Marx’s Open-ended Critique

Two hundred years after Marx’s birth, the real struggle is only just beginning...

John Bellamy Foster

wo hundred years after Karl Marx’s birth, the influence of his critique of capital is now as great as ever, in the context of what has been called the “Marx revival.” For those who believed that Marxism had simply died out with the fall of the Berlin Wall, a casualty of what Francis Fukuyama pronounced “the end of history,” this is no doubt a startling development. In 1942, during what he dubbed the “Marxian revival” of his own day, the great conservative economist Joseph Schumpeter wrote that

Most of the creations of the intellect or fancy pass away for good after a time that varies between an after-dinner hour and a generation. Some, however, do not. They suffer eclipses but they come back again, and they come back not as unrecognisable elements of a cultural inheritance, but in their individual garb and with their personal scars which people may see and touch. These we may well call the great ones—it is no disadvantage of this definition that it links greatness to vitality. Taken in this sense, this is undoubtedly the word to apply to the message of Marx.

I will argue that the “greatness” and “vitality” of Marxian social science that Schumpeter notes derives primarily from its inner logic as a form of open-ended scientific inquiry. Against attempts in the dominant ideology to characterise Marx as a rigid, dogmatic, deterministic, and closed thinker, it is precisely the open-endedness of his “ruthless criticism of all that exists”—an open-endedness inherently denied to liberal theory itself—that accounts for historical materialism’s staying power. This openness can be seen in the Marxism’s ability constantly to reinvent itself by expanding its empirical as well as theoretical content, so as to embrace ever larger aspects of historical reality in an increasingly interconnected world.

This open-endedness of historical materialism has long been understood by the most critical thinkers—Marxists and non-Marxists alike—and has been the basis for extensions of its dialectical vision made by such revolutionary thinkers as V. I. Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, Antonio Gramsci, and Che Guevara. However, in the last few decades, the work of the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA) project, dedicated to publishing Marx and Frederick Engels’s complete manuscripts, has further impressed on scholars the lack of any final closure in Marx’s thought. The MEGA initiative has highlighted as never before the inherent incompleteness of Marx’s critique of political economy—a result not only of the inability of any single person to bring such a vast project to completion, but also of the project’s materialist-scientific character, which required unending historical and empirical research that could not be foreshortened by the imposition of suprahistorical abstractions.

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