Marx at the margins: An interview with Kevin Anderson
Platypus Review 44 | March 2012
Last summer, Spencer A. Leonard interviewed Kevin Anderson, author of Lenin, Hegel, and Western Marxism (1995) and Marx at the Margins (2010). The interview was broadcast on August 2, 2011 on the radio show Radical Minds on WHPK–FM Chicago. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Spencer Leonard: Broadly describe your aims and ambitions in writing Marx at the Margins.
Kevin Anderson: One aim was that, in the past couple of decades - really the past three decades since the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism, there have been a number of critiques of Marx that centered on charges of Eurocentrism, ethnocentricsm, and so forth. I wanted to respond to those, but also to look at Marx anew in light of them. Moreover, while there are various works on Marx and European nationalisms, on India and China, and the late writings on Russia, no one had covered the whole of these, including Marx’s writing on the Civil War in the United States, which deal directly with ethnicity. So my second aim as to address them together in a single study with the other, more well-known writings. This also required taking account of newly surfaced writings of Marx slated to appear in the Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe.
SL: Regarding the Eurocentrism charge, it is raised not only to criticize Marx, but also to reject the Enlightenment tradition in which all critical theory finds its roots. Yet, rather than dismissing the charge as an expression of third world nationalism, your book takes it seriously—arguing that indeed Marx and Engels are not wholly immune from criticism on these grounds. You point to the “unilinearity” of their early writings, above all the Communist Manifesto and the New York Tribune writings of the early 1850s. But is the category of “the West” really relevant for Marx or for the radical Enlightenment out of which he emerges?
KA: Certainly there are places where that is the case. In some of the 1853 writings on India, for instance, Marx speaks of England as a superior civilization, which by virtue of its higher economic form is going to revolutionize India. Also, as late as the preface to Capital, Marx says that more developed countries show the less developed the image of their own future. These examples suggest almost, if one wanted to think of it in terms of a railroad train, that the Western European countries and North America are kind of in the front couple cars of the train and that Asia and the so-called “third world” are in the rear being pulled forward into modernity.
SL: So that all countries would in a sense recapitulate the historical trajectory of those at the head of the train.
KA: Right! Of course, stated so simplisticly, no one supports such a view. No one would say that India is going to become an exact copy of England. But of the extent that one would say that a country like Britain represents the future of humanity, one is adopting a Eurocentric model. Of course, there are also problems with the critique of Eurocentrism, which is often very critical of the social structures and social institutions of modern Western societies and far less so of the social structures and institutions of the non-West. Marx in examining “non-Western” societies is always critical. And as his thought matures, these criticisms cease to rely upon a Eurocentric unilinearity and move toward a more multilinear perspective. However, Marx is no primitivist anarchist interested in returning to a clan-based, low-tech society. Nor does he idealize the social formations in places like India, with their caste and other hierarchies, their subordination of women, etc. He does not sugar-coat any of that. Nonetheless, towards the end of his life, there is evidence that he entertains more of a possibility of societies evolving and revolutionizing themselves more on the basis of indigenous institutions. This is never entirely so, but he gives more consideration to the internally generated institutions of these societies.
SL: It seems to me that when Marx says England represents a higher civilization, he is not really talking about the "Englishness" of England, much less anything “authentically Western.” Capitalism for Marx is not a superior civilization. Rather, capitalist society is “civilization,” per se, in a way that the past can only be said to be by analogy with it. Thus, in the Communist Manifesto, he uses the language of “civilization,” and terms everything else barbaric, as for instance in the passage where he talks about the beating down of Chinese walls by British imports. The issue is the universality of the form realizing itself at the level of world history. So, it seems that when he is using that language, he is talking about a social form, one that just happens to have emerged in Europe.
