postmarxism and postmodernism

rakesh bhandari djones at
Tue May 28 15:21:08 MDT 1996

>Your statement that Marx can be transcended only on the basis of Marx
>smacks of dogma. There is no a priori reason to disallow or ignore
>explanations which do not start with Marx; maybe someday someone will come
>up with a vastly superior framework that makes no reference to Marx. Who
>knows? It certainly is not a valid argument against someone else's attempt
>at interpretation.

 Actually I would deny this is possible--as long as the task remains the
critique of capitalism as a socio-historic system.

Marx of course developed several concepts in the course of his critique
which can then be used for the analysis of historically previous modes of
production: abstract labor, the relationship between necessary and surplus
labor, relations and forces of production, mode of production.

There is today a most important debate about whether and to what extent
Marx's theoryachieves transhistoric relevance or whether it is only a
critique of bourgeois society, bound to disappear with the disappearance of
capitalist social relations.

One of Karl Polanyi's main criticism of Marxian theory is that it accorded
an ontological and social primacy to labor which did not apply to primitive
societies.  There is also the work of Marshall Sahlins. (By the way,
Postone agrees that labor takes on social primacy only under capitalism
because here alone labor performs the function of social mediation; in
short under capital it is only through labor and its products that
relations among people are established, which thus gives labor a unique
function and centrality it did not have in previous modes of production).

 Now of course the question is if Marx's theory has transhistoric
relevance, then does it lay in stone what the relations between the
abstract categories must always be in all modes of production;  or does
Marx's theory merely provide concepts the relations among which can only be
determined by a concrete and thorough investigation of the real relations
of previous modes of production.

What I am getting at is that it may be possible to develop a superior
framework for the analysis of other modes of production without Marxism.
Towards this end,  we would have to outline  the limits of attempts to do
just that: DD Kosambi's work on Ancient India  or St.Croix's work on class
struggles in the ancient world.  And we would have to evaluate Sahlins'
analysis of why Marxism (at least as it has traditionally been
conceived)yields only distortion of primitive society.

All this said,  I do think it is impossible to develop a vastly superior
framework for the critique of bourgeois society without deep engagement
with Marx.

The only way any progress in any science is possible is through
assimililation and critique of the greatest previous advances. For example,
it was because Schumpeter  had studied Marx's theoretical advances in
business cycles, monopolization and the dynamics of technological change
that he was able to breathe some life and realism into bourgeois economics,
as well as construct perhaps the greatest apologia of the system ever

Indeed in order to present his work as pathbreaking Schumpeter often had to
deny or overlook that his contributions were anticipated: Marx does indeed
have an endogenous theory of the cycle, as Grossmann pointed out; Sismondi
had already related depression to the assimilation of technical advance, as
Grossmann showed; innovation had already been theorized as a
countertendency to falling profitability by both John Stuart Mill and Karl
Marx, again as Grossmann has noted.

I think that as the postwar boom ends, economists are discovering that the
only bourgeois theorist they can turn to in order make sense of it all
(technological change, structural change, uneven development, cycles,
protracted crisis) was the one who knew Marx the best.

This is not to deny that advances  are possible; it is only to suggest that
the method by which real theoretical advances  are realized is the
assimilation and critique of existing knoweldge.

Also, as Irving Zeitlin has shown in *Ideology and Development of
Sociological Theory*, it has been in the debate with Marx's ghost (if not
his actual writings) that sociological theory has been developed.

In short, any critical or even realistic theorist of bourgeois society who
claims or tries to go beyond Marx without going through him is bound to be
either a liar or a fool. And this is so in no small part because Marx
himself was not so arrogant that he simply spun a vastly superior framework
out of his own head.  Instead, as Rahul pointed out,  he patiently and
painstakingly assimilated  and critiqued existing knowledge--classical
political economy, critics such as Richard Jones and Sismondi, the
Ricardian socialists, etc.

Rahul has raised two very important topics: the question of methodological
pluralism and the rules by which Marx's theory can be evaluated.


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