Home > Book Reviews > Review: From Marxism to Post-Marxism

Review: From Marxism to Post-Marxism

Prior to reading From Marxism to Post-Marxism, I was unfamiliar with the work and political stances of Göran Therborn. I approached this book with an open mind, hoping for a pamphlet of brilliance – since the work is a short one at a mere one hundred and ninety four pages. A veritable relief since my previous reading material was Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason, volume one of which weighs in at over eight hundred pages and of which no review shall be forthcoming this side of me collecting my pension. Sadly, I was to be disappointed by Professor Therborn.

The book is divided into three essays. “Into the Twenty-First Century: the new parameters of global politics” attempts to grapple with what forms of social analysis we might care to use. Grafted on to this is a fairly anodyne survey from the academy of how the ‘socialist’ project has fared in all the years since the Bolshevik Revolution. Even before I mention some of the ideological weaknesses (as I see them) of this first chapter, the survey disappointed me above all. It contained the type of unnuanced, state-focussed information and commentary one can get from any newspaper.

Beyond this, however, Therborn’s first chapter is troubling. There most obvious aspect is Therborn’s abandonment of class and class struggle as any kind of factor. Therborn’s notion of ‘the Left’ consists of a surface reading of political demands and movements – and this is reflected in his survey of “Left” states. The abandonment of class struggle is somewhat masked, but the abandonment of class is defended with statistics on the shrinkage of industrial labour as a percentage of global labour, and the rise of service-based and ‘informal’ labour.

Perhaps some other Marxist will weigh in (and I know that Phil has been thinking of reviewing this book), but I consider Therborn’s contention over class to be profoundly unmarxist. Class is a relation, not a means by which to describe a labour process. Under such a definition, the shop floor worker and the factory worker share a class identity as they stand in exactly the same relation to the exploitation of their labour. To assert anything else, beyond mis-reading Marx, is to fetishize the labour-process (following EMW, p16ff).

In fact I would go further still. The service sector bears witness to the very proletarianization which Marx spoke of in the Communist Manifesto. One of the natural tendencies of capital accumulation is towards monopoly, as small service businesses are bought by large and their owners become glorified wage-labourers. As the business becomes bigger, the salary, terms and conditions of these managers suffer the further they are removed from the owners – as did those of the second generation managers following Tesco acquisition of Stewart’s in Ireland. This is a process one can watch taking place on any High Street, though of course it is neither linear nor total.

Therborn at least attempts to retain some sense of class struggle, though without the language thereof. His replacement is a three-fold diagram within which co-ordinates take place any given political action or idea. The diagram is anchored by states, markets and ‘social patternings’ – which in turn operates along a set of X-Y axes of Individuality-Collectivism and Irreverence-Deference. Reading this, I was actually a little embarrassed since the weaknesses of these seem readily apparent, and I’m far from an expert. Let me give an example.

Within the triangle of factors, mentioned above, Therborn asserts that certain rules of motion apply: the space is contingent upon ‘the outcomes of previous political  contests…from the input of new knowledge and technology…[and] from the processes of the economic system’. Each of these is readily reducible to class struggle. The whole point of Marxism was to explain that there are no objective processes to the capitalist economic system outside of those determined by the relation in which the working class of wage labourers must be held.

To suggest otherwise is to ‘naturalise’ capitalism. One of the greatest of Marxist historians, E.P. Thompson, wrote his magnum opus, the Making of the English Working Class, around the idea that the input of new knowledge and new technologies were themselves the result of spaces being opened by victorious or unsuccessful struggles waged at whiles by the proletariat or by the capitalist class. From the displacement of journeymen to the introduction of Ford’s mass production, class struggle rather than technologism as a prerequisite of economic and technological development is empirically observable – and there are any number of historians of science who would maintain the same.