KA: Well of course there is some truth in that, but as I also say in the book, the language sometimes verges on what today we would consider ethnocentric—the descriptions of India as an unchanging, unresisting society that has no history except that which is imposed on it by its foreign conquerors, and so on. There are some problems there. Another example would be an early text in which Engels applauds the U.S. war with Mexico, the conquest of California, and the incorporation into the United States of the Southwest, referring to “the lazy Mexicans” who were unable to develop the region in the way the North Americans are going to do. That kind of language reverses by the 1860s and 1870s. You can see a real turn there. Also in writings by Engels, but also on occasion by Marx, there is the claim that the Czech and the Serb peoples (to name only a few) are barbaric, so it is good that in some areas they are dominated by the Germans, who represent a higher civilization. These nations are destined to disappear, and this is a good thing. Again, there are exceptions to this even in the early writings. And whenever they are actually in contact with real historical movements of resistance that are at all progressive, they change their tune fairly quickly. The clearest example of this is Ireland. Nothing in their writings suggests any sympathy for any “progress” that Britain is bringing to Ireland. Engels especially was intimately involved with Ireland as early as his 1845 work The Conditions of the Working Class in England. There Engels devotes a lot of attention to the Irish sub-proletariat in Manchester and to its special oppression. Marx too supports the Irish national movement, though at first his support is not for independence but for greater rights within the empire.
SL: Marx and Engels seem to me to inherit a situation from an earlier period that is utterly unfamiliar to us. They lived in a time before the whole world was bourgeois, and it seems to me that part of the struggle of not just Marx and Engels but also of Hegel, Kant, Adam Smith, and Rousseau, is a struggle to critically apprehend the specificity of modernity, one that can be apprehended both temporally and ethno-geographically. This to me is what lies at the core of the early modern debate between the ancients and the moderns—major European intellectuals of freedom and emancipation are confronted with the fact that their society is expanding and that no other society seems genuinely capable of resisting it. Hegel thus says that the North American Indians fall at the mere breath of Europe, echoing Rousseau’s comments about the confrontation of civilization with the natural man. Similarly, Adam Smith was duly impressed by the fact that a small number of Englishmen in the East India Company could in his lifetime conquer significant territories in the ancient and fabled land of India. In this sense, then, there’s the question of the Eurocentrism of their experience. They had to address a question we don’t. That question is: What if the highest potentials of modern society are brought forward before globalization has done its work? What if there is a successful socialist revolution in Europe and North America before capitalism has spread to the rest of the world?
KA: One of Marx and Engels's great worries is this - What if radical communism or radical democracy, as they sometimes call it, should overtake this small sliver of the modernized, capitalist world only to be smothered very quickly by the rest of the world? He is particularly worried about the power of Russia. We look back and we see England as the predominant power in Marx’s time. But in political terms, Russia was the second most important power in Europe. Do not forget that the 1848 revolutions were defeated in substantial part because Russia was able to send 400,000 troops into the Austro-Hungarian Empire to aid the old regime. So Marx and Engels certainly are concerned with the fact that the modern workers’ movement has emerged only in a small corner of the world. What if it should remain isolated? So on the one hand, they are happy about the spread of modernity, capitalism, and even to a certain extent colonialism, throughout the world, at least in their early writings. On the other hand, as they develop, as Marx moves in the 1850s towards the completion of the Grundrisse and Capital, the critique of capitalism becomes more intense, sharper, deeper, more unremitting. In the Communist Manifesto, we have those lines about the progressivism of capitalism. That language persists only in very muted form in the Grundrisse and Capital. Over the trajectory of Marx’s writing there is less enthusiasm about progress emerging out of capitalist modernity. And remember that Marx had not lived in England yet when he penned the Communist Manifesto. He hadn’t experienced directly a high development of capitalist modernity. Perhaps from the outside he even idealized it. It’s very strange to say this about Marx, but he becomes more critical of capitalism. I have argued that there is a gradual shift, never toward an uncritical third worldism, never toward a primitivist anarchism, but toward harsher critiques of capitalist modernity and a greater appreciation of some of the achievements and contributions of societies at the margins.
SL: Regarding this waning of Marx’s belief in capitalism’s progressive effects the question arises, In what sense did Marx ever think capitalism progressive, in the first place? For instance, in the Communist Manifesto, Marx argued that with the coming of capitalism, “all fixed fast-frozen social relations with their venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away. All that is solid melts into air and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind” Here he seems to be celebrating the fact of capitalism’s having swept the past away and given rise to the possibility of its own self-overcoming, the possibility of mankind’s confrontation with our circumstances with, as he puts it, sober senses. Capitalism in this sense only makes possible the conclusion of pre-history through deliberate action to achieve a post-capitalist society. In this sense, when Marx terms capitalism “civilization,” it can be viewed as having a doubled charge as both the overcoming and the perfection of the past. Do you think that Marx’s attitude about that ever changes?
