Internationalizing Marx: An Interview with Jan Hoff

This inter­view was con­duct­ed by Vin­cent Chan­son and Frédéric Mon­fer­rand, philoso­phers from Nan­terre, France, and orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in the French-lan­guage web jour­nal Péri­ode.

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Vin­cent Chan­son and Frédéric Mon­fer­rand: Your book Marx glob­al. Zur Entwick­lung des inter­na­tionalen Marx-Diskurs­es seit 1965 (Berlin 2009) offers a very exhaus­tive and ambi­tious map­ping of debates in Marx­ist polit­i­cal econ­o­my since 1965. Could you sum­ma­rize the main goals of the book? Why must the inter­pre­ta­tions of Marx be exam­ined with regard to their geo­graph­i­cal, social, and polit­i­cal con­text?

Jan Hoff: Marx glob­al address­es a spe­cif­ic con­text that is typ­i­cal for Ger­many. There is still a con­sid­er­able amount of research that pri­mar­i­ly focus­es on Marx and his cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­o­my as an object of study. At the moment we have three Ger­man jour­nals that are devot­ed not to Marx­ism in gen­er­al, like Actuel Marx, for exam­ple, but exclu­sive­ly to “Marx stud­ies” – or, as Max­im­i­lien Rubel would have it, to “Marx­ol­o­gy.” Many peo­ple in Ger­many still read Cap­i­tal and par­tic­i­pate in debates about method­olog­i­cal ques­tions, val­ue the­o­ry, the­o­ry of cri­sis, etc.

In the West Ger­many, after World War II, this inter­est in Marx orig­i­nat­ed with the stu­dent move­ment of the 1960s, when a new aware­ness of the rel­e­van­cy of method­olog­i­cal research on Cap­i­tal emerged. Roman Rosdolsky’s work was cru­cial in this con­text. How­ev­er, the reverse side of the flour­ish­ing Ger­man debate was a self-cen­tered “provin­cial­ism,” which has even increased over the last decades, espe­cial­ly since the 1980s.

Most Ger­mans inter­est­ed in Marx’s cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­o­my bare­ly take into account the debates that took place in for­eign lan­guages. Peo­ple like Jacques Bidet, Enrique Dus­sel, Kozo Uno, etc. are usu­al­ly nei­ther read nor men­tioned in the Ger­man debate. Even the recent Eng­lish-lan­guage lit­er­a­ture on Marx – I am think­ing espe­cial­ly of the debates on “sys­tem­at­ic dialec­tics,” val­ue-form the­o­ry, and the Hegel-Marx-rela­tion – is rather neglect­ed in Ger­many.

Writ­ing Marx glob­al was a coun­ter­re­ac­tion to this lacu­na. I wrote the book with the Ger­man audi­ence in mind, with the hope that the Ger­man debate would prof­it from clos­er links to and a deep­er knowl­edge of the dis­cus­sions out­side of our coun­try. “One nation can and should learn from oth­ers,” Marx famous­ly wrote in the Pref­ace to Cap­i­tal, Vol­ume 1. This should also apply to the debates on his own the­o­ry.

There­fore the ulti­mate aim of the book was to con­tribute to a true “inter­na­tion­al­iza­tion” of the debates on Marx’s the­o­ry of val­ue and mon­ey, about his method and the struc­ture of his work, about cru­cial cat­e­gories like “cap­i­tal in gen­er­al,” and about his spe­cif­ic under­stand­ing of his object.

Some chap­ters of your book deal with Japan­ese, South-Asian, and South-Amer­i­can read­ings of Marx. What can be the­o­ret­i­cal­ly as well as polit­i­cal­ly and strate­gi­cal­ly gained from such a shift away from West­ern-cen­tered inter­pre­ta­tions of the cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­o­my?

