Rethinking Marx and Marxisms

Ivor Abrahams, Paths II, 1975


Commentary on the newly edited book by Marcello Musto

Japanese writer Kohei Saito sold about half a million copies in his country with the book Capital in the Anthropocene, which analyzes from a Marxist perspective the causes that promote the acute environmental deterioration of the planet. The conservative German periodical Der Spiegel, in its last edition of 2022, features a Marx with a contemporary look on the cover (with short sleeves and tattooed arms…) and prints the question: “Was Marx right after all?”. These are just a few examples of the renewed interest in Marx's work that has been taking place in the XNUMXst century, based on very overwhelming evidence of the gravity of the contradictions of the capitalist economy.

Also in Brazil, the production of Marxist books finds its own space, to which the recent translation into Portuguese of the book Rethinking Marx and Marxism: a guide to new readings, authored by Italian researcher Marcello Musto, professor at York University In Canada. Two books by Musto had already been published in Brazil: Workers, Unite!: Political Anthology of the First International, also published by Boitempo and The Old Marx: A Biography of His Last Years (a partnership between Boitempo and the Perseu Abramo Foundation).

The set of topics addressed by Rethink marx and marxism is broad: divided into ten chapters, the book ranges from essays that deal with certain moments in Marx's biography and thought, such as his youth (chapters 1 and 2), passing through studies of political economy and journalism in the 50s. from XNUMX to New York Tribune (chapter 4), reaching the writing period of The capital (Chapter 7).

There are also two chapters dedicated to the elaboration and subsequent repercussion of the floorplans and of yours Introduction, famous preparatory drafts of The capital (chapters 5 and 6). In addition, the reader will find a debate about the pertinence of the opposition between the so-called young Marx and the Marx of maturity (chapter 3), a debate that finds ramifications in the investigation of the concept of alienation (chapter 8), from its appropriation by Marx to the repercussions in contemporary sociology and philosophy.

Chapter 9, “Avoiding Capitalism” discusses Marx's first reception in Russia, still during his lifetime. The book ends in chapter 10 with a presentation of the new MEGA² discoveries –  Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe -, an ongoing editorial project, responsible for publishing the complete work of Marx and Engels.

Given the breadth of research carried out by Marcello Musto, it would be impossible to comment on each chapter of the book in this text. Here, the option will be to highlight some aspects that seem particularly fruitful to me,[I] in this book that manages to reach both the reader who has only an initial knowledge of Marx, and the one who already has a path in the work of the thinker.

In my opinion, the first aspect to be highlighted concerns a broadening of the vision of what was the thematic field researched by Marx throughout his life. Indeed, the new volumes published by the MEGA² project present us with an author who includes in his studies not only the critique of political economy and the conflict between social classes (themes classically associated with the name of the German thinker), but also other concerns that entered with strength in the theoretical and political agenda of men and women of the XNUMXth and XNUMXst centuries.

Among them, Marx's interest in the environmental devastation carried out by capitalist production deserves to be highlighted. In Musto's words, “Marx became increasingly interested in what we now call 'ecology', in particular soil erosion and deforestation” (p. 310).[ii] Unlike a one-sided praise of the productive forces – which naively assumes that the simple technological development associated with the progress of science would be capable of producing human emancipation – we find in Marx a concern with the devastation of nature carried forward by capitalist mercantile rationality.

Attentive reader of the discoveries of the natural sciences of his time – as evidenced by his interest in the work, among others, of the scientist and biochemist Justus von Liebig – he wrote in 1868: “cultivation that, when progressing in a primitive way, is not consciously controlled ( obviously, this is not achieved by being bourgeois), it leaves deserts behind” (apoud P. 311). Instead of the unilateral cult of productivism, we find in Marx the radiography of the environmental destruction that the logic of profit brings in itself.

Access to a wider range of texts by Marx also shows us a thinker who is very critical of the colonial domination carried out by Europe around the world. Differently from Edward Said, who in his famous book orientalism asserted that Marx, excessively attached to the perspective of his time, would not have been able to see the otherness of other cultures, Musto writes that “Among Marx’s interests, a far from secondary place was occupied by the study of non-European societies and the destructive role of colonialism. on the peripheries of the world” (p. 18).

