Saturday, November 27, 2010

Marx at the Margins

It is one of history’s ironies that in some ways it took the death of Marxism as an orthodox political movement for scholars to undertake serious philological study of all of Marx’s work. There are, of course, notable exceptions to this characterization. But in many ways, the work on Marx that has taken place since the 60s has been marked by the first attempts to provide an understanding of Marx based on a scrupulous philological attention to his writings. The ongoing Mega2 Project- started as a follow up to the MEGA1 project which was aborted following Stalin’s purge of the editor- will eventually publish every known piece of writing by Marx including all of the notes for, drafts of, and editions of his published works, has been an invaluable aid in this enterprise, providing sources previous scholars did not have access to. Such work has already cleared up a number of myths and legends and given new insight into Marx’s thought.

The Marxist humanist scholar Kevin Anderson’s newest work, Marx at the Margins, utilizes this Marxological approach to tackle the nature of Marx’s thought on nationalism, ethnicity and non-western societies. In doing so Anderson utilizes a host of neglected sources to call into question the popular perception that Marx was a deeply ethnocentric thinker who held a Eurocentric and uni-linear model of historical development. Instead Anderson aims to show that Marx’s thought evolved into a multi-linear theory of history with a complex global critique of political economy.

To prove this thesis Anderson provides a diligent exegesis of Marx’s writings on nationalism, ethnicity and non-western societies from The Communist Manifesto to copious as yet unpublished notes Marx took on writings on non-western societies at the end of his life. Anderson then tries to relate these varied sources, which also include Marx’s journalism and other under utilized and unpublished materials, to Marx’s theoretical writings on political economy—The Grundrisse and Capital.

In the course of this exegesis Anderson covers some very interesting ground. He unpacks Marx’s writing on a host of non-western areas like India, China, Algeria, Poland, Ireland and Russia as well as Marx’s article on the American Civil War, demonstrating that there was a development in Marx’s thinking following the Manifesto.

Since the particular development that Anderson traces in each of these topics is too detailed to give a short recap, I will focus on the ones I found most interesting. In the case of India Anderson shows-- that in contrast to Edward W. Said’s portrayal of Marx in Orientalism-- Marx’s later writings on India, Algeria and Latin America possess a “harsh and unremitting condemnation of colonialism” that appreciates how “communal forms of property were directly tied into anti-colonial resistance.”

In the case of Marx’s writings on The Civil War and Ireland Anderson also shows how Marx attributed racism as a divisive and retarding factor for the Labour movement. In the case of the USA this caused Marx to presciently predict that the failures of reconstruction would “drown the country in blood.” In the case of Ireland it led the English workers nationalism to side with the English Ruling class leading Marx to argue that revolution in Ireland was a necessary lever for revolution in Britain.

Anderson relates these writings to Marx’s theoretical works by arguing that they informed important changes in Marx’s critique of political economy. Anderson argues that this can be seen in the multi-linear history that Marx provides in the Grundrisse. He also argues that “almost all of these considerations” found their way into the French edition of Capital, which Anderson argues is Marx (not Engel’s) definitive edition of Capital as subthemes. ( This is because it was the last edition Marx edited from which Engels excised 70 printed pages worth of material for later editions of Capital.) Here Anderson argues the multi-linear model of history can be seen in Marx’s statement that primitive accumulation only applies to Western Europe as well as highlighted how Marx’s example of India and Ireland portray the heinous affects of capitalist development.

Finally, Anderson closes by emphasizing Marx’s late interest in Russia, whose communal villages, led Marx to argue that Russia might transform into communism provided it had technological assistance from the West.

In all, by it diligent examination of what Marx actually wrote, Anderson’s work successfully revokes the popular conception of Marx’s ethnocentric and uni-linear idea of historical development. This puts beside other recent and important works that provide serious studies of Marx

There are, however, a number of potential criticisms of the work that might be raised.

The first has to do with the status of sources that Anderson uses, particularly the later notebooks, which were taken by Marx in his later years, which many Marxists discount as a time of intellectual decline. While Anderson acknowledges this belief he dismisses it rather then refuting it. This may be because Anderson believes the notes will speak for themselves, but if this is the case he doesn’t tie them back in to refuting this perception, which becomes problematic when Anderson speculates that these notes might form the basis of an even later and more open development of Marx’s thought.

The second has to do with Anderson’s interpretation of the nature of Marx’s critique of political economy, which outside of a few references and footnotes is largely absent. Although Anderson designates the orientation a dialectical form of a universal critique of political economy with particular examples, this omission leaves the question of how Anderson views the theoretical orientation of Capital—which many read as Marx’s attempt to depict capital in an ideal abstract form- and how it relates to the historical examples Marx somewhat unresolved. On this question a discussion of Michael Heinrich’s argument that MEGA shows that “The different drafts” of Capital “ have to be recognized as different layers of an ongoing and unfinished research process” might also prove interesting and fruitful.

