November 30th, 2015
“The role Marxism plays today is the same critical vocation and practice Marx imagined at the start. It is still the best critical strategy we have available to understanding … and grasping what must be done.”—Harry Harootunian
The following is an interview with Harry Harootunian, author of Marx After Marx: History and Time in the Expansion of Capitalism:
Question: How does Marxism look different once it is taken out of the Western framework? What does it mean to “Deprovincialize Marx”?
Harry Harootunian: The question of how Marxism looked different once it was taken out of the Western framework, once it was deprovincialized and resituated in a context constituted of a different lived historico-cultural experience is, in many ways, the central problem of my book.
At one level it was obvious that the migration of Marxism acquired a different appearance when it landed in regions outside of Western Europe. In fact, its migration showed the multiple routes to the development of capitalism. Uno Kozo, the great Japanese political economist notedthat the development of capitalism in Japan was a local inflection of a global process similar to other late developing societies since it followed the same economic laws despite the mediating contaminations exercised by specific historical and cultural circumstances. However, it should be pointed out that this observation was made by a number of previous thinkers in Eastern Europe, Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky and even Georg Lukacs, the putative founder of ‘Western Marxism.”
All of these thinkers recognized that the penetration of capital in Eastern Europe dramatically contrasted with economic practices derived from previous modes of production and in some cases were metabolized to serve capital’s quest for surplus value. Marx put it simply in Grundrisse when he remarked that capital takes what it finds useful at hand from prior forms of economic activity and subordinates it to capitalism’s production process. Lukacs sought to show how the visible disparity between co-existing different forms of practice, the then and the now, could be overcome through the agency of ideology. The bourgeois mind was made to see in these residual appropriations not practices derived from pre-capitalist presuppositions but rather from capital’s own presuppositions. With thinkers from the margins of industrial capital and the colonies, the determining factor was the moment of encounter, time and circumstances in which capital appeared in a society. What I’m suggesting is that the reason why capital looked different derived from the convergence of two different forms of historical intervention: the conditions accounting for the timing of capital’s entry and the reasons prompting its adoption and the subsequent collision with a received, lived history and cultural experience.
The movement of Marxism could only result in a deprovincialization that took on the appearance of local historical and cultural color. When Marx announced in his famous Preface of the first edition of Capital I that “the country that is more developed industrially shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future,” he was not proposing that it would look like England or even France. What he was offering was the promise of development, knowing, at the same time, that the operation of formal subsumption, as the rule and logic of capitalist development, would inevitably involve a process of appropriation of what was at hand. Imitation of a “classic” example would have been simply impossible to maintain under the rule of formal subsumption. So I propose that in terms of theory, Marxism and its general laws, will always be mediated by local historical and cultural circumstances.
Q: Building upon that how does the history of Marxism and Marxist movements look different when you begin to look beyond the Euro-American context?
This question might be answered by suggesting that much of the concerns of Marxism outside of Europe-America, beginning with Lenin, was an effort to return to some of the more fundamental considerations of the founders, namely wage labor and the production process. In Western Marxism, The Frankfurt school was preoccupied with the role played by culture, consumption and the culture industry in the domination of everyday life. This program reflected the privilege accorded to the commodity form and ultimately value was released from its relationship to labor, whose importance was diminished. In a sense, this move to the structuring force of the commodity—value theory—exemplified thinkers like H-G Backhaus and Antonio Negri and to some extent Moishe Postone. The trouble with this orientation is that it was premised on the presumption that value had invaded every pore of the social formation. In this regard, the efforts of thinkers to return to some of the principal perspectives of the founders were an attempt to return to history and politics rather than philosophy. The move to philosophy signified a withdrawal from historical considerations related to labor and production, as suchand its importance for forms of contemporary political intervention. The preoccupation with philosophy separated lived culture from politics and history by subsuming their identities instead of reuniting value and history. In this regard, one should recall Marx’s own repudiation of philosophy and rejection of the “concept” for the sensuousness of the concrete commodity. If value trumped history, culture and consumption replaced history to signal in the West capital’s completion, that is, the accomplishment of real subsumption.
In contrast, the world beyond Europe remains at an earlier stage, still dominated by the bricolage of formal subsumption, incomplete, undeveloped, a history in the making aimed at “catching up.” Hence, the stage theory of an earlier Marxism was stretched to distinguish the West from the world beyond it, even though they shared the same contemporary moment. What I’m suggesting is that the presumed stagist movement from formal to real subsumption (absolute surplus value to relative surplus value) was another way of representing the difference between the advanced West and the backwardness of underdevelopment, maintaining the trajectory of an earlier and vulgate version of Marxism evolved from the Second and Third Internationals that would explain where societies were located in the historical route to socialism. Yet, on closer examination, it is possible to discern in this evolutionary scheme how the underdeveloped society is cast into another temporal register to reveal the distance it must travel to reach the true contemporaneity of modern capitalism. It is precisely this stagism that mandates the reproduction or replication of a singular model of development that excludes other, plural possibilities.