Despite my many disagreements with Bryant personally and his philosophical vocab generally, these two posts get right to the core of why I no longer argue about Marx with people: I find that a majority of people who dismiss Marx and his work have either failed to actually read him, or gleaned their interpretations of his work from critical comments read elsewhere and then projected onto Marx’s general theoretical significance. This is not to say that Jeffery Bell and the others commenting on Bryant’s blog haven’t read Marx, only that the people I have debated Marx with tend to show a real lack of engagement with his work.
Marx’s theoretical perspectives and tools changed much over the years leading up to the publication of Capital. Far from the ‘economic determinist’ that so many portray him as, Marx had a refined sensibility for complexifying his assertions with nuanced gestures towards non-human forces at work in human affairs and inserting terse lines of qualification in among his lengthy passages economic argumentation. Marx continually reworked his most basic themes and always used whatever available evidence to ground his thinking in concrete material processes. In fact, Marx was so sophisticated and anti-dogmatic that more considerate commentators like Steven Best have argued that Marx’s political ontology is actually more dynamic and reflexive than either Foucault or Habermas.
As only one example, it was not until Foucault’s later writings (and largely influenced by Deleuze) that he began to fashion a theory of human becomings (‘cultivation of the self’) adequate to the task of explaining political agency. Earlier in his career Foucault, probably under the lingering influence of structuralism, conceived of human agency as derivative and generated through tightly woven social processes. Whereas Marx, from early in his career, attempted to incorporate a realist conception of human being and becoming (something he later called “species-being”) into his more societal-systemic diagnostics. In short, Marx attempted to establish a very sophisticated realist micro-to-macro critical synthesis of available knowledge (the first printing of Capital was dedicated to Darwin) as a way to take up the politico-practical project of addressing human suffering, “toil” and injustice.
So I think Bryant is right to try to disrupt simplistic readings of Marx and to suggest that a closer reading might bring out the otherwise underappreciated depths of Marx’s decidedly realist political ontology. Here are a few quotations taken from both posts that represent for me the most important remarks:
My only issue with Bryant’s framing of Marx’s project is found in these two sentences (which I admittedly spliced together):
"In Capital Marx does not appeal to either the social or class as an explanatory force. Indeed, class only appears very late in Capital. Rather, it seems to me that Marx practices an exemplary form of actor-network analysis throughout both Capital and Grundrisse. Marx seeks to explain society in the manner of a sociologist of associations rather than appeal to society to explain the world around us. The actants that Marx appeals to in this story are wage-labor, the money form, factories, trade routes, the availability of resources, various technologies, etc. Here class does not serve an explanatory function, but rather is an emergent effect of how wage labor functions. Class is something that comes into being through a variety of different processes.” [source]
“Marxism is an open theory. It doesn’t pretend to be exhaustive, it doesn’t pretend to know everything. Like any good empiricism, it responds to new formations in the present and attempts to comprehend what these mean.”[source]
“Marxism attempts to formulate a four-dimensional topography of the present that maps attractors, bifurcation points, or tendencies within the social field through which change might be produced. By “four-dimensional” I am referring to the unfolding of time in the present. Through such a topography of tendencies it hopes to strategically intensify these tendencies through political practice.” [source]
I think it’s too much to imply that Marxism, at least as expounded by Marx, was mostly analytical. Marx participated in several directly political organizations, wrote numerous articles intended as interventions into political debate, and did strongly advocate for revolution. The Communist Manifesto is a strictly political document. Therefore, we must admit that Marxism is both political theory and historical analysis (and Marx would argue ‘scientific’ endeavor). That is the raw genius of Marx: he brings together concrete analysis with practical engagement and moral sensibility. And this is why, unlike Bogost, I am a (neo)Marxist.
However, in my experience, Marxism is far less a political theory or a theory of revolution, than a way of approaching and analyzing the world around us…More than anything, Marxism is a way of analyzing the present and why it is the way that it is. Marxism is historico-material analysis. [source]
One other thing to note about Bryant’s post is that he briefly mentions DeLanda’s fierce critiques of Marx, which, quite frankly, have baffled me as well - since my reading of Marx understands him as a natural ally to DeLanda’s neo-materialist project. Why Manny, why reject The Karl?
*UPDATE: Also check out some of the fantastic remarks made by Jeffrey Bell and others in the comment sections of Bryant’s post here. From Jeffrey Bell:
“Marx’s passage in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts where he describes how capitalism has transformed the work of our senses, impoverishing it to the least common denominator, still rings true in many ways and is one of my favorite passages. One can redescribe our contemporary media culture in along very similar lines. This is the Marx David Harvey is inspired by. The guiding question is how it is we can be productive in a way that is faithful to all the nuances and complexities of a life in a world of things and places.”Nothing could be more fruitful than for speculative realists to engage the classical sociological works in order to potentially open up more practico-political discussions.