Good companions or usual suspects?

Author:Brass, Tom
Position:The Elgar Companion to Marxist Economics - Book review

Ben Fine and Alfredo Saad-Filho (eds.) The Elgar Companion to Marxist Economics, Edward Elgar: Cheltenham, 2012; xiii + 419 pp: 9781848445376, 135 [pound sterling] (hbk)

In a variation on an old cliche, it might be argued that every epoch gets the Marxist dictionary - written by Marxists, about Marxism, for actual/potential Marxists - that it deserves. Those published during the 1930s and 1940s (Burns 1936, 1939; Gould 1947; Selsam 1949) emphasised claims to be a science, backed up by numerous quotations from Stalin. Trotskyism was either ignored or described (Gould 1947: 96), laughably, as 'a counter-revolutionary organization named after Leon Trotsky, who was connected with the Russian Labour Movement for many years'.

By the 1980s, even Marxist dictionaries published in the USSR (Frolov 1984) no longer featured the authority of Stalin, and claims to scientificity gave way to critiques of social science discourse in capitalist nations. Sensing, perhaps, the ideological struggles ahead, Marxist dictionaries appearing at that conjuncture in Western capitalism seemed to embrace glasnost. Entries in Gorman (1985-6) included not just Giddens - neither a Marxist nor a neo-Marxist - but also Mihailo Markovic, a prominent member of the Yugoslav Praxis group who later became an exponent of Serbian nationalism. The latter is also among the contributors to the volume by Bottomore (1983).

In many ways, this trajectory accompanied the shift of Marxism from the street into the university, a transition evident in the most recent volumes. Earlier dictionaries (Burns, Gould, Selsam) were clearly aimed at a wide audience: that by Burns was subtitled 'a very simple exposition, that anyone can understand without previous knowledge'. Entries covered the basic theoretical issues, definitions were concise, and the texts themselves were usually around a hundred pages. Later volumes (Frolov, Bottomore, Gorman) were equally clearly aimed at a much narrower, largely academic, audience, a fact embodied in the increased length and the extended debate. The short dictionaries by Russell (1981) and Brewer (1984) are an exception in this regard.

If Marxist dictionaries of the 1930s/40s and 1980s reflected the confidence and subsequent defensiveness of their respective epochs, then the volume reviewed here bears the marks of defeat. Former versions displayed varying degrees of combativeness towards the enemies of Marxism; the current one, by contrast, exhibits at times an overly conciliatory tone towards them (under the slippery ideological rubric of 'diversity'). Edited by Ben

Fine and Alfredo Saad-Filho, The Elgar Companion to Marxist Economics consists of around sixty entries and authors. The selection of contributors is parochial, many having...

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