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Revisiting the Debate on Open Marxist Perspectives

by Alex Sutton on June 14, 2016
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Opening Pandora’s Box?

In a recent article co-authored with Pınar Donmez and published in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations, we seek to reassess a debate between a heterogeneous body of scholarship, referred to as ‘open Marxism’, and its critics. While we generally prefer the term open Marxist perspectives (OMPs) to highlight the variety of scholarship in this approach, the common factor among them is an emphasis on openness: the idea that the content and form of class struggle is not pre-determined and a commitment to the continuous (self-) examination of theoretical foundations of approaches in the quest to grasp the dynamics of the former.

However, its critics generally consider this broad group of authors a cohesive whole and treat the analytical sin of an individual as a sin of the church. Responses from within OMPs have similarly upheld the divisive tone that has led to the current impasse. As such, the debate has become deeply unproductive, bordering on acrimonious. This debate, which could provide a vehicle for the assessment and advancement of critical social inquiry across all its strands, we argue, can be helped by the inclusion of the theoretical constructs offered by OMPs, particularly the emphasis placed on openness.

We do not suggest that criticisms/disagreements directed to individual perspectives on either side should be sidelined or neglected. If anything, their continued presence moves the debate forward. But we propose that they should not overshadow the common basis on which these radical perspectives stand. In this vein, we make a defence of OMPs and hope to encourage a spirit of solidarity within the debate – one that radical approaches in International Political Economy/International Relations scholarship, as well as actual practices and struggles of emancipation, so urgently need in the context of the deepening crisis of capitalism.

In Defence of Openness

In the paper, we engage with four criticisms directed at OMPs:

  1. A reluctance to offer a historicised account of the emergence of capitalism
  2. The rejection of historical periodisation
  3. State-centrism based on a functionalist account of the state
  4. A deterministic account of revolutionary change

C&CThese criticisms, which have strong historical antecedents, found their most recent iteration in the works of Andreas BielerIan Bruff and Adam David Morton. The origins of the debate can be traced back to the 1970s, and the state derivation debate, particularly Colin Barker’s critique of John Holloway and Sol Picciotto’s form-analysis, so crucial to OMP accounts of the state.

The four criticisms made against OMPs need to be taken seriously as they identify the potential pitfalls within Marxist theorising on state and social relations and indeed offer insights in enhancing the explanatory power of OMPs. Yet they also rely on a number of problematic assumptions and uncharitable interpretations in our view. In the first instance, for example, we argue that the critics of OMPs have presented a shared challenge within Marxist theorising of state and social relations as a problem particular to open Marxist perspectives. The transition from feudalism to capitalism is a peculiar blind spot that not only raises historical questions about highly contingent social developments but also problematises when one mode of production became another. For open Marxism’s critics, OMPs have a totalising ontology through which everything is reducible to capitalist social relations and, as such, nothing can be explained with reference to events that historically preceded capitalist social relations.

This criticism takes the form of the development of the modern state system. Open Marxism’s critics take the view that capitalism was born into a state-system that already existed; however, OMPs, relying on form-analysis, offer the view that capitalist social relations necessarily transformed the state(s). While a political entity we might recognise as a state existed prior to capitalism, it is not the state we know today. The problem in communication here leads to OMPs’ critics claiming that OMPs deny the existence of the state prior to capitalism.

From our perspective OMPs do not deny the existence of the state prior to the development of capitalism, nor do they argue that the state exists independently of social relations, but instead that the state only exists in and through temporally and spatially conditioned social relations. The value of an open Marxist perspective derives from understanding such contingent social developments in terms of the inherent contradictions of capitalist social relations. This criticism also connects to the absence of the historical periodisation of capitalism in open Marxist analyses; a criticism that derives from open Marxist authors’ desire to emphasise historical contingency rather than abstracting it as a period of time. We wish to emphasise that OMPs as well as their critics discuss and engage with the forms and functions of the state and assess these dynamics across historical periods in their conceptual frameworks and social empirical enquiry. Speaking of forms, functions, periods, however, does not necessarily entail functionalism, historicism or periodisation.

We link these four criticisms to the value of openness within open Marxism, which derives from a reliance on historical enquiry: an acknowledgement that only the study of history can reveal to students of social relations the ways in which class struggle, unfolding in unexpected and challenging ways, can and has manifested. This aspect of open Marxist thought can be seen as clearly grounded upon Marx’s own writings on historical materialism and therefore a shared starting point for both perspectives under discussion here.

Judean People’s Front? We’re the People’s Front of Judea!

Ultimately, the paper argues that OMPs and their critics have a lot to gain from constructive engagement with each other.  Previously, however, this debate took the form of an at-best uncharitable or at-worst vicious engagement that merely led to loss of dialogue among radical scholars whose goals were the same: critical social inquiry, the demystification of social relations and the promotion of struggles/strategies of emancipation. We retain the hope that this paper goes some way towards restoring a previously productive discussion.

Alex Sutton

Alex Sutton is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Chichester. His research is concerned with the theoretical and historical study of imperialism, looking in particular at 20th Century British imperialism and the intellectual history of the study of imperialism.

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