend Maxim Kovalevsky (Russia), J.W.B. Money (Java), John Budd Phear (India), and Thomas Raffles (India). Some of these multilingual excerpts and critical notes were transcribed (but not translated) by the anthropologist Lawrence Krader and published in 1972 as The Ethnological Notebooks of Karl Marx. Anderson indicates that these notes and others will appear in English some time in the near future as Commune, Empire, and Class: 1879-82 Notebooks on Nonwestern and Precapitalist Societies (multiple editors, including Anderson) and Patriarchy and Property: The Ethnological Notebooks of Karl Marx (from Yale University Press), edited by David Norman Smith.

The publication of these notes in English will make them available for the first time to those of us below the Olympian heights of international Marx scholarship involved in the production of the Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe (MEGA) project.

Dunayevskaya—among the first American Marxists to single out these studies—called Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks a “trail to the 1980s” when she published Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution in 1982. Outside of the narrow realm of Marxology, what is their significance today? While the question is largely outside the scope of Anderson’s book, he does venture a brief answer to the effect that their immediate relevance to today’s world is limited, stressing the fact that the tenuously surving forms of communal ownership and production in Marx’s time have all but completely disappeared today.

However, he goes on to say:

Marx’s multilinear approach toward Russia, India, and other noncapitalist lands is more relevant for today at a general theoretical or methodological level, however. It can serve an important heuristic purpose, as a major example of his dialectical theory of society. Therein, he worked on the basis of the general principle that the entire world was coming under the domination of capital and its value form, while at the same time analyzing very concretely and historically many of the major societies of the globe that had not yet come fully under that domination.

But in a world in which both the left and right concur that humanity has no choice but to organize its material and spiritual existence on the basis of the expanded reproduction of value, an encounter with this “marginal” Marx may have the potential for an impact greater—on those who are willing to exercise the power of cognition—than Anderson seems willing to anticipate. Can a subjective “shock of recognition”—to use a phrase of Herman Melville’s that Dunayevskaya was fond of—produced by both Marx’s method and conclusions serve as the missing element in what the Russian revolutionary Alexander Herzen (who looked to the surviving communal forms of his country to serve as the basis of a new society) called the algebra of revolution? It is an open question, but in a world threatened in both the long and short term by the capital’s need to expand, humanity does not have the luxury of prolonging an answer.

One thought on “The Marginal Marx

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful, excellent review of an important and exciting book. You have read the book closely (spotting in the notes the announcement of upcoming English-language editions of Marx’s notebooks), and you highlight the most significant question, can the “marginal” Marx help us change the world? My answer is Yes! First, read this book!

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