the old marx

Bridget Riley, Untitled [Fragment 4/6], 1965


Commentary on Marcello Musto's book

“I have to form men who, after me, can continue communist propaganda” (Karl Marx).

The book the old marx, by Marcello Musto, focuses its analysis, temporization and description on the last three years of the life of the “Moor”, making with enormous mastery not only the visitation to the extensive previous biography, but mainly making us visit the intimacy of the research office and the room of being of our favorite “demon”. The text that follows seeks, from this excellent work, to visit the “old Nick”.

The commented biographies of Marx are many and with very unique characteristics: from the most serious and constructive works, through those that make him a kind of prophet and rationalist and positivist cult, to a varied set of dubious texts or deconstruction, whether of the author's work, even the attempt of moral destruction or abuse of his creative capacity. This varied and numerous set of works is the reflection of the capacity and power of influence that it had in the last two centuries and that it maintains in this XXI. Only in this biography of the last three years of Marx's life, the author Marcello Musto, makes use of 26 biographies present in the bibliography used.

Musto's work collaborates to undo four historical and analytical mistakes that Marx's life and work have been subjected to over the last 150 years, and his contribution is fundamental both in rescuing true historical terms and in resuming more vigorous research. from the Marxian theoretical contribution, what would these five serious mistakes be: (i) the construction and dissemination of a basically determinist Marx in economic terms, greatly collaborated by the simplifying visions determined by the former “real socialism”, as well as by structuralist constructions; (ii) the vision of a historical determinism that enshrined both the idea that “capitalism was an inevitable stage” for the transition to socialism, and the simplification of “peasant” forms of production, especially those obschina Russian; (iii) the view that Marx's interpretation of European capitalism would be a “straitjacket” for all other societies that faced this mode of production and; (iv) that Marx would maintain a teleological vision in terms of building communism. We will quickly deal with each of these aspects, but first we will make an extensive visit to the biography of the old Marx.

The last years of Marx's life, who died on March 14, 1883, at the age of 65, were marked both by strong personal physical suffering and by family losses; in just two years (1881 and 1882) his wife (Jenny von Westphalen), and eldest daughter (Jenny) passed away.

Despite these enormous difficulties, his continued wit and quest to unveil capitalism, both maintaining studies to finish the production of books II and III of The capital, when reviewing Book I; as well as seeking to develop anthropological, ethnological and higher mathematics studies. All this without neglecting political participation and assistance to the workers' movement that took place in different countries, so he maintained a creative and intervention capacity until the end of his life.

Musto follows an analysis that firstly considers the contributions that the old Marx bequeathed us, considering the deepening of the dialectical method, especially the criticism of the various forms of “positivism” that were established in that period, especially in the transformations of the bourgeois “political economy” still with traces of scientificity in mere “economy”, totally converted into the ideological status of capital.

In the same way, the studies of anthropology, being the studies of Lewis Morgan and Maksim Kovalévky, were important for several reconsiderations that Marx made about the development of “pre-capitalist” societies and for dealing with the later evolution of this mode of production in different ways. local historical realities, as we shall see. The studies developed by Marx in this period constitute “the main part of the so-called Ethnological notebooks”, also composed of numerous other studies by authors such as James Money and Henry Maine, among others.

It is worth noting that in this period Marx also dedicated efforts to the study of higher mathematics, especially differential and infinitesimal calculus, based both on the studies of classical authors such as Newton and Leibinz, and on those who continued such as Alembert and Lagrange. This set of mathematical studies was developed from a key challenge: according to Marx, these mathematicians had a “mystical foundation of differential calculus”, lacking a “rational justification” for the development of the technique.

These studies led to mathematical manuscripts, including a certain effort by the author to deepen these mathematical definitions. Marx, however, did not have the time or physical conditions to get in touch with authors who, at that time, were already seeking to improve the techniques studied, such as Cauchy and Weinierstrass, “which would probably have allowed him to advance” in his objectives.

In terms of our analytical interest, we have to return to the points that we previously considered as central to Musto's contribution and that helps us in the development of Marxian studies, far from determinism and positivist influences that were so damaging to the construction of dialectical critical thinking in recent years. decades of the twentieth century.

