Marxism attempts to understand the world so as to be able to change it. As such it should be able to adapt to new developments in economics and philosophy and offer explanations for them. At the same time, however, Marxists should not feel the need to incorporate or adapt to every fashionable new theory that appears on the scene.
Kenneth Surin’s book treads this line, sometimes straying over it. His project is to develop what he calls a Marxist concept of liberation. He offers an analysis of the nature of contemporary capitalism and draws some modest conclusions for practical action.
The more philosophical sections of this book are hard going. Surin offers a critique of some popular philosophers, including Jacques Derrida and Alain Badiou. Instead he advocates an engagement with the ideas of Gilles Deleuze. This is interesting, but it is hard to escape the feeling that Surin is attempting to shoehorn fashionable theories into his work. He also occasionally slips into an obscure academic language.
His economic analysis is clearer and he offers a wealth of data to support it. He starts from a good understanding of capitalism’s defining features and defends Marx’s arguments about the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.
However, at times he seems to emphasise the changes in capitalism in the 1970s too much, suggesting more of a radical break with the past than was the case. Surin defends the idea of uneven development – that poorer countries do not benefit in the world system and are in fact made poorer. In response to this he argues for a strategy of delinking, where poorer states separate themselves from the world system, following the model of Cuba and Venezuela.
His political conclusions are focused entirely on the poorer nations of the world, offering a strategy for what they can do to develop their own, richer, democracy, separate from the exploitative global system.
However, very little is said about who is going to achieve this change within those nations, except by reference to a “broad national popular alliance” that must mobilise the “appropriate classes and class fractions”. A notable, perhaps deliberate, absence is any discussion of revolution. In fact, his criticism of Badiou suggests that he sees the question as irrelevant. This is an unfortunate weakness.
Despite these criticisms, Surin’s book is an interesting contribution to ongoing debates about what it means to be a Marxist in the 21st century, and it deserves to be engaged with by a wide audience.
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