KA: Even in the Communist Manifesto, where his praise is at the highest, in those paragraphs you were quoting, there is the phrase, “the icy waters of individual calculation,” which I don’t think he means as a compliment to capitalism and its culture.
SL: No? Don’t we sometimes splash cold water on our faces in order to wake ourselves up?
KA: The point I am trying to make is that even in that language about progressivism, it’s always dialectical. Part of the way the Manifesto is set up is that the first few pages set out this model that the subsequent pages undermine by talking about all the contradictions and oppressions brought about by capital, such as making the worker a mere instrument or machine, the recessions and depressions that capitalism creates, that fact that the capitalist class is unfit to rule because it can’t guarantee to the subordinate population, the proletariat, even the minimal level of existence, etc. As you were saying, there is the very clear implication that you have to go through this process. But in the later writings, that is less clear. The most dramatic example is the late writings on Russia, where the Russian villages are still overwhelmingly rural but are starting to be encroached upon by capitalist property relations and capitalist banking. You can see on the horizon the glimmers of what was to become the beginning of the industrialization of Russia in the 1890s, which Marx did not live to see. Still Marx does suggest that if the villages resist the encroachment of capitalism, this might be a good thing. He talks about the communal structure of the Russian villages and the collectivist social forms they take, even more so than in the medieval European village, let alone modern capitalist social relations. He sees in this a possible building block for a modern communism. And there was a revolutionary movement there at the time trying to do exactly that. In dialogue with that Russian revolutionary movement, Marx is wondering whether it might not be able to link up with the proletarian revolutions of the West he is anticipating. So not everyone has to necessarily go through this painful, uprooting process of the old social relations as happens with the industrial revolution. This has wider implications. And there are other examples one can point to in the later writings, the writings from 1881 and 1882 just before his death.
SL: In the Lectures on the Philosophy of History, Hegel says,
Without rhetorical exaggeration, a simply truthful combination of the miseries that have overwhelmed the noblest of nations and polities and the finest examples of private virtue forms a picture of the most fearful aspect and excites emotions of the profoundest and most hopeless sadness, counterbalanced by no consolatory result. We endure in beholding it a mental torture, allowing no defense or escape but the consideration that what has happened could not be otherwise, that it is a fatality which no intervention could alter. And at last we draw back from the intolerable disgust with which these sorrowful reflections threaten us into the more agreeable environment of our private individual life- the present formed by our aims and interests. In short, we retreat into selfishness that stands on the quiet shore and thus enjoys the safety of the distant spectacle of “wrecks confusedly hurled.” But even regarding history as the slaughter-bench at which the happiness of people, the wisdom of states, and the virtue of individuals have been victimized, the question involuntarily arises: To what principle, to what final aim these enormous sacrifices have been offered? From this point, the investigation [of History] proceeds...
It seems to me that Marx inherits this very profoundly, for instance, in the statement,“that all hitherto existing history has been the history of class struggle.” But it also seems to me that Marx’s theory of capital reconfigures that concern somewhat. In particular, it raises not only the question of the suffering of all of world history, which, for some at least, in one corner of the world, involved the suffering industrial capitalism's emergence, but also what Hegel says—that, in some unconsoling and inconsolable way, this is just a historical fact, albeit a deeply melancholy one. In the face of which Marx asks, What about when this suffering is no longer necessary? What about the post-1848 world? That is, in some ways it is the failure of the Revolution of 1848, the failure of the working class and indeed humanity to rise to the historical tasks of industrial society that is the most deeply melancholy fact (and the most fundamental object of critique) for Marx. It might be in that light that we’d look at his descriptions of the barbarities committed in India, China or elsewhere—i.e., that these are unnecessary. They are not History, in Hegel’s sense.
