From International Socialism 2:98, Spring 2003.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Marx for Our Times: Adventures and Misadventures of a Critique
Verso 2002, £20
Daniel Bensaïd is a leading French revolutionary socialist, a philosophy lecturer at the University of Paris VIII and the author of many books. His latest is Marx for Our Times: Adventures and Misadventures of a Critique. It was published in France in October 1995, on the eve of the public sector strikes that brought a million to the streets of a jubilant capital, with many more protests in smaller towns. I travelled to the Paris march relatively new to socialist politics, and really saw for the first time that mass action could turn the world upside down. Bensaïd’s book was written before those events. But its prioritisation of agency – people’s ability to challenge a hostile structure that reduces living beings to exploitable objects – is a key to these anti-capitalist times. It’s not an easy book, but definitely a rewarding and important one.
The premise of Marx for Our Times will be welcome to most readers of this journal – namely that the collapse of Stalinism was ‘good news not only politically, but also intellectually’. Bensaïd declares in the preface that ‘the research programme inspired by Marx remains robust. But it only has a genuine future if, rather than seeking refuge in an academic fold, it succeeds in establishing an organic relationship with the revived practice of social movements – in particular, with the resistance to imperialist globalisation’. Marxist theory must connect with and learn from the experiences of people across the world involved in anti-capitalist struggles, from Argentina to Zimbabwe. Bensaïd’s Marx is a thinker whose ideas prefigured many current concerns. This Marx has been hidden from history for many years, as his work was twisted to fit ‘socialism from above’, whether by tanks or by ballots. Contemporary critical theories, under pressure from the rebirth of popular protest, are reviving many themes alien to Stalinism and social democracy, but connecting with the Marxist tradition at its best. A striking feature of today’s intellectual landscape is a turn away from ‘identity politics’. Identity politics prioritised insurmountable ‘difference’ between people (gender, ‘race’, sexuality and so on), and blocked desperately needed moves towards solidarity in a ‘lean world’.  Denying the possibility of making connections between oppressed groups had a purchase while social movements collapsed bitterly in the 1980s. Now writers have started to ask how to root radical values in a world torn between discredited ‘grand narratives’ and this cul-de-sac of infinite fragmentation. For example, some of the more interesting contemporary feminists use ‘standpoint epistemologies’ (knowledge ‘from below’) , which have affinities with Lenin’s maxim that the revolutionary be the ‘tribune of the oppressed’.
Many such debates seem to have shifted back towards Marxist terrain.  Socialists’ responses to this are crucial, and Marx for Our Times helps us come to terms with this fascinating new political situation. Writers like Bensaïd can help recover lost traditions and question received wisdoms, just as John Bellamy Foster definitively unsettles superficial equations of Marxism with tyranny over nature.  Similarly, Mike Davis’s dazzling urban histories are rooted in radical traditions yet urgently contemporary, effortlessly spanning labour histories, pop cultures and political possibilities.  Bensaïd’s book does examine the relation of Marxism to ecology as part of his section on science and positivism, but it is also an ambitious exposition of Marx’s philosophy of history and an examination of the concept of class in Marxism. It is challenging but beautifully written and worth persevering with.
Bensaïd’s first section, on the philosophy of history, criticises analytical Marxism in order to bring out the radical depth of Marx’s critique of historical reason. He criticises the way that Marxism has often solidified into an linear schema , with evaluative norms of ‘progress’ and ‘normality’. In contrast, Bensaïd emphasises ruptures and unpredicted possibilities, missed opportunities and new and previously unimaginable horrors. This rediscovery of indeterminacy and openness in Marx is very welcome (and later in the book is linked to new developments in science). Bensaïd takes writers like Jon Elster to task for withdrawing from the radical challenge and seeking to reduce history to a set of logical rules. While these appear to put Marxism on a more scientific footing, they actually mean it capitulates to a model of science that Marx reached beyond when he analysed the contradictory social relations constituting apparently isolated, reified objects like commodities. As Bensaïd argues, ‘Incapable of grasping Marx’s novel “laws of tendency”, and the necessity shot through with chance that is characteristic of them, Elster disassembles and reassembles the tedious Meccano of forces and relations, infrastructures and superstructures.’ 
