Back to Marx: How Can His Work Help Us to Understand Modern Times?


Laurent Etre | l’Humanité – TRANSCEND Media Service

The world economic crisis has ended the taboo on referring to Marx. More and more works are being published on the author of Das Kapital, and the press is publishing special sections on him.

A discussion with Edgar Morin, the philosopher and sociologist, emeritus research director at the CNRS who holds honorary doctorates from many universities around the world and with André Tosel, the philosopher and specialist in Karl Marx and Marxism, professor at the University of Nice.

Although all of the many publications dedicated to Marx lately are not of the same quality, one can nevertheless only be surprised by this sudden increase in interest in him. When such magazines as le Nouvel Observateur and le Point, each according to its political orientation, look into Marx, it is at the very least indicative of certain splits in the mainstream media, whose ideological horizon remains limited to that of capitalist society.

“It may very well be that what we are witnessing is not simply the end of the Cold War or a particular post-war phase, but the end of history as such: (…) the universal adoption of Western liberal democracy as the definitive form of human government,” Francis Fukuyama, the American leader of this school of thought, wrote in 1989, the year when the Berlin Wall fell. Almost twenty years on, in October 2008, New Yorkers were demonstrating in front of the Wall Street Stock Exchange and waving signs saying “Marx was right!”

Is his “return” the automatic result of the fall of the idols of neo-liberalism? To remain at this level of thought would be to see in Marx only another conception of the finality of history, “a free and classless society,” a simple alternative to Fukuyama’s conceptions, which has at long last been recognized as faulty. However, that postulate of the finality of history was used a great deal to legitimize authoritarian power in the days of “really existing socialism.”

The two philosophers whom we have invited to a discussion on the pertinence of Marxist thought, Edgar Morin and André Tosel, both, each in his own way, reject any kind of historical determinism. Marx himself, in the 18 Brumaire of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, explained that “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” So, the whole problem is to clarify the true bases of those circumstances…

Edgar Morin insists on the role of imagination and human capacity to think symbolically, whereas André Tosel, without denying the limits of the Marxist tradition on these subjects, returns to a strictly communist perspective of the political and ethical liberation of the power of the creators of all wealth. The following discussion reveals two subtle, enlightened and enlightening points of view on our time, its challenges and its opportunities.


How do you explain the relative increase in Marx on the part of the mainstream media, and the fact that this thinker is in the media spotlight once more?

Edgar Morin: Before speaking of a renewal, it is necessary to say a few words about the collapse of Marxism around 1977. This collapse coincided with the end of a revolutionary hope. That hope, which had already been extinguished in the Soviet Union, died with the Lin Biao affair and the gang of four in China. Whereas until then the Vietnamese had been seen as a people of liberation, in 1979 Vietnam invaded Cambodia, where Pol Pot had installed a demented regime in the very name of communism.

In that period, Marxism itself was not discredited by any new arguments. Instead, a system of faith and hope disintegrated. The experience of the totalitarian regimes, which Marx had not foreseen and which were imposed in his name, worsened the collapse.

At the time, capitalism seemed to be more or less under the control of the welfare state and social laws. People told themselves that, contrary to what Marx had explained, capitalism did not completely dominate social evolution. The idea of revolution faded away. The disenchantment made it possible to see the big holes in Marx’s thought on the state and power… Then, beginning in the 1990s, the implosion of the Soviet Union and the globalization of capitalism even into China and Vietnam aggravated the crisis of Marxism.

Then, however, a renaissance of the Marxian analysis began. Little by little, people became aware that neo-liberalism, which provided a theoretical basis for globalization, was causing an increase in inequality and poverty at the same time that it gave free rein to capitalism – capitalism became the enemy of humanity, once again.

The effect of globalization has been to degrade the protective welfare state… World competition resulted in industries off-shoring, while the much-weakened trade unions were unable to react.