KA: Marx is a child of Hegel in that respect. On the language about fatality, I would say that Hegel is also the philosopher of the human subject. He is interested in the quest for freedom, for self-determination. This operates within a larger framework that adds up to a historical progression, as Hegel sees it. But, of course, even with Hegel progress is never one sided. He has room for retrogression within his concept of historical development. For example, he regards the entire European medieval period as one of retrogression. So neither Hegel nor Marx are the uncritical progressivists they are often portrayed as being.
But there are some differences with Hegel. Some of Marx’s descriptions of the Indian village and Indian civilization as backward, unchanging, unresisting, and passive, as not really having a history, are practically copied from Hegel’s Philosophy of History. But what I think held Marx back from being fully Hegelian, although that is certainly his major intellectual influence, is, as everyone points out, that Marx is a more empirical thinker. Marx is interested in looking at historical and social phenomena more closely than Hegel, although Hegel did do quite a bit of that too. Also, Marx is a humanist. That is the big difference. There is an implicit humanism in some of Hegel’s writings on the human subject, but in Marx’s 1844 critique of Hegel, he zeroes in on the abstraction of Hegel’s philosophizing where the real breathing human being, the corporeal, bodily being, is not really present or is insufficiently present in Hegel’s thinking. Marx is more reluctant than Hegel to think in terms of fatal laws of history, especially by the end of his life. In a response to Nikolai Mikhailovsky, a Russian who was trying to defend Marx by saying that he had a general theory of history, Marx replied that he did not have a concept of historical development that is inevitably or fatally imposed on all peoples. He is a little less global, as a thinker, in that sense, than Hegel, a little less totalizing, although it is a real caricature to paint Hegel as a thinker of totality without room for particularity. Because Hegel spent a lot of time attacking what he called the “abstract universal.”
SL: It seems to me that Marx is deeply beholden to Hegel on the question of the project of the self-conscious constitution of history. Of course, that project is radically reconfigured by Marx through his understanding of commodity fetishism and what consciousness means in the struggle to realize and overcome civil society in the age of capital. Like Hegel, the question is one of humanity’s becoming self-conscious. It is not just a question of fatality, but of reason’s cunning. In the modern world, as Hegel says, “everyone is free.” There is the question of the free constitution of history that Marx inherits. What you’re calling Marx’s pessimism or his increasingly harsh and unremitting critique of capital for me turns on the question of struggling with a social form whose potential for emancipation is bound up with its seeming recalcitrance to that project. Of course, post-1848 Marx thinks that the new tasks of the revolution have been announced yet humanity is not taking them up. The way I read the writings on the barbarity of British suppression of the Indian Mutiny is that Marx is arguing that, to the extent that modern society falls below the threshold of its own possibility, it renounces its title to supersede feudalism. It is not really a question of support for the Indian Mutiny, but of the melancholy recognition of a kind of civilized barbarism. But, once again, there are strong echoes here of Adam Smith’s earlier critique of the East India Company, to name only the most obvious instance.
KA: There is a lot packed into your comment. In the famous letter to Engels of 1858 where Marx talks about having reread Hegel’s Logic as he is reconstructing some of the categories that were to become the Gundrisse and later Capital, he says that the Logic was a great help to him in working through the economic categories. That’s the same letter where he says that the Indians are now “our best allies.” So, I do take that as support for the Indian Sepoy Uprising of 1857. The question is, What does support mean? It does not mean that he is supporting the political aims of the uprising, which, to the extent that they were coordinated, called for the restoration of the Mogul Empire. Certainly he doesn’t support that. My take on it is that it is very different.
Scene from the Indian Mutiny of 1857, depicted in a steel engraving from the 1860s. Marx addressed the Mutiny in a series of articles for the New York Daily Tribune.
