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Karl Marx, dead or alive – what legacy has he left behind?

26 January 2018

Our profession – to which we dedicate so much time and effort – pervades our lives. We’re living in a time of significant shifts and profound changes to the world of work and economic life. Here, Dr Harry Pitts, a lecturer in Management at our School, discusses new ways of interpreting Marx’s theories on labour, income distribution and its continued relevance.

What is alive and what is dead in the intellectual legacy left behind by Karl Marx? Interest in his work, or parts of it, is certainly on the rise, at least in the UK. 

It was recently announced that Karl Marx’s totemic grave in Highgate Cemetery, London, is all set for a facelift. Footfall has soared, it is said, off the back of the reinvigoration of left politics following that election of Jeremy Corbyn as UK Labour Party leader and the festivities surrounding the 150th anniversary of Marx’s masterwork, Capital, and the 200th anniversary of his birth. 

Marx’s headstone as its stands today is of fairly recent vintage. Built in 1956, it was funded by the Communist Party. From the funding flows a specific Soviet spin forced upon its subject: looming, monolithic, totalitarian. 

This is a version of Marx that served a purpose at a particular point in time, aligning the man himself with a Marxist political programme he himself rejected as followers flocked to him in his later years. 

The bad dream of Soviet communism places this ‘Marxist’ Marx beyond recuperation. It is this Marx- precisely the one that marks the popular imagination- that I seek to undermine in my book, Critiquing Capitalism Today: New Ways to Read Marx. The new tendencies of Marx interpretation I chart expose his legacy as radically open and, crucially, usable to comprehend and confront the present. 

They show that there is a Marxian orientation towards the world that deserves to be rescued from attempts to force Marx’s unfinished and fragmentary work into series of political prescriptions nowhere present in its pages. It resounds not as a political programme but rather a way of seeing the world from within a specific kind of society, of analysing that society- capitalist society- inescapably as part of it.

In my book, I contest the traditional interpretation of Marx’s so-called ‘labour theory of value’ and its dynamic political appeal. This conventional take casts Marx as saying that labour creates all value, and because of this the people that perform this labour- the working class- will inevitably inherit the earth and come to own what they produce. This has served as politically expedient propaganda more than it has a realistic rendering of how capitalism works. 

For contemporary new readings of Marx such as those I draw upon in my book, what was really crucial for Marx was to explain why the results of human productive activity should, in a certain kind of society such as our own, take on the form of commodities, the value of which is expressed in a monetary price. Moreover, Marx’s aim was, on this account, to explain specifically how this society came to be at all through the bloody history of dispossession that separates one class who lives from doing labour from another who lives by using it. 

This understanding, fleshed out in Capital, the closest Marx came to a definitive statement of his theory, is too often lost in translation. Few of the works associated with Marx today were published under his watch, many repackaged posthumously. 

The translation of some of these unpublished works into English under the supervision of the Communist Party placed a particular political stress on meanings and inferences quite contrary to those Marx intended. 

The fragmentary and unfinished character of Marx’s output means that even where one claims to have found the essence of his work, a particular interpretative slant is revealed. But it is this radical openness of interpretation and operationalisation that makes the new readings of Marx featured in my book so exciting and useful for critics of capitalism today. They reveal Marx to be surprisingly relevant to the contemporary world of work and economic life, even if some of his advocates are not.

Further information

Don’t miss the book launch, for a chance to meet Dr Harry Pitts

Make sure you also catch Harry's comments on the concept of post-work, featured in the Guardian

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