First, the criticism of economic determinism as being a construction properly of Marx. The theoretical elaboration of the “last Marx” rejected rigid representations that “linked social changes solely to economic transformations”. As Musto well observed, following previous authors such as Dussel, Mandel, Hobsbawm, Rosdolsky, this perception was already present in the floorplans and only the simplification developed during the Stalinist period in the former USSR and also due to a strong structuralist influence, had led to this “formalization” of Marx's dialectical construction.

It should be noted that throughout Marx's work, especially in youth works such as the Communist Party Manifesto, Salary price and profit And, especially, Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, several excerpts may have led followers of Marx's work to mistakes of this nature, with not a few compilation works and various manuals that converge in this direction. However, as Musto reflects, “Marx knew how” to distance himself from the “traps of economic determinism”, consolidating a vision that today we would call a complex field of analysis, not only integrating diverse disciplinary bases, but actually interconnecting, through a systemic procedure, that “ the specificity of historical conditions, the multiple possibilities that the course of time offered and the centrality of human intervention” established a rich and diverse mosaic “to modify reality and effect long-term social change”.

With that, we come to a second key point in the text under analysis: how will the transition from capitalism to socialism take place and, mainly: would Marx have interposed a rigid historical analysis in terms of a progressive and linear vision? The answer to both questions is no. In 1881, the author of The capital receives a curious and fascinating letter, its author Vera Zasulitch was a member of the populist organization Repartição Negra.

The influence of Marx's main work in pre-revolutionary Russia was already significant, in few places, or perhaps only there, The capital assumed the status of a widely publicized work at the end of the 1872th century, with many supporters of different revolutionary or radical organizations reading and debating that work, which had been translated into Russian in XNUMX.

Zasulitch expounded that the Russian rural commune (obschina) constituted the predominant social form of production, and its recent liberation from payments to the nobility and arbitrary administration, allowed different directions, and this would determine “even the personal destiny of (…) revolutionary socialists”, asked the Russian militant about what assessment Marx made and what his historical theory indicated regarding that process.

In the question posed we had three elements involved that remain important until today, one refers to a possible obligation of a developed capitalist phase for transition to communism. On this point, Marx had already explained “that the most favorable circumstances for communism could only have been realized with the expansion of capital”, but he also states that there are no recipes “for the menu of the tavern of the future”. Thus, different possibilities were opened, establishing that diverse historical environments can “produce totally different results”, not having a “master-key [of] a general historical-philosophical theory, whose supreme virtue consists in being supra-historical”.[I]

A second important element in Marx's response refers to the future of the rural peasant commune, something that demarcates an important field with the views that for Marx capitalism would end up monopolizing all peasant forms, in this aspect Marx was adamant that he only considered "this reasoning insofar as it is based on European experiences”, and in relation to the Russian experience he states that “Western precedent would prove absolutely nothing”.

This point is important for dealing with other realities, such as in parts of Latin America, for example, including Brazil, as well as observing that historical development does not define movements as inexorable laws, with no “historical predestination”. This totally denies the teleological perception that many assert to Marx about the possible inevitability of communism, far from this perception, there is no defined history but to be written, and the various ingredients, such as cultural, economic, political, class struggle, technologies are part of this melting pot of history.

The previous point is in line with the widely publicized view of the idea of ​​evolutionary stages based on the model of capitalism originally established in Europe. Musto (p. 81) observes that Marx took “a dialectical position” denying that transitional processes had “the historical necessity of the development of the capitalist mode of production in all parts of the world”. A careful reading of this old Marx would have greatly facilitated the debate in the former Soviet Union and perhaps even today sheds some light on processes such as the Chinese and the Cuban ones.

*Jose Raimundo Trinidad He is a professor at the Institute of Applied Social Sciences at UFPA. Author, among other books, of Criticism of the Political Economy of the Public Debt and the Capitalist Credit System: a Marxist approach (CRV).



Marcello Musto. The Old Marx: A Biography of His Last Years (1881-1883). São Paulo, Boitempo, 2018, 160 pages.



[I] This quote is from Marx referenced by Musto (p. 71).

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