positions politics

Marx’s Contemporaneity

Harry Harootunian

In a recent announcement of a special issue from the journal Crisis and Critique, readers are called upon to contemplate, again, the “Future of Europe” by submitting its’ concept to the rigors of critical practice. The explanation for this undertaking proposes that the very conception of Europe has always meant a state of crisis and its authors wonder “if a permanent and perpetual state of crisis is still and should be called a crisis?” But if Europe is defined as crisis and is the only the state in the world that makes this claim, “the crisis then would not be a crisis but the name of the structure of its real constitution.” Under such circumstances, Europe, “by being in a state of permanent crises, would not be in a crisis, it is just Europe.” With this project, Crisis and Critique has simply reduced the dimension of Europe’s putative crisis to the same themes and subjects its various authors have been plying for years. What is disheartening about this exhausted echo of Western Marxism is how critique and an exceptional state of crisis have been enlisted to close down and even narrow further the scope of inquiry when its original vocation, as conceived by Marx in the 1860s, was to open things up, broaden the scale of perspective to move beyond the European heartland to the world at large. When in Capital Marx quoted the poet Horace saying “the tale is told of you,” he had already anticipated the great message the Revolution would take to the world.

What appeared so extraordinary about this event of a widening perspective was the reinventing of a worldly everyday for a new time which, I believe, was dramatized by the Russian Revolution as the “first revolution in which the working class… (sought ) control of reality,” “building a new world on the ruins of absolutism and industrial backwardness.” invested with new purpose, this reinventing of everyday life was driven by the revolutionary impulse to enlarge and politicize it as the site of transformation and constant renewal. (I am not referring to “spiritual” renewal, and its desire to dehistoricize the everyday into an essentialist everydayness that fascism invariably embraces, as Japan demonstrated in the 1930s and is currently reprising, not to forget India and Turkey.) Renewal transformed routinized repetitiveness associated with daily life into a repetition of critiquing the everyday as a preventative against falling into reproducing the static immediacies of everydayness that eliminate recognizing the necessity of rehistoricizing, as the Chinese sought to realize in the Cultural Revolution of 1960s. Russia’s revolution was thus positioned to determine the boundaries of the real inhabited by a new and dominant conception of subjectivity capable of writing its own history.1 Less than a half century later, the Chinese were able to replicate this example and move even faster into the ranks of global modernity. Through Lenin’s insistent expansion of politics into culture, thereby coupling them in the new everyday environment, both became permanently aligned to producing a critically transformed social and cultural experience.2 This effort to meld politics into culture prompted a number of thinkers like Walter Benjamin to fasten attention on the necessary identity of writer and public and the “melting down” of literary (and by extension cultural) forms into the matrix of everyday life.3 The transmutation of a critique of crisis into a distinguishing mark of European exceptionality forfeits precisely this legacy of critiquing everyday life to nourish renewal.

With the formulation of uneven and combined development this new, enlarged conception of the everyday provided the template for its global extension by inducing non-modern traditional societies to skip over a long developmental arc to reach modernity. For this reason, the everyday inaugurated in Soviet society was open to greater politicization than found in the West and offered easier accessibility for emulation among the colonized and underdeveloped regions of Asia, Latin America and Africa. It should be emphasized that the immense appeal of the Soviet experiment lay in its concerted effort to rebuild something entirely new on the old.

