How should Marx be read today? Or, rather, which Marx do we need to read? The French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser famously periodized Marx’s work (a Spinozist operation if ever there was). His periodization divided Marx into two distinct and opposing periods: the early humanist and ideological Marx, and the later scientific Marx. The two periods are divided by a break, which, drawing on the rich epistemological tradition of French philosophy, Althusser designated as an epistemological break. According to Althusser, this break with Marx’s “erstwhile philosophical conscience” enabled him to open up a new scientific horizon that remains comparable to, and of the same scientific status as, mathematics and physics: that of the science of history, or historical materialism.
While one has reason to be skeptical of Althusser’s ambitious claim, Marx’s critique of political economy continues to be both philosophically and politically necessary. Moreover, it should be noted that Marx himself regarded the critique of political economy as a scientific discipline and, without the slightest modesty, described Capital, his major treatise on the subject, as a work that is “without question the most terrible missile that has yet been hurled at the heads of the bourgeoisie (landowners included).”
Determining the scientific (or not) nature of Capital is an intellectual task that far exceeds the nature of this essay. I shall nonetheless present the following schematic thesis.
The critique of political economy undertaken by Marx is a unique intellectual discipline that does not fall into any of the established fields of science, philosophy, or the human sciences. Instead, Marx’s critique is a singular intellectual discipline that has effects and consequences for philosophy, politics, and so on, without itself belonging to such disciplines.
Does this make Marx our contemporary? Can we simply read Capital as it is and use it as the basis for thinking the politics of emancipation? Can we find in this monumental work solutions to the antagonisms and contradictions of contemporary capitalism? Or, instead, does Marx’s “contemporaneity” lie in the questions and challenges that he posed for philosophy, as well as the conceptual and theoretical apparatuses he invented (his own “ways of seeing”)?
Marx is sometimes recognized as a thinker of 19th-century capitalism, and more exclusively, as a thinker of European capitalism. With the transformations of capitalism, so the story goes, Marx’s analysis has become obsolete. This is the historicist take, advanced by Marx biographers such as Jonathan Sperber and Gareth Stedman Jones, which limits a given theory or work of art, or any intellectual work, to the particular historical moment in which it was produced. Against this view and in spite of the incompleteness of Marx’s project — its conceptual and critical “oversights” — I shall maintain that through his critique of political economy, and particularly in Capital, Marx nonetheless remains the thinker of capitalism as such. Marx remains the thinker of the fundamental principles and elements of the capitalist form of social organization — labor, the commodity, money, surplus-value, value theory, accumulation of capital, crisis — which constitute contemporary capitalism, regardless of the shifts or alterations which may be experienced from time to time during periodic economic crises.
Some theorists, notably Fredric Jameson, refer to the contemporary stage of the historical development of capitalism as “late capitalism,” or late global capitalism, likely mindful of Marx’s thesis from The Communist Manifesto on the global tendency of the capitalist form to universalize itself. Marx was undoubtedly right: with the fall of “really existing socialism” in 1991, this thesis was realized and capitalism became a universal form of social organization. Paradoxically, however, capitalism did not reach its “late” form in 1991, which still marks a relatively early phase in its global development. It is perhaps here that Marx’s work gains its full contemporary relevance, much more so than in his own time.
Reading Capital today confronts us with three difficulties: philosophical, economic, and political. This tripartite relation, from the perspective of Marxism, determines the way in which we reconstruct Marx today. For example, there are Marxists who read Capital with the emphasis on the famous line from the Manifesto that, “capitalism produces its own gravediggers.” For them, a crisis in capitalism is a crisis of capitalism, in the sense that capitalism produces the tools for overcoming crisis. For others, Capital is to be read in light of another statement from the Manifesto, the one about the permanent social revolution brought on through the historical emergence of the bourgeoisie. For these readers, a crisis is a moment of internal revolution against outmoded and inefficient forms of economic activity, but one that still ensures capitalism’s survival, or its self-reproduction.
Which reading is correct? Perhaps neither. The far more frightening realization we have to come to terms with today is that capitalism reproduces its own logic while running up against an immanent limit. And yet this limit is neither socialism nor communism, but barbarism: the utter destruction of natural and social substance — our so-called “commons” — in a “downward spiral” that fails to recognize any “universal standards.” In this sense, the “gravediggers” capitalism produces are gravediggers both of capitalism and of communism. For this reason no emancipatory project can employ capitalism’s immanent logic in order to point the way out, or patiently await the collapse of capitalism in the hope that we can avoid being dragged down with it, or “drowned” in what Marx described famously as “the icy waters of egotistical calculation.”
How then should we read Marx? Here I propose a somewhat paradoxical thesis. Although Marx was neither a philosopher, nor a scientist, today he remains more relevant to contemporary philosophy than ever before.
The paradoxical thesis I want to defend runs as follows: Marx was not a philosopher and Marxism is not a philosophy or a philosophical system. However, Marxism, understood as a critique of political economy, has decisive consequences for philosophy.