Japan is an aston­ish­ing exam­ple, maybe the most impres­sive case world­wide. Seri­ous study on Marx’s Cap­i­tal start­ed to devel­op after World War I, around the time when the first com­plete trans­la­tion of the three vol­umes was launched (1920-24). With­in a few years, the recep­tion of the cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­o­my grew mas­sive­ly. Despite the fact that Marx­ism was offi­cial­ly sup­pressed and many influ­en­tial Marx­ist intel­lec­tu­als like Fuku­mo­to (in 1928), Kawaka­mi (in 1933) and oth­ers were arrest­ed for polit­i­cal rea­sons, hun­dreds of thou­sands of copies of Cap­i­tal were sold. In 1945, with the lib­er­a­tion of Japan­ese Marx­ism from state repres­sion, there was anoth­er wave of dis­sem­i­na­tion.

Com­pare that to West Ger­many: dur­ing the post-War peri­od, at a time when only a hand­ful of Marx­ists were allowed to teach at the very fringes of West Ger­man uni­ver­si­ties, the sys­tem­at­ic study of Cap­i­tal was “main­stream” in Japan and occu­pied a strong place at the very cen­tre of the Japan­ese acad­e­mia. The var­i­ous “het­ero­dox” schools of thought that devel­oped in the 1950s-70s – Uno-school, Civ­il-Soci­ety-school, Hiro­mat­su-school – still exist today.

The Latin Amer­i­can debate seems to be “clos­er” from a West Euro­pean view­point, and it shares sig­nif­i­cant sim­i­lar­i­ties. In the 1960s-70s var­i­ous streams of Marx­ist thought com­pet­ed for hege­mo­ny, with the ques­tion of “pro” or “con­tra” Althuss­er usu­al­ly at the cen­tre of the dis­cus­sion. The most impres­sive project in Latin Amer­i­can Marx stud­ies was prob­a­bly Enrique Dussel’s sys­tem­at­ic read­ing (pub­lished in three vol­umes from 1985-90) of the var­i­ous “drafts” of Marx’s main work (from Grun­drisse via the com­pre­hen­sive man­u­script of 1861-63 final­ly to Cap­i­tal). The present debate on Marx in Latin Amer­i­ca is very live­ly, with Brazil one of the most impor­tant coun­tries. The recent Brazil­ian recep­tion of Marx prof­it­ed from the fact that the first Por­tuguese-lan­guage edi­tion of Grun­drisse was pub­lished in 2011.

It is a nec­es­sary insight that the dis­cus­sion on the cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­o­my can­not be suc­cess­ful­ly pur­sued in a Euro­cen­tric way. In my book I tried to show that the non-Euro­pean coun­tries offer a large num­ber of elab­o­rat­ed con­tri­bu­tions to the dis­cus­sion of Marx’s the­o­ry that must not be ignored by par­tic­i­pants in the Euro­pean debates.

Is Per­ry Anderson’s def­i­n­i­tion of “West­ern Marx­ism” still rel­e­vant in this per­spec­tive? Or do we need a new type of the­o­ret­i­cal topog­ra­phy?

The term “West­ern Marx­ism,” pop­u­lar­ized by Per­ry Ander­son, seems to be rather prob­lem­at­ic. Indeed Anderson’s own def­i­n­i­tion is quite vague. The major prob­lem I see is that a geo­graph­ic cat­e­go­ry is mixed with cri­te­ria pri­mar­i­ly relat­ed to its con­tents. This makes it very dif­fi­cult to main­tain the term. Let’s take a brief look at some cas­es where prob­lems would arise if we stuck to this term.

Georg Lukacs and Karl Korsch are usu­al­ly regard­ed as being among the “fathers” of West­ern Marx­ism, but both Ger­man-lan­guage the­o­rists were also quite influ­en­tial (via Kazuo Fuku­mo­to) dur­ing the peri­od Marx­ism was intro­duced to Japan. How­ev­er, would it be use­ful to include a cer­tain cur­rent of Japan­ese Marx­ism of the 1920s in the term “West­ern Marx­ism”?