In the decades of the 1920s, an emergent Western Marxism turned away from the concreteness of the historical for the abstraction of a critical appraisal of pre-war Marxist orthodoxy and bourgeois science, which never led back to the concrete, as Marx projected in Grundrisse. This change of direction probably stemmed less from the circumstances of the revolution’s priority of addressing the practical problems of constructing the everyday life than by adducing the prospects for revolutionary consciousness and agency under capitalism.4 As a result, the concept of the everyday in the West was transmuted from matters of politics and history to philosophy and value. The shift’s outcome diminished history, as such, for an ahistorical formalism philosophy shared with considerations of value. In areas like Asia, Latin America and Africa the practical problem of constructing new societies and transforming the old into the new in the immediate present persisted as a precedent. Soviet society provided both the guiding ideal and blue print for such a monumental undertaking, having already charted this course by following the pathway Marx visualized from the development of capitalism to revolutionary change. The new epochal alignment of East and West supplied the promise of realizing Asian forms of capitalist modernization and transformation. In the decade of the 1920s and what might be named as the “carnivalesque” years until Stalinism ended it, the new Soviet society became the site of exciting experiments in the arts, architecture, literature, language and thought. The Bakhtinian term describes the revolutionary reversal of the world, its defamiliarizing and utopian possibility to momentarily turn the everyday world inside out and to dehierachicize the relationship between high and popular arts and the arrangement of authority empowering some classes over others. In both China’s May 4th Movement of 1919 and after and Japan’s heady effort after World War I to implement a program of social and cultural reconstruction (kaizoo) and democratization involving urban workers we have reflexes of the kind of cultural revolution centered on everyday life elicited by the Soviet example. In these societies and elsewhere in Asia and Latin America the Soviet exemplification of an everyday marked by the new relationship between politics and culture challenged received conventions of bourgeois and traditional art and politics staging “demotic and philosophical confrontations with traditional accounts… of the aesthetic experience.”5 Japanese philosopher Tosaka Jun early recognized the pivotal importance of the changing materiality of the everyday and the need to constantly rehistoricize it, proposing that it was philosophy’s true vocation since it derived from it. In the wake of China’s May 4th Cultural revolution there appeared the turn toward “vernacularization” in writing and cinema. The Soviet experience was closer to these societies, as Lenin had already acknowledged when he described Russia as an “Asiatic state.”

It was this promise, it seems to me, that explains the enthusiasm for the Soviet example that accompanied the exporting of Marx to regions of Asia, Latin America and Africa. The unprecedented newness of Soviet society provided a concrete, prototypical passageway that would take them from the merely daily and contingent to one committed to the formation of social and cultural transformation and democratization composed of working class identities and their collective experience.

Hence, crisis yoked to critique became a way to maintaining the abstraction of a bourgeois conception of unity and the continuation of Western Marxism’s privileged position in shrinking the Marxian perspective, now assuming custodianship of Western Civilization, which in the face of the current pandemic shows only its parochial gesture presuming unity. In many ways, the seizure of this position resembles Erich Auerbach’s great text Mimesis, written in exile in Istanbul during World War II, in which he posited the tradition of realism as the emblem of a unified European civilization. Yet, global capital, constituting the principal mediating agent in the production of contemporary history since Marx identified the world market has been forgotten and displaced by area specialists of the world beyond Europe, whose new vocation is to reduce this world to specific subjective identities in some unnamed but desperate project dedicated to inclusion in a totality never defined. Embracing identities invariably defines the politics of these new area specialists, many of whom have no other political stakes than professional ambition and a feeble clasp of human rights. The problem stems from the desire of cultural studies to replace Marxism with its enthusiastic withdrawal from the political and historical since the 1990s and subsequent banalization of the everyday marked by a preoccupation of identities that strangely recalls for us the failed cosmopolitanism of the 1920s and the chorus of humanity in which each nation would contribute its voice to global harmony. But now gone completely amuck. John Robert’s described this worrisome celebration of ‘selfiedom’ 15 years ago in the following, prescient observation: “The everyday has become so enmeshed in an affirmative anthropological model of the subaltern subject positions, that it has become convergent with the institutions, spaces and social relations of the advanced capitalist consumer economy…Which means that if the new differentiated social subject expands the content of the everyday, it has done so at expense of the everyday’s historical and critical relationship to its non-contemporaneous temporalities.”6

It is important to recognize that in the interwar period Marxism entered the regions beyond Euro-American largely through associations with the Soviet example and its subsequent mission conveyed by the comintern. Marxian theory was thus introduced and mediated by Soviet practice and thought through which Asians societies like China, Japan and others were brought into its orbit to subsequently learn that their experiences would differ from the orthodox model of development. We tend to forget that among the nations of the West most were imperial colonizers in these decades and played no role in the process of disseminating Marx’s thought. After World War II and the polarization of the Cold War, Soviet Marxism was discredited because of its Stalinist excesses and Marxian thought and practice drew back to Western Europe, by Frankfurt thinkers, and offered a more formalistic model of analyzing consciousness’s readiness for revolution in terms of the effects of circulation, commodification and consumption principally inflected by philosophic reflection and social science. But the promise of political revolution vanished into a critique that attributed to culture and consumption control over consciousness. The casualty was a Marxism that seemingly withdrew from the wider world that appeared to have no concern for its outside and the valuable experiences in thought and practice realized by Chinese, Japanese, South Asians, Latin Americans and Africans that would provide authoritative accounts of the consequences from the diverse collisions of capitalism and received cultures. Ultimately the problem dogging Marxism had been the persistent acceptance of its Western standard bearer to speak for all Marxian accents and its misrecognition that the formalism of abstract value and philosophy was addressed to and for peoples involved in the historical project of building a new everyday.

