An in-depth, if flawed, look at Marx’s philosophy

The Philosophy of Marx 
By Etienne Balibar
Translated by Gregory Elliot and Chris Turner
Verso, 2017
240 pp, $38.95

“The general idea of this little book is to understand and explain why Marx will still be read in the twenty-first century, not only as a monument of the past, but as a contemporary author — contemporary both because of the questions he poses for philosophy and because of the concepts he offers it,” French philosopher Etienne Balibar writes in The Philosophy of Marx.

With some reservations, I feel he achieves this goal. It is a thought-provoking book, but it may disappoint readers who seek either an introduction to Marx’s philosophy or a straightforward account of how Marx’s ideas can inspire focused political action in the 21st century.

There is a useful guide to reading more about Marx’s philosophy and some clear panels describing key thinkers and themes from Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci onwards. However, Balibar discusses some complex and subtle ideas that demand a good knowledge of Marx’s key works, as well as those of such far-from-easy thinkers as Immanuel Kant and Ludwig Wittgenstein, along with structuralist, aleatory and post-modern thought.

In short, this is a sophisticated and in-depth examination of the topic, but not the first place to look if you are new to Marxist philosophy and want to find a way in.

Despite being neither directly politically practical or an easy book, it is extremely stimulating. It richly rewards the effort to read and is full of original insights and exciting notions. Balibar has condensed the past fifty years of his work closely reading Marx’s text to very good effect.

Balibar hints that it is wrong to read Marx’s work and to extract one clear and unambiguous set of principles from it.  Both academics and sectarians are tempted to argue that they have the correct reading of Marx and that other readings are wrong.

Balibar argues that Marx was driven by a number of shared passions, advocating communism, class struggle, materialism and human liberation. Marx sought to show how political change might be possible in a particular context.

Because the context changed, so did Marx’s philosophy; if it is possible to construct a Marxist philosophy (a task that Balibar rejects), this philosophy, far from being fixed, will change with changing circumstances.

Balibar argues that it is wrong to seek a Marxist approach based on the texts of Marx to all political, social and indeed philosophical questions. It was once said that only religion pretends to know everything, a thesis strongly echoed here.

Balibar says attempts have been made to fix the meaning of Marx’s work, from Friedrich Engels' synthesis after Karl’s death to Stalin’s Dialectical Materialism. Yet Marx’s pursuit of liberation was, according to Balibar, a product of an open and ever-changing system.

Two historical contexts are seen as particularly influential on Marx’s philosophical work. The first is the series of uprisings in the early part of the 19th century, which shaped the construction of 1848’s The Communist Manifesto, the groundbreaking book by Marx and Engels.

The second was the creation and bloody defeat of the 1871 Paris Commune, where Parisian working people created their own self-governing society, before it was crushed in a violent counter-revolution.

The defeat of the revolts of the 1840s made Marx focus on the emergence of capitalism. The Paris Commune strengthened his belief that working class self-emancipation was possible.

Bailbar notes that Marx was always rethinking his ideas, so any fixed doctrine of Marxism does not reflect his efforts.

Equally, Marx was not an academic but a communist; he kept rethinking because liberation requires a constant effort to recalibrate revolutionary thought.

Even though he rejects the concept of a philosophy of Marx as a complete set of ideas, Balibar identifies a number of important themes. One is the notion of “transindividualism”, with Marx rejecting both structuralism and pure individualism. This means we are not trapped by unchanging structural factors, as this would make social change impossible, but we don’t act as pure individuals. We are influenced by wider forces.

Noting Marx’s use of the French word “ensemble”, Balibar stresses that human society is collective because it is the product of human interactions, thus transindividualism is an appropriate and useful concept. The ways in which we come together in particular social classes is also stressed as a continuous historical force in the book.

Given this rather post-modern interpretation of Marx’s approach and the difficulty of many of the ideas, it would be easy to reject the book as irrelevant to the political tasks we face in a world of climate change, violently mutuating capitalism and right-wing political monsters such as US President Donald Trump. In fact, while it requires effort and doesn’t produce simple answers, I would recommend it.

[Derek Wall is international coordinator of the Green Party of England and Wales and a long-standing Marxist in the party. His latest book is Economics After Capitalism.]

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