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Marx Goes Out of Town

George Comninel's new study of Karl Marx is a reminder of what made his writings so revolutionary – and of the still unresolved battles they sparked off.

‘Alienation’ has become a controversial term for the left in recent years. Many thinkers avoid the term studiously, seeing it as redolent of Marx’s youthful dalliance with mysticism, whereas others make the alienation of everyday living central to their cultural theory.  Influential polemic The Xenofeminist Manifesto described itself as a ‘politics for alienation’, celebrating the changes advances in technology were having on supposedly natural divisions. By contrast Marxist Feminists such as Sophie Lewis have defended a more old-fashioned definition of alienation. For Lewis and others, the term refers to domination of someone by another’s ends. Technological breakthroughs can provide ways out of this alienated condition, only if accompanied by political action. Clearly, the left is still not clear on what alienation exactly is, or if the term is even meaningful at all. So it’s timely that George Comninel’s second book Alienation and Emancipation in the Work of Karl Marx focuses on this aspect of Marx’s thought, in a rigorous but accessible fashion.

While not solely addressing alienation, the book is firmly focused on Marx throughout, allowing for the revolutionary’s life and thinking to be examined from a number of views. The opening chapters are mostly biographical, relating the familiar narrative of an ethnic minority philosopher and journalist, who found himself an exile and revolutionary leader in England. Marx as depicted by Comninel is both a compulsive and brilliant figure: unable to retract from political activity even when he intends to. Whether researching English factories (which defined Capital) or Russian communes (which occupied the later years of his life), his focus on the working class overcoming the alienation intrinsic to the class domination required by capitalism was steadfast.

Following this overview of Marx’s life, chapters address particular works by Marx in precise detail, while others focus on Marx’s political career. This varied approach allows the reader both an introduction to Marx’s life and intellectual context, and critical guides into his major works. Comninel distinguishes his approach from ‘hagiography’ of Marx: he aims to respond judiciously to unresolved questions facing contemporary readers. The most obvious of these being the failure of the Communist Manifesto’s revolutionary horizon to actually appear – either in a lasting way in Russia, or at all in the west.

A professor of Political Theory at York University, Toronto, Comninel is a leading figure in the academic current ‘Political Marxism’. The school has also included historians Robert Brenner, the late Ellen Meiskins Wood, Charles Post, and International Relations theorist Benno Teschke. The Political Marxists defined themselves as holding true to a Marxist research method at a time that this was beyond unfashionable in humanities academia (with the rise of the New Right across the 1980s, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the prodigious success of deconstruction and its opposition to ‘metanarratives’ across the 1990s.) While unabashedly Marxist, they were often unsparing of existing orthodoxies. Political Marxist research has continuously sought to redefine terms, and test grand claims with empirical evidence. Their controversial slogan that capitalism began in England was intended to disrupt any simple idea of each European state developing toward capitalist relations in the same fashion. Instead, they saw capitalism as originating in the specific circumstances of English struggles around land, stripping the countryside’s peasantry of its holdings. This new class was pinned between the interests of business owners and landlords, and obliged to sell their labour and produce marketable goods to subsist. The result was that England was left with the world’s first entrenched proletariat, with France and Germany only becoming as indisputably capitalist in this respect centuries later. This account attracted many critics both from within Marxism and in Post-Colonial circles, as well as from more conservative academics. 

Of Comninel’s fellow Political Marxists, Alienation and Emancipation… is most obviously shaped by Ellen Meiskins Wood, who died in 2016, and to whom the book is dedicated. A prolific theorist and historian, Wood’s writings addressed a remarkable breadth of topics. Here her arguments on topics ranging from capitalism’s distinctiveness to the overstated importance of Athenian slavery are deployed throughout. Most importantly, Comninel follows Wood’s approach of ‘the social history of political thought’ — paying attention to social conditions and struggles that defined thinkers’ lives. The result is that the book appears to be in full dialogue with Comninel’s deceased co-thinker. 

As Comninel notes in the book’s opening pages, Karl Marx (unlike the Political Marxists) was no academic. While his most famous works were written while entrenched in the British Library, and Capital was based on many thousands of pages of Marx’s empirical research, his career was focused as much on organisational activities as scholarship. Comninel relates tales of Marx fabricating excuses to be ‘out of town’ to his comrades, so he could steal away time to write. Marx wrote to directly empower the workers’ movement, rather than hoping to develop rigorous terms to be examined and deployed by scholarly peers. The success Marx achieved during his own lifetime, as Comninel relates, was not through any huge number of academics seeing fit to apply his framework (although they certainly have since his death). Instead, Marx first became renowned through Capital becoming acknowledged as an indispensable tool for revolutionary thinking.

Due to Marx’s focus on movement politics, even some of the most important terms for Marxist research are frequently used inconsistently. Most worryingly, ‘modes of production’ have been made central by Marxist scholars. While capitalism is usually compared to ‘feudalism’ and the ‘Asiatic Mode of Production’ which preceded it, systematic examination of what those earlier economies looked like has been lacking. This is troubling, as Marx set out to demonstrate that capitalism was a historical system, distinguished from other ‘modes of production’. But vague terminology in some cases appears to have differing meanings in each appearance. The result is that a commitment to Marxism for today’s scholar is accompanied with a duty for creative research. As Comninel has it: ‘It is history — the history for which Marx himself did not and could not have had the time — that is required.’ 

