Opening Doors to New Alliances: A Review of New Departures in Marxian Theory by Stephen A. Resnick and Richard D. Wolff


New Departures in Marxian Theory
by Stephen A. Resnick and Richard D. Wolff


Being a Marxist requires considerable gumption — especially in the United States.  Those who take Marxism seriously in a hostile intellectual and political environment are only too aware of this struggle.  At worst, interest in Marxism is perceived as a pathological adherence to anachronistic and discredited ideas.  At best, dabbling in Marxism is tolerated as the equivalent of a youthful indiscretion: “Yes, I tried Marxism once — but I did not inhale.”

Resnick and Wolff inhaled.  Since the 1960s they have been coming to terms with both their love for the work of Marx and Marxists, as well as their painful disappointments with many aspects of the Marxian theoretical and practical legacy.

This love/hate dilemma has lead many to distance themselves from the Marxian tradition.  Despite the occasional reference to, say, the Communist Manifesto, their affiliations with  Marxism becomes increasingly faint.

Instead, Resnick and Wolff chose to reexamine Marxism from within the Marxian tradition.  They ask possibly distressing questions of Marxist allies, while engaging with critiques made by those who have rejected of Marxism.  Hence their undertaking risks attack from Marxist allies and critics alike.  But the authors confront these risks in hopes of overcoming some important hindrances that have afflicted prominent interpretations of Marxism and thereby stimulating genuinely “new departures” in Marxian theory.

Resnick and Wolff make these new departures by focusing on two considerations.  Part 1 of the book focuses on issues of epistemology, while Part 2 explores the concept of class in Marxism.

This initial treatment of epistemology is framed by a concern about the determinist understandings of causation that have shaped much of the Marxian tradition — particularly since the “official” Marxism of the Soviet Union played such a hegemonic role in the evolution of Marxism worldwide.

They lament that determinism — particularly economic determinism — has dissipated much energy in the rather sterile debates between advocates of the effectivity of various non-economic factors who engage in repetitive battles with economic determinists over which elements predominate in a hierarchy of causation.

To move beyond the rigidities of determinisms, Resnick and Wolff revisit Marxism’s debt to Hegelian dialectics.  Their reading of dialectics has brought them to embrace the concept of overdetermination: the proposition that all aspects of a totality are shaped by (and shape) all other aspects.   The authors argue that overdetermination facilitates the encounter with complexity that is not possible in determinist theory.  Thus their advocacy of overdeterminist Marxism seeks to enable Marxist theory to avoid the ossifying rigidities that have caused so many critics of the status quo to reject Marxism.

This perspective on mutual causation is liberating insofar as it opens Marxism to a wide range of concerns articulated by feminism, anti-racism, environmentalism, and many other social movements that have often been dismissed in Marxism as “epiphenomenal.”  Amidst this constant mutually constitutive interplay, “the economy” cannot claim privilege causal status over politics, religion, gender, or any other factor.  Hence this is not a Marxism that merely tolerates the consideration of issues previously perceived as outside the bounds of sanctioned Marxism.  By dispensing with any “base-superstructure” causal hierarchy, overdetermination creates the possiblity of alliances with others with intellectual and political commitments to issues that lie outside of the boundaries drawn by a Marxism dominated by economic determinism.  As the book proceeds and the ubiquity of overdetermination is constantly illustrated, it emerges that no Marxian analysis can exist independent of considerations of race, gender, environment, culture, and many other factors.

But what continues to signify these authors as “Marxist”?  While they depict determinism as non-Marxist, many intellectual paths might lead to the embrace of the mutual constitutivity implied by overdetermination.  Being anti-determinist cannot be conflated with being Marxist.

Resnick and Wolff declare their Marxism via their “entry point,” the concept of class, though their theory of overdetermination precludes any claims that class issues are determinant.  They elevate class as their preferred (not obligatory) focus on two grounds: 1) because they are persuaded that Marx made an enormous and original contribution through a very specific analysis of class; and 2) because they lament that many radical analyses — including those with explicit affiliations with Marxism — have overlooked or entirely occluded this particular understanding of class.

