The Unknown Marx

Takahisa Oishi, The Unknown Marx: Reconstructing a Unified Perspective.  Foreword by Terrell Carver.  (London: Pluto Press, 2001, £40 hardback)

 

 

The global Left has shown its mass potential in the demonstrations that tried to head off the US invasion of Iraq.  In the Social Forums that began three years ago, as well as in all the anti-WTO, anti-IMF, and anti-G8 demonstrations, it has also shown its aspiration to focus on the underlying structural issues of global power.  But what it still lacks is a full understanding of how all these issues are rooted in capitalism, and in what sense an authentic alternative must be a socialist one.

 

Marx's work remains a vital key to such understanding—not because of any iconic status Marx may at times have been accorded, but rather, on the contrary, because of the persistently critical and subversive character of his writings, which in effect challenge all measures that fail to view problems in terms of their underlying causes.  We need to learn not just what Marx said, but how he arrived at it and, most importantly, how to subject present-day structures to an equally penetrating critique.  Beyond this, we need to make sure that the essentials of this critique become common currency for millions of people.

 

Oishi's study extends a long line of works (going back to the 1920s) that have sought to recover the method and insights that can be attributed purely to Marx, unencumbered not only by the "official Marxism" of the Soviet Union but also by the expository and even the editorial interventions of Engels.  Oishi posits a direct line between some of Engels's simplifications—from the use of labels like "historical materialism" to the treatment of productive forces more as fixed goods than as a complex of social relations—and the formulaic distortions of Marxism propounded by the Soviet State.

 

In his close reading of Marx, Oishi at the same time challenges interpretations — including but not limited to the Soviets — that have asserted a change in Marx's focus between his early and his later writings.  The 1844 Manuscripts in particular come into view as a coherent work whose under-emphasized political economy dimension is integrally bound up with its more celebrated "philosophical" treatment of alienation.

 

Oishi's treatment is extremely meticulous, but at times one wishes for more thoroughness in the larger argument.  In analyzing the jointly written work The German Ideology, for example, Oishi goes back to the original handwritten manuscripts to separate Engels's contributions from those of Marx.  After offering lengthy itemized excerpts from each of the two writers, Oishi presents a densely written list of contrasts, of which the most important (repeated at many points throughout the book) is that Engels "cannot understand Marx's concept of 'property' as the sum total of production relations" (p. 28).  Although the excerpts themselves testify to the somewhat greater complexity of Marx's formulations, thus giving this judgment an element of plausibility, it nonetheless prompts the reader to ponder how, in the course of so close a lifelong collaboration as that of Marx and Engels, so central a misperception, if it really existed, could have failed to draw their attention. 

 

Ultimately, of course, the question of what Engels "understood" is secondary.  The real issue in this context is how to develop a revolutionary practice that will maintain, through all political vicissitudes, a clear sense of the ultimate goal.  Recognizing, as Oishi and many others have observed, that a mere transfer of property won't bring socialism unless there is also an upheaval in social relations, is certainly fundamental.  But if it is really the case that this awareness was missing in the mind of Marx's closest collaborator, then there must also be a problem in the way Marx's initial insight was communicated.

 

Oishi, along with other writers from Lukács to the Frankfurt School to Mészáros, has helped exhume Marx's pertinent arguments, but the pressing question for us is how those arguments got to be so deeply buried as to make such exhumation necessary.  Soviet hostility to the alienation-critique was one factor in this burial, but, as Oishi's study suggests, it came fairly late in the process.

 

Even granting, though, that we have now recovered Marx's subversive core, the enormous task of diffusing it remains to be carried out.  Oishi's book will be read by specialists; it is unlikely to speak directly to a larger public.  But the question it implicitly poses is a vital one.  Suppose Marx's position is understood more clearly now than it was by those who immediately surrounded him and who were the first to take up his call.  What then?  Have we gained the capacity, unlike these earlier revolutionaries, to spread his insight to a broader constituency without somehow, in the process, distorting it?  If the true Marx continues to remain "known" only to a relative handful, will he not continue to be, for all practical purposes, "unknown"?

 

The reviewer, Victor Wallis is editor of Socialism and Democracy: see http://www.sdonline.org/