On the one hand, capitalism was triumphant, and this seemed to give the lie to Marx. On the other hand, the vices and evils that came in its train confirmed Marx’s theses.

In any case, with the 1990s and the 2000s, people became aware that neo-liberalism is itself an ideological-sociological myth. The problem today is that while the capacity to condemn this state of affairs is becoming stronger and stronger, the capacity to outline a new policy does not yet exist.

Be that as it may, if today people are returning to Marx, it is at one and the same time for his analysis of capitalism, for his analysis of consumption (Marx said that production not only creates a product for the consumer, but also a consumer for the product) and for his analysis of globalization.

André Tosel: I would say that the Soviet model wore itself out. It was surrounded and caught up in the arms race. But that does not allow us to forget that it was unable to develop a self-criticism capable of re-launching a revolutionary democratic process and of liberating the power of the producers, the popular masses, in the best spirit of what Marx himself wanted. The wearing-out of the Soviet model began, in my opinion, in the 1960s and 1970s, when the Sino-Soviet split became definitive. What collapsed was a historic experience which had liberated immense hopes but which, in the final analysis, demonstrated both its limits and its violence.

The most painful point in this whole history is that it was the Party, which had been an effective anti-state organization in 1917, transformed into a hitherto-unseen authoritarian state. In other words, the organization which had been the source of the strength of Leninism also revealed itself to be Leninism’s Achilles heel.

I think that, today, we’ve come to a turning point in history. People are re-discovering Marx because he provides reserves of critical thought that are still pertinent to the problems of our times, but, of course, that is not enough. The Marxist tradition has not said much on the problems of nations, of the State, of ideology, of the function of symbols in social relations. To that has to be added the problem of ethnic fragmentation – the problem of the unheard-of violence that develops within societies. And it is also necessary to develop a response to the challenge constituted by all these anthropological transformations, which tend to turn the popular masses into disconnected consumerist masses, subject to victimization by every demagogy imaginable. Marx could not think of everything or foresee everything!

What is urgent today is to conceptualize the world of globalization. And I think that the world is truly structured by a capitalism that has arrived at a certain animality. In this sense, I think that it is useful to return to the Marx of the critique of political economy, the Marx who thought a different kind of mankind was possible, the Marx who attributed neither to science nor to technology aporias (philosophical puzzles) that result from the subordination of human activities to capital.

And what about Marxism? Can some Marxists be recognized as having creatively contributed to Marx’s theory?

André Tosel: It must be said, to the honor of Marxism, that there have been dissidents in Marxism, heretics, who have never been in power. There was not only Trotsky (1879-1940), but also Gramsci (1891-1937), who conceptualized political hegemony. There was Henri Lefebvre (1901-1991), the humanist Marxist who did a “critique of daily life,” to cite the title of his main work. There was Lukacs (1885-1971), who conceptualized reification, the phenomenon by which social relations among people take the shape of relations among things. Althusser (1918-1990) can also be recognized as having the merit of having posed good questions, even though his idea of an “epistemological break” between a young, humanist and philosophical Marx and a “mature” Marx, supposedly a pure and thorough-going scientist, is debatable.

Edgar Morin: The work of a great and complex thinker like Marx inevitably deteriorates among his epigones (disciples). Each picks up on a piece of the work, and tends to reduce the work’s complex totality to the piece that he picked up on. That’s what has happened to Marxism, in general. Some have kept Marx’s economic doctrine; others have concentrated instead on the prediction of a classless society born of revolution, etc. When, on the other hand, you try to maintain the complexity of the theory, what you find is not a congealed whole, but a movement of thought that confronts and holds together contradictions. One way of escaping dogmatic Marxism from above is to manage to keep the dialectic open, that is to say, to maintain the tension between real and rational, instead of pretending to arrive at a total and definitive synthesis of these two poles. It was on this basis that processes of regeneration of Marxian theory have occurred. Thus, Lucien Goldmann (1913-1970) showed that the end of capitalism and the advent of a classless society have to be understood as a possibility and not as a historic necessity. For his part, Joseph Gabel (1912-2004) turned to Eugène Minkowski’s theory of schizophrenia to clarify the Marxian concept of reification. These are two examples among many others. For my part, what I call “complex thought” is meta-Marxian. In my opinion, Marx is a star in a rich constellation of thought, together with Heraclitus, Pascal, Rousseau, Hegel…