Their examination of class analysis begins by acknowledging that class has multiple meanings, both inside and outside of Marxism.  For example, class has been interpreted as a question of the distribution of power (“ruling” vs. “ruled” classes) or property (“haves” vs. “have-nots”).  Questions of power and property are important (how could an overdeterminist dismiss them?), and Marx was certainly conversant with these power and property-based definitions of class that permeated the traditions of political economy that predated him.

But Resnick and Wolff understand Marx’s original contribution to class analysis as his theorization of yet another interpretation of class.  Their reading of Marx’s concept of exploitation in Capital emphasizes a surplus labor concept of class.  Marx argued that a surplus is generated in the process of capitalist production, yet the workers who produce this surplus are not able to appropriate it and decide upon its subsequent distribution.  A “social theft” occurs in that those who produce this surplus are deprived of it.

From this surplus labor concept of class, Resnick and Wolff develop a schema to trace the production, appropriation, and distribution of surplus value (surplus labor in value form).  Given their overdeterminist commitment, this class analytic framework considers the production, appropriation, and distribution of surplus value as subject to multiple and conflicting influences from both class and non-class factors.  The prevalence of market forces or lack thereof, the existence of a specific history of colonialism or slavery, the dynamics within households — these and a multitude of other factors influence (and are influenced by) any given class analytic exploration.

Their schema provides a particularly useful template with which to analyze the ways in which surplus value is distributed to perpetuate and intensify exploitation.  But by following these distributions of surplus value, we may also consider ways in which other objectionable social characteristics are buttressed, including a variety of oppressions based on gender, race, and other factors.

This framework for discussing class processes (i.e. the production, appropriation, and distribution of surplus value) and their overdetermination by non-class processes forms the point of departure for the remainder of the book.  After arguing for an anti-determinist theory of causation and a surplus labor concept of class, the remaining chapters show these theoretical commitments in action via an examination of a variety of topics including how might we conceive of a classless society, Marxist-feminist analyses of the household, class analysis and income distribution, and an analysis of several prominent policies of the Reagan-Bush era.  Animating all of these explorations is an opposition to capitalist exploitation.  But there is also ample opportunity in them to consider how the imperatives of exploitation are interlinked with many of the other oppressive developments.

On the whole, it is a provocative yet troubling book.  While it is exhilarating to imagine that we might transcend the stultifying rigidities of determinism while retaining key insights from Marx, we must also abandon the comforting assurances that Marxists are necessarily “correct,” “scientific,” or in some other manner a privileged lens of analysis.

But while depriving Marxists of this illusory comfort, Resnick and Wolff suggest avenues for hope.  To the extent that determinism impeded Marxists from making common cause with a variety of critics of the status quo, this anti-determinist Marxism opens doors to new alliances.  All comers might contribute their particular concerns to the debates that can be sustained within an overdeterminist Marxism.

Thiers is a class analytic that seeks neither to overshadow nor be overshadowed by other concerns of radical social movements.  In a manner refreshingly humble among Marxists, they do not claim any superior analytic status for their choice of class as their point of departure.  They persistently argue that class is one — among many — lenses through which analysis should proceed.  But this does not leave them tentative in their advocacy for Marxism.  They are strenuous in arguing on behalf of the many fruitful possibilities presented by engaging with Marx’s critique of capitalism via his analysis of exploitation.

New Departures in Marxian Theory provides a persuasive case that an anti-determinist class-analytic Marxism could find many points of alliance with social movements which have previously regarded Marxism as dismissive of their concerns.  This is a source of hope in that radicals — both Marxists and non-Marxists — might extract themselves from the mutual suspicions that have been so mutually damaging.

As overdeterminists, Resnick and Wolff can offer no guarantees that the embrace of overdetermination and surplus value class analytics will necessarily promote more desirable consequences in terms of issues of power, property, globalization, gender, or a host of other factors.  We are compelled to struggle to achieve our aims with no recourse to necessitarian assertions.  But they invite us to entertain the possiblity that Marx’s insights into the pathology of capitalism can offer much to radicals of other persuasions, just as radicals with other foci can offer much to those interested in the theory and practice of mobilizing against exploitative economic arrangements.

Ellen Russell is an economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

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