The book also challenges the famous position of French theorist Louis Althusser, that Marx’s career was split between an ‘early’ period (where he was still a humanist inspired by the philosopher G.W Hegel) and a late or ‘mature’ period (where he had abandoned his earlier humanism through an ‘epistemic break’). Comninel undermines this perspective convincingly through arguing that The German Ideology, the work where Marx supposedly staged this break, does no such thing. Never intended for publication, the scattered essays that made up what was stitched together in the mid-20th century USSR as The German Ideology. These documents had never been intended for any one clear purpose. Refuting any idea of it as a decisive split from humanism in favour of a purified class analysis, it originally included a large section by a left Hegelian who barely mentions class (Moses Hess).

Comninel seeks to replace the division of ‘early and mature’ Marx with an early career informed by liberal histories. This was no secret: Marx openly cited mainstream historians, philosophers, and political economists as a prelude to his revolutionary analysis. Intriguingly, the most substantive charge against Marx (and Engels) here is an excess of modesty: the Marxist position on history was presented by Marx as a simple reproduction of the insights of liberal thinkers. Comninel convincingly argues that Marx had, in fact, developed a totally new account of society. One which saw its history as primarily a development of conflicts both between, and within, classes.  By contrast, liberals would rather see domination and exploitation as a matter of the past (especially associated with slavery), with capitalist economies being defined by interactions between free agents. A landlord and their tenant or employer and employee were ultimately free actors, and at least formally speaking equals. While for Marxists alienation was a central concern, liberals struggled to see it at all. As Marx’s career continued he had less and less time for liberalism’s account of the bourgeoisie as a dynamic and driving force in human progress, as he explored whether the Russian peasantry might advance directly towards socialism.

Marx’s break with liberalism had clear political implications. If class conflicts were the motor of social change, injustices such as poverty could not be corrected by careful central planning, battling corruption, or other forms of state action. Instead, class conflict was central to meaningful political activity. Overcoming alienation meant the working class asserting itself against the bourgeoisie directly. So Marx remained strictly focused on working class self-organisation. Within the First International, Marx successfully challenged reformist analysis such as Ferdinand Lassalle’s ‘iron law of wages’, that suggested agitating for higher pay was a doomed venture.

Comninel is effusive in his praise for Marx’s historical understanding of class domination: ‘This was a theoretical breakthrough of undeniable genius’. Whereas many are inspired by Marx and Engels’ method of immanent critique (where the terms of opposing ideas are accepted, to better let them play out until their internal absurdities become clearly apparent), Comninel seems to suggest that the result is that these thinkers drastically understated the novelty of their thinking. The emancipatory horizons of liberals were not revolutionary: they saw politics as a series of ‘issues’ to be corrected. Capitalism (defined as commerce) was taken to be a natural set of human practice. Marx’s view of alienation suggested a much more profound set of struggles animating human history.

The book falls short in its overreliance on defining Marx’s thinking against a rather dated view of Hegel. Marx’s view of alienation was clearly a reapplication of the ‘master-slave’ domination Hegel had introduced in the Phenomenology of Spirit, to questions of class politics. While Hegel had a hazy grasp of questions of class, writing mostly about ‘the rabble’, Marx elevated the proletariat as Hegel’s slave, writ large. Both parties involved in  capitalist society are defined by their class relation (the proletariat could not exist without the ruling class that exploits it). But the reliance of the bourgeoisie on the proletariat both justifies revolutionary change, and allows for it. True to his social historical approach to intellectual history as shaped mostly around social challenges, Comninel attempts to downplay this obvious development as the hatching of slave to prole. For Comninel the French Revolution was of pre-eminent importance for Marx over Hegel, despite both thinkers having similar views on the topic. Not to mention recent arguments that Hegel’s master-slave was more directly inspired by revolution in Haiti, an event which is not to be found in this book’s index. Comninel repeatedly suggests that Hegel was an apologist for Prussian autocracy, a view rebutted by another critical Marxist, Gillian Rose, as long ago as the mid-1980s. Comninel makes much of Hegel as an idealist, without defining the term especially clearly. German philosopher Markus Gabriel has recently called into question exactly the critical merit of viewing Hegel in these terms. Marx’s account of materialism clearly has more in common with Hegel’s version of idealism, than contemporary self-described materialists who reduce human agency to that which is empirically measurable on a brain scan.

There is also little provided to rebut the commonplace criticisms of Marxism for its ‘economic reductionism’. This is despite Comninel repeatedly acknowledging these concerns. If Marx was correct in placing class-based alienation as the key basis for other varieties of social domination, it remains to be explained how other threads of oppression unfold from economic exploitation. Few hints of how this could be attempted at found here. Decolonial and black studies readings of Marx do not see any serious reply, besides Comninel explaining that the ‘Anglocentrism’ of Political Marxism was intended to disrupt the theoretical basis for lazy Eurocentrism. This book will also disappoint feminists. There is little here to cast direct light on recent lively discussions around alienation, technology and gender liberation. Besides a passing mention of Marx’s proposal that the original International Workingmen’s Association include a female workers’ section, there is precious little mention of either the women in Marx’s own life, or gender struggles more generally. This is a missed opportunity, if very typical of Political Marxism, which seems to have an allergy toward gender theory. 

Altogether this is a skilled and dedicated work of scholarship that will serve anyone interested in deeper engagement with Marx’s works in their own terms very well. This should be treated as a masterful and wide-ranging introduction to Marx, rather than a full defence of him. It seems unlikely to win around any of Political Marxism’s many opponents. But the lively style and illuminating historical analysis will provide fresh insights for readers of all levels of familiarity with the First International’s best known thinker.