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Marx at the Margins: towards a multilinear theory of history

by Andreas Bieler on May 21, 2019
Marxism Reading Group

In his book Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies, Kevin B. Anderson clearly demonstrates that Marx did not embrace a unilinear, economic determinist position on historical development. Rather, especially in his later writings, he demonstrated a nuanced understanding of multilinear development including the possibility of transformation to communism without going first through a capitalist stage of development. In this blog post, I will engage with this highly important contribution to Marxist scholarship.

Historical Materialist scholarship is often dismissed for ‘economism’, the idea that Marxist explanations would inevitably proceed along unilinear, determinist lines of explanation based on economic developments. As Richard Ashley (1983) has shown, the taboo of ‘economism’ is often levelled against a straw Marxism as a disciplinary discourse or boundary in order to prevent engagement with Marx’s work in the first place. Hence, it is of utmost importance to demonstrate that not only is Marxism not necessarily determinist, but that actually Marx himself had adopted a non-determinist, multilinear understanding of historical development. It is precisely this task, which is performed by Anderson in his book.

It is correct, as Anderson acknowledges, that Marx in his earlier writings and here especially the Communist Manifesto (1848) and his work on India in 1853 argued that all societies have to go through the same stages of development. Hence, he gave, for example, qualified support for colonialism and its apparent progressive impact on India. ‘Britain destroyed the traditional Indian economy and social structure mainly “by the working of English steam and English free Trade”, which displaced the traditional textile industry and “inundated the very mother country of cotton with cottons”. The British have “thus produced the greatest, and to speak the truth, the only social revolution ever heard of in Asia”’ (p. 15). Nevertheless, as Anderson demonstrates in a detailed analysis of Marx’s subsequent writings, this position was fully revised in his study of, and writings on, non-Western societies, demonstrating an impressive openness towards including analyses of race, ethnicity, nationality and gender into his critique of capitalism.

For example, Marx developed a nuanced understanding of the internal relations between race and class in his work on the Civil War in the USA during the 1860s. ‘First, he held that white racism had held back labour as a whole. Second, he wrote of the subjectivity of the enslaved Black labouring class as a decisive force in the war’s favourable outcome in the North. Third, he noted – as an example of the finest internationalism – British labour’s unstinting support for the North, despite the harsh economic suffering the Northern blockade on Southern cotton had unleashed on Manchester and other industrial centers’ (p. 239). Equally important was Marx’s conceptualisation of the internal relations between nationalism and class in his assessment of Irish nationalism and the way cheap Irish labour had become integrated into British capitalism as a reserve labour pool (p. 124).

Most significantly, perhaps, is Marx’s later work on Russia and here the potential of the communes to form the nucleus of communist transformation without having to go through the stage of capitalist development. Thus, ‘he was arguing that a modern communist transformation was possible in an agrarian, technologically backward land like Russia, if it could ally itself with a revolution on the part of the Western working classes, and thus gain access on a cooperative basis to the fruits of Western modernity’ (p. 236). This clearly demonstrates Marx’s openness to multilinear historical development and indicates awareness of the importance of local specificity for historical analysis.

In asserting that Marx was not driven by economic determinism, Anderson makes a major contribution to historical materialist research. For Marxists, it is comforting to know that Marx himself was always aware of the importance of multilinear development and the internally related, but still distinctive role, played by ethnicity, class, nationality and gender in resistance against capitalist exploitation. 

And yet, we must be careful here. Neither Marx’s writings nor their discussion by Anderson offer a blueprint, a fully developed theory with which to analyse capitalist development today in a non-determinist, non-Eurocentric way. While Marx provided a clear set of concepts to analyse capitalist accumulation in Capital, Vol.1, his work on non-Western societies is mainly confined to reflections in extensive notebooks. It remains the task of today’s historical materialists to think in a Marxian way and develop our own conceptual toolkit for a multilinear analysis of capitalist exploitation and resistance.

This post first appeared on Trade Unions and Global Restructuring

Andreas Bieler
Andreas Bieler is Professor of Political Economy at the University of Nottingham and Co-Director of the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ).

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