Therborn describes ‘irreverent collectivism’ as emblematic of the ‘classical left’ whereas other radical movements such as feminism have a more individualist flavour. However, having abandoned class, Therborn has no means whereby to prioritize between different radical movements, much less explain the invididualist-collectivist dichotomy according to the differing class character and demands of each movement. This is a weakness which characterizes the entire book and leads to what are in my view some very wrongheaded departures – such as an endorsement of the same flawed ‘popular alliance’ which has been the strategic mainstay of ‘post-Marxists’ since the 1980s and to no real effect.

However, his is the only logical conclusion to be drawn from such assertions (under the subheading ‘Less Class, More Irreverence’) as that the largest cities on the planet are only creating an ‘urban proletariat in the pre-Marxist sense of informal labourers’. My point is that we should dispute Therborn’s premise: it is the same system of capitalism, the same nominal equality between bourgeois and proletarian, the same expropriation of surplus value that characterises even this informal labour. If there are lessons to take away from ‘informal’ labour, it is that it is the Third World equivalent of outsourcing and is both a weapon and a result of class struggle.

Paul Mason’s wonderfully evocative book, Live Working or Die Fighting, discusses several elements of informal labour and in each of them the story is the same; when workers organize to fight for their rights, even rights so limited as basic contracts, they meet opposition and must overcome it by collective action. The subheading ‘Less Class, More Irreverence’ as applied to this situation is thus a preposterous misreading of actual events from South America to the Indian sub-continent, where workers’ organisation occurs even despite difficult conditions.

Essay two, “Twentieth Century Marxism and the Dialectics of Modernity” includes another whistle-stop tour, this time of Marxist historiography and sociology. The second essay compounds a lot of the errors I think are evident in the first, including a conclusion that the ‘dialectics of modernity’ (i.e. the opposition between organised Capital and the organised working class) are disappearing. I don’t propose to spend much time on this, therefore, and will quickly pass to the third and final essay.

Entitled “After Dialectics”, this chapter sees Therborn stand shoulder to shoulder with Laclau and Mouffe. Before I begin however, readers might be interested in Louis Proyect’s (Unrepentant Marxist) view of this chapter as it appeared in New Left Review in 2007. Louis quotes disdainfully the following excerpt, believing it to share the defeatism of some other Marxists of the kind who have tried to scale down the scope and relevence of Marxist analysis:

“Then, suddenly, the high water withdrew, and was followed by a neoliberal tsunami. Socialist constructions were knocked down, many of them proving ramshackle or fake in the process; socialist ideas and Marxist theories were engulfed in the deluge. Privatization became the global order of the day, formulated in the Washington Consensus of the US Treasury, IMF and World Bank. At the dawn of the 21st century, not only liberal capitalism but empire and imperialism have staged a triumphant return, and with them the worldviews of the Belle Epoque.”

Actually I have no problem with what Therborn says here. Stylistically, it’s all a bit ‘Naomi Klein eat your heart out’ but it’s true enough. Apart from that rather nasty ‘suddenly’ at the beginning, as though the emergence of the neo-liberal economic order were a response to some ‘natural law’ which governs the economy and was not a direct response to great and powerful working class movements. On his later point – especially the brazen return of national chauvinism to the Western Europe mainstream – Therborn hits the ball and runs directly to first base.

The key error is what shortly follows (p114) when Therborn states, “While the inequalities of capitalism were increasing…the dialectic of capitalism was imploding. Capital’s new push was accompanied not by any strengthening of the working class and anticapitalist movements.” Perhaps my perceptions err, but underlying this statement seems to reside the sentiment that unless a working class movement springs full-grown from the depredations of capitalism, that there must be something wrong with our theorization of the working class.

In the case of Mouffe and Laclau, the problem is that it is discourse alone which determines resistance to capitalism, and the materials utilized by discourse are simply found within the hearts of each person, according to their ability to reason. With Therborn, the problem is that the industrial working class, so long the bastion of organised labour, has begun to decline. One must view this with the same embarrassment as Therborn’s claim that persistent mass unemployment is a result of policy failure, not a factor necessitated by capitalism.