Elster’s Marxism is a science of optimality (meaning to maximise an objective given certain constraints, like the neo-classical economic subject maximising ‘utility’ given her resources) and deviation (failure to follow the normal developmental path). These concepts cast revolution as the achievement of optimal relations of production given the development of the forces of production. The degeneration of a revolution, conversely, would appear as a deviation from this norm. Bensaïd scathingly attacks this idea, which he believes unhappily marries determinism about the course of history to a sociological individualism (see later). A ‘revolution without the revolution’, it denies revolution as a process of breaks and contradictions, shifting Lenin’s politics of possibility into prediction and calculation.  Barbarism becomes regression along a line, rather than a rupture with the status quo. Here Walter Benjamin’s influence on Bensaïd is clear, recalling the inhumanity of imagining history as linear progression after the horror of Nazism  (or, indeed, after the ‘late Victorian holocausts’ described by Mike Davis ). Bensaïd’s Marxism shares postmodernism’s suspicion of ‘grand narratives’ and does not claim to be one, ‘merely’ claiming to be the best theory around for understanding and changing global capitalism. His philosophy of history suggests an alternative to both the mechanical evolutionism embraced by Stalinists and social democrats alike, and the poststructuralist retreat into partial histories.
Bensaïd interrogates the ‘choice’ between crude evolutionism (history as a developmental line) and teleology (history as a path drawn irresistibly towards a preordained goal). Bensaïd argues that the concept of immanence (such as, centrally, capitalism ‘containing within itself the seeds of its own destruction’ – a possibility that may or may not be realised) does not imply a mystical teleology: ‘History becomes universal not because it aims at the fulfilment of its Idea, or because it aspires to a goal from which it retrospectively derives its meaningful unity, but quite simply as a function of a process of real universalisation.’  Marx’s programme of thinking beyond both mechanics and mysticism demanded a new way of writing history. Arguing this, Bensaïd follows Marx and Engels’ critique of portraying the past as simply preparing the way for the present. This relates not only to historiography or sociology, but also to science, so Bensaïd is also influenced by Stephen Jay Gould’s deflation of scientific fantasies of ‘Man’ as the top of the ‘evolutionary tree’. 
Revolutions, in Bensaïd’s view, never occur ‘just on time’. Rather: ‘Revolutions are the sign of what humanity can historically resolve. In the nonconforming conformity of the epoch, they are a potentiality and possibility of the present, at once opportune and inopportune, too soon and too late, poised between the no longer and the not yet: a possibility whose last word has not been spoken.’  And if there is no pre-set course to history, only contradictions whose outcome may not be ascertained in advance, then ‘It is always right to rebel’ against oppression and exploitation. The contingent nature of the revolution releases us from the false dichotomy of the deterministic and the arbitrary, and allows for the possibility of struggle to change the world. Bensaïd also deconstructs the key category of time. He shows how allowing an ideology of progress to flatten Marx’s juxtaposition of different times loses the critical perspective of time as a social relation in motion.  I particularly liked his treatment of Capital, which explores the different and conflicting times that result from the multi-layered process of capitalist production. Bensaïd deals suggestively with Marx’s use of metaphor, focusing particularly on organic themes of blood and the body, privileging them over the mechanical schemas often lazily attributed to the late Marx.
The second section, on Marx’s critique of sociological reason, continues his critique but focuses on the effects of assimilating Marxism to sociology. Sociological perspectives tend to divide up into objectivist and subjectivist approaches. When Marx is positioned within this, it is usually as an objectivist alongside Durkheim and the positivist tradition which saw social facts and social structures as prior to the individuals located within them.  Analytical Marxism and game theory, by contrast, attempt to create a Marxist methodological individualism. Bensaïd comments that this means ‘that we adhere strictly to the primacy of individual behaviour, and therefore replace the critique of political economy with social psychology’. Thus in debates on class, much ink has been tediously wasted measuring whether particular types of individual are working class or not, when for Marx, class is a collective social relation, rather than a matter of labelling individuals (or for that matter a static social structure, as it is for objectivists). This does not deny the usefulness of examining changing class composition, or of analysing intra-class and inter-class relations – rather it is a warning against ways of thinking that reduce Marxism to a branch of sociology or psychology.
Bensaïd argues that game theory’s social psychology operates purely on a superficial level, and poses the wrong questions. Writers get bogged down in the ‘transformation problem’ of how particular and non-identical labour can be turned through the market into the universal equivalent of money. They do not realise that this is a problem that the market must continually solve, rather than a problem for Marxism, for which it is at most a problem of theory and ideology. As Bensaïd comments, abstract labour is ‘historically determined by the system of needs – in other words, through the universality of lack. The equality of different kinds of labour assumes abstraction from their actual inequality.’ That is, history and class struggle power this paradoxical and unstable equivalence of the unequal.
