Ingo Elbe

Between Marx, Marxism and Marxisms

Ways of Reading Marx’s Theory

The objective of the following observations is to offer a rough overview of central ways of reading Marx’s theory. These are to be presented – by means of a few selected topics – as Marxisms that can be relatively clearly delimited from one another, and the history of their reception and influence will be evaluated with regard to the common-sense understanding of “Marxist theory.”
A distinction will be made between the hitherto predominant interpretation of Marx, primarily associated with political parties (traditional Marxism, Marxism in the singular, if you will), and the dissident, critical forms of reception of Marx (Marxisms in the plural), with their respective claims of a “return to Marx.” The first interpretation is understood as a product and process of a restricted reading of Marx, in part emerging from the “exoteric” layer of Marx’s work, which updates traditional paradigms in political economy, the theory of history, and philosophy. Systematized and elevated to a doctrine by Engels, Kautsky, et al, it succumbs to the mystifications of the capitalist mode of production and culminates in the apologetic science of Marxism-Leninism. The other two interpretations, specifically Western Marxism as well as the German neue Marx-Lektüre (“new reading of Marx”), usually explore the “esoteric” content of Marx’s critique and analysis of society, often consummated outside of institutionalized, cumulative research programs, by isolated actors in the style of an “underground Marxism.”

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(published in Viewpoint Magazine 2013/21.10.2013)

Translated by Alex Locascio