Never the less, Anderson’s work does much to refute many of the leading misperception about Marx’s supposed ethnocentric uni-linear social theory. His closing argument that what he has uncovered provides a diverse truly universal critique of capital which realizes difference that can be used in three potentially fruitful ways- as (a) a multi-linear dialectic of social development (b) a heuristic example that offers indications about the theorizing of today’s indigenous movements in the fact of global capitalism (c) theorization of class in relation to race, ethnicity and nationalism—also provides grounds for an interesting and important project that I hope he will continue to develop.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

This Week=Rock-n-Roll vs. Feminism

This week has been funny. I've been reading Life by Keith Richards, which Liz Phair reviewed in The New York Times on Thursday

Then the new translation of The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir came in at the library and now the two books are at war with each other for my attention.

This is literally "Rock-n-Roll vs. Feminism" happening in my apartment. Of course, Rock-n-Roll is winning! I learned the open G "Keith Richards" tuning this weekend and have been playing guitar non-stop. I guess me playing guitar is feminist, but as this is happening, the feminist theory is going unread and I feel crazy, like I need to do the dishes or something. I really hate that feminism is becoming a chore in this sense. It's not that I don't love Simone de Beauvoir, but reading that stuff takes concentration and the Keith Richards autobiography (while totally offensive and sexist and often ridiculous) is pure entertainment/mythology that is super fascinating AND it's teaching me how to play guitar better, so it's also instructive

Last week I was re-reading Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought by Elizabeth Spelman

It examines the white middle class bias in (north american/euro) feminist theory and spends quite a bit of time discussing why The Second Sex is biased even though de Beauvoir had a race and class analysis. It's a great book, the first two chapters are pretty history-of-western-philosophy heavy but you can skip around if that's not interesting to you. It came out in the late 80's and was really groundbreaking in arguing that all feminist theory needs to have an inter-sectional lens at its core, meaning that there is no gender without race or no race without class, no sexual identity without ethnicity etc etc. As a result, feminism that tries to isolate gender and universalize along those lines is not really useful because no woman exists outside of when women are talked about in general terms, "white women" are being referred to--following this line of thinking-- "middle class" women and "straight women" and "abled bodied women" become the norm and everyone else is an exception to the norm, "the other" (which, paradoxically, is what The Second Sex is trying to say about women in relation to men). Spelman traces the tendency to falsely represent reality in this way back to the beginning of western philosophy and her analysis of The Second Sex explains why de Beauvoir, who was one of the most highly esteemed thinkers in the world at the time, was not able to wholly escape the philosophical tradition she was trying to question.

I was also reading feminist theory essays in a few different anthologies and came across Cherie Moraga's classic piece From a Long Line of Vendidas: Chicanas and Feminism, deals with a lot of issues of race/gender/sexuality and takes the authors' specific experience of growing up queer and Chicana and situates it within a larger historical/social framework --she then uses that understanding to critique white, middle class hetero feminist theory of the time period--as well as the white, middle class lesbian culture/radical feminism of that era, arguing that bias and assumptions need to be examined in order for the movement to be inclusive. C. Moraga is pretty famous for being one of the women of color/queer feminists whose writing actually changed things in the early 80's. She co-edited This Bridge Called My Back: Writings By Radical Women of Color with Gloria Anzaldua. Her writing is complex, the opposite of dry, poetic, personalized...vivid. She uses her skills to take apart the world and present a fresh, inspired vision. It's cool reading it now, knowing how much of an impact her words had on feminism.

Other than this I've been reading a lot of gluten-free cookbooks and stuff about mortgages and the housing crisis. Maybe I'll post about that later, but maybe it's sort of boring...well it bores me since I don't know how to bake and try not to worry about money/the future. One thing that did occur to me in my research is that I don't understand why the "for dummies" books are so popular. Using the "for dummies" approach makes sense--breaking down a subject matter into an easily understandable, digestible format--but the writing style in all the books is pretty terrible...lots of stupid humor and a weak author personality, that is supposed to make it more conversational and "fun" or less intimidating? I've always liked the "An Introduction To" series or "For Beginners" or anything with comics/illustrations...but "for dummies" kind of gets on my nerves, although I do find them useful. I wish everything was just a comic book instead of a "for dummies" book.

Maybe I'll have more to say about Keef later, but Liz Phair did a pretty good job, though she fails to examine his sexism at all. He calls women "bitches" or "baby" or "dear" or "honey" in every other sentence. If you heard his recent appearance on NPR's Fresh Air, then you probably noticed he had some cringe-inducing moments with Terry Gross. It's like he's your weird uncle or grandad and you don't want him to embarrass you, but then he keeps doing it and your like, oh I get it, he really IS a big sexist asshole...duh! But then he gets around to talking about guitar playing and it's so awesome...way better than "guitar playing for dummies"!!!

BISAR is back

BISAR is back and they are reading Moby Dick...if you want to join you have to email Slim Moon I've already read Moby Dick but I plan to join in at some point.