Area studies turned toward seeing these societies as lagging and underdeveloped, suffering from inexorable negativity as represented in their categorization as Non-Western societies. The supposed solution was supplied by an imperializing social science make-over called modernization theory, pledged to overcoming all the defects—namely, the remnants—standing in the way and signifying the incompletion of underdevelopment for the illusive image of a completed modern capitalist society. Earlier Marxists (and many Asians) of orthodox persuasion condemned the figure of remnant as a barrier to the complete development of capitalism so necessary in a stagist narrative that resulted in a permanently frozen “semi-feudalism,” both immoveable but also blocked from reaching the next stage. On its part bourgeois modernization theory often relied on a Darwinian vitality to recruit certain enduring institutions and practices (like the Japanese emperor) to be strategically used in building a capitalist order or see them as obstacles of the past to be easily overcome if society was to become capitalistic and catch up with advanced nations of the West. Yet, another view of the remnant sanctioned by Marx’s texts proposed that capitalism would never realize completion and its utilization of past practices serving a different political economy manifested the real nature of a developmental process that was both uneven and combined. Focusing on Russia in the 1870s, Marx rejected the “fatal experience” of capital’s genesis in Western Europe and endorsed a different developmental road Russia might follow. Events occurring in different historical contexts would reveal “striking similarities,” but no pure development of capital, only disparate results that must be studied separately and compared. Here, the figure of unevenness pointed to plural societies dedicated to capitalism, relationality and the multiplicity of historical developments that made each experience intrinsically worldly. Often this procedure of combining the old with the new required bringing practices from prior modes of production and synchronizing them with capitalism’s new productive processes directed toward capital accumulation; sometimes these practices, like exploitation, functioned unchanged from their pre-capitalist past. As Marx remarked, all that changed in the scene of work was a “new social soul has entered its’ body.”

In Capital, Marx warned that the present was still crowded with representatives of unevenly different but co-existing space/times, whereby “modern evils” are continually “oppressed by a whole series of inherited evils arising from the passive survival of archaic modes of production….” Yet these varied and complex historical organizations still supply “insights into structures and relations of all vanished formations,” whose “unconquered remnants” are “carried along with it,” even in “stunted” and “caricatured forms,” implying combinations of the commensurate and incommensurate, but no direct causation between a linear before and after trajectory. In his later (unsent) letters to Russian progressive Vera Zasulich he advised that she need have no fear of the term archaic because the contemporaneity of capital could be combined with the still existing Russian commune formed in an indeterminate distant past to produce national wealth and avoid the disabling “vicissitudes” of capitalism. (Marx still insisted at the same time that Russia would have to additionally undergo a revolution.) Implied in this recommendation was a new vision of history configured on the image of vertical stratification of levels of geologic formations over time, which Marx saw as similar to layers of historical time. Here, it need be said, history overtook Marx’s vision and by the 20th century fictive archaisms were readily fastened to fascisms to save the contemporaneity of capitalism for the future.