But in order to progress towards advances in civilization, isn’t there still a need for the utopia of mankind reconciled with itself, and the vision of a “free and classless society?”

Edgar Morin: First off, I’d like to say that, in my opinion, there is an anthropological shortcoming in Marx’s thought. Marx had a clear view of homo faber, the maker of his own tools and of himself. But he did not see homo sapiens demens, Man with his wild dreams, the poet, the myth-maker. He did not realize that human folly is as much a part of Man as reason. It was when I studied so-called archaic societies and their relationship to death that I was able to appreciate the crucial character of human imagination and fantasy. Of course, Marx understood the importance of religion, “the sigh of the oppressed creature” [1]. But he did not understand the importance of myths in general.

Now, to answer your question, I would say that there are two kinds of utopias – the utopia of a harmonious society that is perfect and totally reconciled, and which, in my opinion, always leads to the worst possible society. And then there is the right utopia, which consists in thinking that what appears to be impossible at present is, in reality, truly possible. For example, when you think about it, realizing a planet without wars is possible, just as the [absolute] monarchies ended wars among feudal lords. Dealing with the problem of hunger is also possible.

A world society of a new type is possible. I am in the habit of saying: abandoning the best of all worlds does not mean abandoning a better world. Of course, no step has been taken towards salvation. But today the planet is swarming with rank and file initiatives. Everywhere, cooperatives and associations of unemployed people, etc., are being created. In Brazil, I saw the efforts being made to regenerate certain neighborhoods that seemed to be condemned to poverty and delinquency. The key is to get the different local initiatives to know one another and to meet together. Then it will be possible to map out new paths.

I prefer to speak of metamorphosis rather than revolution. The shift from pre-historic to historic times was a metamorphosis. It was little societies of hunters and gathers, who had no State, no agriculture, no towns, which constituted, through phenomena of agglomeration and of domination, the one over the other, the societies that are our societies, societies with a State, towns, religions, armies, conquests, philosophy, art, etc.

I think that, in terms of a new path, there is the possibility of a metamorphosis. The term is important in my view because it includes the radical change implicit in the term “revolution”, but without “The earth shall rise on new foundations” and the idea of eliminating the heritage (“making a clean slate”) of the past. It is a question of reconciling the idea of reform and the idea of revolution by suggesting that it is through multiple reformist paths of solidarity that we will be able to change course and move towards a metamorphosis.

André Tosel: This is not a new debate. It runs through the whole history of the labor movement. Jean Jaurès (1859-1914) forged the concept of “revolutionary evolution.” He wanted to try cooperatives on the basis of the inventiveness of the French proletariat and the democratic rights that had been won in France in order to turn the republic into a social republic. Marx and Engels always took historic situations into account. Engels had envisaged a peaceful and gradual path to socialism. In his 1895 preface to the republication of Marx’s The Class Struggles in France (1850), a democratic republic is seen as one path among others.

The problem, in the context of neo-con globalization, is to hang onto both ends: critical radicalism and analysis of the concrete situation, without idealizing the power of revolutionary counter-violence which may prove to be counter-productive; and without deluding oneself as to the good will of the ruling castes, either. Of course, these micro-changes, these efforts at trying out new things, which you mention, do exist. For my part, I also believe that today, when all of the models of transformation of society have vanished away, one cannot insist enough on the absolute necessity of trying things out and of transferring the experiments of one group to another. Having said that, a real problem remains: How does one shift from local resistance and struggle to a coming-together on a world scale? One can clearly see the sinister farce that is “world governance,” which is manipulated by the multinational corporations, which are themselves linked to the most powerful states capable of projecting themselves at the geo-political level. In the face of that, we have not succeeded in establishing trans-national or international action. In the old days, that was called internationalism. We are starting from scratch.

