On Your Marx: Rethinking Socialism and the Left

Randy Martin, On Your Marx: Rethinking Socialism and the Left (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 2002)

Those of us who would like to bring Marx back to the concrete tasks of theory-building and activism should be encouraged by Randy Martin’s recent book. Martin’s narrative is neither a rehashing of traditional orthodoxy, nor another fashionable addition (the cover-picture of Marx with chic sunglasses notwithstanding) to the claims of transgressing Marxist suppositions. What he attempts to do is something more serious, more meaningful: a theoretically engaged retrieving of Marxist radicality as (re)linked with the Leftist transformational desires of our time. Martin seeks to do this by grappling with issues ranging from an updated reading of Capital to a dissection of tribalism, from a deconstruction of the collapse of really existing socialism to an elucidation of the crisis points of really existing capitalism.

Martin’s purpose is not to privilege a specific part of Marx, as Luk√°cs and the Frankfurt School did with the early Marx, Althusser with Capital, or Negri with the Grundrisse. Instead, Martin claims to undertake a politically specific encounter that continues to emphasize Marx’s relevance for present theoretical and organizational concerns.

Martin lays the groundwork of his analysis by defending Marx against the charges of totality, universal subject, teleology, and of course, reductionism. For Martin, Marxist theory is informed by a significantly more complex epistemology than these critiques can capture. Instead of viewing Marxism as a totalizing discourse, Martin emphasizes the dialectically subtle understanding of the concrete as “the concentration of multiple determinisms,” as Marx articulated in the Grundrisse. Opposing the allegation that Marxism postulated a universal subject, Martin valorizes labor as a mediated, reflexive, self-creative activity. Contrary to the readings of Marxism as teleological, he defends the open-textured, indeterminate moments of Marxist theory.

An interesting aspect of Martin’s account is the way he is willing to appropriate certain insights of postmodernism without aban- doning the radical core of the Marxist project. There is an affinity between postmodernism, as a mode of reflection/agency which fragments yet simultaneously holds the potential of transcending that fragmentation, and a Marxist concept of praxis. In presenting a narrative of the production and circulation of knowledge, as well as of its practical application and reception, postmodernism owes a greater intellectual debt to Marxist theory than is often recognized. There are imprints of Marxism, for instance, in Lyotard’s narration of the extension of the logic of capital to the hitherto uncommodified spheres of social life or in his musings on the inseparability of the production of knowledge and its conditions of legitimation.

An interesting part of the book, especially within the context of the contemporary social movements of which Seattle was a definite landmark, is Martin’s defense of globalization as alternatively conceptualized. The alternative to globalization lies not in a celebration of the local but in exploring the possibilities of transformations on a world-historical scale. Furthermore, there are important aspects of the current state of globalization that should not be ignored. First, globalization generates direct association of labor on a global scale, which, in spite of variations, leads to the development of a common site of resistance. (Many of us would argue, and Martin will agree, that while common grounds of global exploitation and oppression generate the possibilities of common conditions of resistance, those conditions can actually be built through rather complex, often contradictory practical/discursive mediations which the labor narrative of conventional Marxism cannot grasp adequately. Besides, ranging from Lenin’s understanding of labor aristocracy to Marcuse’s pessimism over workers being absorbed into bourgeois one-dimensionality, there are traditions in Marxist theory that warn us about the possibilities of internal fractures and culpabilities of the working class.) Secondly, the dominance of finance capital over industrial capital may raise important political questions about the separation between ownership and control. Furthermore, the homogenization and rationalization of consumption and the mobilization of labor to that end may lead to possibilities of new planning and organizational fabrics on a global scale. Martin, however, chooses not to elaborate on the fate of the vast multitude of the “wretched of the earth” who are excluded from this global McDonaldization.

