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Thoughts on Kevin Anderson’s Marx at the Margins

Marx at the Margins is an important summary of Marx’s thought concerning the relationship between the capitalist and non-capitalist world, colonialism and social development, as well as nationalism and internationalism. The book provides a general overview of Marx’s thinking about these issues, especially as Anderson draws together and gives some narrative form to an extremely wide-ranging number of Marx’s writings. However, Anderson doesn’t always step back to consider this material from a more conceptual standpoint. Therefore these notes try and synthesize Anderson’s reading in order to lay the groundwork for a more schematic understanding of the issues raised in the book.

The overall argument of Marx at the Margins is that Marx develops from a position relatively uncritical of colonialism to one that is far more complex and oppositional. Specifically, Anderson shows how Marx’s early work on the non-western world and the peasantry tended to be undialectical, reflecting a unilinear conception of history. Marx was inclined, Anderson argues, to conceive of historical development in non-western societies as inevitably mirroring that of Western Europe. Furthermore, the peasantry was to gradually wither away into the proletariat. The problem with such thinking is that it lends itself to a stagist understanding of the historical process, one that has had profound political consequences. Anderson contends that it was not until the Grundrisse that Marx began to arrive at an alternative view, one that was more dialectical and global perspective. Anderson characterizes Marx’s developing theory of history as multilinear, rather than unilinear. These ideas are outlined in chapters one, five and six in the book. Chapters 2-4 focus on Marx’s understanding of nationalism and capitalist development. Those issues are not covered here.

A “never changing natural destiny”

Anderson notes that Marx’s early writing on non-western societies was “clearly influenced by Hegel.” For instance, examining his “harsh critique” of Indian society, Anderson quotes Hegel’s racist disregard of “India as a society that ‘has remained stationary and fixed’.” Therefore, “as a society where no real change or development had occurred, India had no real history,” Anderson concludes. Hegel accepted “colonialism as the product of historical necessity”; that is, the inevitable outcome of the absence of historical dynamism. India, like most of the non-Western world, was for Hegel characterized by a fundamental inertia, a lack of antagonism which “undergirded internal despotism.” Nevertheless, citing anthropologist Lawrence Krader, Anderson holds that, all things considered, Hegel could be distinguished from his contemporaries by his “concrete and historical” approach—something Marx was to later develop in more liberating directions (14).
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