A methodologically individualist outlook will tend to limit its idea of justice to the distribution of resources. For some supposed Marxist writers this meant locating exploitation at the level of the individual being denied the full product of her labour. These market socialists thus devised schemes in which one might measure labour times and return to the worker her labour product (minus some quantity with which to administer the socialist state). Writers like Alec Nove influenced disillusioned ex-Stalinists in the 1980s by arguing that Marx had been utopian to envisage needs-based distribution in the Critique of the Gotha Programme.  Instead, potentially infinite needs meant that ‘people would continue to receive products in relation to the amount of labour they expended’. This attempted to keep fetishised commodity production while reforming away the rest of the capitalist system that flows from it. As Chris Harman commented, ultimately it looked little different to what then passed for right wing social democracy, and allowed the continued rightward shift of the intelligentsia.  Following the decline of market socialist ideas under the neo-liberal offensive, these days this kind of idea tends to be put more in terms of a moral argument about justice.
Such arguments often cite one of the most influential political philosophers of the second half of the 20th century, John Rawls, who developed a theory of distributive justice popular on the liberal left.  Rawls marked substantive questions of social organisation ‘off limits’ for considering justice. While he did not deny that problems of social organisation exist, he believed that they can be set aside while abstracting the formal question of how people could decide upon a fair distribution of resources. He developed for this the ‘veil of ignorance’, the thought experiment of asking how people severed from social interests would organise distribution.  Bensaïd argues that this way of thinking naturalises exploitation, seeing it as a problem of distribution alone (which can be solved without a major change in the organisation of society). It keeps the realm of production hidden, and idealises capitalism’s ideology of ‘equal exchange’. Such theories of distributive justice, instead of questioning this ideology, ask how we can make the exchange truly ‘just’.
For Marxists, the question of how labour may be turned into abstract labour is not one to be solved ‘fairly’, but one to be abolished, hence the (different) focus on solving people’s needs. Writers like André Gorz have misinterpreted Marx’s ‘productivism’, accusing him of not valuing non-market labour or nature’s contribution.  Similarly some feminists interpreted Marx’s attention to paid labour as a moral disdain for (female) unpaid labour. But this confuses an analysis with a recommendation, and Marx’s recommendations are a radical answer to his analysis. Many in the best Marxist traditions have understood how capitalism simultaneously constructs, threatens and depends upon an ‘outside’ to the market.  The nationalised NHS has for half a century cheaply and effectively helped to ensure a healthy labour supply (as well as representing a real gain for working class people), yet New Labour is now destroying it to shore up the profit margins of failing firms like Amey. Some ideologists tell single mothers to stop claiming benefits and get a job, while others insist they should be at home with their kids. Despite denials, the modern wage labour system continues to rely on exploiting (still mostly female) unwaged labour. To abstract and idealise the intimately connected worlds of waged and unwaged labour is not the point, and is where various versions of feminism have foundered. These feminisms either tended to see women’s assimilation into the existing labour force as the solution to their oppression , or to see women’s caring nature as the ideal opposite of an exploitative ‘male’ world.  Neither of these ultimately proved to be theoretically or politically satisfactory.
Bensaïd’s final section focuses on Marx’s critique of scientific positivism, and how he was ‘torn between Galilean rationality and a different rationality, dictated by his object (political economy)’. Marx’s contradictory ‘laws of tendency’ have often been interpreted in a mechanical sense, whether this is seen as positive or negative. Bensaïd argues that, on the contrary, this conveys a necessity that is peculiar to the ‘critique of political economy, to the laws immanent in its object, to its very limits’. It’s not surprising that Marx was tempted by the type of laws proclaimed by Newtonian physics, but people who live in the era of relativity and chaos theory should be less inclined to think in this way. Yet writers still often seem caught between deterministic laws and no laws at all – postmodernists like Laclau and Mouffe  only updated a dichotomy with a long history. Poststructuralist theory has also tended to view biology as purely a social construct.  This is understandable, as ‘nature’ is so often invoked to justify prejudice and discrimination. Yet it leaves ecology and biology to the right, and leaves the left with theory that is simultaneously too weak (denying any concept of human nature, it leaves us on shaky ground to theorise resistance to oppression and exploitation) and too strong (with society appearing all-powerful).
As Bensaïd comments, changes in how we see and do science mean that the unity of science can now be conceived as a real movement, not an abstract appeal: ‘The prospect of “one science” is rather confirmed by the deep epistemological tendencies of our times: a convergence of the life sciences and social sciences thanks to information and systems theory; exchanges and confrontations between economic subsystems open to ecological systems (ecosystems and the biosphere); structural and hermeneutic dialectics; the development of the sciences as form.’  This unity of science would neither be violent reductionism, nor woolly holism, but a unity-in-diversity in which methods must be appropriate to the object, and philosophy is not a shortcut to scientific knowledge.  Perhaps Marxists interested in these issues might also find it useful to explore Roy Bhaskar’s work on the philosophy of science, and the school of critical realism it has inspired. 
