Alex Callinicos: The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx.

Author:Merlingen, Michael
Position:Book review

Alex Callinicos

The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx, Haymarket Books, Chicago, IL, 2011; 262 pp: 9781608461387, 9.99 [pounds sterling] (pbk)

This book is a comprehensive introduction to Marx's life and thought. It starts off by sketching his personal, intellectual and political trajectories, drawing out connections between them and situating them in the broader political struggles in Europe at the time. The chapters that follow further contextualise Marx. Drawing on Lenin's famous three-sources-of-Marxism argument, Callinicos positions Marx's work in relation to French socialism, English political economy and German philosophy. The storyline inevitably involves theoretical perspective-taking on contested issues within Marxism, such as the class nature of absolutism in continental Europe or the periodisation of capitalist expansion in Western Europe. The book's main chapters cover 'Marx's Method', 'History and the Class Struggle', 'Capitalism', and 'Workers' Power'. It ends with chapters on 'Marx Today' and 'Further Readings'. Written by one of the leading contemporary Marxists, the book presents Marx's thought system in a wonderfully clear manner, which manages to make even complicated things seem simple. Both newcomers to Marx and those who want to get a handle on some of his more arcane constructions, such as the method of abstraction, will find the book a great resource. Callinicos' introduction to the intricacies of the labour theory of value is one of the best on the market today. The Marxism that emerges from the book is attractive, because it stands for a (Trotskyist) socialism from below: the self-emancipation of the popular classes. What may be less attractive to some readers is the book's conservatism. It presents an unapologetically classical Marxist tradition. Perry Anderson, writing about Trotskyism in post-1945 Western Europe, explained the priority given to the 'preservation of classical doctrines ... over their development' by the absence of revolutionary mass movements in the concerned countries (Anderson 1987: 101). The argument, it seems, still holds.

While many contemporary Marxists do not adhere to classical Marxism, the approach is not yet analytically exhausted, as Callinicos's own prolific work on contemporary politics demonstrates. Moreover, classical Marxism is often the point of departure for postclassical reformulations and extensions of Marxism. On both these counts, classical Marxism resembles structural realism, the once dominant theory of international politics formulated by Kenneth Waltz, which, too, refuses to go away. Callinicos's classical Marxism, then, is not the problem. But problems arise from the way he presents classical Marxism. First, the book contains a tension between...

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