Marx after Marx — An Interview with Harry Harootunian

Marx After Marx, Harry Harootunian

“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.

Q: What were some of the alternate routes that capitalism took outside of the West that challenge how Marxism has been understood in the Western tradition, or as interpreted through the English experience as articulated in Capital?

HH: Japan constitutes a particular dramatic alternative to the English model, inasmuch as the country experienced a local feudal system that collapsed in 1868 and was replaced by a new kind political regime dedicated to adopting capitalist development from England. Its own feudalism failed to develop capitalism from its own internal contradictions and as people like Uno observed, Japan had no need to go through the long and catastrophic phase of so called primitive accumulation because it took place 300 years earlier and the nature of English industrial capitalism had considerably changed. In other words, Japan had no need to release large numbers of peasant cultivators from the land and their principal means subsistence until a later time. Gramsci provides yet another alternative that aimed to enlist a coalition of northern industrial workers aligned with semi-feudal peasants as does Mariategui and his conceptualization of contemporary non-contemporaneity consisting of Inca communalism (Marx’s valorization of the archaic in the contemporary present) capitalism.

Q: In one chapter you examine a group of Chinese and Japanese theorists. How did capitalism’s relatively late arrival in those countries shape their understanding of Marx and Marxist theory as it applied to their local conditions?

HH: Building on some of my earlier responses, it is interesting to notice that the experience of development in China and Japan and the relatively late arrival of capitalism inevitably stimulated the acceleration of capitalist development to “catch up.” But this experience, whether in China or Japan, or indeed elsewhere, must inevitably take into account the role played by the Soviet Union in funneling Marxian theory into new regions beyond Europe as the basis of forming new national communist parties.

This combination of implanting a critical strategy with universalist aspirations in societies that were either colonized or, like Japan, starting out late to develop a capitalist based economy forced them to confront the contradictory demands between the external constraints exerted by the Soviet comintern and the actualities of local reality it often overlooked or ignored and misunderstood. More often than not, local communist groups followed the changing ideological strategies of the comintern and tactics they authorized. In the case of both Chinese and Japanese communists, a disciplined adherence to the Soviet line offered the hope of accelerated development among groups dedicated to what was called National Marxism. In China there was an almost obsessive preoccupation with questions of periodization and fitting China’s long complex imperial history into a framework dominated by the role played by the feudal stage and the category of transition leading to the capitalist mode production. Even in the reflections of Wang Yanan, we can see the residue of this concern with periodization derived from an earlier debate and the attempt to locate the feudal experience in a remote, archaic time that elastically stretched into the 19th century to produce a frozen semi-colonial, semi-feudal mode of production, part foreign capital, part Chinese compradors.

With Japan, the tortuous efforts to fit Japan’s shorter feudal history into the readymade framework resulted in (1) recognizing feudal carry-overs, remnants from a prior mode of production, that functioned to stall and even block the further development of capitalism in Japan to produce the political effect of “refeudalization” that resembles “semi-feudalism” or “semi-colonialism.;” (2) a profoundly influential historical controversy that tried to determine whether the Meiji Restoration of 1868s was a genuine bourgeois revolution or an abortive one that, along the way, yielded a vast historiographical archive that still dominates Japanese historical practice. One of its most interesting purposes was the attempt to identify the conditions that would have shown how Japan’s own feudalism would have led to the development of the capitalist mode of production had the country not been opened by foreigners. (3) With thinkers like Uno, who acknowledged the operation of formal subsumption without naming it as such, the very remnants obstructing the further development of capitalism in Japan were recognized as instances of how capital works, by taking what is at hand that is useful to its production process. But Uno went further in perceiving the enormous time gap between England’s inaugural capitalism and Japan’s much later development as the reason explaining why Japan didn’t have to replicate the English experience of “so-called primitive accumulation” because it was in process of adopting a more form of industrial capital from England.

There is also the problem of the Asiatic mode of production, which the Japanese quickly abandoned but Chinese remained attached to, in one form or another. I couldn’t help thinking that its revival in the PRC during the 1980s constitutes a background to China’s meteoric development of capitalism, which resembled a continuation of the large scale public works projects (canals, irrigation networks etc.) characteristic of the conduct of the AMP in China’s earlier history.

Q: What role does or should Marxist theory play in the way we understand contemporary capitalism?

HH: I think that post-coloniality provided an invaluable contribution to Marxism by emphasizing its specific cultural and geographic formation, especially the kind of Marxism that filtered into colonies like India. But in the campaign to “provincialize Europe” and “unthink Eurocentrism,” I think it went too far when it wrote off Marxism as merely another Western historicist metanarrative imposed from the outside to smother “native sensibilities and imagination.” If Marxism was vulnerable to charges of an inaugural Eurocentrism, postcoloniality was answerable for its collaboration with imperialism in its most contemporary avatar of globalization. This apparent complicity with forms of neocolonialism derived from its prior relationship with the Cold War and its enthusiastic embracing of post-structural philosophy, with its own ideological defense of Cold War polarities that encouraged dismissal of Marxism or simply ignoring it out of neglect.

In many ways, post-coloniality appropriated and embodied the “desire” Fredric Jameson once attributed to cultural studies but equally shared by post-coloniality, which was the yearning to succeed Marxism in American academic life and replace it. Beyond its capture of academic institutions, there was the politics of a reigning textualism in the literary fields and the insinuation of history and political into disciplines traditionally unreceptive to what they had to offer. But the problem posed by post-colonialty and its caricature of Marxism is mirrored in a frozen Marxism that still clings to a vulgate version of stage theory figured under the circumstances of a distant past to meet its specific social, economic and political conditions. What I’ve tried to propose is a Marx who was able to expand his own angle of vision from the 1860s on and widen his perspective to envisage a global arena marked by the formation of the world market. We can perceive in this epochal shift that Marx had moved toward envisioning the multiple possibilities for radical transformation among the world’s societies that no longer depended on their capacity to replicate a singular model offered by a European nation-state or bypass the colonial experience, and which, as his views on Russia showed, could utilize the residues of a prior modes of production to create either a new register of formal subsumption or bypass capital altogether.

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 timeliness and its changes and grasping what must be done.

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