A critique of the autonomous subject constitutes a major focus of the book. The concept of “autonomy,” to Martin, is an inadequate criterion, both normatively and analytically, to make sense of agency. Martin explores an alternative concept of decentered subjectivity in Marx’s metaphor of “ensemble” (which Marx posed against Feurbach’s notion of ” human essence” as an “abstraction inherent in each single individual”):

If capitalism can be known for its production of universally exchangeable abstract individuals rendered as such by the autonomy that separates them, socialism is recognizable through its production of ensembles, the very materiality of social relations that multiply the possibility of society. (p. 84)

The point for Martin, however, is not to abandon the concept of “autonomy” altogether from political vocabulary, but to privilege the development of ensemble over autonomy by taking a close look at the overdetermined (i.e., structural-economic, political, ideological) processes that provide the context for social agency.

The socialism that Martin aspires to is not one of simple determinism, locked into the rhetoric of economistic, essentialist class analysis. Socialism, operating simultaneously on multiple levels, negates the essentialism of a singular meta-subject of resistance. The possibility of socialism emerges at every point where what had been produced principally for exchange under the various economies of race, gender, sexuality, and nationality each assumes a value that can reclaim the primacy of itself in use. Socialism does not exhaust the identity or the conditions of necessity for any political movement, nor does it reduce their strategy and tactics to a singular form, but provides a means of calibrating each of these mobilizations with their context. Here context is not a stable entity but a frame of reference with which to imagine social relations. (p. 204).

While contingency, multiplicity, and indeterminacy are imporant features in Martin’s conceptualization of Left politics, he is also aware of the dilemmas that may be posed by this open-ended radicality. How can a concrete politics be grounded on a sense of perpetual uncertainty (how can plurality ad infinitum ultimately not lead to a retreat from any tangible ground of politics whatsoever)? Martin’s response to this predicament is to theorize contingency in terms of historically specific binary oppositions (bourgeoisie and proletariat, left and right, for instance) without forcing them into absolute, ossified antagonisms.

One thing, however, that somewhat disappointed me about the book is the way, in spite of his claim to undertake a politically specific reading of Marx, Martin stops short of a critical-dialectical engagement with the great mentor. While his effort to re-link the Left with Marx is encouraging, Martin has not confronted the tensions within Marx’s texts in a theoretically credible way. Marxism, even in Marx’s own time, even in his own texts, was never a single, unruptured totality. There have always been contrasting, sometimes ironic recognitions of structure and agency, democracy and authority, economic determinism and pluralizing cognitions of history, crude materialism and subtle, complex epistemology. It is the ability to speak in a multiplicity of voices that has kept Marxism alive and potent. The teleological, essentialist, totalizing, and universal subjectivist traces (traces that, one suspects, Martin wants to wish away) in Marx’s trajectory do not render him irrelevant. On the contrary, they pose some useful challenges to Marxists like us who want to sustain our commitment to the radical imaginary of Marx while deconstructing some of its major premises in politically useful ways.

On a slighter note, while I share Martin’s critiques of writers such as Negri, Laclau & Mouffe, or Ryan, Martin’s way of handling their ideas seems a little too easy, too rushed, and thus perhaps a bit misleading. Just to give one example, Laclau’s concept-metaphor of autonomy was critiqued without addressing the subtle complexity through which Laclau attempts to explain autonomy as hegemonically constructed. The reader who anticipates a serious encounter with these writings from a post-structurally informed, yet radical vantage point will probably be somewhat frustrated.

Despite these few shortcomings, this intense and timely book is an important intervention in Marxist discourses. It definitely belongs on the same shelf with Knowledge and Class (Resnick & Wolff), Open Marxism (Bonefeld et al.), Cyber-Marx (Dyer-Witheford), and other texts that have carved new terrains of reading and implementing Marx in connection with our current political universe.


Bonefeld, Werner, Richard Gunn, & Kosmas Psychopedis (eds). 1992. Open Marxism, Vol. I, Dialectics and History; Vol. II, Theory and Practice. London: Pluto Press.

Dyer-Witheford, Nick. 1999. Cyber-Marx: Cycles and Circuits of Struggle in High-Technology Capitalism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Resnick, Stephen A., & Richard D. Wolff. 1987. Knowledge and Class: A Marxian Critique of Political Economy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Reviewed by Manjur Karim
Department of Sociology
Culver-Stockton College

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