A sim­i­lar ques­tion could be raised regard­ing the Latin Amer­i­can dis­cus­sion, for exam­ple con­cern­ing the refor­mu­la­tion of Marx­ism as a “phi­los­o­phy of prax­is” by the Mex­i­can philoso­pher Adol­fo Sanchez Vazquez in the 1960s. Should his approach be includ­ed in “West­ern Marx­ism” or not?

“Marx­ist human­ism” is usu­al­ly regard­ed as an inte­gral part of the “West­ern Marx­ist” spec­trum of thought (despite the anti-human­ism of Althuss­er, who is also count­ed among the “West­ern Marx­ists” by Ander­son), but what about the exten­sive Chi­nese dis­cus­sion on “Marx­ist human­ism” in the 1980s?

And what about those East­ern Euro­pean approach­es to Marx that were quite close to cer­tain aspects of “West­ern Marx­ism,” for instance those with­in the Budapest school, the Prax­is group, etc.?

In all these cas­es it becomes dif­fi­cult to draw a clear line of demar­ca­tion between “West­ern” and “non-West­ern” Marxism(s) – at least when we con­sid­er impor­tant points of the the­o­ret­i­cal con­tents of the var­i­ous inter­pre­ta­tions of Marx, and not just the ques­tion of geo­graph­i­cal locus.

Would you say that, in ret­ro­spect, one could find some com­mon ground among Althusser­ian, work­erist, and Frank­furt School-relat­ed read­ings of the cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­o­my devel­oped in France, Italy and Ger­many in the 1960s?

If one takes a clos­er look, I would hes­i­tate to answer this ques­tion either with a clear “yes” or a clear “no.” But it is cer­tain­ly pos­si­ble to iden­ti­fy sim­i­lar­i­ties, dif­fer­ences, and con­nec­tions between these three cur­rents.

It would be rather dif­fi­cult to locate such a “com­mon ground” in ref­er­ence to Marx’s oeu­vre, despite the fact that all three ten­den­cies pre­ferred (to dif­fer­ent extents, how­ev­er) the “mature” Marx over the “young” Marx. Operais­mo and the par­tial­ly Frank­furt school-relat­ed Neue Marx-Lek­türe both empha­sized Marx­i­an texts like Grun­drisse that were rel­a­tive­ly “new” at that time. How­ev­er, in France it was not Althuss­er but either ultra-left­ists (Rubel, Camat­te, Dan­geville) or Trot­sky­ists (the young J.-M. Vin­cent) who stud­ied the Grun­drisse first.

The polit­i­cal back­grounds of each of the three coun­tries were too dif­fer­ent to form a “com­mon ground” in the polit­i­cal area: Althuss­er main­tained his attach­ment to the French Com­mu­nist Par­ty, which con­tin­ued to be a “mass par­ty” for a long time; the ear­ly Neue Marx-Lek­türe, on the oth­er hand, was asso­ci­at­ed with the “non-author­i­tar­i­an” wing of the stu­dent move­ment (rep­re­sent­ed by Krahl and oth­ers) and kept its dis­tance towards the tiny and ille­gal Com­mu­nist Par­ty of Ger­many.

In terms of the­o­ry, one should keep in mind that Frank­furt school-relat­ed thinkers like Alfred Schmidt were quick to crit­i­cize Althuss­er when his thought was intro­duced to Ger­many. In com­par­i­son to oth­er West­ern Euro­pean nations (Great Britain, Spain), Althusser’s thought was less influ­en­tial in West­ern Ger­many dur­ing the 1970s. How­ev­er, both Althuss­er and the Neue Marx-Lek­türe stress the rel­e­vance of an epis­te­mo­log­i­cal read­ing of Marx.

The most famous con­nec­tion between Althuss­er and operais­mo was prob­a­bly Anto­nio Negri’s invi­ta­tion to the Paris sem­i­nar that final­ly result­ed in Marx oltre Marx in the late 1970s. Operais­mo was also intro­duced to West­ern Ger­many, espe­cial­ly in the 1970s, but this con­cerned pri­mar­i­ly the polit­i­cal dis­cus­sion, and not so much the spe­cial­ized debate on Marx.

