Learning from Late Marx

By: Kohei Saito*

Recent years have seen the development of a fresh area of research into Marx’s critique of political economy, based on his previously unpublished economic manuscripts and notebooks, which have been made newly available in the updated edition of the complete works of Marx and Engels, the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA).1 Lucia Pradella published the first detailed analysis in English of Marx’s London Notebooks, and Brill’s Historical Materialism book series recently celebrated its hundredth volume with a translation of Marx’s original manuscript for volume 3 of Capital, based on the new MEGA edition. The same series also published Heather Brown’s Marx on Gender, which drew extensively on his late notebooks.2 And earlier this year, the second, expanded edition of Kevin Anderson’s Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity and Non-Western Societies appeared. The first edition of Anderson’s book, published in 2010, inaugurated this new trend in Marxist studies, and it remains among the most important achievements in the field.
The book’s title can be read in two ways: it not only addresses Marx’s analysis of marginalized (i.e., peripheral) societies under capitalism, but also the marginalized texts of Marx’s own work, such as his newspaper articles, the French edition of Capital, and, most importantly, his research notebooks. Six years on, this latter sense of “marginality” is gradually but surely changing, due in no small part to Anderson’s pioneering work. Due to his careful study of Marx’s marginal writings and notebooks, the book has opened both a new path for research and a strong tool to counter familiar criticisms of Marx’s “productivism” and “economic determinism.” Anderson and other scholars have persuasively shown that the depth and diversity of Marx’s critique of capitalism extended to such supposedly neglected areas as race, gender, and ecology.
In the second edition, Anderson finds the original task of the book fulfilled: to “undercut the fashionable argument that Marx was fundamentally a Eurocentric thinker trapped in the narrow frameworks of his time, the mid-nineteenth century, and thus largely impervious to contemporary issues like race, gender, and colonialism” (vii). Critics have long claimed that Marx’s theory assumed, with a mixture of optimism and condescension, that the development of productive forces in Western European countries would be the driving factor in a historical progress toward socialism, even if it produced misery and destruction in peripheral, colonized societies. Marx was the target of repeated criticism by postcolonial scholars such as Edward Said, who accused both Marx and orthodox Marxism of a naïve, orientalist affirmation of the “great civilizing influence of capital,” which effectively ignored the cruel reality of the colonized countries.
Anderson concedes that Marx, from the Communist Manifesto through his New York Daily Tribune articles on India in the early 1850s, was still trapped by the prevailing ethnocentrism of the time, and did believe uncritically in the progressive character of capitalist domination in the colonies (237). Thus it is not wrong to accuse Marx, in his earlier writings, of imposing a Eurocentric, unilinear vision of history on non-Western countries, though even these works include descriptions of British domination as “barbarism” (238).
However, as Anderson demonstrates, Marx’s critique of capitalism grew far more subtle and sophisticated as a result of his theoretical and practical engagement with the Taiping Rebellion, the Second Opium War, the Indian Rebellion, and the American abolitionist movement against slavery. The decisive change came in the late 1860s, when Marx voiced his unequivocal support for Irish independence. In an 1869 letter to Engels, he wrote: “The English working class will never accomplish anything before it has got rid of Ireland. The lever must be applied in Ireland. This is why the Irish question is so important for the social movement in general”.3 Marx not only argued that the English working class could not entrust the eventual emancipation of their Irish counterparts to the development and expansion of British capitalism; he maintained that English workers could not liberate themselves as long as they remained reluctant to take action against British colonialism. Instead of passively waiting for emancipation, Marx argued, the working classes of both England and Ireland had to take up the Irish cause as a central issue.
In the following years, Marx went on to study non-Western and pre-capitalist societies, efforts that are documented in his notebooks of 1879–82. In what is probably the book’s most original and important chapter, Anderson carefully examines these little-known notebooks, arguing for the later Marx’s nuanced, multilateral understanding of history. He marshals impressive evidence in this regard, uncovering the background to Marx’s famous admission—first in a letter to Vera Zasulich and later in the preface to the Russian edition of the Manifesto—that his analysis in Capital was “explicitly restricted to the countries of Western Europe.” Decades before the Bolshevik Revolution, Marx even recognized the possibility of a unique Russian path to socialism.