We note that such a warning is opportune given that some of the most recent so-called decolonial studies also categorize Marx as a Eurocentric thinker, to be summarily dispatched to a kind of museum of mistakes made in the past. However, when we take into account mainly Marx's late writings on, for example, the violent predation exercised by England on India, we see a very different physiognomy of the thinker, who conveys a scathing critique of the current mode of production in his own Europe. native.

We Ethnological Notebooks Marxists we can read: “the abolition of the common property of the land was nothing more than a english act of vandalism, which did not propel the Indian people forward, but pushed them back” (apoud P. 266). Far from praising European culture, Marx x-rays, in the heat of the moment, the structural and constitutive violence of its capitalist mode of production.

Having said that, it is necessary to recognize that the discovery of new drafts, preparatory manuscripts and letters by Marx and Engels – inveterate letter writers – considerably complicates the work of researchers who seriously dedicate themselves to the work of the authors. Just remember that MEGA² plans to publish 114 volumes (each with two volumes), making previously unpublished material available to the public. This is, in fact, an additional difficulty for readers of Marx and Engels, who are faced with a monumental work, which simply does not fit into the narrow compartments of the current academic division of labor, hence the observation: “Marx's work is a gigantic culture of critical theory, which transits between countless disciplines of human knowledge, whose synthesis represents an arduous task for every rigorous reader” (p. 11).

Such a task that is presented to Marxist researchers sometimes makes one think, I would add, of the delightful reference by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges to the procedure of the College of Cartographers of a fictitious Empire. Unaware of the most productive principle of cartography – that the map must have a significantly different scale than the object to be mapped – the cartographers produced a gigantic “Map of the Empire that was the size of the Empire and coincided point for point with it”.[iii]

But Marcello Musto is far from this danger: he manages to have a remarkable capacity for synthesis that allows him to transit through a very large number of biographical and conceptual themes within the work of Marx and of some of his successors, always keeping a compass that ensures the tone of argument throughout the book.

Equally worthy of attention in Rethinking Marx and Marxisms comes to be the refutation of the idea, widely disseminated among Marx's critics, of the author's supposed dogmatism, as someone who would convey definitive certainties about the themes he researches. Here, too, reading Marx's correspondence and preparatory materials for his books shows us a thinker who, when confronted with the limits of his work, consistently corrects himself.

In this regard, the successive modifications that Marx made to chapter 1 of The capital are exemplary: he becomes convinced that the form of the exhibition was in fact not satisfactory. In a letter to Kugelmann from October 1866, he writes openly: “even intelligent people did not adequately understand the question, in other words, there must have been defects in the first presentation” (p. 204)

More than that, the very procedural character of the object of his studies – the capitalist mode of production – imposed on him the permanent updating of his theses. It is enough to recall the interest with which Marx devoted himself to studying financial markets in the final years of his life, aware of the transformations they brought to capitalist accumulation: “From the autumn of 1868 until the spring of 1869, determined to account for the last developments of capitalism, Marx compiled copious excerpts from texts on financial and money markets…” (p. 209). Thus, instead of “dressing” reality with previously constructed categories (and here, in my view, the contrast with Weber's ideal type is almost palpable), Marx dedicates himself to constructing a categorical mesh that mirrors its procedural and historical character. .

Further consideration of Marx's willingness to alter those threads of his thinking when confronted with pertinent questions can be found in Chapter 9, entitled “Avoiding Capitalism”. In it, Marcello Musto details Marx's efforts to combat an image that began to form during his lifetime, which claimed that he had presented a universal theory of the development of societies. The comparison with Nikolai Mikhailovsky and Vera Ivanovna Zasulitch on the possible consequences of the obshchina – rural community present in an immense Russian territorial extension – shows an author cautious when dealing with questions that involved an evaluation of his own theory.

The long drafts that preceded, for example, the answer to Zasulich's questions about the transformations of obshchina show Marx exploring the different variables to be taken into account – always linked to the historical context of each social formation -, instead of intending to provide a prompt response to his interlocutor. In the words of Marcello Musto: “For nearly three weeks, Marx remained immersed in his letters, aware that he had to provide an answer to a far-reaching theoretical question” (p. 264). This willingness to update the theory will also be found in the review of the French edition of The capital, which involves additions and modifications in relation to the German edition, to the point that Marx attributed to the first “a scientific value independent of the original” (apoud p. 210).

