Karl Marx Bicentennial Forum: An Introduction

THIS MAN NEEDS no introduction. Four letters, 19th-century German socialist (don’t forget the beard). Setting aside the cliches and the hyperbole — be prepared to admit how “relevant,” “right,” “tragic,” and even “comic” he was — Karl Marx at 200 leaves us a pile of unfinished business. Today, to speak of Marx’s “legacy” scarcely does it justice, given that the project to assemble the complete works of Marx and Engels in 114 volumes (the so-called MEGA or Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe) is still underway at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, and not due to be completed until 2025.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, to mention Marx was the prelude to a confession. In Specters of Marx, published in 1993, Jacques Derrida acknowledged that “for my generation […] the experience of Marxism, the quasi-paternal figure of Marx, the way it fought in us with other filiations, the reading of texts and the interpretation of a world in which the Marxist inheritance was — and still remains, and so it will remain — absolutely and thoroughly determinate.”

Today it no longer makes sense to speak of a single Marxist inheritance. Marxisms are multiple. This doesn’t mean we should wish to repress or erase a history (since histories too are multiple) of Marxist disasters. Whether or not he would have approved, Marx’s history is part of the history of Marxism(s), which is part of Marxism(s). How could the science of history forget its own? But the short history of the new century would seem to suggest that Marx, having already taken his place among the classics of literature and philosophy, will be more necessary to the future than he was to the past. Absolutely and thoroughly determinate.

I am grateful to the contributors for taking part in this forum, and to Arne De Boever and the Los Angeles Review of Books for providing the space for this debate. My own contribution, which arrived too late for inclusion, can be found at The New York Times.

— Jason Barker, editor, Karl Marx Bicentennial Forum