The archetype of uneven and combined developments appeared in Marx’s narrative of “so-called primitive accumulation,” a continuous repetitious event that produced plural and uneven temporalities, resulting in a vast social process resembling a sprawling archaeological site( and recalling Benjamin’s “dialectical congestion of times,”) that is, verticalized deposits of time imposed on each other. In this indefinitely permanent transformational change of societies the original accumulation of capital was co-present with political formations that were not not yet dominated by capitalism.7 While primitive accumulation constituted the fulcrum of capital’s origins, the experience of encompassing and unifying the unfolding social process of uneven developments and combined fusions of the old and new practices, pasts and present would differ from one society to another, one moment to another. The social process would be the foundation of capital accumulation in different regions where capital sought to establish its production agenda with widely different effects depending on the specific cultural and historical circumstances mediating its formation. It is these diverse experiences derived from areas like China, Japan and India and so forth that constituted the basic ground of knowledge on which social and economic thinkers analytically accounted for the development of capitalism in their societies that has been ignored by Marxian discourses in the West and simply overlooked by scholars specializing in subjects outside of Euro-America out of some residual Cold War anti-Marxism impulse for more “normative” strategies of social, political and economic structures derived from the Western experience. Yet they provide a closer and more grounded assessments of the social process of capitalist development in these regions. I am not advising the embracing of nativist interpretative strategies which often appear as grotesque caricatures of Western models. But rather suggesting that we take seriously the work of Marxian analyses of capitalism from the various regions beyond Euro-America, the capitalist matrices mediated by quite specific historical contexts and different experiences lived by those who sought to grasp and explain the confrontation of capital and received cultures of reference and their histories.

The process of capital accumulation accentuating the centrality of differential temporal determinations, derived from historically momentous events like the separation of reproduction from production, vast expropriations of land and enclosures of commons that led to widespread theft, murder, vagabondage, colonial dispossession, genocide, the resetting of gender relations in the work force and more that were carried out in a syncopated arrhythmia of times. If this panoply of swerving temporalities was driven by uneven developments brought together by combining incommensurables with contemporary capitalist practices, it must also be seen as securing new forms of social reproduction of presents that would continue to embody the multiversum of what Gramsci observed as the non-contemporaneity of the contemporaneous. Which brings us back to the present day importance and relevance of Marx’s advice to Zasulich that modern societies will revive and recuperate the “superior form of archaic social types.” What Marx was proposing for historical materialism was the scant silhouette of a new practice dedicated to interrupting history through a rehistoricization of past presents and their surpassed futures, like the archaic, to recover from the depths of remainders unassimilated to the imperative identity of reason and praxis the prospect of “revolutionary rupture” in the repressed and ghostly figures of past class struggles.8 Benjamin described this operation as historical materialism’s way of “supplying a unique experience with the past,” as “a second present,” which relied on appealing to the sedimented layers of pasts stacked vertically in any present but always available to it; like geologic strata, the latest layer is never canceled out and replaced by the earlier, as in the logic of a linear progressive trajectory whereby past stages and periods are always surpassed and subsequently established as that which will never again recur. It should be added that Marx’s recommendations were never really followed but rather lost for a time, avoided by the orthodoxies of stagism and dispatched, with the historical, to a shadowed existence by the philosophic abstractions and a parochialized universalism of Western Marxism to appear in the 21st century as newly germane today as it was when Marx first disclosed its promising possibilities for realizing what both Gramsci and Benjamin anticipated when politics would take precedence over history.

Harry Harootunian is Associate Research Scholar in the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Columbia University and Max Palevsky Professor of History, Emeritus at The University of Chicago. His most recent publications are Uneven Moments: Reflections on Japan’s Modern History (Columbia University Press, 2019) and The Unspoken as Heritage: The Armenian Genocide and Its Unaccounted Lives (Duke University Press, 2019). His current research is a book on ‘Anachronism and Archaism: Fascism and Time in Japan.’

  1. John Roberts, Philosophizing the Everyday: Revolutionary Praxis and the Fate of Cultural Theory (London: Pluto Press, 2006), 16. The above quotes are from the same page.
  2. Roberts, Philosophizing the Everyday, 3, 21–25; Georg Lukács, Lenin:A Study on the Unity of His Thought (London/New York: Verso, 1997), 13.
  3. Walter Benjamin, “The Author as Producer,” in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott, ed. Peter Demetz (New York/London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987), 224–225.
  4. Roberts, Philosophizing the Everyday, 29.
  5. Roberts, Philosophizing the Everyday, 4.
  6. Roberts, Philosophizing the Everyday, 122–23.
  7. See Sylvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (New York: Autonomedia, 2004), 62.
  8. See Peter Osborne, The Politics of Time: Modernity and Avant-Garde (London/New York: Verso, 1995), 156; Thesis XVI in Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott et al., ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 4:396.