Marx Versus The Cultural Turn and Understanding Capital (Part 1)

Artists painting May 1 mural.

Artists painting May 1 mural.

I. Introduction

Marxism is dead! It is the end of history! Class is no longer an issue. Identity is the thing that matters. The State is no longer the ultimate object of power struggle, rather it has retreated to the spaces of everyday life. Political economy and historical materialism are constraining and deductive. They must be overcome. A cultural turn is needed, Marx’s opponents proclaimed. These claims began to become fashionable after the Second World War and since then gradually gained force, especially in the Western academe. But it was not until the eventual fall of the former Soviet Union and the restoration of socialist China to capitalism – bastions against the world capitalist system – that these assertions assumed the cloak of truth and common sense.

In 2008, the housing bubble in the United States burst. One by one, the biggest financial institutions in the US declared bankruptcy. The world economy began to tumble down. European governments and US states began to take turns declaring themselves bankrupt as they wrestled over their sovereign debt. What followed was the entirely expected, yet, still perplexing resolutions proposed by these governments. On the one hand, they bailed out the bankers using treasury fund. On the other hand, they cut social spending – pension, health care, education and housing. Millions lost their jobs. Extreme hunger and poverty escalated.

This launched a resurgence of mass movements from the Occupy Wall Street, to the continuing strikes in Portugal, Greece, Spain, and Turkey. The peoples of the Middle East and North Africa rose up in an “Arab Spring” against authoritarian governments. Meanwhile self-proclaimed Marxist revolutionary movements in Colombia, India, and the Philippines are calling on the oppressed to seize the moment to advance their aspirations by waging armed struggle. As Badiou remarks, we are witnessing a “Rebirth of History” wherein movements that “aim to make a genuine exit from the established order” are sprouting all over the world (2012, 15). Just as interesting, we are witnessing a resurgence of interest on Marx.

“Marx was right,” is now spoken in whispers among the enemies of his revolutionary ideas, with the Time Magazine recently making Marx its front cover and conservative publications like The Economist and The Wall Street Journal publishing occasional articles on Marx. Even reports a 700 percent increase in the sales of The Communist Manifesto. Reading Marx has become the call of the time for two major reasons. First, Marx’s works, especially the Capital, offer the most comprehensive guide to understanding how the capitalist system works as a distinct mode of economic production. Secondly, the book persuades us to think beyond capitalism and be involved in mass movements for a more just and humane social order.

This assertion, however, cannot stand without “reclaiming” Marx from the degraded status assigned to him by his detractors. Today most of Marx’s critics echo the assertions presented in the beginning of this essay. Another group includes economists who claim that Marx’s theories of value, profit, and economic crisis are erroneous and makes the correction of his work necessary. These two, while coming from different areas of concern, share a commonality – the failure to read Marx’s ideas as a totalizing theory and as revolutionary in character. It is therefore essential to draw a sharp line against these intellectual currents. To borrow Andrew Kliman’s words “the [theorists] have changed Marx, in various ways; the point is to interpret him correctly” (2007, xiii).

Karl Marx - The greatest proletarian instructor of the world, 1983

Karl Marx – The greatest
proletarian instructor of the world, 1983

II. The Revolutionary Kernel of Capital

An investigation of Karl Marx’s life would reveal that his writings are firmly linked to the pursuit of the liberation of the working class and the rest of humanity from capitalist exploitation and oppression. The pursuit of such radical aspirations is already evident from the time Marx assumed the chief editorship of the paper Rheinische Zeitung in 1842, up to the publication of the Communist Manifesto in February 1848.

Marx did not just analyze the evils of capitalism or write treatises about its alternative communism, he was also actively involved in an emergent revolutionary workers movement which he greatly influenced during and after his lifetime. He joined the League of the Just and together with fellow traveler Frederick Engels guided the league to become the first international communist organization in history in June 1847, the Communist League.

Marx was one of the founding members of the International Working Men’s Association or the First International and penned the group’s “Address to the Working Class” in its September 1864 inaugural meeting in London. When the Paris Commune of 1871 erupted, Marx was accused as the orchestrator behind the revolt. Marx is undoubtedly, as the Russian revolutionary V.I. Lenin said, “the heart of soul of the First International.”

Given the context in which Marx and his works are located, it is only right to read his master piece Capital not just as literature discussing the ins and outs of capitalism. Capital is most importantly a guide for the revolutionary workers movement in the struggle towards communism. Capital does not only criticizes capitalism but also lays the foundations for the material basis of building a society devoid of all exploitation of man by man.

Marx’s commitment to revolutionary workers struggle made it necessary for him to move away from the conventional methods of inquiry of his time, theories that refrained from approaching the social totality and thus misrepresented as natural fundamental questions that can be traced to contingent socio-historical realities. Falling for a metaphysical account on the origin of things, this thinking naturalizes the existing social order as eternal while criticizing the struggles against it as futile.