In regard to Ireland, for instance, Marx always supports the Irish national movement, but the degree to which he is critical of it has to do with the social content of the movement and its leadership. In the 1840s, it was led by pro-landlord groups close to the Catholic Church. Marx and Engels are scathing of these tendencies. By the 1860s, there is the Fenian movement, which is more peasant based, less tied to the Church, and against property holdings not only of the British but also of the so-called Irish landowner classes. Similarly, the Indian movement did not have a socially progressive agenda in the Revolt of 1857. So Marx supports it, but not with the fulsomeness with which he supports the movement in Ireland later on. Marx is a supporter of national self-determination, but not as an abstract universal. The most glaring example of how he doesn’t support all claims to national self-determination is the southern U.S. Confederacy. He does not support their right to national self-determination because the political and social basis on which that was constructed was the defense of slavery.
SL: Let me ask you about the discussion in the book about Marx’s idea of modes of production. You specify what you mean by the “unilinear” model which Marx is breaking with by noting that this took the form of a purportedly universal philosophy of history, one that “focused on Western development from early stateless clan societies to the ancient Greco-Roman class societies based on slave labor to the feudalism of the Middle Ages and on to bourgeois society and its successor, socialism." As you point out, all pre-capitalist societies, for all of their empirical variety share, for Marx, the crucial theoretical aspect of being pre-capitalist. As you put it at one point, “the purpose of their labor was ‘not the creation of value.’” So, it seems there is a tension between making a claim about all of human history and making a claim about the specificity of capital. We would not want to let go of that tension, would we?
KA: I am not sure to the extent to which Marx saw the Asiatic mode of production as a core concept grounding his discussions of India, China, etc. I have not really thought that through, but certainly the Asiatic mode of production is not something on which he expended a lot of intellectual effort. There is the long section in the Grundrisse on pre-capitalist modes of production that talks about the Greco-Roman mode of production and the ancient Asiatic mode of production. There he is really talking about India, as far as I can tell. But beyond that, Marx wrote a lot journalistically about India, and the phrase “Asiatic mode of production” does not, to my knowledge, occur in those writings. I also used to think that there must have been a long essay somewhere by Marx describing the feudal mode of production. But there isn’t. It’s just a few scattered comments here and there, as far as I can tell. Marx is not Max Weber. Weber was a scholar who spent perhaps most of his intellectual effort on trying to figure out the uniqueness of modern Western capitalism vis-à-vis earlier social forms. He wrote voluminously on China, India, ancient Judaism, ancient Greece and Rome, and the European Middle Ages. With Marx, the concerns are very different. He does look at these kinds of issues sometimes, but he always does so with contemporary concerns in mind, not only about the structure of capitalism, but also to figure out the problems of resistance to and revolution against capital. Thus, Marx’s interest at the end of his life in the Russian and Indian villages develops because he thinks that these were possible sites of resistance to capital that could become allies of the Western proletariat. To the extent that he is concerned with the non-West or the non-core capitalist countries like Ireland in his own time, it is because of their relationship to the problematic of capital and labor inside the core countries. Sometimes he thinks these relationships can reverse themselves. Accordingly, in the late 1860s, Marx feels that an Irish revolution could become the lever that might spark proletarian uprising inside Britain. Similarly, he argues that the Russian communal village could be the starting point for a global communist development if it could link up with the proletariat in the West. These are not isolated questions for Marx. Certainly he never addresses Ireland, India, Russia or anyplace else for the sake of elaborating a philosophy of history. There may be a very interesting philosophy of history there, but that would have to be teased out.
SL: To return to a point I made earlier, my mistrust of the preoccupation with Eurocentrism is that it occludes the fact that revolution was, according to Marx, possible in his own time. This raised the question of how the transition to post-capitalist society would take place globally. For many who throw around the category of “Eurocentrism,” revolution to them was no more possible then than it is now, and they’re not interested in either case.
KA: For most academic thinking, even left-wing academic thinking, revolution is probably not possible. Even a school of thinking for which I have great respect, the Frankfurt School, devoted most of its energy to figuring out why the German working class, and later on the modern American working class in America, were not even really oppositional. In Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man this is a major theme. This goes with the territory of academic radicalism. But Marx was not an academic, and Capital was not written for an academic audience. |P
. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of History. The quoted passage appears in part III, “Philosophic History,” section 24. The text is available online at: <www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/hi/history3.htm>
. Kevin B. Anderson, Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 155–156.
. Grundrisse quoted in Ibid., 156.