This paradox takes on yet another layer, so to speak, with the following proposition: the only way to read Marx is to subject his critique of political economy to a philosophical reading, while letting go of, or dismissing, his “early period.” In other words, we should insist on a philosophical reading of his work at the very point when Marx himself believed he had done away with philosophy. Interestingly if we adhere to this logic then Marx’s philosophical works — such as the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 that Marx wrote in Paris at the tender age of 26 — appear to be of little relevance to contemporary philosophy.
Marx had a very peculiar relation with philosophy. His thinking oscillated between anti-philosophy, non-philosophy, and, as some have argued, an alternative to philosophy. Consider three of Marx’s famous declarations or theses on philosophy, all of them dating from Marx’s “early period” of 1845–’46:
1) “Every profound philosophical problem may be resolved quite simply into an empirical fact.” (Marx and Engels, The German Ideology);
2) “Philosophy and the study of the actual world have the same relation to one another as onanism and sexual love.” (Marx and Engels, The German Ideology);
3) “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point however is to change it.” (Marx, Theses on Feuerbach).
What remains puzzling in each case is Marx’s dismissal of philosophy as a discipline of pure thought when, along with the political revolutions of the 1840s, philosophy conditioned his thinking of capitalism and his critique of its political economy. Furthermore, Marx was very well aware of the abstract and somewhat philosophical nature of capitalism itself. Thus the relation between philosophy and capitalism is far more complicated than these three theses suggest.
Philosophy has always had an interest in capitalism, although capitalism has no interest whatsoever in philosophy. Can philosophy be of assistance to us, first, in understanding, second, critiquing, and, eventually, doing away with capitalism altogether?
It is not difficult to declare capitalism as a non-philosophical, if not anti-philosophical, enterprise. It is non-philosophical because capitalism as a social system of production has abandoned any philosophical ambitions it might otherwise have had by declaring itself utilitarian. Indeed, this is the ideological “truth” of capitalism: by declaring itself to be the only social system that “works,” capitalism manages to represent itself in neutral terms. Indeed, such is the extent of its domination that its social relations of domination appear completely and unashamedly out in the open.
Louis Althusser, whose controversial reading of Marx I am drawing on here, believed that philosophy could make a decisive contribution to doing away with capitalism. For Althusser, philosophy was the corrective ingredient for reading and understanding Marx's critique of political economy, for gauging its true revolutionary significance. Critics might and indeed have alleged that philosophy, for Althusser, was akin to a pair of rose-tinted spectacles that enabled him to subvert the true meaning of Marx’s work and twist it toward ends that had little to do with changing the world, and everything to do with interpreting it. No wonder his critics labeled his reading of Marx an “imaginary Marxism.”
However, Althusser was far more sensitive to the substance, if not the actual letter, of Marx’s works than his critics would ever give him credit for. For in arguing that Marx’s philosophy was still incomplete, and that Marx was, so to speak, a philosophical dyslexic unable to discern the revolutionary implications of his own scientific invention, Althusser was arguing something fundamental about philosophy. Namely, that true knowledge is far from systematic; that it arrives unexpectedly in moments we can scarcely anticipate. For Althusser, this “time lag” is part and parcel of philosophy’s power, since Marx’s philosophical oversights in his time are the symptoms of the insights he bequeaths to us in ours.
What philosophical insights? How can one correct the philosophical dyslexia that still manages to afflict certain “Marxist” readings of capitalism? One possible approach would be to argue that capitalism moves beyond philosophy, that capitalism’s productivity and circulation have marooned abstract philosophical contemplation in the ivory towers of elite universities, whose contribution to “knowledge” today consists of nothing apart from providing raw material for the reproduction of bourgeois social relations. After all, doesn’t philosophy emerge at night, when all other practical activities (politics, science, art, et cetera) have had to call it a day? And didn’t Marx have to abandon every philosophical pretension in order to understand capitalism, which he characterized as the most revolutionary of all hitherto social formations?
Although Marx’s intentions may have been to transform philosophical problems into practical ones, and therefore do away with philosophy, in actual fact his intentions were reversed. With his critique of political economy, Marx opened up a new set of philosophical problems that cannot be confined to economics. In a certain sense, with the critique of political economy, philosophy has never been the same. In the aftermath of Capital, the categories of ontology, logic, and representation have taken on new meanings and been set to work on new terrains. Not only do Marx’s discoveries shift the ground on which historical analysis can occur, but they also transform the meaning of such analysis. After Marx, philosophy is no longer the same; there is no “going back” to a time before, apart from with the aid of some “imaginary Marxism” that would allow us to encounter dinosaurs in their natural habitat. As tempting as it may be to imagine Marx as a bourgeois intellectual who, in spite of his great genius, was irredeemably a “product of his time,” the challenge today is not to think “like Marx,” but instead to think capitalism, and thus beyond it, in as revolutionary a way in our time as Marx did in his.
Agon Hamza is the author with Frank Ruda and Slavoj Žižek of Reading Marx; author of Althusser and Pasolini: Philosophy, Marxism, and Film; and with Slavoj Žižek From Myth to Symptom: The Case of Kosovo. He is the editor of Althusser and Theology: Religion, Politics and Philosophy and Repeating Žižek, as well as co-editor with Frank Ruda of Slavoj Žižek and Dialectical Materialism. He is co-founder and co-editor-in-chief with Frank Ruda of the international philosophy journal Crisis and Critique.