These are challenging ideas, and crucial in the ecological crisis of our time, when desperately needed pollution targets are a bad joke (to say nothing of New Labour’s ‘integrated transport strategy’, which has done nothing to halt car dependency and even encourages it). So Bensaïd investigates how we could think about ecological theory in connection with political theory, without dissolving politics into ecology. He reminds us of the pioneering early Soviet ecologists and biologists, many of whom were murdered by Stalin, and criticises the ‘cliché of a scientistic and productivist Marx’.  Bensaïd argues, ‘It would be ridiculous, relying on quotations, to pit a productivist Marx against a precociously ecological Marx. It is better to take up a position in his contradictions, and take them seriously.’  How to solve the many ecological problems facing the world won’t be straightforward, but the success of the struggle to overthrow capitalism will make the difference between it being difficult, and it being impossible.
In its three core sections, this book repeatedly demonstrates that Marxists can be confident in the contemporary relevance of our tradition, when it is seen primarily as an urgent, politically rooted critique of a chaotic, catastrophic world. Connecting theory with social movements is indeed an ongoing and vital task, and necessitates moving beyond the discredited traditions of Labourism and Stalinism. Both of them ultimately saw social change as something to be imposed from above by the enlightened few. The postmodern critique of Marxism has often – in good or bad faith-interpreted Marx as fitting into these traditions. Bensaïd’s book shows a much unrulier and more radical Marx, who defies facile sociological definition and categorisation, as do capitalism and working class resistance themselves. It is thus highly relevant to the vibrant struggles taking place across the world so soon after theorists from right to left rushed to proclaim the ‘end of history’ and the ‘forward march of labour halted’.
1. For example, radical feminists in the 1980s often took gender ideologies about caring women and aggressive men at face value, with catastrophic results for the feminist movement. See on this Lynne Segal’s excellent Is the Future Female? (London 1994).
2. Such as D. Haraway, Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan(c)_ Meets_OncomouseTM: Feminism and Technoscience (London 1997) and S. Harding, Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? (Cornell 1991).
3. See J. Rees, The Return of Marx?, International Socialism 79 (Summer 1998).
4. J.B. Foster, Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (New York 2000).
5. For instance City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (London 1992).
6. Bensaïd describes this as ‘the “homogenous and empty” time of mechanical progress ... a “passive accumulation of forces” in Leaps! Leaps! Leaps!, International Socialism 95 (Summer 2002).
7. D. Bensaïd, Marx for Our Times (London 2002), p. 45.
8. See also D. Bensaïd, Leaps! Leaps! Leaps!, op. cit.
9. See W. Benjamin, Illuminations (London 1999).
10. M. Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts (London 2002).
11. D. Bensaïd, Marx for Our Times, op. cit., p. 19.
12. A metaphor that Gould, a much missed, rigorous and properly radical Darwinist, criticised – see for example S.J. Gould, Wonderful Life (London 1990).
13. D. Bensaïd, Marx for Our Times, op. cit., p. 54.
14. The historicity of different times and capitalist time as an oppressive social relation was also dealt with recently in J. Griffith’s accessible Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time (London 1999), which might be a useful companion.
15. D. Rubinstein, Marx and Wittgenstein: Social Praxis and Social Explanation (London 1981).
16. In Classics in Politics: Marx and Engels, Electric Book Company, CD-ROM.
17. C. Harman, The Myth of Market Socialism, International Socialism 42 (Spring 1989).
18. J. Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Oxford 1999).
19. Many feminist critiques of Rawls have argued that this is impossible, as interests are not disposable but an integral part of ourselves. To a Marxist this concept of a person is not merely ‘masculine’ but capitalist, as it accepts rather than criticises the ideology of ‘Economic Man’.
20. In, for example, A. Gorz, Farewell to the Working Class (London 1997).
21. See M. Kidron, Failing Growth and Rampant Costs, International Socialism 96 (Autumn 2002).
22. Second wave liberal feminism, like B. Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (London 1965).
23. Again, see Lynne Segal for incisive critique.
24. E. Laclau and C. Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (London 1989).
25. For example see J. Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’ (London 1993).
26. D. Bensaïd, Marx for Our Times, op. cit., p. 354.
27. See for example S. Rose, Lifelines: Biology beyond Determinism (Oxford 1997).
28. Andrew Sayer, Andrew Collier and Margaret Archer are all more accessible than Bhaskar himself.
29. D. Bensaïd, Marx for Our Times, op. cit., p. 324.
30. Ibid., p. 327.
Last updated on 25.6.2012