Edgar Morin: I am betting on the creativity of life and human creativity. Like Spinoza, I believe that Nature herself possesses creative power. Human creativity has gone into hibernation in frozen societies, among tamed minds, but it can be awakened, and notably in times of crisis. Crises, like the one that we are experiencing today, awaken creative capacities, but unfortunately also destructive capacities. I believe that, in each domain of existence, we can see what needs to be changed. You have to start from there, and not from a project or a program. Everything needs to be transformed.

Take medicine, for example, where considerable progress has been made. Today, it is easy to see its gaping inadequacies: the interest is in organs, and not in the patient; or else it is in the patient, but without taking his social environment into consideration. As a result of this, the hospitals are becoming places of de-humanization. It is consequently necessary to reform medicine, and to provide doctors with a different culture. I would also say that it is necessary to reform consumption, because we are living in an age of consumerist intoxication spurred on by advertising. It is necessary to reform foodstuffs and agriculture, and to diminish large-scale agriculture oriented towards more-and-more and towards the export markets, and to increase agriculture on a human scale, turned towards satisfying the needs of local populations. The idea of a path seems to me to be revolutionizing in itself. The greatest changes have always had modest beginnings.

But doesn’t taking the path towards a society of emancipation necessarily mean acting consciously and actively to exit capitalism? Is it possible to advance towards emancipation without having as one’s goal a post-capitalist society, which implies deducing a certain number of direction-giving principles for the here-and-now?

Edgar Morin: What I believe is that there are certain emancipatory phenomena within a world in which capitalism exists. The abolition of slavery was one such phenomenon, even though its consequences were much more limited than might have been hoped.

I think that the path to go beyond capitalism is a pluralist economy. And a certain number of reflections have been formulated on this point. A pluralist economy means developing the cooperatives, the mutual aid societies, the small and medium-sized farms, and the crafts. We are living under the dominion of the production of throw-away goods – pens, razors, computers… But a return to repairable goods will result in the rebirth of the crafts of repairmen, of recyclers, etc.

We have to globalize all the experiences that contribute to promoting more inter-solidarity in the human race, and we also have to learn to de-globalize: to return to raising food locally, to organic and farm-based agriculture, to local crops. That is the way to push back the zone of capitalism. We have to link a globalization of inter-solidarity and a globalization rooted in communities that share a common fate with a renewal of participation and friendliness in the community.

André Tosel: I wish I could share your optimism completely. “Pessimism of the intelligence, optimism of the will,” said Gramsci [2].

But capitalism itself is weighed down by extremely serious dangers. Marx speaks of the real subordination of labor to capital [3], that is to say, the dispropriation of all those who work or are excluded from labor, from any control of their production or their existence. This political and economic machinery has never been so powerful, and it still has the power to transform its crises into opportunities for profit and power, through the unlimited expansion of the limits to the accumulation of wealth and inequalities in the possession of wealth, by manipulating consumption, by destroying any kind of solidarity, by increasing, through the media, the bankruptcy of critical thought.

We cannot wait until the great, final crisis. This has been seen once again with the financial crisis, where, in the end, the banks have managed to bankify the State to a greater degree than the State in the different countries has been able to nationalize the banks.

We have to prepare for the day when, on the basis of the local experiences that you talk about, it will become possible to break this chain of structural subordination. But it is necessary to get it into one’s head that we can no longer follow the classic schemes. There is a political, social, ethical and cosmological urgency to making capital’s all-too-real possibilities impossible.