Your book fin­ish­es with a dis­cus­sion of Marx­ist cri­sis the­o­ries. What are the main diver­gences between the var­i­ous mod­els of crises the­o­ry in gen­er­al, and between the var­i­ous accounts of the con­tem­po­rary cri­sis of the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion in par­tic­u­lar? And could one inter­pret the con­tem­po­rary revival of inter­est in “Val­ue-Form The­o­ry” as an attempt to recon­struct a uni­fied, crit­i­cal yet sys­tem­at­ic, cri­sis the­o­ry?

There is, first of all, the clas­si­cal “canon” of the var­i­ous approach­es to Marx’s the­o­ry of cri­sis that devel­oped from the turn of the 20th cen­tu­ry to the 1930s. This implies the dif­fer­ent well-known inter­pre­ta­tions com­pet­ing with each oth­er: under­con­sump­tion­ist inter­pre­ta­tions, dis­pro­por­tion­al­i­ty the­o­ry, over­ac­cu­mu­la­tion the­o­ry, var­i­ous the­o­ries of cap­i­tal­ist break­down.

Sec­ond­ly, since the 1960s-70s some new approach­es to Marx­ist cri­sis the­o­ry have appeared: prof­it squeeze the­o­ry, “reg­u­la­tion school”-related approach­es to cri­sis, attempts to com­bine aspects of Marx and Min­sky. Japan fol­lows its own course with an exten­sive debate on cri­sis the­o­ry from 1929 on (Kuru­ma, Uno/Itoh, Tomizu­ka).

How­ev­er, I am quite skep­ti­cal con­cern­ing the use­ful­ness of con­struct­ing a sin­gle, uni­fied cri­sis the­o­ry of “sys­tem­at­ic” char­ac­ter. Let us look at Marx him­self.

I came to the con­clu­sion that Marx was cor­rect not to treat cri­sis as a sep­a­rate top­ic in its own right, but as the reverse side of the enor­mous dynam­ic of cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion, as the reverse side of capital’s dri­ve to real­ize itself beyond its own lim­its. The cri­sis is noth­ing oth­er than the very point of the cycli­cal accu­mu­la­tion process where the  “Selb­stver­w­er­tung” [self-val­oriza­tion] of val­ue runs into its own lim­its. Marx’s Cap­i­tal con­sti­tutes a com­plex archi­tec­ture, a struc­tured whole with dif­fer­ent lev­els of abstrac­tion. Crises can affect the accu­mu­la­tion process of cap­i­tal on mul­ti­ple lev­els. Accord­ing­ly, Marx did not leave behind a sin­gle, coher­ent chap­ter on cri­sis the­o­ry, but instead had to treat the ques­tion of cri­sis in many dif­fer­ent con­texts and on each sin­gle lev­el of his archi­tec­ture – start­ing with the the­o­ry of sim­ple cir­cu­la­tion through to his the­o­ry of cred­it in vol­ume 3.

How­ev­er, a val­ue-form ana­lyt­ic read­ing of Marx is rel­e­vant for a Marx­ist the­o­ry of cri­sis. Marx’s the­o­ry of val­ue and val­ue-form is inter­nal­ly linked to his con­cept of mon­ey (this is why some Ger­man researchers speak of “mon­etäre Wert­the­o­rie” [mon­e­tary the­o­ry of val­ue] in Marx), while the cat­e­gories of mon­ey and cred­it are cru­cial for Marx’s the­o­ry of cri­sis. On the inter­na­tion­al lev­el, there are some researchers who focus pre­cise­ly on the close inter­con­nec­tion between these cat­e­gories in order to refor­mu­late Marx’s con­cept of cri­sis. One could name the South Kore­an schol­ar No-Wan Kwack as just one exam­ple in this con­text.

Author of the article

is a historian from Munich, Germany.