In fact, in both cases, class struggle is at the root of things. In the case of unemployment, the existence of a mass reserve army of labour is one of the key structural requirements of capitalism. It is no accident that Thatcher and her liberalisations threw three million workers on to the dole. This example is directly relevant to Therborn’s contention that capital’s new push was not accompanied by a strengthening of the working class movement. Certain elements grew more radical, and others were beaten by fear and the exercise of capitalist hegemony.

Such elements as did grow radical were then picked off, whether through their own bad tactics or the successful tactics of their class enemies. The dialectic of capitalism was then and is now far from imploding; in fact, the manner in which the dialectic manifests itself is conditioned by the outcome of previous fights, as per one of Therborn’s own contentions in his first essay of this book. We, the working class, lost that fight, and we’re still picking ourselves up and putting ourselves back together – at least in Western Europe. Outside of Western Europe, where the reserve army of labour is mostly aged 15-24, according to the ILO, it’s a different matter.

For all of these reasons, I was disappointed in the book.

However, none of this is to say that the book does not have its interesting and stimulating points. Therborn makes some astute observations about the decline of pan-Arabian secular socialism in the context of Western support for what we would today call Islamists. I would enjoy a deeper study of this subject, or of the notion that the derivatives markets were ultimately the progeny of massive state expenditure by the US during the Vietnam War. Therborn is also sharp (and bang-on, in my view) in rebutting notions of the decline of the nation-state.

The only thing I would warn any potential student against is using Therborn’s whistle stop tours as accurate measures of the history of the development of Marxism; they are every bit as tendentious as Leszek Kolakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism – and employ an even greater degree of simplification, the like of which we should expect only populist liberal commentators to adopt. The only thing that topped this simplicity were the ridiculous terms to which some reviewers reduced the book.

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Categories: Book Reviews
  1. April 27, 2009 at 4:38 am

    I read Therborn’s article in Crudass and Rutherford’s e-book, “The Crash – a view from the left”. He speaks about inequality without touching upon the main division under capitalism between the owners of capital, seeking to maximise their investments, and the workers they hire to produce goods and services. For the capitalist to survive in this crisis, he must withdraw from investing – who knows what will go bust next? – and ensure jobs are cut, wages are frozen, etc. so that the rate of return on an investment will increase within the economy. To make up for falling profits, our post-crash society is being drastically restructured to meet the needs of the capitalist class at the expense of working people – deepening inequalities.

    Yet Therborn finishes up by citing the lower levels of inequality in the Nordic countries and their success from a capitalist perspective, arguing that within the current system reforms are possible short of defeating the capitalist class, which suggests that post-marxism does away with analysis of political economy. Either that or his essay was written earlier without the intention of giving “a view from the left” on the Crash, and just slotted into the book. For surely their greater integration in the global economy, which Therborn cites to counter pro-capitalist objections, will result in great instability and threaten to reverse moves towards equality?

  2. April 27, 2009 at 7:36 am

    Thanks for the review. I’ve not read it so I can’t comment much. Mind you, the thought that in some way your level of irreverence is in any way a measure of how leftwing you are does intrigue me, as though the main indicator of the capacity for struggle is who’s on at the Comedy Club this week.

  3. April 27, 2009 at 8:13 am

    That’s actually something else I’ll be dedicating an article to at some point – the extent to which the ‘cultural studies’ (i.e. movie quoting) of people like Zizek are of any use whatsoever, or can tell us anything that can be generalised.

    But for the article, I thought you particularly might appreciate the way I’ve tried to link Therborn to other post-marxists, both to show their differences and their similarities, since ‘post-marxism’ is not a uniform concept.

    I had a big area into which I was going to patch some commentary on Habermas’ communicative theory of action but the article was getting long as it was and I wanted it to focus on the Therborn book.

  1. May 17, 2009 at 1:52 pm

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