Rethinking Marx and Marxisms it also approaches the debate around the periodization of the work of the thinker. As is known, throughout the XNUMXth century, a division of work gained prestige that opposed the young Marx – who asserted a peculiar form of humanism – to the old Marx, a critic of bourgeois political economy. In this way, the bibliography of the century created a kind of character who would go by the name of young Marx and who would find his most emblematic production in the Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. Taking this into account, in more than one chapter of Rethinking Marx and Marxisms references are made to these Manuscripts, presenting its merits, but also its real limits.

The 1844 text deals in an original way with questions that were not traditionally associated with Marxism, such as those referring to both the objective and subjective alienation of workers, with all the objectification that the phenomenon entails in human relations. The emancipatory perspective underlying the Manuscripts – published in full only in 1932 – opposed the prevailing interpretation of a Marxist orthodoxy, hence the need to emphasize the “disruptive effect generated by an unpublished text so different from the canons of dominant Marxism” (p. 94).

Taking into account the existence of substantive acquisitions that occurred in Marx's youth, Marcello Musto states that they do not authorize such an exclusive partition of the work between the young Marx and the Marx of maturity. Here, some harsh words are addressed to Louis Althusser, the author who most spread the notion of an epistemological break that would radically separate different phases of Marx's work. It so happens that subsequent textual and philological research does not corroborate this hypothesis, supported by Louis Althusser even in his Elements of self-criticism. Remembering that the alienation category (alienation) runs through almost all of Marx's work, Marcello Musto points to the impossibility that the supposed epistemological cut “happened in the course of a few weeks and could have been conceived as something so rigid” (p. 84).

However, having registered the importance of some categories developed in Marx's youth writings, Marcello Musto does not hide his own preferences: he states that the long years of studying political economy and other disciplines led him to reach understandably higher levels of investigation than those of his youth. For this reason, it is not possible to endorse the hypothesis that would be like the inverse of the epistemological rupture: the one that assumes the existence of a full identity within Marxian thought, “as if Marx’s work were a single piece of writing, indistinct and timeless” ( p. 96).

If we were to adopt this path, it would be forbidden to apprehend the immense theoretical effort made by Marx, an effort that presented him with new questions – referring to the economic and political structuring of the capitalist mode of production – to which he simply did not have answers in his youth.

With regard to chapter 8, “The conception of alienation according to Marx and in the Marxisms of the XNUMXth century”, it seems to me that one of its most relevant implications is to call into question the perspective that supposes the existence of a progressive evolution of the social sciences as a whole over time. Widely disseminated in various academic environments, such a perspective states that the most recent science is necessarily better than the previous one (from there, eradicating XNUMXth-century authors from university curricula will be just one step…). But, well, when reading the appropriation that, for example, the American sociology of the XNUMXth century made of the category alienation, it is impossible not to think that such sociology fell short of Marx's original formulation.

For what was in the texts of the latter an approach that pointed to a social phenomenon with a well-defined physiognomy (the alienation rooted in the mode of production of life in a capitalist society), ends up acquiring the contours of a universal human condition. In the pen of authors such as Melvin Seeman or Robert Blauner (writing in the 50s and 60s of the twentieth century) there is a “kind of hyperpsychologization of the analysis of the concept – which was assumed in sociology, as well as in psychology, no longer as a social issue , but as an individual pathology” (p. 231).

If we now turn our attention to the political debate surrounding Marx's legacy, chapter 10 of Rethinking Marx and Marxisms brings several elements that attest to the visible contrast between the author's political and societal project and the socialist experiences of the XNUMXth century. This would not be the time to analyze a theme of the magnitude of the distortions of Marx's thought that occurred in manuals produced by the Soviet Union, and even more so in that society's daily life. In any case, Marcello Musto draws attention to the distance between the latter and the societal project found in Marx's work.

