Book Review from the April 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Postmodern Marx by Terrell Carver, Manchester University Press, 1998.
Carver, Professor of Political Theory at the University of Bristol, wants us to take seriously the techniques of textual and narrative analysis within what he calls "a mild form of postmodernism". By treating Marx's work as an open text, with "multiple Marxes" and no authoritative version of Marx or Marxism, this is said to encourage further critical engagement between the reader and Marx. Above all, the chief concern is to avoid dogmatic "closure" in terms of what to think about Marx.
We in the Socialist Party have some disagreements with Marx, but more often than not, just very different interpretations of Marx than the usual academic interpretations and total opposition to the regimes around the world which claim to be Marxist. To our critics (on the left especially) this position is sometimes portrayed as idiosyncratic. Yet Carver and our critics oversimplify: between Carver's almost anything goes and the dogma of the leader-fixated Left the Socialist Party has to work for consensus in a democratic, leaderless organisation with a shared socialist objective. In the Socialist Party each member has to come to terms with what Marx said, but any implementation depends on democratic agreement being reached.
The Postmodern Marx?
Controversially, Carver argues that Marx was a philosophical idealist (the view that concepts construct or determine reality) and subscribed to methodological individualism (the analysis and explanation of the actions of socially constructed individuals). He is factually incorrect in saying socialism is a stage between capitalism and communism; Marx simply did not make that distinction. However, Carter is quite clear that the former "Marxist" dictatorships of Eastern Europe had no claim on Marx "because they never abolished money nor even attempted to secure any genuine break, voluntary or otherwise, with the history of commodification" and if the advocates of "market socialism [sic] intend to accept the monetary economy, however cooperativised and democratised, then they had better come clean as social democrats and welfare liberals" and not as socialists. Because: "if we have money, we have to deal with the characteristic dynamics of capitalist or so-called market societies, and socialist ideals are necessarily incompatible with this." This is so very true, but it does rather contradict the whole point of this book.
Incidentally, Carver recounts an acquaintance between Andrew Johnson, a translator of art books, and Marx. In October 1852 Marx wrote to Engels: "If you have to write to me on important matters, do it under the address: A. Johnson, Esq., Bullion Office, Bank of England." What a wonderful (postmodernist?) irony that Marx should want to use the Bank of England as a postal drop.