Marx was a man of the Enlightenment. He wants the positive to overpower the negative, which is supposed to contain it in power. But today, can one truly say that there is a sort of balance between the positive and negative elements of globalization? I believe that it is resistance to the negative elements which will truly reveal the positive.

Edgar Morin: I’m not in a state of euphoria. To my mind, what is probable is rather a catastrophe, and not just an ecological one. What I wanted to say in speaking of a positive side to globalization is that, for the first time, humanity shares a common fate.

But I do not deny that at present capitalism is more than ever unleashed towards realizing unlimited profits, and this in a context in which ethno-religious hatred and national-religious hatreds are growing, with the embryos of a war of civilizations between the Western world and Islam, against which all curses are aimed. Moreover, scientific development is producing greater and greater means of destruction and subjugation, in any case, greater than the good that science is producing. Similarly, technology is subjugating us to a much greater degree than it subjugates inanimate matter.

The point on which I am optimistic is that I am betting on the improbable, on the possibility that the catastrophe can be avoided. Thus I am awakening the hope that was dead.

André Tosel: I agree with hoping in hope, in betting on it. But this hope is subject to two conditions:

First, I am not sure that we should adopt the critique of science and technology that comes from Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) and which was taken up by the theoreticians of the Frankfurt school. Through this critique, Heidegger avoided taking on capitalism directly and by name, whereas he sees the nihilism that develops from it. Science and technology are presently incorporated in capital. The emancipatory struggle involves their dis-incorporation and their appropriation by what Gramsci called the subordinate masses (in Spontaneity and Conscious Leadership, in the Prison Notebooks).

The second condition is that of the active becoming of these masses. [Active becoming is a philosophical concept of Spinoza’s.] And above all, of those who, today, are crushed and live with a disgust for life and a hatred of those “others” who, nonetheless, are not their enemies. This notably raises, yet again, the question of political organization.

Let’s not lose sight of the fact that behind globalization there are ruling classes and new castes: They live in their gilded ghetto and they no longer feel any responsibility for the consequences of their acts. They are incapable of thinking in the long term. This impotence in terms of long-term thought contaminates all of society. For one group, it is a question of continually accumulating more and more in the short term by destroying or absorbing their rivals. For the other group, it is a question of subsisting from day to day. The relationship to the long haul shrinks into an instant as the perspective of a realizable future becomes atrophied.

The only way that active becoming can make itself heard is by demanding an accounting from these castes that are turning our superficially united world into an uninhabitable non-world and that are depriving us of the dimension of the times to come, the times of which tomorrow will be made. I think that there is a sort of destruction of the conception and the perception of time. Everything is measured according to the speed of profit-making, of return on investment. If we want to have an active becoming, we’re really going to have to make these elites understand that they are responsible for the destruction of the sense of time.

Edgar Morin: It isn’t just the economic elites who are in question; it is also the political elites, who have become de-cultured. In any case, I think that it is necessary to regenerate politics by regenerating our concepts of society, of Man, of History. The fundamental problem is refounding the political thought of the left, awakening consciences and sparking off new modes of action. A return to what was most fertile in Marx can only contribute to political regeneration.


Edgar Morin is notably the author of Pour une politique de civilisation (published by Arléa, 2002), Terre-patrie (published by Seuil, 1996), Introduction à une politique de l’homme (published by Seuil, 1999). His major work, la Méthode, is composed of six volumes which were published by Seuil from 1981 to 2004. His Pour et contre Marx, has just been published by Temps Présent.

André Tosel recently published le Marxisme du XXe siècle, published by Éditions Syllepse; and Spinoza ou l’autre (in)finitude, published by Éditions L’Harmattan.


[1] quote from Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right

[2] in the Prison Notebooks

[3] in the unpublished version of chapter 6 of Capital. It is available in French but not in English or German


Laurent Etre – Journaliste Culture et Savoirs à l’Humanité

Translated by Gene Zbikowski and reviewed by Henry Crapo

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