Just remember that: “Proponent of the idea that the fundamental condition for the maturation of human skills was the reduction of the working day, he [Marx] was assimilated to the productivist creed of Stakhanovism. A staunch supporter of the abolition of the State, he found himself identified as its bulwark” (pp. 289-290). A timely warning to be made, especially considering that conservative thought continues to attribute to Marx (deceased in 1883, remember...) the configuration assumed by the Soviet Union more than decades after his death. It is up to us, men and women of the XNUMXst century, to relaunch the originality of a project that is up to the emancipatory sense of its founders.

Finally, a special mention to chapter 7, entitled “The writing of The capital: the unfinished critique”. Alternating biographical information with Marx's conceptual decisions, in it we find our author immersed in the extremely difficult task of completing the writing of volume 1 of The capital. Marcello Musto effectively pursues his objective of showing the error that it is to consider The capital as a finished work, bringing material that attests to its character in progress, to be improved through comparison with reality.

With regard to conceptual work, the important letter to Engels, dated August 24, 1867, deserves to be highlighted, where Marx announces, proudly, what seemed to him to be the two best aspects of Volume I: “1. (this is fundamental for any understanding of the facts) the dual character of labor as expressed in use value or exchange value, which is brought out in the very first chapter; 2. The treatment of surplus value regardless of its particular forms, such as profit, interest, land rent, etc.” (apoud P. 207). Incidentally, I mention that maybe this chapter 7 would have a breakdown, albeit brief, of the double character of work to which Marx refers. This would lead us to the category of abstract work, identified by contemporary scholars (such as Sohn-Rethel, W. Bonefeld, A. Jappe) as one of the most original contributions of Marxian political economy.[iv]

With regard to the personal difficulties faced by Marx in completing the writing of The capital, Marcello Musto confidently details its different facets. In a more biographical aspect, the situation of extreme poverty in which the author of The capital. Besieged by creditors, putting his possessions in the pawnshop, unable to provide his family with adequate living conditions (“the children [had] no clothes or shoes to go out with,” he writes in 1863, apoud P. 191), Marx was far removed from the reality experienced, needless to say, by academics from countries of the so-called first world. Added to these objective conditions is his very high level of self-demand, which was rarely satisfied with what he wrote (“I also have the habit of finding fault with anything I write”, apoud P. 185), constantly modifying the preparatory material for what would become The capital.

Additionally, a keen awareness of the transformations of the capitalist economy compelled him to include supplementary studies, for example on the growing role of financial markets. All of this resulted in a grueling work routine: dedicating “ten hours a day to work on the economy” and often not sleeping “before four in the morning”. External and internal pressures erupted in his own body. Marx was frequently plagued by infectious carbuncles which appeared alternately on all parts of his body, causing him indescribable suffering which is described in detail in his letters. Marx, the master of research into contradictions, sees himself traversed by them in his organism. He describes himself “like a true Lazarus […], smitten from all sides at once'” (apoud p. 194).

For the contemporary reader who follows the details of the blunt suffering experienced by Marx and wonders what was the effectiveness, after all, of the grueling work demanded by the writing of his magnum opus, I believe that the thinker himself provides the answer. Referring to volume 1 of The capital, he writes in 1864 to the metallurgist Carl Kings: “I hope that I can now, finally, finish it in a few months and give the bourgeoisie a theoretical blow from which it will never recover” (apoud p. 281).

There is no doubt: the blow was struck.

*Mauricio Vieira Martins Professor at the Department of Sociology and Methodology of Social Sciences at UFF.


Marcello Musto. Rethinking Marx and Marxisms: A Guide to New Readings. Translation: Diego Silveira and others. São Paulo, Boitempo, 2022, 320 pages (

Originally published on the website marxism21 [].


[I] Thanks to João Leonardo Medeiros for the careful reading and suggestions made to this review.

[ii] Unless otherwise noted, quotes in this review are from Marcello Musto's book. When succeeded by apud, these are Marx's references, cited by Musto.

[iii] Jorge Luis Borges. “Of rigor in science”. In The maker. Complete work, Buenos Aires: Emecé Editores, 1974, p. 847 (

[iv] In this way, it would also be possible to arrive at a new sense of what abstraction in Marx, affirmed not only as a product of thought, but as a process that takes place in reality itself. “This abstraction of general human labor There are…”. Marx, K. Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. São Paulo: Popular Expression, 2008, p. 56.

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