Walter Laqueur (best known for his prolific work on guerilla warfare and terrorism) recently published an article in The National Interest reflecting on a rumored renaissance of interest in the work of Karl Marx. The article is surprisingly even-handed for a conservative journal like The National Interest – perhaps because, despite all of the populist lather about Barack Obama leading a Communist conspiracy to destroy U.S. capitalism, the more thoughtful sectors of the contemporary Right don’t genuinely perceive self-described Marxists to be particularly threatening political or intellectual adversaries.
I don’t think that we are seeing the sort of “Marx renaissance” Laqueur describes. In fact, he seems distinctly out of touch with contemporary scholarship concerned with Marx’s ideas. What we are seeing today, instead, is a renewed willingness by academics to reflect on Marx’s work after long waves of assault on it: first by the U.S. government during the Cold War, next by poststructuralists, postmodernists, and advocates of identity politics during the 1980s-90s.
Probably the most surprising comment in Laqueur’s article is his association of Marx with the development of historical materialism as a social scientific framework highlighting the importance of class struggle. This interpretation of Marx’s work was powerfully emphasized in the 1980s-90s by Ellen Meiksins Wood and is carried on today by the journal Historical Materialism. Yet, Laqueur also backslides into a thoroughly outdated impression of Marx “as the man who provided an outline, even if somewhat vague, for a postcapitalist world.” Marx’s work offers an unmatched critical analysis of capitalism and a unique understanding of human nature and human freedom. Marx’s work does not offer even a vague blueprint for a post-capitalist world.
Laqueur seems the most out of touch with contemporary scholarship when complaining that “poststructuralists, postmodernists, and gender scholars” are using Marx as “a bandwagon for separate trendy causes and impulses.” In fact, it was more than two decades ago that poststructuralists, postmodernists, and gender scholars widely declared Marx’s ideas to be either irrelevant or oppressive during what Ellen Meiksins Wood termed the Retreat From Class. A small group of scholars, including Meiksins Wood, Terry Eagleton, and Fredric Jameson swam against the tide, arguing for the continued relevance of Marx’s ideas. Indeed, when he complains that interest in economics is missing from the Marx renaissance, Laqueur sounds like an echo of Meiksins Wood from the mid-1980s. But since that time, many important contributions to contemporary Marxist economics have been made by Duncan Foley, Anwar Shaikh, and Richard Wolff. Heterodox economics departments at UMass Amherst and the New School, and journals such as Historical Materialism and Science & Society have opened space for the exploration of ideas related to Marx’s analysis of political economy. To say that a contemporary Marx renaissance ignores economics is simply wrong.
It is important to say that neither a socialist ideological standpoint in politics, nor a historical materialist analytic framework in the social sciences is supported on Marx’s shoulders alone. Although Marx is a landmark contributor to both traditions, he is by no means the only contributor to them. Marx also offers nothing in the way of practical advice for ground-level political organizing. Marx does not explain how market capitalism should be reformed, transformed, or transcended. What Marx does provide us with is a strikingly unique reflection on the question of what it means to be human in a capitalist world (The 1844 Manuscripts), a foundation for understanding capitalism as an economic form (Capital), and some fascinating commentary on the political struggles of his time and place (The Civil War in France).
Where to start exploring Marx’s ideas today? Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx Was Right is probably the best general introduction to Marx’s ideas in a contemporary context. The Politics of Equality discusses many of Marx’s ideas in the broader context of the social egalitarian tradition. If you want to explore Marx’s economics, David Harvey has an outstanding podcast course on the subject, which is also the focus of the blog Kapitalism101.