Reading Capital: Changing Historical Contexts and Different Political Projects

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A Socialist Project e-bulletin .... No. 1448 .... July 14, 2017

Reading Capital: Changing Historical Contexts and Different Political Projects

Ingo Schmidt

One hundred and fifty years after the first volume of Marx’s Capital was published in 1867, Marx remains a common point of reference but his magnus opus is by no means widely read. Once he was thrown off pedestals across the former Soviet Union, Western business media adopted Marx as a principal witness for the capitalist cause. In 1998, 150 years after the publication of the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels were hailed as prophets of globalization. In the aftermath of the 2007/08 world economic crisis, a string of articles portrayed Marx as the one who saw it coming. Similar articles commemorate the 150th anniversary of the publication of Capital and will, in all... likelihood, also appear next year in commemoration of Marx’s 200th birthday.

A common theme running through these articles is that Marx was a master analyst of capitalism but a lousy political theorist. The first claim echoes discussions amongst unrepentant Marxists who all know, as Terry Eagleton’s contention Why Marx Was Right (2012) but argue endlessly what that actualy means. Different currents in these discussions (and there are many) can be traced back to efforts to refine existing forms of Marxian socialism or, if such refinement was considered impossible, invent new such forms. Even the most abstract readings of Capital or other works by Marx, such as those advanced by Louis Althusser or members of the Frankfurt School, were motivated by the recognition that the socialist projects of their days had reached an impasse. Such recognition was denounced by some as retreat from political engagement but seen by others as a necessary step toward moving forward. Today’s situation is different: The socialist projects that dissident movements sought to renew have either collapsed, like the Soviet Union and its satellites in Eastern Europe; or adapted to neoliberal capitalism, like Western Europe’s social democrats and Chinese Communists. Efforts to forge a unified left out of diverse new social movements have either been integrated into international neoliberalism or marginalized.

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