As opposed to metaphysics, the method of inquiry Marx developed as the basis for forging a revolutionary theory of the working class is dialectics. Using this framework, Marx regards all the elements of the world to be in a constant state of motion and change, with its development driven by contradictions in these elements as the result of conflicting forces within them. This dialectical method, Engels said is “the science of interconnections, in contrast to metaphysics” (2001). As Marx explains in the Postface to the Second Edition of Capital:

My dialectical method is, in its foundations, not only different from the Hegelian, but exactly opposite to it. For Hegel, the process of thinking, which he even transforms into an independent subject, under the name of ‘the Idea’, is the creator of the real world, and the real world is only the external appearance of the idea. With me the reverse is true: the ideal is nothing but the material world reflected in the mind of man, and translated into forms of thought (1977).

Extending this materialist strand of dialectical thinking to the study of society, Marx analyzed the development of society throughout history on the basis of the prevailing conditions of material life and the changes within them. Marx seizes political economy from its bourgeois idealist origins into a theoretical instrument for the study of society for the purpose of unveiling the relations between people as they engage in the process of production. The ultimate end is the comprehension of the material basis of the contradiction between classes to help the revolutionary struggle.

Marx’s thoughts cannot therefore be simply confined to one exclusive field of knowledge alone (i.e. economics, philosophy or political science). Instead, his ideas should be understood as a package-deal, a totalizing framework that explains how everything relates to everything else. Marx is not concerned purely with economic theory alone:

For Marx, ‘pure’ economic theory, that is economic theory which abstracts from a specific social structure, is impossible. It would be similar to ‘pure’ anatomy, abstracted from the specific species which is to be examined… If one tries to find some basic common kernel in ‘all’ anatomy, one leaves the realm of that specific science and enters another: biology or biochemistry. In the same way, if one tries to discover basic working hypotheses valid for ‘all’ economic systems, one passes from the realm of economic theory to that of the science of social structures: historical materialism. In this way, Marx’s economic theory and its crowning work Capital are based upon an understanding of the relativity, social determination and historical limitation of all economic laws” (Mandel in his Introduction to Capital, Volume I).

Marx sought to provide the workers and all the oppressed peoples of the world a powerful theoretical weapon described by French philosopher Alain Badiou as “the sole Idea capable of challenging the corrupt, lifeless… legionaries of Capital” (2012, 6). It is for this single-minded purpose that Marx would enthusiastically persevere to finish the writing Capital. As Marx shares in the Postface to the Second Edition of Capital:

The appreciation which Das Kapital rapidly gained in wide circles of the German working class is the best reward for my labours. A man who in economic matters represents the bourgeois standpoint, the Viennese manufacturer Herr Mayer, in a pamphlet published during the Franco-German War, aptly expounded the idea that the great capacity for theory, which used to be considered a hereditary German attribute, had almost completely disappeared amongst the so-called educated classes in Germany, but that amongst the working class, on the contrary, it was enjoying a revival (1977).

The name Marx has therefore rightly come to be associated with powerful communist movements seeking to subvert the existing social order, past and present. Marx’s ideas are the inspiration behind world historical upheavals from the 1917 Russian October Revolution, the Maoist Revolution in China, up to the string of victorious national liberation struggles in Vietnam, Cambodia, Cuba, Korea, among others.

A genuine understanding of Marx and his Capital can therefore only be attained by considering him and his work in his own terms. It means reading Marxism as a ruthless criticism of the existing order, an unveiling of an alternative to the world of capitalist exploitation and oppression, a guide to revolutionary action, a declaration of war: “Philosophers had interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it” (Marx, 1976, 65).

But this is often not appreciated. In fact, most versions of Marx that we know today exhibit this failure. This failure ripped the study of Marxist ideas into two conflicting traditions: political economy and cultural studies. Scholars in the cultural studies accuse those in the political economy to be “economic reductionists” while those in the political economy charge the latter for an absurd “pop culture is fun! Approach” (Berube, 2009). We will approach the two traditions one by one. [To be continued.]

Long Live the Paris Commune!

Long Live the Paris Commune!


Badiou, A. (2012). Elliott, G.(Trans). The Rebirth of History. London: Verso.

Berube, M. (2009). “What’s the Matter With Cultural Studies?” In The Chronicle Review.

Engels, F. (2001). Dialectics of Nature.

Kliman, A. (2007). Reclaiming Capital: Refutation of the Myth of Inconsistency. Plymouth, UK: Lexington Books.

Marx, K. (1979). Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I. New York: International Publishers.

Marx, K. (1976). “Theses on Feuerbach.” In Engels, F. Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy. Peking: Foreign Languages Press.

2 thoughts on “Marx Versus The Cultural Turn and Understanding Capital (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Marx Versus The Cultural Turn and Understanding Capital (Part 2) | Hello.Lenin!

  2. This ‘reification’, the value-form, in which a social relation between men in their most fundamental activity is transformed into a ‘thing’ standing outside and against men, is specific to the way in which the capitalist system continues the enslavement of man by man. This ‘topsy-turvy world’ becomes in sociology a world of ‘social facts’, of ‘roles’, faithfully recorded as the necessary framework of experience.

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